Yemen: The Unknown Arabiaby Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Martin Yeoman
Yemen is arguably the most fascinating and least known country in the Arab world. Classical geographers described it as a fabulous land where flying serpents guarded sacred incense groves. Medieval Arab visitors told of disappearing islands and menstruating mountains. Our current ideas of this country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula have been overrun by… See more details below
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Yemen is arguably the most fascinating and least known country in the Arab world. Classical geographers described it as a fabulous land where flying serpents guarded sacred incense groves. Medieval Arab visitors told of disappearing islands and menstruating mountains. Our current ideas of this country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula have been overrun by images of the desert, by oil, by the Gulf War. but as Tim Mackintosh-Smith reminds us in his brilliant book, there is another Arabia.
Writing with an intimacy and a depth of knowledge gained through thirteen years among the Yemenis. Mackintosh-Smith proves himself a traveling companion of the best sort -- erudite, witty, and eccentric. Crossing mountain, desert, ocean, and three millennia of history, he portrays a land that, in the words of a contemporary poet, has become the dictionary of its people. In Yemen: The Unknown Arabia, we witness the extraordinary in the ordinary: men who chew leaves and camels that live on fish; a city that seems to have been baked, not built, of iced gingerbread; not to speak of shepherdesses who tend their flocks in gold sequinned dresses. Yemen is a part of Arabia, but it is like no place else on earth.
Often calling up aspects of the best of Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban, Gavin Young, and Pico Iyer, Tim Mackintosh-Smith stakes a large claim alongside them on the back of a very special Arabian Grand Tour. With thirty-two etchings by Martin Yeoman of life and landscapes, Yemen is a book in which every page is filled -- like the land it describes -- with the marvelous.
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Hard by Heaven
`Thou coveredst it with the deep like as with a garment: the
waters stand in the hills.'
Psalm 104, v. 3
LONG AGO, shortly after the waters of the Flood had begun to recede and the Himalayas, the Andes and the Alps were still islands on the face of the deep, some two-thirds of the way along a line from Everest to Kilimanjaro and just inside the Tropic of Cancer, a few eddies marked Arabia's re-entry into the world.
It was not a dramatic rebirth -- the Mountain of the Prophet Shu'ayb is an unremarkable hump. Shu'ayb himself was still seventeen generations off; by his time mankind would be back to its wicked old ways. But for the moment it was a clean start, the world an empty stage.
Enter Sam. Sam ibn Nuh, or Shem the son of Noah, knew that the future of humanity lay in his loins and in those of his brothers Ham and Yafith. He was to beget and give his name to the entire Semitic race: perhaps it was the weight of this awesome responsibility which, the medieval traveller Ibn al-Mujawir says, he wished to alleviate by finding a place `with light water and a temperate healthy climate'. This stony and windswept mountain would not do, but 4,500 feet below and half a day's journey to the south-east was a plain ringed by rocky peaks, where the flood had left a rich layer of silt.
This was the spot. Sam bounded down the mountain and pegged out a foundation trench, only to have his guideline stolen by a bird. The bird flew off withthe line and dropped it on the east side of the plain. To Sam, this was a clear sign. So it was there, on the future site of the Palace of Ghumdan, under the rising of Taurus with Venus and Mars in conjunction, that he came to build the world's first city: San'a.
Elsewhere, the receding floodwater had revealed a chain of mountains running from north to south, broken by occasional hollows and plateaux where, as in the plain of San'a, alluvial deposits would attract settlers. To the west and south the mountains ended abruptly in jagged escarpments overlooking plains; the plains lay just above sea-level and were hot and sticky but more fertile still. Eastwards, the mountains shelved into a desert which, even when Sam's progeny had multiplied, would remain empty except for outlaws and oilmen. Far to the south-east and close to the desert's fringe was a deep scar of a valley, hemmed in by barren steppes, where one of Sam's descendants would settle, giving it his nickname Hadramawt -- Death Has Come.
So the veil was drawn back from the rucked-up corner of Arabia called Yemen, being on the right side, yamin, of the Ka'bah of Mecca; or because it is blessed with yumn, felicity; or after Yamin the brother of Hadramawt.
All this, some say, is nonsense. Around the beginning of the Christian era San'a grew from an outpost where the road from Marib, capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba, meets the watershed; Hadramawt is just another pre-Arabic name, the traditional etymology a fanciful back-projection; Yemen, al-yaman, simply means `the south'.
