Around Yemen

yemen flagThe Republic of Yemen was established on the 22nd May 1990 with the unification of the formerly separate states of North and South Yemen. It has a rapidly expanding population, currently standing at around 25 million. Yemen is an Arab country, and the official language is Arabic. The vast majority of Yemenis are Muslim, largely Shafi’i Sunnis and Zaydi Shias. There is a small Jewish minority, which was historically much larger until most Yemeni Jews left the country in the first half of the 20th century.


Yemen is located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, bordered to the north by Saudi Arabia, and to the east by Oman. Just across the Red Sea to the west is Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia.

yemen governoratesYemen is divided into 20 governorates, along with the capital district:

Here’s some random things about them (numbered as they are in the map). If it sounds like nonsense it might be, this is based on my own experiences and randomness off the top of my head. Ticked are the governorates I’ve visit:

1) Aden: √

img_74381Former capital of South Yemen, and formerly a major port for the British Empire. In fact, once the third busiest port in the world. Thanks to mismanagement Aden is nowhere near what it used to be. It’s still a charming place, if you go make sure you visit the Gold Mohur beach (which has a rock that looks like a giant elephant!!), the Aden Tanks, where ancient Adenis would store water, and Crater, the heart of the city. If you’re thinking, “why is it called Crater?”, well, it’s because Aden is built in the heart of an ancient, apparently extinct, volcano, that Islamic prophecies say will erupt at the end of times. Cool!

2) Amran:

50_yemen_024Amran is the homeland of several of Yemen’s leading tribal figures, along with one of my uncles. Used to be part of Sana’a governorate. In 2012 my dad informed me I had a family wedding to go to in Thula, a picturesque town in the governorate that is a candidate to become a UN World Heritage Site. Also turns out my great-grandfather lived in Thula, and I was able to find his ruined house, which was perched on the side of the mountain-top town, with amazing views across the valley below. That was a good day.

3) Abyan:

Abian1Capital of Abyan is the fantastically named Zinjibar, also what Zanzibar is called in Arabic. Maybe there’s a connection? I don’t know. More importantly, President Hadi is from this desert-y southern province, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula used the security vacuum of 2011 to takeover several towns, including the aforementioned Zinjibar, and set up various “Islamic Emirates”. Although they were defeated, Abyan is still considered quite dangerous, and thousands of refugees have sadly not returned to their homes.

4) Ad-Dali’:

gbaaanStrong support for the secessionist movement here. Also a strong tribal presence, but of the southern variety. I’m not even going to pretend like I know anything else about this place (yet…).

5) Al-Bayda:

bidaa_imajI know people from al-Bayda have a mixed North-South identity. That is all I know.

6) Hodeida: √

ed_ou_camel_jump_nytHot. Really really hot. And humid. The area is historically called ‘Tihama‘, which pretty much comes from the word for hot. Once when I was a kid, our car broke down and we had to wait for two hours in the mid-day heat and humidity till it was fixed again. I still remember how horrible that was. On a better note, Hodeida is actually pretty nice, without the heat, and my parents had their honeymoon here. Hodeida was North Yemen’s principal port. The people here have a really funky accent, along with really funky African-influenced (I’m guessing) dances. Zabid is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised for its ancient buildings, from when it was one of the leading centres of learning in the Islamic World. ALSO, Tihama is home to the Zaraniq, the tribe that camel-jumps.

7) Al-Jawf:

algooaf1There were clashes here between the Houthis and Islah-affiliated tribesmen. It is also quite big.

8) Al-Mahrah:

10544941Really want to visit al-Mahrah. Significant part of the population here speak Mahri as their first language, an old South Arabian language that uses the old musnad script that all of Yemen used to use. al-Mahrah is very sparsely populated, as it is mostly desert. However, when the monsoon hits it the landscape turns a lush green, and based on photos looks stunning.

9) Al-Mahwit: √

kawkaban_bigOnce, I was walking along in a protest when an old man started chatting to me, he asked for my name, and then asked if I was related to the al-Shamahi’s in al-Mahwit. I said no, but turns out I was completely wrong on that, al-Mahwit is home to Shibam-Kawkaban – two towns rolled into one. Shibam (not to be confused with the one in Hadhramaut) is at the base of the mountain, and Kawkaban is a walled city at the top. The story I’ve been told is that in times of war the people of Shibam would escape up to Kawkaban, which seems pretty impenetrable. Funnily enough, I’ve never been to the actual town of al-Mahwit.

10) Sana’a City (Amanat al-‘Asimah): √

1004508_10153116359750246_1717152414_n“La budd min Sana’a w inn daal al-safar”, Sana’a must be seen, even if the journey is long. So goes the old Arabic saying, and it really is still just as true. Sana’a is a beautiful city, even the parts outside the UN World Heritage Site of the Old City. It is charming in so many different ways. Sana’a is a perfect example of traditional Yemeni architecture, and walking through the principle gate to the Old City, Bab al-Yemen, is to walk back in time. The Old and New cities are both living and breathing, this is no tourist site. Winding its way through much of the city, and in particular the Old City, is the Sa’ilah, a road that is designed to fill up with water and serve as the cities drainage system when the rains hit in the summer. Surrounding the city are various mountains (locals can figure out directions on the basis of which mountain is in front of them), and they provide a stunning backdrop to the canvas that is Sana’a.

Sana’a is the place where I would spend most of my time when I went to Yemen, it’s where I now live, and I love it.

