I have been traveling far from home over these past 10 days. As a result, thoughts of Fast Eddie or Bush's pal Steve Harper have happily subsided. They have been replaced by thoughts and observations of one of the most interesting locales of my journey.
I'm writing in my hotel room in Sana'a, the capital of the Republic of Yemen. It is Tuesday, 9 AM (or Monday, 10 PM Mountain Standard Time in Calgary). This is my third visit to Yemen since 1998. I am staying at the 'Movenpick' Hotel, a modern concrete and marble, supposedly 5-star establishment, operated by the Swiss food, restaurant and hotel chain conglomerate. The hotel is a couple of years old and situated on a dramatic rise overlooking the entire spread-out city of 2 million. It boasts a spa, a few restaurants, large out-door pool area, etc. and could be found anywhere in the world. Its staff that serves the public at the front line are largely European or Philippino, with a smattering from East Africa and Yemen. Despite the City's Arabian and Islamic history, and the country's location at the bottom of the Saudi Peninsula, a visitor can have a scotch in the basement disco bar or his room. Non-alcoholic beverages only are served in the public areas.
The Movenpick is symbolic of the new Yemen. The expanisive, gaudy and elaborate Qatari embassy across the street from my hotel is also a part of the new Yemen, as are the villa palaces closer to the center of town which are owned and operated by wealthy Sheikhs. So too are the Porsche and Audi car dealerships.
But there is also still plenty of the old Yemen to be seen and savored. Sana'a is an ancient city with a thousand minarets and at least one mosque that almost dates back to the days of Mohammed. The old walled city in the center of town - a UNESCO heritage site - is now part of a sprawling urban mass stretching for miles in all directions.
The inhabitants of the old walled city used to lock themselves up within its walls at night not more than 50 or so years ago. It contains thousands of traditional Yemeni, flat-roofed, earth toned, Arabic-style homes of two, three or four levels, built side-by-side over the last several hundred years. Its streets are narrow and winding and the population dense.
In the city throughout the day, we see Arab men who wear traditional headbands, smocks and sandals and women wearing pitch-black shrouds and veils with narrow, horizontal eye-slits in their veils. Poorer women, and there are plenty of them, are generally completely covered and clad in untailored and multicolored fabric remnants. With sky-high birthrates, kids are running around everywhere. There are also plenty of refugees throughout the city eking out a living by seeking alms. Usually the ones seen are women who have fled from the tribulations of East Africa directly across the Red Sea.
The old Suq, also in the center of town, with its vast and complex maze of narrow lanes and streets, is a scene right out of an old Warner Brothers adventure yarn. There are stalls hawking everything from cell phones to frankensense. The jimbaya, the traditional sheathed curved dagger, encased in brightly colored Islamic design belts, is a favorite buy for tourists. Even today, ordinary Yemeni men wear the jimbaya together with the rest of their Arab garb of smocks, sandals and head-dresses in the towns and cities. The jimbaya worn by Yemeni men is as ubiquitous as the tie worn by men in North America.
People are largely friendly, with quick smiles and happy demeanors.
But there is third world, grinding poverty as well. North American orderliness and cleanliness on the streets and roads are invariably absent. But the colours, architecture, Islamic calls to prayer, and the Arab style are not to be missed. Sana'a is an exotic city. It is changing, and the changes have been significant in 10 years. But it retains its unique charm. This is a place to visit and enjoy.
On the political front, Yemen is a tolerant and struggling democracy, that holds general and local elections. There are tribal confrontations from time to time, as well as a Shia revolutionary movement in the north that from time to time is costly in terms of lives lost. So far, the Government continues to prevail. The memory of the Civil War in the early nineties however, lingers in the minds of its people.
One last point. We see in Sana'a a multitude of pictures of Sadam Hussein and Moqtada Al Sadr, side-by-side, in store and car windows. Sadam and Moqtada Al Sadr were mortal enemies - one secular and Sunni and the other religious and Shia. Yet together, in Yemen, they are elevated to hero status. What is the westerner to make of that?
Sadam was always more-or-less well regarded in Sunni-dominated Yemen. Yemen did not support the coaltion organized by Bush I in the first Gulf war. Moqtada Al Sadr, the firebrand clergyman and the Iraqi Shia leader of the Shia militia in Baghdad, and Sadam were mortal enemies. Indeed, Sadam was responsible for the hanging of Moqtada's father, and Moqtada's friends (some people even say Moqtada was there in person) presided over Sadam's execution. So how could it be that these mortal enemies are widely regarded together as heroes to the Yemeni people?
The Arab proverb states that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Historically, Sadam was a minor friend of Yemen, and Moqtada, neither friend nor foe of Yemen, but certainly an enemy of Sadam's. So how do they both become friends of Yemen such that Yemenis rank them as heroes? Because they have an enemy who from the Yemeni perspective is an enemy of Yemen. And who might that be?
The public display of the plethora of photographs of those mortal enemies together as heroes in the streets of Yemen, points to the dismal failure of the policy of the United States Government in the Middle East. To most of the 25 or so million Yemenis, George W. Bush's America is no friend of Yemen.