The truth is that Yemen's distant past is still obscure. Archaeology has hardly begun to come up with solid facts. Early Yemeni historians, though, produced their own interpretation using genealogy. At the base of the family tree comes Sam. Higher up is Sam's great-grandson, the Prophet Hud. Hud's son Qahtan is at the top of the trunk, and from him spring all the South Arabian tribes, branching across the map of Yemen and beyond. In the process, the names of people and places have become inextricably intertwined: the family tree has grown luxuriantly, fed by the genealogists on a rich mulch of eponyms and toponyms. To get to know Yemen as the Yemenis see it means clambering around this tree, one which spreads vertically through time and horizontally through space. History and geography, people and land, are inseparable.
The new school of historians are doing a hatchet-job on the family tree, questioning the very existence of the traditional ancestors. But in the end it hardly matters who is right. Whether Qahtan -- the central figure, the South Arabian progenitor -- was an actual person or not, he represents a people who share a distinctive culture, one which has lasted for at least three thousand years.
As for the story of Sam, even if it is a legend, it is the South Arabians' Genesis.
* * *
My landfall in San'a was more prosaic than Sam's. The Ethiopian Boeing lurched and creaked its way down through layers of turbulence. For the last couple of minutes before landing, the plane circled over the city. It was not as I had expected.
Like those desert plants which grow suddenly after decades of suspended animation, San'a had shot out suckers, tentacles of development. In the past, arrival had always been through its gates; the principal entrance, Bab al-Yaman, had come to be seen as an architectural statement of the city's famed introversion, emphasized perhaps by a row of severed traitors' heads along the parapet, its gates shut at night, putting a stop to all movement. Now you arrived along roads of half-finished buildings. The statement of entry had been upstaged by a preamble of petrol stations.
I was afraid that San'a, with the dissipation of its dramatic presence, might have lost something of its soul. But, just as Ingres had conjured up the East in his Paris studio -- and sanitized it, giving us the odalisques but not the odours, the eunuchs but not the screams of castration -- so I had invented San'a in Oxford. The mistake had been to think of it as a museum.
Today, the ribbons of building have joined into an all-but seamless urban weave. San'a is busy, at times frenetic. It suffers from traffic jams and lack of planning. But it is lively, diverse and -- even with the country's current economic difficulties -- still prosperous. What I had imagined to be the timeless calm of an ancient walled city was stagnation, a comatose sleep ended by the brute kiss of revolution.
In the Old City the heart still beats. The noise of al-Zumur, the quarter named after a mosque founded in 1547 by Uzdimir Pasha, the Ottoman conqueror of San'a, pulsates outside the front door: car horns, motor-cycle taxis, two egg-sellers competing with loudhailers, the cassette shop across the road, the crackle and pop of roasting black peas. Yesterday there was a man with wild hair and a drum extemporizing songs, lays of old Baghdad (not about Harun al-Rashid, but Saddam Husayn and his adversary, George Bush: `O would that I were a bird,' says Saddam. `For I would land on Bush's head and ...' -- the crowd is in suspense -- `... and shit on it!'). And last Ramadan, every day before the sunset prayer, a fettered man would call for alms beneath my window; a taxi driver who had crashed, he was in gaol until he could collect the bloodmoney for his dead passengers. His insurance policy had been with God; now, coin by coin, the Faithful were paying out his claim. The sounds all float up from four floors below, a distraction to writing. So, San'ani houses being tall, I'll move up another couple.
From here the ring of mountains surrounding the San'a plain can be seen in full; a tradition says they flew from Sinai to Yemen in shock when Moses asked to see the face of God. Over there is the place where Sam first began building, and through the other window is Jabal Nuqum, near the base of which the bird dropped his guideline. Even this is hardly the best place to be writing, this belvedere on the roof; it is too easy to get carried away by the skyline of which you are a part. But up here, among the birds and the occasional flying plastic bag, street noises are far away, and you could be sitting in a jewelled casket -- the room is tiny, eight feet by five, and lit by coloured glass windows. It is sometimes called a zahrah -- in the dictionary, `a flower/beauty/brightness'. My house is a few centuries old but the changeless style of San'ani architecture makes it hard to date. Only yards away a man is putting the final cursive plaster frieze on to a similar room, hanging on a swing above the chasm of the street. Behind him the dust is beginning to obscure Jabal Ayban and the road to the sea. A west wind is blowing up, banging the shutters. And with it comes the call to prayer -- not the effete recorded invitation of other lands but a live, human roar: COME AND PRAY! -- gusting across Yemen from Zabid to Zinjibar, from Hizyaz to Habarut and all the way to Suqutra, the Island of Dragon's Blood off the Horn of Africa.
