by Patrick Symmes for Outside Magazine. June 2011.
The plan was to check out Yemen, a little-visited Arab nation that offers glowing deserts, forbidding mountains, and lonely Socotra Island—a naturalist’s paradise as imagined by Dr. Seuss. But instead all hell broke loose, and a tourist romp became a front-row seat to the bloody upheavals sweeping the Middle East.
After the riots, I get tea for 40 cents a mug in Old Sanaa. Mocha is a town in Yemen, but that doesn’t mean the coffee here is any good.
The teahouse is along the sunken road that girds the historic center. People will tell you that Sanaa is the world’s first city, founded by a son of Noah where the Arabian Peninsula’s highest mountains emerged from the Flood, and certainly it does look old and muddy. At its heart is a magic quarter of ancient history—a mud Manhattan of tower houses of brick and quartz, up to seven stories tall, lording their pre-industrial height over a labyrinth of dense lanes. Everything is uniform, even its mazelike impenetrability and gaudy decorations, more gingerbread than Arab. Old Sanaa looks more baked than built. The old man at the tea shop has black stumps for fingers, from years of working over a roaring gas ring, and he brews like a man obsessed, raising and lowering a tiny spittoon of black tea until it froths just so, dribbling in condensed milk, then adding a heap of Brazilian sugar that caramelizes in the pot. The result is fantastic—cardamom and tannins, stirred in the Middle Ages, sweetened over fire, a rare vice in one of the world’s driest towns. Contented men sit in rows outside the shop, fingering their worry beads. Their great bellies, encased in white Arab thobe robes, are girded by extravagant belts and pricked by enormous jambiyas, curved daggers the size of pizza slices. At my request, they take out the knives. All the flash is in the handles, once made of rhino horns, now steel and braided with gold thread and decorated with coins. Like Yemen itself, the blade is of inexpensive material but sharp. “Blood groove,” says a gentle, scholarly-looking Yemeni at the next table, sliding a finger down the blade. “So you can pull it out easy, stab him again.” Men wear knives always and everywhere—to weddings, business meetings, tea shops. They look like a row of Pillsbury assassins. If you are patient, like a Yemeni, you won’t burn your fingers on the metal mug. Or your tongue on the contents.
YEMEN MEANS “SOUTH,” according to legend, if not dictionaries. Caravans loading up on incense used to arrive at Sanaa’s Bab al Yemen, or, loosely, Gate of the South. The country sits at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, a mountainous, 1,200-mile-long strip pressed upon from north and east by Saudi Arabia and Oman, its west coast facing Africa across the Red Sea and its long southern one looking out on the Gulf of Aden toward Somalia and the Indian Ocean beyond. Nearly all of Arabia’s 10,000-foot peaks are in western Yemen; the low Empty Quarter, the Rub‘ al-Khali desert, begins in the east. Shiite rebels fight in the north, secular secessionists in the south. Tribes are everywhere, and Al Qaeda somewhere. It is the most miserably poor of the Arab nations, heavily illiterate, and full of the resulting graces—hospitality, tradition, a deeply conservative pride. It has one foot in the medieval world and the other in antiquity. The appeals of such a setting cannot be described, only felt. Yemen has always been waq al waq, beyond the beyond, a phantasm where men chew leaves and camels live on fish. From the dunes of the Empty Quarter to some 200 islands, everything about Yemen is mystery, legend, or myth. It takes a bold traveler to visit, but the rewards are high and the door open—sometimes. Even esoteric Socotra Island, the source of frankincense and myrrh for the ancients, described by Marco Polo, turns out to be a real place, 200 miles into the Indian Ocean, a Galápagos of the Arab world with 6,000 visitors a year and daily flights. In the midst of revolution, all over a country very much in play, I meet Czech trekkers, German shutterbugs, and Italian beach snobs all willing to risk Yemen in order to see Yemen. Last May, the country actually launched a tourism offensive, opening its coastline for resorts like those up the Red Sea at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh—vacations in the ancestral home of the bin Ladens. Beautiful, amazing, dark. After you’ve seen the fortresses (cute but small) and ancient cities (Syria has more), travel in Yemen is travel through time itself. Nowhere is less now than here. “The most amazing trip of my life,” the novelist Annie Dillard told me when I said I was planning to go, adding, “but they are going to kill you in a second.” Intending to measure the country’s tourism potential and natural conditions, I landed in the middle of a revolution. Revolution, it turns out, is the natural condition of Yemen.
