“Yemen is the most magnificent country I have ever seen”, announced one of my two traveling companions as we hiked the Harraz mountains south-west of Sana’a. This most veracious observation was in reference to the spectacular countryside and the stunning architecture and quite before we were set upon by a riotous legion of school children who were in the yard for recess. There may be security issues in Yemen but I am usually more concerned about being assailed by alarming hordes of ragged, if amiable, urchins collectively bellowing, “soorah, soorah, soorah”, (photo) at the top of their lungs. If this does not produce the desired result, then “bonbon, gullum, money” - French, Arabic and English, they have learned to speak a few words of any number of languages.
Ibn Battuta did not quite venture up Jebel Burah although he passed by its foothills, so this post is, like Socotra, rather outwith the writ of my journey. Having said this, Ibn Battuta himself had boundless curiosity and often went off on a non-sequential tangent, so he would have understood this side-trip perfectly. In Yemen one can easily escape many of the vexing inconveniences of 21st century life by venturing into the Harraz mountains, barely a couple of hours from Sana'a.
We had just visited the Ismaili village of Hudhaib. Perched atop a volcanic plug, up 193 uneven stone steps, is a tiny white mosque, or rather it looks like a mosque but the Ismailis do not have mosques in the same way most other Islamic rites do. Above the lushly green panorama, eagles hovered on thermals, a flock of iridescent blue Somali starlings with orange-tipped wings fluttered wildly, and white doves circled gracefully above steep hillside terraces. In the mountains of Yemen, the Zaidi sect prevails but the handful of Ismailis dates back to the 11th century when the Fatimid influence reached Yemen from its base in Cairo through the Sulayhids. In the 12th century Saladin, who ousted the Fatimids and replaced it with his Ayyubid dynasty in Cairo, sent his brother Turanshah to govern Yemen, and gradually the Fatimid influence waned but the Ismailis prevailed in remote mountain fastnesses.
The sun was hot on the rocky overhang where we sat and drank in the drama of stone houses with white gypsum window decoration, rising vertically from the rock. Most of the villages are the fief of one family consisting of several households; for defense purposes there is usually only one gate in and out of the village while the defensive walls consist of the lower windowless storeys of the houses themselves, which stored animals, fodder and grain supplies. The Ottomans conquered Yemen twice but not without a fight, in the early 17th century they were pushed out of the highland areas and relegated to the Red Sea coast but they came back in 1849 until the Ottoman Empire disintegrated in the wake of WWI and Yemen declared its independence in 1918. Many Turks lost their lives here and it does not require much imagination to see why.
Driving back through the dramatic scenery to Manakha, we had a splendid repast of saltah, the Yemeni national lunchtime dish, spiced with frothy green fenugreek, fasooliyah, beans, a spicy chicken stew, rice, bread and bamiya or okra, followed by the local honey pastry called Bint as-Sahn, and sweet tea. Thus fortified we set to doing absolutely nothing because everyone was chewing qat. Ahmed our driver/guide, had stopped on a hairpin bend shortly after leaving Sana'a to buy qat from some men who had set up shop in a row of what looked like elevated open-front kennels. Now he and the hotel staff were busy separating choice leaves from what looked like an indoor shrubbery, and were blissfully chewing away. Late afternoon we drove to nearby al-Hajjara, an iconic village where children charged out to greet us shouting, ‘what’s your name?” and “where are you from?” Yemen has one of the highest birth rates in the world and no matter where you go throngs of children follow you as if you were some latter-day Pied Piper of Hamelin.
We walked back to Manakha where at the guesthouse an evening’s entertainment of live music and dancing awaited; the gun dance and the jambiya dance both of which look deceptively simple as the feet seem to be doing nothing at all until you get up to try, as try you must. This was followed by a local game which consisted of three men standing side-by-side legs apart, feet touching the neighbor’s feet. The two on the outside stood, upper body facing the man in the middle, the left palm upright facing him, the right hand back ready to strike. The man in the middle buzzed around trying to avoid being slapped by the other two - silly but hilariously funny.
The 'Gun Dance'
The next day we hiked between some nearby villages. In one, we climbed some steps through a narrow doorway where 12 families were living. An old woman took us through the village and into her house which was four storeys high; outside on the flat roof she was drying sorghum grain to make bread while against the parapet, stacks of the tall stems were drying in the sun to be used as animal fodder. She led us to the top of her house where a tannour (clay oven) was stoked with dry twigs and bushes. It was a basic house with mud floors where several people lived although there was nobody there, there was nobody in the entire village until we rounded the corner and came upon the school. After extricating ourselves from the children’s frenzied clutches we continued down to Beit al-Amir, a small village in the valley surrounded by terraces of sorghum and wheat. It was one of the rare villages we saw that was built on low ground. The afternoon drive to Burah was uneventful except Ahmed bought twice as much qat as the day before as he said there was nothing to do on top of the mountain except chew qat. None of us had planned to chew but he was right - there was nothing to do except admire the jaw-dropping scenery; villages clinging to mountain ridges were transformed into vertical dots of light like a dangling necklace of lustrous pearls, matched only by the stars and Venus glittering in the cold night sky. We had a nighttime picnic in the light of kerosene lamps, while our host who had lost all his teeth, assiduously mashed his qat leaves with a mortar and pestle eventually to lean back contentedly as the mild amphetamine took effect. We slept in a simple stone hut on top of the mountain, snug in our blankets when the wind began to howl and moan in the early hours of the morning. The mountain aerie was set amid finely crafted dry stone terraces with tiers of coffee trees spilling down the hillsides. Yemen is the home of coffee – Mocha being named for the Red Sea port whence it was shipped to Europe. Connoisseurs of the bean know that Yemen still grows some of the finest, most expensive coffee in the world.
