The Romans, notoriously tough to impress when it came to the barbarians on the fringes of their empire, knew Yemen as Arabia Felix, or Happy Araby. A few thousand years later, Yemen remains a surprisingly easy place for visitors to fall under the spell of. For one thing, there's just the way the country looks and feels -- Yemen's isolation, its lack of wealth, and a predilection for harboring al Qaeda members that scares away all investors and development, leave the country a rare and generally lovely remnant of old Arabia.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, you see office parks and Sheratons. When you walk through Yemen's 2,000-year-old capital, Sanaa, you still see arthritic camels turning stone mills to grind out olive oil, and blacksmiths blowing on coals in hole-in-the-wall smithies. Yemen's architecture is beautiful, and largely innocent of the modern era -- the entire old city of the capital is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yemen's traditional buildings are designed against the desert, so that tall brick homes shade narrow streets and stained-glass windows in every home cut the glare. The sun-raked landscape is dramatic; stark stone cliffs cut by irrigated green valleys. Many of the people are friendly and curious about the ways of the world outside. Even now, with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemeni officials and ordinary citizens, and even many figures on the fringes of law and order, are cordial to Americans, welcoming them into homes and soliciting their opinions on local and world affairs, over rounds of coffee. Westerners remain uncommon enough that children sometimes call out to them in the streets; but Westerners remain tolerated enough that the children don't throw rocks. That's always nice. If you're an American and al Qaeda doesn't kill you on a visit to Yemen, odds are you'll love the place.
Thanks to Yemen's isolation, combined with what in many Yemenis seems to be inexperience in the ways of the outside world; a Yemeni tradition of hospitality; and perhaps a certain naïvete about the motivations and controllability of smiling visitors, Yemen can be as easy a place for foreign correspondents to work in as it is for al Qaeda. Within hours of calling up the foreign minister for an interview on one trip, I was in his home, listening to him complain that U.S. travel warnings, which had come after repeated al Qaeda attacks on foreigners, were killing Yemen's tourist business. Yemenis' addiction to chewing khat, a stimulant, and their tendency toward late-night business meetings lead the country's lawmakers and cabinet ministers to be a little more voluble than they ought. Outsiders help break the tedium for Yemenis -- one evening I ended the daily Ramadan-holiday fast with a former bodyguard of Osama bin Ladin, Nasser al-Bahri, now a self-proclaimed retired jihadi and businessman in Sanaa. Idle as any retiree, the ex-Qaeda figure, still a devotee of bin Laden, spoke with me for hours over dinner, than tagged along afterward to a travel agency to sit and talk for another half-hour while I waited to change a plane ticket.
Accessibility of hard-liners in Yemen is such that within hours of a deadly September 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy that the United States and Yemen blamed on al Qaeda, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in the capital interviewing the Islamist brother-in-law of Abdul Majid al-Zindani. The United States calls Zindani a prominent recruiter and supplier for al Qaeda. The brother-in-law boasted that al Qaeda in Yemen now was stronger than the government. In Afghanistan, when other reporters and I were covering the advance of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in 2001, we used to joke about sticking at the end of our stories, "The Taliban were not available for comment." In Yemen, the other side in the United States' proclaimed war on terror is almost always available for comment.