I must go down and pick up some more cigarettes, down the seventy-seven (I think) steps into the dark entrance hall. I slide back the bolt of the massive door and light and noise and piles of alfalfa tumble in -- my neighbour sells the plant for fodder, alongside jars of marigolds, roses, basil and rue. She is veiled and wrapped in a sitarah, a large blue and red cloak like a tablecloth. Next to her a man from the Red Sea coast has tobacco from the other side of al-Mukalla on the Indian Ocean; then a boy with a headscarf full of walnuts from Hajjah, in the mountains north-west of San'a. In front of them is a line of barrows, some with oranges, some with plastic shoes, some with knives, razors, nailclippers, torches and mechanical drumming monkeys. Across the street are the secondhand clothes sellers. All the synthetic textile wealth of the Far East is here in a mêlée of colours and patterns. Behind the clothes is a row of gold shops, tarts' parlours of 22-carat glitter set off by pink and peach velvet walls and more mirrors than a hairdresser's. The sharshaf maker, who runs up a ladies' all-enveloping outer garment of Ottoman origin (any colour as long as it's black, any number of pleats as long as they froufrou), adds a sober note, a crow among peacocks.
The secondhand clothes sellers are a long way from the subfusc mustiness of an Oxfam shop. They are lost in a maelstrom of flying cloth and brown forearms thrusting from under sitarahs, glinting with gold bangles. Only the man selling platform shoes is alone. Menswear is often startling, with lots of fake fur and checks that shriek, but I've picked up a dove-grey jacket lined in scarlet which could have been from Huntsman of Savile Row, except for the stitching. Another find was a smart barathea tailcoat. I tried it on but it was tiny, shrunk by the sea and cast up on a beach from a 1930s P&O liner gone down in the Gulf of Aden, the dance band playing `Eternal Father, Strong to Save' as the sharks of al-Shihr scented the supper of their lives ... Well, maybe.
One day I saw on the street something that stopped me dead. It was a piece of clothing as familiar to me as my own body, but translated into another sartorial idiom. A boy was wearing it over a zannah, an ankle-length shirt, and a miniature jambiyah, a curved dagger. He was scuffing a deflated football along. I called him to stop. There it was, grey flannel with navy piping and a fleur-de-lis on the breast pocket: my prep-school blazer.
I looked inside. `Steer & Geary Gentlemen's Outfitters'. There was the ghost of an inkstain on the pocket, where my birthday Parker had sprung a leak in 1972. The space for the name-tape was empty.
As he kicked the ball away a wave of nostalgia flooded over me. It passed, leaving behind a strange, deep stillness of spirit. It was the calm of completeness, of the wheel turning full circle, of being in the right place at the right time.
* * *
If that had been an intimation of spiritual completion, a later experience, in San'a Airport customs shed, provided a fair simulacrum of Limbo. The place is a vast metal box, echoing with cries of supplication -- owners begging for the redemption of their goods. To get to it I had to cross a great Stygian lake where the city's sewage had bubbled up.
Inside the shed I found the crate containing my motor cycle. It had come here via Addis Ababa and appeared to be in one piece. I gave it a pat and made for the low buildings which house the Customs mas'ulin, the responsibles -- literally, those who are asked questions. To get in I waved a piece of paper, the central portion of which was a typewritten request to import the machine into Yemen, addressed to the Director of Customs. Over the weeks it had sprouted marginalia, each ending with the enigmatic squiggle which in Arabic passes for a signature.
On my first visit to the Customs Authority I had buttonholed the Director as he was getting out of his car. Using the wing as a writing-desk and with a flourish of his costly pen, he wrote what I eventually deciphered as: `No objection. For the attention of the Secretariat.' Beginner's luck. The Head of the Secretariat had no objection either and with a second marginalium -- written with a less costly but still desirable pen -- passed the matter on to the Head of External Affairs. In External Affairs it was the same story: no objection, refer to another department. I noticed that the lower the position in the hierarchy, the more complex the signature became. At the same time the pens decreased in quality until, in a nameless department where bottom-drawer bureaucrats sat reading the newspaper or practising their signatures, someone was persuaded to write something with a chewed and leaking biro. By now, time was beginning to distort: I had been in Customs for a good part of each working day for a fortnight. Where could they refer the case to now? Only the tea boy hadn't been consulted. I looked at the latest addition to the document. `No objection. For the attention of Director of Customs.' The buck, it seemed, was in perpetual -- and slow -- motion. Like the Buddhist soul, it had described a complete circle while the officials were reincarnated in ever lowlier forms. As I left the office my eye caught the main front-page headline of a newspaper: `Minister of Civil Service and Administrative Reform Calls for Immediate Shake-Up.' The paper was a month old.
As a last, desperate ploy, I returned in a suit and tie, the letter in a smart imitation leather attaché case, and headed for the Director's office. Over the past two weeks, a bond of camaraderie had grown between us co-petitioners, but now the disconsolate men squatting by doorways didn't recognize me. The soldier on the door of the Director's antechamber cleared a way through the crowd. I entered the sanctum sanctorum, the eye of the storm. The few people in the room addressed the Director in hushed voices. The costly pen glided.