YEMEN IS PURE, SORT OF. There is no McDonald’s, although there is a KFC. The houses, social mores, modes of dress, and allotment of time all follow classical patterns; baseball caps are rare because they interfere with bowing for prayer. Yemenis claim that their versions of Arabic and Islam are among the least diluted in the world. But purity is a dubious idea. Yemen is so free of compromising modernity that it attracts recruits both foreign and domestic to the banner of the purest of the pure, Al Qaeda. In terms of new franchises for jihad, it has become the country most bedeviling to the United States—an undergoverned nation sliding toward chaos, bankruptcy (the oil is running out), and ecological catastrophe (the water is almost gone, too). Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is small but sophisticated, a loose force of several hundred homegrown Yemeni fighters, hardened Saudi survivors, and American-born jihadis, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric from New Mexico, and Samir Khan of North Carolina. A year before September 11, Yemenis working for Al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in the port of Aden; they have since brought us the so-called Underwear and Toner Cartridge bombers. With its pious people and mountainous terrain, Yemen is “full of places to hide,” one senior Western diplomat in Sanaa told me, with “tribes who are loyal to the last person who paid them, or who paid them best.” AQAP has set up shop largely in the conservative south, where villages are walled off and tribal history is so vengeful and fractured that both Yemen’s and Saudi Arabia’s governments pay off the sheiks to keep the peace. As a cohesive nation, in fact, the Arab Republic of Yemen is another myth. Founded in 1990, it is a forced marriage between South Yemen, a coastal, cosmopolitan, leftist state equipped by the Soviets, and North Yemen, a traditionalist society backed by Saudi royalty and armed with American planes. The merger is as awkward as the resulting fleet of Russian-made Sukhoi Su-22 fighter jets and U.S.-built F-5’s housed at Sanaa Airport. Southerners resent the northerners. The secularists fear the Islamists. The Sunnis hate the Shiites, and the formerly-in clans hate the currently-in clans. The rural theocrats want to turn the clock back a century; the young just want jobs. In Yemen, politics has left the U.S. with no cards on the table. We’ve fired missiles at Al Qaeda targets, but every military intervention in this deeply traditional place pushes Yemen one more step from bent to broken. The equation goes like this: 23 million people ÷ 11 million guns + (Lebanese civil war x Al Qaeda) = bad. Yemen could easily fission again, splitting into three or more microstates, including a platform for Osama bin Laden, himself descended from Yemenis. The dictator’s departure defaults to democracy, but there is little institutional capacity beyond the old regime. A new rogue state, Islamist and unfriendly to the U.S., is a distinct possibility. Anyone seeking as I did to fathom this country is “dancing on snakes,” as the president of Yemen once called his own job.
THAT WOULD BE Ali Abdullah Saleh, a gruff military man who seized the presidency of North Yemen after an assassination in 1978 and solidified his power during unification and beyond. Saleh is a shape-shifting survivor, an outsider in his own powerful Hashid tribe, a suit-wearing dealmaker who built his regime on graft, Islam, and rural tradition. Born to the Shiite minority, he now holds his hands during prayer like the Sunni majority. In the 1990s he welcomed Al Qaeda, giving its fighters salaries provided they attack only outside Yemen; today he fights them bitterly. Once an ally of Saddam Hussein, he has become an enthusiastic friend of the U.S. war on terror, milking $155 million in military aid out of Washington last year. Saleh is also known for some saucy remarks that turned up on WikiLeaks, allegedly promising General David Petraeus that he’d lie to his own people about an American missile strike on Al Qaeda: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” Saleh also made the wry observation that the smuggling of whiskey into this deeply Islamic country did not bother him, “provided it’s good whiskey.” Indeed, when I landed at 2:20 a.m. on March 1, my bottle of Famous Grouse was waved through without comment. I’d heard that liquor was valued like gold among Sanaa’s tiny band of expats, and I babied the bottle into a taxi, cruising slowly through potholed avenues toward the Burj al Salam, a hotel in the Old City. Sanaa sits at 7,000 feet, in a rich alluvial bowl washed in fresh breezes. When it works—great vistas, green gardens, timeless ways—you can see why the Romans called Yemen “Arabia Felix,” the fortunate Middle East. The top floor of most Yemeni houses is a mafraj, a place to catch the cool zephyrs. Yemeni men sit on cushions here, talk, drink tea, and chew khat, a mild narcotic leaf that bulges from their jaws in the afternoons, bringing most of Yemen to a halt. It’s 3 a.m. by the time I climb up to the mafraj atop my hotel. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a revolution, the loudest sound in ancient Sanaa is a cascade of crickets.
