A Trip to the Hadramawt

by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 30/31 (1992):16-20

The Hadramawt is a world unto itself, a cultural oasis surrounded by inhospitable terrain and loosely defined borders. No description of Yemen would be complete without taking the Hadramawt into account. Here rises the historic city of Shibam with tall mudbrick skyscrapers that beg to be photographed. The city of Tarim rivals the Red Sea showcase of Zabid as a center of learning and religious scholars. The former palace (now a museum) of the Kathiri sultans graces the center of Say'un as a structure with seemingly no end to its wings. Then there is the wadi itself and the long stretches of date palm groves. It is hardly any wonder that carloads of tourists scurry, cameras clicking at every rest stop, through this wadi to basque in the glow of unification.

There are several ways to get to the Hadramawt, none of them as easy as the tried-and-true triangle of Sanaa- Hudayda - Ta'izz. Both Yemenia and Yemda (which is becoming Yemenia) fly in daily, when the dust is not too bad. The local airport is located just north of Say'un, where one can find plenty of taxis waiting for local trips. Only ten minutes from the airport one finds the Al-Salam Hotel, which is probably the best accommodation in the wadi (at least this is where the World Bank consultants stay). There are also tourist hotels in al-Qatn and Tarim, the latter offering being a former palace of sorts. Reservations are best made well in advance, because of the constant flow-through of organized tours and ministry delegations.

The most interesting way to reach Wadi Hadramawt is by car. The brave cross the desert road (the word "road" being a euphemism here) from Ma'rib; this can be accomplished quite easily from Sanaa in one day if you have a driver who knows where he is going. It is best to have a driver who knows where to go, since most modern vehicles do not have an innate sense of direction in the desert. While the desert route has the merit of being short, it has the drawback of tedium and much eating of dust.

If you want the scenic route, start from Aden on the southern coast. The distance to Mukalla, going along the coast and then up a little into the hinterlands along Wadi Ahwar, is about 450 km (if you believe the signposts which sometimes appear every kilometer along the route). This is about a seven-hour leisurely trip, with a reasonable amount of gas stations, small stores and baladi restaurants along the way. At present the somewhat sleepy port of Mukalla does not boast any hotels worthy of stars. Your best bet is to sleep out on the beach along the coast. The most exquisite camp spot is a natural cove just east of the village of Bi'r 'Ali (about the 502 km mark on the signpost). Here a rough lava mountain meets the ocean and the sand is sparkling white in places.

I visited the Hadramawt in February on a project for GTZ and the Plant Protection Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources. There were six of us in a Toyota salon Landcruiser. We had a late start from Aden, due to a morning stop at the Agricultural Research Station at al-Kawd on the Aden-Mukalla road. We were aiming for Bi'r 'Ali, but darkness set in before we descended from the mountains to the coastal road. After talking with several of the locals at our supper stop, we decided to camp out at a place called Balhaf (near the 481 km marker) rather than plod on to a beach closer to Mukalla. As it turned out, this was an excellent idea. We camped close to an old abandoned fort. The next morning we were interested in combing the beachfronts rather than trying to go all the way to Wadi Hadramawt. We drove all the way to al-Shihr, an important medieval port but now a bypassed fishing town.

On the way back we found an excellent stretch of beach to the east of the Rayyan airport. There were hundreds of crabs laying claim to the beach and before long I found the carcass of a dead turtle in the underbrush. My companions were not too keen on sharing a beach with ravenous hordes of crabs. Then it appeared as though our narrow path to the beach might be covered by high tide and strand us there for awhile in the morning. So in the spirit of democracy we decided to look for another beach, which turned out to be west of Fuwwa on the other side of Mukalla. Once again we arrived after dark, but we finally found a track to traverse our Landcruiser gingerly to the beach. There were crabs here as well, although far fewer.

The setting seemed idyllic with waves pounding comfortably on the shore. Heavy clouds covered the night and the moon peeked through only at rare intervals. I waded into the water, which was quite warm even at night on the tail of a Yemeni winter, and eventually sat down apart from the group to listen to music. No doubt mine was the only tape recorder that day playing Howard Hansen's "Romantic Symphony" along the entire southern coast, perhaps the whole of Yemen, the whole coastline of the Indian Ocean; maybe even in all of the Middle East and North Africa. It was either that or Willie Nelson, since my other cassettes were still packed in the locked car. But this was definitely not a Willie Nelson night.

