Places We Go / Yemen

Sana’a, Yemen

Poor Yemen… The most impoverished country in the Middle East really did not need to be kicked around any more, but it has been unable to avoid becoming yet another proxy battleground for the Shia vs. Sunni civil war now crashing through the Islamic world.

We were fortunate enough to be able to visit the lovely city of Sana’a, a UNESCO World Heritage site, during a lull in the fighting there and despite all that it has been through, the city remains beautiful and the people remain friendly.

There’s something about countries that are going through the worst of times… The people in such places – Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Iraq – seem to be the most hospitable and friendly in the world. Conversely, one will feel nothing but cold indifference when walking down a city street in the spoiled countries of northern Europe.

Aside from war, Sana’a is probably best known for its “gingerbread houses” of gypsum and bricks, fired from local materials, that are interspersed with gardens, mosques, bath houses and street markets. Although these buildings are not as old as Sana’a itself (inhabited for 2,500 years), some of them are more than 1,000 years old. That a building made of mud and standing several stories high can survive for that long is extraordinary:



The inside of the homes can be quite luxurious:


At almost 7,500 feet in elevation, Sana’a is one of the highest capital cities in the world and so, unlike the coastal flatlands, the temperatures in Sana’a do not become unbearably hot. As such, it is possible to walk around comfortably even in the middle of the day.

A crowded city street in the middle of the afternoon proving my point:


Street scenes in the markets and alleyways of Sana’a:




He’s selling dates. A lot of dates:


Heaps of spices for sale:


A group of khat dealers dividing up their product:


Later in the afternoon, men high on khat, such as this gentleman, will be slumped against walls all over the city:


This camel is used to power the mill one can see to the left in the picture… Sesame seeds are placed in the mill and the camel is then walked in a circle around the mill, turning a heavy stone which grinds the seeds up to produce sesame seed oil:


A small niche business repairing shoes alongside the street:


A man, his cheek bulging with khat, selling the traditional daggers of Yemen, the jambiya:


Stopping for lunch on a quiet afternoon… In front of our fixer, Fuad Shaif Al Kadas, is some of the traditional bread in Yemen that seems to accompany every meal:


Some of the friendly people of Sana’a:



To best appreciate Sanaa though, one needs to find a high place and, preferably, sip a tea while watching the sun set over the rooftops…




I am not the only one able to appreciate Sana’a at sunset:



An intensive (and ongoing) aerial bombing campaign of Sana’a, led by Saudi Arabia, was initiated almost immediately after our departure. This has caused a significant loss of life and has damaged or destroyed many of the irreplaceable 1,000 year-old-homes in the city.

Some of the death and destruction from the bombing campaign in Sana’a is undeniably due to carelessness or even vindictiveness. However, those pilots with the most noble of intentions also bear responsibility.

The Saudi pilots are very conservative (some less charitable observers state that they are poorly trained) and do not like to take the risk of flying low as this makes them more vulnerable to anti-aircraft defenses. As such, they conduct their bombing from high altitudes. Unfortunately, this significantly degrades the accuracy of their bombing, leading to many unintended targets being struck.

Western countries, primarily the United States and Great Britain, are supplying weapons to the Saudis and their partners for this campaign and are providing intelligence on targets.

As an example of the impact this is having on the city, I took this picture…


… just a short while before these homes on the right were reduced to the below, killing the family inside:

Photograph - Yahya Arhab - EPA

America and Great Britain, those are your tax dollars at work.


The photo above, of the bombing damage, is courtesy of Yahya Arhab.

4 thoughts on “Sana’a, Yemen

  1. Your photographs are of a superb quality. I wish you would document the existing wall built by the Israelis in Palestine before it is torn down—as it inevitably will.

  2. The different sides in the Yemeni Civil War (like the Syrian Civil War and the War Against ISIS – and the Lebanese Civil War some 40 years ago) can be dizzying….

    As one can see, the Revolutionary Committee (that overthrew the previous pro West, though clearly dictatorial) government, the Hadi government – and their allies – has an extremely serious advantage in troop strength. The forces of the previous government (which still claims power) and their allies have much less troop strength, but have allies with air power.

    Note that under Belligerents (in the sidebar) under the Hadi government forces there are “800 Contractors”.

    They are mercenaries hired by Saudi Arabia and (as far as I know), are strictly former Colombian Armed Forces members had signed up for three months of service in return for $1,000 per week and instant Emirati citizenship.

    In addition, “… in November 2015, The New York Times reported the United Arab Emirates had secretly deployed 450 Colombian, Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean mercenaries to Yemen in October. Their training program, which mainly recruits Colombians, was initially run by Erik Prince, formerly of Blackwater USA, who had flown them into the UAE posing as construction workers in 2010, at the bequest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Operational control was reportedly handed to the Emirati military shortly thereafter. This is the program’s first deployment. Their exact role in Yemen is unclear”…. though I am sure that they too are mercenary fighters for the Hadi government side.

  3. Very nice pics though. It is interesting that the Islam religion forbids alcohol, but khat is just fine.

    And also interesting that pretty much every adult male (and some male children even) are openly armed with some large and wicked looking daggers in their waistband.

  4. The war in Yemen can’t be explained by the reductionist Sunni vs Shia trope which gets wheeled out every time Shia and Sunni are facing each other on the battlefield. The Syrian War was also “explained” as a Sunni vs Shia fight and that has been proven false beyond any doubt. If you want to find out what is at the root of the Yemeni war, start with Saudi Arabia and follow the money and the weapons and how this ties in with other conflicts in the region and KSA’s paranoia over Iran.

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