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Sana'a (idlewords.com)
271 points by dang on July 19, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

I work with Yemeni dudes. It is pretty ballsy to travel into Yemen for the last two years. This is coming from a dude who has travelled to some weird and shitty places in the Middle East. When I first came here to work, said Yemeni dudes withs lots of friendly tribal connects said "yeah, you can come visit with me." As of two years ago, they dread going home. If it not the militias, and inter-village tribal warfare (a constant), gas shortages are choking the country to death.

I have always wanted to go. Yemen is the source of all Arabic languages (Proto-Arabic) and Semitic dialects that only really receive mention in the Bible. Whether or not Sana'a is the oldest inhabited city (people also compare to Damascus in this race to proven the unprovable), it is a source of history stemming back farther than any of us can image.

And the drug shrubs! What else could you ask for.

What an awesome trip. I've wanted to go there ever since I read "Motoring with Mohammed" [1]. It's an incredible book about an American who shipwrecked on a remote desert island off of Yemen (not Socotra) and buried a bag of valuables. The book is the story of his trip back there--many years later--to retrieve his bag.

It's a damned shame that the Middle East is so ravaged by conflict. There are so many places I'd love to visit. I want to drive the Khyber Pass in my old Land Rover, I want to visit my family's roots in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon (apparently a Hezbollah stronghold these days). I want to chew qat in Yemen and float the Euphrates in Iraq. Maybe someday...

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Motoring-Mohammed-Journeys-Yemen-Red/d...

I love Maciej's writing. His piece on the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel (http://idlewords.com/2007/04/the_alameda-weehawken_burrito_t...) is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

I love his writing too. My all-time favorite is one of his best known writings, "Argentina On Two Steaks A Day,"[1] which I first read in a print best essays anthology and didn't realize had begun as a blog post until years later.

[1] http://idlewords.com/2006/04/argentina_on_two_steaks_a_day.h...

My favorite by far (or, well, the other one that comes to mind) is No Evidence of Disease. I've recommended it to all my friends.


Wow. Thanks for the link.

This is the second time I ended up on Maciej's website through a hacker news link and ended up spending far too much time happily browsing about. He's a far better writer than one would expect a "blogger" to be. Let's call him an essayist instead.

This was the essay that took me to his site the first time around:


I studied Civil Engineering in University.

There is no way that that city disappears. The economic incentives are too strong to pipe water in. 3km up some mountains is nothing. Humanity has built pipelines a thousand of kilometres long and over or through much taller mountains.

The city might be corrupt as hell, but when there is truly a water shortage (right now, if they are using it for crops, there isn't in the economic sense) some rich guy is just going to bribe everyone in the way and build that pipeline then charge everyone in the city a dollar a cubic meter or something. Certainly cheaper than rebuilding a stone city.

We know what a water crisis in Sana'a will look like because the city already runs low on water every time there is a shortage of fuel:


It doesn't matter what technology you use to bring in water. When the cost gets high enough, people are going to leave the city, and the poorest will have to leave first.

I would've thought that the poorest would be in the weakest position to move - no means to pay, fewer opportunities to hear of alternatives, little contact with family who might be elsewhere, etc.

What is cheaper, building a city or building a pipe?

I find it hard to believe that the local economy has collapsed to the point where they can't afford a pipe to a desalination plant.

That's one of the easiest things there is to believe. You need to work on your believing.

You might be right that the whole thing will fall apart.

But if this place is indeed the equivalent to Manhattan I can understand the disbelief. Compared to the trillions tied up in real estate the cost of a pipeline to NYC would be trivial. Yeah it might cost $50b (probably much, much less but lets go crazy) but with at least 10mm people around to receive the water it's $5k per person amortized over a decade it comes out to $50/mo/person

I realize that the economics in Sana'a are probably hugely different than here in the US. But if people earn less, labor is cheaper too, etc.

The difficulty here isn't that given the facts it could happen. It's that getting to the point where you have all the facts has turned all the assumptions that you normally take for granted completely upside down. Speaking as an engineer I can understand the difficulty.

The old town is the equivalent of Manhattan, moved to the Middle Ages (or earlier). I don't know the new part of the city, but it probably is concrete and tents/shanty towns, like all large cities in poorer countries.

http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Yemen gives a gross income per capita for Yemen of around $1300. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Yemen has a more optimistic $2200. Sana'a may be richer, but I guess the poor will be significantly below that.

I don't find it strange that they will not be able to pay for the infrastructure and the additional costs of desalination and of pumping the water to the city (over 2 km up)

Also, looking at http://files.transparency.org/content/download/700/3007/file..., Yemen is perceived to be extremely corrupt. That means that its population may not trust their government with that amount of money, even if they could afford to pay it.

