Yemen is largely proving to be a very friendly place with plenty to see and remarkably safe – street crime is virtually unheard of. However, I must concede that the stereotypes have occasionally cropped up.
There are an estimated 60 million guns in Yemen which amounts to 3 for every man, woman and impoverished child. Sana’a, the capital city, has been cleared of the open display of guns. On the other hand, in the infamous city of Mareb in the heart of tribal Yemen you are hard-pressed to spot a man who isn’t sporting a machine gun slung over his back.
“Here in Yemen there is no need for prohibiting guns. We know how to use them and control them,” a man carefully explained to me with pride. Apparently the firefight a couple of months ago in Mareb – 15 tribesmen killed – qualifies as restrained and under control.
I had no desire to visit Mareb, but unfortunately it lies as a bit of an obstacle between Sana’a and Wadi Hadramout. No fear, however. The government is fully aware that there is no other way for tourists to get through to the splendors of Hadramout. To make you feel at ease, all foreigners are provided with – obliged to stick to – their own personal armed guard. It does seem a bit of an absurd way to promote tourism. And it can even seem a bit overly cautious since the government has now decreed the death penalty for anyone who gives trouble to a foreigner. The kidnapping practices of three or four years ago – ironically famous for the legendary hospitality heaped upon the never-harmed ransom victims – have disappeared.
Both times, from the moment I entered Mareb province until the moment I left, I was accorded a designated friend, a protector with a belt full of bullets. It was a new feeling to be sitting in a restaurant sharing chicken and rice with a fresh faced 18-year-old with a Kalashnikov in his lap. When I later asked to leave the hotel for a walk through Mareb’s market, he was there with me, watching as I bought bread, cheese, mineral water, and toothpaste. When I walked up to the supposed ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace, he was ever-true. One thing must be pointed out: backed by such heavy firepower, the leverage was all mine when I bargained with a greedy little 8-year-old who had extortionately decided to lock the gate.
Travel through this region is a surefire guarantee for bizarre happenings. As I passed a rather grim looking fluorescent-lit cafe, I couldn’t resist popping in for some tea. There in front of a mass of heavily armed Bedouin was a television set showing a flower arranging program, a cheery English woman explaining how best to contrast the colors of the chrysanthemums. The men sipped their tea. I was as transfixed as they apparently were.
Buses in this country are luxuriously provided with video entertainment. Mid-journey I was amazed to hear the familiar strains of American English and through the sea of Kalashnikov barrels I could make out the unmistakable logo of the World Wrestling Federation. For the next hour we all watched maniacally waving American flags cheer on “the Unforgiving Rattlesnake” Stone Cold Steve Austin as he shouted insults and battled the Boss Man in the Joe Louis Arena. No subtitles were necessary as the blasts of heavy metal guitar solos said everything needed. As I thought about what was happening I began to feel weird. I eased the seat back and fell asleep.