With Sheila and Bob at (Yes) the Southern Gates of Arabia

by Bob Burrowes

Yemen Update 28/29(1991):15-18

The purpose of the June 1990 expedition was to see Aden and Wadi Hadramawt, to simply be there (i.e., to be able to tell envious colleagues that we had ...), but the official cover story was that AIYS president Sheila Carapico and board member Bob Burrowes were travelling south to introduce AIYS to officials at Aden University and the Yemeni Centre for Cultural and Archaeological Research in anticipation of the extension of activities of AIYS to the southern part of the new Republic of Yemen.

The crossing of the old border on 17 June was marred by an unseemly incident for which we both wish to apologize to AIYS. There was a lot of pushing and shoving to see who would be the first American political scientist to set foot in the southern part of unified Yemen. The scene was as unnecessary as it was undignified, since a photo has recently turned up with an authenticated mid-June 1990 development date and the image of a grinning Michael Hudson standing tall on the southern side of this same crossing point.

Our efforts to establish contacts for AIYS in Aden were only partially successful, both because our travel plans necessarily had been of a last-minute sort and because so many Yemenis were on the move between Aden and Sanaa on unification-related matters. The officers of the Yemeni Centre were not in Aden when we were. We did meet with Deputy Rector Jamil 'Abdal-'Aziz of Aden University, and did introduce him and his staff toAIYS and its activities; he, in turn, sent us to the Faculty of Education in Khormaksar where we had a useful exchange with the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the History Department. The several academics with whom we met were enthusiastic about the new possibilities for increased contact and collaboration with western scholars, academic institutions, and research centers. They seemed to be expressing relief at the opening of new windows and at the ending of at least a partial intellectual and physical isolation. They do want outside funding and other help for research, teaching,and other scholarly activities. They were very interested in Sheila's description of the activities of AIYS and its members.

More generally, we found the people of Aden and elsewhere in the south to be very friendly, courteous, and helpful. Several persons went far out of their way to assist us. The sense that this was the beginning of a new and probably better era, and that the increased presence of Westerners was going to be apart of it, seemed to be widely shared by hotel personnel and taxi drivers as well as the academics and other intellectuals. People are not defensive or apologetic about their socialist experiment. Instead, they admit the failures, claim some real successes, and want to get on with the solving of their many problems. The welcome mat is out.

The trip to Aden was easy, and securing the needed travel permit (tasrih) was the easiest part of it: a matter of minutes at the Tourist Corporation on Tahrir Square. When we said that we wanted to go to Aden via Ta'izz, the young official filling out the tasrih insisted on listing the several places between Sanaa and Ta'izz: Dhamar, Ibb, etc. When we said that we also intended to go out to Wadi Hadramawt, and probably should list it, he said: "Never mind, that's covered by listing 'Aden'." I wondered how far this 'Aden' would have gotten us if we tried to drive to the oil fields near Shabwa or to Mahra and the border with Oman. I am sure that this anomaly will be worked out of the system as issuing permits to foreigners for travel to the south becomes less novel. [Editor's Note: In June 1991 the government announced that tourists no longer needed permits to travel in most parts of the country.] Oh yes, if you ask a Yemeni now whether a visa is required to go south, he will probably get insulted. Do you have to have a visa to go from New York to Virginia?

The actual drive down to Aden is on a good paved two-lane highway which traces a great arc to the east and south, first skirting the huge massif crowned by Jabal Sabr. And it is "down," a gradual, almost unbroken descent from about 4,500 feet to sea level. Habitation and cultivation (indeed, vegetation per se)drop off markedly as you approach and go beyond the old border, andthis is less a matter of increasing socialism than of declining elevation and rainfall. The increasingly inhospitable scene, looking more and more like the Red Sea Tihama, is broken by a couple of green, watered wadis, and then there is the great oasis of Lahj. The trip covers 167 km, first the 62 km from the Sanaa -Ta'izz road just north of Ta'izz to the old border beyond Rayhada, and then the 105 km from there to Aden itself.

And there is Aden, emerging out of the summer haze as you approach Khormaksar after crossing Shaykh Othman. It looks like a volcanic island, but is a peninsula just barely connected to the mainland by a low stretch of sand. It is black,steeply sided, rugged, and mostly barren. Physical features clearly demark and give their special character to the city's different zones of activity and habitation: Crater, Maalla, Tawahi, and Steamer Point. Across the beautiful bay and fine harbor is the smaller volcanic peninsula, called Little Aden, and Charles Johnston got it right when he said that the rocky heights of Aden and Little Aden"stick out into the sea like the claws of a lobster buried in the sand."

Aden is a wonderful, vibrant city, even in the oppressive heat and humidity of June. It is surely shabby, drab,and worse for wear, but you can still see in a minute what it was&emdash;and can again become. There are many restaurants, and seafood is the order of the day. The new Aden Hotel, badly damaged in January 1986 and now open, is probably first class. Beat up but wonderful are the old Crescent Hotel and the newer Gold Muhur Hotel,the latter facing on a small gem of a cove with a fine curved, sand beach.

The relatively close-to-the-ground flight from Aden to Say'un in Wadi Hadramawt was very dramatic, and the dark, barren, mountainous Jol gave way suddenly to the beige and green that marks the long, wide, and deep wadi. Say'un (population about 30,000) lies 20 km to the east of Shibam (pop 10,000) and 40 km to the west of Tarim (40,000), and these three large towns of Wadi Hadramawt are connected by a good, paved two-lane highway. All three trace their origins to the Second or Third Century B.C.E. and are thriving now in the present century. Summer temperatures hit 115degrees F (45 degrees C), but the heat is bone dry and tolerable.

