Rambles in Yemen

by Kenneth Cline

Yemen Update 35(1994):17-21

[The author is Atlanta bureau chief for American Banker, a financial services newspaper. He travelled to North Yemen in 1983 under a journalism fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs.. The photographs in this article and on the cover were taken by the author.]

It's been ten years since I visited Yemen, but the country and its people are still vivid for me.

I think first of the Mudahars and their village. This family of seven, which included the eldest son's wife and baby, lived in a one-story house in the Qa' al-Bawn, a valley north of Amran. This is not Yemen of the picture post cards. There are no green, terraced mountains in the Qa' al-Bawn. Slopes here are more gradual, the colors muted. The eastern range consists of black volcanic rock, the western resembles piled-up sand. Only a few patches of yellow and green, marking the cultivated areas, disrupt the hazy whiteness of the valley floor.

It's a dry place. With only about eight inches of rain a year, coming in two installments during the biannual monsoons, most of the agriculture is dependent on diesel-powered water pumps. These can be heard all day long, chugging away from distant fields. Miniature twisters spot the valley floor in the afternoons, whipping funnels of dust into an empty blue sky. In some areas, the soil is such a fine powder that each footstep raises a puff like smoke.

In the Qa' al-Bawn, water pumps equal wealth. And by that standard, the Mudahars qualified as probably the wealthiest family in Bayt al Rabu'i, a village of about 25 homes clustered on the valley's eastern slope. They owned part shares in two pumps, which they used to irrigate their wheat, potatoes and vegetables. They were one of only three families in the village with an electric generator to light their home and the only one to be able to afford enough diesel fuel to run it every night. When the other houses went dark, neighbors &emdash; mostly children &emdash; would troop over to the Mudahars' mafraj, or living room, to watch Egyptian movies on their color television. The Mudahars also had a Toyota Land Cruiser for getting around the valley and hauling their crops into Amran.

Their wealth came from Saudi Arabia rather than Yemen. During the period I visited with them, the Mudahars had two sons working in the Saudi construction industry. The money these young men sent home, combined with contributions from the eldest son, Muhammad, who had returned the previous year, had lifted the Mudaharsout of the 19th century lifestyle that is still the lot of many rural Yemenis.

The house itself was modest: a one-story, concrete block structure that featured two rooms: the mafraj and a combination dining area and storeroom. The kitchen was located in a small, windowless building attached to the main structure. There was only one bed, in the mafraj, which was used by Abdullah, the head of the family. The others slept on cushions in the other room. The Quran was the only book in the house. In the mornings, I would awake to find Abdullah sitting on his bed with the Quran open before him, softly mouthing verses. I always thought this odd. As far as I knew, Abdullah couldn't read much more than his name.

Fifteen year-old Yahya was the only ‘educated'' family member. He attended primary school in a neighboring village, which like most Yemeni schools operated with Egyptian teachers. Thinking I might broaden his horizons, I once brought Yahya an Arabic translation of Treasure Island. Surely, I thought, this tale of pirates and buried treasure would have universal appeal. I even told him, when I presented it, that this book was particularly good. Yahya seemed interested as he leafed through the pages. But then he came to an illustration of a pirate sitting at a table with a bottle of rum. Haram, hadha haram,''Forbidden, it is forbidden,'' he scolded me, handing the book back.

Yahya, like boys everywhere, could be mischievous. He liked to race the Toyota around the valley's dirt tracks. Once we passed a dark, bearded man behind the wheel of another Land Cruiser, whom Yahya identified as a sheikh, or tribal leader. Yahya grinned at me as we enveloped the fellow in great, gagging billows of dust. Some weeks later, I was sitting in theMudahar mafraj when I heard a metallic thunk in the yard. The entire household rushed out to find the front end of the Toyota lodged in a stone wall, and Yahya, paralyzed with dismay, in the driver’s seat. Abdullah stormed at the boy, who reluctantly emerged from the vehicle. Abdullah, who always reminded me of an Arab Ringo Starr with his bulbous nose and heavy whiskers, slapped his son around the head for good measure.

But fortunately, this was only a fender bender. When Hassina, Yahya's mother mentioned the incident to me the next day, she made a show of scolding Yahya for being a ''bad boy. ‘He looked sheepish, but then she gave the game away &emdash; she winked at me and made playful slapping motions at her own cheeks. This was typical of her gentle, good-natured ways.

To help compensate the Mudahars for their generous hospitality, I brought them oranges when I arrived from Sanaa and also tried to assist their efforts to procure a water tank for Bayt al Rabu'i. I took Muhammad, the eldest son, to the capital to enlist USAID in the cause. We began our journey on the Sa'da-Sanaa road waiting for a taxi. While we were standing there, Muhammad made a display of rummaging through his pockets only to announce, haplessly, that all his money was fi'l bayt, ''at the house.'' I took this as an obvious cue to pay for the ride. Since I would be remaining in Sanaa while Muhammad planned to return the next day, I also gave him enough money for the return journey. It came to 200riyals in all, then worth about $40.

