Merchants of Fragrances (Oman and Yemen)



My introduction to Yemen was made by the beautiful views from the airplane window over the port of Aden, by the warm people on board, by the simple, sincere staff of the Yemenia. However, nothing like this would compete with the real thing. A poor airport in a sort of reconstruction that seemed to have stagnated for a long while, a poor, battered van with a cracked wind screen going on a road in poor state, full of similar, old and crowded vans or cars. A city the entrance to which showed proof of a chaotic development. Drivers blowing horns, poverty hitting one as restlessly as possible, piles of litter, the van driver offering me qat to chew. Crossing the street by jumping and running or by calmly walking and patiently waiting for minutes and minutes.

It is hard to describe the way I perceived Sana's the following day. The city had a unique, inner beauty of its own, as every single building in the old area could have been taken for a small palace of exquisite - but not at all fancy - decoration and elegance. Superb, delicate white designs followed different patterns on a desert colour or reddish background. Narrow streets would go on and on, splitting or turning around, just to end all of a sudden or to burst abruptly in the crowded, nowadays paved wadi. Children would run around the obvious foreigner, greeting and taking any opportunity to try and start a discussion, disregarding of the language barrier. Cars, motorbikes and pedestrians would all crowd in the souq the narrow streets of which seemed to widen so as to allow all of them to pass without hurting each other. Differently from those in other trading towns or souqs in the Middle East, the merchants were quietly waiting for customers with a solemn, respectful patience.

Except for a couple of places generally belonging to hotels, there were almost no cafes or terraces in the old part of the city, as Yemenites had their own meeting rooms in their houses, where afternoons were spent while chatting, chewing qat and sipping black tea. When evening came, things would change dramatically. The whole souq came to life at an incredible pace, merchants started calling for customers, people laid papers, pieces of cardboard or newspapers on the sidewalk by Bab Al Yaman, sitting down for a cup of tea or for a shawarma in the cool air. The souq stretched now far beyond its traditional borders, into the street or on the sidewalk, tea or baklava vendors moved around serving their stuff: that was the loud and intense life of the Happy Arabia, a fascinating place under the long praised God of the Moon.

After a "regular" dinner including the great, large, thin and hot loaf of bread spread on a whole table, as well as after a glass of tea and a narghileh, I packed my bags, getting ready for the following day that was to take me to the desert, the very origin of us all. Together with a great driver, Kamal, we started at 8 AM, just to wait at the city limits for other cars belonging to different travel agents. After a convoy was formed, we could go, escorted by an army pick-up on board of which there were 3-4 soldiers with kalashnikovs. Every 10-20 km. there was a checkpoint, where they would stop cars having foreigners on board, to get a copy of their tasrih, i.e. of their travel permit issued by the government. There were basic army fortifications, tanks and / or guns along the road every now and then, while most of the soldiers I saw were between 17-18 and 25 year old.

These strict measures involving foreign visitors in certain parts of the country was meant to have the authorities know exactly where foreigners were in every moment given the past experiences with kidnappings by local tribes against the leading party, but its very bureaucracy made it lack efficiency. Furthermore, the oil in Ma’rib area the profits of which went mostly to Sana'a or in other parts of the country did little to appease the local tribes and bedouins which, despite their caravan-leading history, were nowadays very poor. On the other hand, the government had the difficult task of developing totally different areas of a poor country, nevertheless providing a stable, sustainable image in order to attract foreigners that would bring in the much needed funds for investments.

All this situation had resulted in an almost surreal human scenery: along the road to Ma’rib, as well as in the city itself, local people, from 12 year old children to the oldest men, would carry kalashnikovs, alongside with the traditional jambiyas. Some would also have a pistol on their belt, while a mobile phone and a second bullet charger for the kalashnikov would make the collection complete. Beyond the obvious dramatic side of the picture, one could not but realize the extent to which the area had not changed from the dawn of our era to the 21st century. Just like elsewhere in the world, only the decor had changed, but not the human nature: in this part of Yemen, the kalashnikov had replaced the jambiya, which was nowadays only a matter of cultural identity.

Still remaining in the modern history time frame, we visited the old town of Ma’rib, or rather its sad remnants after the Egyptian air raids in the 1960s. Up the valley, one could not but attempt to imagine the extent to which the Sabatean kingdom had developed its irrigation system, with the impressive dimension of the dam and the wide otherwise desertic area they had been able to turn into fertile land. In the afternoon heat we started towards the desert; still in the tribe area, we had to take a Bedouin guide - always bearing a gun - to lead us through his ancestral land. We camped in the desert, not far from some Bedouin tents. Just like many other of his fellow men, our guide was against the president and his party; he hoped the opposition would win in the coming elections.