It seemed far too good to be true, and so it was. After about a half hour I wondered why the sand still felt sticky on my feet. I reached down with my right hand and tried to rub off the sticky sand. The moon shone through the clouds enough to show that my hand was now as black as the night only a few moments before. It was not just sand, but globs of cakey oil. My first reaction was to take some soap and go back into the water. I soon discovered that the soap was useless and the water was so full of black globs that now my legs were black below the knees. I must have scrubbed away for about a half hour, until I finally realized it was hopeless.

By now everyone had gone to sleep. Two of my comrades had retreated to the safety of the car as an occasional crab darted close to the blankets. I reasoned that crabs would not regard an oil-smeared and dirty human as attractive, and that I could sleep in peace and let them be as curious as they wanted to be. In the morning the sand was dotted with tiny crabprints all around my blanket, but unlike Gulliver I was not tied down and not forced to settle any international crab disputes. I told the driver not to wash in the water before his prayer, but he went in anyway and was soon as black as me. Both of us sat down later over breakfast in MukallĀ®' and dabbed "Clinics" in gasoline to eventually remove the cakey oil. Someone suggested it was fall-out, perhaps better called flow-out, from the Gulf War, a romantic thought in some ways. But I think it was simply the usual dumping overboard from a ship leaving Mukalla.

The next morning our driver decided it was time to change oil. He had somehow got it in his mind that the oil had to be changed &emdash; no matter what &emdash; every 1000 km. I say he was our driver, but in fact he was a Yemeni recently returned from Saudi Arabia and the only part of Yemen he had ever seen before was Sanaa and the road north to the Saudi border. It was actually quite amusing to see his reaction to parts of Yemen he never dreamed existed before.

The distance from Mukalla to Say'un is about 350 km, a trip of about 5-6 hours at a reasonable pace. Most of the way is a barren sandstone expanse with buttes resembling those in the American Southwest. The vegetation is quite scarce, the major tree being Acacia tortilis with its characteristic umbrella top. The two botanists in our party had never been to the Hadramawt before, so they literally had a field day at every stop. The entomologist from the ministry collected a wide range of ants, bugs and other insects. He was especially astute at sucking up ants into a plastic container. All of this flurry of activity over plants, insects and terrain seemed most bizarre to our driver, who thought us all thoroughly majnun.

About an hour before the entrance to Wadi Hadramawt the road descends into a long and narrow canyon known as Wadi al-'Ayn. This is a spectacular ride through groves of palms and nameless mudbrick villages. This wadi is part of Daw'an, perhaps the most famous honey area in all of Yemen. I bought a pound (ratl) of winter 'ilb (Ziziphus spina-christi) honey for $20. Considering how steep the price is for someone with dollars, imagine the cost for someone thinking in Yemeni riyals (or dinars or shillings, as the case may be).

The one thing I never did get straight was the conversion between the currencies of the north and south. The riyal works everywhere, but prices are always quoted first in shillings. More than twenty years of a revolutionary government in the south did not unseat the ubiquitous English monetary system implanted in the colonial era. One shilling (which comes as a coin) is equal to 50 fils. Two shillings equal 100 fils or 1.3 riyals. The southern dinar is the same as 20 shillings or 26 riyals. Since the dollar was worth about 30 riyals on the open market at the time, I reasoned that the dinar was almost like a dollar. I think I could have handled anything in dinars, but every mention of shillings sent me scrambling for my calculator.

The first major town along the route in Wadi Hadramawt is al-Qatn with quite a thriving market. The road is badly in need of repair both before and after al-Qatn, with huge holes in the tarmac awaiting the unsuspecting. About twenty minutes away by car the magnificent walled city of Shibam comes into view. The views of this town are so well-known, that it is somewhat of a surprise to find that there is just as large a grouping of buildings on the opposite side of the wadi. In between there is a soccer field where irrigation channels used to carry the periodic flood flow. Another ten minutes down the road brings you to al-Hawta, a small town with a long history to its name. From here it is only another fifteen minutes to Say'un, where I had the foresight to previously make a reservation at the Al-Salam Hotel.

