No room at the inn

In a remote corner of Yemen, Sam Alexandroni discovers the hotels are filled with "secret people"

"You've picked a bad day to arrive in Tarim," said my taxi driver, Ahmed.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"It's Friday," he replied, shaking his head ruefully. "The hotels are full."

I sighed inwardly, guessing that this was another one of Ahmed's scams. He'd already tried tripling the taxi fare and had stolen two cans of Mountain Dew from a stall, claiming they should have been free for thirsty travellers and leaving me to pay for them. It seemed improbable that the hotels in a remote town in Yemen were packed for the weekend. Before Ahmed could redirect me to his brother's guest house or some other place where my arrival would earn him a little commission, I insisted on being driven to the Hotel Kenya, a dismal building opposite the bus station. It was full. And so was the only other hotel in town.

I had not encountered many tourists in Yemen. Fractious tribes, 45-degree heat and jihadis are not a big draw. The week before I arrived, a suicide bomber in Marib, the former capital of the kingdom of Sheba, had driven a car full of explosives into a tourist convoy, killing ten people, including eight Spaniards. Following this attack, the trickle of tourists had all but dried up. The few visitors that I had seen were either studying Arabic in Sana'a, the capital city, or being carefully herded around the main attractions in tour groups.

I was not worrying about hotels being fully booked, particularly not in Tarim, an out-of-the-way town built on the floor of a wide canyon called the Hadhramaut ("death has come"). Dotted with date palms and famous for its towering mud buildings, this sere landscape is the ancestral home of the bin Ladens. Osama bin Laden's father grew up in the Hadhramaut before finding fortune in Saudi Arabia during the oil-fuelled construction boom of the 1950s.

Confused, I returned to the Hotel Kenya, where a sullen receptionist eventually suggested I might have more luck at six o'clock.

"The weekend," said Ahmed, nodding towards a man descending the gloomy staircase. "The rooms are full of secret people."

As the man got closer, I noticed the tell-tale green stems poking out of his coat pockets: khat.

The drug of choice in Yemen, khat is nicknamed "Yemeni whisky" by its many enthusiasts. The green leaves and fresh stems are lightly chewed, and then wedged into the side of the mouth to allow the juice to escape. Contrary to popular opinion, khat acts as a mild stimulant, not a zombifying opiate. Every afternoon the streets of Sana'a are full of dagger-wearing men with cheeks grossly distended by fist-sized wodges of the plant.

This daily spectacle, common throughout most of Yemen, is rare in the conservative Hadhramaut, and especially so in Tarim, an important centre of Islamic learning that is home, it is said, to the highest concentration of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad in the world. Not far from the Hotel Kenya is a large graveyard, crowded with uneven white tombstones, that is reserved entirely for the Prophet's descendants. Khat is not haram (forbidden), but chewing is taboo and discovery can bring shame upon the whole family.

Stories abound of men dressing up as women in the all-enveloping black niqab before shuffling off to meet their dealers, or paying intermediaries from other parts of the country to act as go-betweens. Unfortunately for the drug's users, chewing khat is a habit uniquely hard to hide, so, come Friday, the men head for the hotels, where they sit holed up in stuffy rooms, chewing.

It was not always like this. In November 1967 the British withdrew from South Yemen in the face of mass riots and an increasingly deadly insurgency. Their arch-enemies, the National Liberation Front, which was dominated by radical Marxists, seized power, and Tarim, with the rest of South Yemen, came under communist rule. Religion was savagely repressed, Islamic scholars were abducted and killed, women went about uncovered and alcohol was sold in the streets. In 1990, North and South Yemen were unified. The communists were eventually booted out and Tarim swung back toward religious conservatism (though many of those responsible for crimes during the communist years were never brought to justice and live on in the city).

At six o'clock I managed to secure a room at the Hotel Kenya. The air-conditioning was broken and the acrylic towels smelled of stale sweat. Nothing like the clean, welcoming hotels I had found elsewhere in Yemen. But then, this was a doss house used by locals to get high at the weekend, the steps outside stained green with the spittle of furtive chewers.

Worse still, the receptionist had forbidden me to leave the hotel after seven o'clock. The secret police, nervous because of the recent suicide bombing, did not want a hapless foreigner stumbling around after dark.

Throughout my stay in Yemen, I had been tracked. Soldiers at roadside checkpoints carefully noted my passport details and travel movements on stray scraps of paper or, sometimes, the palms of their hands. They did this with such seriousness that I began to wonder if somewhere in Sana'a there wasn't a cluttered office, staffed by a languid clerk, whose job it was to collate all these loose jottings. But though I'd been tracked, I had never before been given a curfew.

The government of Yemen is justifiably paranoid. The rugged mountains, the mosques and the vast, trackless sands of the Empty Quarter make the country a perfect hideout for fun damentalists. The government is terrified that Islamist extremists from elsewhere in the Arab world will slip across the long desert borders, take root and organise. In Zabid, a dilapidated town an hour from the humid Red Sea coast, the guest houses of its more than 200 mosques, which once provided free room and board to Muslim travellers, have been chained shut.

After I'd spent two hours confined in my dingy room, escaping the Hotel Kenya became a priority far outweighing any supposed threat posed by kidnappers and jihadis. From my window, I could see men sitting at an open-air cafe. I wrapped my keffiyeh loosely around my head to disguise my face, edged downstairs, paused long enough to ensure the receptionist was properly absorbed in the noisy glare of a television, and walked casually out of the door.

Outside, the sides of the canyon were dark against a lavender sky and warm air rose from the desert floor. Weathered men rode up to the cafe on motorbikes, knocked back shots of sweet tea and slammed down dominos. The place had a distinctly saloon-like atmosphere.

Drinking tea had never felt so dangerous.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?