My turn came. `You may remember me ...'
`Ah,' he interrupted, smiling. `The man with the fiery bicycle.'
Everyone else called it a mutur, even if fiery bicycle was what you used in written Arabic. The Director leaned back and stroked his moustache. `Their importation into Yemen is prohibited.'
I recited to myself the mantra of a British Resident Adviser to one of the sultans of Hadramawt in colonial days: Never get angry, be quiet, very quiet, speak and act softly. `I may be mistaken, but you have already written "No objection". I beg to be allowed the honour of contributing to the exchequer by paying duty. Besides, there are thousands of fiery bicycles in San'a. Indeed, I came here today on a fiery bicycle taxi.' I paused. No sign of softening. I went on: `But perhaps that was an illusion. Perhaps I, who appeared to be moving so swiftly and noisily through the traffic, was in reality riding on air and', I looked out of the window, `farting,'
The Director snorted. I looked at him and saw he was laughing. He wrote in the last empty bit of margin, `No objection. Refer to Airport Customs Department. Calculate sum due.' I had broken out of the circle, achieved a minor nirvana.
At Airport Customs, I watched the responsible concerned make his calculations. The process seemed to be based not on simple addition but on logarithms and exponentiality. The sum due was thirty thousand riyals.
He saw my dumbstruck look, crossed out the three and wrote a two. `Is that better?'
I said I was most grateful, but it still seemed a lot for two wheels. He scrubbed out the whole figure and wrote fifteen thousand. `Happy now?' Such transactions are like painting in watercolour or cutting hair: go too far and the thing is ruined. I said I was delighted and left, clutching the papers.
* * *
If the customs shed is Limbo, then Ali's Restaurant is a foretaste of Hell. `The San'anis possess culinary skills unsurpassed in any other land,' wrote the great tenth-century historian and geographer al-Hamdani. Measured against the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, the comment is true: San'a has an old and indigenous cuisine. My lunch was the same as that described by Ibn al-Mujawir in the thirteenth century: wheat bread, hulbah -- fenugreek flour whisked to a froth with water -- and meat. Ali himself stands in a cloud of smoke on a platform high above the ground, ladling beef broth, eggs, rice and peppers into a row of stone bowls. In front of him is a rank of cauldrons, each one big enough to boil a missionary. Below him minions tend gas cylinders that send great blasts of flame shooting up. Conversations are impossible in the roar; explosions are not unknown. The bowl of saltah, as they call the mixture, is brought to you red-hot, carried with a pair of pliers and topped with a seething yellowish-green dollop of hulbah. Lumps of meat are flambéed in a wok-like vessel, and ten feet above this the ceiling is black from years of fireballs. Men squat on the floor, on benches, on tables (the ones in suits and ties are from the Foreign Ministry across the road). Those who have not yet been served wail and shriek for attention -- `Ya Ali! Ya Alayyy!' -- while Ali stands, erect and unhearing, his body immobile within a parabola of arms -- all his own, like those of a Hindu idol. The lucky ones who have been served eat with the saltah spitting in their faces, sweat pouring from their brows. The walls are covered with a huge photographic mural of the gardens at Versailles: parterres, statues of nymphs, cooling fountains.
Lunch at Ali's is not merely a matter of eating. It is the first step on the way to kayf. The meaning of the term has been discussed by Sir Richard Burton. One might call it, he wrote, `The savouring of animal existence ... the result of a lively, impressible, excitable nature, and exquisite sensibility of nerve; it argues a facility for voluptuousness unknown to northern regions ...'; but in the end the translator of The Arabian Nights admitted defeat: kayf is `a word untranslatable in our mother tongue'. Lexicographers, who cannot be so realistic, have described it as a mood, humour or frame of mind. I, who chew the leaf of the qat tree, shall attempt a definition.
Ali's Restaurant is all to do with the humours. Blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile must be in balance to ensure perfect health and to enable the qat chewer to attain his goal of kayf; since qat excites the cold and dry black bile, prophylaxis against its ill effects means that the blood, which is hot and wet, must be stimulated. Hence the heat, the sweat, the bubbling saltah. Hence also the visits to the public baths before chewing qat, the insistence on keeping windows and doors shut during chewing, the elaborate precautions to avoid the dreaded shanini -- a piercing and potentially fatal draught of cold air.
