Sanaa’s Walls and the Myth of Security
Sanaa derives its name from the South Arabian term for “well fortified”. Yet, the walls that are supposed to defend the Yemeni capital’s inhabitants from menacing outsiders have never been entirely successful. Both as a seven-year-old boy and a seventy-year-old retiree, Abdel Raheem has seen it all.
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“Sanaa has always been an alluring city,” observes Abdel Raheem, a retired civil servant and dedicated flaneur who witnessed the looting of the city by local tribesmen when he was a little boy. As he recalls the pillage of 1948, he adds, “Sanaa was irresistible, and they came to loot her every morning.”

He goes on to explain, “The mud wall that surrounds the old city is incredibly high, relatively speaking.” It is made up of a succession of smaller contiguous walls, some of which date back to pre-Islamic times. The protective barrier, many stories high, is designed to repel incursions because Sanaa has long been regarded a “palatable and permissible morsel.”

In the not-too-distant past, Imam Yahya Bin Hamid Al Din, who ruled over Yemen from 1904 to 1948, would see to it that the city’s seven gates were closed everyday at nightfall. Residents late to return home would be locked out of the city and have to sleep outside the city gates until the break of dawn the following day. They would be exposed to untold dangers since tribesmen lurked around like wild animals, ready to pounce on the enticing sight of their sleeping forms.

“In Yemen, the concept of the wall and of walling in a space has long been part of the culture as a result of the association of open space with danger and the view of the mountains as a fortress,” says Abdel Raheem. He recounts that during a cholera outbreak in neighboring territories at the end of the nineteenth century, the Yemenis completely rejected a vaccination campaign proposed by a French doctor who lived in the city with his wife. They were convinced that the microbe could not scale their fortress-like mountains.

Abdel Raheem goes on to explain that the word sanaa means “well-fortified city” in an old Yemeni dialect of Arabic and that the verbal form sanau means “to fortify.” Thus, the walling in and fortification of Sanaa were inextricably bound with its emergence and growth as a city.

Walls are also used to protect a home’s inner space and to shield women from marauding eyes. “Look at the houses around us,” he says. “Before starting on the foundations of his home, the Yemeni builds a wall. A house without a wall is a like an invitation to robbery, and it is a mouth-watering temptation for a covetous passerby.” Building a wall equals safety and security, and even in the well-to-do districts the habit persists to this day.

A luxurious villa will be surrounded by a wall whose construction expenses rival those of the villa itself. If there is a large empty lot next to the villa, then it too will be enclosed by a high wall and accompanying sign with the poorly scribbled words, “This parcel of land is the property of so and so.” The words are repeated like a mantra, over and over again, as if they could protect the open and unkempt space from a looting expedition that could occur at any minute. The more prominent the “so and so” and the better established he is in the tribal hierarchy, the lesser the danger to his land.

However, the property of those who are neither rich nor powerful is at risk of being seized or taken at a moment’s notice. The land belonging to the poor is always up for grabs: it is a permanent commons, and the protective walls that enclose it are fragile and ineffective.

Abdel Raheem tells another story about an excessively wealthy and prominent tribal sheikh and the prized Yemeni stone that comes from the southwestern part of the country where some of the richest people live. Apparently, the sheikh decided to send a large shipment of this stone to London, where he was building himself a palace in a posh neighborhood of the British capital. According to the story, the sheikh also dispatched several master stonemasons from Yemen to carry out the work. The morning after their arrival, the neighborhood’s inhabitants awoke to the sight of the sheikh overseeing the erection of a wall around his villa, apparently unaware that local legislation prohibited such a thing. While this story remains unverifiable and may well be apocryphal, it is illustrative of the hold walls and fortifications have on the Yemeni imagination, regardless of class.


There are instances in Sanaa’s history when the city wall failed to provide security to those on the inside – especially when the danger issued from the very authorities whose job was ostensibly to protect the city. On February 7, 1948, a small band of rebels using automatic weapons ambushed and killed Imam Yahya Bin Hamid Al Din while he was returning to the city after a tour of outlying areas. However, the rebels were unable to kill his son, Imam Ahmad Yahya, and the heir apparent fled to the sanctuary of the tribal areas that were loyal to the regime. The young Imam Ahmad managed to flee the southern city of Taiz through Hodeidah, the old port town on the Red Sea, and head north to Hajjah. There, he rallied the tribes and was able to mount an expedition to recapture Sanaa, after promising his men that the city would be theirs following their victory.

