Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Am I a taliban…..

…I guess to a certain extent, since the word is Arabic and means a student, and yes, I am a student of life in Yemen at the present. The following took place yesterday:

Shopping during ramadan in the old city of Sana`a, the ladies souk....
Shopping during ramadan in the old city of Sana`a, the ladies souk….

”What is it that you specifically like with Yemen?” the young American journalist asked me, when making an interview at The Coffee Traders yesterday, “What are the positive aspects?”

Like most other foreigners in Yemen right now, like Westerners, Arabs, Asians, I was warned profoundly not to come here. By old friends, Middle East experts, governments, Arab friends in other Arab countries and global media. Basically they all said:

“You will either be kidnapped, hold to ransom or killed. Yemen is the most dangerous country in the world right now! Al Qaeda is running wild in the country! Worse than Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan!”

The tinmarket.....
The tinmarket…..

Let me just tell you readers, not once have I been scared or felt threatened, and on top of that, please do know this important fact, that most of my time I walk the streets of Old Sana’a in darkness, finding my way through the black, winding and narrow alleys, stepping into a world on the brink of fantasy, meeting armed locals, the odd one with Kalashnikovs, most with the big jambiyya strapped on the belt in front of them. Not once have a felt uncomfortable! With a extremely few exceptions, which I will tell you about at the end of this dispatch, I have come across some of the best people I have ever met. Trust me, I have been to 113 countries, during 25 years of exploring, the Yemenis are amongst the friendliest, most generous and hospitable people I have ever met. On pair with the native Siberians, whom I love as a people more than any. I am probably one of few who’d voluntarily would like to get deported to Siberia! Luckily Yemen is still open to foreigners!

The souk at midnight.....
The souk at midnight…..

I like Yemen, or I should really say Sana’a, since I haven’t seen too much of the rest of the country, because people here always give you a smile, greet you, ask you how you are, care for your well being and often invite you to their homes for either a kat chew or food. They are very courteous, exiting, funny, full of character and extremely helpful. And we are talking Sana’a, the biggest city of Yemen. Imagine than what it will be like outside the cities, in the countryside, where people always are nicer and better. (Yes, I am born, bred and brought up and have lived most of my 47 years in the countryside….).

And I love the Old City of Sana’a, Sana’a Kadiima, which must be the most interesting place on earth right now. It has to be seen and experienced before things develop and it becomes a living museum, which will sooner or later happen, since Yemen will develop like the rest of the Gulf. It is after all a very rich country with great natural resources and an amazing, so far untapped, potential for tourism and development, it is just stuck in a well known limbo at the moment of mismanagement. Hence the continuing war against the north, the troubles with the south and more. War planes continue to leave and return to Sana’a in big numbers, some of them heavier airplanes filled with bodies of the many dead soldiers. Still, life goes on, as it always have in this mesmerizing country!

These two boys, of which one is the son of a sheikh, came into the souk in a new car, and wanted to sell a jambiyya to Abdullah for 200 000 rials.....about 1000 dollars
These two boys, of which one is the son of a sheikh, came into the souk in a new car, and wanted to sell a jambiyya to Abdullah for 200 000 rials…..about 1000 dollars

The souks of the Old City are teeming with people from nine in the evening to three in the morning. It is Ramadan time and people are shopping more than ever and many shop owners say that, even though it is a global economic recession right now and a war in the north, people still seem to shop in great amounts. And a lot of them are women which speed in numbers through the narrow, dark and winding alleys, looking at you with smiling eyes and lots of curiosity, heading for a sale somewhere in the darkness. It is a great time to be here. Since electricity is erratic, half of a 5 hour visit, which is a minimum to get some feel of the life in the souk, is in darkness, which makes it much easier to appreciate the sense of being in a movie, which is set in the Middle Ages. Old Sana’a has to be seen! Yemen has to be visited! The other day I saw a movie at a friends place, a film was called The Bucket List and the storyline was about two old men (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) who had cancer and made a list of things they wanted to do before they died. I would put a visit to Old Sana’a and Yemen first on that list!

Never a boring moment in the souk!
Never a boring moment in the souk!

I also love Sana’a and Yemen because there isn’t one boring moment here. It is so full of characters, impressions, noises, smells, movement, and chaos that I, after 5 hours in the souk, am more tired than ever, after having experienced the most amazing impressions, that I only thought belonged to a far bygone era. The best of all, nevertheless, is the Yemenis themselves, educated or non-educated, city or countryside people. Such friendliness! The positive aspects of this great country easily outweigh the negative ones, which are so well-known to the world.

Ladies cruising the souk
Ladies cruising the souk

Nonetheless, I know, I am a trained rational European, so I will have to ask myself, have I, on top of the well-known problems which are always highlighted in the international press, come across any nasty things or people? I have had people who read my blog asking me if all Yemenis are good….since people are my main drive in life, I will tell you this:

Visiting friends in the souk.....
Visiting friends in the souk…..

At times I have met locals who have stared at me with blankness in their eyes, always people with either a reddish beard, a sign of them being hajjis (men who have done the pilgrimage to Mecca) or bearded men with a turban indicating them being imams or religious on the brink of fanatism. No matter if I have been dressed as Ahmed Al-Hamdani or my normal self. They just don’t like or trust foreigners. Or anyone being different to them. Maybe some of them have belonged to this loosely knitted network called Al Qaeda, these fanatics which it is said there are plenty off in Yemen and Sana’a, who interpret the Quran wrongly to justify there own regretful means. But these uneducated and indoctrinated lunatics I can count on the fingers on both my hands, no more. It should be said, however, that the overwhelming number of hajjis and imams I have met in the capital greet me like all other Yemenis and Sanaanis (people from Sana’a), with a smile, a Salaam Aleikum (Peace be Upon You) followed by Kheif Halikum? (How are things with you?), and lots of curiosity. However, going back to these people who are destroying the image of Muslims and Islam not only in the West, but also in the rest of the non-Muslim world, they get far too much attention in the global media, when they’re in reality are very few in number and the worst of representatives for the Moslem world. They and their kindred the Afghani Taliban’s are mostly a bunch of spiteful, bitter, misled, uneducated men who can’t read and write, some might be able to recite a few verses from the Quran, that’s all, but still not understanding what they’re reciting, who want to keep the Moslems on the globe in the Dark Ages, isolated, scared, ignorant and spiteful of the rest of the world. I have met very few in Yemen who have anything good to say about this sad lot of people.

The exiting souk....
The exiting souk….

Another group of war planes just passed over my flat in Old Sana’a, it is almost midnight and kids are playing football on the street below my window. I can hear illegal fire crackers followed by screaming kids and there’s a row between two men regarding which one of them should reverse their car and let the other one pass in a narrow alley. I am sitting in my mafraj, reading Tahar Ben Jelloun, a French-Moroccan Muslim intellectual who wants to modernize Islam, referring to sura 13:11 in the Quran which states that Allah will not change the possibilities of humans, until they change themselves. I can hear Hussein shouting for a taxi and maybe I should go down to the souk al jambiyya, (the knife market) one of the 40 souks in the old city, and sit down at Abdullah’s store, the jambiyya maker and have a cup of tea and chat a bit about nothing really. Yeah, why not?

By the way, lately I have been thinking about my life, always breaking up, always travelling, good or bad? I just read this passage from a guy called Muhammed Asad, very much a traveller himslef, upon meeting a Beduin who said:

“If water stands motionless in pools, it becomes stale, muddy and foul, only when it moves and flows does it remain clear.”

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