An old joke illustrates this obsession with heat. The angels, it is said, periodically visit Hell to make sure the fires are turned up. One day a group of them are detailed to check on the really wicked sinners, who spend eternity in individual ovens. Inside the first oven is a Saudi. He screams to be let out. Roasting nicely, they think, and slam the door on him. In the next oven is an Englishman; then come an American, an Egyptian and so on. All beg to be let out, but the angels show them no mercy. Eventually they open the last door. Inside sits a Yemeni, chewing qat and apparently oblivious of the flames around him. He draws languidly on his water-pipe, turns to the angels, and says: `Hey, could you shut that door? I'll catch my death of cold.'
The other day -- it might, in fact, have been almost any day -- I had lunch at Ali's then bought my qat from blue-eyed Muhammad across the road. He swore I wasn't giving him what he'd paid for it (the oaths of qat sellers are notoriously unbinding). I argued. `All right,' he said, `take it for nothing. A present.' I folded some more notes, stuck them behind his dagger, and walked off with my purchase. Wrangling over the price is part of the business of working up a sweat. (Real mawla'is -- that is, those `inflamed with passion' for qat -- used to run half way up Jabal Nuqum, singing, before they chewed.) It was half past two and I was ready to start. My molar, as they say, was hot.
In a house in the centre of San'a, I climbed the stairs to another room on a roof, grander than my own. On the way up, I called `Allah, Allah,' to warn women of my presence. Perhaps I should make the point here, if it needs to be made, that this is a very male book. As a man I am excluded from the society of women, as they are from that of men. Outsiders tend to see this dual, parallel system as a form of repression. The idea never occurs to most Yemeni women. They know that they wield power in many spheres, notably in the choice of marriage partners which, given an endogamous system, is a major influence on the distribution of wealth. Women play only a small role in the public domain, as they did in the West until quite recently; at least in Yemen, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, women are able to drive cars, enter Parliament, become top-ranking civil servants. But it is in the private realm of the home that the woman dominates, in practice if not in theory; men often gather to chew qat together because their homes have been taken over by visiting women.
The veil, so overlaid with symbolic meaning for Westerners, is for Yemeni women just another item of dress. If it is not essential as protection against the cold, then neither are stockings, bras or neckties. Casual Western observers, for whom the black sharshaf is a dehumanizer and who equate the veil with a gag, are allowing an obsession with symbolism to pull the wool over their own eyes. Underlying the use of hair- or face-coverings there are, of course, Arab-Islamic concepts of honour and modesty which the West does not share or has lost. The question of what to conceal -- face, breasts, ankles, the legs of a grand piano -- is not a question of sense but of sensibilities. The Turkey merchant Sir Henry Blount wrote in the seventeenth century of the Turks that they live `by another kind of civilitie, different from ours, but no less pretending'. His message has yet to get across. The veil is indeed a potent symbol, but a symbol of the unwillingness or inability of the West to understand the Arab world. The Iron Curtain has been and gone; the muslin curtain still hangs, and probably always will.
Panting from the ascent, I slipped off my shoes and entered the room. It was rectangular, with windows on all sides which began a foot above the floor. Above them were semicircular fanlights of coloured glass. Into the tracery of the fanlights, and in the plaster of the walls and shelf-brackets, were worked the names of God and the Prophet, and verses of a pious nature -- it was a very legible room. Polished brass gleamed everywhere: rosewater sprinklers, incense-burners, spittoons with little crocheted covers, the great circular tray with its three water-pipes. Low mattresses covered with Afghan runners lined the walls. About a dozen men were sitting on them, leaning on armrests topped with little cloth-of-gold cushions.
I greeted the chewers, interrupting their zabj, the rapid banter, the swordplay of insults that starts all the best qat sessions. I'd scarcely sat down when an old man opposite turned on me.
`I was in Sa'wan this morning, and I saw this Jew. And, do you know, he looked just like you. You could have been twins!'
`But ... but I haven't got any side-locks,' I parried feebly. Jewish Yemenis are required to advertise their religion by cultivating a pair of long corkscrew ringlets.
`Ah,' he went on, `you know what they say: "Jewishness is in the heart, not in the length of the side-locks."'
I made a feint to gain time: `Tell me: exactly how many sidelocks did this Jew of Sa'wan have?'
`What do you mean? Two, of course.'
`Well, it's a funny thing, but I saw a Jew in the qat market today and he looked exactly like you. You could have been twins. But he had four side-locks ...'
After half an hour of this verbal fencing, the zabj lost its momentum and devolved into solo joke telling.
`Once', someone said, `there was a blind girl. She was twenty-five years old and longing for a husband; but whenever she brought the subject up with her father he'd say, "My daughter, you are blind. No one wants you. But don't worry -- you'll find a husband in Paradise." Well, one day she was up on the roof hanging out the washing when she tripped and fell, down and down, six storeys. By chance she fell into a lorry carrying bananas and was knocked unconscious. The lorry drove on. Ten minutes later she came to. Ah, she thought, I am dead. Then, as she felt the bananas, she remembered what her father had told her and gave a little shriek: "Slowly, slowly, men of Paradise! Please, take your turn!"'
