Authors note: September 1978, 45 years ago. Six of us were working for Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and had a five-day Eid holiday ahead of us. We were at a loss as to where to go - then someone had the idea of visiting the Yemen! We had heard it was a beautiful country, but not being too sure about the place, we thought we would make enquiries, try and get visas, and if successful book hotels and flights - fortunately, we managed to get all these things done. And so, we were off!
This vignette was originally written around 1985 and has lain in a drawer ever since. I have updated it, included some input from my fellow travellers, and added some historical notes at the end.
Our hotel was the Al Hamd Palace Hotel, the former Palace of Imam Ali Bait Abbass, one of the “best” hotels in the city. From the outside, the hotel was one of those wonderful multiple-storey tower houses with their distinctive rounded windows, so named in Arabic as “Qamariyyah” because of the effect of moonlight on the glass at night. They are a beautiful feature of Yemen’s buildings.
Inside, the hotel had the air of a dusty dungeon, dull lighting, with stone flagging and parapet stairways and the occasional glint of colour as the sun caught the geometric patterns of the stained-glass windows. This was the Yemen and Sana’a.
A tall shaggy-looking man in a dirty lunghi was lounging in the only decent chair in the foyer as we walked in. We introduced ourselves to the clerk behind the desk while taking in our surroundings. Woken by our arrival, the man shifted his light frame up from his chair and introduced himself as Abdul. He broke into a Scottish brogue, partly inspired by the sound of a similar accent within our party, but partly, as we came to learn, from his time working for the Black Watch in the former Aden Colony in the south. Now confined to the dusty streets of Sana’a, he was earning a living as a guide. Would we like to hire him? He had a car.
Jimmy Abdul McGregor, as we had decided to nickname him, offered his services for £200 sterling. Worried by our initial reaction to the proposed charge for his services, he patiently explained that public transport in the Yemen was very public, there was little or no chance that we would find any form of transport we could depend on, and that taxi drivers and guides who wished to earn a decent living had to charge high prices as the Government imposed heavy duties on basic food imports. Persuaded by his reasoning, we decided his charge was quite reasonable between the six of us, and having agreed to meet him the next day at 9 o’clock, we went in search of our rooms.
Befitting a former Palace, all our rooms appeared to be uniquely different. One room was large with a yellow tinted Qamariyyah window, others smaller with odd assortments of furniture and plumbing fixtures. Another proved claustrophobic and too hot on top of the roof for Barry, and he managed to swap it for a completely circular room in the gatekeeper’s lodge. And so, to bed, exhausted.
Our day had started at Dhahran airport. On boarding the plane, we found that a third of the plane had no seats, and we appeared to be the only passengers on our Boeing 707. Check-in had assigned us 3 seats on either side of Row 1. Little did we know that the aircraft was to make an unscheduled stop in Bahrain and fill up with passengers and trunks! In those days labourers typically had fixed contracts to work in Saudi and the Gulf States. At the end of their contracts, they packed all their belongings into wonderfully gaudy painted trunks and returned to their towns and villages.
These trunks were usually wooden or tin, used for storage and transportation of goods and personal items, beautifully decorated with bright colours and geometric patterns, reflecting the diverse and rich culture of the country from where they originated. In a normal configuration, our seats would have been Row 8, but 42 seats had been cleared to store excess trunks in the cabin.
In retrospect, our row allocation had been sensible, as our fellow passengers seated behind us were obviously still unused to the delights of flying and much to the annoyance of the cabin crew raised their hands and/or pressed all available buttons throughout the flight. The rumour that the airline was a CIA operation was reinforced by the efficiency by which the cabin crew ignored all requests for service, merely walking up and down the aisle, hands held high, fingertips ready to turn off the offending orange light; one passenger even tried to light a primus stove in the aisle. Quickly extinguished.
The lack of life jackets under the seats and the constant shifting of the trunks in front of us gave us the feeling that the airline was running on a shoestring. We thought Economy Airlines might be a better name. This was somewhat confirmed when our on-board meal of extremely sparse rice and curry was served, accompanied by a dry and shrivelled orange. Airport catering facilities must have been really stretched on our return journey by the two boiled eggs that were served.