One of the big problems right now is that they have a very long oil pipeline, and people keep blowing it up. It's hard to get political stability when the resources are so constrained, and hard to deal with the resource problems when there's so much political instability.

Viewers of Die Hard With a Vengeance have several opportunities for learning:


50 years and $6 billion for a tunnel 60 miles long. The city owns lots of land around the source waters, but I think that is their only expense in acquiring the water, and the tunnel flows downhill to the city.

Also, the 21st President of the United States was Chester A. Arthur.

Sure, manual labour is cheap. But if you want to buy computers, electric equipment or high quality machines then you have to buy the same stuff that us rich westerns buy. I. E. You're paying western prices.

Do you people realize you don't need to have this debate from first principles? There's a LOT of interesting (and depressing) cost analysis on providing Sana'a with water vs. trying to relocate.

Not everything has to be a Fermi thought experiment.

The point I was trying to make is that a civil engineer from the US might take a lot of factors for granted. And given those factors it would completely make sense to build a pipeline. But it sounds like those factors don't apply in Sana'a.

It's not the OPs inability to believe that's the problem. Show him all of his flawed assumption and he'd readily change his mind (I would hope anyhow). But how do you disabuse him of those things which he takes for granted here in the US? That's a difficult process.

We're talking really poor people here. They just build a few shacks out of corrugated steel. Shanty towns are cheap to "build".

Yemen wasn't always so dangerous. My dad used do development work in Yemen in the early 90s. At the time it wasn't an eventful place. He was there when the civil war broke in 1994. He was stuck in Sana'a while it was being shelled. Finally managed to catch a C130 out of town when the US military evacuated a bunch of Americans.

I don't know anything about Yemen, but my impression is that the country has a bad rap even in the middle east, and it has for a while. My father, of Lebanese descent, moved from Lebanon in the 50s. He had stories about Yemen from way back when. One example was that an eye for an eye was still the norm there - a boy smashed out the eye of a cow with a rock in a morbid attempt at fun, and the owner of the cow did the same to the boy. This punishment was accepted in the village where this occurred.

You could have ended this comment at word #6

Sounds like the boy got what he deserved. What kind of psychopath does that to a cow?

Ugh. You don't even know the age of the boy, or if he even intended the cow's eye to be hit (maybe he was just throwing a rock to see it jump?), and you're ready to judge that punishment as well-deserved?

It's all hypothetical, of course -- and no one is removing eyes based on your say-so -- but that's a shitty punishment for anything.

Generally a punishment for a wrong-doing should try to encourage/force the guilty party to be a functional, non-destructive member of society if at all possible (exceptions as needed to protect others).

Punishments that harm the person's ability to earn a living, or have normal interactions with other people, are counterproductive (and can force the person to resort to criminal behavior to survive in the future), so punishments that inflict serious physical and/or psychological damage are stupid. They give a few people their "vengeance", for whatever that's worth, and otherwise they damage the society as a whole.

> in a morbid attempt at fun

That's what I'm basing my comment on and what we're discussing. If the OP is wrong is another discussion but I don't see any room for interpretation here.

> maybe he was just throwing a rock to see it jump?

Are you seriously saying it's OK to throw rocks at cows?

> should

According to who? My grandfather was a prison governor and a pioneer in treating prisoners humane. Before his time the general thought was to "throw them in a cell with only water and bread". So I definitely know this discussion very well and I still believe the punishment itself could be an end goal.

> Are you seriously saying it's OK to throw rocks at cows?

There's a lot of space between "OK" and "take the boy's eye out with a rock", which is what I'm arguing is the wrong punishment. (No, it's not OK to throw rocks at cows.)

>> should > According to who?

According to me, of course, for the reasons I (briefly) gave. You're welcome to continue the discussion with your own arguments, and your grandfather's experiences sound interesting.

Every rooftop has a low wall around it and has been capped off with a little cone of rubble.

In case anybody was wondering, this is most likely because Yemen has the same daft law as much of the Middle East: you only start paying property tax when your house is complete, so if you leave the "last floor" (roof) notionally incomplete (a row of bricks plus some construction detritus, as if you were still working on it), you never pay tax.

I have heard this with regard to Cairo, but as for Yemen... citation needed. It sounds like reactor-grade bolonium.

Good luck digging up citations to Yemeni tax law, but I've seen it in Jordan as well. Perhaps some shared vestige of Ottoman rule?

People have reported similar stories from Turkey and Greece, for what it's worth. No one seems to agree whether it's about tax stuff or leaving the option to extend dwellings by another floor.