And many more in the same vein. Yemenis, and particularly San'anis, are a mixture of earth and polish, in contrast to their dour Saudi cousins of Najd and the unspeakably polite Levantine. Their contradictory nature was explained by al-Hamdani as the result of the conjunction of Venus and Mars when Sam founded their city: the Venusian aspects, he says, are `religiosity, faithfulness, upright living, breadth of character, soundness in body, knowledge, poetry and dress, ease of living, and many other such qualities'; the influence of Mars imparts `a surfeit of passion, adultery, frivolity, fondness for music, singing and unseemly jokes, quarrelsomeness, and a tendency to mess about with knives and allow themselves to be henpecked'. As for the women of San'a, while they are `incomparably beautiful, swift and graceful', they are also `prone to jealousy, coquettish and forward'.
Weightier matters are discussed at qat chews, and they are a major forum for the transaction of business and for religious and political debate. Many people also chew to aid concentration on study or work, and qat is the inevitable accompaniment to all important occasions from weddings to funerals. A funeral chew is known as mujabarah, a word which also means `the setting of broken bones'. But at the classic San'ani chew, it is `lightness of blood' -- charm, amiability -- that is admired, not gravitas. At a qat chew, one walks what a ninth-century poet called `the sword-edge that separates the serious from the frivolous'.
My qat was good, a Hamdani from Tuzan. Qat is a dicotyledon known to science as Catha edulis. Unremarkable though it appears, chewers recognize a huge variety of types and are fascinated by its origin: when one buys qat one first establishes its pedigree. Quality is judged by region, by the district within a region, even by the field where the individual tree is grown and by the position of the leaf on it. The product of a tree planted inadvertently on a grave is to be avoided -- it brings sorrow. Qat can be any colour from lettuce-green to bruise-purple. It comes long or short, bound into bundles or loose, packed in plastic, alfalfa or banana leaves. In San'a, as a rule of thumb, the longer the branch, the more prestigious it is: less image-conscious chewers -- and I am one of them -- buy qatal, the pickings from the lower branches.
Just as in the West there are wine snobs, in Yemen there are qat snobs. I once found myself opposite one. Fastidiously, he broke the heads off his yard-long branches and wrapped them in a dampened towel. It was almost an act of consecration. When he had finished, he drew on his water-pipe and appraised my bag of qatal with a look that threatened to wither it. `Everything', he said in an audible whisper, `has pubic hair. Qatal is the pubic hair of qat. Besides, dogs cock their legs over it.' He tossed me one of the tips from inside his towel. It was as thick as asparagus, its leaves edged with a delicate russet, and it tasted nutty, with the patrician bittersweetness of an almond. There was a tactile pleasure too, like that of eating pomegranates -- a slight resistance between the teeth followed by a burst of juice. I chased it with a slurp of water infused with the smoke of incense made from sandalwood, eagle-wood, mastic and cloves.
Qat does not alter your perception. It simply enhances it by rooting you in one place. There is a story in The Arabian Nights about a prince who sat and sat in his palace. Sentient from the waist up, his lower half had been turned to porphyry. `I used to wish the Arabian Tales were true' said Cardinal Newman. They usually are, to some extent.
After the zabj and the jokes, conversations took place in smaller groups, then pairs, then, towards the end of the afternoon, ceased. I looked out of the windows at the city.
`There are three earthly paradises,' said the Prophet. `Merv of Khurasan, Damascus of Syria, and San'a of Yemen. And San'a is the paradise of these paradises.'
Many have looked on San'a and seen a divine aesthetic at work in its setting. An Iraqi visitor earlier this century eulogized the city in verse:
San'a, home of lofty civilization, Dwelling of every brave and generous lord, Paris, London, and all the great cities Of the Romans and Americans do not match you in beauty. The beauty of those other places is but embellishment and artifice; Your beauty is unaffected, the gift of your Creator.
The mountains, says the historian al-Shamahi, are perfectly placed, `neither so far away as to tire the eye when it focuses on the edge of the plain; nor so close as to stifle refreshing morning breezes or constrict the views that, just before sunset, take on such wonderful colours'. They are mountains to be contemplated, like Fuji, if never so geometrical (although I once saw Nuqum, just after dawn, with a circle of cloud hovering over it, so precise that it might have been drawn by a compass).