We met another Ahmed our mountain guide in the village of Markaz where it should go without saying we attracted the attention of a gaggle of schoolboys waiting to start class at 0800. We drove through the village and up the asphalt mountain road leaving Ahmed our driver to drive back down the valley where he was to meet us. We then proceeded to walk up the asphalt road which I firmly believe was at a impossible 90 degree gradient – forgotten muscles seized up in shock and my feet would barely go one in front of the other. Ahmed walked up this unmanageable slope disconcertingly as if it was a flat stretch of plains highway. Eventually we came to a village where mercifully it was all down hill, on stone steps cut into the mountain presumably for the women who have to walk up and down every day to collect water. In many villages all over Yemen women still have to walk a round trip often of more than 5 hours every day to get a plastic can of water which they carry on their head or their back. Other women we passed carried huge loads of animal fodder on their back. They wear a style of dress curiously similar to the Hmong of Vietnam, with straight black pants tight at the ankle in horizontal colored bands, a long black embroidered shirt tied at the waist with a wide cummerbund meant to support their spines for the back-breaking work they do every day. On their heads they wear extravagant colored turbans. The only difference is that the Hmong are not veiled. None of the women would allow us to photograph them although they were friendly and some were quite chatty. We walked down the mountain for 5 and a half hours passing donkeys laden with fodder and gypsum, boys carrying bags of gypsum on their backs skipping and running down the hill agile as mountain goats, toothless, stooped old men with sticks, children chanting and yelling “khwaja, khwaja” – a word of Turkish origin meaning foreigner, and women who if they were not carrying water and fodder were working in the yards hanging out washing or baking bread.
Qat terraces in the Harraz Mountains
Handsome chestnut-colored cows lowed and munched in their plots, and fat-tailed sheep and pretty goats nibbled on nothing. We ate delicious freshly-baked bread, gratefully received from a woman who was baking it in her yard, and stopped at another house for qishr, a delicious local drink made from dried coffee husks, ginger and sugar. The hillsides were speckled with euphorbia, and colorful wild flowers; alpine rock plants, blue gentian, pink asphodel, white dwarf bouvardia, little blue bells of something and red dwarf geranium.
As we descended to the valley floor lush tropical vegetation appeared; shiny dark green banana trees, umbrella-like papayas, date palms and green in all its shades appeared in spikes, folds, patches, splashes and splodges as far as the eye could see. By the time we reached the bottom, we each were whimpering pathetically about our wobbly legs, our strained calf and thigh muscles unused to the steep terrain quivering like jelly.
We had reached the Tihama meaning hot lands, and nowhere was ever more aptly-named. Coming down from the cool mountain air, it is like opening the door of a blast furnace. After some much-needed sustenance of mutton stew, rice and hot sweet milky tea we set off towards Beit al-Faqih and Zabid. If there was an award for the worst micro-climate in the world, Zabid would win hands down. But I dearly love Zabid because in a country liberally bestowed with superlative architecture, Zabid is in a league of its own. Along the coast there were several towns with a similar architecture but they are mostly all gone, victim of nature and neglect. Zabid almost went the same way until UNESCO stepped in. To avoid becoming a victim of heatstroke, one must take oneself off to the Zabid Resthouse for lunch and then do nothing until late afternoon.
A walking tour is then in order followed by more far niente and perhaps a local water pipe to jolly things along. No sissy shisha with its light, fruit-flavored tobacco, the Yemeni mada'ah is a manly piece of work. It is a suitably exotic 'Oriental' looking contraption but in reality is a most fearsome thing. Real tobacco is used and the pipe is much longer and thicker than the shisha pipe. If your lungs are not used to it they will seize up at once in great heaving gasps and spasms of uncontrolled hacking. It is as if you had decided to smoke an entire packet of unfiltered Gauloises all at once. I wanted to prove myself 'tough enough' to smoke it but the effect was lost as after each inhalation I was somewhere to be found under the charpoy. Soundly defeated, I gave up.
As we drove back to Sana'a the next day arriving in the cool of the evening I reflected that if Zabid has the worst climate in the world, the Old City of Sana’a might just have the best.
House in the Old City