Lost

The Sad Decline of Yemen, the Best Country You’ll Never Get to See

I’ve been to more than 160 countries. None are more fascinating than Yemen, where violence is making its remarkable beauty and people undiscoverable.

Michele Falzone/Alamy

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Unfortunately, this tactic of nonviolent protest has, in many instances, been replaced by a much more virulent form of assault on Western tourists by hill tribes, motivated by extremist religious causes, political opposition, or foreign influences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.)

With the advent of Islam in the seventh century, the political status of Jews underwent a radical change for the worse, and they were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. This treatment continued more or less up to the 20th century, and, in 1949 and 1950, virtually the entire Yemeni Jewish community, 50,000 people, were airlifted to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet.

I had heard about a small number of Jewish families who steadfastly remained in the village of Rayda in north Yemen. After some inquiries by my driver, he took me to their remote compound one evening. Numbering about eight families, they were clustered in a few traditional mud-brick multistory homes, each occupied by several generations and extended relatives.

Strictly Orthodox and somewhat cautious with strangers, their men met with me sitting on carpets, while the children served us tea, and their women stayed well out of sight. Through an interpreter, I learned that they survived by practicing traditional skills as silver jewelry craftsmen. They lived a very isolated existence, but persisted in Yemen, they told me, because this was and will always be their home.

In recent years, with the ongoing rebellion in Yemen, there has been an escalation of Jewish persecution. Some families have left the country and others have fled to Sanaa, where they live under virtual house arrest in a walled housing compound for foreign workers. The few Jews who remain in Rayda exist behind locked walls in a secure area outside of town. It seems likely that the community will entirely disappear by the next generation.

Yemen is one of the world’s oldest centers of civilization. Nestled in a corner of the Arabian Peninsula along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, many of its towns were already thriving and trading for spices and frankincense when the Greek geographer Ptolemy depicted them on maps 2,000 years ago. The land was called Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, for its fertile land and adequate rainfall.

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I’ve traveled in more than 160 countries, and Yemen is my favorite. Sanaa is the country’s jewel. According to tradition, this ancient city was founded by Shem, the son of Noah of the Biblical ark. The entirety of Sanaa’s old town, cram-filled with six- to eight-story “tower houses” made of mud bricks, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of these venerable old houses are now tilting with age, leaning toward each other like elderly couples reaching for support. Their sand-colored exterior walls are fancifully decorated with artistic designs on the plasterwork and enlivened by colorful geometrically shaped stained-glass windows that are highly effective to draw in light. Sanaa has thousands of these houses, which have been called the world’s first skyscrapers.

Throughout my travels around Yemen, I often gasped in amazement encountering sights that pulled me into medieval times. In Yemen’s far eastern Hadhramaut Valley is the oasis town of Shibam. Inhabited for more than 1,700 years, the town contains a tight collection of some 500 skyscrapers soaring up from the desert sand and surrounded by a protective earthen wall. It is deservedly called the Manhattan of the Desert.

Sadly, the fighting between Yemen’s government and rebels means that these and other unique places in the country are now off-limits to all but the most intrepid travelers. Even more disheartening, historic zones that were previously protected have now been targeted. Recent airstrikes in Sanaa’s old town have in an instant reduced some of the ancient multistory tower homes to rubble.

And, most tragic, is the loss of life and the irreversible disruption of the lives of Yemeni people who display a deep love of family and extend their warmth and generosity to visitors. I feel diminished that this remarkable country can no longer be discovered by others and that violence is destroying its historic beauty and threatening its extraordinary people.