Like many Arab airlines, Yemen Airways was “dry,” not an alcoholic drink on board. We hadn’t given this any thought when we booked, as we had been used to flying Gulf Air, which did serve drinks. Our unscheduled stop at Bahrain answered our prayers. Cheekily we asked if two of us could get off and buy some at the duty-free shop. Amazingly they let us do it, and so we weren’t too upset when our requests for extra orange for our vodkas were ignored. Too busy switching off all requests for service!
The following morning, awakening to a glorious day, we were welcomed by a smiling Jimmy Abdul McGregor, wearing a smart kufi cap and a jacket, eager to get us on the road. His rather old, but obviously serviceable, Mercedes 220 was parked in front of us, with the inevitable feather duster and tassels hanging from the front mirror. Two in the front with Jimmy, four in the back. It was a tight squeeze.
We had arranged that Jimmy would drive us south to Ta’iz, a 6+ hour ride there and the same back over the first two days, and then up to Shibam Kawkaban in the north on our third. On our last two days, we would explore Sana’a. The drive was amazing, stopping at Ibb and Jiblah on the way - villages perched on the sides of mountains, fertile valleys, farmers ploughing their land with camels or donkeys, and people sitting on the roadside selling prickly pears and other produce. We even saw an open-air butchery; two oxen heads staring back at us, blood trickling down the step on which the heads were placed.
Ibb, an ancient market town, is a beautiful old town with an Ottoman Grand Mosque, Umar Caliph Mosque, a fortress, towering stone houses, with geometrical friezes and circular stained-glass windows, and narrow streets. And mud, everywhere. The river that flowed beneath the town and the rains that had preceded our visit had combined to turn all the dusty streets into channels of mud, a point which was not lost on the girls’ ankles as they struggled in their open-toed shoes. It is one of the wettest areas in Yemen. We called it Mud City.
Jiblah, eight kilometres southwest of Ibb and approximately 2,200 feet above sea level nestles in the Sarat Mountains. It was the highland capital of the Sulayhid dynasty in the C11th and C12th. The houses are decorated with stucco patterns and the doors are made of carved wood. The Queen Arwa bint Ahmad Al-Sulayhi Mosque and Palace were built between 1056 and 1111. The women folk of Jiblah launder their clothes in large pools formed by rivulets of natural spring water, which trickles down the slopes of Jabal At-Taʿkar using the stepping stones of the river like an old-fashioned Dhobi.
The Mosque of Queen Arwa bint Ahmad Al-Sulayhi in Jiblah.
The people of the Yemen were very friendly indeed and the children were especially keen to have their photographs taken. The men wear a jambiya (the curved dagger) hooked into their belts. Almost everywhere, we were offered one to buy, with an accompanying sheath, handmade belts and silver pouches. One of our party took advantage of a seller who had chewed too much Khat and got an excellent price, only for him to chase her down the street when he realised he sold too cheaply!
Ibb and Jiblah were a wonderful experience. In the marketplace, beautiful women with wonderful smiles invited us to buy corn, shielding themselves from the sun under parasols; while old men and boys stared as we walked through the local masjid baths. It was pretty normal for locals to stare as tourists were still a rarity in this corner of the Arabian Peninsula. We were even more surprised when we caught sight of a pin-stripe-suited gentleman in a bowler hat rushing to meet us waving a furled-up black umbrella (in 95°F!) and asking “Are you British?” "Yes," we chorused, and he did too. He was very proud of his worsted English suit and his shiny brand-new British passport. He was a factory worker from Huddersfield who had emigrated to England in the 1950s, leaving behind a wife. He was returning home to his farm to see his children and grandchildren whom he had never seen, before returning to his other wife in England and his two semi-detached houses. He had done very well for himself.