Muhammad never said another word about the money. But the debt seemed to unsettle the rest of the family. From time to time, Hassina would wrinkle her eyebrows at me and inquire if Muhammad had repaid the money. I had to say no, but always tried to assure her this was not a problem as far as I was concerned.

The morning of my last day with the Mudahars, both Hassina and Abdullah came up to me in the house while Muhammad was outside feeding the cow. When I again had to tell them, no, Muhammad hadn't given me any money, Abdullah pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and began peeling off 50 riyal notes. La,la, ''No, no,'' I protested, malesh, mush mushkilla, ''It doesn’t matter; no problem.''

Hassina took the notes from her husband and pressed them firmly into my hand. Ayb, ''Shame,'' she exclaimed, startling me with her vehemence. The Arab rules of hospitality mystified me at times, but I knew that sometimes you gave more offense by not accepting. I took the money.

As for the petition, the Americans were helpful, but the project had to be approved by the government. Our request for a water tank disappeared into the labyrinth of the Yemeni bureaucracy, never to be heard from again.

I had gone to see a linguist friend, Wolfgang Werbeck, in Manakha, where he was studying the local dialect. One morning, we decided to walk to the village of Hutayb, about three miles away, to see the shrine of a 12th century Ismail saint. Devotees of that religion routinely make the pilgrimage by the busload, but Wolfgang and I managed to get lost in the mountains. Convinced by some villagers that a short cut was possible, we left the main road, and followed a path up the slopes past crevices of yellow wild flowers. Eventually we emerged at a place aptly named al-Jabal, ''the mountain.'' As the late afternoon fog rolled in from the Red Sea, this walled village floated on the clouds like some magic kingdom lost in time, a Yemeni Brigadoon.

We ventured through the gate to be greeted by dead silence. The migration of young men to the Gulf had been draining the highland villages since the late 1970s, and al-Jabal seemed clear evidence of that. Many of the houses had collapsed from neglect. A few old men sitting around outside the mosque constituted the only sign of life. Wolfgang, who thought he'd do a little work while he was there, pulled out his tape recorder and sat down. He introduced himself and said he was collecting Yemeni folk tales and stories for a book. Did they know any good ones?

Mafish, ''There are none,'' came one graybeard’s terse reply.

Well, Wolfgang continued gamely, how's the farming been lately? Any rain? ''There is no rain; there is no God, ''the elder said, squinting skyward.

Wolfgang gave it one last try, although the grim fatalism of these men foreordained the result. ''What's the name of the tribe in these parts?'' Mafish qabayl, ''There are no tribes.''

From Manakha, I took the blue General Transport Corporation bus to the coast, and spent a pleasant hour chatting with Ahmad. This young man, who was wearing a striped shirt and light brown jacket with his kilt-like futah, had learned English entirely from self-study books and films. ''It is my hobby,'' he said. ''Some people like to collect stamps. I like to study English.''

Ahmad was also a student of Yemeni society. His countrymen, he complained, ''do not think of the future,'' and only work enough to buy their q¡t, which is a mildly narcotic weed that Yemenis like to chew in the afternoons. He also talked about the dafa'a, or bride price. In Yemen, this could range from$10,000 to $30,000, depending on region and family status. Wasn’t that outrageous? he asked me. I thought it might make him feel better to know that alimony and child support can make divorce an expensive proposition for the American male.

He nodded, delighted with the comparison. ''That's the difference between your country and mine,'' he said. ''In Yemen, we pay everything at the beginning and nothing at the end, while your situation is the opposite.''

During my stay in the Tihama, I thought to visit the coastal town of Loheya, north of Hodeidah. The guidebook described it as a charming little port known for its 18th century and19th century architecture, most notably wooden doors embossed with Islamic geometric patterns. The American ambassador was reputed to have bought one of these doors during a visit.

The ambassador, I suspect, hadn't tried to get to Loheya by taxi. I spent an hour or so hanging around the taxi station on the main highway linking Hodeidah with Saudi Arabia before a young man with a motorcycle offered to take me to Zohra, about halfway to Loheya, for $10. We arrived after a bumpy excursion through the Tihama outback to find Zohra prostrate in the noonday heat. Among the thatched conical huts I found a brick building, which housed a government irrigation project. John Pavey, a British engineer who had been working there six months, informed me that Loheya ''is not the kind of place you want to visit unless you have a good reason for going there.'' He recalled how a German man had come through town several months before inquiring about the road to Loheya. After hanging around Zohra all day waiting for a taxi, the German finally gave up and returned to Hodeidah.

After absorbing this bad news, I decided I would at least wander around Zohra and snap a few photos of a ''typical Tihama village.'' My progress through town soon attracted the attention of a pack of small boys, who raised the dreaded cry, sura, sura, roughly ''Take my picture!'' This is a not uncommon experience for foreign visitors in Yemen. It happened to me twice in eight months. Some American archaeologists I met labeled this phenomenon ''The Revenge of the Walids, '' a play on the Arabic word for ''boy.'' After an initial period of good humored pantomime about photo taking, the boys' mood darkened. I found myself being pursued through Zohra under a hail of rocks and jeers. It was only luck that my retreat took me past a middle-aged black woman who objected to this kind of misbehavior. Wheeling around, she scolded the boys so severely that they dispersed to other mischief. Thanking the woman, I was on my way back to the safety of Pavey's compound when a voice called to me, in English, ''Come here!''

