News From Yemen

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rock Climbing in Yemen

Shortly after New Year’s, D persuaded me to go rock climbing with her. In fact, the idea greatly appealed to me but every previous opportunity I had declined, resting on the lame excuse of needing to do homework or wanting to just relax. The Yemen Adventure club met Fridays at 10:00am in the parking lot of a grocery store in the south side of the city. Having only one real day off of work, it took me until January to decide it was time to spend that one day rock climbing, even though it’s a hobby I’ve always wanted to explore more.

The Yemen Adventure Club was founded by Joshua Maricich, a writer living long-term in Sana’a working on a book about the historic Old City. An avid outdoorsman, he along with a British expat buddy founded the club as way to bring their enthusiasm for climbing to Yemen while promoting environmental awareness. When I made it out to climb with the club in early 2011, they were in the midst of registering as an NGO. Unfortunately Josh was deported not long after, charged with practicing journalism without the proper visa. It was a cheap political move on the part of the Yemeni government in an attempt to scare Western journalists from covering the building civil unrest.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when the taxi dropped us off in the supermarket parking lot that morning. The idea of a rock climbing club in Yemen seemed so surreal when picturing it in my head. The day’s climbers were already gathering when we arrived. D had been once before and introduced me around; they were all free lance journalists or expat aid workers aside from one Yemeni, Naz, who made sure the club continued after Josh’s deportation. Some of them I’d met previously at parties.

Naz and Josh arranged for a passing minibus (dabab) to take us to the routes. We drove away from the city center and up toward the surrounding mountains. After wending through a village we came to a narrow passage too steep for the minibus and piled out. From there we hiked to a small cinderblock building where the club kept their gear and continued on to the routes.

The rock face was steep, not quite 90 degrees. We were joined by three Yemenis from the nearby village: an older man fit-looking with graying hair, a younger one perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, and a young boy around eight or ten years old.

Four runs were mapped out in varying difficulty. Some had areas where the angle inverted slightly, other had portions where no obvious foot or hand holds presented themselves to navigate a particular gap. I sat out the first round before taking my first climb.

I re-learned how to put on the harness and tie the “figure eight” knot and off I went, anchored by one of the experienced climbers. The climb was thrilling. I hadn’t worked out much since coming to Yemen and I loved the feeling of doing something physical in a natural setting. I took to the climb well and finished with only a minor freak-out midway through when I paused clinging to some tiny hold, not seeing anywhere to go next before finally finding a way forward. Once at the top I repelled down.

One thing I never used in my few brief previous experiences climbing was climbing shoes. The toe of these specialty shoes squeezes the foot to a narrow point, under which is a hard sole designed to allow the foot to find purchase on the slightest variations of rock face. I imagine fitting your foot into this equipment is somewhat like fitting into a ballet shoe.

I managed three climbs before feeling completely exhausted. At some point we took a break to fire up the grill and charcoal provided by the club and we cooked lunch. We each brought our own food, and D and I made grilled tomato and mozzarella sandwiches (she’s a vegetarian).

Over lunch we met Sven, who worked with the UN on women’s issues. He wore a Boston Redsox cap and spoke in a college bro manner. We were shocked to learn he was a Swede, having mistaken him for American. D resolved to make him our American-style bro friend, something we were lacking at the time. Regretfully he and many other UN folk left Sana’a in mid March, and D and I shortly after, effectively cutting off her plans.

After lunch and a few climbs I wandered through the brush and thicket along the rock face away from where the routes were mapped and made my way to a rocky promontory. Standing there I had a wide view of the city below and could make out the specks of the climbers on the rock wall off to the left. The sun shone and it was peaceful and calm.

Toward late afternoon we packed up and returned the equipment to the cinderblock shed. In a small clearing in the back of the town kids were playing soccer. Josh pointed out that the clearing was once buried in trash before the club, together with people from the village, cleaned it up.

I had an incredible experience my first trip out with the Yemen Adventure Club, and sadly it was my last. I look forward to going back to Sana’a one day, and wonder if I manage to show up in the supermarket parking lot at 10:00am on a Friday if I’ll get a chance to climb again.

