The Old City

Bab el yemen

Update: Image of the Gate

What you'll read below is a snippet of my time in Yemen between the years 2011 and 2012. 

This was the first time that writing came to me easily. I captured most of my experiences in writing and photos when I had the chance to work there for a humanitarian organization. 

I hoped for you to get a view of the old city, immortalized in my sub par photography. 

Oddly enough the pictures specific to the buildings and walls were removed from Imgur, every other photograph is intact.  Luckily there is one photo that seems to have escaped, once you see it you'll know it. 

I never got the chance to visit again, and now, the place these words once described is no more.

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The Old City

Though we started the weekend (Thursday) in the office, it was more than compensated for by our journey to the old city, baab al yeman. It's the walled limits of the ancient city which contains the marketplace as well. 

Keti (in the red coat) wanted to buy a few gifts for her family as she was returning the following weekend to Georgia. She came down to get two things: table cloths, and a brass oval tea tray. She ended up buying jewellery, bed sheets, spices, and random knick-knacks. 

The traders in that market know quite well how to sell a story, though to her credit she didn't really care for the stories. They're used to selling to starry eyed tourists seeking authenticity in their finds. 

The story of Jewish Silver? Turns out they have copies and copies of the works, not sure how much Jewish Silver they have, but it looked like a lot. Their story was good as well, they had some acid handy to prove the 100% silver composition of the jewellery; any impurity would show by having the surface bubble in reaction to the mixed metals. 

I didn't bother verifying the acid story via Wikipedia, but I had to hand it to them, they made us stand there for a good 30 mins as she haggled with them. A young man leapt into the store front, excitedly ushering two young ladies to step closer and look at the jewellery. One was speaking in arabic and was a defacto translator for her Spanish speaking friend, the shop keeper without skipping a beat picked up a necklace that he was showing Keti and waved it in front of his new customers. 

The story was told in rapid fire broken Arabic, Old silver, Time of Imam Yahya, very very rare! The Spanish speaking lady wasn't having any of it, she signaled with her hands and requested her friend to ask 'How much?', he didn't need a translation, '$70' he says.......the ladies laughed out loud and walked away without looking back. 

There was one thing I found interesting, a coin they called the 'Maria', squinting at the coin you can make out the year 1780, the Wiki gives more information about it, I just started wondering how many hands it must have changed in it's 3 centuries of existence, the worlds' always been small it seems.

As you walk towards the entrance of the city gate, there are street vendors with their wares all strewn out on the ground, blankets, clothes, socks, coats for the season. It made me wonder what they'd sell during the summer months.

Looking at the gate again on the pictures, it doesn't look like it was a part of the original wall, it also has the word '22 May' in Arabic, quick search confirms the date as the day South (Aden) and North (Sana'a) were reunited in 1990...I always thought that had happened much earlier. 

Once you're past the gate there is a crush of people and the first thing you notice are the cars that drive in and push through the crowds, that and the motorcycles that snake through the people and pump the air full of noise and gas. 

The streets get narrower as you wind your way into the inclined road of the market city, our first stop was a spice vendor and his son, who was successful at not only pushing a greater quantity of Cinnammon but also convinced Keti to buy habahaan and almost convinced her of buying a kilo of almonds until he told her it was for 5000 riyals ($23). 

I'm not much of a shopper, but they had some good stuff according to the others, not sure what this purple stuff is used for though, it's called karkadiil or Hibiscus. Wikipedia says its a natural diuretic which contains vitamin C and minerals when used in tea, good for the kidneys and lowering blood pressure. 

There were other things being sold as well, my eyes kept wandering to the little trinkets to the right of the shop, they'll make good small gifts I thought. So I took a lot of pictures so that I can send pictures to anyone that'd be interested, I'm not very good at buying touristy gifts.

The next stop was a shawl/scarf/bedspread shop, this one took a good half hour but they purchased a good amount of things here. First the wall of Shawls/Pashminas, funnily enough they kept saying 'Yemeni make, Yemeni make' while Keti said "I was here before, you remember me, this is Indian, I didn't buy it last time I won't buy it now if you don't give me for less". 

Monsieur Atif used his Sudani charm to soften the barbs of the logical arguments of this determined lady. They were able to walk away with some nice bedspreads at a much lower price than they expected to, seizing the chance, they doubled up. 

These are some of the ones that caught their eye. It started with a quiet Brown and orangy type spread that was interesting and then the little shop exploded with colour, my camera does the colours no justice (neither does the shopkeepers angry khat chewing stare) because they really did dance as he unfurled and then waved them to spread. 

The night sky blues encompassed the stars, A field of green that entrapped a family of peacocks, golden sands that caught a sliver of sunset, and this last one apparently changes colour at night - it was also the softest of the set. I think they bought them all. 

I was more interested in the building walls that clearly showed that the levels were built on top of one another with a good amount of time passing in between each level's extension.

One of the men from the shop grabbed Keti's shopping bags and decided we needed guidance to the brass shop, she didn't mind, and knew he wanted to get paid (more on that later), he led us along the winding and narrow alleyways as dusk set in, turning left then right, and a few more quick and sharp turns, I'd meant to keep a mental image of the paths we'd taken so I could navigate my way next time. 

My eyes however couldn't cope with the influx of new sights they were taking in. The pace our guide kept was blistering, and the sights blurred past me so fast I couldn't focus long enough on the shops without a child running into my path or a motorcycle for that matter. The old city was pulsing with life, even as darkness set in the noise and bustle of the streets grew louder, in defiance of the darkness the shops set their generators humming, and the lights danced and reflected off of old brass plates placed all along the alley to draw in the tourists that weren't being led from store to store by the likes of our new friend.

He'd led us to the brass shop as our energy faltered, but you can't help and be amazed with the sheer amount of material they manage to stuff into the small shops. All rows and shelves are packed with material, and you have very small wiggle space, so small I couldn't stand at either end of the shop to take a picture. They sold all manner of things, Aladdin oil lamps, gilded forks, treasure chests, and scroll holders. Little receptacles that could be used as ink wells, cute little candle holders, they had many nice ones actually. I was actually trying to get the shopkeeper and the huge qat bulge in the picture, so Atif helped me out and held the candle up to his face...wasn't very discreet though, he'd keep repeating, 'here is fine? or here? how about now? better in this light?' This is Atif feeling left out. This was my favourite though, a golden horse that was part of decoration for an old fashioned weight scale.

Towards the evening we visited one last shop where I found a very old lock, I couldn't take a picture because I was haggling for a lower price on it. Before I saw the lock though I took pictures of the wares for gift ideas. I resolved to come back! I will definitely try and visit the old city again, I'm sure I've overlooked spots that I can't visit with a crowd. It really made me wish I'd invested in a camera so I'm most likely going to try and find an old looking camera shop and to grab an old school Single Lens Reflex Camera if I find film being sold anywhere.

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