Arabia Felix

The Arabian peninsula is not all desert; the southern part is comparatively fertile. What is now Yemen has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. Long a source of spices and on the trade route from India, it was called Arabia Felix ("Happy Arabia") by the Romans.

Not so happy has been the tourist trade which has suffered from a tribal tradition of kidnapping western tour groups. A few years back a botched rescue attempt ended up with a bunch of dead tourists. The industry was making a comeback until last summer, when Al Qaeda blew up a busload of Spanish tourists. Unable to talk anyone into going with me, I have signed up to tag along with a group from Slovenia. Less than a week before I am to leave comes some worrisome news: Al Qaeda has shot up a convoy of Belgian tourists. I hope this doesn't mean that my tour is cancelled. 

The routing is via Dubai. Delta runs a 777 nonstop from Atlanta. Twelve and a half hours, video on demand, a seat big enough for a mid-sized sardine, and the middle seat vacant. Interesting guys over in the aisle seat: first was some hip-hop artist on his way to entertain the troops (the headliners are sitting up front). He switches with some military guy who can't/won't say who he works for or where he's going. He said that they were about 70 of them scattered about the plane, all in civilian clothes, going to transfer to a charter flight. He lives in Sarasota, so my guess is he's with CENTCOM at MacDill AFB in Tampa. 

The flight tracker shows a route over Lvov, Odessa, Sevastopol, and other recent haunts, but it's too cloudy to see anything. It clears up as we fly between Baghdad and Mosul, then across Iran, but all I can see mountains.

Dubai airport is an interesting place, very big and very modern. In the terminal is lots of advertising for luxury housing. One developer is running a contest: buy a property and get a chance to win a private jet or a private island, and there's a free Bentley with every purchase. Lots of duty-free shopping. A big part of the cashier's job is to separate passengers heading to dry countries from their attempted purchases of booze. 

The last leg is on Yemenia, the national carrier, and a very nice airbus widebody. I think I am the only white guy on the plane. The inflight magazine has full page ads for "Zwagra" and "Biogra," pirated generic versions of men's favorite pharmaceutical. No wonder they all have 12 kids each!

In the next morning the tour begins. I join nine Slovenians: all speak good English, and all seem nice enough. We travel in 3 Toyota Land Cruisers. Our drivers are Saddiq, Jamal, and Saddam (later Kemal). Not a Mohammed among them. In most Muslim countries it seems that every other guy is named Mohammed; the relative scarcity here is due to large family size -- only the first or second son would bear that moniker.

It's Friday, the Muslim day of rest. As we drive through the city, we pass people carrying Palestinian flags on their way to a Kill The Jews rally. Also, we pass the US embassy surrounded by tanks. Just outside the city is Wadi Dhar, a deep valley just outside the city in which lies Dar Al-Hajar, the "Rock Palace," an improbable looking edifice perched atop an outcrop on the valley floor. 

It being a weekend, many families are visiting. The men wear robes with daggers, the kids are colorfully dressed, but the women are sheathed in black and veiled with only an eye slit showing. Yemen is very conservative and this is the way all women dress, although some do not wear the veil, and black gloves are optional. It's funny to watch them pose for pictures ? they are entirely fungible. You could be having an affair and no one could tell. The men wear daggers as part of their everyday dress. The broad embroidered belt also provides a handy place to put your cell phone. Someone starts pounding a drum as men join in an impromptu dance of the daggers.

At lunch we establish what becomes a daily ritual. The drivers select a local place, which is usually a large, semi-open room containing both the kitchen and tables and chairs. The din is deafening ? everyone shouting while the gas cooking jets roar like rocket engines. Our drivers helpfully provide plastic utensils so we don't have to make like the locals and eat using only our hands. The fare is unexciting: generally roasted chicken but sometimes fish or even camel.

While we are eating the drivers head out in search of qat, leaves of a shrub that when chewed produces a mild euphoria. Cuttings are harvested each morning and rushed to market while still fresh, reaching eager consumers by noon. In a country where alcohol is banned, it is the national addiction (men only). A large wad is held in the cheek, making the user look like half a hamster -- older men often have one cheek permanently stretched out. All afternoon fresh leaves are stripped from the branches and sprigs and added to the mouth wad. I try some and spit it out -- it tastes like extra-bitter chlorophyll. It is also expensive.

Then on to an abandoned Jewish village on a precipice overlooking the city. The Jews of Yemen left en masse for Israel, and only a few squatters have moved in since. The place looks like Berlin in 1945, only with much more litter. 