Me climbing!

The amazing ten-year-old rock climbing phenom

Josh climbing

K climbing silhouetted against the sky

Long view of the rock face

The village

In the foreground the village; in the background Sana'a

The middle-aged local climbing

Hiking back to the village

The clearing in the right foreground, formerly covered in trash but now a soccer pitch

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

To Manakha, Hajjarah, and Hutayb

The weekend after my marathon trip south in the mountains through Taiz and back up the Tihama coastline, the school had planned a trip to Manakha. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but Manakha was the city perched on the edge of the mountainous escarpment that separates highland Yemen from the Red Sea coast near which we drove at the end of this trip.

I had heard the city mentioned a number of times, mostly because it is a prominent waypoint on the Chinese-built road between Sana’a and Houdaidah. We met early on Thursday morning for the hour and a half ride. Nearly all of the students turned up for the trip, which made us quite a large group. Over the previous month we had gained an American, a German, two Oklahomans, three Italians, an Australian, and a Canadian. The school was starting to feel wonderfully full and I enjoyed the diverse group of experience and personalities we were beginning to house.

The previous weekend Mubarak had stepped down and protests in Sana’a were starting to pick up again. As we drove up into the mountains above the capital plateau, one student looked back over the city lamenting that we would be away from the action on what could be an exciting day. “This could be the day that the revolution happens and we’ll miss it!” he joked.

At that time, the protests were still free of the government violence that trickled, and then flooded in, between the end of February and the end of March. That Sana’a could fall during our day trip was clearly a jest. The excitement no one wanted to miss was that of a people celebrating en masse an autocrat’s decision to step down or hand over power, not the sniping, spraying of sewage through water cannons, and shelling of residential areas that actually later came to pass.

After a pit stop somewhere in the brown gravely mountains south and west of the capital, we pulled off at our first stop: the school president’s mountainside real estate. I heard that he hoped to one day build a retreat center there. You had to admire his vision, even if you knew such a long-term investment would be unlikely for the foreseeable future. However, the school’s enrollment prior to AQAP’s international reemergence in 2009 was remarkable: at one point the school had to house students in a nearby hotel because the two dorm buildings and guest house were overflowing. I’m sure a retreat center near Manakha seemed a more reasonable use of resources in such prosperous times.

On the president’s hillside was a small house, and there lived a man who tended to the grounds and its fruit trees. He showed us where heavy rains had washed out some of the terracing and pointed out the farm’s cistern. The view was spectacular. A ribbon of black asphalt snaked along the hillside below. Beyond that were royal blue sky and a fall into another of Yemen’s unfathomable plunges in elevation. To the right was the city of Manakha, sprawled awkwardly along a ridgeline.

From the van parked on the roadside below a number of us carried up bags of roti scraps, food for the farmer’s goat. After hiking around the hillside for a while admiring the flora and the view, we hiked back down to the road and started up the hill before arriving at another lookout point. Shortly after, we piled back in the van and continued on.

The winding road leading back to Manakha

The ribbon of road leading through the mountains surrounding Manakha

Students admiring the view, standing on the farm's cistern

The hillside's hired guard and farmer

A group of houses down the road from the mountainside

The next stop was Hajjarah. The van stopped in the more modern part of town, behind which lay a peak shrouded in cloud, presenting the image of an active volcano. We made our way toward the older quarter along a shallow set of stairs just as noon prayers were finishing. Old Hajjarah sat packed onto a rocky peninsula overlooking a wide, shallow, terraced valley. Dead ahead and to the left one could see green just starting to sprout in the valley, and through it rolled a vaporous river of clouds. On the other side of the old section plunged an even deeper valley, on the opposite ridge of which was Manakha.

A mountain looming over Hajjarah

Hajjarah on a cliff

Valley below Hajjarah

Up the stairs to old Hajjarah

A young boy, I now forget his name so many months later, led me through alleys and up and down stairs in the old town. The buildings stretched into the sky, large stone stacked on stone. The boy showed me where Jews had once lived, pointing out a wooden mantel above one house on which was etched a coffee bean and a star of David. He then took me to another of the town’s highlights: a tower house hanging precariously over an edge, propped up by a curving stack of stones.

