Medieval dawn: Light breaks over Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, whose Old City quarters feature breathtaking medieval architecture, souks, sounds and smells. UNESCO named the Old City, which has been inhabited for 2,500 years, a World Heritage Cite in 1986. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Anyone who still thinks the Arab world is a no-go zone for women entrepreneurs should have a look at Amina al-Amrani, a 57-year-old Yemeni from the legendary Land of Sheba (originator of the eponymous Queen). As the Yemen Times reports, the self-made entrepreneur "can't read or write but she's become an urban legend as one of the top wholesale fruit brokers in the country." Don't take the words urban legend literally: al-Amrani is all reality, selling "almost 200 tons of fruit daily -- worth about a quarter of a million dollars." It's an old habit of the Arab peninsula, this dispersion of citrus: "In the sixth and seventh centuries," John McPhee writes in his wonderful Oranges (one of his earliest books), "the forces of Islam conquered a wide corridor across the world from India to Spain, and orange, tangerine, and lemon trees today mark the track if the Muslim armies."
Yemen played a major role in that conquest, especially in the 7th and 8th centuries. In its Old City, Sana'a's 103 mosques, 14 hammams and 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century, are testament to that once-pivotal center of Islam. But as Tom Downey wrote in the Times last Sunday, "Despite its superb architecture, intact traditional culture, stunning vistas and passable tourist infrastructure, Yemen sees only a trickle of visitors, mostly from Europe. Most travelers are understandably frightened off by the shadow of civil war, reports of terrorist attacks like the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in 2000, and stern State Department travel warnings."
Yemen's Three Amigos
What a shame that such a treasure should be hostage to fear and fanaticism. Downey points out that the three most recurrent sights in Sana'a and other parts of Yemen aren't its architectural beauty but three portraits, plastered all over the place in the habits of many countries where the worship of cult figures fills the void of true leadership. The most popular portrait is that of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also likes to go by that old title Erwin Rommel made famous: field marshal. Saleh was president of North Yemen, also known as the Yemen Arab Republic, from 1978 to 1990, the year North and South Yemen merged. He's been president of the new republic since. Unlike most leaders in the Arab world, Saleh has been holding on to power through more or less fair, popular elections. It's one of Yemen's many paradoxes. The country is simultaneously one of the Arab world's most socially traditional and most politically liberal.
The second and third most prominent portraits in Yemen are mild shocks to those with eyes untrained in Yemeni paradoxes: Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Lebanon's Hassan Nasrallah. Hussein's portraits are somewhat of a left-over from when Yemen celebrated his renegade status back in the first Gulf War, when, in the eyes of Yemenis anyway, he stood up to the American-led coalition (never mind that he'd invaded the "brother" nation of Kuwait or that he was routed out of it). Nsrallah is the Hezbollah leader. He won approval in Yemen in the summer of 2006, over that summer's war with Israel.
Look past the cults, however, and Yemen's beauties stand out. One of its most fascinating regions is the Haraz Mountains above Sana'a, "perhaps best known," Downey writes, "for the gloriously intact 11th century village Al-Hajjara carved into the rocky landscape." What I find striking about Al-Hajjara, which means "the rocky place," is its distant, amazing similarity to another near-contemporary wonder of architecture and history half-way around the globe: the cliff dwellings of the American Southwest's Anasazi. Maybe it's a stretch. If so, it's not much of one when the window-dotted facades and rock-climbing dwellings of each culture are compared. What became of the Anasazi, when they disappeared about a millennium ago, is a mystery. Sana'a by then, however, was already middle aged, and hasn't quit claiming its living place in history.
For more, see my complete profile of Yemen.