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Crossing Yemen

I first glimpsed Yemen on the morning of February 2, 1978. The sun was about to rise over the beach of Uqban Island, an uninhabited strip of sand and rock in the southern Red Sea. Shorebirds wheeled overhead and breakers pounded the distant reef as I peered from beneath a fetid canvas tarp to confirm my worst fears. The sailboat, perfectly intact, rested on its side on a windswept section of beach where it had been deposited the previous evening as a result of a poorly selected anchorage. Five crew members had been washed ashore in the middle of the night, and I was one of them.

Two weeks later we were rescued by Eritrean goat smugglers aboard a leaky dhow filled to the gunwales with 60 goats and their by-products. As we set off for the mainland powered by a tattered sail stitched from discarded fertilizer bags, I felt confident that this would be my one and only visit to the country.

Nineteen years have passed since the shipwreck, and after more than a dozen trips to Yemen I now realize that the first encounter was merely a prelude. Yemen is a country of surprises. Like cherished daydreams, the memories of buildings, landscapes, and serendipitous encounters with strangers have continued to lure me back. Every year, if possible, I return to visit a new corner of the country. I have hiked to mountain-fortress households lost in clouds, cavorted with schools of dolphins near the ancient port of Bir Ali, tasted $200-a-pound honey from the hives of nomadic beekeepers, and bathed in a public bathhouse built during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad. I have even dragged a group of mail-order adventure travelers (grunting for diet Cokes and chocolate bars) from one end of the country to the other. But this time I had come back to show my wife, DelRae, the enchanting Old City of Sanaa, to visit with Yemeni friends, and to drive across the southern edge of the Empty Quarter to see the towering mud-brick buildings of Shibam in Wadi Hadhramaut.

Situated at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is distinguished by a range of jagged mountains running roughly north to south. This cloud barrier catches the seasonal rains, and throughout the year swirling mists obscure medieval-looking stone castles built on craggy heights. Terraced fields cling precariously to the cliffs, and remnants of tropical forests fill steep ravines that feed into the five major wadis (seasonal riverbeds) that irrigate the Tihama, a 30-mile-wide coastal strip bordering the Red Sea. To the northeast, the great sand hills of the Empty Quarter form a natural border with Saudi Arabia, while a rugged, volcanic coastline facing the Gulf of Aden defines the country's southern limits. Curious, turnip-shaped reed huts are found on the Tihama, but the most transporting buildings of Yemen are those Shibam skyscrapers and the gingerbread creations of Sanaa. Both cities are on the UNESCO World Heritage List and are recognized as architectural wonders.

On our first evening in Sanaa, I looked up my friend Martin Plimsole, an eccentric linguist specializing in Arabic who teaches English at the Bristol Language Institute in the Old City. We had met in 1988 when I was writing my book Motoring with Mohammed; now he planned to travel with us from Sanaa to Shibam in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The general plan was to retrace a segment of the old Frankincense Trail, but Martin also wanted to pursue his interest in collecting biblical plants and to try lakhm, a type of dried shark meat found in Wadi Hadhramaut. And I hoped to interview some master builders and mud-brick makers while we were in the Hadhramaut region.

Sanaa, the 1,500-year-old capital of Yemen, is set on a wide plain surrounded by mountains. The night of our arrival the three of us wandered through the Old City, taking in the smell of charcoal wood fires and bubbling stews fragrant with the pungent scent of fenugreek. Our footsteps on the rough cobbles echoed down narrow lanes dimly illuminated by alabaster and colored-glass windows high above us. By dawn the following day these abandoned lanes had come alive with a purposeful crush of shoppers and vendors buying and selling frankincense and myrrh, roasted locusts, handfuls of sticky dates, yards of fabulously colored and sequined fabric, secondhand sports coats from Europe, and woolen scarves from Kashmir. We strolled past buildings that looked like gigantic gingerbread cookies with white icing squiggled around the windows and doorways, and then stopped at the street of the money changers, where we sipped glasses of sweet black tea and counted out a small shopping bag full of Yemeni riyals. Breakfast was kidam (soldier's bread)— a nutritious multigrain loaf introduced by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century. DelRae nicknamed the bricklike kidam "the Yemeni croissant" because we had one each day at dawn with boon halib— frothy coffee with milk that tasted of chocolate and cardamom.

For three days we explored the Old City before calling on my friend Mohammed al-Osabi, one of the most experienced backcountry drivers in Yemen. After agreeing on the itinerary and price, we packed his Land Cruiser with cartons of bottled water, blankets, a propane camp stove, extra gas, and food, and left Sanaa late the following morning. On the outskirts of town, I caught sight of a weathered signboard that read:


"Yet another fine example of the Yemeni sign-maker's art," Martin commented. We turned east, taking the road toward Ma'rib and the desert. Wind and dust in our hair, Martin pointed out the notable landmarks. On a mountain peak to the south sat the tomb of Job (the unofficial patron saint of all foreign visitors to Yemen, I decided), and as we entered the province of Nihem we stopped briefly to behold the Dick of Nihem, an immense phallic shaft of basalt protruding from a hill.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant filled with armed tribesmen. "The wild, wild West," muttered my wife as a madman with a DHL courier pack stuck on his head like a chef's cap welcomed us warmly, and three men equipped with machine guns offered us their seats.