11) Dhamar: √

897502695_b3d628de01Part of what is called al-Manadiq al-Wusta, the Midlands, Dhamar is an agricultural, mountainous province. Is home to the Utbah Nature Reserve, which looks beautiful. Dhamar and nearby Yarim, in Ibb, have what would be the closest Yemeni equivalent to ‘regional friendly banter’.

12) Hadhramaut: √

shibam-01Hadhramaut is by far the biggest governorate in Yemen. It largely consists of desert (the Empty Quarter) and wadis (seasonal watercourses). The name apparently literally means ‘death has come’, and either refers to an ancient king who had a thing for killing people in battle, or that its really, really hot in Hadhramaut. Hadhramaut is a distinctive part of Yemen, with traditions and traits that are perhaps not seen elsewhere. Traditionally, Hadhramis are Sufi Muslims, and there are many shrines dotted around the governorate. One of the world’s leading centres of Sufi learning is Tarim, located in Hadhramaut. In the town you’ll find people from around the world studying under various Sufi scholars, such as Habib Ali al-Jifri. Hadhramaut used to be ruled by sultans, and traces of their rule still exists, such as the beautiful Kathiri Palace in Seiyun. Near Seiyun is one of Yemen’s most famous sites, Shibam (Hadhramaut), often called the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’ for its ancient mudbrick tower blocks tightly packed into a walled town. Many of the top floors of the mud brick houses have gangways connecting them to each other for times of war. Shibam is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The capital of Hadhramaut is Mukalla, a port that is famous for its whitewashed buildings. If you’re lucky, and you know where to go, you can see giant turtles on some of Hadhramaut’s beaches, as they come to lay their eggs.

– Socotra

socotra_mm7776_005_slide-ea35c1c7b8efc57adc666934878ca21f328cd3a8-s6-c30Technically, Socotra is part of Hadhramaut, but it really deserves to be spoken about separately. Socotra is an island, geographically closer to Somalia than it is to mainland Yemen. The island is simply stunning, and, as it is incredibly isolated, has animals and plants that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth. Socotra is currently not a huge tourist destination, but this is expected to change. Go while it’s still untouched!

13) Hajjah: √

Bridge-of-Sighs-Yemen-750x561Hajjah is a mountainous governorate in the North-West of Yemen. The majority of my mother’s family is originally from Hajjah, and some of my father’s too. Many of the old rulers of Yemen, the imams, were from Hajjah. Perhaps its most famous site is the Shahara Bridge, built between two mountains and perched above a 300 foot drop.

14) Ibb: √

409685_459012827450089_1516224809_nIbb is known as the ‘Green Province’, because it’s… very green. The village my mom grew up in, Nakhlan, is in Ibb – it’s a little village in the middle of a green valley. Ibb is basically beautiful. Ironically, there is a town in Ibb called al-Qaeda. So its residents are from al-Qaeda, Yemen. Don’t think they’re too happy right now.

15) Lahj:

10045642Lahj is a governorate in south-western Yemen. Before the creation of South Yemen it was a Sultanate. I know very little else…

16) Ma’rib:

130114808.Jqv1FxxuMa’rib is currently best known by Yemenis for apparently being full of bandits attacking the electricity infrastructure, but historically this governorate was the centre of the ancient civilisation of Sheba, and is home to the site of possibly the world’s first dam. The legacy of that civilisation can still be found, with archeological sites such as ‘Arsh Bilqis (The Queen of Sheba’s Temple), one of Yemen’s national symbols. I personally think that if there was stability in the area, archeologists would be able to uncover the rest of this great civilisation. In ancient times Ma’rib was supposedly fertile and prosperous, today it is largely desert. Having said that, significant oil and gas reserves exist here.

17) Raymah:

ray2Raymah is one of the newest governorates in Yemen, and one of the smallest. It lies to the south-west of Sana’a.

18) Sa’dah:

sadahSa’dah is a governorate in northern Yemen, on the Saudi border. It is currently famous for being the home of the Houthi movement, who control the governorate. Sa’dah was decimated by six wars in the early 2000s between the Yemeni Government (with the occasional Saudi intervention) and the Houthis. Clashes have also taken place more recently in Dammaj, a town with a Salafi seminary. The Salafis and the Houthis are ideologically opposed to each other. Sa’dah is thought of as the home of Yemeni Zaydism, and its traditional heartland.

19) Sana’a: √

31f94130a39afd8eceb02a05cff5324bSana’a governorate incorporates the rest of Sana’a outside of the city. It is home to some of the most powerful tribal families in Yemen. Sanhan is where former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is from. Hamdan is known for having particularly good qat, and Khawlanis are very often the butt of Sana’ani jokes.

20) Shabwah:

0A00ABShabwah is the third largest governorate in Yemen, and it is largely desert. It’s capital is Ataq. A lot of drone strikes have been occurring, as the United States continues to try to take down al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

21) Ta’iz: √

taizzEverywhere you go in Yemen you’ll find people from Taiz – they’re the country’s manpower. Taiz is home to some of the biggest business families in Yemen, such as the Hayel Said Group. It is therefore home to more factories than places such as Sana’a. Taiz City is situated in the foothills of the huge Mount Saber, which overlooks the city. Also overlooking the city is the al-Qahirah Citadel. The people are generally seen as the comedians of Yemen, and they look upon themselves as quite cultured, as opposed to the more tribal people up north. The city of Taiz was the seat of the Rasulid dynasty from the 1200s to the 1400s, and happen to be my own ancestors (eat your heart out). They left a great architectural legacy, such as the Ashrafiyya Mosque. Away from Taiz City there is the port of Mocha – yes, the coffee. Mocha, or al-Makha, was where Yemeni coffee would be exported to the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Once a prosperous port, it is know a desperately poor town.

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