Sunday, January 14, 2007


From December 28 to Jan. 8, I visited Yemen, a beautiful country of friendly, if drug-addled people. (Most Yeminis are addicted to the psychoactive plant, qat, which they spend hours every afternoon chewing. Tekhazen? Do you chew? Literally, do you store?). I visited the capital, Sanaa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; cloud-draped mountaintop villages to the west of Sanaa; and the Red Sea Coast, where daytime temperatures reached the upper 80s.

Everything feels ancient in Yemen, as if little has changed in hundreds of years. Men still wear white robes and daggers sheathed in ornamental belts, or outside the capital, Kalashnikovs, and houses are made of mud brick or stone. There is very little sign of Western intrusion. That can be refreshing for the Western tourist searching for what some call the real Arabia, although Yemen's preservation is also its curse: isolated walled stone villages with spotty electricity, no phone lines and unreliable hot water survive intact only because poverty and lack of opportunity keep people there. Still, Yemenis are proud of their traditions and their strong faith.

On the day before the start of Eid al-Adha, one of two eid festivals Muslims celebrate, the boy pictured above sits with his lamb (or is it a goat?) in the back of a pickup truck in Sanaa's Souq al-Milah -- the Salt Market -- the largest in the old city, which today includes much more than salt. All families slaughter their finest domestic animal, usually a lamb, but sometimes a cow or goat, to honor profit Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael for God.

A few days after the start of the eid, I came upon children playing in the street with the skin of a cow's head. I'm sure the meat was good.