Traveling across rocky, dusty, flat land through mud towns and villages that stair stepped up the mountainsides to 10,000 feet above sea level, we were in biblical times, except for the motorized bus conveying us, which, truth be told, was pretty ancient itself. It was Friday, market day in Yemen, and the streets of each town were crowded with men buying and selling Quat (a mildly narcotic leaf that the men stuff into their cheeks and chew or suck like tobacco). There were no women anywhere. All marketing appeared to be done by men, gossiping and milling about the busy market stalls in congenial groups.
The national costume seemed to be a long white shirt or robe gathered at the waist by an elaborate embroidered belt with a curved dagger stuck in the front. A suit coat was worn over this and a scarf over the shoulders or wrapped around the head in an artful turban, which could be arranged in different ways depending on the wearer’s sense of style or mood. Some men forsook this costume for a simpler sarong-type wrap in a zigzag American Indian–looking motif, folded around the waist, and a long sleeve shirt and scarf or turban. Even the most impoverished had a rakish sense of style that was quite appealing. As Michael ruefully pointed out, however, never have we been in a country where the men dressed in skirts, wore weapons, and quite unselfconsciously walked down the street holding hands with their male companions.
The women—what ones you see—were completely anonymous in black swirls of fabric with perhaps a bit of embroidery, eyes peeking out behind black veils and hands enclosed in black gloves or occasionally tattooed with red and black henna that looked like lace gloves with black fingernails. Even in my long skirt, with covered arms and a scarf hiding my hair, I felt conspicuous.
As we bumped along the barren, brown land stretching between mud brick towns on the way to Sana’a, the capital, we could see small villages in the distance which rose from the hilltops as if they had grown from the rocks. Sometimes it was impossible to determine what was man-made and what was God’s work, except for the litter of plastic bags along the sides of the streets and blown up into the trees like bleached, deflated papayas.
Halfway we stopped for lunch in the world’s noisiest restaurant, filled with yelling men. A short, rotund fellow with a green, bejeweled dagger curving out of his commodious waist, unfolded a flat bread in front of us which covered the entire table. Then he brought out a small bowl of squash and lime soup, a whole fish in peppery cumin barbecue sauce, an interesting hummus, and a potato-vegetable dish, placing them on top of the bread. There was no silverware, so we tucked into it with our hands like everyone else, pulling chunks of the “bread tablecloth” off to scoop up the food. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t hear each other talk, we were too busy eating.
After five hours of bouncing over dirt roads in the bus, we arrived at our hotel—a tower house in the old section of town—molded out of stone with thick walls, small low doors, and narrow stone steps and passageways. The walls of the rooms were whitewashed and the latticed or stonework grilled windows were inset with stained glass, which cast iridescent colored patterns across the gray bricked floor. It was like being inside a kaleidoscope. “This is so cool,” I exclaimed to Michael. (Not so the 5:00 o’clock call to prayer the next morning.)
Anxious to see the town before dark, I dragged Michael out to explore the crowded market, where upon we got completely lost amid the narrow streets of little shops and stalls. It was clearly not a tourist destination. The fabric souk was packed with men. As the darkness fell, the lights in the shops illuminated the most fantastic array of colorful patterned, sparkly and sequined fabric, a fairyland of shimmering color.
“Where are the women who buy all this?” I wondered.
“And where do they wear clothes made from it?” Michael added. Suddenly a sense of panicked disorientation gripped us as we realized we had no idea where we were. Even the world’s best navigator was confused.
“This way.” I ventured confidently.
“No. I think we came that way. I remember that kiosk.”
Then, from around a corner three black figures flew at us like marauding black birds and stood resolutely blocking our path. “Good evening” the taller of the three exclaimed in aristocratically inflected British English. Stunned, we replied in unison, “Good evening.”
“My sisters and I want to tell you about Islam.” I thought: Could you please just tell us how to get back to our hotel instead. She persisted, holding out a small plastic bag of pamphlets: “We have reading material for you and a CD in English that will explain our faith.” Her black veil puffed out with each word. Her dark eyes sparkled with the humorous recognition of our stunned fearfulness. The other two young girls giggled nervously. Michael took the packet.
I asked, “Where did you learn English?”
“Do you mind?” as I lifted my camera.
And suddenly they were gone, as rapidly as they had appeared, back around the corner. We looked at each other in astonishment, then picked our way back to the street of window makers where we stumbled across a familiar alleyway and finally found our hotel. Breathless with relief, we headed up to the observation tower, unwound on giant Turkish pillows, and secretly sipped G & Ts from travel mugs. Below our birdlike perch, a sea of fanciful towers, houses, and minarets, their windows topped with arched filigrees of tan-and-whitewashed zigzagged patterns, turned sepia and beige pink in the dying light.
Now, as I write this, Sana’a is being pounded into dust, her unique birthday cake buildings destroyed, her proud, dapper men and invisible women having become a motley crowd of dislocated, angry, and confused people. I often wonder what happened to those three earnest young women.
BIO: Marguerite Welch
Between the years 1998 and 2012, my husband and I circumnavigated the world in a 38 sailboat. As a photographer and writer, I documented the journey in photographs, as well as words and have just completed a book entitled Leaving Home: 14 Years Around the World in Small Boat with the Same Man. Today many of the places we visited have been unalterably destroyed in the plague of human conflict. “Daggers and Suit Coats” describes a visit to the pastry confection that was Sana’a, the Capital of Yemen, now being reduced to dust.