From Souk to Souk

From Souk to Souk by Robin Ratchford

Book: From Souk to Souk by Robin Ratchford Read Free Book Online
Authors: Robin Ratchford
they point me. I set off, pretending to believe them, cheerfully waving goodbye, but take a different path as soon as I am out of sight. A couple of minutes later, to my embarrassment, I find myself back where I started and staring at the same group of boys who now look at me as if I am a few camels short of a caravan for not having been capable of following their simple directions. This time, wondering if I am not taking my life in my hands, I agree to let them show me the way, which they do with an air of excitement and satisfied authority. A taller boy in the group takes hold of my forearm with his slender hand and begins to lead me along the dusty street, clearly eager to impress. His friends follow enthusiastically, watching my every move. In just a few years, I reflect, his willowy child’s fingers will probably be used to holding a gun, innocence lost forever as they curl around the trigger.
    â€˜First time in Yemen?’ he asks, his brown eyes glinting with enthusiasm. Clearly, this seems to be a standard question to put to foreigners.
    â€˜Yes,’ I smile.
    â€˜You like Yemen?’
    â€˜Yes, it’s very nice,’ I nod, realising that my concerns for my personal safety are little short of delusional.
    He grins at the answer. Some of the other boys whisper to each other and giggle. After a few turns down narrow streets and deep alleys, we are suddenly in front of the mosque. I thank my young guides, wondering whether to give a few
rials
’ reward or whether to do so would simply encourage a begging mentality. They seem not to expect anything, however, and, without lingering, cheerfully scamper off in the direction from where we came, laughing and shouting to each other as they go.
    From the mosque, it is just a few minutes’ walk to the souk with its eclectic mix of dried fruit, shining brassware, spices, plastic household items, clothing, and, rather bizarrely, Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup, a clear favourite in Yemen; tins of a size one normally associates with emulsion paint are stacked pyramid-style at one stall after the other. A left-over from colonial times under the British, I wonder? Goods are piled high, but there are few shoppers. Here, life seems to be at a slower, almost meditative, pace. The men running the stores look at me with curiosity, their dark eyes shining. Occasionally, a flash of bright blue or green sparkles incongruously from one of the many tanned faces, a reminder of the importance of trade in Yemen’s long history as part of the spice and incense routes. Every now and then, strange but friendly words float through the aromatic air, inviting me to taste a date or slice of fruit proffered between bony, chestnut-coloured fingers. In the afternoon heat, they flick their wares clean with grey feather dusters, chat with each other, or sit and chew
qat
.
    I had read about
qat
before arriving, but the first time I see a man walk past me with a mouthful of it I assume he has some dreadful tumour, such is the bulge in the side of his cheek. Only when I see several more men with the same feature do I realise that the lump is not some widespread carcinoma, but the usual way to take the drug. Yet, if it is not a physical affliction, it is certainly a socio-economic one. Banned in neighbouring Saudi Arabia,
qat
is the drug of choice in Yemen. Its use is both traditional and extensive, although more men than women chew it. Looking somewhat like privet, the leaves produce a stimulant when chewed. The
qat
‘industry’ employs four million Yemenis and turns the afternoons of millions more, including the police, into a mild, drug-induced state of euphoria as they chew the leaves for hours on end before spitting out the dark green pulp where it lies drying on the street, looking like boiled spinach. Vast areas of precious agricultural land and huge amounts of scarce water are dedicated to the production of this drug in a country that has to import most of its food. While

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