x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sana'a's sweet surprises

Effie-Michelle Metallidis travels to Yemen to learn about the world famous honey trade that has thrived there for centuries.

Hidden among Old Sana'a's labyrinthine streets are shops selling some of the world's most prized honey. Jaime Puebla / The National.
Hidden among Old Sana'a's labyrinthine streets are shops selling some of the world's most prized honey. Jaime Puebla / The National.

It sluiced down from the ladle in a thick rope, hit the surface of a plastic jar and folded upon itself like a viscous stream of toffee, building a tower of dark gold within the confines. The ladle plunged again into one of three troughs on the counter as we murmured our approval. In the Al Kabel Trade Corp shop off of Bab al Yemen in Old Sana'a, we were transfixed by the excrete of bees. It did not matter that the brightly-lit shop looked like a modern charlatan's hovel, packed with perfume oils, cosmetics, hair dyes and bottles of "natural aphrodisiac". Or that there were 1,500 other honey shops in Sana'a alone that exclusively stocked a wide array of honeys, elixirs that, had we not spent three hours eating charred kebabs on a metal slab in the middle of the Souq al Milh, we might have had the pleasure of sampling.

Nor did it matter that it was night, that shops had closed, and that we had no clue of how to navigate the labyrinthine quarters of Al Falehy district. What mattered was that we had finally found someone to tell us about one of the world's most prized honeys. I had originally wanted to travel to the heart of Yemen's countryside to see its raw cultivation. In the Hadramaut valley, a southern region of deeply sunk wadis that was once an ancient kingdom, beekeepers attach wooden or terracotta hives to the back of their Toyota pickup vehicles and move throughout the countryside during the year, reaping a five-season harvest that yields different grades of honey. Using nothing more than their hands and a sharp knife, they then extract the honeycomb from the hives, canning it in metal tins or sending it to get pressed. They auction the honey off to buyers who come from all over the world, including Saudi Arabia, which absorbs 96 per cent of Yemen's honey exports.

As I wandered the souq, noting the dark bottles of honey lining almost every spice seller's stall, I imagined descending upon one of the open markets in the countryside with my fellow merchants-cum-sweets addicts, haggling over prices with Saudi dealers as I filled my knapsack with every sugar-saturated bee by-product I could find. But owing to Sana'a's 2,200m-high location and my less than 36-hour stay, compromises had to be made.

This was how we found ourselves in front of a grinning computer programmer named Ali al Haishidi, 21, who part-timed at his family's trade shop in the old souq. We salivated at the sight of the amber liquid as he lifted the lid of one of three vats on the counter. Greedily, we downed each sample he offered, half-listening as we intoxicated ourselves with that substance the Persian philosopher and physician Hakim Ibn Sina considered "the food of foods, the drink of drinks and the drug of drugs".

The first honey was from Hadramaut, whose wadis support much of the flowers and trees that the apis yemenetica bee favours. It was a light, clouded amber of overpowering sweetness that tasted of meadows. Most Yemenis will tell you that the honey from this valley is of the highest grade, particularly if the flower used is that of the 'elb or the al sidr tree (the zizyphus shrub, better knows as Christ's thorn or jujube), or the sumar tree (acacia). It is generally thick and viscous and prized as such because it is made from the winter harvest, which beekeepers consider the best season.

The purity of the honey lies in its method of production. Little, if any, sugar syrup is fed to the bees, making the nectar one of the purest on the market and one of the most expensive. A high grade honey can cost US$55 (Dh202) per kilogram domestically and triple in price when exported. This holds particularly true this year, as flooding in the Hadramaut valley that wiped out thousands of beehives drastically cut supply, and local sellers are hoping for a good return to compensate for their destroyed stock.

