TIME ZONES: Three Hours at a Yemen Market

Tradition and Modern Life Merge at Portal to Sanaa's Old City

Bab al-Yemen, the entrance to Sanaa's Old City, still embraces its original incarnation as a market, playground and meeting place.
Bab al-Yemen, the entrance to Sanaa's Old City, still embraces its original incarnation as a market, playground and meeting place. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

SANAA, Yemen It is 4 p.m. when Sanaa's Old City shakes off its lunchtime doldrums. Greeting its revival are the cries of vendors and a cascade of car horns, rare channels for unadulterated freedom of expression in the Arab world.

"Three pairs of socks for 100 rials!" Mohammed Faez bellowed in a monotone at Bab al-Yemen, the city's entrance.

Medieval Baghdad had its gates -- the Gate of the Willow Tree, the Gate of the Moon, the Gate of Darkness. In its day, the Ottoman Empire had the Sublime Porte, a somewhat exoticized way to say the High Gate. Sanaa's Old City -- by tradition founded by Noah's son Shem, guided here by a bird -- has Bab al-Yemen, the entrance to an antique city.

Homes built of sun-dried mud brick rise three or more stories. Some are crested with a mud coating. Intricate friezes dance along the walls, and white gypsum in gentle curves and sharp angles ornaments almost every home. There is a brilliance to Yemeni architecture, and in the vista through Bab al-Yemen, a millennium-old style merges the most modern houses with their ancient equivalents into disordered perfection.

"There is no better view and no more pleasant atmosphere," Salah Hadi said at his music store.

By 4:30 p.m., the market is in full swing, pouring into the streets on both sides of Bab al-Yemen, the kind of commerce that grows up wherever people gather. Men sit along the entrance, selling a pound of powdery green henna for 200 rials, roughly a dollar. Beyond them are carts piled with Chinese-made shirts and gold-embroidered belts to carry a traditional dagger -- and fashion necessity -- known as a jambiyya. From Hadi's store, the strains of Yemeni pop music, with an Indian inflection, vie with the vendors' cries.

Less than 50 years ago, the walls that meet at Bab al-Yemen encompassed all of Sanaa, then a city of just tens of thousands and more medieval than modern. Today, its residents number nearly 2 million, and the sprawling capital stretches beyond the walls for miles in every direction. Bab al-Yemen has somehow managed the transition. Unlike some Arab markets, fetishized for tourists in places like Cairo and Jerusalem, Bab al-Yemen embraces its original incarnation -- market, playground and meeting place.

By 5 p.m., men sit cross-legged in small knots on a raised stone platform next to the entrance, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and chewing khat, a mildly intoxicating leaf indulged in by the vast majority of Yemenis from the afternoon on. The scene is somnolent, the chatter subdued, in part because most of the men seem pleasantly high. As the sun begins its descent, Faez, the 20-year-old sock vendor, joins them, picking the smallest, most tender leaves.

"Anyone who enters Bab al-Yemen has to stay for a little while," said Ahmed al-Harrazi, sitting on cardboard in his newsstand, where papers are piled two feet high, magazines spill onto the floor and posters of Yemen's president crowd the wall.

Asked his age, he squints, then pulls out his government-issued identification card. "In 1958," he said finally.

The architecture around Bab al-Yemen has changed little in 1,000 years, but the currents of the rest of the Arab world swirl through its alleys. Satellite dishes atop the mud-brick houses catch the sun's glint. On the walls outside Harrazi's store, there are portraits of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the assassinated founder of the radical Islamic movement Hamas in the Palestinian territories, superimposed over Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. Next to Yassin is a picture of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president executed in December.

Along the alleys around Bab al-Yemen Cafe, where at 6 p.m. customers fill its rickety benches, other portraits cling to walls. Many are of Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, which battled Israeli forces last summer.

"Look in the streets, look in the markets, look in the houses, you'll see him everywhere," said Sadeq Ahmed, a silversmith, leaning back in his chair. "He was the first Arab who defeated Israel."

As the sun sets, a small crowd gathers around vendor Ahmed Zayt as he serves small bowls of lentil soup, flavored with cumin, pepper, thyme and salt. "It's better for people to come to me than for me to go to them," he said, smiling. "Praise God."

The street lamps soon light up, and five minutes later the sonorous call to prayer begins. Men begin making their way to the nearby al-Radwan Mosque. Mohammed Ali, a 17-year-old denizen of Bab al-Yemen, takes his seat on the stone platform.

The conversation turns to khat and his dislike of it. "When you chew it, you look out here at the city, and you think it's Dubai," he said. "I'd rather put a rial in my mouth and chew it instead."

By 6:55 p.m., the mosque has almost emptied. Men in orange overalls sweep the black stone streets near Ali, crafting tidy piles of cigarette butts, scraps of newspapers, bags and plastic teacups. In the dark, light shines through windows of stained glass and alabaster. The bursts of color hover under a half moon. At Bab al-Yemen, Faez, the sock vendor, stands again at the entrance.

"Three pairs of socks," he cries out. "Three for 100 rials."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company