The remainder of the afternoon is free time. We are staying in Old Sanaa, the ancient walled city of some 14,000 ornately decorated multi-storied mud brick houses, a UNESCO world heritage site. With lacy trim of white gypsum, they look like gingerbread houses. One of them is our hotel, which is a dump, though others have been fixed up quite nicely. 

On Saturday we are joined by a Japanese gal and set out for Marib, seat of the ancient and wealthy Sabatean kingdom. This is from whence the Queen of Sheba hailed (Saba = Sheba), though the Ethiopians claim her as their own. Old Marib is abandoned and in ruins. On the streets of the new town there are quite a few black faces. I ask why, and am told that they are the descendants of an Ethiopian army that invaded in the 8th century. Never mind the subsequent 1200 years of active slave trade and that Ethiopians aren't black; Arabs are not ones to let facts get in the way of their self-image.

The greatest achievement of the Sabateans was the Marib dam, a 700 meter stone structure of which large parts remain. By tradition, Gulf Arabs relate their ancestry to the people of the dam, including the Sheik of Abu Dhabi who paid for a new one. The modern dam is earthen and only one-third the length of the ancient stone one. 

The national symbol is the four and a half unadorned columns of the Moon Temple at Marib. Mohammed and his followers destroyed every pagan temple they encountered, but archeologists have unearthed this one and are working on the even larger Sun Temple. In situ are their distinctive sacrificial altars inscribed in the Sabatean script. This is the place that the suicide bomber blew up the Spanish bus. To prevent a repeat performance in the parking lot is a military Toyota pickup with a heavy machine gun mounted on the truck bed. (These "technicals" were a favorite of Somali warlords and the Taliban in Afghanistan.) 

When traveling on the highway our little convoy has a police or military escort. The rest of the time for defensive firepower we rely on our drivers, who carry fully automatic AK-47's at all times. Yemen is a manly country ? knives at all times and plenty of guns. The population is some 22 million and the number of AK-47's estimated at 60 million. The government has cracked down on the open carrying of arms in the city, but our drivers like having tourists aboard because it gives them a complete exemption. I bet the dead Belgians were wishing that their drivers were armed.

After Marib we head east across the open desert. This one is particularly scenic, with colorful rocks and big dunes. There are no roads or tracks ? we just make our way through the wilderness behind our Bedouin guide. At dusk he locates a spot among the dunes that offers some protection from the fierce evening wind. We are protected from the desert quiet by the Toyotas' sound systems at full volume.

Sunday it's a full day's drive across the desert with some time for gamboling in the dunes. I pass on the sand skiing, at which the Slovenians prove quite adept. Our drivers show off such safe habits as driving at high speed while sitting on the window or roof and steering with their feet. We stop at Old Shabwa, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Hadramaut. It grew rich from taxing the spice trade, but the desert route withered after the Portuguese opened up a sea route. The city now lies abandoned and in ruins.

Eventually we rejoin the highway and proceed to Seiyun, today the principal city of the Wadi Hadramaut, a deep crevice some 130 miles long and the country's most picturesque region. The principal attraction in Seiyun to me is a decent hotel.

For centuries, Yemenis have left the Hadramaut to seek their fortunes abroad; one such family was the Bin Ladens. Emigrants returning from southeast Asia built family palaces in the neighboring city of Tarim. The various mansions have architectural styles with differing motifs; the Al-Kaf Palace, a crumbling pile we tour on Monday, was built in a Javan style reflecting where its owner make his money. They look like stone but are built entirely from mud brick.

The most photographed place in the Hadramaut is Shibam, the Manhattan of the desert. It looks great from afar but inside it is filthy and smelly. For the sunset view all we foreigners (plus guards) climb to a nearby hill.

Tuesday evening we drive into the Wadi Do'an, a "tributary" canyon, to the village of Khuraiba where we stay at a local inn. It's a lot like the Grand Canyon except for the green fields at the bottom and villages hugging the cliffs.

The Hadramaut is an exceptionally traditional and conservative area. The women working in the fields are fully covered in black but also wear tall straw hats. The only way to get a photo is when driving by without slowing down. The kids are cute but just as camera shy. The people here are reputed to dislike outsiders, but we find them very friendly. That said, this is the place the Belgies got shot up only 10 days ago. 

The wadi is noted for its honey ? some of the world's most expensive -- but it takes like honey to me. Also for its local production of frankincense and myrrh -- I buy some in case I encounter the Baby Jesus. 

