Marib: behind enemy lines
Trip Start Oct 13, 2005
22Trip End Dec 22, 2006
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
There are two places in Yemen to which the FCO advises against all travel: Sa'ada and Marib. Having travelled to the war-torn tribal stronghold of Sa'ada within a week of arriving in Yemen last year to returned unscathed, I thought it only fair to sample Marib this time around. Accompanying me were Tom (a young American who managed against all odds to get our travel permission), Aaron (my sole remaining friend from last year) and Becky (a newly-arrived British girl), as well as the customary qat-junky driver and tour guide, and the military escort that are all obligatory when travelling to the 'unsafe' places.
The infamous city of Marib lies in the arid depths of Yemen's desert-land about four hours east of Sana'a. It is a hotbed of insurgency and, together with Sa'ada, is home to most or all of the remaining al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen
Having lunched upon arrival in Marib, we decided it was too hot in the midday desert-sun to begin our tour so Yahyah, our tour-guide (and comical qat-chewer), headed out to buy some qat. We chewed for a few hours at the hotel then set out to the dam. Apart from it being the world's first, there was nothing much to write home about this dam (other than this very sentence). Next up were a couple of archaeological sights, both of which were very impressive. The second, which was still in the process of excavation, is believed to be the temple of the Queen of Sheba.
The head of the project was still on-sight when we arrived so we were able to get a kind of exclusive tour. Unfortunately, this lady was a horror show... she looked like one of those dried-up old Hollywood actresses from a bygone era still trying to hold on to her past success via multiple botched cosmetic surgeries. She hailed from UC Berkeley (in California), looked about 90 yet was adorned in a pair of Washington Redskins training pants
As we were leaving the sight we got caught in a sudden sandstorm. It was quite unnerving as we could see it approaching at speed on the horizon like some apocalyptic cloud blocking out the sky. We managed to get back to our truck in time, but could barely see a thing as we attempted to drive out of it. I kept having visions of being buried alive in the car like in 'The English Patient', but we found our way back to the hotel in the end. Once there, Yahyah went to buy more qat and we settled in for another chew for the rest of the evening.
The next day we woke with excitement as the most anticipated parts of the trip were upon us. Firstly, we headed out to Old Marib. The Old City was really beautiful in a battered kind of way. Indeed, it was so old that unlike Old Sana'a or Old Sa'ada it appeared to be almost uninhabited. Each building was a precarious construction of clay, straw and thick logs, yet maintained a simple but impressive beauty
Having paid our military escort considerable 'baksheesh' (bribe/tip), we headed under heavy guard deep in to the dark heart of Marib to the renowned 'souq a-silah' (weapons market). Our presence there was not altogether appreciated, though the fact that we each were dressed in a mowez (man-skirt) and had a cheek full of qat, eased the tension of the locals somewhat. That said, we too were nervous given the vehement anti-American feelings awash in this city following the 2002 American drone-bombing of a bus full of al-Qaeda operatives. Tom and Aaron were honorary Brits for the day - lucky the locals can't decipher Western accents I guess.
Upon arrival it transpired that the military escort had backed out of the deal and refused to take us to the gun souq-proper, but had instead taken us to any old souq on the streets. We were all very disappointed but, in hindsight, that probably would have been very dangerous given the likely clientele. Besides, we were able still to purchase a few goods. I purchased a Kalashnikov bullet and another bullet the size of my hand just as souvenirs (insha'allah, I won't have trouble getting them home). Together we also bought about 20 Kalashnikov bullets for our next activity.
Once we were done at the faux gun souq, we headed out into the desert where one of the military officers loaded his gun with the bullets we had purchased. We each took turns firing single shots at some bottles about 30 metres away. Having neither fired nor heard a live gun before, let alone an assault rifle, I was taken rather by surprise at the loudness of the gunshot, and my right ear rang for the rest of the day
On that high note we headed back to Sana'a having had a thoroughly worthwhile and altogether safe trip. I don't think I need to head back to Marib in a hurry but I'm glad we decided to brave it as we never once felt really unsafe or threatened. Besides, I think it's more dangerous in Britain right now as I've just belated heard about the bird-flu case in Scotland! Anyhoo..