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H 5- 

i - 1 


Stranger in the Forest: 
On Foot across Borneo 




Eric Hansen 


Author s Note 

The names of certain people in Yemen have been changed in order 
to protect those who helped me. They put their careers at risk, 
and I regret not being able to thank them here, because without 
their assistance this book could not have been written. In order to 
protect the privacy of several mountain villages, I have taken the 
precaution of moving their locations and altering their names as 
well. I have also changed the names of my shipmates in 1978. 
Finally, because the events in this book span nearly twelve years, I 
have either condensed or deleted many situations for the sake of 


author's note / vi 


1 The Joys of Yachting / i 

2 Le Grand Pique-nique / 17 

3 A Palace for Mr. Buona Notte / 

4 Going Home / 47 

5 A Sackful of Locusts t 6z 

6 Motoring with Mohammed / 70 

7 New Customer Welcome / 88 

8 Najiba / 97 

9 The Experts / 105 

10 She Is Very Tired / rzS 

11 Dessert in the Desert I 144 
12, The School Project / 154 

13 One Mind, One Heart / 162 

14 The Cafeteria of Hope / T69 

15 Like Ants We Wander / 192 

16 The Bathhouse / 207 

17 I Was Not Written / 213 
M It Was Written / zz 7 

MAPS / 2,37 

Invitation to a Voyage 

The room where I work in Manhattan overlooks Central Park. I 
grow tomatoes and basil on the windowsill to remind me of the 
ground far below. There is a sea gull that comes to my window 
most mornings, and I have trained it to dive for pieces of bread. 
The bird can fold its wings and drop fifteen floors to grab the 
morsels. He seidom misses. The sea gull then rides the air cur- 
rents to regain altitude, sometimes circling as far as the green- 
and-gold rooftop of the Carlyle Hotel before once again soaring 
past my window, ready for the next piece. He is perched on the 
sill now, pecking at the glass, but I think I will let him wait 

J haven't always worked in this room with its view of both the 
Hudson and the East River, Between 1971 and 1978 I traveled 
through North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the South Pacific, 
and Australia. It was a different life. I worked in places like 
Mother Teresa's Home for the Destitute Dying in Calcutta, as 
well as in a bakery at the edge of the Sinai Desert where on Fri- 
day nights 1 stood at a table until dawn braiding thousands of 
loaves of challah for Shabbat, the holy day. I supported myself 
by smuggling Chinese erasers from Tibet to North India and 


Revlon lipstick and false eyelashes to Rangoon (far more excit- 
ing and profitable than it sounds). One night at a waterfront bar 
in Tahiti I saw an Italian seaman stabbed to death with a broken 
beer bottle. A year later I was drinking hot rakshi for breakfast 
with Tibetan Buddhist monks who lived in a remote monastery 
surrounded by rhododendron forest and three glaciers. The place 
is called Kyimolung, the Valley of Happiness. It is a two-week 
walk from the nearest road and accessible only by a rickety log 
footbridge that spans a gorge seventy-five feet wide and nine 
hundred feet deep. There was a summer night in the south of 
India when I sat on the balcony of my hotel room and smelled 
the delicious fragrance of a flowering shrub called raat kee rani, 
the Night Queen* Pony carts, with their bells ringing, moved 
through the darkened laneways, and bats wheeled overhead 
against the night sky. I once lived with the sultan*s drummer in 
the Maldive islands where a pretty village girl taught me the local 
language by day — and returned after dark. 

For seven years I wrote about these people and places in my 
travel diaries. In addition to observations on everyday life, the 
notebooks contain a collection of short stories > hand-drawn 
maps to remote Afghan villages near the Russian border, pencil 
sketches, and recipes for things like the sticky rice flavored with 
coconut cream and steamed in sections of green bamboo that I 
ate while floating down the Mekong River past soldiers of the 
Khmer Rouge* Another recipe explains the procedure for making 
yak blood sausages by stuffing garlic, salt, and eornmea! into the 
small intestine. The recipe begins with the Tibetan technique for 
killing a yak (thrust hand and forearm through small incision in 
chest and give aorta a good tug) and ends with how much butter 
to donate to the local monastery to compensate for the death of 
the animaL The tail, which is also donated to the monastery, is 
later sold to make Santa Claus whiskers in Europe and North 

In the notebooks there are addresses from all over the world, 
old love letters, and a large collection of paper labels and pressed 
flowers. The language sections include lists of words and phrases 
in Greek, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Nepalese, Thai, Malay, and 

Invitation to a Voyage / xi 

Divehi (the language of the Maldives). There are directions to a 
riverside flower market in Bangkok and to a nightclub where a 
female entertainer puffs the customers' cigarettes in a most un- 
conventional manner* Simple instructions explain how to test the 
purity of gold and, on a more practical note, how to subdue a 
camel by sitting on its head, I noted the daily rental rates for ele- 
phants in Bangladesh, as wel! as the address of a shop in Madu- 
rai that sells the best cassette tapes of Kari Kuri Arinatchulam, 
the celebrated South Indian nageswaram (clarinet) player 

Thumbing through the journals this morning, I found myself 
walking in the mountains of the Malay Peninsula searching for 
the giant scarab beetle Oryctes rhinoceros. In a different section 
I am on board a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 
trying to persuade a young woman to come down from the hand- 
rail where she is standing at z a.m. with a drink in her hand, 
telling me there is nothing to worry about because she was once 
a gymnast. 

The spine of the notebook where 1 found these last two stories 
is broken, and the cover is coming to pieces. The pages are brittle 
and the writing faded. But this is not surprising, considering that 
the book, and several more like it, was buried for more than ten 
years* I have only just retrieved them* I now keep the journals on 
a bookshelf, wrapped in a faded purple Dacron bag. The bag has 
its own story. It came from a yacht that disappeared while sailing 
in the Red Sea. On the night of February z, 1978, the sailboat 
was shipwrecked on a desert island twenty miles off the coast of 
North Yemen, In the darkness five people were washed ashore, I 
was one of them. 

Just before our rescue two weeks later, I buried some of my 
belongings in the sand flats near our camp, thinking that 1 would 
return within a few days to dig them up. Among the buried items 
were my travel journals from years of wandering. 

Until fairly recently I used to look out of my window in New 
York City and try to remember some of the stories I had lost. 
Listening to the muted sounds of jackhammers and sirens echo- 
mg up from the grid of concrete canyons, 1 would think about 
m y °W journals. I started thinking about the journals so often 


that one day I decided to go in search of them. The chances of 
success seemed remote, and friends clearly thought me a fool to 
make such an absurd journey. But in the end the lure of those lost 
pages and the dimly remembered experiences they chronicled 
drew me back to Yemen. Part of my desire to return was purely 
sentimental, but I also felt that the journals held significant mo- 
ments to be relived — scenes from a past life. I wanted to find 
out who I was as a young man and to remember how my journey 
of seven years finally came to an end. At least, that was the orig- 
inal plan. 

Sorting through old memories for facts is a very hazardous 
thing indeed. Many of the events from that time still confuse me, 
and so before describing my return journeys to Yemen, I think ir 
best to explain the shipwreck and how I came to lose the journals 
in the first place. 

The sea gull is still tapping at the window. Ir is time for his 
breakfast, and I suppose I shouldn't keep him waiting any longer. 
He leaps clear of the ledge and I throw the stale crust. As it falls, 
the bread turns over and over in the air, buffeted by the updrafts. 
The bird hovers for a moment } then dives. Forty-one floors 
above the street, he plummets through space without hesitation. 
Watching him, I once again remember what it was like to let go 
completely, to abandon all caution and feel the freedom of float- 
ing in the world. 

Eric Hansen 
New York City y 1990 

The Joys of Yachting 

1 had never considered visiting North Yemen* I arrived 
quite by accident while sailing with four others from the Mal- 
dives to Athens by way of the Red Sea. The little I had heard 
about Yemen convinced me that it was a place I didn't want to 
visit, although the rumors were tempting enough. There were 
stories that the entire male population was hopelessly addicted 
to a narcotic leaf called qat, that the men wore skirts, and that 
during public circumcisions rhe foreskin was thrown into the 
crowd, where people rolled on it as a sign of joy, If this was how 
friends and family members fared, I wondered, what would hap- 
pen to people the Yemenis didn't like? Intertribal warfare had 
been going on for 1500 years, and child brides were sold for 
twenty times the average yearly income. Alcohol was prohibited, 
and before having intercourse husbands were known to mutter 
"Bismillah" (In the name of God). It didn't sound like my kind of 

Ellen, the American woman who owned the yacht, didn't 
know how to sail, but that hadn't kept her from acting on the 
middle-class fantasy of buying a sailboat and embarking on an 
ocean cruise. I admired her courage. Many dream of making 
such a journey, but few act. Clea was the name of her beautiful 


sailboat. With a cutter rig, an eight-foot bowsprit, teak decks, 
oak ribs, and a varnished cedar interior, she was a classic exam- 
ple of the ideal small cruising yacht of the 1930s and 1940s. The 
yacht measured forty- two feet overall, thirty-one feet at the 
waterline, and with a ten-foot beam and a six-foot draft she was 
slow, sturdy, and comfortable. She had an easy, gentle motion 
under sail, and a speed that rarely exceeded five knots. 

Accompanying Ellen was her penniless twenty-seven-year-old 
lover, Robert, who liked to be called Captain Jones, The yacht's 
crew consisted of Georgik and Suzanne, a young French couple 
from the neighborhood of Montmartre, Georgik was an unem- 
ployed leatherworker, and Suzanne at twenty -one had only just 
left her family house to come on the big adventure. Neither of 
them knew how to sail. Before joining the crew I had spent six 
months smuggling dried bonito, a common ingredient in Asian 
cooking, from the Maldives to Sri Lanka. Years earlier 1 had 
worked as a cook and deckhand on a prawn trawler off the north 
coast of Australia* Considering our backgrounds, there seemed 
little chance of having the sort of sailing idyll one reads about in 
yachting magazines. Even before we raised anchor, extraordi- 
nary events seemed inevitable. 

