Polish-American software developer Maciej Cegłowski decided to take a holiday in Yemen's capital city of Sana'a, home to breathtaking, 600-year-old skyscrapers that look like gingerbread houses.
Despite Yemen's (justifiable) reputation for being the prototypical failed state, riven by Islamic extremism and ineffectual government, Cegłowski discovered that the people of Sana'a were welcoming, the sights beautiful, and the experience moving and eye-opening. It helps that Cegłowski is an extremely talented writer -- this is some of the best travel writing I've ever read.
Sana'a is likely not to last as a living city for much longer; it's run out of water. Between the water situation and the deteriorating political and military situation, not many western tourists are likely to make it there, which makes Cegłowski's travelogue the closest that most of us are going to get to one of the most beautiful and distinctive cities in the world.
The streets have grown livelier now that the sun is not so high. The market is filling up with silent black ghosts. Most of them have toddlers in tow. Fouad takes me through the pungent spice market to the large Souq al-Milh (salt market) where everything is on sale, from men's decorative daggers to textiles to cookware. This is technically the most touristed spot in Yemen, yet there's not a single t-shirt store or even postcard stand in the place.
Having just come from Morocco, I'm used to mild commercial harrasment and the kind of instant street friendships that end with one party bringing home a carpet. So Sana’a really puts me off my stride. Merchants who yell out 'hello' really just want to say hello. If I stop and engage them, they ask me where I'm from, welcome me to Yemen, and send me on my way. A lot of people insist I take their picture with no expectation that they'll ever get to see it themselves. It's a upside down world for a tourist.
Watching Fouad teaches me how to move through public spaces. You never stop to let people through; you just adjust your pace and path to squeeze by as necessary. People in tight spaces will flow like a liquid, and it turns out that if everyone presses forward, the system works. The only way to screw up is by being unpredictable in your movements, or trying to apologize. People who need to get through more urgently will yell or honk as they're coming up behind you. Tomorrow I'll learn that this system applies also to driving, and works just as well. For now it's enough to experience it on foot.
We stop in at the Great Mosque, the only place that I don't feel fully welcome. I am only allowed to step onto the threshold. Fouad urges me to take a picture, though I would prefer not to. Someone bumps my knees with the shoes they're carrying in their hand; I can't tell if it's a passive-aggressive gesture or not, but I'm happy to move on. The Great Mosque is more impressive for its antiquity than its appearance; like many of the earliest mosques, it is very plain and somewhat blocky. This one was built while Mohammed was still alive. I look up with apprehension at the massive loudspeakers on the minaret, pointed directly at my hotel room.
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