Old Sana’a has the reputation of being a maze in which one can easily get lost. I am confident this will not happen to me, however: not only do I pride myself on my sense of direction, I am armed with two guidebook maps and a proposed walking tour in German that takes in the highlights of the old city. Yet cartographers, even German ones, are challenged by Sana’a with its irregular streets – one moment comprising broad paved areas, the next narrowing to become rough, sandy alleys – and its unevenly shaped buildings that defy anyone to describe them as city blocks. The more I look at them the more medieval and mystical the maps appear. In the absence of almost any street names the walking tour is based on footsteps: after 58 paces turn right, then 23 paces later go left, and so on, making my stroll round the city feel like a hunt for hidden treasure.
Before long, thirst catches up with me as the sun burns relentlessly in the clear sky. I spy a small shop selling a variety of groceries – cooking oil, bags of rice, and various other dry goods in sacks and packets. I head towards it to buy a bottle of water. On the wall next to the entrance a besuited President Saleh backed by a Yemeni flag stares out from a fresh poster. Inside, it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dark and for my nose to recognise the aromas of tea, coffee, turmeric and cloves. The middle-aged shopkeeper is chatting to a thin man seated on a wooden box, who is eating his way through a handful of pistachio nuts. I glance at their traditional Yemeni ma’awazes, a sort of striped sarong, and their grey, Western-style suit jackets that have seen better days. Their conversation comes to an abrupt halt as I enter and pick up a small bottle of water from a stack half a dozen bottles high. I turn to face the shopkeeper, of heavier build than his friend, and hold up my purchase.
‘First time in Yemen?’ he asks, as I hand over my rials. In the half-light he appears to be about my age, although in Yemen, as in many developing countries, looks can be deceptive: wrinkled, weather-beaten complexions tell of harsh living and life-long toil, a world removed from our own easy existences. As I often do, I find myself considering for a moment how his life will have differed from my own as, over the years, we have each walked this earth before finally coming together for this fleeting encounter.
‘Yes,’ I nod, ‘first time.’
‘Welcome to Yemen!’ he smiles, flashing a couple of gold teeth beneath his thick, slightly greying moustache. ‘You like it here?’
His friend looks at me with an expression of mild curiosity on his chiselled face and cracks open a pistachio with a deftness that comes from years of practice. He has a lazy eye and I have the strange sensation that half his attention is focused on my ear. ‘Yes, I do,’ I say, deciding to keep my response simple.
‘Yemen very safe!’ declares the shopkeeper, as he hands me my change. ‘But not many tourists now. Very bad!’
I do not know what to say: neither sympathy nor indifference seem appropriate. ‘It’s a pity,’ I nod, after a slight pause, ‘because Sana’a is very beautiful.’
‘Ah, yes, it is a beautiful city,’ he agrees, his eyebrows floating momentarily upwards. A short silence follows, broken by the crack of another pistachio. I put my change away, thank him and then smile goodbye to the two men.
Back out on the street, I take a swig of my precious water, a rare commodity in this increasingly arid country. I know that Sana’a is drying out, and quickly. Its water table, once just fifty metres below ground, has now plummeted to a depth of over six hundred metres. And it is sinking by a further six to eight metres a year like water down a plug hole as the city’s mushrooming population draws on it for its daily needs. I look at the plastic bottle in my hand: a quickfix solution for drinking water, but what about supplying all the other needs such as water for washing? Experts forecast that by 2020 there will be no water left at all in Sana’a. The city, it is said, could be the first capital in the world to run dry, an ironic fate for a town reputedly founded by Noah’s son Shem. Herein lies a challenge on such a scale that no street protest or change of government will be able to provide an easy remedy.
Wandering past stalls selling misshapen vegetables – carrots, potatoes, tomatoes – and limp herbs, their leaves withering in the sun, I look at the wizened men and hopeful boys sitting or standing patiently by their wares. I reflect on the paltry displays of goods, often not even enough to cover the wooden table or cloth on which they are set out, knowing that entire families will depend on their sale.
I continue to follow my maps and try to remember to count my paces, keeping an eye out for landmarks such as mosques and minarets that might help me find my way. Here and there, bougainvillea hangs over high walls, hinting at hidden or perhaps merely imagined gardens on the other side, while carved wooden doors tempt one to wonder what lies beyond.