We left Fur ana lagoon in the Maldives shortly after eight on 
the morning of December 29, 1977* Several events stand out 
from the nineteen days it took to cross the Indian Ocean. On the 
tenth night, as we sailed south of the Persian Gulf, yellow-green 
patches of eerie, glowing sea light became visible. Ten to twenty 
feet in diameter, these patches looked like giant amoebas. They 
pulsated, stretched, and contracted in slow, irregular motions. At 
first we assumed they were dense clusters of plankton, but up 
close there were no telltale dots of light. Our curiosity was 
aroused, and when we sighted a large patch ahead, we decided to 
alter course to sail through the thing. The yacht moved into the 
big green blob, and as the hull passed through its center I won- 
dered if the substance would stick to the sides of the boat. It 
didn't, but as I looked astern I noticed that the biob had been 
neatly cut in two. A large black gap, the exact width of the hull, 
divided the two halves. Yet within moments two thin tendrils of 

The Joys of Yachting i 3 

watery light reached out, joined each other, and rapidly in- 
creased in thickness. In amoeba-like fashion, the thing pulled it- 
self back together in a fluid motion that left the green pool of 
light intact, with no sign that it had been disturbed. I was re- 
lieved that it didn't start following us* We continued to see the 
patches of light in the sea for several nights, but we never again 
attempted to sail through them. 

Two days later we encountered the disappearing wave. 1 was 
in the habit of climbing the mast to the second set of spreaders, 
where I could sit quietly and enjoy near-perfect solitude. From 
that vantage point the ocean seemed circular, as well as much 
larger. I felt detached from the boat as I watched it moving 
through the pristine blue water. The hull churned a wake, but the 
frothy trail soon settled, and not a mark was left on the gentle 
ocean swells. 

One day while I was sitting on the spreaders, thirty feet above 
the water, I noticed an unusual wave approaching the boat. Al- 
though it was difficult to judge from a distance, the wave ap- 
peared to be a hundred yards wide but no more than four to five 
feet high. The strangest thing about it was its habit of rising up 
out of the sea and then vanishing for several seconds before reap- 
pearing. It didn't have the motion of a normal wave. I could not 
understand what I was looking at, so I yelled down to those on 
deck and pointed in the direction of the wave. We all fell silent, 
but as it drew closer, flying fish began to appear in great num- 
bers. They filled the air and in their panic flew haphazardly in all 
directions, pursued by thousands of sleek, midnight blue, bullet- 
shaped bonito, which leapt two feet out of the water and caught 
them in midair. The surface of the sea exploded with fish, and as 
the frenzy of flight and feeding increased, I looked up to check 
on the mysterious wave. To my astonishment, it had become 
transformed into a line of dolphins leaping in unison, I found 
this spectacle even more mesmerizing than the frantic fish sur- 
rounding the boat. I estimated that there were more than 150 
dolphins, but it wasn't the numbers that impressed me. 1 was en- 
chanted by the sight of these wild creatures leaping out of the 
water with such precision. The dolphins, the entire one hundred 


yards of them, rose out of the water, leapt to exactly the same 
height, and re-entered the water simultaneously. After a few mo- 
ments they again broke through the surface of the ocean and re- 
peated their maneuver in perfect synchronization. The behavior 
of the bonito and the dolphins seemed to be linked, and I as- 
sumed I was witnessing an oceanic joint venture for food. 

During the commotion, someone on deck had the presence of 
mind to throw a baited hook overboard, and less than twenty 
feet from the boat the fish took the bait. I climbed down from the 
mast as it was brought aboard* 

"Grab him by the eyes — it will immobilize him!" yelled Cap- 
tain Jones, the vegetarian. 

It was a dorado, a shimmering, electric, yellow-green water 
jewel. With the hook through the side of its mouth, it thumped 
across the wet teak deck* Its sides were so outrageously opales- 
cent and liquid that I thought the color might come off on my 
fingers. Stepping forward to demonstrate a quick and compas- 
sionate death. Captain Jones immobilized the two-and-one-half- 
foot-long fish with his bare foot and, in one easy motion, stuck a 
knife into the dorado's right eye. 

Ouch! I said to myself, wincing. 

"Just like pithing a frog's brain/* the captain explained* The 
fish continued to flap on deck. "It'll stop soon — those are just 
the reflexes," he added. But the beautiful fish refused to die* 

Flap . . . flap, flap. 

Wrong eye? I wondered. During twelve months at sea as a 
professional fisherman I had never seen this trick, and so I 
watched with interest as the captain, with mounting impatience^ 
shoved the knife in and out of the dorado's left eye socket, prob- 
ing for the brain. The fishing lesson had somehow become mud- 
dled in this display of male pride and lost skills. 

"That's got him!" the captain finally exclaimed, folding the 
blade into its handle. 

. . . flap * . * flap, flap . . . 

The fish was placed head first into a bucket, where I found it a 
short while later, blinded, mutilated, but, incredibly, still alive. 

The Joys of Yachting I 5 

When no one was watching, I grabbed it by the tail and quickly 
smacked its head against the hull of the sailboat. No finesse, cer- 
tainly, but an effective end to the poor creature's struggle, I put 
the dead fish back into the bucket and went below deck, where I 
climbed into my bunk in the main cabin to read Thesiger's Ara- 
bian Sands and reflect on compassionate vegetarian killers. 

That night 1 again climbed the mast. The sails were barely vis- 
ible, and I was exhilarated by the rocking, lurching, swaying mo- 
rion, which was exaggerated up in the rigging. Standing on the 
spreaders with one hand on the mast and the other on the 
shrouds, 1 was enclosed by the big ghostly sails. The hull gurgled 
through the water, and a series of vibrations traveled up the mast 
ro mingle with the deep humming bass notes from the rigging 
under tension. These vibrations passed through my body and 
created the illusion that I had climbed into a Large stringed in- 
strument that was being played by the wind and waves. It was a 
sensation that I rarely experienced on deck. Galaxies in the 
night sky . . . galaxies in the ocean. Shooting stars burned their 
brief paths across the heavens, and sparkling phosphorescence 
blinked and bubbled in our wake far below. Up in the rigging, I 
felt as if I were free from gravity, and ready to be carried on the 

By the morning of February 1, 1978, a steady five-knot wind 
from the east was carrying us toward Bab al-Mandab, the Strait 
of Lamentations. We passed Perim Island and sailed north into 
the Red Sea, The wind freshened, and by late afternoon we were 
sailing under a triple- reefed main and storm staysail. We ate a 
hurried meal of rice and fresh fish before preparing the boat for 
rough weather, I noticed an uneasiness to the flight of the birds. 
The seas became more unsettled > the sun disappeared, and we 
sailed into the darkness. 

The wind increased, and by midnight we were having difficul- 
ues, Suzanne and Ellen were extremely seasick, and Georgik was 
ln capacitated by saltwater boils on his bottom. We were afraid 
Suzanne might fall overboard while vomiting, so we put her into 
°ne of the twin bunks in the main cabin with a plastic bucket 


alongside. The scene below deck was one of utter chaos. Because 
of the movement of the boat, dozens of bananas had parted com- 
pany with their stalk, which dangled from a coat hook. The be- 
low-deck activity of stowing wet sails and fastening the hatches 
had spread the bananas from one end of the boat to the other. 
Blackened skins and mashed pulp were plastered to the counter- 
tops, floors, heater grate, and engine cover. With the hatches 
closed there was insufficient ventilation, and the stench of vomit, 
mildewing towels, bilge water, and overripe bananas was diffi- 
cult to stomach in such rough weather. 

When we finally finished readying the ship for the storm, I 
climbed into my bunk opposite Suzanne's, but the maddening 
commotion of unseen tin cans, tools, teacups, cooking utensils, 
and other, unidentified objects kept me awake and irritated, 
Metal pots clattered in the sink, and a stack of enameled dinner 
plates thudded against the inside of a cabinet. I finally fell asleep 
to the sound of Suzanne sobbing in her bunk. Georgik, covered 
by wet sails, groaned to himself in the forepeak. 

At around one-thirty in the morning I was awakened by a ter- 
rific jolt, then heard a powerful whooshing sound, followed by 
the splintering of wood* A blast of wind filled the cabin, and sud- 
denly I was submerged beneath a torrent that pinned me to my 
bunk. I was sure we had capsized. Instead, a wave had slammed 
the boat and washed across the deck. Its force had wrenched 
open the main cabin skylight and emptied what felt like the 
equivalent of five bathtubs full of cold sea water on top of me. 
When the powerful cascade subsided, I sat up in the dark, cough- 
ing and terrified. Miraculously, Suzanne had not been touched by 
the water, but her bucket was gone and its contents were every- 
where. The floorboards were floating, and 1 was up to my ankles 
in water. In darkness, I stood on my bunk to secure the skylight 
before going to get help. 

Georgik and Ellen came on deck to take the helm as Robert 
made his way below deck to help get the engine and pump work- 
ing. The boat lurched and rolled violently in the confused seas. 
As we hand-cranked the engine to life, the empty banana stalk 

The Joys of Yachting I 7 

beat crazily against the walls of the cabin, Robert went to check 
the intake hose to the pump in the aft cabin while I knelt down 
in the sloshing bilge water to manipulate the pump. The engine 
had been installed as an afterthought, and to keep the pump en- 
gaged you had to crouch near the running engine with one hand 
on a control lever. In near darkness, I remained in this position 
as the flywheel of the engine began to throw a warm, steady 
spray of sump oil, diesel fuel, vomit, banana pulp, sea water, and 
dead cockroaches into my face. I couldn't leave the pump handle 
unattended or avoid the spray, and hoped only that 1 wouldn't 
get wound up in the generator belt or pass out from the nauseat- 
ing smell. Heat and fumes from the engine added co the discom- 
fort. The boat lurched unexpectedly, and I was thrown against 
the cabin wall. When the boat completed the roll, I flew back 
against the engine and cracked my head solidly on the valve 

"Puck you!" I screamed at the engine. Suzanne retched in her 
bunk, and I could see Captain Jones, illuminated by a weak bulb 
in the aft cabin, slumped over with his hands in the bilge. He 
looked dreadful, a ghostly shade of green. There was a moment 
of silence before he managed a brief response to my outburst. 

"The joys of yachting," he muttered. 

That alone nearly cured me of my seasickness. 

Twenty minutes later, when the bilge was empty and the floor- 
boards back in place, I began to feel better. I surveyed the cabin 
with a flashlight. Cooking utensils, books, wet clothes, and sail 
bags were strewn everywhere. The idea of sleep in such a place 
was clearly out of the question, so I climbed into a set of yellow 
foul* weather gear and on bare feet made my way through the 
small aft hatchway that led to fresh air, and the gathering storm. 

The first thing I noticed as I stepped into the cockpit was the 
powerful rush of wind. This invisible force buffeted my upper 
body from all sides so that I had to brace my feet and hold onto 
1 cockpit coaming for balance. I was suddenly made tense and 
alert by the change in the weather. The short choppy seas of early 
ev ening had grown into an expanse of heaving waves covered in 


a thick silvery foam. I watched as terrific gusts blew the crests of 
the waves into the air, creating a foamy layer of froth that settled 
uneasily onto the surrounding seas. The twin deck lights shone 
down from the spreaders and lit up the circle of wild waves that 
surrounded the little boat. 

