by Ellen Knickmeyer
The Romans, notoriously tough to impress when it came to the barbarians on the fringes of their empire, knew Yemen as Arabia Felix, or Happy Araby. A few thousand years later, Yemen remains a surprisingly easy place for visitors to fall under the spell of. For one thing, there’s just the way the country looks and feels — Yemen’s isolation, its lack of wealth, and a predilection for harboring al Qaeda members that scares away all investors and development, leave the country a rare and generally lovely remnant of old Arabia.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, you see office parks and Sheratons. When you walk through Yemen’s 2,000-year-old capital, Sanaa, you still see arthritic camels turning stone mills to grind out olive oil, and blacksmiths blowing on coals in hole-in-the-wall smithies. Yemen’s architecture is beautiful, and largely innocent of the modern era — the entire old city of the capital is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yemen’s traditional buildings are designed against the desert, so that tall brick homes shade narrow streets and stained-glass windows in every home cut the glare. The sun-raked landscape is dramatic; stark stone cliffs cut by irrigated green valleys. Many of the people are friendly and curious about the ways of the world outside. Even now, with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemeni officials and ordinary citizens, and even many figures on the fringes of law and order, are cordial to Americans, welcoming them into homes and soliciting their opinions on local and world affairs, over rounds of coffee. Westerners remain uncommon enough that children sometimes call out to them in the streets; but Westerners remain tolerated enough that the children don’t throw rocks. That’s always nice. If you’re an American and al Qaeda doesn’t kill you on a visit to Yemen, odds are you’ll love the place.