A tale of two Arabian cities

Riyadh and Sana'a: one is stultifying but stable, the other is enchanting and falling apart. Nathan Deuel travels between them.

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Riyadh and Sana'a: one is stultifying but stable, the other is enchanting and falling apart. Nathan Deuel travels between them. It's March 2010 and the clang of metal rings out down a dusty street in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Soldiers in blue camouflage hold oiled assault rifles, standing among a gathering crowd. One of the city's dispensaries for cooking gas has just received a shipment. There's a shortage of fuel all around the city, which is groaning under the twin strains of governmental dysfunction and an influx of refugees from the north. A jet streaks high above us, presumably en route to the border with Saudi Arabia, where the Yemeni military is targeting anti-government Houthi rebels and alleged cells of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some in the West have begun to call Yemen a failed state, but at least they're calling it something.

I have come to Sana'a with my wife - who is on assignment for American public radio - from our base in Riyadh, a historical friend to its southern neighbour. People say that Yemenis built Saudi Arabia - and it's true that big companies of Yemeni origin, such as the massive Bin Laden Group, were responsible for a lot of the early contracts to build roads and infrastructure in the Kingdom. But warm relations between the two countries soured in 1990 and 1991, when Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978 and at that point presiding over a united north and south Yemen, joined Cuba in voting against a United Nations resolution authorising force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia was outraged by the decision and began deporting Yemeni guest workers. Nearly a million were eventually removed. The absence of dollar infusions from Saudi's booming oil economy - and the loss of millions in US and European support, likewise rescinded in response to that UN vote - didn't help things for Yemen, which faced dwindling petroleum revenues that are expected to slow to a stop soon.

Coming from the comparative wealth and restrictions of Riyadh, I am eager to see Sana'a, which I've read is poorer in cash and resources, but richer in less quantifiable terms. At the airport, the creaking wreck of hopeless bureaucracy is evident. There are multiple lines, but after 30 minutes, no one has moved forward. The men behind the computers have furrowed brows and regard their monitors quizzically. Their superiors run from terminal to terminal, yelling and reprimanding. Meanwhile, we all stand in the heat of the warming afternoon and swat at flies.

As white American passport holders, we find ourselves dragged into the diplomatic lane, where the man behind the counter has sad eyes, James Dean hair, and bone structure that could land him any number of modelling contracts. He taps at the computer for a while, then stamps us through. Heading into the city, along the road where a Korean delegation was blown up a year ago, the line of cars slows for soldiers chewing massive cheekfuls of the herbal stimulant qat. They hold well-worn assault rifles and look glazed, yellow-eyed. We sail through the checkpoint, our driver giving a nod. He tells us they only stop men in beaten-up Toyota pickup trucks, the so-called jihad-mobiles. The north isn't some distant war, the driver explains. The fighting is not that far away, just a couple of hours by car.

Partly because of all the strife here, and partly in spite of it, foreign money abounds in Sana'a, but it's not always easy to figure out what good it's doing. The Chinese embassy is massive, taking up an entire city block just west of the old city, with six-metre walls and armed guards. Chinese companies are building the new parliament, paid for by Kuwait. I'm told it's Yemeni money that paid for an improbably giant mosque in the centre of town.

Outside our hotel, a wedding tent has been erected and is promptly smothered in dust. Wailing live music rattles the walls all night, stopping for an hour or so to make way for the morning call to prayer. "It is better to pray than to sleep," the muezzin intones. The sun crests over Sana'a's millennia-old mud buildings. People have been lining up for hours to get hold of one of the bottles of cooking fuel. A typical Yemeni man - not much over 1.5 metres tall, dusty blazer, scarf thrown over his shoulders, dagger tucked into his belt - jostles to the front of the crowd. He knocks into another man, who roars in protest. People shift nervously, including sandal-wearing children and several stooped women, who are shrouded in dyed fabrics and whose faces are covered with small black scarves.

One of the soldiers shoves a man to the ground. There's disapproving tongue-clicking and bickering and my wife and I realise it's probably time for us to get moving. One of the men in the scrum catches our eyes. He gives us an embarrassed smile. I stroll to the old city, a half an hour's walk along cracked pavements smeared in green qat spit. What I encounter when I arrive is a marvel: the most enchanting blocks I've ever trodden. Behind the quarter's massive walls, I pick an insane path along narrow, cobblestone alleys. Six and seven-storey mud skyscrapers reach for the blue sky. No angle is 90 degrees, and all the doors and windows are hand-carved and set with brass filigree and jewelled shards of stained glass. In one sun-dappled square, the air perfectly still, a girl picks lice out of another girl's hair. Down another shaded lane, barely wider than my outstretched arms, dirty-faced boys bang with sticks at an ornate manhole cover. Another knot of boys throws rocks at each other and I am nicked in the playful barrage.

Coming from Saudi Arabia, it's hard not to compare the open, jubilant street scene to the dour, joyless rush of Riyadh. There's a hawk prancing along the stone wall of a grassy square and a guy selling jasmine flowers with an assault rifle slung over his back. In a park several men lounge in the shade of a squat tree, laughing as one cranks out sit-ups. I shouldn't be so sanguine. I know I'm reaching for the fond anecdote, ignoring the grim for the reassuring image. On the way back to our room, I pass the military museum. A fierce-looking Italian tank with two guns stands outside. A hand-painted sign says the war machine hails from the time of Imam Yahya, who ruled Yemen from 1904 until his assassination in 1948. Men with daggers in their belts marvel, fingering the metal. That day an alleged member of AQAP attempts to shoot his way out of a nearby hospital room, killing one policeman and injuring another.

The next night, we race to the old city in time to see the sunset from a rooftop restaurant. The call for evening prayer rings out, bouncing off ancient walls. Two blocks from where we eat a mixed grill and sip hot chocolate, a 12-year-old divorcee will later struggle to explain to my wife why she didn't want to be married any more. After dinner, the power is cut for the entire district, and an all-consuming blackness descends. It's late. We are lost in the mix. I'm fearful we won't make it back, that the alleys will consume us. But the buzz of commerce pulls us along. Shopkeepers fire up generators and light candles. Along the way, we spot men watching a traffic jam just to have something to do.

In Yemen, it seems like there are as many hawks as there are pigeons. In turn, it sometimes seems there may be as many jets flying overhead as there are hawks. I find the grounds of the state university, where the sad buildings are boiling with eddies of fast-talking teenagers. Many of the women have their face uncovered and not one of the men is in traditional dress. On our last morning, I look out my hotel room window, at the achingly blue sky, and I see a red plastic bag floating up on some warm slipstream. It's a whisper of petroleum soaring above Sana'a, as light as air and as vexing and out of reach as anything else around here.

Nathan Deuel, a regular contributor to The Review, is at work on a book about walking from New York to New Orleans.