As Ciea pitched and rolled her way into the storm, rain and 
salt spray pelted the deck. For a moment my sense of scale be- 
came distorted* The yacht shrank to the size of a plastic boat in 
a bathtub tempest, with the overhead nozzle showering down 
rain. This childhood memory of bathtub storms disappeared 
when I took my turn at the helm at 3 a.m. I had just settled my- 
self behind the wheel when the bow plunged into the heavy seas 
and a powerful jolt reverberated along the entire length of the 
boat. Moments later a horizontal blast of stinging salt and foam 
hit me full in the face^ filling my eyes and nose with water. I 
blinked to clear my vision, and the heavy smell of the sea clung 
to my cheeks and Hps. Suzanne was too sick to share our watch, 
and Robert, exhausted by caking both his own and Ellen's watch, 
had gone below deck to wedge himself into a bunk and hope for 
sleep as the waves hammered the hull and decks. Georgik was 
not due to come on deck until daybreak, so I sat alone at the 
wheel and watched with growing anxiety as the seas became 

Several hours earlier the decision had been made to abandon 
our intended course. We changed our heading from northwest to 
north, and ran downwind with the storm. 1 could feel the uneasy 
motions of the boat as it moved through the heavy seas, but I 
realized there was little I could do to improve our situation. After 
fastening my safety harness to the steering post, I braced my bare 
feet against the sides of the cockpit and went for a wild ride, the 
sea thundering beneath the keel and sweeping over the deck. My 
hands grasped the wooden spokes of the wheel to steer, but the 
continual strain on my arms was such that I found it necessary 
to support my elbows with my knees. 

Exhilaration turned to terror when Ciea began to surf down 
the face of twenty- foot breaking waves* I took the waves at a 

The Joys of Yachting I 9 

slight angle to avoid burying the bow and pitchpoling the boat. 
Pitchpoling is the nautical equivalent of a somersault — a ma- 
neuver I was not keen on learning in a forty-two-foot sailboat in 
the middle of the night. 

Peaked waves passed beneath the boat and flung the stern into 
the air with so much force that I became weightless as I was lifted 
out of my seat and into a half-standing position, I had never been 
in a situation like this, and I found the combination of lack of 
control and lack of experience to be completely unnerving. Later, 
when I eventually got the feel of the seas, I regained my sense of 
security, switched off the deck lights, and sailed in near darkness, 
A yellow glow from the gimballed compass binnacle illuminated 
the cockpit* but I could see little else* 

By 4 a.m, the regular pattern of cross swells was apparent, and 
from the confusion of gusts that encircled the boat I had learned 
to sense the direction of the prevailing winds. Earlier 1 found it 
necessary to check the compass constantly to stay on course, but 
with practice I discovered that I could steer by the feel of the 
wind on my face. Later, when I found it possible to sail with my 
eyes closed, 1 knew my fear had passed. Without sight 1 became 
more aware of the sounds. The rigging hummed a distinctive 
whistling tune under high tension, and the seas emitted a throaty 
roar that no longer seemed threatening. Warm and dry beneath 
my foul -weather gear, I listened to the heavy Dacron staysail as 
it jibed erratically, wrenching itself from port to starboard with a 
powerful popping and fluttering, 

Then a new sound caught my attention. Something had splin- 
tered and snapped on the foredeck. Pieces of wood flew by me 
and disappeared in the darkness. I switched on the deck lights 
and could see that one of the port-side lifeline stanchions had 
been ripped out of the deck. It must have become entangled in 
the staysail sheet and been sheared off when the wind grabbed 
the sail and threw it to starboard. I couldn't leave the wheel, and 
there was nothing to do but let the stanchion beat itself on the 
e ck until Georgik came to relieve me at dawn. 

The stars became visible for brief moments, but in my exhaus- 


tion the night sky appeared to have gone mad. I had become so 
familiar with the heaving motion of the sea that the boat felt 
nearly stationary as the stars raced crazily from one horizon to 
the other The first time I witnessed this phenomenon I watched 
dumbly, unable to understand why the stars had come loose 
from the sky and were reeling in huge, perfect arcs. It was almost 
with relief that I discovered it was my mind and not the heavens 
that had come unstuck* 

Out of this fantastic sky a sea bird appeared. As it drew near, 
it rucked its wings and angled at the boat in a steep dive. Clearly, 
it could not survive the beating in the air for much longer, and 
the chance arrival of Clea meant the possibility of safety. Jostled 
by the winds, it missed the deck and was thrown upward into the 
blackness by a powerful gust. The exhausted bird reappeared 
moments later, somersaulting through the air from left to 
right in a second dive. The high winds and the uncertain move- 
ments of the boat made the deck a difficult target, and the bird 
flashed by as a torrent of wind-blown spray filled the air. When 
my eyes had cleared, it was gone. Moments later a black-and- 
white feathered blur crash-landed in the cockpit with a loud 

The bird lay on its side near the aft hatch for so long that I 
thought it had broken its neck, but eventually it stood up, 
hopped onto the seat, and waddled over to where I sat* 1 was 
delighted at this surprise arrival, and also heartened by the pros- 
pect of having a companion for the night. 1 made no attempt to 
approach the bird. I didn't want it to become alarmed and fly 
away. In the face of the storm we shared a common fate- It 
seemed friendly and trusting, and had the slightly comical habit 
of holding its wings at right angles to its body in a peculiar 
spread-wing posture. It watched the churning seas with no ap- 
parent interest while I began to feel protective. 

As we sailed on I began to think of what it would be like to 
touch the bird, to run my hand along its back and smooth the 
feathers with my fingers. Would it make a move away from me, 
or would it come closer for comfort? I felt such affinity with the 

The Joys of Yachting / 1 1 

little creature that I carefully reached out to consummate the 
friendship- The bird didn't budge until my fingers were about 
nine inches away. Then it emitted a low, guttural croak and at- 
tacked, I received a rain of pecks to the back of my hand that 
were so sudden and so vicious that by the time I managed to jerk 
m y hand away, the attack was over. 

Embarrassed and mortified by the bird's reaction, I felt my 
heart race from fright as I looked at the broken skin over my 
knuckles, where the blood welled up briefly before being washed 
away in the spray- filled air. The salt stung my wounds, and I was 
humiliated by my stupidity. My first instinct was to wring the 
bird's neck and heave it overboard, but even in my state of shock 
I realized that the incident was my fault. What wild bird would 
trust a human being under any circumstances? This one had been 
attracted by the safety of the boat, not by my companionship. 
Having established its territory, it didn't move from its spot on 
the cockpit seat, and I made no further attempts to touch the 

The gray sky lifted to reveal a quietening sea littered with sar- 
gasso weed; yet there remained a lingering sense of excitement 
from having driven through the tempestuous night seas* The 
wind was still gusting, but the breaking waves had vanished, 
leaving behind deep, smooth troughs between the ten- foot 
swells. The storm had passed, and I felt a sense of exhilaration 
born from our lucky survival as we were carried gently over the 
wave crests and down into the deep hollows in a series of easy 
fluid motions. 

By the time Georgik came on deck to take the wheel at six, the 
bird had disappeared. Georgik clipped his harness to one of the 
two parallel lifelines that ran the length of the boat, and I went 
forward to secure the broken stanchion, which now rested on the 
deck. Returning to the cockpit, I sorted through our meager se- 
lection of cassettes and came up with two possibilities: Strauss 
and Ravel. 

Georgik, my friend, a waltz or Tavane for a Dead Princess' 
t0 cor nniemorate the passing of the tempest?" 


"A waltz, please," he replied. 

The opening passage of the Vienna Philharmonic's playing of 
the "Blue Danube" filled the cockpit. We sat in silence, absorbed 
by the sound of the music and the spectacle of the powerful seas. 
The lifting and falling motion of the boat seemed to go well with 
the music, and we played the piece several times before shutting 
off the rape player. 1 went below deck and after a brief search 
located the teakettle in the jumble of pots. With great difficulty, I 
managed to boil water and mix enough powdered milk for two 
cups of caf£ au lait spiced with cardamom. The foam was blown 
off the cups the moment I came on deck, but 1 knew Georgik 
would be delighted with my surprise. He took a sip, and smiled 
to himself as we fell silent to watch the sea change colors in the 
gathering light. 

Dawn at sea was a miracle that happened every day. I had vol- 
unteered for the three- to-sbc watch in order to see the sun rise. 
Georgik shared my feelings. The transformation from night to 
day: there is no other sight that captures so well the feelings of 
birth, renewal, and hope. 

We had been blown off course during the night, and in the 
early light we could see how dangerously close we had come to 
the coast. From less than two miles offshore we caught our first 
sight of North Yemen, A whitewashed, beehive-shaped structure 
stood by itself above a long yellow sand beach. The beach sepa- 
rated the blue-green seas from the gray sky, and a diffuse light 
filtered down from above. A light wind protected us from the 
heat that we could see radiating from the sand* No human fig- 
ures were visible, no vegetation, only flat, featureless land. 

We picked our way through the maze of light green shoals and 
coral patches, sailing up the west coast of Kamaran Island before 
altering course for Uqban Island, which lay fifteen miles farther 
out to sea. By three o'clock in the afternoon we had entered the 
lagoon of Uqban, where we intended to repair rhe damage to 
the boat and rest for the night. The anchor splashed through the 
glassy surface, and 150 feet of half-inch galvanized chain clat- 
tered over the bow before disappearing into the deep blue water. 
The boat drifted backward with the momentum, the anchor 

The Joys of Yachting I 13 

grabbed in five fathoms of water, and we swung to in the lee of a 
small, rocky island, There was a quick cleanup below deck and 
then a dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches and a salad of shred- 
ded cabbage, grated carrots, and vinaigrette, followed by a bottle 
and a half of Johnny Walker Scotch. The sun set during dinner, 
leaving the boat riding gently at anchor in the darkened lagoon. 

The alcohol and the relief from the anxiety of the previous 
twenty-four hours rook effect, and soon the two couples climbed 
beneath their blankets and into each other's arms. I lay on my 
bunk in the main cabin and dropped into oblivion to the sounds 
escaping from the fore and aft cabins: "Mon petit ... oh oui, 
oui, mon petit" from the forepeak, and "Oh God . . . yes s yes . . . 
my God ... oh my God!" from the captain's quarters. The eve- 
ning supplications eventually subsided, and the interior of the 
boat fell quiet. We slept. 

Outside, a light breeze rippled the surface of the water. Clouds 
built up over the sea, and the wind began to grow in strength. 
Ocean swells flowed over the reef, moved across the surface of 
the lagoon, and started to play with the boat. With each succes- 
sive wave the bow raised and lowered, gently at first, until the 
movement of the seas grew more pronounced. I had not let out 
enough chain for rough weather, and some time after midnight 
the anchor lost its grip on the sand-and- broken-coral bottom, a 
mere thirty feet beneath the keel. In the darkness the boat turned 
sideways to the wind and moved into deeper water. 

