An English Girl in Yemen – Is Aden your final destination?

At the end of April, having been in Qatar for more than a year,  I decided that I needed to step up the adventure and experience quotient and look further afield for a bit of excitement.  Where did I choose?  

Ever since I met my friends in Souq Waqif, here in Doha, and having been moved by their charm, their warmth, their sincerity, their joy of life, not to mention their excellent dance moves of course!!…. I have wanted to go to Yemen.  When one of my closest friends got stuck in Yemen at the end of last year just as the new Qatari Amir changed the visa rules so that Yemenis could no longer visit Doha, I made up my mind.  I would visit Yemen somehow, despite all the warnings, dangers and difficulties securing a visa.

I read that, as a British passport holder, the only way for me to visit would be to book with a tour company and be accompanied by a guide at all times.  OK for a tourist visit, to see the sights, such as the incredible Haid Al-Jazil in Wadi Doan, Hadramout (pictured), but I wanted to see my friend.  It seemed travelling to Yemen independently was not possible and I couldn’t see a way around it.   But as is often the case, it turned out to be much simpler than I expected…… in fact, it all happened very suddenly and took me by surprise.  I went from believing I could never go, to having the visa in my passport within one week!

I won’t go into detail about it here, as it would be too long for a blog (maybe one for the book!!)… but suffice to say that a nice chat with the Yemeni Ambassador over a cup of sweet tea did the trick.  He was also kind enough to give me details of a very senior security official in Aden airport, who had, lets just say very lofty connections.

Thankfully, I never needed to use them but it was reassuring…… although you never know whether carrying such contacts is a good or bad thing sometimes!!!

It struck me as a fabulous and very old fashioned way of doing business, which I think we have lost to a great extent in Europe, binding ourselves up instead in so much red tape and cotton wool, that the only response we get is “computer says no”!!  There were no computers in the Yemeni Embassy! 😉  Actually there weren’t many people either….. (Yemen isn’t the holiday hotspot it once was!!)…… which is why I was able to spend a little longer over my tea!!

I knew that Yemen was along similar lines to Saudi Arabia in terms of Muslim conservatism and I would need to pay particular attention to my attire.  I knew about the dangers to westerners of kidnappings by Al Qaeda and tribal factions, so I went with one of my dear friends, Mohammed, to buy an abaya and hijab.  I was very glad I had when I read that two women had been shot and killed in Aden the week before for not wearing the abaya.

I realised then quite the responsibility I was placing on the shoulders of a young Yemeni, whose time-keeping and reliability had not been award winning when I knew him in Doha!   I wondered what would happen if I arrived in Aden and he was nowhere to be seen!  I flew with Yemenia Airways, who are the only carrier flying directly from Doha to Aden, once a week.

My nerves were not calmed when I arrived at the airport and immediately started getting clues to the somewhat unusual nature of my choice of destination.  I was asked for my mobile number by the check in desk, and every time I showed my boarding pass to purchase something, a quizzical look would come over the assistant and they’d ask “is Aden your final destination?”… almost seemed as if they were about to say…. “don’t do it!”  But soon I received a message from Yazid to say he was already waiting for me at Aden airport, which made me feel a whole lot better!!

In typical Yemenia Airways style, the flight was delayed…. and when I sat at the gate with the rest of the passengers….. (all 20 of them!) there was not one single westerner among them.  I could tell the guys were Yemeni because of the style of headdress they wore and every single woman, without exception, wore the abaya and niqab (full veil).  So my confidence in having my abaya and hijab packed safely in my luggage, quickly evaporated when I realised I hadn’t bought the full veil.

There I was in smart-casuals with all eyes upon me.  But they were not eyes of suspicion or disapproval.  No, these were friendly eyes and I felt at home.  Because of my familiarity with my friends in the souq, and my knowledge of Yemenis as warm and welcoming, i didn’t feel in any way out of place.  

When we boarded the bus, the ladies congregated at one end and the men at the other….. I found myself standing amongst the guys and no one seemed to mind.  As a western woman, Im in a very lucky and privileged position of being able to mix with both sexes.  Some of the ladies talked to me and asked me about my trip.  The whole flight felt like a family outing!!

And there was plenty of space!!……so sad that such a beautiful, interesting and unique place in the world is ravaged by tribal conflict, poverty (particularly in the South), a significant Al Qaeda presence and regular drone strikes by the USA, not to mention the constant and lengthy power cuts due to the bombing of gas and oil pipelines.   All of this has, quite naturally, deterred tourists from travelling there and of course it is now almost impossible to get a visa anyway, even if one was prepared to take the risk.

The flight was only an hour and a half and given the poverty in the country, one could forgive this being what I could only describe as a ‘no frills’ airline.  It was 6 months since I had seen Yazid, in early November last year and I was excited to see him and see some of this beautiful part of the world, so forgotten…..

Flying into Aden airport was the strangest arrival at any airport Ive ever experienced.  I have never flown into an airport which doesn’t have any other planes on the ground at all.  Not one.  Just one small single story building which looked like a set from a 1960s American cop show….. all pastels and palm trees.  We landed very quickly and taxid to the terminal in short order where we were disembarked onto a bus which drove us all of 100 meters to the terminal door….. it was rather funny.  I could have walked it quicker I think!…..

During the 30 second bus journey, I caught sight of someone standing on the tarmac … was Yazid!   I recognised him immediately.  All the concern about what I’d say to security, what would they ask me etc vanished.   No problems with security here!  It seems his father is an important and well connected tribal Sheikh in South Yemen.  He took me immediately by the hand, took my passport from me, handed it to security and whisked me through passport control without anyone speaking to me at all!!  First class service.  We waited in the waiting area for 5 minutes, catching up with my patchy Arabic and his even patchier English, and there came security with my passport all stamped and ready to go…… !!!

And that was the easiest arrival to any airport I have ever experienced, I just never expected it to be in Yemen!!

…….to be continued…..!!

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