Our first house in Old Sana’a was comforting- it was a little different, but not too different, and it had a stove and refrigerator and couches- things we simply did not have when we had just arrived. The rent, however, was very high, and we had a very tight budget. So Khalil started asking around and, through a German student at the language institute, found what would turn out to be my favorite house here in Yemen.
Old Sana’a is a magical place…winding alleyways, sometimes only wide enough to walk single file, lead one past tall tower houses reminiscent of castles or fortresses. They sport gingerbread facades, windows seemingly sprinkled randomly across the stories, each one outlined in white. The cookie cutter tops jut into the blue sky, symbolizing the joining of heaven and earth. There are several suqs, or open markets, scattered throughout the old city, selling everything from cheap transistor radios to intricately embroidered wall hangings. I fell in love with the Old City as soon as I saw it, and our new house became my refuge for our first months in Yemen.
Five stories high, the door of the house was tiny, as if meant for creatures smaller than human size. Its key was huge, taking two hands to turn it. The house was in the old Jewish quarter of the city, and we were told the doors were like this so that the occupants would have time to flee through the roof if soldiers came in from below. Above the door was a chute which extended up the side of the building with a decorative grate in it. This made it easy for someone in one of the higher floors to look down and see who the visitor was when the bell rang. Inside, the rooms looked as though they were carved from the earth itself- all light and curves and fluidity. Over each window was a stained glass window, sending a kaleidoscope of light into the room to dance across the floor at different times of day. The kitchen had a built in tanoor oven in one corner, which was fueled by wood. Mornings brought the scent of woodsmoke and baking bread wafting through the windows, reminding me of home, while connecting me with the history and traditions of my new home at the same time.
My room was small, with built-in cupboards all around and legless couches covered in a rather garish red print surrounding a squat table. One of the couches was wider than the rest, and that was our bed. Mornings were cold in the old tower house. First thing, my son would brew tea for everyone, and then the children would gather in my room, where we would sip the hot, sweet beverage, talk quietly, and feel the sunrise as it climbed slowly up the walls of our little fortress. A little later we’d climb to the mafraj, the room at the top that offered a panoramic view of the Old City. Looking around at my new, I longed to find my space amongst the people, and to become a part of this enchanting, fairy tale world.
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