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Tuesday, June 24, 2008


There are travel guides out there who describe Yemen as safer than where you come from. Perhaps it is because this country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula has had none of its formerly famous kidnappings since 9/11. When terrorism swept the world in 2001, it apparently left Yemen. Now European and Japanese tourists are flocking to ancient Arabia Felix (Lucky Arabia), Yemen’s name in antiquity when Solomon and the Queen of Sheba ruled the world and Yemen’s incredible desert palaces and hilltop towns began sprouting up.
Yemen (population 20 million) is eye candy where tourists snap photos with abandon. Start your visit in the capital of Sana’a — its Old City with gingerbread-like condos liberally sprinkled with fancy white frosting in intricate patterns. On the edge of Sana’a, 9 miles (15 km) outside of town in Wadi Dhar sits an ancient castle stacked high on a red rock skyscraper. Dar al-Hajar is the most popular symbol of Yemen seen on posters and in magazines.
Don’t miss Thula and the old Turkish fortresses built high on the mountains 37 miles (60 km) northwest of Sana’a. Thula is a charming pre-Islamic town with tower houses and aqueducts and cisterns.
Dar al-Hajar, the famous castle in Wadi Dhar, is the most popular symbol of Yemen.
Make sure to visit tiny mesa-topped Kawkaban, a miniature town propped high above the 16th century city of Shibam. Kawkaban, with its primordial cave homes, sits on a sheer cliff 1,100 feet (350 m) straight above Shibam and was built to protect it. The World Heritage Site of Shibam is located 30 miles (48 km) west of Sana’a. Shibam is nicknamed the “Manhattan of the Desert” because of its impressive tower-like structures that rise straight out of the cliffs. Surrounded by a fortified wall, Shibam is regarded as one of the oldest and best examples of vertical urban planning.
Al Hajjarah, 74 miles (120 km) northwest of Sana’a and high on a mountaintop, is a charming postcard town, fortified with lots of dry stone construction. From there, the ancient town of Old Ibb (124 miles or 200 km south of Sana’a) spreads over a precipitously craggy mountain. See the stunning mosques of Jiblah (3 miles or 5 km southwest of Ibb) and marvel at the view from high on the mountain over Ta’izz (39 miles or 64 km south of Ibb). The white powder beaches of the Red Sea are another big draw. Yemen is tourist excitement central.
Another interesting thing about Yemen is the fact that at first it doesn’t look so safe. My initial impression was that everyone wore a wicked-looking dagger, either pea green or yellow. These scary items are usually stuck in a golden belt worn over white djellabahs (long, loose hooded garments with full sleeves) and underneath turban tablecloths seemingly pinched from Italian restaurants. After the initial shock of a populace armed to the teeth wore off, I realized the daggers were all ceremonial. During my weeks in Yemen I only saw daggers unsheathed twice: the first time at the traditional Yemen dance exhibition where the men sashay arm-in-arm while brandishing their daggers like candles. The second time I saw them unsheathed was when the driver of an 18-wheeler cut another one off and they zoomed down the highway waving daggers at each other while fiercely scowling over bristly mustaches; far more comical than the .347 Magnums wielded in road rage where I come from.
Eastern Yemen takes a little more getting used to. There you learn the lessons of the desert. The first is to always give a man a ride who is hitchhiking with a Kalashnikov. The residents of eastern Yemen all tote Kalashnikovs, trusty Russian machine guns that make a de rigueur fashion statement on the road to Mareb. The wild, wild east looks like a lawless part of Yemen at first. But not a single shot was fired during my journey to the east. Many of those carrying Kalashnikovs looked suspiciously like mustachioed Woody Allens in slightly soiled lavender dresses, hardly formidable. However, I also learned the second rule of the desert. Always ask first before taking a photo of a guy with a Kalashnikov. Whew. Heart be still.