Say'un is the modern government center in the wadi, and its major landmark is the sultan's palace, a massive structure that now houses modest agricultural, archaeological, and cultural museums. It is a clean, sunlit, milky-brown and white town of mostly low buildings built in the traditional style with bricks of mud and straw; it sprawls pleasantly and is surrounded by walled lush gardens and date palm groves. In one of these outlying areas, al-Garin, is located the al-Salam Hotel, a truly lovely structure with two-story wings that contain 36 air-conditioned rooms (each with bath) and a good restaurant. The Department of Tourist Information and Guidance has an office in the hotel, and is there to arrange trips (and cars and drivers), cultural events, traditional banquets,and other things of a touristic nature. The office was operated by Mr. Hasan 'Ali Shaykh Bahamid, and he proved to be a helpful and knowledgeable guide during our whirlwind one-day tour of Say'un and its two large neighbors.

Shibam as a whole was much less impressive that the long, tall, wadi-facing fascade that fills the classic photo of the place, the one taken from just across the wadi bottom. After the old city of Sanaa, Shibam seems surprisingly small,compact and dense like Sanaa, but small.

By Sanaa standards, too, it is not very interesting to look at, lacking the former place's wild asymmetry and idiosyncratic decoration. Finally, Sanaa is a city and Shibam is buta town, and that also makes the former generally more interesting than the latter. Having said this, it must also be said that the ancient skyscrapers of Shibam are breathtaking. They are, on average, at least two stories taller than their counterparts in Sanaa. Moreover, although built on stone fondations, they are of mud and sun-dried mud and straw bricks, apparently over some wooden beam framing. They simply defy my miniscule knowledge of the laws of physics. Remarkably, too, virtually all of Shibam is contained in a nearly perfectly-drawn rectangular area: the skyscrapers within that area and empty, arid land beyond it. It is an odd place to this layman's eye, and this may be one reason why UNESCO is working hard to conserve Shibam. The state tourism corporation maintains a small hotel in Shibam.

Tarim, the largest of the three wadi towns,resembles Say'un in appearance more than it resembles Shibam. It is noted for its builders and architecture. The al-Muhdhur minaret, 175feet tall, dominates the skyline, and the mansions of the al-Kaf and other great wealthy, learned sayyid families dominate the town's streets. These huge, boxy but ornately decorated brick structures look strangely Italianate to this layman (is that possible?); one of them appeared to have a hundred rooms. The buildings of sun-dried mud and straw bricks being built today are every bit as impressive and aesthetically pleasing as those built in the past and present in Sa'da. Unlike the sensuous curves of the buildings of the latter place, those of Tarim have a clean, square, functional modern look. (I was about to say that Frank Lloyd Wright would have praised the architecture of Tarim but, on second thought, I think he would have been equally taken by that of Sa'da.

Tarim is also famous for its scholars. Theal-Kaf manuscript library, a basketball-court-sized room with bookcases lining all four walls, holds some 5,000 volumes that were confiscated from or donated by the great families of the wadi after independence in 1967. It is the main library of its sort in the country, and is cared for by a number of traditional scholars.

The state tourist corporation maintains the al-Gubba rest house, a good garden spot for eating and relaxing, and even a quick swim. The corporation also maintains hotel accommodations in Tarim.

The flight out of the wadi and down to the Hadramawt coast takes one to Rayyan, the airport 40 km to the east of Mukalla which serves that city as well as Shihr and points east. The classic photo of Mukalla taken from the sea is as deceptive as the classic photo of Shibam. Mukalla only appears to be pinned between high cliffs and the sea. Not at all claustrophobic in feeling, it spreads far inland along a tidal flat that skirts the western end of those formidable cliffs. It is a surprisingly attractive, bustling Arab port city (population about 50,000?), a little window on the world, a little Aden. It is full of shops, stalls, restaurants, and cafes, and these places are full of people from the city, the countryside, and the sea. The state tourist corporation also maintains hotel accommodations here. Glimpsed several times along the paved road from Rayyan and Mukalla, the coastline looks beautiful and inviting.

Aden's modern airport is comparable to that of Sanaa, whereas the facilities in Say'un and Rayyan (Mukalla) are more modest in all respects. Al-Yemda (now Yemen Airways) has flights to and from Aden and both Say'un and Rayyan go several times a week. The flights from Aden to Say'un (an hour and a half) and from Say'un to Rayyan (45 minutes) were on Russian four-engine propeller planes, whereas that from Rayyan to Aden (1 hour) was on a faster Soviet version of the Boeing 7O7 that stopped at Rayyan on are turn flight to Aden from somewhere in the Gulf. The flights were comfortable and the service good.

(A note of caution: Reservations to the Hadhramawt made in advance from abroad should be confirmed in person upon arrival in Aden and again on the day before departure, because flights and planes seem to be juggled around a bit, especially during the hajj season and on the feasts. Another note of caution: Hotel reservations in Aden should be made well in advance because accommodations are in short supply and the demand since unification is high.)

A final word of praise: The local Adeni beer, "Sira", is world class, and the seafood is fresh and well prepared by people who have been doing it for a long, long time. [Editor's Note: The Sira beer factory may be closed by the time this issue goes to press.]

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