The climate, too, is perfect, if a bit dusty. And a little too cold in winter, added Ibn al-Mujawir, `when ducks get frozen alive in ponds, with their heads sticking out of the ice. Foxes come and bite the heads off.' But San'a is not as cold as the village of Bayt Ma'din on the slopes of Jabal al-Nabi Shu'ayb, where in winter the mosque ablution pool freezes over and a qadi is said to have excused the villagers from the dawn prayer, `even if their bollocks are made of iron'. Very occasionally, it snows on the Prophet Shu'ayb. The event causes a certain linguistic complication, as Yemenis have no word for snow. You have to say, `Ice that falls from the sky ... No, not hail. The stuff that falls slowly and looks like cotton.'
San'a at street-level is crowded and labyrinthine; but from this room on the roof you can see the green of gardens hiding behind walls of dun mud. The house façades themselves are never sombre, because of the plaster friezes that zigzag round each floor, increasing in complexity with every successive storey.
The San'a house has its prototype in the Palace of Ghumdan. Probably built early in the second century AD and first mentioned in an inscription of the third-century Sabaean King Sha'ar Awtar, the palace has been celebrated by poets and historians ever since. Exaggeration is to be expected: its shadow reached the lip of Wadi Dahr, ten miles to the north-west; its lights could be seen in the holy city of al-Madinah, 750 miles away. Ghumdan, to judge by more sober descriptions, rose ten storeys, to a height of around 120 feet -- miraculously tall for its period. Built of variegated stone, it had hollow bronze lions and eagles on its parapet that roared and screeched when the wind blew. But the crowning glory of Ghumdan was its alabaster belvedere, so translucent that if you lay on your back and looked through the ceiling you could tell kites from crows as they flew overhead; the experience, according to al-Hamdani, was `physic for a care-worn heart' and the nearest thing to heaven in this world:
If Paradise's garden is above the skies, Then hard by heaven the roof of Ghumdan lies. And if God made on Earth a heaven for our eyes, Then Ghumdan's place is by that earthly paradise.
All that is left of the palace now is a hillock to the east of the Great Mosque, covered with later building. Yet its spirit survives in the tower-house of San'a. Since the city burst its walls after the Revolution of 1962, space has not been at a premium. But people still build upwards, subconsciously imitating the Sabaean builders of Ghumdan. Every upper room is a memory of that alabaster belvedere, a place of luxury and refinement implicit in the word mafraj.
The mafraj is not always on the roof. There are ground-floor versions with pools and fountains, and a proverb goes: `If your heart is at ease, even a donkey's arsehole can be a mafraj.' But the classic type is like the one in which we are sitting, watching the kites and crows, looking at the view (tafarraj, from the verbal root of mafraj), having our cares dispelled (again, tafarraj). In today's roofscape, however, the bronze lions of Ghumdan have been replaced by water tanks, some fashioned as globes or Scud missiles, or by satellite dishes. CNN offers even more distant prospects than Ghumdan.
I find myself looking towards the place where the sun must have just disappeared. This high above sea-level we are spared the more vulgar sort of sunset. The afterglow is dusty, the sky above the city like the inside of a shell. But I'm looking towards it, not at it -- there's a distortion in the window pane, interesting and annoying at the same time. A man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye.
It is six o'clock, or five to twelve in the Islamic day that starts with the sunset prayer. But, for a time, it is neither: the Hour of Solomon has begun, al-Sa'ah al-Sulaymaniyyah. Sa'ah has among its root meanings in the dictionary `to be lost, to procrastinate'. At the Hour of Solomon time refracts, as if bent by a prism.
No one speaks. Introspection has replaced conviviality. Somewhere, my fingers are working at the qat, polishing, plucking. When it was still light I found a fat horned caterpillar. A good sign -- no DDT -- but you don't want to chew one.
Were there a singer here, this would be his time. But the songs of the Hour of Solomon are as perilous as they are beautiful. Earlier this century in the days of Imam Yahya, singers could only perform in locked rooms, their windows stuffed with cushions. They had to hide their instruments for fear of imprisonment (fortunately, the old lute of San'a was small enough to be carried in the voluminous sleeves then worn). The Imam had banned singing with good reason: the songs are siren songs that tell of the flash of teeth beneath a veil like a silver coin in a well, of the saliva of lovers' kisses intoxicating like wine, of beauty that is cruelly ephemeral. Lasting we thought it, yet it did not last.
It is now quite dark. The coloured windows of neighbouring houses are lighting up, like Advent calendars.
