Financial Times - City of mud and honey
May 23, 2008

The point of departure can be as significant to a traveller’s first impressions as the destination itself. From Dubai, San’a seems all the more dusty, bleached and biblical. Yemen has long been isolated from the rest of the Gulf. The country is hemmed in by the rocky Haraz mountains, screening it from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Oman lies across the Empty Quarter, part of the largest sand desert in the world.

Travellers of the past would have arrived here by camel: thirsty, gritty and probably afraid, quaking before the fortified city gates of Bab Al-Yaman.

Nowadays, one of Emirates’ Airbuses touches down a half-hour drive from the city centre. From the Tarmac, I watched three beige fighter jets scream off the runway into clear cobalt skies. Outside the terminal, chauffeur-driven SUVs with darkened windows and armed escorts carried away the oilmen from our flight. Mohammed in a rickety saloon car drove me into town, past faceless strips of mechanics’ garages, perishables stores and haberdasheries. It could have been the outskirts of Marrakesh or Muscat.

But then I, too, arrived at the throat-like archway of Bab Al-Yaman, leading into the Old Town, where towering homes built a millennium ago rise up in glorious mud. I darted between men manoeuvring wheelbarrows laden with bales of wire and bolts of cloth, children playing with spinning tops and women whispering arm-in-arm, shrouded in black. All in the shadow of six- or seven-storey houses, precariously leaning over narrow alleys, in gingerbread tones with icing motifs in gypsum: Koranic calligraphy embossed above arched windows; alabaster friezes; abstract patterns of white triangles, arrowheads and chevrons.

Some say San’a is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, founded by Shem, son of Noah, and the origin of all truly Arabic people.

Tribes and tall tales from the Old Testament endow Yemen with a heritage lacked across much of the oil-rich Gulf. While Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha try to manufacture culture, San’a appears saddled by antiquity – old-fashioned, conservative and stubborn.

The city wakes late, slowly. In my hotel room – a penthouse for $25 a night – I pulled back the thick curtains and squinted in the morning dazzle. At 2,200m above sea level, the light has a Niçoise-like acuity.

Sabah al khair, they say. Good morning.

The response is Sabah al noor, which transliterates to “morning of light”.

Stained glass in lime, yellow and orange flooded my bedroom citrus. Slender minarets punctured the sky. Down on the street, I spied early risers carrying bundles – violet-hued wraps, pots of henna, crocheted scrubbers – heading to the public hammams.

There is little to do in San’a except watch life play out on the streets: a museum-metropolis, where meandering lanes are flanked by market stalls cluttered with antiques. Traders tout silverware bejewelled with lapiz and malachite and coral, dowry boxes inlaid with camel bone and sticky dates sold by the brick. Sunken, low-slung studded doors shut out the world. In the odd open basement, I spied mangy camels padding around stone mills, grinding sesame seeds into oil.

Mid-morning, the alleys fill with shoppers. The women drape themselves in layers of red-and-blue cloth, resembling mounds of rumpled bedsheets. Out-of-towners dress in the flowing black abaya, revealing hypnotic kohl-rimmed eyes. The men wear western-style jackets over ankle-length shirts and carry a jambiyah, a curved dagger, tucked into gold-embroidered belts hanging low on their hips.

Late afternoon, San’a falls quiet. The men kick back, clutching small plastic bags full of dark green qat leaves. In the side of their cheeks appears a bulging mass, as if they were sucking a dozen gobstoppers. Occasionally, someone spits out a globule of green-dyed saliva.

A mild natural amphetamine, qat has been chewed in Yemen since the 14th century. It is said to have first been used by Islamic scholars to concentrate their mind on the Koran. One San’a artist told me: “You can’t understand our city if you haven’t chewed qat.” On my last night at the gates of Bab Al-Yaman, I stuffed a handful of qat into my mouth. It tasted slightly bitter, like rocket. I ground a few leaves with my teeth, before wedging the wad in my cheek.

This wasn’t the ideal chew. Qat should really be experienced with friends in a mafraj, a belvedere-like room with unhindered views of the mountains. However, I began to sense the first of the three qat-induced phases – light-headed, light-of-step – as I wandered around the souk.

I think I skipped the second phase, when qat chewers desire serious debate, and leapt to the finale: slightly dazed and not in the mood for talking.

Some cite qat addiction as the reason why Yemen has not developed like its neighbours but my artist friend credited it for helping the country avoid the frantic senseless rush seen elsewhere in the world. “Better to spend an afternoon in philosophical silence, staring at the mountains,” he said.

San’a’s souk is one of the highlights of all of Arabia and I was looking for honey and coffee, arguably the world’s best.

Honey sellers peddle Danani honey, created by bumble bees who feast on Christ’s Thorn Jujube, a tropical evergreen tree. Ahmed waved his hand across the open tops of the thick glass jars. Flies buzzed about. At one end, the honey looked more like molasses, at the other akin to champagne. He offered me a sticky spoon of the latter. My lips jammed together as I muttered shokran, thank you. It tasted of Christmas.

A woman walked past with a Singer sewing machine balanced on her head. There were fruit-sellers hidden behind pyramids of pomegranates, pink mangoes and persimmons, next to traders offering up frankincense and myrrh. A water-seller chinked together two glasses, touting pure mountain water as a health cure.

The coffee-vendor was grumpy, grinding beans by hand with an antiquated contraption. I breathed in the specks floating in the air: a smell of late-night deadlines and chocolate. He grunted something I didn’t understand. I wafted some air under my nose and sneezed. He reached into his sack and trickled a handful of beans into my palm. “Chew it like qat,” he said.

Yemeni coffee is said to be the purists’ choice and takes its name – mocha – from the fact it was originally shipped through Yemen’s ancient port, Al Mokha.

But locals are more partial to qusr – the husk – than the roasted bean. They boil the skins with cinnamon and cardamom, creating a spiced infusion. I had my first cup in a Yemeni home, down from the mosque in Harat Mansur, after a spontaneous invitation from a stranger. A woman and I caught each other’s eye in a jewellery shop and she asked me to lunch.

Behind closed doors, this was my first chance to see the faces of the veiled women I had heard were the most beautiful in the world. Sa’ada was lovely: a mother of four with olive eyes and a flawless complexion. Her daughters were pretty too. But it was her servant who was the kind of woman the men must dream of: dark polished skin, full lips, a swaying walk. She could have been a child of the Queen of Sheba, said to have ruled Yemen a thousand years ago.

The next morning, I visited a local hammam. Unveiled, the women glow, even in the gloom of the domed caverns. One girl, Asra shared her henna with me, as we lathered our bodies. “I would love to visit Brittania,” she said wistfully. “My father would never allow it though. Perhaps in another life.”

She tried to pay for my session in the hammam and gave me her mobile number. The quick-fire hospitality was touching. An old woman, crinkled like a date, propositioned me as I changed back into my clothes. She clutched my chin and spat out some words, like she was casting a spell.

“She has four sons,” Asra translated. “She’s offering them to you.”

I was almost tempted, if it meant staying longer in this city.

My last morning in San’a, I watched dawn bleed into the sky from my hotel’s flat roof. Sixty feet up, there is a second elevated city with washing lines of laundry, tethered satellite dishes, domes and minarets. The call to prayer began.

There are no crackly recordings in San’a, only the live chanting of competing muezzins.