That evening we found ourselves in Ta'iz staying in a comfortable but rather insalubrious hotel, chewing Khat (quat or gat). We had been offered some in the local souk. We nicknamed it “privet hedge,” a narcotic leaf that Yemenis store to one side of their mouth in large bulbous amounts, only to be unceremoniously spat out, as evidenced by large wads on the streets, when the juices had been thoroughly sucked from the leaves. Vain attempts to narcotise ourselves proved fruitless as the effect of the leaf works on the more you have, the more the effect. This was not achieved in the short time we had.
Jaw-sore and car-sore we went to bed. The next morning, we started our journey back to Sana’a stopping here and there for pictures, including a group picture with Jimmy.
That evening it was good to spend a relaxing evening in the hotel having dinner and a few drinks with some Americans and British who were also staying in the hotel. They had come down from Saudi Arabia and were showing the Yemenis how to fly planes and helicopters under the instruction of the Saudi Air Force. The Saudis were pouring a lot of money into North Yemen to keep the Russians out, although there were still Russian MIGs at the airport along with the American Hueys. The story went that the MiGs had no tyres on them and no petrol or oil to fly the planes. The Russians had plenty of vodka and offered to ‘swap’ the vodka for fuel.
The next day Jimmy drove us northwest, to Kawkaban. The name means “two stars or planets” in Arabic. There are two stories: one that the town had two palaces decorated with precious stones, each called " a star"; the other that there were two bright stars visible in the sky above. It was the former capital of the Yuʿfirid dynasty (847-997) and home to a sizeable Jewish community before they emigrated to Israel. It sits on a mountain plateau 9,600 ft. above sea level and is known for its C15th fortified citadel, Al Quahira, its tower-houses, rainwater reservoirs, and masjids; and has been strategically important throughout Yemen's history. It took about an hour to drive the 38 km. He dropped us off in Shibam and told us to take the mountain track to Kawkaban. After a couple of false starts, we found the “aqaba” (rocky staircase) and walked up, passing a man and his camel on their way down. It was extremely hard work, steep and winding, but worth it when we entered the town through the city gates, the Bab al Hadeed.
The town was perched on three sheer sides of the mountain, with spectacular views of the patchwork valley below, the surrounding countryside, and mountains in the distance. Many of the houses perched on the mountainside have “long-drop latrines.” The downspout of the toilet went into a channel that opened to the outside wall. Whatever flowed down the wall either dried up in seconds or became dehydrated excrement with no accompanying aroma by the time it stopped falling.
On the way back to Sana’a, we stopped in the Wadi Dhar, which is watered by a stream from the Jabal An-Nabi Shu’ayb. In the village is the amazing Dar al-Hajar, a former royal palace built on a rock formation in the 1920s for Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din, ruler of Yemen 1904 – 1948, itself sitting on top of a structure built in 1786 for the scholar al-Imam Mansour. Liz decided to cool off in some water, despite warnings from Jimmy that the water might be full of bacteria. Unbeknownst to her, salmonella typhi had found a cut on her foot and was swimming into her bloodstream.
It took 2 or 3 weeks for the symptoms to appear back in Dhahran and blood tests revealed paratyphoid. The paddle was cooling but cost 3 weeks off work and a 10-pound weight loss.
We were saddened when we returned to say our goodbyes to Jimmy. We had told him about the MiGs, and he volunteered to take anyone who was interested to see these relics of the Cold War. Only Barry took up the offer, and Jimmy showed off the MiGs and Hueys, with a complicit and stoned guard waving them through the airport perimeter. Our goodbye was a simple handshake. We had had plenty of fun, jokes and reminisces about Aden and the Black Watch on the trip. He had turned out to be a wonderful driver and raconteur.
We spent the last two days exploring the city. The old city of Sana'a has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (alongside Jericho, Damascus, and Aleppo). Sana'a is traditionally said to have been founded by Shem, the son of Noah. It is a well-preserved medieval city that is famous for its unique style of architecture - multiple-storey tower houses with the distinctive Qamariyyah windows. We walked through the Bab al-Yaman, the gate leading into the old city, which is surrounded by ancient walls; passed the Great Mosque of Sana'a, founded in the early Islamic period, c 633, one of the oldest mosques in the world; shopped in the Souk al-Milh, one of the best marketplaces in the Arabian Peninsula; and visited the National Museum of Yemen which had been founded in 1971 in the Dar al-Shukur (Palace of Gratefulness).
