We woke after a great sleep that was sorely needed after our massive first day in Sana’a. Mains electricity was still off in much of the city but that didn’t matter one bit as we sat in the sunny hotel courtyard, overlooking a lush mosque garden, for another lovely breakfast. Our first task upon being picked up by Nasser and Gamil was to drive through the outer suburbs looking for a photocopy shop with generator power at which to make more copies of our travel permits. The city was sleepy on this Friday morning.
Photocopies procured, we drove up to a craggy lookout on the edge of town which provided a view of the vast plateau to the west of Sana’a. In the distance we could just make out the Dar al-Hajar, or Imam’s Rock Palace.
As we approached the entrance to the Rock Palace, the sound of drums filled the air. Inside the compound, a group of men dressed in their best clothes were dancing in a group, jumbiyas raised in the air, celebrating a wedding.
After a walk through the palace with a large crowd of Yemenis taking advantage of the weekend, we drove onwards to the town of Shibam. We stopped en route at a small village comprising not much more than a mosque, a petrol station, and a makeshift qat market that allowed Nasser and Gamil to purchase their fix for the afternoon.
A military checkpoint obstructed the road into town and it was manned by the standard complement of bored looking young men with machine guns slung over their shoulders. Soldiers at the Sana’a checkpoints had tended so far to glance disinterestedly into the car and wave us through, but the soldier at this checkpoint saw foreigners in the back seat and asked for travel permits. After an exchange between Nasser and the soldier, and then the soldier and his comrades in a hut just off the road, the travel permits were accepted, the soldier flashed a huge smile, passed a bag of small, dirty pears through the window, and waved us on our way.
We arrived into Shibam just as Friday prayers were starting. The busy market was deserted and the absence of people in the central square revealed rocky, churned dirt and a river of plastic litter. While cats and dogs prowled for food scraps, the local population’s stragglers ran down the street towards a mosque. We stopped our car at the only occupied stall to buy some apricots from an old woman.
After parking, Nasser guided us through a courtyard towards a restaurant which was empty at first but filled quickly after prayers finished. We took off our shoes and reclined on lounges as plate after plate of food was delivered to a low table sitting between us. There were two kinds of rice, a mutton dish, potatoes, vegetables, saltah, a salsa-like condiment, and yummy concoctions involving eggs and grapes that we’d never seen before. And just like yesterday, we stuffed ourselves silly despite still feeling satisfied from breakfast. A couple of lazy cups of tea helped wash down the feast.
After letting our enormous lunches settle a bit, we drove to Thula for a walking tour through the ancient old city. Being a Friday afternoon, it was very quiet. But two little girls quickly spotted us and approached with baskets of old tourist trinkets for sale. Nasser said they don’t get much of a chance to sell them these days. As with Old Sana’a, walking through Thula felt like walking back through time.
As we approached the main square, a couple of local men joined our party and started chatting with us. They were friendly and hospitable, and wanted to know our impressions so far of Yemen. One of them kindly let me give my poor, basic Arabic a workout, and I learned a few new words. I also learned that my beard apparently makes me look like a Bedouin (I didn’t know this), and that my wife is very beautiful (I knew this).
We said our goodbyes and got in the car for a drive back through Shibam towards the village of Kaukabam which sits atop a high mountain. From Kaukabam we had a great view of the route we’d driven that day with Thula off in the distance and Shibam directly below us.
On the way back into Sana’a we decided to drive around the outskirts of the city, via a road on which hundreds and hundreds of cars park on weekend afternoons to take advantage of the view and the many shisha vendors who provide a drive-in service, popping the pipes on stools next to the cars’ windows.
As darkness fell, Nasser and Gamil took us across town to a restaurant so we could catch up with Jamil and debrief on our time in Sana’a. Jamil had chosen a restaurant popular for its baked fish, and the fish (along with an amazing spicy dip) didn’t disappoint. After Penina and I chose our scaly victims from an iced display of the day’s market haul, Jamil insisted on taking us into the kitchen for a tour. We were hesitant because we didn’t want to be Those Tourists, but Jamil insisted, and then he encouraged us to take a photo of the bread baking process. So I took a video.
We had an early flight the next morning, and Jamil would be picking us up at 5am for a ride to the airport, so we retired straight after dinner. The electricity was still out at our hotel and the owner once again fired up his generator so we didn’t have to pack by torchlight. Tomorrow, inshallah, we would finally begin our tour of Socotra.