Yemen’s capital city is lively, vibrant city with the old central area dating to the 11th Century.
Sana’a is probably no more or less difficult to navigate than any other Arabian or African capital. But the weaving and turbulent chaos of the streets here might leave your head spinning for a few days.
Old Sana’a is a Unesco world heritage site. They introduce it beautifully
on their site: “Situated in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,200 m, Sana’a has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. In the 7th and 8th centuries the city became a major centre for the propagation of Islam. This religious and political heritage can be seen in the 103 mosques, 14 hammams and over 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century. Sana’a’s many-storeyed tower-houses built of rammed earth ( pisé) add to the beauty of the site.” Beautiful Sanaa indeed.
Thankfully we didn’t have to drive, we were driven by our hosts, the coffee exporters Sowaid. Senior Sowaid was calm and plodding by Yemeni standards (which would translate to completely insane on a US roadway). Ali, his son, was a menace to all, sheer terror when he found any open road. Then there was George M. George, transplant from India, driving the micro-micro-van plastered with ads for Karcher Power Washers (Sowaids other business).
And each night we retreated to the exclusive Sheraton hotel, which was awfully nice but the rooms rank between Motel 6 and Best Western. They had a swell pingpong table though.
Coffee, presumably from the area of Sana’a, is called Sana’ani coffee. Yet most coffee in Yemen is traded through Sana’a and with rampant mixing of different coffees in the commercial sector, it is hard to say what Sana’ani coffee truly is.
This trip was from way back in 2007 and so much has changed in the world since then, in particular the vicious civil war in Yemen funded by outside interests, yes sadly including US support for Saudi military.
The toll on average Yemeni people, those displaced, those already struggling to live even without the conflict, is so saddening. It is amazing that any semblance of normalcy, agriculture and trade, like the export of coffee, can even exist in such turmoil. Any yet with so little, families who rely on coffee as their sole income also need this trade to continue, more than ever.
I divided this travelogue into sections based on each leg of our trip back in 2007. -Thompson, Aug 2020.
Yemen Sana’a Gallery:
It was a quick 28 hour flight (I jest) but I wasn’t sleepy when we arrived at 10 pm local time. So I took in some Yemeni TV. This show was a soap opera set about 500 years ago. Scintilating! Yemen Our first day in Sana’a is spent visiting a few of the over 100 small coffee “consolidators” in the city. There is NO “Sanani” coffee, but most coffee is brought to Sana’a to be consolidated into larger, exportable lots. It comes from regions all round Sana’a such as Bani Matar, Haimi, Ismaili, Saihi, Harasi and Sharasi. Yemen A layover in Riyad Saudi Arabia, and a hint that the Saudi police don’t mess around. They also told us you had to put away any magazines you might have with lurid pictures of women. “Death for Drug Trafficker” Yemen Yemen is unique because the dry processed skins, the coffee husk, is nearly as valuable as the seed. It is used for Keshir (Quesher, Qishr), tea sweetened with sugar. It’s excellent, and hopefully we sill be able to offer this soon as a product. So the warehouse is as much a Keshir warehouse as a coffee warehouse. Yemen A simple but effective scale at Al Muhakri. They are one of the largest collectors of coffee and have relationships with local farmers and local collectors in the coffee-producing regions. Yemen And here is the elder Sowaid, who has been in the coffee business as an exporter 25 years, and comes from a line of coffee merchants. We traveled with the Sowaid’s, who have a reputation for top quality Yemeni coffees. Yemen We did much the same thing as before, looked at samples of the coffees they were working on to see the quality of the separation. Yemen And this was a sorta panel-talk show where veiled woman ask questions to 3 experts, and young men (their husbands?) in western suits respond to answers. I assume it’s an Islamic Dr. Phil type show. Yemen To see the quality of the cherry coming in, we opened up some bags at the warehouse Yemen Here you can see the quality of the cherry, including a few obvious un-ripe green cherries. Ovderall, this is a good looking batch, and will be subject to further hand sorting to remove defect seeds. Yemen So coffee cherry will be dried after harvest from the tree for 2 weeks or so, most often on the flat