Early Wednesday morning before it gets too hot we climb two hours to the canyon rim. Up top, the land is flat as a table. In the afternoon we wander over to the next village, the ancestral home of the Bin Ladens. The home is empty now ? they've all moved to Saudi Arabia.

Thursday we drive to the coast. It takes most of the day to reach Al-Mukalla, the ancient port for the Hadramaut. In the 19th century shipping migrated to Aden. Al-Mukalla was recently rebuilt leaving nothing historic to see. Our Japanese traveler leaves us here for her scheduled flight home.

On through the black, volcanic, lunar landscape of south Yemen to Bir Ali, where we will camp for two nights. (This is the Slovenian beach break.) The beach here is pretty with white sand from the warm clear blue water of the Gulf of Aden. Overlooking it is a hill with ancient fortifications containing Sabatean inscriptions. The climb up is my sole activity. I pass on a 5-hour jaunt to a nearby island ? too much suffering and not enough shade. When the others leave I figure I would have the place to myself but then the daytrippers arrive ? fat Italians in overly revealing bathing suits. I could have done without this interlude, but at least we eat well thanks to the nearby fishing village.


Saturday morning we stop by the fish market. The boats have not yet come in, so everyone is just standing around. More than a few pictures of Saddam Hussein are displayed in shop windows.  (Shiites substitute pictures of Hizbollah leader Nasrallah.) Yemen was the only Arab country to support his invasion of Kuwait, a move that caused about a million Yemenis to be expelled from their jobs in the Gulf states. I buy a nifty lighter with a tiny flashlight and lens that projects an image of Saddam. To my disappointment, the Osama Bin Laden model is sold out.

On to Aden, once one of the world's busiest ports. The British had a major naval base here from 1839 to 1967, when they withdrew from the Aden protectorate; it then morphed into the communist People's Republic of South Yemen. (North Yemen and South Yemen did not unite until 1990.) The shipping business has been slow ever since the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and later, using the same technique, a French oil tanker in the harbor. 

The city itself is nestled inside the crater of an extinct volcano. The showcase sight is the showcase ancient cistern system, but more interesting to me are the colonial vestiges such as the clock tower and abandoned churches. In Aziz's Bookshop the detritus of empire is for sale: I buy a booklet entitled Wonders of Transport, part of the Star of India series and printed in Glasgow; a colored photo showing camel carts on the streets of Aden; and a greeting card with a golliwog on the cover.

We have traveled 3000 km in the past week, but the big distances are behind us. We turn north to Taiz, Yemen's third largest city. Along the route the bare bushes seem to be in perpetual bloom due to the multicolored plastic bags that everybody litters.

When we reach Taiz we start up the steep road to Mt. Saber, towering 3000 meters over the city. At about half way we abandon the effort due to zero visibility. In the hotel I turn the TV to Al Jezeera in English ? it is indistinguishable from the BBC in style, presenters, format, and content. 

Monday morning we visit a very old mosque. It's, small, and rundown, and thoroughly boring. Much better is the Imam's palace, occupied until the revolution of 1962 ousted the various local rulers and created North Yemen. It's a modest building housing a grand collection of kitsch: gaudy costume jewelry; gee-gaws from Europe; primitive electrics and electronics, and quart bottles of French perfume by the hundreds (he bathed in the stuff). In addition to the world's ugliest chandeliers, on display are the royal Etch-A-Sketches (he had two). Too bad no photos allowed.

Continuing north, our afternoon stop is historic but overrated Zabid, another dusty, dirty, crumbling walled city. The guy who invented algebra lived here, though the city of Khiva in Uzbekistan makes a competing claim. Our walking tour leads me to the conclusion that having a UNESCO world heritage designation results in about 50% less litter.

We continue on to the Haraz mountains west of Sanaa to the village of Manakhah. This is trekking country, where foreign tourists pretend that cars haven't been invented and walk between villages. (The locals drive.)

In the morning the self-flagellation begins. First we hike for an hour uphill to a village from which we can first see our goal: another village atop a mountain. It's a little like Dorothy and friends walking to the Emerald City in Oz, except instead of strolling through poppy fields we are taking a goat path almost straight up. Luckily, the weather is perfect: cool, dry and clear. The reward at the top is some fine views. My GPS says we are at 9000 feet.


Then, down and across to another village, this one the home of the tomb and shrine of a (Dawoodi) Bohra Shiite saint. Pilgrims come from all over, though beats me what they do once they get here. We meet pilgrims from India and Tanzania. (I don't think they walked.) Contrary to most of their co-religionists, members of this particular sect are pacific and many hold degrees in medicine and the sciences.