At one o'clock in the morning a steady breeze blew across the 
deck. The main cabin was filled with cool air, A boat normally 
turns to face the wind or waves when at anchor, but the wind 
continued to blow steadily across the deck. The breeze woke me 
up. With my eyes still closed, I noted the direction of the air and 
waited for the bow to come into the wind. Half a minute passed 
with no change, and I realized something was wrong. Fully 
awake, I sat up and waited for a few more seconds to be sure. 
Then I pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and went on deck. 
I couldn't see a thing beyond twenty feet. In a state of confusion, 
• Probed into the cockpit to check the compass heading. We 
Were facing west, the anchor chain was at right angles to our port 


side, and the wind was from the south. I put a lead line over the 
side to check the depth and discovered that we were in nine fath- 
oms of water, These facts left little doubt as to our predicament. 
We were drifting blindly across the lagoon, with little chance of 
reaching open water to face the approaching storm. The en- 
trance to the lagoon was less than a hundred yards wide — easily 
negotiable by day, but impossible to get through in the dark with 
a heavy sea running. We were trapped. 

I woke up Captain Jones, and soon the rest of the crew came 
on deck. Georgik and I let out the second bow anchor and sev- 
eral hundred feet of chain, but the boat continued to drift. We 
started the motor, but ten horsepower was not nearly enough to 
make way against the waves that continued to push us toward 
the unseen line of breakers. The hollow, thundering sound of the 
surf grew louder and soon drowned out the puny engine* As we 
waited in vain for the anchors to take hold, 1 likened the experi- 
ence to rubber rafting a couple of hundred yards above Niagara 
Falls in the middle of the night without paddles. We quickly lost 
ground to the storm as Captain Jones kept muttering, "We're 
drifting . . . we're drifting . . 

The beach, now visible in the beam of our searchlight, ap- 
peared a hundred yards astern as we were driven closer to it by 
the wind and waves. The result seemed inevitable. I couldn't un- 
derstand why the anchors weren't holding. One hundred yards 
decreased to seventy-five, then fifty, and finally the stern was 
nearly even with the crests of the breaking waves that swept onto 
the beach. The helpless terror and anxiety we felt in the previous 
night's storm had returned. We waited for the first impact, but 
then a miraculous thing happened: the anchors grabbed, and we 
came to an abrupt halt no more than thirty yards from the beach, 
with the surf only a few yards astern. 

"That'll hold!" Captain Jones exclaimed, as if his statement 
had something to do with the event. Then, for reasons that 1 have 
never understood, he shut down the engine, as if we had just tied 
up at the St* Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco and were pre- 
paring to step onto the jetty and catch a cab into town for dinner. 

The Joys of Yachting I 15 

Vfith the engine running there was less strain on the anchors, and 
thus a greater chance that we could keep the boat off the beach. 
Stunned by the necessity to act, no one offered a word of protest. 

The anchors held for twenty minutes. There was little to say. 
Time passed, the surf thundered behind us, and we awaited the 
inevitable. When the bow finally lifted up high on a wave, 
the anchors let go for the last time. We drifted backward, and the 
boat came down with a tremendous jolt as the keel hit the beach. 

Not waiting for instructions, Georgik and I raced for the din- 
ghy, threw it overboard attached by a line, unshackled fifty feet 
of anchor chain, and fed it into the dinghy, along with two 
hundred feet of mooring line. Clea began to heel over slightly, 
and the breakers smacked her hull with such devastating power 
that we lost our footing on deck. Georgik cut the fifty -pound 
fisherman anchor loose from the stern and lowered it into the 
dinghy, I waited for a pause between the waves, then began to 
row into the lagoon. It was dark, and I rowed directly into the 
wind, keeping the glow of the deck lights dead astern as I made 
way slowly against the waves. The others braced themselves on 
deck as Georgik paid out the line. Two hundred feet offshore I 
threw the anchor and chain overboard. They disappeared with 
hardly a sound. By the time I returned to the boat, Georgik had 
winched the anchor line tight amidship in hopes of preventing 
Clea from being forced onto the beach any farther. I was soaked, 
but there was no sensation of co!d, or pain from my hands, 
where the skin had been rubbed raw by the rope and oars. 

But this last effort was useless. I watched the final scene. The 
anchor line parted with a loud crack! Clea rolled onto her side 
and was driven into the shallows. 

In the lee of the hull was a quiet patch of water where we spent 
the next forty-five minutes unloading the boat with the dinghy. 
We took ashore water, food, blankets, pillows, dry clothes, and 
Personal belongings that seemed important at the time: pass- 
ports, money, and a distress radio. I waded through the surf with 

e others, half hoping the boat would somehow slip back into 
ee P water. But it was much too late for miracles. We wandered 


into the wind-blown sand hills above the beach, where we 
wrapped ourselves up in a mess of blankets to wait for morning. 
My eyes, teeth, hair, and ears were filled with sand and dried sea 
salt as we nestled beneath a stiff green canvas tarp. The wind 
blew throughout the night. It was not until dawn that I could 
hear the cry of sea birds above the beach. 

My first glimpse from beneath the tarp was not encouraging. 
During the night the tide had receded, Clea was now hopelessly 
stranded above the shoreline. There was no denying the fact: we 
had definitely arrived in North Yemen, 

Le Grand Pique-nique 

Just after dawn we climbed from beneath the canvas tarp 
and wandered around the yacht. Uncertain of what to do next, 
we climbed aboard, but very little was said as we started to rum- 
mage through the cabins, which now lay tilted at a permanent 
forty-five-degree angle. We unloaded the obvious things first: 
more food and water, then the medicine, signal flares, matches, 
solar stills (for extracting fresh water from the sea), sleeping 
mats, more blankets, and a sail to protect us from the sun. We 
had unexpectedly been cast into exciting new roles, and no one 
seemed particularly concerned about being rescued immediately 
What were uninhabited desert islands made for, anyway? 

We set about practicing our new roles with the innocence of 
children. Struck as we were by the novelty and glamour of our 
situation, we seemed incapable of rational thought. I'm certain I 
was not alone in silently concocting stories to tell friends back 
home. We had been catapulted out of the present* and indulged 
ourselves in romantic daydreams of desert islands, shipwrecks, 
^n, women, and the adventure to come. We were hopelessly 
intoxicated by our expectations, 

We must have had some sense left, though, because we con tin- 


ued to unload the boat. Essential supplies were piled up on the 
beach, followed by the necessities of civilized man and woman: 
first, the four-burner stove and two full cooking-gas cylinders, 
then the pressure cooker (to conserve water and fuel), the ome- 
lette and crepe pans, mango chutney* pappadams, powdered pro- 
tein supplements, beer, popcorn, herbal teas, Band-Aids, Pills- 
bury cake mixes, Hershey chocolate bars, back issues of The 
New Yorker, and finally the sun tan lotion and beach towels. The 
last two items must have awakened some primal urges as well, 
because Suzanne and Georgik soon disappeared. 

I came on deck some, time later and found Robert and Ellen 
staring down the beach* I followed their gaze until my eyes came 
to rest on the trim, taut, naked bodies of Suzanne and Georgik, 
who lay flat on their backs with arms and legs spread to receive 
the sun's rays. Their skin glistened with a fresh coat of coconut 
oil. From a distance I could sense their feeling of absolute bliss. 

"Where do they think they are?" I blurted out. 

"I don't believe this," replied Ellen. "We are unloading emer- 
gency supplies while those fools are sunbathing." 

Robert found the right words, "Suzanne . . . Georgik!" he 
yelled out. "Pas le grand pique-nique! Arritez — venez ici!" 

The oiled figures glanced up from their towels and protested. 
The sun was coming out, they argued, and it would be a lovely 
morning to spend on the beach. Indeed, the curve of firm white 
sand set against the shallows of the turquoise lagoon looked in- 
viting, but I found myself calculating how much of our limited 
supply of water was going to evaporate from their naked bodies. 
At a quart each day, I figured, they would exhaust their entire 
ration of water in thirty days and have to start on ours. I was 
confused at their lack of common sense, but at this point no one 
was thinking very clearly. 

Georgik and Suzanne argued briefly about their right to sun- 
bathe, but in the end they returned to the boat to help transport 
the tremendous pile of supplies to our new camp, which lay two 
hundred yards farther down the beach. We formed an exotic- 
looking procession as we moved in single file along the edge of 

Le Grand Pique-nique t 19 

the water, where three-foot-long sharks moved silently through 
the shallows. As the gaps between us grew longer, it was easier 
to appreciate our selection of clothing. Georgik, a short, well- 
proportioned man with a gorgeous black moustache, wore a 
wide-brimmed straw hat and a pair of skimpy black underpants. 
Slender Suzanne, o 1 i ve-comp lexioned and radiant, was barefoot 
in a flowered sarong tied at the waist Bare-breasted, she carried 
a basket on her head* Captain Jones, our blond, lanky leader, 
wore a baggy pair of khaki trousers that looked like clown pants 
and a blue wash-and-wear shirt, frayed at the collar and button- 
less. Ellen, an attractive woman with fine features and curly 
brown hair, had selected a sensible pair of Levi jeans and a navy 
blue singlet. For the occasion, I chose a faded green-and-gold- 
striped rugby shirt splattered with blue paint, a plaid sarong, and 
a large green cotton dishtowel, which I wrapped around my 
head. We completed the move after eight leisurely trips up and 
down the beach. Then we rested. The stove was set up in the 
wind shadow of the eight-foot coral overhang, and Suzanne 
boiled water for tea. 

After we established camp, we took an inventory of supplies. 
We had food for at least forty-five days and water for thirty days, 
allowing one quart of water per person per day, as I had guessed. 
We soon discovered that the two brand-new solar stills that sup- 
posedly yielded two quarts of fresh water from sea water on a 
sunny day could in fact produce only half a cup of undrinkable 
brine each day. Likewise, the distress radio didn't work. We dug 
latrines and garbage pits, and established rules to conserve body 
moisture. No sunbathing or unnecessary walking in the sun 
without clothing was allowed. 

At the southern end of the island, about four and a half miles 
distant, an unmanned lighthouse was marked on the chart. We 
had seen its double flash of light at ten-second intervals the pre- 
vious evening. The next day, after breakfast, the men, armed 
with vise grips, a hacksaw, and a large hammer, marched south 
eneath a blazing sun. What we lost in body moisture was par- 
ly compensated for by our sense of self-importance. We were 


protecting the female of the species. This exploratory walk was a 
job for one, but none of the men wanted to be excluded from this 
heroic task. While we were out playing search party> the women 
were guarding the camp. With luck they might have lunch ready 
when we returned. It was astonishing how quickly we shed our 
"progressive" views and fell into traditional gender roles. 