The reservation had somehow disappeared and the hotel was full to the brim with East European tourists in rumpled clothing. I mentioned how I had stayed here before with the World Bank and in a relatively short time a room was found. The Al-Salam looks like it should have been left over from the days of British rule, but I was assured that it had been built since the revolution. The swimming pool in the main courtyard was still empty, as I had remembered it the previous June. About the time of sunset this peaceful hotel is turned into the set of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. What seemed to me like several hundred small birds flittered about in the trees with an an incessant frenzy. The chatter drowned out virtually all conversation for almost half an hour. By then several Seerahs had been downed and the evening breeze took control.

The food at the hotel is adequate, but painfully slow in coming. One group had asked for ful and were still waiting some two hours and many Seerahs later. It arrived almost as if it had been poured out of the can onto the plate (which in fact is pretty close to what must have happened). There are several baladi restaurants in downtown Say'un. The Kenya Restaurant serves a variety of dishes and a mean bowl of ful. My favorite is the Matnam al-Sha'b , which is on the second floor above the "Al Ahgaf Pharmacy". This is at a diagonal to the large tea garden at the east of the market area. You are forewarned not to delay for supper, since the town and its eating establishments close up around 9 o'clock in the evening.

To get to the Sha'b Restaurant you ascend a narrow set of stairs. On the way up I passed two foreigners, but I was not sure if this was a good sign or a bad sign. As you enter the wash basin is on your right and the kitchen on your left. Straight ahead on the street wall is an Indian movie poster to which the buxomy faces of several Egyptian movie stars have been appended. The restaurant consists of a small room some 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. Eight tables are squeezed in and up to about 40 people can be accommodated (at least physically). There is a steady stream of traffic, but almost miraculously no waiting line.

The walls are half blue and half white with a red curtain ringing the room at eye level. The ceiling panels have been recently painted with floral designs and the word sha'b in calligraphic script. The open windows look out onto the main street and in the northeast corner overlooks a tea house (perhaps better known as a "shay shack" in expat slang). There is a no-smoking sign in English and Arabic on one of the columns. From my table I could see into the kitchen, where a bumper sticker for "The Choice of a New Generation" was displayed. At one point the normal Yemeni music on the stereo was replaced with some basic elevator music, a schmaltzy arrangement for harps; I was told this was in my honor. Unfortunately, I had left my Willie Nelson tape in the car.

On the southern wall was a poster of President 'Ali 'Abd Allah Salih. This was a vintage photograph showing a blue suit and red tie. In this particular view, the President seems to be staring off into space. His view was blocked however by more than a few flies who cruised at high levels and periodically dive-bombed unwary customers. There was a range of meat, fish and chicken dishes, each on a bed of well-prepared rice. I chose the camel, for novelty's sake as much as anything else. The small dark pieces, slightly on the tough side, tasted a little like goat (but please don't ask me what goat tastes like). I strained at only a few gnats as I swallowed my camel. It turned out the camel meat at 40 riyals was cheaper than the imported chicken my compatriots ordered.

The food, quite neatly arranged, came in on one large tray carried deftly by a waiter who like so many Yemeni waiters remember exactly what everyone orders without ever writing anything down. We ordered aswad (black), the slang for Canada Dry or Pepsi, but this had to be brought in from outside. The tomato and onion salad, even with a bit of raw cabbage, was quite a pleasant surprise. The bread was right out of the oven.

There are noticeable numbers of wild looking Bedu wandering about in Say'un. Some have long and frazzled black hair and penetrating eyes that seem as bemused by the foreigners, including the Yemenis from the north, as the glint in our eyes must be to them. In the al-Salam Hotel there are several vintage tourism posters, some of which feature the black-haired Bedouins in frenzied dance.

The Hadramawt, seemingly so isolated on the map, is a virtual melting pot. After all it is quicker to drive into Oman or Saudi Arabia than to go to Sanaa. The Hadramis dress both old and new, with the emphasis on pants. The atmosphere here is definitely that of a frontier town. There is a lot of building activity as land is being repatriated and many of the old landed families begin to return from abroad. One gets the feeling that in a few years the Hadramawt will be one of the most developed areas in the unified Yemen.

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