THEN THERE ARE THE DEMONSTRATORS. Breakfast in the mafraj includes a flyover by a fighter jet and the sound of bullhorns at Sanaa University. The Arab youthquake, which began in Tunisia in December and started shaking Egypt in January, arrived in Yemen in force later that month. Students from the university filled the main intersection outside the campus, setting up a tent city at a spot they dubbed Taghyeer Square—Change Square. They were joined throughout February by professionals and the small middle class, and now, six weeks later, there are many poor rural people and huge numbers of frustrated young urbanites, all demanding Saleh’s resignation. The call to prayer woke me long before dawn, and just seven hours after landing in Yemen I’m through the police lines, crawling into the heart of this 20,000-person beast. It is a thumping, joyful, liquid summation of humanity, a scarf-clad mass waving red-and-black flags, pressing in on itself. A speaking platform is running on a tight schedule, and the encampment—100 family-size tents in front of the university gates—has well-organized medical, food, and media committees. In the past two weeks, six demonstrators have been killed in Aden, that once British port in the south with a tradition of violent protest, but Sanaa is still peaceful, and 18 days after the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, there’s a hopeful ruckus to the protests. Banners proclaim GAME OVER!, a phrase that apparently needs no translation into Arabic. Crowds chant “Erhal, erhal” (“Out, out!”); a man waves a computer printout reading OK, YOU CAN GO. By Yemeni standards, women are out in force, meaning that about 80 of them—less than 1 percent of the crowd—are secured in a roped-off section, a private little riot guarded by male volunteers in blue caps. They all wear black veiling, head to toe. With introductions, I find Wabia Sabra here, a researcher with a degree in modern literature. Her brown eyes are her only evident feature. “Being veiled in the face doesn’t mean my brain is veiled,” she says. “Yemen’s president has ruled 32 years. That’s as long as six American presidents. We want a civilized country ruled by institutions.” It’s a democracy rave. People are jubilant. “We’re not afraid of violence or death, only God,” one poor young khat farmer tells me. Four fighter jets are overhead now, but he shrugs. “We’re not scared of them. We are peaceful.” His list of reforms is long: a better economy, better education, stability, improved wages, no more vendettas between tribes. “And justice,” he adds. One sign asks, When did the thief become a king? Yemen’s president has indeed become a dictator, buying loyalty and peace from the bellicose tribes with the country’s small oil revenues, filling high government posts with relatives, and ignoring the parliament, where opposition parties are free to denounce him but otherwise are powerless. After grooming his son to replace him and delaying elections—again—until 2013, Saleh was blindsided by the Arab democracy wave, alternately vowing to fight “with every last drop of blood” and pledging to step down sometime next year. Suddenly, there are some 70 political parties in Yemen, most of them trying to grab the microphone. An Islamist politician appears on stage, with ten guards carrying AK-47’s, but he is mocked by the crowd. His party was an ally of the dictator until recently; he wants to put his five brothers in ministries. “A crook, worse than the president,” a Yemeni tells me. I see no other Western journalists, although a crew from Al Jazeera is recording everything. Despite my disguise—a red Yemeni scarf in Arafat head wrap—I’m outed as an American everywhere, showered with handshakes, permissions, welcomes, a persistent horde of beaming young men asking me to take their picture, to document their signs, their Yemen flags, their face paint, their slogans, their words: peaceful democracy civilized people end to corruption honest government jobs growth feed my family human dignity human rights dignity dignity dignity. Please. We want what you have.
