YEMEN is often called Arabia's best-kept secret, and with good reason. It is a spectacular country, but little known. I have been in on the secret since 1984, but on a visit in 2002 I was frustrated to see such a vibrant and colourful country, so independent and welcoming, enjoy only a trickle of visitors. I decided to blow the secret open.
My primary motivation was Yemeni women. I had met such gutsy and inspirational women in Sana'a that I believed other Irishwomen would appreciate the opportunity to meet some of their Yemeni counterparts. We have so much to compare, so much in common, and so much to talk about. My ally, in this project was my friendFatima Khatan, who is passionate about creating contacts between women East and West. My other co-conspirator was Yousuf Mohageb of Arabian Ecotours, who looked after me in 2002, when Yemen was suffering the fallout of 9/11 and was on the Don't-Go-Unless-You-Have-To list. The country has always suffered bad press, with its reputation for kidnappings and al-Qaeda sympathisers, but for the record, I have always felt safe in Yemen. I would hardly have brought a dozen women out there, including my 14-year-old daughter, had I thought they would come to any harm.
I was also confident that Yemen would not disappoint. It has so much to offer: mountains, desert, coastal plains; treasure troves of ancient sites connected with the legendary Queen of Sheba and the old spice routes; and then that architecture - tower houses sprouting out of mountainsides, the mud-brick city of Shibam, and the old town of Sana'a, a World Heritage site. In Sana'a, one is always drawn to the roof. There is no more stunning cityscape than of those tall brown houses, decorated with gypsum and multicoloured fanlights, spiked with minarets and surrounded by mountains.
Nor is there anywhere quite like the Sana'a souk. In the spice souk, shopkeepers will burn frankincense for you, or myrrh, and fat sacks of grain and spices huddle under awnings; in the tin souk, men hammer on vessels and copper kettles hang around doorways like golden locks; and in the qat souk, men sit in little box shops, and customers disappear down alleyways with their day's supply of leaf. Qat is the national stimulant, which is chewed and stored in the cheek for hours.
Sana'a also offers a feast of sartorial diversity: men wear the traditional dagger, the jambiyah, in their belts, and zannahs (long shirts) or futahs (skirts) with jackets; women cover themselves head to foot in black, leaving only slits for their eyes, if that, but older Sana'a women are often draped in multicoloured sitarahs, best described as large tablecloths.
Those who joined me in Yemen were indeed drawn by the opportunity to meet local women, who showed us around their workplaces - largely NGOs promoting health and education. One of their greatest challenges is the crippling rate of illiteracy. Women have to fight every step of the way in this patriarchal society, but they are making progress. Yemen, we were told, plays a significant role in defining human rights in the region, because it is a parliamentary democracy where civil society can exert pressure on the government. Women are at the forefront of many of these initiatives.
We were also tourists, and while you cannot do justice to Yemen in six days, Yousuf squeezed in Wadi Dahr, a seven-storey palace perched on a 10-storey rock; the Haraz mountains, with the extraordinary fortress town of Manakha; and Marib, one of the richest archaeological sites in Arabia. There are two Sabaean temples here, the remains of the Marib dam built in the 8th century BC, and old Marib itself. Inhabited until recently since Sabaean times, it sits on a mound, its crumbled buildings falling about themselves like people creased with laughter.
Interest in visitors is unobtrusive, respectful. My rather pale daughter Tamzin was, inevitably, a curiosity. Two young men in the souk asked politely if they could take her picture. Tamzin didn't mind, but our guide, Muhammad, all of 12 years old, told them to leave her alone. They did. Further on, an old woman reprimanded me for showing too much hair, then gazed into Tamzin's face and gently pushed aside a strand ofher hair.
Gifts, invitations, and welcomes were showered on us all week. This is not done to impress the tourist; it is the Yemeni way. Their hospitality and extraordinary generosity, in the face of grinding poverty, will leave snapshots of the Yemeni spirit long after you've gone. When I inadvertently glanced at our driver's egg-roll, he instantly offered it to me, though he had a long day's driving ahead; one of the hotel waiters made me tea every time I stepped into the garden; and Yousuf's wife gamely entertained all 12 of us to an amazing spread late one night in her home.
The Yemenis are fun, easy to be around. A young jeweller in the souk laid out three necklaces. "For very good friend," he said helpfully, pointing at the most expensive; then at the next, "for good friend", and at the cheapest, "for not so good friend". Another shopkeeper taught Tamzin how to count wads of money; and our most creative driver, his mouth bulging with qat and swerving around the road, accused our other driver of being on hashish!
As I write, half the group are sleeping on the fringes of the Empty Quarter. They wanted to lie in the desert and stare at the stars. No problem. Yemen can provide it all - sailing on a dhow in the Red Sea, rolling sand dunes, distinctive architecture, elusive legends, honey (the best in the world), spice and all things nice (including fantastic, cheap food). But it is the friendship of Yemenis that will always draw me back. Sitting with Fatima at a party held in our honour in the old town, I looked around to see huddles of Irish and Yemeni women in animated conversation. Some chewed qat; some smoked hookahs; some debated politics, sociology, women's rights; others were having their hands painted with naqsh in traditional designs. We were drinking cardamom tea, exchanging books, ideas, and email addresses. Fatima and I exchanged smiles: Mission accomplished.
'Like Nowhere Else' by Denyse Woods, Penguin, stg£9.99 GETTING THERE
London-Sana'a return with Yemen Airways is approx. ?590. A week's B&B and transport with Arabian Ecotours is $620 pp sharing