After the short tour I rendezvoused with the rest of the group and we stood around the vans chatting at various levels of Arabic with a number of the local kids before moving on once again.

My guide

Signs of those who came before

Being led through old Hajjarah

Our next stop was what seemed to be a relatively popular tourist hotel back in the city of Manakha itself. There we enjoyed a large lunch spread out before us feast-style on a long plastic sheet. We reclined on either side on low cushions. The real treat came after we ate. Our hosts brought out drums and an oud and began to play. After some frenetic snare-type drumming, two men entered the room and for the next half hour or so entertained us with Yemeni dance. They first danced alongside each other, spinning, rocking and stepping. They then brought out their jambiyyahs, which they skillfully twirled into the routine. Lastly they incorporated antique muskets.

Our hosts in Manakha entertain us with music

And with dancing

We had one more destination after finishing lunch: Hutayb. Ismaili pilgrims come from as far away as India and Singapore to visit this hamlet south of Manakha and pay their respects at the shining white mausoleum of Hatim al-Hamdi, a missionary prominent in a particular branch of the Ismaili denomination of Islam. They also come to visit the mosque he is said to have built, set on a cliff high above the mausoleum and standing sentinel over inspiring views of the Haraz Mountains.

On the road to Hutayb

On the road to Hutayb; cloud shrouds the city of Manakha

Mausoleum of Hatem al-Hamdi

Mausoleum detail

Pinnacle on which Hatem's mosque is located

When we arrived we were at first not allowed to ascend to the mosque, the keeper of the key to the path’s gate having gone missing. In the meantime I bought some genuine Yemeni coffee from a nearby vendor, which I later went on to enjoy as I learned how to brew Turkish coffee in our kitchen. It was wonderful.

Of course the key-keeper was eventually found and we ascended the rocky promontory on which the mosque was built. Yet again, the views were mind-boggling (you’ve probably begun to see a theme here). The same seemed to apply here as elsewhere in Yemen, but on a grander scale: deep valleys, terraced the whole way down like a real life topographical map, falling away from improbably inaccessible villages built like castles along high points in the surrounding ridge lines. We snapped pictures and admired the view before heading back down to turn back towards Sana’a.

And so concluded our trip to Manakha and the nearby villages of Hajjarah and Hutayb. By the time I got back in the van I was exhausted and napped most of the way home.

View from the mosque

Another view from the mosque; you can see the shadow of the pinnacle on the bottom left

Friday, November 11, 2011

Views from Taiz

I've gotten pretty busy these past few months with the job, Notre Dame football, and lots of different friends passing through D.C. I assure you, though, that I will still be posting new articles from time to time.

Hopefully these videos can make up for it for now (I don't think I've posted them before). They are both from Taiz during our visit to Jabal Sabr, the mountain which overlooks the city. I've tried pretty hard to describe the majestic views in mountainous Yemen, but hopefully these videos can give you a clearer picture than my words.

In case you're curious, these were taken on February 11th. We departed Taiz that evening, and the city would become vastly different after that fateful night on which Hosni Mubarak resigned.

View on the way up Jabar Sabr:

360 View from the top of the mountain:

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Yemeni Wedding

Sometime in late February or early March, one of our teachers invited us to his brother's wedding. I and one other student were the only ones to take him up on the offer.

I was curious to see what the weddings were like. Wedding dress stores line the streets, filled with fairy-tale dresses, icy blue and pink lights, and glitter like snow. I passed these stores every day, but I would witness no such glamour at a wedding. Yemeni weddings are divided by gender. The women gather in one place, and the men in another. The women's wedding party is a faraway land of makeup, sexy clothing, and loosened inhibitions. At least this is how the stories go. I've even heard of a women's party that hired a full band to play. The band was all male - they played from behind a curtain fro the duration of the celebration.