Late that morning we arrived at the cylindrical, whitewashed 
lighthouse, which was at the edge of a raised coral plateau, about 
half a mile from the southern tip of the island. We sawed the 
padlock off the metal door and peered inside. The interior of the 
forty-foot-tall j five-foot-wide metal cylinder was dark, cool, and 
smelled of freshly poured concrete. We discovered a set of 
twelve-volt batteries connected to an automatic switch and 
wired to a solar panel atop the lighthouse, A quick glance at the 
wiring revealed that the light was activated when the sun set. 
During the night it was powered by the batteries, and at dawn it 
switched off and the batteries were recharged by the soiar panel. 
This was a simple and effective system that required little main- 

Looking at the chart of the area earlier, we had noticed that 
there were several coastal villages that might possibly see the 
glow from the lighthouse each night, so we decided to disconnect 
the light in order to attract attention. It seemed reasonable to 
expect that someone would notice the light was not working* I 
felt confident that the problem would be reported and that we 
would be picked up within two or three days* Meanwhile, we 
arranged to take turns going to the lighthouse each night to sig- 
nal any ships that might pass by, not just to attract attention but 
also to warn ships away from the nearby reefs. Everyone was 
satisfied with this plan, so we returned to share the news with the 
women back at camp. 

On the return journey we took a cursory look at the island. At 
the halfway point a narrow stretch of sand nearly divided the 
island into two parts. We surprised ten pelicans at the edge of a 
salty pond but saw no other life. I found myself wondering what 
pelicans taste like. Would they be too large to roast in our oven? 
Could I actually kill one of these beautiful birds? 

Le Grand Fique-nique / 21 

Robert broke into my food dreams. "Look! Sails — eight sails 
from the east!" he exclaimed. 

It was a beautiful sight: eight lateen sails bearing down on the 
island. Our elation at the prospect of being rescued quickly 
passed when Georgik voiced a fear we all felt: "What if they are 
not friendly?" 

We covered the remaining two miles over broken ground at a 
run and when we arrived at the beach camp twenty minutes 
later, we found Ellen and Suzanne standing at the edge of the 
water, looking at the sails nervously. The cluster of sails closed in 
on the island rapidly, and Robert, Ellen, and I went to meet them. 
Sailing in close formation, the eight dhows came right up to the 
edge of the northern beach, Each boat lowered a man over the 
side. These men waded to shore laden with rusted anchors, 
which they set into the beach above the high-water mark. There 
were about fifty black men aboard the dhows. The three of us 
stood on the beach, but no one gestured to us, and we felt in- 
creasingly vulnerable. I realized the importance of making 
friends quickly. 

The first men ashore were soon joined by others. Robert, El- 
len, and I walked toward them to exchange greetings, Ms- 
sataam aleikum , . , as-salaam aleikum" (Peace be with you), we 

"Wa aleikum as-salaam" (And upon you be peace), several 
men replied, 

We shook hands, distributed cigarettes, and smiled anxiously. 
Many of the men wore wristwatches around their biceps and 
striped boxer shorts on their heads. They didn't look too threat- 
ening, but we spoke almost no Arabic, and our uncertainty must 
have been evident. The men surrounded us, and within minutes 
Robert and Ellen had lost their nerve. 

^Don't let them know what our situation is," whispered Ellen. 

"I'm afraid that's una voidable," i said with a laugh. We had no 
other choice than to put ourselves at their mercy. 

Unexpectedly, and much to my alarm, Robert and Ellen an- 
nounced to me, and indirectly to the newcomers, that they were 
going back to camp. Too stunned to question or stop them, 1 


soon found myself alone on a beach ten thousand miles from 
home with fifty non-English-speaking African men and a pock- 
etbook Arabic-English dictionary. I hardly knew where to begin, 

"Amreekee," 1 said, pointing to myself. 

There was no response. 

I unrolled a chart of the area and put my finger on the holy city 
of Mecca. "Mecca . . . haj. Mecca quiess" (Mecca ... the pil- 
grimage. Mecca is good.) 

Still no response. The men continued to stare at me. 

Lively group, I thought. 1 thumbed through the dictionary and 
found the words for storm, boat, and broken. I then pointed to 
Clea, just visible a quarter of a mile away. 1 was trying to estab- 
lish some basis of understanding so that we might be seen as hu- 
man beings rather than foreigners or, even worse, privileged 
tourists, which is exactly what we were. 

The men spoke briefly as one of them reached for the 
dictionary. I couldn't tell what they were thinking, but then Suz- 
anne and Georgik arrived, Suzanne had dressed up for the occa- 
sion. She wore a gauzelike tie-dye blouse that was so transparent 
and revealing that each man's gaze, along with my own, shifted 
from the dictionary to her breasts. 

"Suzanne," I stuttered, 44 could you please go back to camp and 
get dressed?'* 

"Why?" she asked. Her tone suggested that I was trying to ex- 
clude her from the meeting. 

"Look, I can't explain now, but we don't know who these men 
are, and their idea of nudity is a bare arm." 

"Georgik will protect me." 

"With what, may I ask?" 

They considered this, and then, having gotten the message, 
left. The men watched Suzanne's nicely shaped bottom as she 
walked away. 

The man with the dictionary put his finger on a word and held 
it out for me to read. I saw his finger next to the word help* He 
then pointed in the direction of the boat. 

Help? Did they want to heip us with the boat? I was confused* 

Le Grand Fique-nique I 23 

but the blood rushed to my face and I laughed when I realized 
what the man was trying to tell me. They were offering to help, 
<<Quie$$" I sa ^' smiling. Everyone smiled, and we took turns 
with the dictionary, trying to tell stories. We had communicated. 

This was just the start, but I was very relieved. I remained cau- 
tious, however, and when I returned to camp I told the others 
what I had learned. The men on the dhows were from Eritrea, in 
Ethiopia. They seemed friendly, but despite their apparent good 
intentions, we decided to keep watch that night. 

Later in the afternoon, several Eritreans came to look at the 
boat and our camp. They admired the sturdy construction of the 
yacht, then indicated that they would help get it off the beach* 
Through gestures, they showed us that the beach dropped off 
steeply into the lagoon and that all that had to be done was to 
dig a narrow channel by hand and wait for the high tide. They 
were optimistic, but the boat weighed seven tons, and the success 
of this plan seemed a remote possibility. 

Surprisingly, Captain Jones was adamant about the Eritreans 
not touching Clea. When I asked why not, he told me it was none 
of my concern. I thanked the men for their offer and explained 
as best I could that the captain didn't want their help* They must 
have been offended and confused. They didn't understand. Nei- 
ther did I, but I had my suspicions. 

The only thing that seemed to keep Robert and Ellen together 
was the fact that although Ellen owned Clea, she didn't know 
how to sail. She needed Robert to operate the yacht, but there 
could be little doubt that they had grown tired of their sailing 
adventure, their relationship, and the financial burden of Clea, 
The shipwreck could not have been intentional, but it provided a 
convenient solution to their problems. All things considered, 1 
could hardly avoid the evil thought crossing my mind that their 
seeming reluctance to get Clea off the beach was, just maybe, 
being stimulated by the possibility of a favorable insurance set- 

had lived in Asia and the Middle East for seven years and 
thought more like an Asian than a Westerner, My companions 


had been away from home only a few months at most, which 
partially explained why our behavior and responses to events 
were so different. Perplexed by Georgik and Suzanne's seeming 
oblivion to our situation and Robert and Ellen's constant quar- 
reling, I felt myself detach from my shipmates and gravitate to- 
ward the men in the dhows, who waited patiently for the winds 
to blow from the east so they could return to their homes along 
the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, I visited these men every day and 
observed them closely during their six days on the island. 

One afternoon 1 brought a small parcel of palm sugar to them. 
As a young boy paddled me out to a dhow in a very unstable 
dugout canoe, I overbalanced and we capsized, much to the de- 
light of everyone watching* I managed to keep the sticky dark- 
brown jaggery from getting wet as I swam the rest of the way to 
the boat, 1 was handed a dry sarong, and as I changed out of my 
wet clothes, another man wrapped me in a blanket. I was sur- 
prised to see Panasonic and Sony tape players, as well as 
hundreds of tins of tomato paste from Italy, in the dhow. The 
men put on a tape of Afar music, which had a distinctive reggae 
sound created on homemade instruments and steel drums. Later 
I asked them where they were going, and they explained the Red 
Sea trade, using the dictionary and sign language to convey their 

One of the most ancient lines of supply to Eritrea has been 
across the Red Sea, and the goat and sheep trade with North 
Yemen and Saudi Arabia is still practiced. Although North 
Yemen officials collect a small gratuity to look the other way, 
they are sympathetic to their Moslem brothers from Africa. 
Small fleets of six to ten forty-foot dhows smuggle the animals to 
North Yemen and return with flour, fabric, rice, tinned tomato 
paste, tape recorders* and other consumer durables that are not 
available or are very expensive in Eritrea because of the ongoing 
civil war in Ethiopia, 

"You go to ail this trouble just to buy flour, dates, soup, 
and tape players?" I asked them, thumbing for words in the 

Le Grand Pique-nique I 25 

One of the men chuckled and then reached into a three-foot- 
long packing crate buried in a jumble of tinned peaches, He 
°ulled out a plastic bag, untied the top, and handed me a brand- 
new Kalashnikov. This was an AK-47, the Russian assault rifle. 
Capable of firing six hundred rounds in one minute, it is the fa- 
vorite weapon of the tribal people in Yemen and can be pur- 
chased nearly anywhere in the country. The rifle in my hands was 
still coated with a film of packing grease to protect it from the 
salt air. 

The men on the boats were from the northern Ethiopian prov- 
inces of Eritrea and Tigre, the centers of the secessionist move- 
ment opposed to the Marxist-Leninist government of President 
Mengistu Haile Mariam in Addis Ababa, As another man pulled 
back a tarp to reveal several similar wooden crates, I realized we 
were sitting on an arsenal of weapons destined for the guerrilla 
fighters. I was struck by a sobering thought. These rifles are 
highly accurate up to 440 yards; if the Eritreans had wanted to, 
they could have sat in their boats and fired into our camp. Need- 
less to say, I was grateful for the friendship I had established with 
these men. 