Just like many tribes often lacking basic facilities in their communities, these people blamed it all on the government which had, in its turn, little interest to build roads, hospitals or schools in small communities, while larger towns lacked basic infrastructure elsewhere. With no roads leading to their villages or camps - but desert trails -, with no schools - but some itinerant teachers now and then -, without much of a job option - other than moving into towns they had no connection with -, these people were the sad - but so real - remnants of a great civilization. A civilization that had enabled the ancient caravans to go from the shore of the Arabian Sea to ports such as Gaza, hence bringing the much loved spices or incense in the Levant and farther in Europe. A civilization the extinction or forced movement of which would have been a shame to any nation in the world.

Almost perfectly flat, the desert proved to be an amazing host, completely quiet, respectively merging with the blue sky full of stars above. The following day we started farther across the desert, reaching the Hadramawt with its heat, its dry wind and its superb scenery, of an endless alternation of palm trees, clay houses and barren, sandy fields dotted from place to place with dry bushes. It was impressive and even overwhelming to see the amount of time and effort these people took to turn parts of the dry wadi into plantations, by virtually digging parcels under the ground level, in order to have them hold water, by creating an extensive irrigation system or by working hard in a strong sun, at over 45C.

In the late afternoon we went to Shibam and had a walk in this incredible town, which showed the sense of space and utility these people had while facing the harsh conditions nature had imposed on them. 20 m. tall buildings raised out of clay and wood would provide, behind thick walls and in the shade of neighbouring similar structures, a good shelter against the dry, ruthless sun. Separate rooms would shelter inside people and animals, while there would be also areas for different activities, such as henna painting, men's afternoon gatherings or cooking. All institutions of the town, except for labour in the fields or religious service had been moved inside their very houses, hence their development on the vertical. Narrow, dusty, always shaded streets between these buildings would be filled with beautiful, noisy children, goats or sheep, while craftsmen or shop attendants would call for customers every now and then. A small terrace (better called "communion place") near a mosque, consisting of carpets placed directly in the dust, would be filled with people playing backgammon, sipping a sweet and strong tea out of small glasses, as well as having a local narghileh, which was made of coconut shell, while the flexible pipe had been replaced with a rigid, wooden one the smoker had to hold tight on the coconut shell in order to make it work. This lively atmosphere would abruptly come to an end at the 6 o'clock call of the muezzin, when everyone suddenly went to the mosque, leaving the whole town like abandoned.

We returned for dinner in Seyun, near the souq. Rather simple as far as the menu was concerned (options often restricting only to mutton or / and chicken, rice, bread and sometimes also vegetable stew), many restaurants in Yemen were excellent places to get a sense of the country. Overwhelming spices and flavours of the food blended well with the sound of the street nearby, as well as with the setting, often with people sitting on a modest carpet. A sheet of plastic was laid over the table or on the carpet, all dishes and bread being placed on top of it. Once the meal was over, the waiter would grab the plastic together with everything there was on it, hence quickly cleaning (and clearing) the area for other customers. This was just one mere example of the extent to which these people were straight-forward and therefore superb. The following day, under a 45C sun that made me enjoy greatly my new Yemenite futa (i.e. skirt), we visited Sultan's Palace in Seyun. Just like the residences we were to see in the afternoon in Tarim, the palace brought to the area foreign influences that had more or less of a connection with the local culture, but they all provided a good image of the mixture of traditions granted by a once important trading route. Located above the city centre in Seyun, the palace was well imposing, raising like a white pyramid over all mortals in this world, in contrast with both the rest of the town, and with the mountains nearby. Its narrow, labyrinth-like corridors and halls reminded one of the interiors in Shibam, hence the atmosphere of normality in a place obviously meant to impress and rule over the city.

Tarim was dusty, filled with motorbikes and boasting beautiful mansions or small palaces about to fall apart. Intricate pieces of decoration were full of cracks, while some of these buildings were half demolished or ruined. Lacking any needed restoration, these jewels of Tarim were even more beautiful, more shining like this, covered by their desert dust, than they could have ever been if cared for in a silver box covered with purple velvet.

