Mariana Strijp shares this guest blog about Yemen
It was 2008, a rare opportunity was presented to me by the then Minister of Vocational and Technical education in Yemen to visit the country and discuss how a large London college can help with lending its expertise. Unusual one may think, and unprecedented – governments talk to governments, ministries to ministries, and colleges to colleges. Why would a highly educated government official, want to get involved with a ‘grass root organisation’.
Don’t race till the end, enjoy the travels on the back of a memory like once the Bedouins transported the spices between Asia, North Africa and Middle East.
I had to see the divided land once known to me through my fellow Yemeni colleagues at Sofia University who were supported by the Communist South and the wealthy North. I had to hear the roaring political discussions of the chewing qat male gatherings leaning on the streets of Saan’a, had to smell the fight between the tradition and the irrevocable entry of the only republican organisation on the Arab Peninsula, had to please this itch like Yemen itself – a sand grain in the sea of Sharija rulings.
Little did I know then that after a few days of no visible female presence apart from freely walking 6-7 years old girls to school and elderly, covered from tip to toe ladies, and occasional married women in hijabs, I would find the testosterone filled warmth and sticky lusty looks of on-lookers longing me to come back to sterile, organised and polished London. Little did I know then I would come with more baggage than I went with (and I don’t mean 5 carrier bags from the Lancôme counter of Duty Free!) but the enrichment from a country with cross cultural fertilisation of ancient wisdom.
I can close my eyes and still hear:
The warning words of Foreign Office advising me to refrain from visiting the country unless its urgent
- The warming reception of all the men from the customs officers, to hotel and ministry staff,
- The coffee afternoon in the presence of a woman, who happens to support her husband like any other nationality of earth
- A warm hearted discussion with a 18 years old half Yemeni, half Scottish boy proudly declaring that he is more Arab than a Scot! And he still believes that if your families agree to marry you – you make it work, through tolerance and care – sticking to the old school of thought that a man takes care of the worldly duties and provides for his family and the woman takes care of the kids – their education and manners, but above all, raising them to be people – helpful, generous and respectful to others and highly family centric.
With pens poised, and the contract just about to be inked, the Minister takes an emergency call, leaving me wondering could it be an oil crises, the USA ambassador or a Saudi Minister over yet another border dispute, No – something far more important – a cousin of his needed some help and we ‘shall reconvene the next day’.
Try saying that to your boss and you next on the redundancy list and your career will end faster than a British Eurovision singer’s roadie. This is this immense sense of support and family protection that I find gluing and compelling to come again the following day and find out what was the story with the cousin.
Amidst sipping freshly squeezed carrot and melon juice, the contract signed, the offer comes to join for a walk behind the ancient walls of the old town of Saan’a and to see the Cliff Tower. The place is no different to any Western city – has its bars, restaurants, and its drivers are more skilled than a Formula 1 on Monaco track, who have a method of avoiding accidents by the governing thought – have to protect you as you will protect me. Strangely I think it does not work quite like this on the Queen Elizabeth Bridge over The Themes – probably amongst the most accident prone places, though highly organised, signposted with its designated lanes.
How is order established without markers? By rules, laws and regulations – my Western mind decides, but in this land they are not written, not ratified, not discussed. Yet, they are followed and obeyed. How? By grandparents, uncles and aunts, religion and respect of God ..apologies Allah. Probably Saana’s 103 mosques helped – somehow I doubt it.
Experiencing Yemen is a camel ride through time – no matter if you are in Zabid – Yemen’s capital between 13-15thcentury; or 16th century Shibam – the great, grandfather of downtown Manhattan with its tower buildings and vertical constructions, the bay of Eden or the Socotra Archipelago, The Wadi Dhar -the fruitful valley populated since early times near Sana´a with its famous rock palace – elevated on a singular rock of the Dar al-Hajjar, amidst the gardens of qat-trees, once the summer residence of the last Imams Yahiya – there is this prevailing sense of respect for nature and its laws and the inevitable circle of life and the worship of what is important – there is no apparent affluence and yet – there is treasure – human and priceless, untouchable and unpackaged and this drifting duality – deep human wisdom and technology filled jargon; traditions and modernity; black and white judgement; sense of right and wrong.
I tiptoed on the cobbled streets of Saan’a stepping into time as according to the legend, Sana’a was founded by Noah’s son Sam, and is considered to be the world’s oldest town. During a round trip through the old town, one is able to experience the bustle beyond the Bab al Yemen in Souq, and the peace and quiet within the area of the living quarters. The visit to an artisan centre leads to a restored Samsara (Caravansary) and the ascent onto the roof of one of the typical tower houses provides a wonderful view across the old town. It is here where the large mosque is to be found, one of the world’s oldest Islamic houses, which had been built during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad. During renovation work, concealed scripts were found, these belonging to the oldest and most precious Islamic documents in the world.
And I tiptoe back to the air-conditioned, marble polished, comfortable Sheraton and whizzed off to another world where Yemen is only in the news for its terrorist camps, human kidnappings and riots. It was only then I realised that forward thinking minister talks to a college to make this country a better place for all their children in a modest attempt to bring change through knowledge.
Because as the Yemeni say ‘Knowledge acquired as a child is more lasting than an engraving on a stone’ and nothing sums up the old saying wisdom is gained through knowledge, not years.
….and as I understand fishing in Yemen is very good as well. Paperback especially.