On our fifth day on the island, following a discussion with my 
shipmates, I tried to convince the Eritreans to take us to the 
mainland. They expressed a willingness to help, but because of 
their lack of water and their desire to see their families, they gra- 
ciously refused. Their return to Yemen would have been compli- 
cated by further bribes to the police and army; but more impor- 
tant, they could not risk being found with the weapons. With the 
unpredictable weather, it might take several more days before 
they got the right winds, They could take us to Eritrea, but not 
to Yemen. Having survived a storm only six days earlier, none of 
us was interested in crossing the Red Sea in one of their fragile 
°pen boats. 

The Eritreans had offered to get our boat off the beach, and 
we had refused. When they offered to take us to the African 
c °ast, no one wanted to go. These responses indicated to them 
that we were content to sit on the island and wait. It wasn't pos- 


sible to pick and choose favors with these people. Nor was it rea- 
sonable to expect them to understand our impatience, which is 
what we were suffering from. We had sufficient food and water. 
From their perspective, they were not abandoning us at alL They 
believed in fate, and were leaving us in the good hands of Allah. 
What was an extra week or month on this island to people who 
spent most of their lives waiting? 

When the Eritreans had gone, I gravitated toward Suzanne, 
whose creative, childlike attitude in the face of our predicament 
was refreshing. Like many French women, she knew what to do 
when confronted with food and a kitchen. It made little differ- 
ence that our kitchen was on the beach and had neither walls nor 
ceiling. To help create a sense of order, she introduced the ritual 
of afternoon tea. It was a way to mark the passing of time. 

We fluctuated between conserving our limited supplies and 
playing at being shipwrecked, and it was during one of these 
playful moments that Suzanne taught me how to make proper 
crepes* "The first one is always bad," she explained. "Throw it 
away. Not too much milk — it is better with water, to make a 
thin crepe." We made crepes au beurre sucri, au citron, and with 
orange marmalade and raspberry and apricot jam, 

Soon we moved on to other desserts. Suzanne taught me the 
secrets of tarte Tatin and pate sablee, and I showed her how to 
make cinnamon rolls and rum balls. For the rolls I used sea water 
rather than fresh water, and the results were fragrant, chewy, and 
delicious. What a delight to become lost in the pleasure of knead- 
ing dough, grinding up sticks of cinnamon and cardamom pods, 
and grating nutmeg. We rolled out the dough with an empty 
Johnny Walker bottle and combined the fillings, substituting jag- 
gery for regular brown sugar. After slicing the roll, we placed the 
spiral segments into a buttered army mess kit that was half round 
in shape and hinged on a pair of twelve-inch metal handles, I let 
the dough rise and then cooked the rolls on top of the stove for 
ten minutes on either side, They came out caramelized and much 
more delectable than those baked in an oven. 

Le Grand Pique-nique / 27 

Sea gulls marched up and down the beach in front of our camp 
at tea time, waiting for bits of crepes and cinnamon rolls. We 
didn't give this food away frivolously: our plan was to get the 
birds accustomed to taking food from us. 1 thought it likely we 
could catch a sea gull with a baited hook if the need arose. 

Flies, rats, and mosquitos started to arrive in greater numbers, 
and Ellen took to sleeping in the inflated rubber dinghy in order 
to keep the rats from getting tangled in her hair at night. During 
this time my sympathies began to go out to Georgik and Suz- 
anne, who seemed to be adjusting to life on the island with spirit 
and imagination. They were relaxed and easy to be with. 

As the only single person, 1 had much more time to myself than 
the others* I began to relish the solitude and took to exploring 
the island* Every day the sea would bring new gifts. I found a 
rare nautilus cowrie shell and started to observe the sea life along 
the coast more closely. One morning, before sunrise, I watched 
four giant manta rays that measured approximately twelve feet 
from fin tip to fin tip* They appeared to be feeding as they 
worked their way along the edge of the rocky shore at the base 
of the cliffs, far below me. Sleek fish flashed through schools of 
smaller silvery green fish, and green sea turtles were visible as 
they moved lazily through the clear water, I made my way down 
a rocky slope just south of the camp, surprising two pelicans 
preening on the beach* Startled by my sudden appearance, they 
flew off, and I continued on to where the beach ended at a natu- 
ral eight-foot-high overhang worn into the cliff by the waves. 
The walkway was exposed only at low tide. Its cool, damp shade 
beckoned me to explore further 

The floor of this passageway was smooth and still damp from 
the receding tide* Snails and limpets lined the nearby tidal pools; 
hermit crabs sunned themselves in clusters on the rocks. A cool 
breeze blew down this half-tunnel, and the shade extended out 
onto the turquoise water, where multicolored coral gardens were 
visible just below the surface. Beyond the line of shade, the sea 
azzled my eyes with pinpoints of sparkling brightness. Delicate 
a PPing sounds of wavelets on the smooth worn coral echoed in 


the passageway 3 and a thick atmosphere of evaporating sea water 
filled the sluggish air. 

Going farther, I came into the sunlight for a moment and then 
re-entered the pillarless arcade, where a mossy green carpet, cool 
beneath my bare feet, provided luxurious walking. Porous dark- 
purple rock contrasted with the wet green car pet , and the walls 
and ceiling were filled with odd bits of coral fragments and 
seashells, A sea hawk screeched at my approach, then flew to a 
more private vantage point* Darkened grottoes with immaculate 
inclined sand floors, still wet from the tide, appeared every fifty 
yards or so, and I ventured on in search of new sights and sensa- 
tions. I had discovered a hidden world that existed only at low 
tide. The place was perfect for barefoot walking, so my pace con- 
tinued to slow as I became more and more enchanted by the 
beauty of the sheltered shoreline. Chirping sand birds flashed 
away from their rocky perches; miniature red crabs, hiding in the 
shallow rock poois, brandished their tiny claws and stood poised 
for sideways flight. Offshore, a black shape cruised by just be- 
neath the surface of the biue-green water. I recognized the dis- 
tinctive winged shape of a tremendous manta ray, peacefully 
feeding thirty feet from where 1 stood. 

As I walked, the scattered clouds created unexpected color 
changes on the surface of the lagoon. The only sounds were of 
the wind, the tinkling waves, and my own breath. At one point 
the near silence was broken by the manta ray*s jumping into the 
air and landing flat on its back. It hit the water with a surpris- 
ingly loud smack before continuing its peaceful glide* I ambled 
on* Several more turns brought me to a small beach accessible 
only at low tide or from the sea. 1 stepped out onto the fine warm 
sand, into the sunlight. After pausing to allow my eyes to adjust 
to the light, I followed the high- water mark, looking through the 
debris for anything interesting. There were large cuttlefish bones, 
a light bulb (General Electric, 40 watt), an empty liquor bottle 
(without message), and sheets of translucent, yellow-brown tur- 
tle shell. I dipped a hand-sized piece into the shallows and then 
held it to the light to look at the rich blend of colors. 

Le Grand ?ique-nique I 29 

I had continued down the beach for no more than a few steps 
when suddenly I was jolted out of my reverie by the sight of fresh 
prints in the sand, I was instantly tense and alert. These were not 
human footprints but the unmistakable parallel tracks of a sea 
turtle. I followed them up the beach for about a hundred feet, 
where I found the nest. Crouching down, I carefully pulled back 
handfuls of sand to reveal the first Ping Pong ball-sized egg. 
There were more than one hundred altogether. I carefully re- 
moved a dozen, then re-covered the nest. Judging from the tex- 
ture and dampness of the sand, I knew the eggs had been laid the 
previous night, I was extremely relieved to discover that the is- 
land was not barren. It was offering us food, and I was thrilled 
by this realization, I tucked the precious eggs into the front of my 
sarong and returned to camp to share the news of my discovery. 

The response back at camp was typical of the polarization in 
our thinking. The Parisians were becoming more Parisian, 
and the Californians more Californian, Suzanne's response was 
u Omelettes! We can try making omelettes. Maybe with tinned 
jambon or cheese." Instinctively she was concocting delicious 
breakfasts for us in her mind as Georgik savored the imaginary 

Robert's response was equally predictable; "Don't you realize 
that green sea turtles are an endangered species?" 
1 was beginning to feel like an endangered species myself. 

The days passed. Late one afternoon the sky turned the sea from 
purple to blue-black. A southerly wind freshened, and to the 
west the horizon was illuminated by a progression of pastel pinks 
and reds. The sunset passed swiftly;, and the land became indis- 
tinguishable from the surrounding seas. As the island was lost in 
darkness, my attention was drawn upward to the emerging stars, 
which sprinkled the night sky and created a sense of immense 

We had taken turns coming to the lighthouse every night for 
r e P rev ious nine nights on the off chance that someone might 
come to check why the light had stopped flashing. With my back 


against the cold cement base, shielded from the wind, I waited 
with a loaded flare gun, a quartz halogen lamp, a box of red-and- 
white hand flares, and a Bic lighter. I paused to reflect on the 
insignificance of the little island and the frailty of its human in- 
habitants, but I had difficulty exploring these thoughts because I 
was excruciatingly uncomfortable sitting in the dark, trying to 
stay awake in case something happened. 

It was half an hour before midnight when I was startled by the 
red port light of a cargo ship, which suddenly appeared without 
warning from behind Kamaran Island. Changing course* it 
headed in my direction, toward the southern tip of Uqban Island, 
making way slowly and uncertainly because the lighthouse 
wasn't working* (To attract attention, I had disconnected the 
light before sunset.) When the ship was about three miles away, I 
pulled the trigger and a flare arched high into the darkness, ex- 
ploding with a brilliant red flash of burning phosphorous that 
slowly trailed to the ground. The stillness of the night had been 
shattered. I waited expectantly for a response. I flashed sos with 
the searchlight, then yacht aground, yacht aground. 
Even as I flashed the sequence of dots and dashes, I realized the 
minuscule chance of a helmsman in these waters understanding 
Morse code or English. 

Nothing happened for a few moments, but then the freighter 
appeared to slow down, as if waiting for a sign. The ship was 
dead abeam the island and moving very slowly. The green star- 
board light shone clearly, and I could just make out the silhouette 
of a person framed in the opened doorway of the wheelhouse. 
With less than a mile separating us, I could see the man looking 
in my direction. Using my lighter, I ignited a twenty-thousand- 
candiepower handheld flare and waved it in a huge arc at the end 
of an eight-foot stick. The flare should have been visible for more 
than twenty miles, but there was still no response. I was incred- 
ulous. Certainly the people on board could see the flare. What 
were they waiting for? Why weren't they signaling back? Then 
the ship began to make way toward the southwest, and 1 pan- 

Le Grand Pique-nique / 3 1 

"No! Come back! Come back!" I screamed inro the wind. In 
desperation I loaded and shot off the rest of the arsenal. The col- 
orful red-and-white explosions crackled, fizzed, whooshed, and 
boomed through the night sky as the ship departed. The sight of 
this fireworks display must have been spectacular from offshore. 
My night vision was wrecked, and afterimages flashed before my 
eyes each time I blinked. Why had the ship slowed down but not 
stopped? Consumed by frustration and anger, I felt helpless. The 
terrible, unspoken fear of never being rescued took hold of me, 
and I felt momentarily paralyzed by anxiety. 

