Yemen - Sana'a Memories, by David Hogg (1973)

When I was a manager in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, the Yemen was added to my area as an ‘unsolicited gift’. I duly made an exploratory visit and my first impressions of Sanaa are still vivid.

The Yemen had just been reunited after a couple of decades of disruption and civil war, and was opening up to the outside world. Sanaa was a fascinating mixture of traditional and modern. There were still a lot of old stone and mud castellated buildings. The souk was dark and intriguing with the offer of spices, Maria Theresa dollars and old Jewish jewellery.

A lot of the people still wore traditional dress. For the men this consisted of a turban, jacket, cummerbund (perhaps holding a khungir) and a sort of kilt over bare lower legs ending in plastic flip-flops. Most also carried the ultimate accessory, an AK47. I have never seen so many weapons on the street as in Sanaa.

Of course, the twentieth century was intruding. Transistor radios were everywhere. Traffic congested the narrow streets, with pick-ups and battered cars competing for road space. Most common were the mopeds, low-powered, far eastern made and noisy, taking the role that bicycles occupy in Amsterdam.

On that first visit I also encountered qat. Qat is a green leaf, which is chewed for its mildly narcotic effect. It was grown in huge quantities in the Yemen and its use was almost universal.

I have seen a sophisticated Yemeni in western dress stuffing incredible amounts of green stuff into his mouth after lunch. The qat is held in a wad at the side of the mouth, and you get used to the sight of Yemenis in the street with cheeks bulging like chipmunks.

I made two further visits to Sanaa, but those first impressions have remained with me. Since then, whenever Sanaa or the Yemen are mentioned in the news, a picture comes in to my mind; scrubby landscape, with perhaps a fort-like farm here and there, a tarmac road and – popping along the road – a moped ridden by a ‘traditional’ Yemeni, kilt fluttering in the breeze, cheek bulging with afternoon qat, and, of course, an AK47 slung over his shoulder.

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