Monday, October 18, 2004

Sanaa: takes my breath away


I often wondered what it must be like being in 16th century and talking a walk on Chaandni Chowk amidst backdrop of Red Fort, Jama Masjid and being part of the Islamic milieu. I got this chance when I visited San’a–Yemen last week.

Old San’a city takes you backward travel of many centuries. Just take out automobiles, mobile phones, electric gadgets and you have in front of you a piece of history. Not many people would know that San'a is one of the first sites of human settlement and still inhabited in every inch. Now UN has now taken over the old city under its patronage with no owner allowed to neither make any modifications nor sales transactions. This old city is walled from outside has tarred road embankment from all sides. This turn into canal during heavy downpour. Old ancient city is the attraction for all tourists. The gate to the city is known Bab Al-Yemen. The houses inside the sof the old city are several stories high with nicely ornamented from the outside.They all line narrow lanes with shops all along selling spices, Jwellery, leather but most noticeable are raisins and dates.

The most striking part of Yemen is its architecture. Wherever you glance – you see houses made up of mud but conspicuous is the absence of any paint, glass or steel. The outer shell of building is in form of matchbox. Even the balcony is not protruding outwards. So all long you can see cluster of matchbox shaped houses with semi-circular arches on top of windows with embellished floral design from lime chalk. Even new houses are copy of the old ones, the only differences being the use of concrete or bricks instead of mud, the blue color of the iron gates and the advertising signboards.

I had an opportunity to visit few of these houses. The internal layout of these houses is very unique. The most spacious room is “Majlis” - a place for meeting friends, talking, smoking and chewing 'Qat'. Majlis ceiling walls are plastered with delicate carvings often from Quranic verses. The windows are topped with stained colored glass. The Majlis has cushioned seats all along the room allowing guests, to sit and enjoy the party.

There are two emblems of Yemeni life. People wearing Khanjar (dagger) around his naval and chewing of Qat. Qat is a light drug obtained from the leaves of a cultivated and irrigated tree. Sight of woman is often restricted to an inch above and below eyes. Women are covered with black silky abaya. But irony is that woman study, work, drive cars and even manage business unlike in Saudi.

The best place to relish Yemeni cuisine is Shiben’s restaurant. At Rial 1,500 (app.US$8.00) you can have whole tandoored Gash fish(almost the size of King Fish), lamb chops along with Salta- stew of lamb or chicken with lentils, beans, chickpeas, coriander and spices served on rice and bread- which is 20 times that of Indian roti. Plus you have Shurba, a combination of soup and a stew that has a base of lentils, lamb or fenugreek. This is followed by shay which is similar to Indian Masala Chay. It’s still not over. You get fresh banana and honey and you need to devour bananas by dipping them in fresh honey to bolster your aphrodisiac power.As a finale, comes basket of fresh fruits. If there is any place after Egypt for sumptuous food it has to be Yemen.

The sight of elevator is only at few hotels. Most buildings have steep stairs. My first few days in San’a gave me fright as I was gasping for breath after climbing 12-15 steps. I concluded this as a sure sign of Ischemic heart disease till I found that in San’a you are at about 7000 ft above sea level. San’a does take ones breath away while gasping at the marvel of housing architecture.

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