Due to a meteorlogical quirk, at almost precisely two o'clock every afternoon a thick blanket of fog rolls in from the nearby Red Sea. This means that the trekking is over for the day. Even better, our vehicles have arrived to bring us back, sparing us from the return hike.

We are staying at a family inn where the hosts entertain us ? the men only, of course -- by singing and dancing. I decline the audience participation portion and retreat to my room.

The next day, Wednesday, it's onwards to Thula, another ancient, fortified city. This one has the distinction of having never been conquered. Although it has been partially fixed up, its attractiveness is diminished by kids and shopkeepers aggressively hawking plastic beads and polyester shawls. (This is an exception to Yemen's low-hassle mien.) Also, I conclude that 1200 years of inbreeding produces ugly kids. We spend the night in Kawkaban, another improbably located clifftop village nearby.

On Thursday we leave the highway and drive towards the ultra-isolated village of Shaharah. After a long unpaved road we stop and transfer to a couple of ancient Toyota trucks. Above us is our goal: a village on top of a mountain and no apparent way to get there. For two hours the landscape below unfolds as the trucks wend their way up the seemingly impossible road. Getting there is half the fun! It's almost dark by the time we arrive at the inn . And talk about coincidence -- two other Slovenes are also there!

Apart from the journey, there's only one thing to see in Shaharah: the 400 year old stone arch bridge. It's location, suspended in air and spanning a gorge, is as spectacular as the village is inaccessible.

That's it for the tour. On Friday, it's back to Sanaa. It's been two weeks.

I arrived with an air ticket to Eritrea, just across the Red Sea, but had to cancel when the unhelpful embassy staff couldn't/wouldn't process my visa application in time. My flight home is not for ten days, so it's time to improvise. I have rescheduled my flight to Dubai to Sunday morning, giving me another full day in Sanaa.

The last hotel was a dump so I have switched to a better one costing a princely 22 euros. Like the last is a converted mud-brick high rise, but this one done is right. Instead of a rate card, on the back of my door is this message: "Dear Guest. You are living in a traditional and conservative muslimic environment. Therefore, we kindly request that you close the curtains when undressing or changing your clothes."

Saturday morning I take in the very fine collection of the National Museum -- the largest in Arabia -- and the Military Museum. The latter contains a m?lange of archeological finds mixed in with semi-modern weaponry and an odd assortment of machine tools. Much of the upstairs is devoted to recent history: the revolution against the imams; driving the British out of Aden; and the subsequent civil and unification wars; but those sections don't have captions in English. My admission ticket states that the museum is under the auspices of the Dept. of Moral Guidance.

The flight to Dubai crosses the aptly name Empty Quarter, the Arabian interior so desolate that the borders have never been marked. Arabia is big: according to my GPS, it's exactly 1000 miles from Sanaa to Dubai.

Dubai, has roughly four parts: the two sides of "The Creek"; the beach area of Jumeirah and inland; and the desert. Unlike Yemen, which has been inhabited since the stone age, the story of the gulf states begins much later. Dubai started as a pearl diving village along an inlet of the Persian Gulf. The other Trucial States, now known as the United Arab Emirates, were basically tribal forts strung along the coast.  The area of original settlement is known as Bur Dubai. Across the creek is the commercial center of Deira. All the fabulous buildings you read about are in Jumeirah and inland.

The airport is close in, and the bus to town costs only 80?. I find a cheap (for Dubai) hotel in Deira and start my walkabout. Deira is a district of intense commerce and heavy traffic. Almost everyone on the streets is from the Indian subcontinent; "natives" comprise only 15% of the population, and it is rare to see one anywhere but in a shopping center or behind a government desk. Everyone speaks English, the only language common to both masters and slaves.

The defining geographic feature is The Creek. Along its banks wooden dhows are loading every imaginable sort of cargo for shipment to various Indian Ocean ports and east Africa. There is no containerization: boxes of appliances, crates, barrels, tires, and vehicles are heaped up without any apparent security while tourists and others pick their way through the piles of goods. I feel a pinch in my wallet when I pass bright, white, new Toyota Land Cruisers with the UNICEF logo bound for Somalia.

I can't believe people come here for a vacation. Unless you really love shopping malls or Russian prostitutes, there's not even a day's worth of stuff to do. A visit to the old fort, now a museum, can be stretched to an hour. The Gold Souk (market) is just a series of jewelry stores. I meet up w/ a Canadian backpacker who has just arrived after visiting Bahrain and Kuwait and we make plans to rent a car to tour the other emirates and then Oman. We reserve a car for pickup the next day.

