Filming "The Architecture of Mud"

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Yemen Update 43 (2001)


The Al Kathiri Palace at Seiyun

Around 1993 Pamela Jerome and I started researching a project that would document the traditional building techniques of the Hadhramaut region. As a filmmaker I was struck by the beauty and sophistication of the images of the houses I had seen from the region. As an architect and architectural conservator that has often worked in the preservation of archeological mudbrick sites, Pamela was interested in the local techniques. We envisioned a parallel project that could reach both specialized audiences and the general interest public. In 1997 we received some funding from the AIYS and the AIA (American Institute of Architects) and decided to start. We spent two months documenting the traditional building techniques of the region. We filmed more then 30 hours of footage, of which 20 hours are interviews with masons, workers involved in construction, carpenters and house owners. Upon our return to New York, Pamela wrote a technical paper for a specialized preservation magazine, the Journal of the Association for Preservation Technology (APT Bulletin Vol. 30, No. 2-3, 1999). The paper won the Oliver Torrey Fuller Award for Innovative of Method or Solution in October of 1999. I edited "The Architecture of Mud", a 52 min. documentary.

At the end of October 1999, before showing the documentary anywhere else, Pamela and I went back to the Hadhramaut. Before going, we had the interviews transcribed and the texts translated into Arabic and I re-edited the whole program in Arabic. We borrowed a video projector from Columbia University's Media Center for Art History, bought speakers and carried our VCR.

From the very beginning one of our goals was to involve the participants in the project itself, including our return to Yemen to show the film once it was completed. We both felt very strongly that showing an interest in their tradition would contribute to raising awareness among the Hadhrami of the importance and value of their traditional techniques. AIYS again gave us its support and enabled our team to return. With the help of Dr. Selma Al Radi &endash; who joined us in Seyoun - and in the company of another collaborator, chemist Giacomo Chiari of the University of Turin - we set out to organize the screenings. Some of the coordination was done prior to our arrival in Yemen by Dr. Al Radi and Abd Al Rahman Al Saqqaf, the director of the Museum of Hadhramaut in Seyoun. In Wadi Hadhramaut we chose the Kathiri Palace in Seyoun, a school in Shibam and the Ishah palace of Tarim. We selected Khoreibah and Khailah Bugshan in Wadi Do'an.


Interior with pillows

Our aim was to go back to the places were we filmed and contact the people that had helped us.

When we first traveled through the region, we heard comments to the effect that foreign researchers come to the Hadhramaut, take the information and benefit professionally without giving anything back. A certain amount of resistance had build up since attention became focused on the region after its inclusion in UNESCO's World Heritage Site list. Also, in the particular case of Tarim, people refused to collaborate with us altogether due to a general mistrust its inhabitants have for non-Muslim foreigners. Therefore it was very important for us to show - by going back - that we believe that there should always be a collaboration between the initiators and the participants. The participants have a right to see what is done with the information they gave. As it went for Tarim, we also wanted to show them that our intentions were as we had described them: we felt they were very puzzled and mistrusting of two non-Muslim, non-Arabic-speaking women interested in an activity executed only by men.

We held the first screening at the Kathiri Palace in Seyoun. The news was spread by radio and some flyers were printed. About 30 people attended and we were happy to recognize in the crowd some of the people who had helped. At the end of the screening, we were approached by one of the sons of the oldest master we had met; his father had passed away and he was very happy to see the film and to get a copy of it. We met again with Al Giddah, a master who was in-charge of the renovations of the Al Hawta Palace Hotel and who had dedicated a lot of his time to explaining and showing us particular techniques. We were invited to lunch at his house where the documentary played continuously for the entire duration of the meal and of our meeting. The comments were encouraging and favorable. One day, while walking in Seyoun, we were told that the singer Said 'Idha ba Hashwan wanted to meet us since he had heard that his singing was included in the film. We had never met him before and went looking for him at his shop in the old city were he welcomed us with warmth.