In Yemen the practice is to have the top floor of a dwelling be the mufraj (room with views where men chew qat) which is what makes me skeptical about the tax idea there. The buildings certainly don't look unfinished from rooftop level.

The thing that makes me most skeptical, though, is just that it's such a wonderful, repeatable story.

In Brazil during the colonial times catholic churches would have to pay taxes once they were complete that is why they always have one bell tower and a second incomplete tower.

I was in Sana'a around this time last year, the article paints a strikingly accurate picture of the experience. Yemenis as a whole are the friendliest group of people I've had the pleasure to meet. On the other hand, the problems of the nation seem to be incurable, unless someone has a recipe for turning sand into water and oil.

It looks like they could employ something like this baby: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BN-350_reactor

Sadly it doesn't seem to be mainstream anymore.

Certainly a place to watch considering that they're going to run out of ground-water sooner rather than later. I imagine the graph of population will look pretty similar to that of reindeer on St Matthew Island:


I call BS on the reindeer on St Matthew Island story.

There's evidence it was a natural disaster, which makes much more sense -


Great story, excellent pictures. The colours and the dynamic range are sweet - does anyone know what equipment he uses?

Best middle eastern food in Bangkok is Yemeni, as rated by my family and two random middle eastern dudes we met under our sitar teacher's apartment in another part of the city who pointed us there as the best place to go. The owner screams when you walk in... every customer is Habibi!

It's interesting that a place that has such overwhelmingly friendly people gives the impression of being a terribly dangerous place to visit to so many Americans.

It is in fact a dangerous place to visit. Having an incredibly friendly and hospitable population is something it has in common with several other dangerous places to visit.

I definitely don't dispute that fact. But if you ask most people in America what their opinion is of the Yemeni population, "friendly and welcoming" would not be the most common response.

this was fascinating, thanks for sharing

How is this Hacker News worthy content? It's a great article, granted, but it has nothing to do with hacking (unless I'm missing something).

If you downvote this comment, I think explaining in a reply why this article belongs in Hacker News would be great.


"On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity."

Hacker News is about more than hacking and startups. That has been in the site prospectus for some 7 years and is kind of the whole idea.

I posted it because it's damn interesting, and secondarily because the site could use a little more diversity.

I found it fascinating, because it's a place I'd never go to--and because I admire those with the intestinal fortitude to visit places that could potentially land them at the bottom of a 6' hole in the ground. One of the reasons I read HN is because of the occasional morsel like this that is simultaneously unexpected and rewarding.

The other side of the coin is that it was well written and humorous, which helps, but the language itself brought to life incredible images. Writing is a skill. Good writing is an art. Both can be appreciated but one is adored. I always assumed that hacker-types generally had a wide array of eclectic tastes and interests, and I'm pretty sure some of the more famous ones would agree [1]. Besides, who doesn't like a good, lively story about a culture that's alien to the majority of us Westerners?

I'm still puzzled though. I've never understood why some people have a penchant for clicking links they know they'll hate, read them anyway, and then post their misery and suffering. It would seem less of a cognitive load to ignore the unwanted than to embrace and let it fester.

[1] http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/reading_habits.html

You've been here for nearly three years. The surprising thing is that you don't know Hacker News is not just about hacking. That fact has been repeated almost daily since the origins of this site.

The two most tiring and unnecessary comments anyone can make on any news aggregator websites (including HN) are:

(1) "Hey, this article is titled '10 cool things about X' (where X is some programming language or framework or library or server or something) but it didn't explain what X was! I've never heard of X so clearly no one else has either!" Every once in a great, great while, it's a defensible comment, but it's just not worth making the comment even when it is. Just Google it if you haven't heard of it, that's what the rest of us did.

(2) "Hey, this article you guys linked to doesn't fit into the category of articles that I have assigned to your website!" Seriously, no good can ever possibly come of this. Downvote the article if you feel this way, that's why the ability to downvote articles exists. It's just so not worth verbalizing the sentiment.

Unfortunately, the third most tiring and unnecessary comment that can be made on such sites is probably the one I just made, so sorry everyone! :) I mean well, I really do.

Because reading about his awesome life makes me want to develop a SaaS product and charge for it from Day 1.

I kind-of get your point -- I don't see why the linked post is something that hackers in particular should find intriguing. But I personally found it to be an interesting read, and I expect most people (hackers or not) should feel the same. In any case it's a refreshing change for all the "big tech corp did this or that" stories that are repeated in all tech media (even mainstream media) and are only tangentially related to hacking because it's got something to do with technology.

I totally agree 100%. I began to read the blog post and noticed that the author was trying to make it sound like a novel. If I wanted to read a book I would. It wasn't interesting; actually pretty distracting.

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