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Crossing Yemen

In the men's tent we discussed such topics as the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar in Saudi and Yemeni riyals, the Gulf War, and the price of brides and Land Cruisers in England and the United States. Osabi and Sa'id taught Martin and me a complex game, similar to marbles and croquet, played with pellets of dried camel dung. But within minutes the two were embroiled in an argument over suspected cheating. "Not unlike croquet at home," said Martin as the game ended in a spectacular shouting match. A little boy sold us a handful of 2,000- to 5,000-year-old arrowheads that he had collected from the desert, and then it was time to go.

We had been looking forward to camping in the giant dunes, but Sa'id told us we were going to a wedding instead. As we gazed on the expanse of desert, it seemed an unlikely possibility. But just before nightfall we arrived at a large tented encampment illuminated by bonfires and surrounded by dozens of Toyotas without license plates. In the women's tent DelRae handed out perfume samples from Chanel and in return was squeezed and fondled and kissed repeatedly on the crown of her head by a gathering of some 200 Bedouin women. Throughout the night they brought her food and danced and sang for her. At dawn the next day she was still wide-eyed and flushed with excitement.

After a late breakfast we motored over the dunes, heading north and then east until we came upon traces of the masabam— a series of mosques, shaded resting places, milestones, and drinking wells that had been constructed in the 10th century by the great benefactor Husain ibn Salama of Wadi Hadhramaut to guide pilgrims on their way to Mecca. We followed the wells and by early afternoon we could see the jols, the 1,000-foot-high sandstone cliffs that mark the western entrance to Wadi Hadhramaut.

As we drove, Martin read passages from Ronald Lewcock's Wadi Hadramawt and the Walled City of Shibam. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century b.c., had noted: "The trees bearing the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colors." The Greek geographer Strabo confirmed that these serpents were "a span in length [nine inches], red in color and could leap as high as a man's groin to inflict their fatal bite." This last comment kept us on our toes, but the only serpent we encountered on the journey had been flattened into the gravel roadbed by a previous vehicle.

At noon we reached the first paved road in Wadi Hadhramaut. At a roadside restaurant Martin treated us to traditional Hadhrami cuisine: sheep intestines wrapped with strips of fat, and tripe that had been smoked in a pit. The eight-inch-long bundles looked like greasy surgical gloves with the fingertips cut off and bound with rubber bands, but these morsels turned out to be very tasty when taken with spoonfuls of rich pilaf cooked with onions and ghee, scented with cardamom and cloves.

Entering Wadi Hadhramaut, I was eagerly anticipating the timeless architecture of a forgotten world. But the first otherworldly sight we encountered was a dump truck full of veiled women, all in black, wearing tall witches' caps made of straw. I was told that the hats were for keeping their heads cool, and for storing cucumbers and tomatoes during the day.

Several miles up the road, beehive-shaped limestone kilns belched columns of black smoke from their chimneys while men used clubs to beat the resulting lumps of pure white gypsum to a paste. They spent 12 hours a day making noorah, a lime plaster that is used to waterproof mud-brick buildings. The workers, burned black by the sun, wore sandals made of cut-up inner tubes. One young man spoke excellent English as he wielded a club in the gypsum pit; he told us that he'd like to become a schoolteacher.

We arrived at the gates of shibam at dusk as a deep orange sunset lit the valley walls. The narrow, twisted lanes of the city were filled with the peaty smell of dung smoke, sheep urine, dust, and kerosene lamps. Veiled women drifted silently through the darkness, and as the light faded the city momentarily came to life with the throaty protest of a donkey's bray. Men approached one another and touched noses in greeting.

When we checked in at the Shibam Guest House, the manager asked if we had any extra copies of Plato's Dialogues or Sin, Sex and Self-Control by Norman Vincent Peale. We regretfully informed him that we'd just given away our last copies but would try to bring him some on our next visit. An hour later, freshly showered and dressed for dinner on the garden veranda, Martin looked quite smart in a rumpled linen sports coat. We dipped into plates of hummus, stewed okra, and puréed fava beans fried with green onions, tomatoes, garlic, chilies, and cumin. Steamy rounds of pita bread were served with what DelRae called "a deconstructed Spanish omelette." A wedding procession passed outside the front gate. The sounds of drums and flutes grew faint, camels roared in the distance, and all seemed well in Wadi Hadhramaut.