ALL OF YEMEN IS SLAMMING SHUT. As the demonstrations grow larger, the government tightens its grip, and on March 5 my colleague, the photographer Marco Di Lauro, is stopped at the airport for arriving with cameras and a satellite phone. He has a tourist visa, usually enough for reporting but suddenly insufficient. A Google search, 0.7 seconds and 468,000 hits later, identifies him as a top combat photographer, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. After a series of midnight phone calls, officials confiscate his passport. We’re summoned to the Ministry of Information the next morning to meet with Ahmed Mohammed al-Lahabi, the public relations manager, identified by our translator as “Mr. Fire” for the literal meaning of his last name. I have a legal press visa, but Mr. Fire spends half an hour yelling at us anyway. He waves a list of five names, journalists who’ve tried to sneak into the increasingly tense country on tourist or student visas. They have all been expelled. Thanks to my press visa and our long-ago-booked itinerary—to tourism destinations like the Haraz Mountains and Socotra Island—we are allowed to stay. But we’ll have to take an official minder, to make sure we don’t cover politics. We reject the candidate offered and pick Fahad, a skinny 35-year-old with better English. Our plan is to circle back to Sanaa and surreptitiously check on the demonstrations after each trip. Everything is written. We’re going to end up on that deportation blacklist ourselves. We’re going on our own little hegira, the Koranic story of expulsion and night flight, but with Wi-Fi and duty-free on the way out.
TO PROVE OUR TOURIST bona fides, we roll westward out of Sanaa for a two-night visit to the Central and Haraz mountains. With a driver, a 22-year-old local named Ali, and our tail, Fahad, we make a tour group of four in a Toyota Land Cruiser. We stop first in Thula, a fortress city of rich sandstone. We’ve barely left Sanaa and already a 12,000-foot peak looms nearby. In the 1990s, the new nation of Yemen attracted a boomlet in tourism, peaking with 87,000 visitors in 1998. But today we have Thula to ourselves: the ancient cistern, rebuilt by USAID as part of America’s effort to woo the country, feeds an empty town. The men have left to find work in Sanaa; the women are hiding. Only children follow us as we look at towering keeps, steep streets, and once Jewish homes where a Star of David is built into the facade. No Jews, though. Fifteen shopkeepers eye me, hoping to sell the same goods we will see at every stop: phony knives, antique guns, nice shawls, and carved wooden shutters, looted from those Jewish homes after a pogrom in 1947. A boy following me around shouts “Kidnap!” in English, sending everyone into fits of laughter. “No kidnapping,” a shopkeeper tells me, speaking in good Castilian that he learned from Spanish tourists in the 1990s. “The people of Thula know this is bad for business.” Bad for business? I buy only water. At every checkpoint, we are stopped by Yemeni soldiers. They’re always chewing huge gobs of khat and are always polite for men carrying stockless AK-47 variants. They take, every time, photocopies of our passports and itinerary—“Itali,” they say of Marco, “Amriki” for me. Yemen was once known for so-called hospitality kidnappings, staged events complete with tea and pillows, where weak rural tribes briefly held foreigners as a negotiating tool. Now the threat is from Al Qaeda. In 2009, four Koreans taking sunrise pictures of the iconic village of Shibam were killed by a suicide bomber at an overlook, next to a large sign of a camera. The same year, nine tourists, including a German family with children, were nabbed during a picnic and quickly executed. The photocopies are to help track us if we disappear. We sleep at Kawkaban, a fierce village on a promontory with a long history of unconquerable aloofness. The houses are magnificent—“what Afghanistan must have looked like,” Marco observes, “before they blew it up.”
