Against all odds, walking in Yemen’s second biggest city, Aden, feels quite safe. The old cosmopolitan city has survived in recent years several conflicts; from attacks of northern Houthi militias in 2015 to separatist clashes with the pro-government forces early this year.
Yet while there are some damaged buildings and hotels and rubble left over from clashes, things look, well, normal.
The last time I travelled to Aden was two years ago to make my way into the city of Taiz which had been seized by Houthi militias. Back then, the airport was closed, and it kept closing every now and then amid clashes as the political situation wasn’t stable.
Yemen in general has been swept over by a civil, and regional, war since September 2014, that is often called a hidden war, being so far from the minds of the major powers and media. As a result the number of tourists has plummeted to almost non-existent.
My guide around Aden, Saly, 24, is a young woman I met through a friend. She took me to Aden's oldest district of Crater, a neighborhood known for its mix of British colonial architecture and traditional Yemeni. Walking around, the city’s place at the intersection of Africa and Asia is apparent from the mixed faces in the streets. Somalis, Indians, and Farsis (Iranians) all lived here. The city was a melting pot that tolerated many religions and sects. The number of Jews in Yemen were about 100,000 before the 1940s.
Alas, the conflict of recent years has changed much—Salafi extremists and Al-Qaeda members have destroyed a Jewish synagogue and a Farsi temple that used to host thousands of worshippers. (Iran is backing the Houthi militias that came to control Aden in 2015 for a few months until the coalition-back southern army drove them out).
At the markets, some men walk with traditional Yemeni sarongs while some are in shorts or pants. Many Yemeni men don’t have a dress code, especially in the summer, thanks to a sizzling cocktail of high temperature mixed with high humidity level because of the ocean. Women, however wear a traditional abaya and many (but not all) wear the burqa’ (that covers the face).
Aden is surrounded by the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the ocean, and was once one of the world’s busiest ports, as a center for fishermen and for the ships that are going to India. But administrative issues and subsequent conflict saw it lose its relevance with the rise of Dubai. The city is still notable, however, for its huge fish markets with all kinds and sizes of fish.
Saly and I chose to eat at one of the most and oldest popular fish restaurants called al-Shira’ (the Sail). The restaurant looks like it’s taking a shape of a boat and looks out on the Gulf of Aden. Like most big restaurants in Yemen, it has a section for “families” where normally women sit with men or on their own, while the other section you’ll only find men. It’s next to the fish market because people can choose to buy the kind of fish they like and ask the restaurant to cook them using different spicy recipes they have. Our fantastic meal was one of grilled mild (not too spicy) fish which compensated for the spicy but delicious sauce of the shrimps. (Yemenis can eat spicy hot spicy food very easily; I can’t.)
In 1839 Britain took Aden and ruled it out of Bombay, creating a modern connection between India and Yemen. Indian Muslim pilgrims would also go to Saudi Arabia via Aden, which is why a lot of Yemeni coast, not just Aden, has cuisine influenced by India’s spices.
Al-Sakran in the old city serves one of the most popular teas with milk you can drink in Aden. It’s another sign of the influence of the Indians, I guessed, since it’s more popular than coffee, which Yemen has always been popular for producing. The girls wanted to sit on the side tables not looking at the street so as not to be seen by the usually majority male clients. But I insisted staying on the street level, declaring, “We should get Aden back to the older time of the 70s where genders mixed more.” The owner was nice and encouraged us to get more rounds of the spicy milky tea. In general people in Aden seem more open than how they first appear.
Historically, Aden, was a base of activists and leaders of movements, and political parties, now it’s the so-called capital of the legitimate government of President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi (who is recognized by most foreign governments) and a base for movements’ leaders and military commanders. Aden's area of influence is divided between the Hadi government and the Southern Transitional Council, an organization found in 2017 by some members of the Southern Movement (established in 2007 during the time of former president Ali Abdullah Salih) which is working towards the separation of Southern Yemen from the North.
Aden was also the capital of the only communist-ruled Arab State, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (1976-1990) , a time that many Yemenis in Aden that I met are longing for.
The hotel manager where I stayed on the sea-side in Khormaks and his employees were talking about the good old time “where someone could be detained if he’s cheating on prices,” and where women were free to mix with men, and not necessarily cover up. The manager didn’t like the reservations put on women after the unification.
“It brought about old conservative traditions from the north,” he said.
Flags of what used to be “the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen” or South Yemen, are noticed everywhere; through the markets and in different checkpoints. It's the same flag used when Yemen took independence from Britain. It consists of the three equal horizontal red, white, and black bands of the Arab Liberation flag with the sky-blue chevron beside a red star. It's been used now by the Transitional Council who want to be free again from the north, beside residents and supporters of the separation.
Other people however think it’s better to reduce conflict and stay united.
Some historic and touristic sites have been closed because of the recent events, including the castle of Sira fortress, because of its strategic location that could be used militarily. Others, like the military museum, have been closed because they need maintenance
I was able however, to visit the Tawila Cisterns , in the southwest of Aden’s oldest district. They had once been a collection of around 50 cisterns, of which 13 are remaining. They were built at least a millenia ago to collect the rain water to protect the city from periodic flooding. Today, they were empty because of lack of rains.
Many young people I met are frustrated by what they see as the state building in areas that are traditionally for entertainment.
For instance, the road that leads to the famous beach of Goldmore that I visited with Saly and her friends had a long queue because the Transitional Council located its headquarters nearby, and so it now has an important checkpoint.
Unlike the north of Yemen, which is popular for traditional crafts like daggers and colorful scarves, the south of Yemen is not that traditional. Even in celebrations, the daggers are not used by men like in Sanaa. Perhaps most telling, many young men I saw used the built-in holding in their sarongs for their smartphones instead.
So instead of buying touristic crafts, I bought some of the famous Sidr honey, a honey that’s made from the nectar of Sidr trees in Yemen. It’s generally one of the most expensive kinds of honey in the world and it has a whole lore about its superior qualities.
I also made sure to buy a lot of coffee for my friends as presents. For myself, however, I’m more like the Adani people.
I prefer the spicy tea.