Under the cover of night on March 13, 1948, with the help of a group of loyal insiders, the heir apparent and his army breached the wall through Bab Al Shaqadeef, one of the seven gates. Clashes broke out, and soon afterwards the rebels’ defeat seemed imminent. No one had expected it to happen so quickly, and the pillage began almost immediately.

This was not the first time that Sanaa had been ransacked, since it had perenially been considered fair game by the tribes. But this time things were a little different: the stakes were higher. The heir apparent was determined to exact revenge for the treacherous killing of his father, and the tribes were given the green-light to lay the city to waste once the rebellion had been subdued.

It was the first – and the most extensive – raid that Abdel Raheem ever witnessed. Only seven at the time, he was an elementary school student at the Quranic school adjacent to one of the city’s mosques. He recalls that nothing and no one was spared. The looters destroyed everything in their path: pulling the thick and intricately carved wooden doors of the old houses from their hinges, wrenching window jambs from walls, and stripping women of their clothes, ornaments, and gold. Terrible stories circulated alleging that the tribesmen cut off women’s hands if they did not voluntarily give up their jewelry.

According to one tale, a group of tribesmen stashed their loot with an old woman who lived outside the city walls, and then went to fetch their camels. After loading up their mounts upon their return, they found that one camel was left with nothing to carry. They then proceeded to rob the very house that had given them refuge, so that the camel might leave fully loaded. There were other similar stories of continued looting well after the actual fighting was over. Tribesmen on their way back from a foray in the city would cross paths with others on their way in, and pitched battles would break out between them. These battles determined who were the more successful looters. After all, it was considered a mark of shame to come away empty handed or with too little booty.


Abdel Raheem witnessed another similar event in the more recent past. On the morning of April 4, 1994, following the reunification of the country four years earlier, civil war broke out between the armed forces of the former socialist Republic of South Yemen and tribesmen from the north of the country. Tension had been mounting between the two sides for some time. Abdel Raheem happened to be staying in his village, some one hundred kilometers from Sanaa, when hostilities broke out. As it happened, the fighting began on the last day of his village sojourn. As he prepared to return to the capital, he learned that the roads had closed and that there was no way to get back to the city. However, it was imperative for him to return, and he was determined to do so in spite of the fighting.

The journey to the capital would ordinarily take no time at all. On this occasion though, it took Abdel Raheem ten hours because all means of transportation had ground to a halt. At times he had to walk long distances on foot, and he came across many tribesmen on the way.

Whenever he asked them where they were headed, they invariably replied that they were on their way to raid Sanaa. The image of the city being ransacked played over and over again, like a video clip on the virtual screen of his mind. Pillage was pillage, regardless of the epoch, and despite the great changes wrought by time, the tribal ethos remained strong. But the authorities had issued directives prohibiting anyone who was not a resident from entering the city. The tribesmen bided their time, and when the civil conflict abated after seventy days, they descended on the now defeated and unfortified city of Aden, which was laid to waste in one of the uglier episodes of devastation in Yemen’s contemporary history.

Abdel Raheem, who knows Sanaa by heart and is familiar with the myriad stories of its neighborhoods, regards the post–civil war period as a real watershed. Embroiled in tribal political conflicts since then, the authorities have ignored all policy measures aimed at preserving the city’s distinctive features or protecting its historic buildings. This is best illustrated by the severe flooding of several houses in 2005 due to the absence of a decent sanitation network. With the onslaught of unregulated development in the last decade, many residents have left the old city after renting out their houses to Westerners – mostly diplomats and researchers – willing to pay astronomical prices for them.

Every day, after dawn prayers, Abdel Raheem walks around Bab Al Yemen and the adjacent districts that once swarmed with cheap and popular teashops and eateries. He points to a corner beside the big gate: before the exodus of the city’s native inhabitants, there used to be a tiny café there. Now, it’s just a big souvenir shop catering to tourists. The transformation encapsulates the situation perfectly. The old city is caught between the tourist’s exoticizing imagination on the one hand and the tribesman’s reckless fantasies on the other. Sanaa continues to be overrun by its accidental and transient residents, while impetuous tribesmen lie in wait for another chance to swoop down on the coveted prize.

Translated by Maia Tabet

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