After the first presentation, the news of the film spread by word of mouth and people were anticipating the screenings. As is usual there, the grapevine worked. When we moved on to Shibam and then Tarim, the attendance kept growing. To prepare the screening in Shibam we went back to the lime kilms and to the two nurah beaters that are featured in the film. Everybody we were able to meet again received a cassette with the Arabic version of the documentary.


Workers at Bukshan

In Tarim things proved interesting because in the two years since our trip, the situation had started to change. People were very happy to see us and at the end of the screening came to assure us that in the future, they would be very happy to collaborate on other projects. Dr. Al Radi had a long conversation with a group of citizens while the screening was prepared and we understood from her that the Tarimi were beginning to feel left out by the attention and investment that the foreign researchers brought. They had witnessed the improvements and positive results - especially in Shibam - without the corruption that they had imagined would also come. So, this screening was particularly satisfying and it gave the two of us and Dr. Al Radi motivation to go ahead with our new project of documentation and possible preservation of some of the fantastic palaces that this city is famous for. This project envisions students from New York's Columbia University and from the University of Hadhramaut working together to produce measured drawings of the 23 most significant Tarimi palaces. At the end of October 2000, Pamela Jerome and Dr. Selma Al Radi will make a feasibility study to see how the project could be implemented. Meanwhile, our application to the World Monument Fund was approved last winter and Tarim was included in their 100 Most Endangered Sites list.

On the way, we added a screening at the Al Hawta Palace Hotel for the guests but mostly for the staff who had seen us working during our initial stay.

We finally left for Do'an, in a car packed with a generator, the generator operator and his helper, the projector, the VCR, the speakers, and a screen we had borrowed from the Seyoun Museum. Do'an was as beautiful as we remembered although we did see some more concrete buildings especially along the road where it intersections with the road to Mukallah. Our first stop was Al Hajarain where we were greeted by the carpenter Mubarrak Saïd Bin Jabal, with: "You said you were going to come back and you are back" . The valley welcomed us into the stream of its life, with its good and bad news: we found Yislim Ahmed Awad Askud working in the same house we filmed him two years earlier and we found him in the usual good mood, teasing the older owner for wanting to find a young wife. We were saddened by the news that one of the person that helped us &endash; a young man - had passed away. Another of the masters was so sick and having so much difficulty breathing that he could not make it to the screening.

We reached Khoreibah to find its center blocked by a new concrete hotel, standing right in front of the cemetery. We always had a feeling of remoteness in this town and the sudden apparition of a cement monstrosity, complete with air conditioning and with the endless noise of the associated generator, shocked us.

Khoreibah's screening felt more like a football match then the movies. About 100 people crowded the square around the screen and the kids screamed the names of the craftsmen they recognized in the film. Some women were peeping from the terraces. It was intense.

On our way back we stopped at Khailah Bugshan but Saleiman Ahmed "Abu Turki" Bugshan, our host, was not there and after waiting for him near a machine drilling for a new well, we gave up and continued our trip back.


Scene in Tumba

Returning to Sanaa, the film was featured at the Ministry of Culture's auditorium. We were invited by Abdul Malek Mansour, the Minister of Culture and Tourism, to meet with him and we took advantage of this meeting to suggest more investment and government involvement in protecting the nation's cultural patrimony. The Minister suggested a new documentary that would document the traditional textiles and women's dresses. Pamela went twice to University of Sana'a's Architecture Department, first for a lecture and later to screen the documentary. I made sure the national television received a copy so that it could be broadcast free of charges.

In my experience as a producer for television, I have always felt that often there is no reciprocity between interviewer/observer and interviewee/observed, nor a balance between what is given to me and what I give back. In my independent projects I strive not to create this unbalance. Both of us also felt that no preservation project can be successful if it does not involve the social context. It is clear that a building repaired without the involvement of the community it belongs to, is a building that almost certainly will soon fall down.

With this trip we felt the project came to a conclusion. The feedback was more then we had hoped for.

[Editor's Note: All pictures provided by Caterina Borelli. For a YU review of this film by Ed Keall, click here.]

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