A Woman Traveler in Yemen

An Ancient land that few westerners ever visit

By Alistair Smith

Penny Smith, right, has traveled to Yemen more than 20 times.
Penny Smith, right, has traveled to Yemen more than 20 times.

The Biblical Tale of Three Wise Men, bringing gifts to the infant Jesus — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — stuck in Penny Smith’s mind. Like many children, it was probably one of the earliest stories she heard.

These three products, two of them most mysterious to a young westerner’s mind, were key elements in the ancient camel caravan trading routes of the Middle East. All of them were available in Yemen, the place from which the fabled Queen of Sheba travelled to meet King Solomon perhaps three thousand years ago.

But times change, needs change, and trading routes change, so the world stopped coming to Yemen, leaving it isolated by the desert of Rub AI Khali, (the Empty Quarter), the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, the forgotten southernmost tip of Arabia.

And so it remained for five centuries or so. The British had a strategic toehold there, part of latter day sea-trading routes, but they were thrown out in 1967, and the country came part under communist control, the rest remaining feudal.

It was 1992, two years after “reunification”, that tourists were first permitted to enter. Melbournian Penny Smith was one of them. She’s been back twenty times since, has spent time living and studying Arabic there, and leads occasional small tours into a country which immediately captured her heart, although it has been hard to get insurance since September 11. Her latest group were involved in filming for National Geographic.

Looking for Adventure

“I was looking for adventure,” she recalled. “My three children had left home and I was going through that stage that women do, when you feel useless, unwanted, superfluous and badly in need of doing something to get all your senses back. “I saw an ad in the paper for a trip to Yemen.

A Yemeni man sells cards.
A Yemeni man sells cards. David Rich photo.

I had no idea where it was, so I looked it up on a map, and found it was in the Middle East, an area I hadn’t explored. I booked the tour that day. “It was a horrendous journey there with planes breaking down and so on, but within 24 hours I was hooked, it was as if I’d come home, as if this place was meant to be. I can’t explain it. It was weird.

Frankincense Trees

“I was seeing the 15th century living in front of me and I didn’t understand anything. So I started to learn. I went back again fairly quickly after that, much better prepared, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” At one stage Smith spent four months studying Arabic in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. While at 60 she found student life hard to handle, she learned a great deal about the intimate lives of Yemenis from her 26-year-old female teacher.

“When you come in as a tourist and European, you don’t get to hear about their intimate lives and what their daily life and their hopes and dreams are. I learned more of than that I did than of Arabic.” Even so, Smith had seen much of Yemeni life. “What you see is the world in the 15th century. Yemen is very much the third world. You could be back before Christ. And that’s magical to me.”

She recalled the story of the three wise men. “I never knew what frankincense was, and I’m not religious, but when I first saw a frankincense tree I was very emotional. It was weird. There aren’t very many left now because it’s not a huge market anymore. “I went to a funeral in Melbourne and they were burning it. No one would recognise it unless you’ve been to the Middle East. Certainly they still bum it here in the Catholic churches — I don’t know the Muslims would be too pleased to learn about that!!! ”

Little Caves in the Souks

Every now and again I burn it, because it transports me back to those little caves in the souks where people are sitting working, and this wonderful smell pervades through the market — actually helps against the rotting garbage!” she laughed. “I don’t mind a bit of luxury, like we have on some trips, but I’m quite happy to sleep on the floor.

I can sleep anywhere now. When you camp with Arabs you have this perception that they are wonderful at putting up tents and things. They are absolutely hopeless. They just lie down on the rocks and go to sleep and they are not aware you are uncomfortable, so you have to learn to do those things when you spend time in remote areas with them.

The driver will sleep on the roof rack. “In the rural areas, women do virtually all the work. The men sit around and smoke qat, this narcotic leaf. Sometimes in the rural areas they’ll be ploughing the field with the women casting the seeds behind them. “You may see a landcruiser or a satellite dish, but I don’t think village life has altered at all.