roof of the unique Yemeni rural houses. Yemen The lots are brought into the Sana’a collector as whole dried coffee cherry, pods. The lots are marked from the regions they originate, and kept separate. But in Yemen there are no farms large enough to keep distinct from others. All coffee must be blended to some degree. But what we want is regional coffee, not generic Sanani mix. Yemen A representative sample of the coffee resulting from this process. Yemen The longer I spent with Mr. Sowaid, the more I appreciated his great experience in export, and practical mind. I also started to think he looked just a bit like Groucho Marx. Yemen We pulled a bunch of samples from the already-milled bags of coffee. Once Sowaid chooses to buy these coffees, which he does as most do, on the appearance of the green coffee, he will send it to Hodeida, the port, for further cleaning. Yemen And my sole travel buddy on this trip, Mr Duane from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland and Seattle. In coffee, most people who get out to the trees know Duane well. He might also become famous for constantly having his iPhone out, Googling someones Blackberry, or Texting their Blueteeth, or something like that. Amazingly, that phone worked just about everywhere in Yemen! My lousy phone has dead spots all over our warehouse… maybe its time i get the iPhone too. Yemen And down the uneven cement stairs we went to the cavern below…. Yemen A surprise in Yemen is that all the coffee is milled from the husk in the basements of these warehosues in the city. The dark, cool conditions are good for coffee storage (as is the climate of high-altitude Sana’a itself). I liked all the grafitti on the door… Yemen …To what probably amounts to the simplest coffee mill I have ever seen. A mill is just one machine, an electric huller, and a few guys with big aluminum screens winnowing out the coffee seeds from the Keshir husks, and the remaining parchment layer. Yemen And I though my workstation was bad … here you sit among the proverbial “hill o’ beans” and use the motion of the aluminum pans to separate the seed from the skin. Yemen I was a little disappointed to see how young this one guy was. There is definitely strong public education in Yemen, but he didn’t look old enough by my (admittedly Western) standards. Everyone else I saw the entire trip was older. Yemen … is a jumble of coffee seed, husk, and parchment. It’s quite a task to sort this out, and everything from this stage until it is sewn up in export jute bags is done by hand. There are no further machines used to remove defective beans, which I find amazing. Yemen Coffee is bought and sold the old fashioned way, by looking at it. Yemen As I mentioned, coffee is evaluated in green form. They are experts at looking at green to determine how much under-ripe, and other defect seeds are present. This is important, because once Sowaid buys it, he is going to have to remove the defects and that reduces the amount of exportable coffee he has to sell. But there is little to no cup quality analysis, cupping, in Yemen! That surprised me greatly. Yemen To introduce the cast of characters, let’s start with Mr. Sowaid’s oldest son, Ali. He lived in the UK for college and actually speaks English with a British accent. Yemen Sowaid, Muhakri and his guys sat down outside to separate some samples from the warehouse and negotiate. Yemen Before I was kidnly told that you don’t photograph veiled Muslim women, I did so. Nobody cut off my shutter finger or anything. For an orthodox country, people are amazingly friendly, polite, and interested in visitors. Also, you simply don’t see many women, veiled or not (wait, I don’t think i saw any women without a headscarf of some kind… except at the hotel.) Yemen S we prepared to head to the next warehouse. I noticed lots of small music shops in Sana’a. I also noticed they were mostly a guy, a computer with an internet conenction, and a lot of home-made record covers. So basically, if you understand P2P you can have a shop in Sana’a! Yemen I found a lot of young guys wanted their picture taken. It was fun to show them the image (hey, I bought a new SLR just for this trip!). I only wish I could have some sort of ultra-portable printer to give them a copy. Yemen Toyota Stout, a very appropriate name. Toyota owns a good chunk of Yemen. Yemen Maybe it was the new big clunky SLR around my neck… Yemen The Jambir is the knife adult males wear, at least when they are in traditional dress. You don’t wear a Jambir and a pair of slacks. Yemen Just think … your Yemeni coffee was sitting here! Actually I think this is the corner where they stored the fruity skin, hence