My first day in Yemen is a scorching hot Saturday that seems more summer than spring.
It’s been eight years since Yemen’s ruinous civil war came to Aden, transforming it into a ghost city. Today, the ghosts of the recent past are still there: Driving around, it’s sometimes hard to believe anyone could have survived the devastation, as entire residential blocks sit slanted at an angle, the walls gaping open in a scream. As evidenced by the clothes hung out to dry among the destroyed buildings and the splintered window frames patched together by plastic bags, many families are still forced to live among the rubble.
But as the conflict lines have moved and prisoner exchanges have followed ceasefires, Adenis have had some respite. Though Aden, a port city as important in its time as New York or Liverpool, has seen its economy brought to its knees, there are signs of economic regeneration, primarily in the food industry. In the face of a humanitarian crisis that is marked by record levels of food insecurity — 80% of Yemenis live below the poverty line — the economic activity surrounding food is evidence of Adenis’ resilience and ingenuity, as well as representative of the major issues that Aden’s economy, and its people, will have to contend with as it rebuilds.
On this hot day in March, a friend recommends we go to Al-Qawzi, for its eponymous dish of slow-cooked lamb, as well as for the air conditioning. He also orders fahsa, a lamb stew that comes in a stone pot that’s scorching to touch, so we have a meal of two northern dishes that he claims are better in Sanaa, which he assures me is more beautiful than Aden. (Unsurprisingly, he is from the north.) When I ask for tissues — it’s been a while since I’ve eaten only with my hands — the waiter is welcoming to a fault, bringing them one at a time and laying them on the table until there is a small mound. When I joke that he has brought half the tissues in the city, he laughs, and immediately asks me where my accent is from, likely remarking on the Palestinian dialect that I’ve picked up from living in the Levant. He’s excited that I’m foreign — his customers used to include many businessmen from the Persian Gulf, but security concerns in the last eight years have wiped out most demand. Even foreign aid workers stationed in nearby compounds have left, as international attention, and aid budgets, have moved elsewhere. As a result, the U.N.’s food agency has been forced to slash food aid for 13 million Yemenis by more than 50%, as year-on-year funding targets to avert famine are missed.
Another friend insists on taking me to the Sira fish market, overlooked by the 11th-century citadel. He encourages me to stay in the car while he chooses the fish — “the smell is murderous,” he says — but I go anyway, and the quality and range of fish are tremendous. After crude oil, fish makes up 15% of Yemen’s exports, but a lack of freezing and packing equipment due to trade restrictions has limited the potential of the industry. We take our fish across the road to be prepared at the restaurant Mukhabazit al Shira that looks onto the Gulf of Aden; he’s chosen prawns that, when curled up, are wider than they are long, alongside mullet and a fish I’ve never seen before which I later learn is called grass emperor. One crustacean remains unidentifiable throughout, which my friend can only describe as “cousin of crab.”
The prawns and mystery crustacean are delicious but the fish has a slight but noticeable aftertaste of petrol. I immediately associate it with the rotting oil tanker off the Yemeni coast that was nearly unreachable due to mines, a catastrophe only recently averted after the U.N. removed the oil barrels this month. I remind myself that the tanker was miles away. When I later confess to a friend, embarrassed, that I could taste petrol in the fish, she curls her lips. She tells me that trade restrictions have limited imports of technology that fishermen need, meaning that small boats leak fuel into the water, risking onboard fires in the process. Rueful, she comments that it’s yet another example of how Yemenis’ entrepreneurial spirit has been clipped by the war.
We finish our meal with a patty of bread and dates to cleanse the palette and go downstairs for knafeh at a stall by the restaurant, which I try to pay for in vain: Our previous waiter spots us and steps out to remind me that I am now “all of Aden’s guest.” We watch the knafeh being made, prepared in individual portions, and flipped frequently like a pancake before being flame-torched, and I comment that it looks different to the knafeh you’d see in Nablus, where massive trays of spun pastry covered with soft cheese are cooked over an open flame. As he prepares the dessert, he asks what I think of Yemen compared to the rest of the Middle East. My answers are positive and he’s surprised — he says his feelings about his country are probably clouded by the fact that he’s struggled to find a job ever since graduating from university. He hopes to emigrate to Dubai, though visas are extremely restricted, even for those in the Gulf-affiliated south.
Migrating irregularly isn’t an option either, since Yemen’s geography doesn’t lend itself to such a journey: Between Aden and Oman are hundreds of miles of desert, and the border with Saudi Arabia is heavily fortified. Displacement for Yemenis is internal, and often associated with moving multiple times as the front lines change. Struggling to find something appropriate to say about the unemployment rates, I tell him that I enjoy how Yemen has maintained a strong sense of identity and national culture in the face of globalization, unlike some of its neighbors. “I’d exchange that for a proper salary,” he says.
