Throwback Thursday: Yemen Between the Wars

Note: I’ll be out of town between the 4th and the 15th, in a wilderness repast, with little to absolutely zero connection to the internet or my phone. Posts during this time, written in advance, will be bigger-picture, or more idiosyncratic, rather than directly pegged to the news. If events happen that supersede or negate anything I say, think of these as a more innocent time capsule. Try not to let the country burn down while I’m gone.

(All posts about Yemen have been, almost be definition, depressing. And they’ve been depressing because this means something. These are real people, in a real country, which was and is filled with beauty. I’m going to reprint an essay I wrote about the Old City of San’a, way back in 2004. It was for a book I helped The Yemen Observer publish, to commemorate San’a. I honestly don’t know if I have the permission to run this, but will anyway, because I think it matters. I want people to know that this was real and living city, wrecked by idiot ideologies. I apologize for the youthful Orientalism– I wince every time I see “nameless” in the 2nd paragraph– but I’m going to leave it intact. Please don’t think this is an attempt to define San’a; that isn’t in me, and I’m not arrogant and misguided enough to believe that it was. I urge you to read Abdel Aziz al-Maqaleh. It is just my impressions at the time, and they are now a terrible reflection of the broken and shattered present. The talk of permanence has brought bitter tears. If you read this, please know it was written with love, love for people and a place. And think of them as you read it. I want to thank Greg Johnsen for providing the image that opens the piece).

The brown and white cupolas of the AL-Mahdi Abbas Mosque loom above the dry banks of a stone river. Inside is a tomb; outside is a magician. The tomb is of the man whose mosque bears his name. A ruled of Yemen who twice had to put down revolts led by the sorcerers of his day, he lies uneasy as another one has come back to haunt his restless nights. The magician is a teamaker, a timeless resident of Sana’a, who operates at night in a dirty and noisy little hole carved into the side of the silent mosque.

It is here, at the nameless stand operated by a nameless stranger that you can get the best cup of tea in town. The magician doesn’t pour milk into the black tea– he makes it all at the same time, a long procedure that is worth the wait, the noise, and the screaming silence of its creator. The sweetness of his alchemy is matched only by the grandeur of the view from the uncomfortable metal chairs that are set up haphazardly outside. You sit and sip and gaze out over the paved levy that used to carry water and raiders into Sana’a. On the other side the Old City sits in its nighttime silence. Frontlit from the street, it seems unreal, a movie prop, a gingerbread backdrop that would topple on you if a strong wind came roaring off Jebel Nuqum.

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