Problem: the rental company won't permit the car to cross into Oman. We find another company, but to get a decent price (as opposed to the walk-up rate) we need to wait another day. That exercise killed the morning, and we spend the afternoon at the Mall of the Emirates.

Dubai has lots of upscale malls. This one is very glitzy with acres of marble and a musical fountain like the Bellagio in Las Vegas (ALL of Dubai is very Las Vegas, except for no booze or gambling.) When the call to prayer is broadcast over the PA system, no one pauses in their shopping. It is also home to Ski Dubai, an indoor ski slope with real snow. This is the modern Happy Arabia.

On Wednesday we finally get going. Our one day swing takes us to five of the neighboring emirates, all considerably poorer but still with new shopping centers and huge mosques. Sharjah is basically a residential suburb of Dubai. Ajman, Umm al Quwain, and Ras Al Khaimah are cities with an old fort at the center and surrounded by desert. The forts have been restored and are now museums. They are in a line along the Persian Gulf except for Fujairah, where we end up, on the Gulf of Oman.

Thursday we cross back into Dubai (with less formality than crossing from one US state to the next) to Hatta Fort, the "other" place to visit in Dubai. There's not much here, but people come to escape the oppressive humidity of the coast. We attempt to drive to the Hatta Pools, an oasis, but our light, 2WD rental car proves inadequate to climb the steep, unpaved road to reach it.

A multilane highway takes us to the nearby crossing to Oman. Border formalities take about an hour. The customs and immigration station even has a convenience store and a Pizza Hut inside.

We drive south until dark, stopping at various coastal forts. Many were first built by the Portuguese in the 15th century to guard the route to India. The Portuguese are long gone, but the style has endured as the forts have been rebuilt and new ones added. When you see a picture of Oman, it is probably of one of its desert forts.

The biggest desert forts are at Al-Rustaq and Nizwa, which we visit on Friday. The roads are excellent, so it is easy to cover a lot of ground in a short time. We spend the night in Nizwa.

On Saturday it's on to Muscat, the capital. The old city is nestled in a cove and hemmed in by mountains. The location provided excellent defense and anchorage but there was no room for the city to expand. Modern Muscat consists of new districts up the coast and inland. Old Muscat is almost entirely occupied by government offices and the expansive palace of Sultan Qaboos, the mostly benevolent autocrat who has reigned for almost forty years.

Before 1970 and the current Sultan, Oman was poor and undeveloped even in comparison with its neighbors. It had no paved roads, no hospitals, and no schools. Thanks to good governance, hard work, foreign aid, and oil, it is now a modern and prosperous (and expensive) place. Unlike its northern neighbors, Oman does not rely on slave labor from south Asia. Almost everyone wears the traditional white robe and distinctive embroidered cap.

For such a historic and storied city, Muscat has surprising little to offer. The setting is beautiful, but little historic remains. The city went into steep decline in the 17th century and mostly fell into ruins thereafter, since built over.

Having pretty much seen everything on Saturday, on Sunday we take a very scenic drive through the mountains to a coastal village. Everything shuts down after lunch for an all?afternoon siesta. We take the "when in Rome" approach, not venturing out until the evening and to the very busy market.

On Monday morning I take the bus back to Dubai. My buddy will be staying on with the car for another week.

Back in Dubai and with ten hours before my flight home, I decide to rent a car and pop over to Abu Dhabi, the one remaining emirate to visit. I take the scenic route along Jumeirah beach which takes me past the eye-popping new buildings and hundreds more under construction. I read that 25% of the world's construction cranes are at work in Dubai.

A good portion of the rest must be in Abu Dhabi. Dubai is built on trade, but Abu Dhabi sits atop an ocean of oil. The individual buildings are not as impressive, but the scale and concentration of wealth is astonishing. Like its neighbors, it has built beautiful new mosques, only bigger and better.

I drove out in mid-afternoon, when traffic is at its lowest. I start the return journey at five o'clock, figuring it should take about two hrs. I knew that traffic in Dubai was bad, but did not expect to spend an hour and forty minutes at a single roundabout. (And I took the inland route to bypass the congested areas). I make it back to the airport barely in time for my nonstop flight to Atlanta, which s long, uneventful but not exceptionally uncomfortable.

Trip date: Jan-Feb 2008