An Entry Into Yemen From Al-Rub' Al-Khali

by Lenard Milich,
Office of Arid Lands Studies, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

Yemen Update 36 (1995):14-15

Imagine for a moment an ocean of soft, yellow-tan sand stretching from horizon to horizon: the famed Empty Quarter of Arabia, Al-Rub' Al-Khali. This great desert’s geomorphology consists of flat plains, dotted with tough vegetation on which an occasional camel browses; or of wave upon wave of rolling dunes, broken-faced or intact, created and made dynamic by the omnipresent winds, forming both random and linear patterns in whose troughs root the same hardy vegetation as on the plains. These plants are able to eke out a living from the sterile sands, drawing moisture from who knows where in a region where rainfall inconsiderably less than 50 mm per year and summertime temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius. It was hot even in November, when I visited.

Three-hundred-and-thirty kilometers along a well-maintained highway from Najran, Saudi Arabia, once the last stop on the frankincense trail before it split into its western and eastern branches - and deep in the Empty Quarter - lies the obvious sign of an oasis: greenery. Trees, flowers, even basil grow. Yet what an oasis, for it is entirely anthropogenic: Sharourah depends for its existence on $10 million's worth of wells, reaching into fossilized water reserves 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 km deep. The water that gushes from the pipes at the surface is hot - around 70 degrees Celsius, and slightly brackish. In a paradox that isn't quite so odd considering Sharourah's location, the water must be cooled prior to use. Everything must be trucked-in the 330 km from Najran, including oil for the electric-generating plant that runs the water pumps, food, fodder for the Bedouins' camels (now permanently penned on the city’s outskirts), and the ubiquitous foreign workers for menial jobs. One finds a hospital, a separate (and larger) military hospital, a pitiable zoo with a handful of sorry-looking animals, gelato ice-cream, a municipal swimming pool, a five-star hotel in the making, and 40,000 civilians who service the large military presence there, some 80 km north of the "undemarcated" Saudi-Yemeni border. For Sharourah is a strategic city, its costs borne by the Saudi government and a willing private sector to assure a strong Saudi presence in the region, a disincentive for Yemen to attempt to regain territory it surrendered at the end of the 1934 Saudi-Yemeni war.

Back toward Najran, but 70 km prior to reaching that natural oasis, is another anomaly - an official border crossing, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. (The old border crossing at Najran itself is closed.) Once on the Yemeni side, the pavement ends abruptly. A four-wheel drive vehicle becomes essential, for the first section of the onward "road" transits the sands of the Empty Quarter. Gradually, seared hills appear in the distance, looking no more inviting up close.

A camel at a military checkpoint disconsolately chewed on a cardboard box, apparently the most palatable food in its vicinity. The four-wheel drive Toyota pickup truck in which I hitched a ride (YR400) was driven by Husayn, a25-year old Yemeni with prematurely graying hair, a sweet temperament(for he endured without complaint my repeated calls for photo stops),and not a word of English. "Kwayess" and "shway-shway"was just about all I could manage in my rudimentary Arabic that made any sense to him. We bumped and ground our way up into the mountains over what are justifiably named "desert tracks" on the maps, arriving eventually at al-Buqa, the official passport control.

My arrival was cause for considerable consternation on the part of the Yemenis (I can't help but wonder whether I was perhaps the first foreigner to come through in a longtime). After politely refusing their offer to tarry for a day, my passport was requested and subsequently disappeared. An hour later, following several cups of tea and my first exposure to chewing qat, my passport miraculously reappeared complete with entry stamp, and Husayn and I were on our way, immediately entering a town of mean shacks and garbage-lined streets that signaled "Third World." I quickly, and gratefully, made the transition from the mirage-like sterility of Saudi Arabia to the hubbub of real life.

Husayn indicated the shack where I could change money. Two men sat on the floor, behind a couple of makeshift tables on which were stacked sheaves of bills. There was an unopened, shrink-film wrapped package of YR20 notes, weighing perhaps1 kg. I pantomimed, smiling, that I was going to put the package into my pack. Equally smiling, the moneychanger drew his finger across his throat, a globally unmistakable gesture. I changed money, and gave my fare to Husayn, who left to buy a bag ofqat.

