Doaa al-Waseai remembers being a tour guide in the Old City of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, spending days walking around and showing people hidden hammams and markets teeming with silver and spices.
“Tourism opened my eyes to my own culture,” said al-Waseai, 40, reflecting on how she gained a deeper appreciation by explaining Yemen to outsiders.
But the Old City, al-Waseai’s childhood home, is reeling after nearly a decade of war, its 1,000-year-old rammed-earth buildings falling apart.
Al-Waseai once spoke English and German comfortably, but her foreign language skills are fading, though she doesn’t see a point in them now.
“There are no words to express our catastrophe in English, or German, or even French. We’re losing Old Sanaa.”
A UNESCO World Heritage site for nearly 40 years, the Old City has been classified as “in danger” since 2015, shortly after Saudi Arabia spearheaded a military intervention on the side of Yemen’s beleaguered government.
Inhabited for more than 2,500 years, the area’s iconic mosques and burned-brick tower houses have faced both direct threats of air raids and indirect threats of lack of upkeep.
Al-Waseai has kept records of the Old City’s decline, her spreadsheets listing collapsed homes and battered hotels. She is pursuing a master’s degree in tourism at Sana’a University, hoping she can one day aid the Old City’s recovery.
Al-Waseai had heard stories of bombing raids during an earlier civil war in the 1960s but never thought she would one day witness them herself.
“Why are they attacking our city?” she recalls thinking. “It’s forbidden to attack our history. They are destroying our history.”
The Old City’s houses, with their distinctive white gypsum trim, “are very fragile and require constant maintenance”, said UNESCO associate project officer Mohammed al-Jaberi.
“Traditionally, the homeowners would carry out the maintenance,” al-Jaberi said. But, “people are making a hard choice between putting food on the table and maintaining the roof over their heads” during the wartime economic crisis.
Fighting has lessened considerably in much of Yemen since a truce took effect in April 2022.
But it expired last October, and the absence of a lasting ceasefire has left many institutions at a standstill, including the public preservation body, which is starved of funds, like other government bodies.
Old City residents still hold out hope its past glories can be revived.
Near the Old City’s historic Yemen Gate, in the shop where he sells traditional healing oils, Salah Aldeen hangs a picture of then-President Francois Mitterrand of France visiting the Old City in the 1990s, a time when foreigners were common.
He said he was confident those days would return. “Sooner or later, it will recover, you know. War is a disease, but we will recover.”