DAWN AT 10,000 FEET brings an unexpected blessing: rain so fine that it feels like a personal cloud. The dry season is ending, and the monsoon will come in a month or so. We turn south, out of the Central Mountains and toward Jabal Haraz, once the country’s most popular trekking range. Every town is eerily similar: subject to countless feuds and wars, Yemenis survived by building atop jagged peaks, their towns fortresses, their houses towers. Buildings are chinked for rifle ports, but carrying guns in town was made illegal a few years ago, and only in the small roadside markets do locals in sheepskin vests sling AK-47’s as they buy khat, garlic, falafel, and live chickens. “Garbage,” Marco fumes. He means the midday light. The landscapes are eye-popping, but the fields are dry and brown, impossible to render in interesting shades. There isn’t much flat land in Yemen and even less water. Both are devoted overwhelmingly to growing khat, a tall, thirsty hedge of dark green leaves, mostly consumed locally but also exported to the gunmen of Somalia across the Gulf of Aden. The khat here is some of the best in Yemen—a steep $5 a bag in the dry season. Ali spends the afternoon with a big cud in his mouth, rhapsodizing on the khat lifestyle. You pack the leaves and even the stems into a jowl, like Skoal. The first time I tried it, after an hour of chewing at dusk I was left climbing the walls of my hotel room until midnight, firing off a lot of overly detailed e-mails. (The active ingredient is amphetamine-like.) The second time, after hours of chewing and walking slowly through the Old City, I felt nothing much. That last afternoon in the car, we climb up to Ali’s hometown, a place called Halaja. At 8,000 feet, the wind is snappy, mixed with bits of rain. Almost everyone claims to be a relative of Ali’s and probably is. After dark there is meant to be a “typical” music show, with costumed dancers. Exhausted, I’m dreading this cultural come-on, but the event is saved when the power goes out. Instead of bright lights and amplified music, we get a twanging oud and a single lantern. A small drum and a group of men singing and clapping accompany the dancers, who flash their curved daggers in the feeble yellow light. Spinning, dipping, advancing, retreating, their dance is mesmerizing, a glimpse of Arabia Felix. The repertoire is haunting—“about life, about women, about mountain,” Ali explains. “Many sad songs.” After the show, I get a text message from my wife. Things have gotten worse in Sanaa. The American and British embassies are urging citizens to leave the country: “Threat level in Yemen is extremely high … terrorist activities … piracy … ongoing civil unrest…” Marco, who has been shot by the Taliban and blown up by an Iraqi suicide bomber, is merely enticed by this warning, ready to plunge into the chaos. But I lie on my rustic bed, shivering in the cold. Just around the time we pull into Sanaa again, caught in the lunchtime traffic jam, two people are shot at the protests. TOURISM IS SUICIDAL here, yet it exists. “Russians, Polish, Slovakians, Italians,” the director of the Board of Tourism tells me at her office in the capital that afternoon. “Americans are the smallest group.” Her name is Fatima Huraibi Hassen (Michigan State ’74). Dressed in an embroidered maroon burka, her face exposed, she makes the case for tourism in Yemen while fielding calls on two cells and two landlines and signing papers presented by aides. She points out that Yemen has no natural resource to exploit—no serious oil, no mining, little agriculture beyond khat—nothing except that 1,200-mile coastline. Egypt and Israel have both turned their portions of the Red Sea into tourism gold. Why not Yemen? Because it’s scary? “I don’t blame them for being scared,” she says of tourists. Five of Yemen’s 21 governates, or provinces, are restricted to foreigners because of terrorism (“Marib, Sadah, Al Jawf, Shabwah, Abyan,” Huraibi says). But there are bright spots. “Al Hudaydah is safe. Sanaa is safe. Al Mahwit. Aden,” she adds, “is somewhat safe.” Kidnapping is down, but then again, she concedes, “there are no Westerners to attack.” Nonetheless, the tourism plan announced last year is on track for a modest success. Yemen has slated five beaches for development. The country can’t have Egyptian-style resorts, with “dancers from Morocco and alcohol,” Huraibi says, because that would provoke terror attacks. Instead it will offer Islam-friendly beach vacations to the rising middle class in the Gulf states. “Family oriented” Westerners will be welcome at the resorts and on Socotra. In the morning, she is off to Malaysia to promote Yemen tourism. Huraibi is sympathetic—a sensible saleswoman for a difficult product. The current crisis, she hopes, will eventually stabilize the country and allow tourism to return. Despite being a member of the president’s party, she supports reform and wants to run for parliament herself. But on my way out, she (wrongly) predicts that the crisis will never devolve into violence. In fact, we are just a week away from mass bloodshed. I go back to the Old City on foot, miles across Sanaa. I walk through a vegetable market and eat lunch—the thin, spicy beef stew called salta—in a crowded hole in the wall. My presence draws no attention. I pass through downtown avenues with soldiers on every corner and edge by the pro-government demonstrations: a smaller tent city, stage-managed by the president but with its own impassioned supporters who kiss his picture and tell me that the country will descend into chaos if the government is overthrown—a result known as democracy to the other side in this dispute. The pro-government types know they’re outnumbered and wave their daggers in the air, acting tough. It is the second Day of Rage since my arrival, although there has also been a Day of Marching and a Friday of Fury. A few blocks more and the antigovernment crowd is everywhere, packed into Change Square. It is twice the size of the crowd I first saw—maybe 40,000. These are the people who will absorb the beatings, the teargas, the water cannons and riot charges, the rubber bullets. Still, the crowd redoubles its efforts every week like a creature with self-healing wounds. Our minder, Fahad, appears in the morning, under orders to keep us away. The city is tense. A government MiG-29 circles lazily overhead.
