I’ve been to more than 160 countries. None are more fascinating than Yemen, where violence is making its remarkable beauty and people undiscoverable.
As my plane descended into Yemen’s international airport and I had just finished reading the country’s English-language newspaper, I noticed a small article about a Dutch tourist who had recently been kidnapped by a hill tribe and released after two weeks of negotiations. Not great news, I thought. But reading further, the Dutchman declared that his captivity was wonderful, and the tribesmen treated him like an honored guest and showed him parts of the country he would have otherwise never seen. It was, he said, the best part of his trip.
This was 1998, and it was common for disenfranchised hill people to embarrass the central government by holding tourists and then bargain their release for needed investments like roads, schools, and hospitals. There was no intention to harm anyone.
Unfortunately, this tactic of nonviolent protest has, in many instances, been replaced by a much more virulent form of assault on Western tourists by hill tribes, motivated by extremist religious causes, political opposition, or foreign influences intent on destabilizing the government.
Seventeen years ago, when I traveled around Yemen with my local driver/guide, Sali, and a French couple I met in the capital, Sanaa, it was safe. The government insisted, though, that an armed guard accompany us in Sali’s van, and a pickup truck with a mounted rocket launcher occasionally followed us for security. Even the soldiers who squeezed into the back seat understood that this was an excessive response to make work for unemployed Yemeni men who would earn a “protection” fee. Their services were never needed.
However, up to that time, the age-old Arab custom still held to receive and attend to visitors with the same hospitality that you would give your own family, and, despite a few curiously suspicious looks from the young men on the mountaintop, I felt welcomed and not exposed to danger.
The mountainous north of Yemen is filled with dozens of such stone villages perched precariously at the edge of hilltops. Access is sometimes available by gravel, narrow, twisting four-wheel drive trails; otherwise, only on foot. One of the most famous and picturesque is Shihara, at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. Its two sides are connected over a 1,000-foot-deep gorge by a limestone arch bridge built in the 1600s.
I stayed overnight and slept on a reed mat in an unadorned stone-walled guest room of one of the local families. The next morning, a simple, delicious breakfast of oven-baked crispy flatbread, tea, dates, and honey was silently served to me on a tray by my host’s young daughter.
A much different experience awaited me when I visited one of the last remaining families of Yemeni Jews. Jews have lived in Yemen for at least three millennia. According to legend, Yemen’s ruler, the Queen of Sheba, invited Israel’s King Solomon to send Jewish gold and silver merchants. (These two powerful monarchs had a son, named Menelik, who is believed to have smuggled the Holy Grail into Ethiopia, but that is an enchanting story for another time.)
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