We qat chewers, if we are to believe everything that is said about us, are at best profligates, at worst irretrievable sinners. We are in the thrall of `the curse of Yemen' and `the greatest corrupting influence on the country' (two British ambassadors to San'a); we are in danger of `loss of memory, irritability, general weakness and constipation', and from our water-pipes `there is certainly a danger of getting a chancre on the lips' (Handbook of Arabia, 1917); worse, we are prone to `anorexia' and to becoming `emotionally unstable, irritable, hyperactive and easily provoked to anger, eventually becoming violent' (Journal of Substance Abuse, 1988), while in Somalia, qat has `starved the country's children' and `exacerbates a culture of guns and violence' (San Francisco Chronicle, 1993); even if we don't turn nasty, we `doze and dribble green saliva like cretinous infants with a packet of bulls-eyes' (the English writer David Holden). In Saudi Arabia we would be punished more severely than alcohol drinkers; in Syria blue-eyed Muhammad would be swinging on the end of a rope.
In contrast to the above quasi-scientific poppycock, the only full and serious study of the effects of qat (Kennedy's -- funded, it should be noted, by the US National Institute of Drug Abuse) concludes that the practice appears to have no serious physical or psychological effects. Yemenis themselves, while admitting that their habit is expensive, defend it on the grounds that it stimulates mental activity and concentration; they point out that at least the money spent on it remains within the national economy.
Qat has inspired a substantial body of literature. Compare, for example, Holden's dribbling infants with a description of a handsome chewer by the seventeenth-century poet Ibrahim al-Hindi:
Hearts melted at his slenderness. And as he chewed, his mouth resembled Pearls which have formed on carnelian and, between them, an emerald, melting.
As well as poetry, there is a weighty corpus of scholarly literature on the legality of qat in Islam. It has been unable to find any analogy between the effects of the leaf and those of the prohibited narcotics. In the end, though, the question of its desirability and permissibility revolves around matters of politics, taste, ethnocentrism and sectarian prejudice.
I can just make out my watch. Half past seven. Time, which had melted, is resolidifying. It is now that I sometimes wonder why I am sitting here in the dark with a huge green bolus in my cheek; why I, and millions of others, spend as much time buying and chewing qat as sleeping, and more money on it than on food.
If we are to believe another major Western study of qat, we are `making symbolic statements about the social order' and engaging in an activity that is `individual, hierarchical, competitive'. Where you chew, and with whom, is certainly important. But to reduce it all to a neat theory -- rumino ergo sum -- is to over-simplify. It ignores the importance of the qat effect -- something almost impossibly difficult to pin down, for it is as subtle and as hard to analyse as the alkaloids that cause it. It takes long practice to be able to recognize the effect consciously, and even then it sidesteps definition except in terms of metaphor, and by that untranslatable word, kayf.
Kayf -- if you achieve it, and you will do if you choose the qat and the setting carefully -- enables you to think, work and study. It enables you to be still. Kayf stretches the attention span, so that you can watch the same view for hours, the only change being the movement of the sun. A journey ceases to be motion through changing scenery -- it is you who are stationary while the world is moved past, like a travelling-flat in an old film. Even if briefly, the chewer who reaches this kayf feels he is in the right place at the right time -- at the pivot of a revolving pre-Copernican universe, the still point of the turning world.
One day I was buying qat when a group of tourists walked past. Blue-eyed Muhammad said to me, `Why do people spend thousands of dollars rushing round the world, when they can chew qat?' There is Africa and all her prodigies in us.
I've chewed in taxis, on buses, on my motor cycle, on a truckload of firewood, in a military transport plane, in an overturning jeep, on the 5.30 from Victoria to Sutton. In retrospect, the movement was incidental. Back in the Oriental Institute, they didn't teach us the meaning of kayf -- they couldn't have. Now, I would venture to call it a form of untravel.
* * *
In the room on the roof, sounds began to impinge: the rasp of a match; the noisy slurping of water; caged doves cooing; the snap of a twig to make a toothpick; someone buckling on his dagger. Then there was the click of the light switch. Everyone screwed up their eyes, blessed the Prophet, and went home.
There are a number of things you can do after chewing qat. You might start digging up the paving stones in your entrance hall to look for Solomon's Seal, as a neighbour of mine used to do. Or, like the Turk early this century who had not seen his wife for sixteen years and was noted for his abstemiousness, you might involuntarily ejaculate. I tend to go home, have a glass of milky tea, and do some writing. Out of the corner of my eye I used to see my pencil sharpener move very slightly, around midnight, until I stopped buying that sort of qat.
What People are saying about this
“Mackintosh-Smith brings us to a place we don t know at all and lets us in . . . he seems incapable of writing a dull sentence, and in him the scholar, the linguist and the storyteller swap hats with marvelous speed.” —Jason Goodwin, The New York Times Book Review
Meet the Author
Tim Mackintosh-Smith has lived in Yemen since 1982, earning the official title of Shaykh of Nazarenes. This, his first book, won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
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