At first light I hiked into the date groves. From the top of a low hill it was easy to appreciate why Shibam is considered one of the architectural wonders of the world. The 500-or-so mud-brick skyscrapers clustered within the city walls seem to defy all rules of architectural engineering. From a distance the five- to eight-story buildings appeared to be gigantic sand castles. But after I walked through the city and ran my hands over the walls, they took on the character of monumental slabs of clay that had somehow been tilted into place and joined to similar slabs to form buildings.

High above the grid of lanes, covered passageways connected the living quarters of several buildings. The upper and lower sets of small windows on each floor gave the illusion of a greater number of stories; only after we entered one of the buildings did the ingenious weight-distribution system of wooden posts and beams, in conjunction with a massive stone staircase, become apparent. As in modern reinforced-concrete structures, the exterior walls were only partially load-bearing. The inside surfaces of the walls were finished with a skim coat of lime plaster to which egg whites were once added to produce a highly burnished look. Though 7,000 people live within the city walls of Shibam, the streets seemed strangely deserted apart from the lively teahouse and domino culture thriving just outside the walls.

Shibam has been the capital of Wadi Hadhramaut since the third century a.d., and owing to the nature of the basic building unit— sun-dried mud brick— the buildings have been in a perpetual state of deterioration and renewal ever since. The oldest existing structure dates from the 13th century. One house we visited was only 40 years old but looked identical to adjoining buildings of far greater age. This is the result of strictly enforced codes that dictate the use of traditional designs, materials, and building techniques. It's thought that the city looks much as it did following the last major flood, in 1532.

The Hadhrami workers, like most Yemenis, are great travelers, and since the decline of the frankincense trade it has been remittance money from overseas that has allowed the valley to flourish. Workers and businessmen began migrating to India around 1220, and then to Zanzibar and East Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries. Because of the chronic tribal warfare and chaotic conditions in the valley, a new wave of migrant workers left for Java in the 16th century, and another for Singapore 150 years ago. The former Islamic-Marxist government of South Yemen forced the most recent exodus of entrepreneurs to Djibouti and the Gulf States in the late 1960's. (North Yemen and South Yemen were reunited under parliamentary democracy in 1990.) The success of those expatriates has sustained the economy of Wadi Hadhramaut and enabled the construction and maintenance of the buildings that exist today.

Exhausted by an afternoon wandering around in the heat, Martin suggested we retire for a siesta and then go out to dinner in Seyun, a nearby market town where he intended to order the dried shark meat known as lakhm. That evening we took an outdoor table at a café where a kitchenful of sweating men labored like galley slaves behind a row of thundering gas burners. With donkeys braying at the moon, and passing trucks wafting diesel fumes across the tables, a one-eyed waiter brought us plates of lakhm and rice.

Just as Shibam is the crowning example of the mud-brickmaker's craft, lakhm is the ultimate expression of the fish drier's art. Dealers in the market claim that after the shark has been butterflied, salted, and dried in the sun for five days, it will keep for a year or longer. It looked all right on the plate, but the first bite was sufficient to convince me that no amount of salt or extra time left in the sun at the side of the road could possibly diminish the distinctive flavor. It was like encountering a well-aged cheese for the first time, and the taste in my mouth reminded me how far I was from home.

Beads of perspiration rolled down my neck as I sat back and watched Martin finish his plate, then mine. DelRae's face wore a special contemplative look suggesting that, perhaps next time, she would put the finishing touches on the itinerary. I reflected on the allure of exotic cuisines and fabled places, then sipped a bottle of warm cola that had lost its fizz. Despite the spectacular drive across the sand hills of the Ramlat al Sab'atayn, the Bedouin wedding party, and the first mesmerizing glimpse of Shibam at sunrise, I thought, we had come a very long way to look at mud bricks, play marbles with camel dung, and eat lakhm.

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