We had all been responding to stress in unexpected ways. As 
the anxiety lessened slightly, I found myself overwhelmed by the 
urge to take off my clothes. A bitterly cold wind whipped across 
the island as I stripped off my foul-weather jacket, my shirt, and 
then my pants. 1 flung them in a pile and stood naked, facing the 
wind. My skin and muscles tightened in the brisk air, and goose 
bumps stood out on my flesh. But at the same time I was filled 
with an animai-like, sensual warmth that radiated from inside 
me. I had absolutely no sensation of being cold or feeling foolish. 
Exhilarated by my irrational outburst, I felt as if I were thumbing 
my nose at the ship, the wind, and my fate. 

The panic and sense of helplessness vanished, and I laughed 
out loud as I wondered what had compelled me to behave so 
oddly, Vm losing my mind, I concluded as I went in search of my 
clothes. I got dressed, stumbling around blindly, tripping over 
the still smoldering, acrid flare casings. I sat down at the base of 
the lighthouse to console myself with my blanket, some hard- 
boiled turtle eggs, a chocolate bar, and the shining stars. 

The rest of that night, jagged rocks, the wind, and scavenging 
rats kept me from sleep, and before dawn I reconnected the light- 
house wiring and began the two-hour walk back to our beach 
camp. During the trip, I thought about our stay on the island and 
the swings of mood between complacency and anxiety What 
were we so worried about? There was food, water, fire, and a 

warm place to sleep. All we had to do was control our impa- 

tien^p * ■ 

an agonizing task for people accustomed to getting re- 


suits when results were needed. We had been convinced that our 
silly attempts to attract attention would lead to our rescue, but 
the futility of our efforts was becoming increasingly obvious. We 
may have been near a minor Red Sea shipping lane, yet none of 
the freighters that approached the island had responded to our 

To pass time, Georgik and I decided to rig the dinghy with sails. 
There was some possibility that we could sail to the coast if our 
food ran out, and meanwhile we could take day trips on the la* 
goon. The design and construction of the mast and sails provided 
an excellent diversion. After making a preliminary drawing, we 
settled on a versatile gaff rig with a jib and a genoa sail. Because 
the prevailing winds were from the north at that time of year, we 
needed a keel in case we had to sail into the wind, so we bolted a 
five- foot by twenty-eight-inch plywood keel to the dinghy *s 
floorboards. We then stood waist deep in the lagoon, holding the 
boat sideways to the wind and waves to find the center of lateral 
resistance. This was to help us calculate where to place the mast 
and sails so that the dinghy would have a slight weather helm. 
We cut the mast from a vertical-grain spruce boat pole, originally 
used to pick up mooring buoys. 1 constructed a sturdy rudder 
with a hinged tiller and then started on the rigging. Georgik and 
I made hardwood cleats and fair-leads and set up a pair of run- 
ning backstays. 

After we measured out a set of sails following a sketch drawn 
to scale, Georgik went to work with the hand-cranked sewing 
machine from the yacht. He selected a light yellow Ripstop nylon 
from an old parachute for the headsails and a blue striped plas- 
tic-mesh fabric for the mainsail. We pounded brass grornmets 
into the head, tack, and clew of each sail and stitched reef points 
into the main. We worked quickly and efficiently, with very little 
conversation. As we measured and cut the sail material, we grew 
enthusiastic. Georgik sewed late into the night, with the aid of 
two flickering hurricane lamps, and after two days of intense 
work we were ready for the trial run, 

Le Grand Pique-nique / 33 

A five-knot wind was blowing directly onto the beach from the 
south as we inflated the dinghy with a foot-operated bellows 
pump* Georgik climbed in first. I shoved off from the beach. The 
wind was strong, and we began a starboard beam reach to the 
east with a single reef in the main. Picking up speed, we came 
about and soon passed the camp, only twenty yards offshore. We 
sailed on for a few minutes before tacking again. I pointed higher 
imo the wind to test our drift and was delighted to find that the 
ungainly-looking dinghy could sail at a forty-five-degree angle to 
the wind without noticeably losing ground. We tacked into the 
middle of the lagoon, sailing at a respectable three to four knots, 
with Georgik on the windward side for ballast. On the down- 
wind leg we sailed wing and wing, with the mainsail to starboard 
and the nicely shaped genoa to port. Georgik and I were proud 
of our work, and exhilarated to be able to move over the water 
with such ease, The wake bubbled astern, and after thirty min- 
utes we sailed back to the beach to celebrate. The keel would 
have to be moved forward a bit to balance the steering, but apart 
from that the dinghy sailed welL 

That evening, Suzanne and Georgik set off to spend the night 
at the lighthouse to watch for ships. Gratified by the success of 
our project, I slept well, Shortly after dawn they returned from 
their vigil, frightened, 

"We heard voices last night. There were voices in the night." 

Robert asked them to explain. 

"From the base of the cliffs below the lighthouse — men 
speaking Arabic, We heard them at three a.m. We don't want to 
stay here any longer/* 

^Maybe it was the wind you heard," suggested Ellen. 

"No, we heard voices in the night," came the emphatic reply. 

Suzanne had been sleeping at the base of the lighthouse when 
georgik started to see what he described as hundreds of lights in 

h He W3S CO ' d and tiredj and in his exhausted state he 

c ou ght boatloads of men were coming to attack us* He woke 
uzanne, and they ran from the lighthouse. At dawn they slowed 
°wn, and the panic left them. By the time they reached the salt 


marsh where the pelicans lived, Georgik and Suzanne were feel- 
ing better. 

The shock of the experience seemed to make them unusually 
self-revealing once they were safely back in camp, They de- 
scribed how their fear had subsided as the sun appeared, and 
they explained how attached they were to the island. "Being here 
is like a dream," Suzanne said. "A beautiful dream. One that 
everyone has at some time in their life. To be truly alone and free 
. . . I love that dream." The days following the shipwreck had 
obviously strengthened their feelings for each other, "Our sou- 
venir from this time," Suzanne continued, "is the memory of our 
happiness " 

But their experience made me realize that the dismantling of 
the lighthouse could not have gone undetected for so many days* 
I looked across the island and wondered if we were being 
watched at night. And if so, for how long, and by whom? We 
searched the beaches for footprints or other signs but found 
nothing. Nonetheless, the incident created a strong sense of vul- 
nerability in us all. 1 continued my walks, but they became tinged 
wirh unease. I began to carry a knife. The wonderful sense of 
solitude and peace that I had once enjoyed during those walks 
vanished as I started to look for signs of other human beings. We 
began to keep a night watch at camp, and that evening no one 
went to the lighthouse. A brass kerosene lamp from the ship 
burned as we read or wrote in our notebooks. We were strangely 
subdued by our fear of unknown people coming in the night. 

There had never been much privacy on the boat, and it was no 
different on the beach. Later that night I could hear Georgik and 
Suzanne making love, but this time the sounds seemed to blend 
naturally with the wind and the lapping waves that flowed onto 
the beach. I looked up at the stars and thought of how each of us 
dealt with his or her feelings of dread, I internalized my feelings 
as much as possible, whereas the two lovers could find comfort 
in each other's arms, This thought filled me with loneliness* Some 
time later I could see Georgik's and Suzanne's silhouettes at the 
water's edge. They were washing themselves in the shallows. 

Le Grand Fique-nique / 35 

yh e v spoke quietly, and 1 could hear water falling from their 
bodies- I was struck by the tenderness and natural beauty of the 

l]y mo naked figures quietly refreshing themselves at the edge of the 

ie- warm sea, 

n< \ We spent the following day in constant anticipation. Our gaze 

* re was directed out to sea, as if at any moment something promis- 

tat i n g might appear. The island had somehow become infected by 

-ee our fear and had lost its magic, Nothing appeared on the horizon 

ad that day, and two hours before sunset Robert and Ellen went to 

m _ keep watch at the lighthouse* After dinner Georgik, Suzanne, 

iur and I sat on the beach and talked. 

Our easy conversation was interrupted by the appearance of 

of a freighter, which was approaching the island. Its deck lights 

ys. passed to the south of the lighthouse and disappeared behind the 

ng headland. We watched as Robert and Ellen's three bright red* 
and-white pistol flares shot into the air. They were quite notice- 

nd able from where we sat, but looked silly and out of place. Who 

ul- would understand the meaning of distress flares on such a remote 

;ed island? It was as if we had placed all our hopes in a commercial 

of airliner's responding to flashes from a signal mirror. How foolish 

Iks to expect a ship to stop for us. Our distress radio was broken, the 

We s °l ar stills didn't work, and our food supplies were dwindling, 

me We had sixteen days of water left. The realization that we might 

lip not be rescued put us in poor spirits. Why hadn't we been more 

ely careful, or more resourceful? Why hadn't we sailed to the Afri- 
can coast with the Eritreans? Our constant expectation of being 

no rescued "tomorrow" had made us careless, 

nd That evening the last romantic notions about our situation fell 

nd awa Y- We longed to be taken from the island. Le grand pique- 

ito nique had come to an end, 

A Palace for 
Mr. Buona Notte 


Several times a day I scanned the surrounding sea. This 
was more out of habit than anything else, but one morning as my 
eyes followed the distant blue horizon they fastened on a minus- 
cule shape that had not been visible fifteen minutes earlier, I 
watched the shape become a sail, a small blue-and-white lateen 
sail. I was almost afraid to blink in case the vision disappeared* 
But the sail grew larger. Two weeks was a long time to be aban- 
doned by the universe, but the sight of the sail and the prospect 
of salvation left me strangely unmoved. I was peacefully resigned 
to my fate. Did it matter if the little boat stopped at the island? 
Where could it possibly take us? I reached for the plastic water 
bottle at my side and took a drink. Hot, dry sand filled the spaces 
between my fingers and toes. 

The sail and sea began to shimmer in the early morning heat. I 
left the shade of the cliffs and walked north, wandering through 
the heat waves until I arrived at a distant beach. Sitting down in 
the bushes above the high-tide mark, I watched the boat ap- 
proach. As it drew near I could distinguish five black men sitting 
near the stern. The topsides of the rough wooden hull were 
painted a dull red. White lime antifouling paint was visible above 
the waterlioe. In the lee of the island the sail came down, the boat 

A Palace for Mr. Buona Notte I 37 

drifted up into the wind, and a man made his way through the 
shallows to place an anchor high on the beach. After setting it, 
he knelt on the beach and touched his head to the sand, thanking 
Allah. I stood up and walked toward him. White powdery sand 
w as stuck to his forehead and nose as he looked up and noticed 
me but his blank gaze revealed nothing. I could detect neither 
surprise nor alarm from his expression or his movements. 

