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.

But it is real, and it would take more than a strong wind to knock it down. The Old City has stood for thousands of year, and the dust of myth and reality has firmed it into permanence. Legend claims it was the first city built after The Flood. History rudely disagrees, but the difference is irrelevant. Sana’a is old, as old as imagination, and its buildings stretch back to the beginning of memory. History can tell you facts, but your heart can protest. And in Sana’s, the heart is the best guide.

It would have to be a guide to two cities, though, four cities, many cities at the same time, mixing with each other and trading places in time and reality. Sana’a is the Old City, a frozen piece of time, unchanging since the waters finished receding and the descendants of Noah spread across lush lands. Sana’a is the Old City, its incredible architecture a product of creative insularity and historical influence. The Old City exists on a plane both eternal and temporal– the two battle for supremacy, and mix uneasily. Sana’a is the grace of the Old City and the endless sprawl that has enveloped it. Streets carry on forever through repeating blocks of stores and restaurants and people. It is become a modern megalopolis, like Cairo.  But it can never be like Cairo. The uniqueness of Sana’a is not just due to the Old City: it is a permanent resident, no matter how much urban realities and outside pressure and the brutal ugliness of Northern Realism change its face. The new outweighs the old in Sana’a, but it can never take over.

It cannot because Sana’a is ancient in a way that Cairo is not. It is ancient in a way that neither Jerusalem nor Damascus is ancient. All of these cities are a mish-mash of invaders and squatters and historical driftwood; their greatness is due to their longevity, their adaptability, their refusal to stay put. Sana’a is different. It almost feels like the Old City sprang up from the rocks fully formed, and knew from the beginning that it was Sana’a, it belonged to the people and the people belonged to it. To be sure, there were invasions and unwelcome guests, from Turks to Egyptians. But it was always Sana’a, and its residents were always Sana’anis, that unique blend of piety and impropriety, of reserve and ebullience, of Mars and Venus– the planets under whose signs Shem founded their home.

For the visitor, the best way to get a feel for Sana’a is to walk around the narrow streets and twisting warrens of the Old City. They clearly have not been built for cars, or with any seeming logic at all. But the logic is that of ownership. The pattern is clear for Yemenis. It is the foreigner that gets lost. It is, after all, not their city.

Which isn’t to say that Sana’a doesn’t welcome you. It does. It spreads its streets before you in a sly challenge. It invites you to walk in it, through its streets, under its ancient gates, in the chaos of the souks, through its din of redundant horns, through the silence of its gardens.

It is walking around there that you get a sense of timelessness; you get a sense that you have stepped back in time or perhaps stopped it. And this isn’t an Orientalist fantasy, a longing for an old French etching to turn into a reality, a desire for the world to shape itself to your imagination. It is the feeling of a city that is comfortable with itself. Though it squabbles with itself, though it knows it needs to change some and fix its problems, it is not a city with an identity problem. Cairo is, Beirut is, Jerusalem certainly is– but not Sana’a. And that is why time plays a joke on you. You are in a city that has latched onto its identity and has for thousands of years.

Perhaps that is why qat is so popular. Qat reflects the city, and helps mold it. During a good chew, time does strange things It folds in on itself, lets itself unwind, tricks you into forgetting it exists. The plant is part of the city, and most Sana’anis regard the two with the same reverence.

The effect of qat is somewhat the same as the effect of the Old City. The buildings tower over you, reaching toward heaven. Every building is different, and everyone is the same. There are no buildings in the world like the ones in Sana’a. There is no city where doors are a symbol of uniqueness other than Sana’a. There is no city where one gets the chill that only comes when time is abandoned other than Sana’a. It can never be replicated; any attempts would fail for lack of antiquity’s dust.

But remember: Sana’a is not merely the Old City. It is a new city with many of the problems of new cities. It is crowded and traffic can be a nightmare of horns and yelling and stopping. Movement can cease at any moment as hundreds of cars try to converge on the exact same spot. It gies one a disconnect– driving to stand still, as the city changes to try to stay the same. The exterior of Sana’a plays a variation in the same theme– it is constantly moving, growing, changing, but immediately it acquires a weird sense of permanence, as if it prefigured urban sprawl, saw the direction history was going, and jumped ahead. Even the newest and ugliest buildings can feel as if they are ancient, and their ugliness is a deferential bow toward the Old City.

But above all, Sana’a is Jebel Nuqum. The mountain stands watch over the city, as it has since eternity began to unfold. The two can never be separated. Every whispered legend and secret story on the streets of Sana’a is repeated by jinns and ghosts on the mountainside. It is tired, crumbling, but still vigilant. It watches its child with unblinking concern, with unwavering love. Invaders have tried to claim it, kings have tried to buy it with gold, but all to no avail. As time passes and eras change, Nuqum makes sure that Sana’a remains Sana’a. One gets the feel that if urban sprawl were to try to become more muscular, if it tried to mold Sana’a in its image, Nuqum would shake off its dust, rise up like in a Goya etching, and make things right before settling down for another long and contented rest.

One of my favorite things is, around sunset, to hail a motorcycle taxi. You get on the back, and just kind of hang on as the driver weaves through traffic. Looking east is Nuqum, populated by demons and heroes, myths and legends, capped with an ancient Turkish fortress, protected by ghosts. The sunset orange-paints the mountain; it slowly fades into purple. Cruising around, shadows lengthen behind the gingerbread houses, as they get ready to sleep for another hundred years. The warm wind blows against your face as you silently urge the driver to go faster, speeding through this antique town, changing every day without altering itself. The street rushes past you and begins to blur in your mind. Time becomes meaningless; history joins you for a ride. In imagination– perhaps in reality– thousands of years rush past very block. On this high plateau, dark comes as it has since time began, and the night chews walk to their houses, ready to begin another timeless session. You go faster, here. Faster and slower.

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