WE’RE AT THE AIRPORT ourselves a few hours later. Long before the demonstrations, we’d planned to visit Socotra, and, confronted by a sudden opening in flight schedules, we jump at the chance to ditch Fahad and board a plane to the land of frankincense and myrrh. Yemenis call Socotra their own waq al waq, which makes it the beyond the beyond to the beyond. It is 270 miles from Sanaa, ringed with marine life, and crowned with endemic plants. There are no politics or tribal violence. Six thousand tourists visited last year, and our flight on Felix Airways is proof that people will do anything rather than surrender a vacation deposit. Aboard are three groups of Italians, including a fishing party I promise to join later, an English couple, and a German family of expats living in Sanaa. And the amazing Axel from Munich, here on his fourth visit. Dressed in local futah, belt, vest, shawl, and turban, he’s going to ride a camel across Socotra—alone. “If you go with an open mind, you are met with open minds,” he says, glowing with enthusiasm. Italians, Germans, Brits. Apparently, all these people forget that they are still kufr, unbelievers, even if they aren’t American. Their armies are fighting on Muslim lands, but they go on vacation in Yemen during a revolution anyway. Hundreds of them: when we get to Socotra we find Yemen’s tourism machine in full swing, five hotels open, one of them, the Summerland, run by Americans and set up for divers. A German, still soaked by surf, walks into the restaurant dragging a huge fish. “Barracuda,” he says. “I come one month every year.” Socotra’s only big town is Hadiboh, a half-finished sprawl of cement blocks and gravel streets, the construction arrested in mid-boom, leaving an incomplete village of spectacular ugliness and charming people dwarfed by gobsmacking vertical ridges. More than 40,000 people live on Socotra, 55 percent of them fishermen, but the island is big—more than 100 miles long—and everywhere but Hadiboh feels empty. Everyone is easygoing here, Arabia on island time. The people and clothing are halfway to India, dark-faced men in madras sarongs. No one wears the jambiya, the ritual knife that lends such menace to every encounter on the mainland, and nobody chews khat. In place of white robes, people wear European soccer jerseys. Beer is served openly—it’s zero alcohol, but on the mainland even that was rare. Only the women are the same: black lumps, sometimes with not even their eyes showing. Legends lie thicker than dust on Yemen’s old ground, and no place has a stranger, more alien cloud of obscuring mythology than Socotra. Perhaps Indians, who rode the trade winds westward, were the first to settle here. Aristotle is said to have convinced Alexander the Great to colonize the island as a stepping stone toward the end of the world. The Romans used myrrh to dress their wounds and frankincense to speak to their gods—products that grew best on Socotra. They burned so much incense that they invaded in the first century, seeking better terms. Disease, and reports that the incense trees were guarded by dragons, drove them back. All this for resins, saps, ambers, and juice. Despite the Three Magi, whose gifts likely came from Socotra, the Christian era reduced the demand for smoking censers, and income fell. In the 13th century, Marco Polo found the greatest enchanters of the world here, and not much has happened since.