Four young men were gathered on the porch of an official-looking building. The one who spoke English, wearing slacks and a white shirt, demanded to know if I had a permit to take pictures in Zohra. ''And who are you?'' I snapped back, my nerves still raw from the walid attack. When he said he belonged to the government, I insisted that he show me his papers first. Fine. He said he'd go back to his house and retrieve the documents. As we awaited his return, the other men commiserated with me about the heat, which must have been close to 100 degrees. The patriot returned a few minutes later with a laminated card identifying him as belonging to some department of the bureaucracy. ''We go to the office now,'' he said. At that point, I flourished my own Sanaa-issued press card. Asif, ''Sorry,'' he said. ''No problem,'' I said, and we all shook hands.

Returning to the water project, I said goodbye to Pavey and flagged down a jeep heading back to the Hodeida road. I asked one of the two men in the Toyota where he was from. ''Loheya,'' he said. I paused, overcome with irony. I told him I had heard this was a madina kwayyis, a ''nice town.''

''Yes,'' he agreed, ''it is a nice town.''

In the arid Wadi Jubah I went looking forNagia. Not by myself, this time, but in the company of a team of American archaeologists.

Nagia was a South Arabian city mentioned by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. He described it as an important stop on the spice caravan route connecting Timna (or Qataban) in south Yemen with Marib (most likely Saba, or Sheba) just across the border in north Yemen. From Marib, the caravans continued on across the Saudi desert to Palestine. The archaeologists were hoping to find Nagia in the Wadi Jubah, which is located about 20 miles south of Marib. I spent a couple of weeks with them to lend an extra hand with a shovel.

The archaeologists never could determine if the tell they were excavating outside Wadi Jubah's main town actually was Nagia. They found clear evidence of a walled city existing therein pre-Roman times, but the construction was minor league compared to the great dam at Marib. Jubah, then as now, was a provincial backwater. Bill Glanzman, the team's pottery expert, once said to me, only partly tongue in cheek, ''We're here to find out how the common people lived while the Queen of Sheba was visiting Solomon.''

Jubah's common people today make their living off smuggling. Just as their ancient ancestors carried frankincense and myrrh to Palestine on camel-back, so the modern day Jubans traverse the Saudi desert in Toyota jeeps, returning laden with duty-free Japanese electronics, American wheat and Saudi gasoline. Every morning, we awoke to the sound of murmuring engines as these vehicles filtered back into the wadi through the passes following their all-night odysseys.

Wadi Jubah is a frontier area, Wyatt Earpland, where young men check their Kalashnikovs at the schoolhouse door. Since foreigners don't venture here without protection, the archaeologists were lucky to win the patronage of the local governor, Abdullah al-Bahri. A graduate of the military academy in Sanaa, al-Bahri displayed a bit more worldly sophistication than was common in the wadi. He quickly smoothed over any disputes that arose with the locals, a necessary task since, as team member Mike Toplyn remarked, ''These people could shut us down.''

When one man complained about the archaeologists digging on his property, al-Bahri explained that the visitors had received permission from the government in Sanaa. Anyway, he said, the Americans would leave the site as they found it after finishing their work. The old man continued to sputter protest, so al-Bahri shut him up by declaring, ''I'd throw you in jail if you weren’t so old!''

The governor led us up a mountain one day to view some ancient inscriptions. He was accompanied by three armed retainers carrying thermos bottles of tea and bundles of qat.At the summit, the Americans examined the ancient lettering while the Yemenis relaxed for what can best be described as a qatpicnic. I took a photo of al-Bahri, his cheeks bulging withqat, as one of his retainers squatted just behind him, automatic rifle at the ready.

The Wild West flavor of Wadi Jubah followed me back to Marib. After emerging from the wadi's northern pass, some of the passengers in my pickup truck taxi leaned out the window to fire off a few bursts. They had spied a vehicle ahead of us. Our driver immediately hit the gas to catch up. So there we were, racing across the desert, guns popping like Indians attacking a wagon train, with me having no idea what was going on. Was I about to witness a real life display of tribal conflict?

Not quite. When we reached the other jeep, which had pulled over upon hearing our shots, it turned out that my fellow passengers just wanted to have a little chat with their friends.

Some months later, I found myself in Ankara, Turkey. I dropped in at the U.S. embassy to interview the political officer about recent events in that country. After a while, he asked me for my own impressions of Turkey, probably thinking that I would find it rather ''undeveloped'' by American standards. This was a country, after all, where many homes still lack indoor plumbing or electricity.

The diplomat seemed puzzled when I described how modern and thoroughly European Turkey appeared to me. I had arrived from Istanbul in a comfortable, fast train and was still marvelling at the stylish department stores and boutiques along Ankara’s Ataturk Boulevard. He finally asked me, a note of wonder in his voice, ''Where have you been?''

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