Vacation dream spot.

Back in April 2008 a New York Times writer sang the praises of an as-yet under-touristed destination. There one could find an “ancient way of life that is still largely intact.” It was but the latest of the-next-place-to-be-discovered.[1] Contemporary society—or some sub-set of it—places a premium on rare and new experiences. Probably they are a form of status possession. Globalization in all its forms (standardization of products world-wide; cheap jet fares; the idea of taking a gap year or sabbatical at some point in your life; wealthy leisure-based societies) has created a huge market for experiences that once were the realm of misfits.[2] Now college graduates with Business degrees fight forest fires and work at ski resorts; academically-inclined college students seek berths on merchant ships, future school teachers spend a few years trying to surf all the best breaks in the Pacific; and bed-and-breakfast inn-keepers in New England spend the off-season buying textiles in Bali.[3] What are they after? Something different from the Burberry-Ralph Lauren-Tommy Hilfiger knock-off possessions that jam the stores? Some contact with challenging and “authentic” experience? Hence the search for new places.

Where was this wonderland? Yemen.[4] There, “every prospect pleases”[5]: remarkable traditional architecture un-sullied by the golden arches of McDonald’s and a combination of mountain with desert. In the Old City section of the capital, visitors are literally walking back into the Middle Ages in a way that is not true of the hordes trudging around Notre Dame in Paris. There are street markets that look and smell (of khat and persimmons) much as they must have when Mohammed was contemplating a career change. Striking out from the capital, visitors could explore the mountain-top village of Al Hajjara,[6] a sort of cactus-strewn Muslim Orvieto, which is not much changed from the time of its original construction in the 11th Century. Then there is the Wadi Hadhramaut, an Arabian valley in which things will actually grow. Frankincense first of all, but also senna and cocoanut.

Well, understandably, things have deteriorated since that description of actual adventure tourism.[7] “Only man is vile.”[8] Even in 2008 the US Department of State issued scary “travel advisories” for those thinking of a trip to Yemen. Now the country is home to a lot of al Qaeda people, there’s a savage civil war going on, and Saudi Arabia and Iran are using it as a proxy battlefield in the same way that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia used Spain in the late Thirties.

That doesn’t mean that things will stay this bad forever. Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din (or Imam Yahya) (1869-1948) ruled the country after the First World. He reined-in, if he could not entirely put a stop to, the endemic feuds and banditry. So, perhaps one day trekkers will return to Al Hajjara and the Hydramaut valley.

[1] See: Alex Garland, The Beach (1996); William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2003); and David Simon, producer, “The Wire” (2002-2008) for various observations on modern society’s relentless drive to “step on the package.” Anyway, that’s how I read them.

[2] See, for one example:

[3] Just to list some people I know.

[4] “This week’s dream: Yemen’s secret world.” The Week, 4 April 2008, p. 30.

[5] Reginald Heber, “From Greenland’s mighty mountain” (1819).

[6] Lonely Planet used to publish a guide-book to Yemen. It noted that Al Hajjara served as the jumping-off point for people hiking into the wilderness. I wonder if Anwar al-Awlaki had a copy?

[7] As opposed to merely working up a sweat being led around places by NOLS teams or having a five-star dinner in the open on a dude ranch.

[8] Heber again.

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