What do Kazan, Caracas, Sadr City, Marrakech, Mumbai, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, and Frankfurt have in common? Answer: they have all recently shared the epithet “city of contrast.” I confess I didn’t look at any more of the 285 million hits for the phrase on my search engine…You get the idea. You will search the globe in vain, it seems, for a city of boring homogeneity.
It must be said, though, that the city I’ve lived in for most of the past 30 years, Sana, the Yemeni capital, gives new life to that clapped-out cliché. For a start, the contrast with the rest of the Arabian Peninsula could hardly be greater. The other day, for instance, the placemat for my lunchtime saltah, a nourishing beef and fenugreek hotpot eaten in a hole in the wall in the souk, was the usual sheet of newsprint, this one from a Gulf daily. It showed a row of multimillion-dollar yachts in a marina in Abu Dhabi—a short flight away, but which for most Yemenis might as well be on one of Jupiter’s moons. Conversely, my tower house here—and any one of the thousands of historic buildings in the ancient heart of Sana—would be classed as a national monument in the Emirates.
But it is the contrasts within Sana that are stranger. They were already ancient when the 10th-century geographer al-Hamdani noted the paradoxical character of the city. In fact, they are innate: because Sana was founded during a conjunction of Venus and Mars, al-Hamdani explained, the contrary characteristics of the two planets coexist in its people—good manners and love of la dolce vita contend with a fondness for unseemly jokes and quarrels and for messing about with knives. More than a millennium later, Yemen’s greatest modern poet, Abdallah al-Baradduni, portrayed the city in chiaroscuro as “a pretty woman wooed by consumption and mange.”
Today, 40 years on from that poem, Sana is less pretty at first sight—its ancient heart is ringed by an ever-spreading mange of concrete and asphalt—but no less paradoxical. If we can still afford it, we bolt our lunchtime saltah and jostle in the markets where the mildly stimulant leaves of khat are sold—and then spend several static hours chewing the stuff and ruminating on our contradictory metropolis. On how it survives with raging unemployment, a ravaged economy, a middle class ground down nearly to poverty, the electricity off three quarters of the time, and a dribble of water coming through the pipes every few weeks (if you’re lucky). On how it was ruled for a third of a century by a man whose picture was everywhere but whose surname was a secret. On how its 11-month, half-sprung Arab Spring is producing such strange, complex hybrids—unimaginable alliances, unbelievable concessions (perhaps not to be believed; we wait and see).
For much of these 11 months, Mars has been in the ascendant. But even then, those nights when artillery shook the city or feux de joie showered it with fireworks and bullets were interspersed with others—deep, dark nights of silence and starlight.
Now the fighting has calmed, the power supply is improving kilowatt by slow kilowatt, and the first decent rise for years in the value of the Yemeni riyal may mean that the economy is changing out of reverse gear. Maybe, one day, visitors will be drawn back to this seductive, complex city.
And why should things stop with the Arab Spring? Why not a high Arabian summer? Apart from alluring landscapes and ancient urban culture, Yemen has something else its Arabian neighbors lack: a numerous, industrious people, who with law-abiding government and well-aimed investment could power a southwest Asian economic revolution. Could ... if its eventual new rulers keep out of the primrose rut of power addiction and corruption.
Perhaps the 11th-century historian of Sana, al-Razi, best summed up this supremely contrary city. In a passage citing various traditions concerning its ultimate fate, he admitted that those claiming Sana was divinely cursed and those asserting it was divinely protected were roughly equal. “But it will be one of the protected cities,” he concluded, “in sha’ Allah.” God willing. I’ll second that.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith is the author, most recently, of Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam from Zanzibar to the Alhambra.