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March 23, 2002

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In Yemen’s Southwest corner, we visited Ta’iz, a Yemeni city masquerading as a European one. Tall concrete buildings, built in a Western style, line a broad avenue that runs down the middle of downtown Ta’iz. A mountain fortress overlooks the city. We walked through an old souq and then journeyed up a mountain for a view. Men on rooftops invited us to sit down and chew qat with them. Normal Yemeni custom forbids mixed company – Yemeni society segregates women and men for most activities- but these men made an exception for Jill. We exchanged smiles, smoked scented tobacco from a hookah, and sipped coffee from an old tea set. An older man invited us to his home for more coffee and dinner but we respectfully declined and returned to our hotel. Strange things happen. On an evening stroll we noticed a young man following us fifty paces behind. We stopped. He stopped. We crossed the road and changed direction several times. He stayed with us. We entered a restaurant and sat for 10 minutes. The stranger loitered outside. We walked up to him and asked him what he wanted. Money? A visit to his shop? Simple curiosity? He said nothing, stood his ground, and didn’t smile. We found a passerby who spoke English and asked him to help us. A crowd formed and several people confronted the stranger on our behalf. After minutes of tense conversation, our helpers told us to go and they’d keep the stranger from following us. We told our guide about this incident and he thought the stranger worked for Yemen’s intelligence agency. We’re not so sure.
The fortress at Ta'iz, called Qal'at al-Qahira (try saying that name to a cabbie), kept back invaders for centuries - oldest references to it made in 1014. Years ago, Ta'iz acted as Yemen's capital.
A first for all: they'd never seen a woman take a pull from the hookah, we had never smoked one. It tasted like perfumed soap.
They weigh things the old way at the spice market