Next day we continued along the old trading route following Wadi Do'an. Water created this wide, now palm tree filled wadis across this dry, inhospitable, beige plateau, and humans were to follow its course not in search for food, but rather to carry loads of spices that would grant life with fragrance. Irrigation channels would cross the flat, sand filled wadi, and they would be bordered with fig trees under one of which we stopped for a picnic, that would bring to one's mind a stop over on the 70 day long caravanning route from the shore of the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean.

Narrow streets or alleys zig-zagging among earth-made houses, superbly carved wooden gates and doors, narrow windows also bearing wood carvings, always respectful people, as well as a pleyade children running around, shouting at each other or at the obvious foreigners, playing games or singing, these were the villages on Wadi Do'an we visited. Together with the vividly coloured houses in villages like Sif, with floral decorations in an arid environment, these noisy, vibrant children were the very soul of an impossible to forget Arabia Felix, beyond any natural scenery or UNESCO site. The smile this land bore, emerging after years of fighting poverty and closure, was noticeable in any of its villages and towns, from the hot, humid and crowded Al Mukalla, to the serene beach at Bir Ali, where Yemenites had created a diamond out of granite, by throwing some basic cottages, benches and sun shades made of palm tree leaves, on the beach and hence making an off road resort which I personally enjoyed more than any other such place I had visited, even though, or rather especially as there was no music, no restaurant, no cafeteria or waterpark, leaving only the Indian Ocean and the volcano nearby to talk to the visitors.

As we were to find out the following day, security measures concerning foreigners had been tightened because of the coming elections. Because of the tribes in the area - which were once again against the government - the road along the coast from Al Mukalla to Ataq could no longer be followed by foreigners but with military escort. Furthermore, when we reached Ataq, we were told that we could not leave the hotel but escorted by the local police. A police car was stationed outside the hotel during our entire stay. We were to find out later on that these measures of precaution were not in vain: a week after returning home, a few French tourists were kidnaped in Ataq, as the local tribes tried to get government's attention towards their local interests.

The South was also different from the North in terms of tradition. The jambiya was rarely worn by people, while the traditional skirt worn by men was often replaced by trousers. The scenery was to also change, as we started going up, to cooler air. For the first part, the road from Habban to Rada went along Bedouin inhabited wadis and across djebels where villages were small and rare, generally providing the basics for the tribes living in the neighbourhood: a couple of shops selling foodstuffs, the qat market, a mosque, stalls by the street selling everything, from fabrics to audio cassettes. We were to travel always escorted, whether this was about a police car, a camouflage army pickup truck or joined by an armed soldier. Guns were once again popular with local people, and, sadly, even 10-15 year old children would carry them just like in Marib. Between villages, only goat herds and poor, patched tents of the Bedouins would bring life to the reddish wadis, while their children were selling small baskets or straw food pads, hence trying to make a living of the little there had been left for them once the caravans they had once led no longer needed their help, as strange, black stripes of asphalt were nowadays a convenient guidance across the desert.

We then slowly made our way back, towards the North, which we reached after following a breath-taking road built after the reunification of the two former republics of Yemen. We were back in the land where tradition was up and strong, where the white, long shirt outnumbered trousers, where the jambiya was worn on a regular basis and the colourful clothes worn by Bedouin women while walking their goats had been replaced by the dark outfits of women in merchant towns like Rada, the life buzz of which went far beyond its streets, in the hotel we once again could not leave without armed escort: "you know, things might warm up, given the coming elections, hence these strict rules..."

The crowded streets of Rada, full of merchants, cars, trucks, pedestrians and waste, cocooned around the old mosque, a jewel of architecture. The wooden decorations of the windows were emphasized by the impeccable white walls, while the Indian outlines provided an insolite, pleasant surprise. The quiet garden outside was like a breath of fresh air from the crazy traffic and the offensive electoral campaign around with large posters depicting the leading party candidate for president. Stickers on most cars, banners that had been placed even on the walls of the local fortress, loud slogans backed by vivid music, all pointed at an intense political life of a country eager to see its history pace speed up at all costs.

Leaving Rada, we continued to Djebel Haraz, following valleys between steep slopes with incredible terraces. Rather than stuck down in the valley, villages had been settled up on the cliffs or on mountain ridges and peaks, out of the reach of possible invaders and in strategic, easy to defend locations as referred to enemy tribes. Cisterns had been dug in the hard rock to provide water for people, while a simple, but efficient irrigation system would provide water for the plantations located on terraces that would go on and on, one above the other one, on slopes that would raise 1000 m. above the valley bottom. As we were to see the following two days while hiking from village to village, houses had been set of stones that had been cut and polished so precisely that no mortar had been required to create a flat surface for the next layer of stones. Decorations were simple but gracious, from the light play provided by differently coloured glass eyes above windows, to the small, but nevertheless hard and intricate doors, or to the white chalk symmetric lines on the exterior walls of the houses.

