After all the dire warnings that to fly to Yemen was insane, we landed in Sana’a on a Tuesday evening, to one of the most friendly airports I’ve been to. US immigration officers should spend a few days there getting a lesson in politeness.
Having been on a five week German, US and then French book tour we had five suitcases with us, and leaving the airport was like something out of an old Agatha Christie movie, when five young porters followed us, each carrying a suitcase on his head! Unfortunately we arrived in Sana’a after dark and left at dawn, so were able to see very little of it. But the people we met, both at the airport and then at the Mercure hotel could not have been more delightful and welcoming, although there was a certain chill factor in walking through a full-body metal detector into the lobby of the hotel – a reminder that Western owned interests were considered terrorist targets.
There were no visible signs of any differential between day and night in the Mecure, with a chef willingly and incredibly cheerily, making us fried egg sandwiches and a fresh fruit salad at 4am.
Mukalla harbour rules
But when we finally arrived on board the ship, later that morning, another salutary reminder of the threat of terrorism came in the form of a gunship protecting us, and remaining a very visible presence during our stays in the Yemen ports of Hodeidah and Mukalla. It was a little less reassuring when you took a closer look at the gunship to see it was manned by a couple of rather youthful looking Yemeni officers, equipped with big smiles and a decidedly clapped-out looking Bren Gun – which did not look as if it had seen a spot of oil since the days of T E Lawrence – bolted to the front deck… Meanwhile outside the entrance to Mukalla harbour is a sign announcing that weapons are forbidden inside the whole port. So that’s all right then…
A slightly tired looking Gun Boat
A big part of my interest in going to this part of the world is research for novel I have long been working on, on the theme of proof of God’s existence. In the Middle East lies so much of the roots of the world’s Abrahamic religions – to which 3.7 of the world 6.7 billion population belong. In Salalah we took a tour to Job’s tomb, a very impressive monument – the more so because Job’s apparent remains lie beneath a 12 foot long green rug. I knew that God had given Job a hard time – but it never mentioned in my Bible that he had been a giant!
The cities in both Yemen and Oman are emerging – in Oman at a much faster pace and a more Western standard of cleanliness and general modernity – but at the moment it is not the cities that is the point of visiting these countries – it is their vast, stunning open terrain. Beautiful coastlines, awesome flat and mountainous desert terrain, the wadis, the oases, the sheer hypnotic beauty and tranquillity of the landscapes. Both countries are oil-rich. Yemen still has many political problems. Oman, under the extremely effective leadership of Sandhurst educated Sultan Quaboos Bin Said, is fast emerging as a progressive nation, and I predict will become a second Dubai. With zero unemployment, a massive drive for education, and modernisation everywhere, this nation’s people are extremely friendly towards the west – unless your name happens to be Bush. And talking of foliage, Frankincense is another major product of this country – it is made from the dried resin of the frankincense tree.
We were there during Ramadan, the most spiritual time of year for Muslims, when they abstain from eating and drinking, smoking and sex between dawn and sunset. A big part of the absention is, in the teachings of Mohammed, to reflect on the less fortunate people in the world who have no food and water. Many times I asked our guides if they minded whether I had a drink of water and they all, very charmingly, said they did not expect Westerners to observe their customs and we were free to eat and drink at will. Even so I found myself feeling guilty, sipping cool water in the searing heat and eating lunch – particularly one day when a whole tent had been set up for us, in Oman, on one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, and we swam and then feasted attended by a retinue of servants who could only watch us – and I constantly wondered what they thought.
Stunning Oman beach
Perhaps some of them shared the same thoughts as two young army officers who approached me in the port of Mukallah, one afternoon during Ramadan, and beckoned me towards them. Reluctant at first, as I suddenly feared some kind of an ambush, I stood my ground. Then they walked across to me, all smiles and cheerily asked me if I had any whisky I could give them!!!
Half an hour later that same day, a port official at Mukallah who had earlier found me a taxi for a tour around, approached me as I walked along the quai and offered me the gift of a postcard. When I took it gratefully he asked me, “Do you have any blue, you know, porno CDs???”
Both these incidents made me smile. But they did more much more than that. Standing on that quaiside in an Arab country in the middle of Ramadan, being asked within the space of half an hour for pornographic films and for whisky, I realized that I had just experienced something of an epiphany. It may not be that everyone on this planet seeks whisky and porn, but it was symbolic of something important. It made me realize that the religious fanatics who instil fear in us, and seek to create divisions between Islam and the Western world, have a much harder task on their hands than we believe. Whether we are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or followers of any other faith – or of no faith at all – most people have certain wants in common. I know that alcohol is forbidden by the Muslim faith and I don’t know what the laws are on pornography, but suspect it is forbidden also. It wasn’t so much the specifics of what those cheeky soldiers and port official wanted – it was the fact they wanted things that much of the Western world takes for granted. In asking me for these things, they were really telling me something. That there are less divisions in the world than we might imagine – and we should remember that. It gives us all hope for the future.