We drove another 200 m, and stopped again. Husayn entered one of the shacks, and exited wearing his jambiya and holding his rifle, which he gave to me to safeguard. I immediately felt less safe, not having any idea as to whether there was a bulletin the chamber or whether the safety was on or off. I kept it pointing away from either of us as much as possible, not always an easy task since we were bouncing and lurching up into the mountains. We picked up another passenger along the way, an elderly man, from some unmarked crossroad (actually, all the tracks - in their vast profusion - are unmarked, but Husayn clearly had made the trip before and showed no doubt over the en route choices). I invited him to take the center seat; Husayn passed his rifle to him, which he held with his own weapon, an AK-47. A flood of Arabic conversation ensued, aided no doubt by the copious quantities of qatchewed.

A passing vehicle pointed out that our rear tire was flat. We stopped, shifted Husayn's cargo around some, and hauled out the spare. Mobile again, within a minute the spare had totally deflated. We stopped again, in the gathering dusk under a crescent moon ("gamar," I learn). Off came the spare, on went the original flat, to my puzzlement. While I was looking around for a relatively level, rock-free site to spend the night, Husayn appeared with our redemptive tool - a length of tubing on either end of an air-pressure gauge. He opened the hood, removed a spark plug, screwed in a converter, attached one end of the tubing to the converter and the other end to the tire valve, and started the engine. Old and decrepit as his truck seemed, there was nothing wrong with the motor's compression. Ten minutes later, we were on our way, bouncing and lurching our way in the dark.

By this time, my coccyx had started to feel a little battered. The road seemed to be never ending. My murdering of Arabic in trying to ascertain when we'd arrive in Sa'da elicited two responses: the current time and 30. The second answer made absolutely no sense to me. After a while, lights appeared - a small village. We stopped at the "restaurant." People stared at me. Husayn explained that he picked me up at the Saudi border, that I'm a student of deserts (it seems that my attempts to communicate hadn’t been entirely in vain), and that I was in Yemen to study agriculture. He ordered a plate of bread, a bowl of lentils, and two teas. Our old man had vanished, this village presumably having been his destination. We ate, Husayn went to pay, and started arguing with the proprietor. Husayn, sounding disgusted, came to me and asked forYR100. Apparently, we'd been "taken."

We proceeded onward, but only for a minute or two, stopping beside a mud-brick wall in which two large metal gates are embedded. Husayn leaned on the horn, and a man came out. We untied some ropes and an electrical extension-cord, offloaded a heavy sack of dates, and tied everything back on. We left the extension cord, which was evidently part of the transaction. The man spoke broken English, and explained that since Husayn lived nearby, we would spend the night there and proceed to Sa'da in the morning. I willingly accepted this suggestion.

Back in the truck, "nearby" was 30 minutes downhill on an even rougher side road. We pulled up in front of a house, and offloaded the truck - more sacks of dates as well as sacks of rice. Husayn threw down three wheeless tires, and we rolled the two 55-gallon drums off onto these. Husayn asked whether I wanted to sleep outside or in the house. Bedazzled by the billions of stars in the sky, I chose the "outside" option. Husayn fetched a mattress, pillow, and large, thick blanket. The pillow was a typical Yemeni pillow, only about 5 cm thick, so I put my canteen under it for extra height. I lay under the starry canopy, searched for English news on my shortwave (Radio Australia is usually clear even when the VOA and BBC are fuzzy), and watched sporadic meteors. Husayn bedded down alongside the cargo, rifle beside him. I'm uncertain whether he was guarding the cargo or me. The air began to chill, then became quite cold. I doubled the blanket, pulled it over my head, and slept.

The thin, reedy call of the muezzin woke mean hour before first light. I listened to it, and marveled that it was the first unamplified call to prayer that I'd heard - certainly a welcome change. I fell asleep again, having arranged my blanket so that a minimum of cold air seeped in, regretting that I had not hauled out my three-season sleeping bag at night's start. I reawoke as the sun crept up, and took a look at the world. Straight ahead of me were two four-story mud towers. To my right, a fairytale sight for a person who'd never been in Yemen before - a village that looked like an amalgam of 1,001 Arabian Nights and Native American Pueblos. Walt Disney could not possibly have done better. What a welcome to Yemen!

[The author subsequently stayed a month in Yemen, visiting agricultural areas around Sa'da, Sanaa,al-Hudayda, Ta'izz, Wadi Hadramawt, and Ma'rib.]

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