x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A welcoming tradition

My town The picturesque and bustling streets of Sana'a, Yemen make it one of the world's most inviting cities.

The old city of Sana'a, where the mud-brick houses resemble gingerbread.
The old city of Sana'a, where the mud-brick houses resemble gingerbread.

To say visiting Sana'a is like taking a trip back in time doesn't cut it - it's more like jumping into a dizzyingly vibrant National Geographic photo spread. The topsy-turvy mud-brick houses of the old city resemble gingerbread, complete with white "icing" in the form of plaster mouldings on top. Children run around in the streets calling out for you to take their picture. You will be welcomed to the point of absurdity as random Sana'ani men will stop to invite you for tea or sometimes to partake of their meal right on the street.

It seems there is nowhere in the world more inviting to foreigners, though Sana'a and Yemen in general have a much different image in the rest of the world. Known to the news-reading public as the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, Yemen tends to be neglected by tourists. Though it is bereft of the other countries' oil wealth, it's rich in human warmth and cultural heritage preserved in a way that doesn't exist in the rest of the Gulf.

The most impressive and transporting part of Sana'a is the old city, home to a giant and bustling market that has existed at the site for more than 1,000 years. Wander through the alleyways and marvel at the items on display. By far my favourite is the spice souq, which has everything from bohoor (Arabian incense, a product that originated in Yemen) to the black sesame seeds used in bint as-sahn, a honey-drenched Yemeni desert. The vendors in the souq are used to photos, so feel free to snap away, but if there are Yemeni women nearby remember to ask beforehand for their permission.

While wandering near the spice souq you will smell something heavenly and meaty wafting your way. Take a quick jaunt to the open-air kebab restaurant in the middle of the Souq al Milh (Salt Souq) demarcated by hanging lights, well-known as the place to eat this favourite Arabian dish. Make sure to get sahawwik, a cumin-spiked Yemeni version of tomato salsa, to flavour your kebabs and wash it down with sweet cardamom tea, whisked to your table by young boys via wrought-iron cup carriers.

Next to the kebab restaurant is Ali Baba's jewellery shop. The owners speak English well and accept credit cards, a rarity in Sana'a but a necessity if you are going to buy one of the store's antique jambiya knives, the traditional daggers that Yemeni men wear on their waists. The markets of the old city are bustling, but none more so than the khat market at Bab As-Sabah around 3pm. Khat, a legal but mildly narcotic leaf that Yemenis chew and then stuff in their cheeks for its mind-numbing juice, is a social institution.

In back of the military museum is a street full of restaurants, all packed with men. Though Yemeni women do not eat in these sort of establishments, foreign women are welcomed, and the best of them is Palestine restaurant, where the friendly waiter Hashem will hook you up with rashoosh, a huge, oven-hot flatbread, along with roasted chicken, foul (beans) or shakshooka, Yemeni vegetable-scrambled eggs.

Another adventure is the hammam, or communal steam bath. Men and women don't go together - there are days for each sex. Make sure to buy a "kees", a little black sloughing mitt, and definitely bring your own bath products. An hour or two is sufficient to sweat up properly then scrub down and remove all the dead skin you never knew you had. The place looks like the baths of Caracalla come to life, but don't be afraid. Just make sure to enter the inner rooms to get the full benefit of the steam.

If you are in need of a little modernity after all of this, try Coffee Trader, an American-run spot with free wireless internet. The place is a nicer, less rushed Yemeni Starbucks - something the country has yet to import - with a lush garden terrace full of trees and wild rosemary bushes. Try the Snickers cappuccino or the properly creamy caramel latte. You can impress the local English-speaking teenagers who hang out there by telling them how you know that coffee, as well as the term "mocha", comes from the town of Al-Mokha on Yemen's western coast. History comes alive indeed.

swolff@thenational.ae