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A tourist in Yemen: 
Comparing impressions 

By Alan Rushworth 

This is an abridged version of an article published in ‘The Yemen Times’ on 26 February 2007. The author, a long-standing member of the Society, is a metallurgical engineer who has specialised in methods of quality control in the engineering industry. 

Every year the British-Yemeni Society usually arranges a three-week tour of Yemen. This takes place in the autumn with a maximum of 16 participants split between four Land Cruisers. Starting from Sana’a, the itinerary generally includes Mahweet, Hodeida, Taiz, Aden, Mukalla, Seiyun, Ataq and Marib. There are variations each year, so now Upper Jawf and Baraqish have been added, which did not feature in earlier years. 

I have made the tour three times: in 1998, 2002 and 2006, and I would like to record some of the changes that I have observed during this period. 

By far the most obvious change is the tremendous improvement in the quality and network of roads. This has resulted in shorter travel times and fewer early starts, and has given us the chance to see even more of this diverse and beautiful country. But I rather regret no longer seeing the sun rise over the dunes between Marib and Shabwa, the casualty of a later morning start from Marib along a tarmac road skirting the sands. 
Members of the British-Yemeni Society tour 
being entertained in Nisab.

Construction is visible everywhere, indicating significant investment. Inevitably, this has resulted in the emergence of numerous cement buildings with unsightly reinforcing rods protruding from their roofs. The same is a common phenomenon in North Africa, and the reason there, so I was told, is that tax is not fully payable until a building is completed; perhaps this also applies in Yemen. Many towns seem to be exploding outwards, doubling or trebling in size since my first visit: Mukalla is just one example of this rapid process of urban growth, and new roads have led to swathes of ribbon development and of land demarcated or walled off for future building. Eight years ago I noticed few schools but now they are everywhere, even in the most remote places. One attractive feature, which is new, are the corniches which have been built along the coast at Hodeida, Aden and Mukalla. Street cleanliness has markedly improved (although Bait al-Faqih is a notable exception) and where rubbish bins are installed these are well used. 

I read in The Yemen Times some years ago that an edict had been issued prohibiting the chewing of qat by public employees whilst on duty. Presumably this has now been rescinded because the consumption of qat seems to have hugely increased amongst the police and army, as well as among civilians, including the very young. In the highlands the cultivation of qat appears to have all but supplanted that of cereal crops. 

Despite indicators of increased national prosperity, such as new roads and buildings, and the large number of new vehicles, begging has greatly increased. During our recent visit I was asked for money on almost every occasion that we stopped. Young women with babies were especially persistent. The worst occasion was near Sheikh Othman when we stopped at a restaurant to eat, where it took three restaurant employees to keep the beggars away from our table. It was noticeable that Yemeni customers were not troubled in the same way. 

On my first visit to Yemen, I had no particular expectations of its cuisine. I enjoy food, and Yemeni dishes have been a very agreeable revelation whether eaten at a simple roadside hostelry or at a grand banquet. My favourites include lamb soup, saltah, kibda, baked and grilled fish and ful. And they are as good, if not better, now as they were when I first tried them. 

Today the hijab appears to be worn far more than previously, even in Aden. At the same time an increasing number of women are to be seen working in museums, hotels and offices. Indeed, it was thanks to some young ladies that my problems with the internet were solved after fruitless attempts to help by their male colleagues. 

Security was more relaxed; we had fewer escorts and visited places previously closed to tourists. Security personnel who accompanied us were less demanding of unofficial ‘perks’ such as food and qat than during previous tours. I have never felt unsafe in Yemen and I can well believe that crime levels are low, in contrast to my experience, for example, as a tourist in South America. 

Our party thoroughly enjoyed visiting the re-furbished National Museum with its improved layout and presentation. It was noticeable that in all the museums which we visited, there were always many local visitors. This is not always the case in Europe, and surely reflects the Yemeni people’s pride and interest in their own culture. 

However, some things have not changed. Most of the hotels at which we stayed were in need of maintenance (especially plumbing) and redecoration. In some cases rooms had not been cleaned nor the linen changed, although corrective action was generally prompt when this was pointed out to hotel staff. 

Such deficiencies pale into insignificance against the major attraction of visiting a country whose people remain just as friendly and hospitable as I remember from my first visit; a memorable occasion during our recent tour being a banquet given for us in Nisab. As a visitor, it is delightful and refreshing to be invited to share a meal with somebody you have only just met. Other enduring attractions are, of course, the natural beauty and variety of the landscape, the country’s unique architecture, and its rich culture of music, dance and poetry. 

I greatly enjoyed my third tour of the country, and look forward to my next and to seeing many more visitors there from Britain. 

Vol 15. 2007