As I sampled the sidr honey and gazed at the honeycomb tins lining the shelves, I was reminded of the honey remedies created by the Islamic scholar Ibn Sina, whose 16th-century tract, the Canon of Medicine, forms the basis of Unani medicine, a similar system to Ayurveda. Ibn Sina treated many of his patients with jawarish formulas, or ground herbal remedies preserved in a honey base. He considered honey a potent medicinal cure. Though this type of medicine is not practised in Yemen, similar honey tracts such as the Targig al Hassel, which is available in Hadramaut's library, are still used by local healers.

Long touted as a panacea for sickness, modern science has validated honey's healing ability with recent studies that have confirmed its antimicrobial properties. One study conducted on the sidr honey from Hadramaut at the University of Ottawa last year demonstrated its germ-fighting capability. Because of its osmotic effect, or its ability to draw water, the honey can protect open wounds and contains antiseptic properties which fight infection and kill certain types of bacteria. It must be pure honey, however - any dilution ruins its efficacy. It is said that a traditional way in Yemen to judge the purity of a honey is to let a drop fall onto the earth. If it keeps its spherical shape, it is pure. But if it lengthens, or runs, it has been diluted or the bees have been fed syrup. I would have tried it with this honey - but the fact that it clung to the spoon, even as I tipped it upside down, was convincing enough. Besides, the second vat of honey had been opened and our attention was elsewhere. A pleasant blend of different honeys mixed with black cumin seeds gave the thick liquid a spicier flavour, and though al Haishidi told us it was of a lower grade because of its poly-flower composition, our taste buds did not complain. We regarded the final vat with curiosity. It contained a dark, almost black liquid, which was thinner than the previous two and smokier. Al Haishidi muttered something about it being better for diabetics because there was less sugar in it, but it was still saccharine, a watery molasses from the selam tree (acacia eherenbergiana, an acacia shrub). This type was produced in Tihama, on the western coast of Yemen, and is considered to be of lesser quality because of its greater fluidity and production during summer and autumn. We then tried a sugar-white honey that seemed whipped and for which al Haishidi could offer us no explanation - an apiary curiosity that was far too sweet even for our taste buds. Hopped up on sugar and determined to make it home before midnight, we finally resolved to pay - and then my eye caught something on the top shelf of the store that would have made the spoon in my mouth drop. Sticky as it was, it just clung to the side of my cheek.

"What is that?"

These curious little oddities had been tucked away from the glitz and glamour of the aphrodisiacs and tonics, and up on their perch, they lent an authentic charm to the rest of the chicanery. They were large, long, white, cocoon-like objects that seemed more for clubbing than for anything medicinal, but they held honey, al Hashidi said, and took one off the shelf for better viewing.

Unwrapping an invisible tape around the top, he broke apart the tip, exposing the inside of a hollow gourd packed with yellow gelatin. He pointed to the tin of honeycombs on a shelf and squeezed his hand. Storage, simplified.

Transfixed, we pulled out our wallets. We had sampled the khat, weighed the ancient silver, appraised the textiles and haggled over jambiyas and tasted the honey. Now, as greedy seekers of the exotic in Sana'a's souq, we wanted these distended gourds.

It would be, after all, a unique way to carry back one of Yemen's most precious and ancient commodities, one so well-known that the Egyptian historian al Maqrizi wrote in the 15th century that "the whole of Yemen is a land of honey".

The adage was no less apparent when the next day we stopped for lunch in downtown Sana'a on Haddah Street at the al Baek al Shaibani restaurant. There, we dunked our bread in honeypots while flagging over the waiter to ask for more. This despite the fact that the two final dishes we had ordered, bint al sahan, a pastry drizzled with honey, and fatteh bi'asil, milk and bread with honey, drowned in it.

Yehya, our driver-cum-tour guide, shook his head, anticipating what we did not: that such a large lunch would exact a large price. As I slipped into a sugar-induced coma, licking the last of the precious honey from my plate, I could only think one sublime, sugar-addled thought: take that, Saudi Arabia. mmetallidis@thenational.ae