Our wedding would be more low key. I met up with the student, two of our teachers, and one of the school staff in the courtyard of the Markez. They picked us up in an SUV whose windows were blacked out with glitter and had a bow tied over the hood. Only small blank spaces shaped like hearts and doves were left on the front windshield and in the corners of the front windows by the side mirrors.

We arrived late at the wedding, held in a banquet hall somewhere north of Al Qaa district. In a long tiled dozens of men, perhaps one hundred, sat on low cushions chewing. The groom sat in a chair on a raised platform in the front of the room. It was clear we had arrived past the prime of the party. Everyone was involved in quiet conversation with their neighbors. A man across the room played the Oud for a while, and a fellow student and I tried to dance for a bit with our teacher.

A man plays the Oud at the wedding.

We went back to sitting and chatting, but then the call for the sunset prayer began and 70% of the room got up and left. We continued to chat with our teachers but decided the party was dying and it was time to go. We walked back to the school since the weather was nice and we wanted to allow the others to stay.

Overall, this wedding wasn't as exciting as some of the weddings I witnessed more tangentially. Prior to a wedding, some families will string lights across their street, casting a charming glow over the medieval city's alleys. A more modern practice involves camcorders and speeding Toyotas. On at least a third of my taxi rides down Sabaeen street I witnessed convoys of SUVs weaving among traffic, each car chasing the next with streamers and ribbons whipping in the wind, as one guy in the middle of it all hanged out of a side window of one of the cars holding on with one hand and videotaping the spectacle with a camera in the other.

For more on weddings in Yemen during this trying period, see this Reuters story: In Shell-Shocked Yemen, the Wedding Party Goes On.

Lace decorates the car for the wedding

Frosted windows decorate the car

"Alf Mabrouk" - "One Thousand Congratulations"

Monday, August 1, 2011

Motorcycle Taxis

"Let's take a motorcycle taxi." During my first month in Yemen our Program Coordinator, who in many ways was my mentor during those first weeks, decided it was time to show me the ropes of taking a motor. He let out a loud "Yahh!" at the sight of the next motorcycle taxi to pass by and instructed him to wait while he flagged down a second motor. I seated myself behind the driver on the second bike and held onto the underside of the metal seat frame.

This first ride was short -- we were only going to Sharia Mataam -- but it was enough to get me started. The motorbike weaved through traffic, went down one-way streets, sped around corners, and generally bent any traffic law that its small and agile frame allowed it to bend. "I wouldn't recommend doing this daily," my colleague warned, "but if you're running late and need to make it to a meeting it's a great way to make up time."

I caught on to how to flag down the motorcycle taxis, and although I didn't take them often I enjoyed it when I did. It was quite an enjoyable feeling to drive through the city, lots of noise and activity going on around you, with the sun shining and the wind flying through your hair. I must admit I felt proud of myself.

Sometimes when running late for lunch I would take a motor. I would often arrive before my friends, despite leaving five minutes later, and wave at their car taxi as I passed. I intended to film the ride between work and lunch at some point. Unfortunately I only caught a few seconds of it here. I found out the morning this video was taken that I would be leaving Yemen early the following day, and unfortunately my camera was barely charged.

One point to add: generally speaking women do not use motorcycle taxis. It would be quite improper by Yemeni social standards for a woman to be seen straddling a bike, especially if seated behind an unrelated man. On the one occasion that I did see a girl riding a motorcycle it looked like she was being picked up from school, perhaps by a brother or uncle, and she was sitting side-saddle.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


A couple of my student-worker colleagues were huge pesto enthusiasts. The only ingredient difficult to come by was basil. For a while, we were unsure whether it was available at all. I hadn't tasted it in any of the Yemeni food. Someone made pesto from parsley once, but the taste just wasn't the same.

Hannah did discover that you could buy basil in the produce market we passed every day on the walk home from our daily lunch restaurant. An old lady sold it, sitting on the corner of the market's entrance next to where the motorcycle taxis waited for fares.

Interestingly, Hannah told us that while basil was available it was not primarily used by Yemenis for cooking. Instead, it is used as a fragrant hair decoration.

The produce market we passed daily