By Christopher Stevens
The Toyota Prado sports an impressive 1.885 meters in width. That’s 6.18 feet, taller than the average male human being. That measurement is also side door to side door, mind you—side mirrors are extra.
Though I haven’t performed the measurements myself, I would venture that the average width of an alley in Sana’a’s old city sits at, give or take, 10 feet. Add on about one foot on either side of clothing racks, amphora displays, promotional signs, and jambiyya paraphernalia, and you’re maybe working with 8 feet of play room, at the most. This measurement, of course, fails to account for the hundreds of Yemenis in the Old Sana’a alleys at any given hour of the day, to say nothing of their boxes, bags, wheelbarrows, wares, and children.
This is all to say that the Toyota Prado and the alleys of Old Sana’a were never meant to go together.
I was thinking this—nay, near shouting this repeatedly—when my Yemeni friend (and Prado owner) told me that we were going to drive into Old Sana’a one night a few weeks ago. “We” being a generous term, as at that point I was the one behind the wheel.
With trepidation and a grim sense of foreboding, I pulled the SUV around the Zubayri turnabout, scanned the square for watchful policemen, and then slowly nosed the vehicle through the massive gates of Bab al-Yemen.
I felt, for a moment, like a piece of history. Camel-drawn carts, kingly entourages, invading and emerging armies had all entered and emerged from this gate. The moment did not last long, though. I was none of these things. I was just a boy in an oversized car.
I gently eased across the main square within the gate, and then pulled onto the central northbound street that leads to the inner reaches of Old Sana’a. The first stretch was the easiest, and I was lulled briefly into a false sense that maybe this ride would be easier than I imagined. Perfectly courteous and understanding Yemeni shoppers (or so their faces suggested) stepped aside as I lumbered past them, clutching purses and satchels and bundles of dresses close to them as they drew back against the alley walls.
At the first fork in the road, I began to spin the wheel left. The road there was clearly much wider than its righthand counterpart, and seemed to at least offer the possibility of accommodating the behemoth I was piloting. “No no,” said my copilot. “Go right.” At this point, I am fairly certain he was simply testing me. I am ashamed to say that I am very susceptible to tests.
I pulled back to the right and forged ahead, but it wasn’t twenty meters before a Yemeni raced up to my window.
“You can’t go this way! Go that way!” he yelled, pointing back toward the fork. “Just look, your car can’t fit here.”
I was ready to acquiesce and start the equally discomfiting task of reversing back down the alley, but my associate held fast.
“No, we are going this way,” he said. “It’s not a problem.”
The Yemeni man’s face went through a brilliant range of emotions right before my eyes, from the concerned wonderment of “who do these crazy people think they are?” to the driven steeliness of “let’s do this.” I watched the split-second change in his eyes, and without a word he was out in the middle of the alley, directing pedestrians, shopkeepers, and us, his new clients.
Despite the addition of a drum major to our party, the journey only grew more harrowing. The alley seemed to grow narrower and narrower, and new obstacles presented themselves every 20 feet. Here a man with a wheelbarrow, here a store-owner who was modeling new dresses in the center of the alley, here an equally touched minibus driver trying to forge his way through the Old City in the opposite direction (a short bout of vehicular jousting later, he had tucked himself into a side street for us to pass through).
Our journey would have made an excellent—though lengthy—advertisement for Toyota. The Prado handled remarkably. Ninety degree turns with no room for error took place every few minutes, the brakes responded with vital alacrity each time a child burst from a doorway, and through it all the surround sound speakers kept up a well-balanced euphony of Arabic music.
As suddenly as it had begun, it ended. We cruised (or, rather, crept, reversed, and crept again) into the alley adjacent to Kebab Souk and pulled into a parking space along the sidewalk (or, rather, crept, cajoled a vendor to move his pushcart, reversed, and crept again). Shortly after putting the car into park, my brain reminded my lungs to resume breathing. I’m fairly certain I hadn’t taken a breath since pulling into Bab al-Yemen, so this was a good thing.
I cannot say that I was exactly proud of myself. I have frequented narrow alleys across the world, and one of the few things they had in common was that there were always motorists with vehicles too big for said alleys attempting to traverse them. I’ve always been on the pedestrian side, grumbling at their selfishness and insensitivity.
This time I was in the driver seat, and if I was amazed by the performance of anyone, it was that of the frequenters of Old Sana’a themselves. I received not a single dirty look (though plenty looks of worried concern at my sanity), not one cross word, not one angry shout. Vendors did not complain when they were forced to move their goods for me, nor did passersby show anger when forced to hug the walls around the vehicle.
This is not to say that I would ever attempt a vehicular tour of Old Sana’a again. I swore to my friend that I would never again take a car into the old city, and whether it was my tone or the cold sweat still drying on my brow, he seemed to take my word for it. In fact, I felt a little rude for having intruded so into these streets designed for foot travelers.
But I was struck by the incredible patience shown by all the city residents I thundered past that evening. It was the same patience shown when I fumbled through muddled tea orders or dropped on the street the shawl I ended up not purchasing. It was the same patience that has made me feel so welcome in Sana’a every day. Even those days when I’m driving a Toyota Prado where, really, no Toyota Prado should ever go.
I am, at last measurement, 1.882 meters in height. That’s 6.17 feet, taller than the average male human being. Side to side, though, I’m maybe .5 meters, tops. And even in the narrow, winding alleys of Old Sana’a, that’s just fine.