From San‘a to Al-Sin and Back Again: A Qabili Abroad

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 24(1988):13

[Note: printing errors from the printed version have been corrected. Transliteration does not includes dots under letters.]

Hamûd Mansûr, Qabîlî fî al-Sîn wa-Buldân Ukhrâ, Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 1986

There are any number of accounts by Westerners about their travels in Saudi Arabia. While descriptive of the sights and sounds to a certain extent, the real purpose is usually to parade personal exploits in an exotic land. Rare it is that we see the other side of the coin, in this case a Yemeni telling his fellow countrymen the strange and curious ways of people he met while abroad. A recent example is Hamud Mansur's Qabîlî fî al-Sîn wa-Buldân Ukhrâ (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 1986, 255 pp.).

Mansûr, by his own admission, was destined to travel&emdash;long ago a soothsayer thus read his future. A graduate of the Police Academy, he later studied in Iraq and Algeria. In fact he went so many places in Algeria that his knowledge of the country is greater than most Algerians. This modern day Ibn Battûta has put his sights east and west, including among his travels much of North Africa, southern Europe, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and even far-off Hong Kong. His account of some of these treks makes a delightful tale of the perils of being a tourist and the insights of a Muslim traveling in non-Islamic areas.

The story begins in the arrivals lounge of Hong Kong airport, where the customs official greets him with the inevitable barrage of questions: Why have you come? What have you bought? How long will you be here? How much money do you have? But then comes the unexpected…are you from North Yemen or Democratic Yemen? The official was pleased that Mansûr was from the north. But the author could only wonder how they had come to have such a fear of democracy! This exchange set the tone for a witty rival to an Innocent Abroad updated for today.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the observation of Islam as practiced in the areas he visited. While breaking the fast during Ramadan at a mosque near his hotel in Hong Kong, he encounters a spread before him of an orange, an apple, two sanbusas, a bowl full of warm soup and a glass of water. All present ate without a word and then ascended to the second floor for the evening prayer. Mansûr is told there are about 30,000 Muslims in Hong Kong, including many workers from Pakistan. At one point he is moved by the missionary zeal of the Pakistanis. A group sat around an American who had entered the mosque to learn more about Islam. "I said to myself," writes Mansûr, "Yâ Subhân Allâh, the Pakistanis are working to spread Islam to other peoples despite the fact they can barely speak Arabic…while we Arabs who have the Holy Quran in our language do not do as much as they." As a practicing Muslim, Mansûr also notes the difficulties in such simple acts as performing ablutions in countries where Islam is not widely known.

His experiences are those of any traveler. In buying a camera in Hong Kong he ends up getting sold a bill of goods. When the police are called in, they laugh and he observes that the only thing the cops there know how to do is beat the tourists. On arriving at the airport in Bangkok, he goes thirsty because no one has change for his hundred-dollar bill. In Saudi Arabia there is a run-in at customs, in Italy he and his friend can't find the ticket booth in the train station, in Bologna he gets lice from his hotel bed. He is surprised that a hotel café is underground; the food and décor were fine, but how strange to be eating in a madfan! In Switzerland he encountered his first motel, which he finds much like a hotel minus most of the services. He visits a cheese factory in Switzerland and a livestock ranch in France. In Hungary he finds snow on the ground in the spring. In Austria he finds himself the only one in the hot baths still wearing his shorts. And in Vienna it's difficult to tell the male youth from the females. As we can all sympathize, the world is indeed a strange place.

Adding to the flavor of the narrative are several advertisements that struck the author's fancy. One of my favorites is an ad for a kosher food restaurant in Taipei called Hamma Roma (just behind the LAI LAI Sheraton on Chen Chiang St., if you're interested). Here you can get kosher salami, pastrami, corned beef sandwiches, hummos, tahini, falafel with pita bread, kabab, bamya and rock "carnish" young chicken. (I can almost taste that rock carnish.) The kosher meat, of course, is imported directly from the United States. The wary traveler also was handed a card for an "escort service"&emdash;Agency Cleopatra&emdash;exclusively for Arab clients. Finally, even the cover of the book is compelling. How can you not be drawn to a drawing of a Yemeni qabili, passport in hand, riding a Yemenia airplane (on top) like a rodeo star? Sanaa International airport is on his left and perhaps the Coliseum is on his right.

At home in Sanaa Airport he finds no taxis at the door and has to carry his heavy bags far away to the new taxi stand. Welcome back, Hamûd.

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