Lacking foreign investment and the option of economic migration, and limited by the heavily depreciated currency, most Adenis work somewhere along the supply chains for food or qat, a leafy, chewable stimulant that is an integral part of the national culture. In urban centers, most families make ends meet by selling food or qat from stalls on the side of the road, which requires no more financial investment than a cart and some basic instruments. Most families in rural areas work the land as best they can. When a colleague and I later drive by a settlement where internally displaced Yemenis have set up camp, I’m encouraged, given the constant threat of famine, to see that a few families have goats — then heartbroken to see that, with no shrubbery from the scorched earth, they are grazing them on mounds of rubbish. It’s a reminder that while the agricultural sector offers a lifeline to many families, the work is grueling and offers little more than subsistence. It’s also a reminder that the climate crisis will soon ravage one of Yemen’s few industries.
The next day, a friend takes me to Crater, a district of Aden named after the crater left by a dormant volcano. He works on economic recovery at an international NGO and is keen to talk to someone who, unlike him, is neither living through the war nor working on it full-time. Once parked, we walk past the National Bank of Yemen, which is surrounded by rubble, then the National Museum round the corner, which is gutted inside and lacking half a roof, presumably from shelling. We find khalta, which my friend likens to peanut butter, but is eaten as a sweet, dense dessert, served with coffee that is aromatic like tea, made from ginger and the husks of coffee beans. We go around the corner to buy oud and bakhoor incense, and when I ask the salesperson if I can buy anything specifically produced in Yemen, he tells me all the goods are Saudi imports — with disruptions to supply chains, manufacturing employs just 4% of the workforce in Yemen and makes up less than 10% of GDP. As we leave the store, my friend comments that even if supply chains could be rebuilt, Yemen isn’t competitive for manufacturing. “Most companies don’t want to operate in a country with one currency for the north and one for the south, two different tax regimes, a blockade on the capital’s airport and a siege from the sea,” he says.
Crater is beautiful and ravaged in equal measure. The number of tradesmen is impressive — we eat unripe mango covered in salt, and corn on the cob, both grilled and boiled. In both cases, we order in the car as we queue in traffic and the vendor finds us farther down the road, refusing to give up any potential business opportunity. Shopkeepers put up Ramadan lights, stringing them between two century-old buildings that date to the British colonial period, some of which are shot through with bullet holes, and one charred black, clearly the epicenter of an aerial campaign. Going down the streets, a number of women — and some children so small that they can’t even reach the car window — tap on the doors, asking for money. One man has appointed himself to direct traffic, for which he is taking tips for his service. Not a single car refuses them and neither do several peddlers who don’t look that much better off.
A disproportionate number of beggars are Somali or Ethiopian, which puts Europe’s reluctance to accept migrants into perspective; the U.N. Migration Agency notes that, each year, more migrants cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen than cross the Mediterranean to the entirety of Europe. In a region where countries without a history of armed conflict are the exception and not the rule, Yemen is also a country of destination for asylum-seekers. At one restaurant, I get into a conversation with the chef, who is Syrian. Though he is tight-lipped, it’s implied that he’s sought refuge in Yemen, one of the few countries to which Syrians can travel without a visa. He’s now found a niche for himself as a chef in high-end restaurants, making use of the popularity of Syrian food. I ask if he will ever go back home. “Here I can’t marry,” he tells me. “There’s no Syrian woman that would come with me here, and if I married a woman from Yemen, I don’t know if I could take her home, if the situation allowed.” He leaves it at that.
Aden’s migratory history has deep roots. We go to Jamal restaurant the next day and order mandi, a popular Yemeni dish with Indian roots that reflects the 98 years that Aden spent under the control of the British Viceroy of India, long before Britain’s later colonial forays within the Arab world. It’s also a reminder of Aden’s strategic value in global trade, that the volcano that created Crater also created one of the world’s most profitable ports and that warring parties will always assign strategic importance to Aden. Most landmarks from that period are intact — Victoria Park still has its statue of Queen Victoria; a replica of London’s Big Ben dubbed “Little Ben” is refurbished, though the walls surrounding it are perforated by bullets; one colonial church is still standing despite the local branch of al Qaeda decapitating the statue of Jesus — but most of my leisure time in Aden is spent restaurant-hopping and driving around the city. For the middle class, there are few other leisure activities available, and as we approach al-Tawahi district to get ice cream that my friend argues is the best in Aden, I see the port, popular with tourists, which has been reduced to rubble. Surrounding it are posters with the words, “If the person who told you being a suicide bomber would get you into heaven was telling the truth, they’d be in heaven themselves by now.”
War isn’t everything in Yemen, but everything is impacted by the war. Back home, I struggle to find the right words to describe Aden, because despite the destruction on a scale that outstrips any other place I have visited, Aden is beautiful, historic and warm. I find myself falling back on tropes to describe the scale of human loss — “war-torn,” “ravaged” — but it wouldn’t be truthful to write about its people as “war-torn,” since they have grown around the war’s destruction and found new ways of being. At times, I feel guilty for how intensely I enjoyed my time in Aden, thinking how many lives were cut short there. When I reach London, I call my friends to thank them for their hospitality and ask one how he feels about Aden being so lively again, after everything he’s been through. He shrugs, then, after some moments of silence, says, “Just because there is death, doesn’t mean we can’t live.” He pauses again. “In fact, because there is death, we should live.”
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