the giant stain. Yemen His friends dared him this time… Yemen Outside the 3rd consolidator we visited, a little guy hauls a bag of trash twice his size. Yemen The nest stop was the Al Brurai warehouse, much the same as Muhakri but a bit smaller. Yemen Turns out he was the owner’s son. Child Labor! No, turns out he will go to shcool the following year. Yemen The Sowaids inspect the coffee at Al Husinee warehouse Yemen I really liked the children in Yemen, and they liked to have their picture taken even more than the bachelor dudes. They are beautiful kids too, Yemen He insisted on getting his picture taken alone. piles of dry-process coffee cherry in the background. Yemen It must have been “bring your son to work day” because this coffee warehouse, Al Husinee, was full of them! Yemen Fun Fur Dashboard … what else can be said. Yemen Here is one of thei commercial appliance shops in the city. Actually, their expertise in shipping and imort/export helps greatly with their ability to deliver quality coffee. You can ruin great lots if they get stuck in Hodeida (humid port city) and Sowaid is well aware of that. Yemen We hit the streets to find a good lunch, and on the way I took some pictures of typical businesses. All these little shops are remarkably narrow in their offerings. One shop will be brake pads, the next clutch plates, the next radiators only. But you can get it all done in one area. Yemen All praise be to Allah, but at the same time, the Sowaid’s know that Maytag helped buy their new Toyota Land Cruiser. They are known for their distributorship of appliances in Sana’a as well as coffee. We spent a lot of time in the car, breathed a lot of road dust and second hand cigarette smoke from our host, who does about a pack a day, listened to recordings of the holy Koran and to traditional Yemeni music of the Oud (stringed lute-like instrument). Yemen It is typical to sit around, rest and chew the leaves of this shrub called Qat (Quat, Chat, pronounced Gat in Yemen) after lunch (which is by far the big meal of the day). Qat is a stimulant, much milder than coffee, but the country is fairly obsessed with it and it competes with coffee for land and resources. It’s milder than coffee … then again most people don’t drink coffee continuously for 3 hours in the afternoon! Yemen We returned to their main office – here you can see his exported coffee samples from last crop, along with some new ones (Main ccrop harvest is Oct-Dec, potentially arriving in the US between January-April or so). Yemen This map lots the density of coffee tree plantings in Yemen, which in relation to any other country is incredibly sparse. The entire production of the country is the same as a single cooperative in Ethiopia. Yemen Next morning we had a short while to walk in Ols Sana’a, the walled heart of the old city, before heading out the Saih growing area. Yemen Tourist Hotel – the old district has many, but I understand most are very, very basic Yemen Lotsa cats, and you can imagine that would be the case in the land of the Queen of Sheba. Yemen It’s a photographer’s dream, detail all over. Yemen Beautiful anachronistic architectural details are everywhere. Yemen Amazing old ruins of rock architecture that you might find in the Southwest US, but here at the center of a dense populated city. Yemen especially the coat and glasses. Yemen After a restless night of TV and fitful sleep, I awoke in a desert. Well, Sana’a is the capital, at high altitude, and cool in the morning. But like all Yemen it is quite arid. The weather was actually wonderful, and warms up moderately in the day. Yemen … and this door proves it. Yemen Smurfs seem out of place in this ancient walled city, but what the heck … kids need their smurfs! Yemen Favorite Doors of Old Sana’a Yemen I found the doors to be incredible, so here’s a series of images of them. Yemen Favorite Doors of Old Sana’a Yemen Inside an open door, another door! Yemen Cinderblock and grafitti with ancient mud-mortared rock walls behind. Can someone tell me what the grafitti reads? Yemen I was not special enough to stop and go in, so I am not really sure what they offered. Yemen At the restaurant, which have a big open cafeteria feel and serve GREAT food, an image in the wall caught my attention. Local celebrity, or the owner. Not sure. Yemen Typical all-purpose corner ship in Sana’a Yemen What is the supposed connection between snakes and healing? Looks like a glass of poison to me. Yemen George M. George is Mr. Sowaid’s main assistant, and is from south India. And he loves country music! (George; Those Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings CDs are on there way to you!) Yemen