It just goes on the same way. Women gather firewood and go to the well for water… which is lovely to see, but very boring if you actually have to do it.” Smith is talking from personal experience. Her first taste of travel came in a series of lengthy visits to Tanzania when her brother, Charles Land, was researching African tribal people for his PhD. She lived with the Masai and related sub-tribes. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But it was the most enriching and rewarding experience you could imagine.

Grinding Maize

“One of the things I found when grinding maize in the morning, doing my bit as a woman…aurrghhh… every day, walking miles for water with a donkey… very dull. In Yemen you will hear the women at the wells all laughing and talking. It’s a social thing and they are not living at the pace we do, so it if takes all morning, it takes all morning.

“The people appear happy.. families are large (eight is average), children are loved, play in the street, amuse themselves. “One of the joys about looking at Yemen now, before too much has happened, is that you are able to see in front of you what it must have been like. “And the beauty!

You imagine Arabia to be desert and camels and things, but Yemen is extremely mountainous with very fertile valleys (wadis). The coastal plains are hot and African-influenced with mud huts and beautiful plaited straw roofs. “In the wadis, you have wonderful mud-brick skyscrapers which have been there for hundreds of years, and the cities are built of stone and mud, built without machinery at all. The architecture is just mind-blowing. ”

Life on the Street

And there’s a lot of life in the street. People wave and talk to you, call out welcomes and invite you into their houses for tea. The people are extremely hospitable.”

Is It Safe in Yemen?

Obviously, I raise the topic of personal safety for travelers, for Yemen is frequently mentioned as having problems.

“My father is British and can only think of them as terrorists,” says Smith. “Even after ten visits he cannot accept that I am safe, that I am completely at home there, and I have no problems — a woman on my own — no problems whatsoever. “I’ve been knifed in Notre Dame by gypsies. I have travelled around Europe, and Paris at night is far more dangerous than it is in Yemen.

I have been stopped by police when walking down the Kings Road (London) at 4 am when I couldn’t sleep from jetlag. “In Yemen, you could walk anywhere at night. It’s a totally different thing; There is a gun culture, it’s their feudal system that they’ve had for thousands of years, that they still have. That concerns people. We’re not used to seeing people wandering round with Kalashnikovs.

You Get Used to It

“But, honestly, you get so used to it, you don’t even think about it. And, although there is shooting, it is usually in celebration that a baby has been born or a wedding or something. You can go to places and watch men dancing and shooting off with the sheer exuberance of life, but it isn’t threatening in any way. I have never felt threatened by them. Never.”

But Smith hasn’t been everywhere in Yemen — yet. “It’s an area said to contain the country’s best archaeological sites. It’s off-limits because of problems with the local tribes. They can’t understand archaeology and they are suspicious of the west’s interest,” Smith explained. “The tribes shut it down, because of a fear about looting and treasures. It’s just ignorance really.

“I’ve got to persuade one of my driver friends to take me there. At the moment they are too scared. But I wouldn’t have any worry once I got in there, I’m sure.”


Zahaweg Askary: A spicy sauce made from fresh tomatoes, green peppers and spices

Zahaweg Jobn: A spicy sauce made from fresh tomatoes, green peppers and spices and Yemeni goat cheese

Shafuut : Bread with yogurt, mint, spices and herbs

Helba : Sauce made from various spices and herbs

Bent Assahn: Puff pastry covered with honey

Buraik : Puff pastry stuffed with minced meat

Sabaya : Typical Yemeni bread covered with honey

Shorbat Adas: Lentil Soup

Main Courses

Hanid: Lamb meat cooked in typical oven with spices

Kabsa: Rice with Lamb meat

Agda:Lamb meat cooked with vegetables, tomato sauce and spices

Mohkbazat Sayd: Fish cooked in typical oven with a spicy tomatoe sauce

Alistair Smith writes from Melbourne Australia.

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