Our house in Old Sana’a was near to two major outside markets–Bab ash-Shuab and Bab as-Sabaa. To get to either one of them, we had to walk down cobblestone streets, doing our best to avoid goats and the small children that seem to be everywhere in Yemen. Even after we had been in the neighborhood for a bit, the children would still stop and stare, their eyes huge as saucers, their fingers stuck in their mouths like pacifiers. I didn’t think we looked all that different–I wore the all-enveloping black garment that I’d worn in the States and which was similar to what many of the Yemeni women wore, my face covered with a veil, and most of my children have a coloring which is similar to that of the locals. My eldest son, though, is blond and blue-eyed, and there was no hiding that. After being here for a few years, I realized that culturally there is simply no problem with staring. If you’re interested in something, you stare at it. It still seems rude to me, but I understand it is a cultural difference, that’s all.
The suqs of Old Sana’a are incredible places. While some of the vendors have small spaces in actual shops, most of them conduct their trade from wheelbarrows or blue tarps spread on the ground. As you weave your way between them, they all call out, “bi miya bi miya bi miya” (only a hundred riyals) or “ahlan wa sahlan!” (Welcome!). Small boys selling anything from sponges to rat killer to watches tug at your sleeves, earnestly trying to convince you that whatever they have, is exactly what you want. Colorful dresses wave in the wind, delicate embroidery flashing in the sunlight. Bright silver jaambiyas, the daggers that almost all northern Yemenis are never without, march across the blue tarps, along with their gold and blue embroidered belts. Socks, toys and dishes all “made in china” fill the storefronts, along with cheap hair baubles and flimsy electronics. The spice stores are a special treat- baskets and canvas bags filled with spices–cloves, cardamom, cinnamon sticks–send their heady fragrances out into the street, beckoning you to come and look, come and buy.
The sellers are usually friendly and helpful, though they automatically raise their prices, assuming that you will bargain them down. Some, though, usually those with a wad of qat in their cheeks, are barely civil. I learned early on to find the helpful shopkeepers and always go to their stores, rather than have my day spoiled by a rude or offensive one.
Open-air restaurants abound, selling boiled potatoes and eggs to dip in a fiery mixture of powdered spices, bean sandwiches, falafel sandwiches, chicken and rice or even, in some areas, hamburgers and fries. The markets are full of men, women, and children, voices raised as they enjoy their daily bargaining, or gossip with their favorite shopkeepers, or sit on the curb sipping hot, spicy tea. The suqs in Old Sana’a are a feast in every sense of the word- for the eyes, the nose, the ears, and the spirit!