Arriving at a small plaza, I pause to look at the tower houses. Leaning against each other at strange angles, it seems as if only mutual support is preventing them from collapsing and as though the slightest tremor would in an instant reduce their weary walls to dust and rubble. Up to eight or nine storeys high, they resemble ever smaller boxes stacked one on top of the other. The geometric patterns of whitewashed brickwork that transect the sandy-coloured buildings look like icing sugar decoration and the effect is such that, from a distance, one could be forgiven for thinking that the old city is made entirely of gingerbread. Rows of qamariya, the traditional windows with tiny, coloured glass panes squeezed between ornate patterned frames, also whitewashed with gypsum, look, from down at street level, like lacework. These, together with the elaborately crenellated walls around the flat roofs, serve to lighten the overall impression of this overtly vertical city. And between all these buildings hangs a cat’s cradle of generations of power lines and wires.
As I continue exploring, every now and then I emerge from the warren of narrow alleys into one of the irregular open areas, which are like little oases of horizontality between all the high walls. Sometimes, when I walk into one of these, I feel as if I must be the first non-Yemeni to do so, such is the air of isolation and sense of discovery, even though I am in the middle of a densely populated metropolis. Small, barefoot children stop playing and stare, sometimes greeting me with a ‘Hello! ‘ or ‘Bonjour!’. There are a lot of children in Sana’a: nearly half the country is under the age of fourteen. Over the past thirty years Yemen’s population has increased tenfold: when I proudly stuck that stamp in my album, Sana’a was home to just 55,000 people; now nearly two and a quarter million Yemenis surround me as I wander the city’s streets. The capital creaks under the strain of this staggering growth, brought about by migration from the countryside and the combination of improved medical care and the lack of sufficient cultural change needed to reduce family size. Today is International Women’s Day, and a local English language newspaper I perused over breakfast in the hotel ran an article on reproductive issues. Whereas parents used to have ten or twelve children and expected only two or three to survive, today Yemeni women bear on average ‘only’ seven; in Sana’a the number is nearer five, of whom most will make it to adulthood. Nevertheless, despite improvements in the country’s healthcare, the starting point against which such progress is measured is very low and the situation remains dire. Statistically, the newspaper reported, one Yemeni woman in 39 will die in childbirth, one of the worst figures in the world. As I walk around the winding streets of this ancient city, I look at the children playing their simple games with balls and sticks and wonder what the future will hold for them both in the coming weeks and months, and in the years ahead.
After twice ending up in one particular ‘square’, I realise that the city has got the better of me after all, despite my careful stepcounting. A group of small boys, slight in build and wearing grubby T-shirts and shiny football shorts, ask, in surprisingly good English, if I am lost. I do not want to admit it, partly through pride, and partly because I think they might lead me to some dead-end alley and then produce that most Yemeni of accessories, a jambiya or dagger, even at their tender age, although I reckon they are older than their small stature suggests.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I am not lost, just looking for the Tawashi mosque.’
Without hesitation, a chorus of competing voices explains how to get there, but I am unconvinced by the direction in which they point me. I set off, pretending to believe them, cheerfully waving goodbye, but take a different path as soon as I am out of sight. A couple of minutes later, to my embarrassment, I find myself back where I started and staring at the same group of boys who now look at me as if I am a few camels short of a caravan for not having been capable of following their simple directions. This time, wondering if I am not taking my life in my hands, I agree to let them show me the way, which they do with an air of excitement and satisfied authority. A taller boy in the group takes hold of my forearm with his slender hand and begins to lead me along the dusty street, clearly eager to impress. His friends follow enthusiastically, watching my every move. In just a few years, I reflect, his willowy child’s fingers will probably be used to holding a gun, innocence lost forever as they curl around the trigger.
‘Yes,’ I smile.
‘You like Yemen?’
‘Yes, it’s very nice,’ I nod, realising that my concerns for my personal safety are little short of delusional.
He grins at the answer. Some of the other boys whisper to each other and giggle. After a few turns down narrow streets and deep alleys, we are suddenly in front of the mosque. I thank my young guides, wondering whether to give a few rials’ reward or whether to do so would simply encourage a begging mentality. They seem not to expect anything, however, and, without lingering, cheerfully scamper off in the direction from where we came, laughing and shouting to each other as they go.