Despite the appearance provided by this anthropic scenery, many of these villages were almost entirely abandoned, while only a part of these terraces were still cultivated with corn, coffee bushes or wheat. Providing a colourful difference from their neighbours, a few villages inhabited by members of a Ismailean sect, would make the visit to this part of Yemen even more interesting, with their pilgrims coming from India, their nicely restored monuments or well cared for streets, sign of a wealthy benefactor.

While trekking across the djebel from one of the villages to the other one, we were seldom approached by countless children, which seemed to be the only inhabitants there. Smiling, laughing out loud, running along those narrow, shady streets, they provided the whole place with a unique, vibrant life one could not simply pass by with indifference. Being invited for tea by one of the few "adults" (actually a 20 year old boy married to a 16 year old girl and already a father), we had the chance to discover these people in their small stone fortifications with wonderful window decorations and small, short doors. It was sad to see that many of the houses in these villages - as well as entire villages sometimes - had been left in ruin by their inhabitants, which had gone to search their fortune elsewhere, be it in Sana'a or in Saudi Arabia. Superb windows, imposing houses with simple, but beautiful chalk designs, as well as many of the extensive terraces were now desolate, and there was little hope that the few remaining inhabitants were to stay there for long themselves, in villages which sometimes had a dust road, sometimes just a trail or a poor path leading there. The remains of a whole civilization perched on the roof of Arabia was smiling to the foreigner through the kind eyes of its children, but one could not pass by without seeing the sadness beyond these cheers and laughters.

At the funduk in Manakha we stayed at, the whole family owning the place together with local artists provided a crazy, overwhelming, captivating, but nevertheless impossible to ignore music and dance that, together with the buzz life was about in this country, brought to my mind Michel Sardou's lyrics: "un peuple fou qui danse comme s'il allait mourir de joie". This was indeed Arabia Felix, in a beautiful but not commercial way. A true country made of real people, not a place to please and comfort the traveler.

Leaving the Djebel Haraz, we moved towards the 3000 m.a.s.l. plateaus near Sana's, where the rocky mountains provided, as always, both life and death for their inhabitants: only a few months before our visit, a huge rocky cliff had collapsed over a quarter of Al Dafir Village, killing many people and covering their houses with tons of rocks.

Eventually we reached Kawkaban, yet another community that had found its shelter on top of a cliff, fortifying itself with the same matter that provided its ground. The sunset light threw the whole village into a fairy tale-like atmosphere, with its flower filled gardens, respectively its omnipresent children the image of which was to reach an atemporal extent while bathing in the cistern in Hababa the following day. Life was relentless and out of time in yemen, with its children running across villages, leading donkeys loaded with wood or merchandise, playing with sticks and stones, or singing out of their houses. This appeared in a welcome contrast with the rocky scenery all around, as we were to see at zakatine, where local people had built their village as a virtual labyrinth made of stones, with doors tat were rarely higher than 1 m., with small rooms that were supposed to host people, goats, cereals and other supplies, respectively with a spectacular path providing access, path that had been furthermore destroyed when under siege. The more these people had been challenged by the environment, the stronger they got and the wiser their solutions were. Steep slopes had been turned into terraces, rocky cliffs had been converted into fortresses, raw stone had been shaped into houses, the desert had been replaced by plantations, while the singing and dancing of the children had long crushed the silence these places had had.

While going down on a tough trail towards Al Tawila, we got stuck, as another offroad vehicle had some technical problems and it could not be passed by because of the tough terrain, respectively because of the narrow, rocky road bordered by boulders. Everyone in the 4-5 vehicles blocked there tried to give the driver a hand, in a fascinating - for Europe - solidarity action. Meanwhile, a much fancier and newer offroad vehicle arrived and, noticing I was a foreigner, the oldest and most respected of the passengers came towards me asking how I found his country. He was joined by two young men with kalashnikovs, he spoke calmly and tactfully, while everyone else listened piously: he was the chief of the area, ruling over a few villages like an ancestral governor. Proud of his land, he was nevertheless eager to learn what the others thought about Yemen and he greatly appreciated our sincerity. Then he gave us a demonstration, showing that the kalashnikovs were not only for decoration, as he aimed and precisely hit some pebbles placed quite far away, on a rock. The honest and nevertheless strong personality this man had was to follow me for a long while.