On the day of our departure, and to our delight, the chair was occupied again. There was Jimmy Abdul, who came to say goodbye and to get his tip! On the way back to the airport for our flight back to Dhahran we saw the MiG jets standing on the edge of the airport tarmac on brick blocks. Our outward flight was quite a contrast to what we had experienced flying in. There were only 20 people on board, certainly a nice way to travel on a virtually empty plane.
Aden: Aden had been captured by the British in 1839 and became a Crown Colony in 1937. Hadhramaut was known as the Aden Protectorate. Britain created the Federation of South Arabia in 1963 and Aden the capital, but independence movements led to violent conflicts between British forces and local insurgents, known as the Aden Emergency. The Black Watch which was a Scottish infantry regiment within the 51st Highland Division had been deployed to Aden in 1964 to counter the insurgency in the Hadhramaut. In 1967 the UK granted independence, and Aden and the FSA became part of the People’s Republic of South Yemen, renamed in 1970 as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. After our visit, North and South unified in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen, now torn apart by civil war.
Airline: Yemen Airlines was originally founded in 1940, becoming Yemen Arab Airlines between 1962 and 1972, and renamed Yemen Airways Corporation. In early 1977, the governments of the Yemen Arab Republic and Saudi Arabia established a new airline with both countries holding 51% and 49% of the shares respectively, and the name Yemen Airways was adopted on 1 July 1978. Its international network then included Asmara, Cairo, Djibouti, Dhahran, Jeddah and Kuwait. In 1990 Yemen Airways became Yemenia, and in 1996 South Yemen's Alyemda was merged into Yemenia.
UNESCO: Sana’a became a World Heritage Site in 1986 and Jiblah and its surroundings were added to its World Heritage Tentative List in 2002.
Emigration: There has been emigration to the United Kingdom from Yemen since at least the 1860s, with the first arriving as sailors and dock workers in the port cities of Northern England and Wales, with waves throughout the C20th. In the 1950s many sought better opportunities and living conditions in the UK, where they found work in steel and woollen factories, coal mines and other industries. They are likely to be the longest-established Muslim group in the UK, with many cities retaining a Yemeni population going back several generations.
Back row: John Hough, Barry Hampshire, Richard Thom
Front Row: Deirdre Hough (neé Reid-Anderson), Margaret Coulson (neé Renwick), Liz Couser
©️ Words Richard Thom
©️ Images Richard Thom
©️ Image of Abdul and car: Deirdre Hough
About the Author
Richard Thom grew up in Ahmadi, Kuwait 1954 – 1969 where his dad was Chief Health Officer for the Kuwait Oil Co; and worked in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia 1976 – 1980 for Aramco’s Internal Audit and Contract Cost Compliance departments.
When not working, playing rugby, squash or trying his hand at amateur dramatics, he used his organising skills not only to become a representative on the Aramco Employees Association, Treasurer 1976/77 - 1978/79 and Chairman 1979/80 for DRUFC, but also a founding member with Margaret Renwick of Thomtit Tours. The Yemen trip was the first.
He continued with a varied finance career in shipping (Japan) automobiles (Guam) and dance education (UK), before finally retiring in 2015.
Richard has contributed a number of articles to AramcoExpats including a review of Not the May Ball 3 in September 2022; a 10- part serialization of the unofficial history of the Dhahran Rugby Union Football Club and a look back on life after Aramco “Dance in the Desert”.
Richard published his book Dance into Business in 2018 a how-to guide for dance students, teachers and professionals wishing to start up a dance studio or go freelance. It contains helpful tips, practical examples, and points to consider whether just starting out or already in business. It is available from Amazon websites as a printed book, or an e-book priced locally.