Winding down the eastern slope of the mountains into the desert heat and the oil boom town of Ma'rib, we met Sa'id, a Bedouin guide who would take us into the Ramlat al-Sab'atayn desert at dawn. Sa'id was a member of the al-Sharef family, which has monopolized the desert-guide business since the days of camel caravans. The al-Sharef guides now drive Land Cruisers and hand out business cards with their telephone and post-office-box numbers. "Fax coming soon," Sa'id informed us.

At first light we were crouched by the side of a gravel road watching Osabi and Sa'id let the air out of their tires to allow the vehicles to ride over the sand without sinking. Sa'id checked the pressure with a gauge that he kept wrapped around the hilt of his djambia— the large dagger at his waist. Looking toward the rising sun, I could make out a confusion of tire tracks that disappeared into the nearby sand hills. These tracks would lead us across 200 miles of spectacular desert to the entrance of Wadi Hadhramaut— the hidden valley of towering mud-brick castles.

Sa'id slung his Kalashnikov from an inside door handle and motioned us to climb into our car. "Tawak-kalna ala Allah!" (We have put our trust in Allah!) he exclaimed as he stroked a rabbit's foot dangling from the ignition key. The engines of both vehicles rattled to life, and the journey to Shibam had begun. We crested the first sand hill, the gravel road disappeared, and somewhere in my head the theme song from Lawrence of Arabia began to play.Yemenis have nicknames for their Land Cruisers. The 1992 model is known as Layla Elwy (after a curvaceous Egyptian movie star), while the aerodynamic look of the 1994 model inspired the title Je-har Men Tahess ("The Backside of Someone You Like"). Mohammed al-Osabi drove an indestructible Abu Dabba; the name means "The Father of the Gas Can."

With only the shifting dunes and sun to navigate by, Sa'id followed the original caravan route that once linked the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula with Gaza at the Mediterranean terminus of the Frankincense Trail. This route was eclipsed in the first century a.d. upon the dissemination of the Periplus maris Erythraei, a guide to trade in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. By revealing how the use of monsoon winds allowed direct access to the markets of India, the book spelled the beginning of the end for the overland trail with its bandits, inhospitable terrain, and local rulers and guides who extracted protection money from the caravans.

In contrast to the great camel caravans that had once headed west across the desert loaded with frankincense, gold, precious stones, ivory, pearls, tortoiseshell, muslin, and spices, we headed east with an ice chest full of bottled water, a copy of Plants of the Bible, by Harold and Alma Moldenke, a barbecued chicken, and two dozen tubes of lipstick from Walgreens. The air horn on our vehicle played "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"— but no one had thought to bring a map or a compass.

"They do know the way, don't they?" my wife whispered as we careened over the sea of sand at 50 miles an hour. Indeed, the drivers of both vehicles took full advantage of the ideal surface conditions by gunning their Land Cruisers up towering dunes like surfers on the face of a wave, then cutting back at crazy angles, wheels spinning, before shooting down the dunes to resume our meandering course across the desert. Somewhere to the south was the former site of Shabwah, which, until a.d. 220, was an important staging area for caravans on their way to Ma'rib, then northwest to Najran, Mecca, Petra, and Gaza. Every hour or so I had the drivers stop so we could hike to the crest of a giant dune and gaze out at the expanse of sand.

"Panicum turgidum!" exclaimed Martin as he spotted a bit of tussock grass. "They like a sandy habitat," he mused aloud.

"Quite right," I replied, looking at the desert.

Later, while we were stopped to fix a flat tire, Martin went in search of manna, the biblical food that fell from heaven to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness.

"Good luck!" I called out as he disappeared into the sand hills.

Many botanists contend that manna is the honeylike, resinous exudation of certain desert trees and shrubs, but according to the Moldenkes there are at least two additional sorts of manna: a gelatinous algal growth stimulated by night dew; and edible lichens that are blown into the air during times of drought and later fall to earth, littering the ground in great quantities. The Bedouin make a bread from the lichen, and this was the sort of manna Martin was looking for. He proudly returned with a cutting of a herbaceous woody plant and asked Sa'id if the Bedouin used it as food.

"Not even the camels will touch it," he grimaced, tossing the weed to the ground.

Five hours from the nearest road, we entered a wide gravel plain where the earth was brushed with a greenish tinge of vegetation. Camels grazed, and two white tents appeared through shimmering heat waves on the horizon. We were soon warmly received there by a half-dozen men and their young sons. After tea we passed around a battered aluminum bowl, sipping a refreshing concoction of leben (slightly soured goat milk) mixed with tomatoes, chilies, and salt. Chickens scratched the ground behind our backs, and a cooling breeze blew through the tent. DelRae was led to the women's quarters, where, minutes later, haunting ululations indicated that the Walgreens lipstick had been well received.


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