Stories from Afar & Up Close

The rhythm of Old Sana'a

Every city has its own rhythm. The Old City of Sana'a has silence at 2am and 6am, and a lot of noise the rest of the time. But even in chaos there is order, and it didn't take me long to be able to tell the time by the sounds of a typical day in Old Sana'a.

Starting at 4am (or sometimes a little earlier), there are the mosques calling for prayer. (Big cultural shock: in Lebanon, the mosques sing – generally a pleasant sound to wake up to. Here in the old city, they squeal like animals being slaughtered.) There are a lot of mosques, and some of them will also broadcast the sound of the men praying together, so the murmur of hundreds or thousands of men fills the air for a good amount of time. Before and after that, I will hear the men chatting on their way to and from the mosque, sometimes on motorcycles honking to warn people walking in the narrow streets.

The Old City of Sana'a at 6am. 

When the first shops open, it is usually just before 7am. This is also when the wild cats start screeching at each other and the first children will quietly walk to school. In the hours that follow, the kids will start calling each other from across the alleyway, the motorcycles will add music to their honking (most of them have a radio installed between the seat and the handlebars), and the dogs will bark happily along. The guy who picks up and sells bottles of gas for the stoves passes by, banging his wrench on the bottles in the wheelbarrow to let people know he's here. For lack of doorbells (and/or electricity), people rely on doorknockers to announce their visit to the neighbors – and if those on the third or fourth floor don't hear them, screaming someone's name multiple times will usually do the trick.

(Have I mentioned the screaming? I am seriously impressed by the volume the average Yemeni guy can muster – a professional opera singer would be jealous. And they are not stingy when it comes to using the ability to scream louder than the muezzin, the barking dogs and two honking motorcycles combined.)

Most little shops close again at the next prayer time, but the sound-level remains more or less constant until around 1 or 2pm, when the schools go out and the streets are filled with kids running home: lunchtime. This is also the prelude to qat-time: the hours in the day when life slows down because almost all men are lying sideways on pillows and mattresses inside their shops or, better yet, at the top floor of the building with a beautiful view, chewing the green leaves until their cheeks seem to pop out of their faces. Those who don't chew and work at the same time often leave their children in charge of the (market) stalls, but others close their stores completely.

The market is empty at qat-time. (Click for bigger.) 

It is not until just before sunset (6pm) that most men come back to their shops. Slowly the streets will get emptier again though, because the darker it gets, the less women there are out and about, leaving only the men and the boys and girls on the streets. Although empty is not the right word in a city with houses so close to each other and streets so interconnected that there is always a kid playing football or a little shop selling cookies and washing powder just around the corner. The evening, then, especially in summer (so I've been told), is for weddings, and weddings means fireworks and gunshots – my favorite part of the day.

After that, it's screaming kids, chatting men and honking motorcycles, then silence… until it all starts again.