Yemen today

Everyone knows something or other about Yemen – the mythical Queen of Sheba, the origin of coffee, the caravans bringing frankincense and myrrh from the Indian Ocean through the desert to the Mediterranean Sea, the Bedouin, those tribes of desert-dwellers who still colour the image and the traditions of this marvellous country.

Yemen – between Asia and Africa, bounded on the west by the Red Sea and on the south by the Arabian Sea, and with the great Rub al Khali desert to the north and east.

Yemen – land of Islam – Arabian land – land of ancient settlers, cultivated from the coastal plain right up to the highest terraces on the steep mountainsides of the highlands. Land of clay buildings, of the first dams and skyscrapers, of sophisticated architecture providing shade, with cooling and ventilation systems. Land of veiled women, who under pressure from tradition and religion are cut off from everyday life, and spend most of their lives in their houses. Land of the great queens – Bilqis, Queen of Sheba and Arwa bin Achmad, whose myths are bound up with the fortunes of the land.

Land of opposites: tribes versus central government, imams versus democratisation and westernisation, men versus women's rights, religious groups versus one another, liberals for more freedom of speech, road-building versus tribal rights of way, North versus South, Bedouin tradition versus urbanisation, rich versus poor, Friday sermon and Islamic broadcasting versus internet and commercial TV, globalised economic development versus traditional tribal economy, division between men and women, between public and private.
The opposites clash, especially in the rapidly growing suburbs, where migrants from the traditional rural areas come up against urbanised sections of society.

In addition, the country lies in a strategic position between troubled regions in Asia and Africa, and within the Arabian states, and new discoveries of oil and gas attract greed from all sides. Yemen assumes a problematic position in the fight against terrorism, forced to tack between the fronts. In recent years, up to a million refugees, mostly Somalis, fled to Yemen from the regions west of the Red Sea where civil war is raging, and found a welcome in this poor land with its extremely high unemployment rate.

The birth rate is one of the highest in the world; each woman bears on average six children. The illiteracy rate is also extremely high, especially amongst the female population. On the other hand, the electronic media, especially mobile phones, are widespread. The most common job is that of driver, since there is no public transport and the distances are great. The Yemenis' driving skills, in their land-cruisers and shared taxis, are quite spectacular.

The main factor for Yemeni stability today is the firmly established concept of the patriarchal extended family, held together by economic, social and ethical factors, maintaining traditions and keeping strictly to their own norms. It is also this family system that keeps the strife-torn country together and in a peaceful state – despite all the polarities and tensions affecting it both internally and externally. Yemen is an exciting country. Visitors – every European feels at first very foreign indeed here – encounter open, friendly people ready to welcome them with interest and curiosity. The land and the people make us realise just how little we know about Arabia, Islam and the problems of the Arabic states today, and about their view of the western world. Yemen welcomes with open arms those who wish to learn more.

For us, "singles" in the majority, the particular fascination of Yemen – apart from all its cultural treasures, splendid landscapes and imposing buildings – lies perhaps in the way the extended families function, forgoing individual freedom; their capacity for happiness even in stark poverty, their equanimity and fortitude in the most hopeless situations, their openness and communicativeness, their ability to improvise in the midst of chaos. Perhaps – coming as we do from an outdated society of increasing reluctance for parenthood – we are also impressed by the great importance accorded to fatherhood and blood relationship in Yemeni society, where over 50% of the population is aged under 20.

Women travelling alone will meet with respect, especially if they try to observe the rules of the country. Yemen is interesting for women, since the situation of women there is similar to that in central Europe until after World War II.

Male travellers encounter rigorous restrictions regarding Yemeni women; they may not address them nor be alone in a room with a woman, only in exceptional circumstances will they see Yemeni women unveiled, and they may not photograph them without express permission.