Once the car with problems could start, we continued our trip and, before reaching Sana'a, we had the chance to see the Palace on the Rock, or the way the rich and famous had lived compared to their subjects. However it was fascinating to see that the same techniques, style and even construction materials had been used by both the imam and the villagers in Kahel for instance. The palace had been however placed there, on its imposing rock, to impress some and please the others, while the stone houses on top of Yemen's mountains had been located there by a people that wanted to show there is always a way of turning tears into diamonds.

My journey was close to an end, but it could only finish the way it had begun, so I got a night bus to Aden which I reached in the early morning. The desolating heat got even stronger with the background provided by the dry, distant, reddish volcano that hosted the city. British colonial houses were now painted in all colours, bore vivid commercials, hundreds of wires covered the streets, while people that had been sleeping directly on the pavement were slowly waking up as the sun was getting stronger. Quite suddenly, the city got up and right on its feet, as the traffic boomed all of a sudden, the market got full of people, while the muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

Many, if not most cars were in poor state, but this did not keep their drivers from honking or from going almost everywhere with their vehicles. Aden was there, living life to its full meaning, defying the heat or the harsh conditions nature or history had granted it with. In the early, hot and humid afternoon, people would have their siesta, chewing qat, sipping fresh lemon juice or sleeping on the sidewalk. Children would play football or billiards directly in the street, while cars would horn their way through this living, heterogenous and picturesque crowd. However nobody could have foreseen the extent to which the whole city would burst into joy after dark: thousands of people were in the streets, doing their shoppings, eating, drinking, chatting or simply walking by. Restaurants were packed with people, bazaar streets could no longer be recognized by their "daytime" looks. The fast beat of music coming from restaurants and households, as well as the rich incense fragrance coming from merchants filled the whole city, while on the other side, along a street on Sira Island, dozens of people would smoke a narghileh and chew qat, either lying on a carpet and on pillows, or directly from their cars.

I left this amazing city in the early morning, before all music ceased and after the workers in the market area had fallen asleep on the sidewalk. The last city I was to see in Yemen, Taiz, welcomed me with a buzz of life like no other: vans, cars, trucks, camel pulled carts, men, women, children, cats and dogs, all seemed to be running around in a crazy, continuous movement that could neither be simply passed by, nor rejected and ignored by the visitor. The pollution created by cars blended with the noise of the crowd in the souq, to create an overwhelming feeling of addiction to the life this city was about. Raising its superb minarets over all these, Al Ashrafyia Mosque was under restoration works, but the site master took the time to show me around. Like elsewhere in Yemen, people were approaching me, eager to learn what I thought of their country or whether I needed any help to find a sight or some information.

The way back to Sana'a was interesting, as the road crossed a dramatic scenery, going over a steep range of mountains. The road was clinging under the ridge that rose about 700-800 m. above the river bed underneath. Every now and then one could see a rusty car carcass smashed score meters under the road. yemen was as alive as it had been at the time of the Arabia Felix calling, and it was paying the price for its exuberant, fascinating life. The chaotic, rule free traffic, the omnipresent music and dance, the people chewing qat, the noisy souqs, teh call to prayer, all these blended in a strange but nevertheless unique way. African colours, Levantin fragrances, Indian vivid colours and archways, the everlasting Oriental beat, as well as an inspirational scenery or a people that had turned the elements into art and civilization, this was the Yemen I enjoyed at most. It was not a country boasting some fine, elegant terraces or restaurants, where waste lies in garbage bins and chicken is served on plates with forks; quite to the contrary. It was instead a country where people would chew qat and smoke a strong narghileh on a poor mattress lying directly on the ground by a dirt road near Aden. A country which was not quiet, neat or fancy. It was rather natural, pure and human. A needed experience in the age of supposed perfection we think we are living in, I dare say.



Colours and fragrances that follow one across the country. A hospitality that defies wealth. People that, instead of raising utopian pyramids, built highways for caravans to follow, and that superb mosque for the faithful to pray. It might be hot and humid in Muscat or hot and dry in the desert, but the civilization built by the Omani granted the country a virtual khareef, providing the traveler with a cool, inspirational atmosphere.