"The other men waded through the shallows, and Robert and 
Ellen joined me. We handed out cigarettes and shook hands. 
These people were also Eritreans. There were three men named 
Mohammed, a young boy, Ahmed, and an old man referred to as 
Mr, Buona Notte because he had memorized those two words of 
Italian as a child. The men were barefoot and dressed in plaid 
cotton sarongs. Simple wraps of fabric covered their heads, and 
their fingers were adorned with faceted red and blue glass gem- 
stones fixed into imitation gold settings. Their slight builds be- 
lied an exceptional strength and agility that became evident only 
when they worked. This group seemed very friendly Judging 
from their appearance, they also seemed very poor. I pointed to 
words in the dictionary once again, gestured toward Clea, and 
again used sign language to tell our story. 

" AUhamdti-lillah!" (Praise the Lord!) they exclaimed in turn 
when they heard the tale of the shipwreck* "Fourteen days on 
this waterless island?" They indicated the number of days on 
their fingers to make sure of the count. Despite their shortage of 
food, ldrise, the first man who had come on the island, unobtru- 
sively waded back to his boat and returned with half their re- 
maining stores — a double handful of precious dates. He apolo- 
gized for the grains of sand and the poor quality. Looking at his 
thin wrists and forearms, I was stunned by the magnificence of 
his gesture* I thanked him, and indicated that we had food and 
would like to invite them to come eat with us. 

It was at about the time I was shooting flares from the light- 
house and running around naked in the middle of the night that 
a storm off the Eritrean coast scattered a fleet of eight small sail- 
ing craft carrying goats to North Yemen. Idrise's forty-foot open 
boat with its distinctive blue-and-white sail had been blown off 


course for five days. By the time the storm had passed* the goats 
were dying of starvation. Every day one or more would die and 
the men would throw another carcass into the warm, languid 
sea. Their drinking water was nearly gone, and it must have 
seemed like they were aboard a death ship, sailing toward the 
edge of the world. On the morning these men caught sight of 
Uqban Island, they had been at sea for nine days. A soft westerly 
wind and the slow roll of the ocean swells carried the boat to- 
ward the island. Soon the men could rest and the goats would be 
able to feed on a particular species of bush that grew on the sand 
hills of the island. 

The men carried the goats ashore, counting them as they did 
so, and then let them graze. The young boy, dressed in a long 
ivory-colored shawl and a pair of ragged blue cotton drill shorts, 
tended the animals with a thin sapling. He and the goats filtered 
into the sand hills and were soon lost from sight, Idrise, who had 
been shy at first, eventually revealed that he could speak En- 
glish — merchant seaman's English. "We have come to save 
you," he announced, as if his sole purpose for visiting the island 
had suddenly become clear to him, "Allah has sent us, and we 
w ill take you from the island." We didn't quite know where these 
men were going, but we were not willing to let another opportu- 
nity escape us, so we immediately accepted his offer. 

At midday the Eritreans came to our camp to eat. We offered 
them water to wash their hands, and then we all sat down to a 
meal of rice, lentils, tinned fruit, curried fish, and tea. The rice 
and lentils were served from a communal plate, and we ate with 
our fingers. After lunch Idrise surprised us by announcing that he 
had been to Japan and Europe and had visited New York City 
for one day. A black taxicab driver in Manhattan called him "lit- 
tle brother" and later cheated him of $40. Idrise laughed as he 
recalled the incident. 

Mr. Buona Notte picked up a magazine that had come from 
the yacht. I think it was Better Homes and Gardens, Thumbing 
through the colorful pages, he stopped at a full-page advertise- 
ment for a modern kitchen. Idrise told me that the man wanted 
to know whose palace it was* I told them it wasn't a palace but 

A Palace for Mr, Buona Notte / 39 

rather a household kitchen in America. They were transfixed by 
the opulence of such a cooking area. I pointed out the hot and 
cold faucets, sink, refrigerator, garbage compactor, dishwasher, 
food processor, toaster, and other accessories essentia! to West- 
ern eating habits. Idrise translated my description of each appli- 
ance, but in the end the Eritreans were still confused by one 
thing. They wanted to know where one could kill a goat in such 
a place. I thought about the question for a moment, and then 
pointed to the breakfast alcove with the flowered wallpaper and 
curtains. The men were satisfied. 

We drank more tea, and Idrise talked about his experiences in 
the West: "Here [in Eritrea] a man eats at six o'clock in the 
morning — he eats only rice — * and at six o'clock in the night he 
eats again. He eats more rice. We have dates, goats, tea, small 
tins of fish, plus flour for fire bread. In America or Europe the 
people can eat anytime they want. They eat this, they eat that . . , 
they eat hamburger, and everything whenever they want. They 
eat all day long, and some of them get fat like this," He stretched 
out his arms, "Here we can only eat for living, but in my home 
we have some animals 3 one pig, and can drink camel's milk. No 
problem . . . have plenty food, but only eating sometime/' He 

After all the midnight vigils at the lighthouse and attempts to 
repair the distress radio, it seemed fitting that an open boat full 
of goats and five Eritreans should rescue us. I couldn't think of a 
better way to go. We made arrangements for the men to take us 
from the island the next morning, 

A pattern of scattered cloud shadows crossed the island as we 
walked along the shore to where the yacht lay on her side. Rob- 
ert asked Idrise what he and his companions wanted from the 
hoat. The men replied that they didn't have any money to pay for 
anything. We explained that we would like to give them a gift in 
return for taking us off the island. As they still hesitated, Robert 
located the brand-new Dacron genoa sail and handed it to them, 
along with several hundred feet of rope and a selection of hand 
too s. The men were so dumbfounded with surprise and grati- 
m e tnat tne Y stood rooted to the sand, staring at their gifts. 


Loaded down with this treasure, they returned to their beach, a 
half-mile from our camp. They collected a huge pile of gnarled 
roots and dried shrubs just before sunset, and I could see the 
flames of their campfire throughout the night. 

A peach-colored predawn light found us busy at the task of 
burying our possessions in the sand. The goat smugglers could 
not risk taking us directly to the authorities, and it was under- 
stood that once we arrived on the mainland, we would have to 
walk for help. Because it was unclear how far we might have to 
walk, we decided, for reasons of safety, to carry food and water 
but little else. 1 didn't know how long it might be before I re- 
turned to the island, so I wrapped the rest of my belongings in 
Dacron sail bags, making two parcels. The larger one contained 
extra clothing, sarongs, blankets, a selection of books, seashells, 
and a shaving kit. The smaller, more valuable parcel contained 
maps as well as seven years of travel journals. 1 kept the note- 
books separate because they fit snugly into a purple Dacron bag 
that had once been used for holding sail ties aboard Clea. As an 
extra precaution, I dug my hole deep, placing the bags three feet 
down. I filled in a foot of dry sand, then dumped the previous 
two days' garbage on top, covering this with a small amount of 
sand in order to make the hole look like a continuation of our 
rubbish dump. The others dug shallow holes, thinking it highly 
unlikely that anyone would come to the island in our absence* 

While we were busy digging, 1 could see klrise and his friends 
in the distance, rounding up the goats and carrying them on their 
shoulders to the boat. We walked to the Entreans' camp with our 
small bags containing bottles of water and enough food for two 
days* The last goat was brought aboard, the anchor was stowed, 
and the boat gradually drifted backward with the wind. We had 
left everything behind: the camp> the yacht, our sailing dinghy, 
and our beautiful beach kitchen. As we moved away from 
the island, Suzanne noticed me looking at Clea and read my 
thoughts. "It is like leaving an old friend behind," she said. 

Despite our repeated inquiries, we weren't yet exactly sure 
whether we were going to Kamaran Island or the mainland, but 
it didn't seem to matter. The important thing was that we were 

A Palace for Mr. Buona Notte i 41 

on the move again. Infinite possibilities seemed to open up as we 
surrendered control of our situation. 

There was a beautiful simplicity to the Eritreans* boat. The 
classic lateen sail was made from white flour sacks patched with 
blue plastic-mesh bags from fertilizer that had been donated to 
Ethiopia by the Canadian government. The rigging consisted of 
one combination backstay- boom halyard with a single-purchase 
handmade pulley, one shroud, and the mainsheet. The hull 
planks had been polished smooth by countless goats and were 
clinched to tree-branch ribs with steel nail fasteners. A forty- 
four-galion steel drum held fresh water (from the yacht), and an- 
other half-drum near the mast served as the galley. A communal 
knife was used for rope work and cooking. Few other posses- 
sions were visible — a flashlight near the helmsman, odd lengths 
of frayed rope, a weathered nylon fishing line, but little else. No 
blankets or food, but each man carried a small pouch of dried 
leaves and a tobacco paste mixture. They occasionally dipped 
into the pouches with their fingers and placed a pinch of the stuff 
inside their lower lips. 

The ten of us sat crowded together on the small aft steering 
plarform, which extended over the stern. We overlooked a float- 
ing goat corral that filled the boat. Because the boat leaked and 
the goats urinated and defecated constantly, the bottom required 
bailing every twenty minutes. The smell of the animals was pow- 
erful, and I was glad not to be sailing into the wind* On a beam 
reach we managed approximately two knots an hour. The men 
executed three lazy tacks all day to cover the fifteen miles from 
Uqban Island to the uninhabited northern tip of Kama ran Island, 
During the journey, two white sails were sighted to the north. I 
saw one torpid flying fish, but nothing else. It seemed unlikely 
that our rubber sailboat could have managed the same trip. 

Eight hours after we had clambered on board, the goat boat 
anchored just west of Douglas Point on Kamaran Island. We five 
white passengers disembarked and waded ashore to spend the 
night on the island; there wasn't room for all of us to sleep on the 
oat. We were drowsy from the wind and sun, and as we sat on 
beach a freighter passed within three hundred yards of the 


shore. The ship looked huge and totally out of place behind the 
Eritrean boat. It might as well have been fifty miles away; we 
made no attempt to signal to the people on board. Squatting in 
the sand, we ate a dinner of tinned peaches, dried apples* and 
processed cheese. Idrise and the other men looked comfortable 
on their boat as we searched for shelter on the flat beach. A 
strong warm breeze was blowing, so I dug a shallow trench in 
the lee of a low bush to keep out of the wind, then settled in for 
the evening. After 1 wrapped my upper body and head in a sa- 
rong to keep out the sand, I put my head on my little bag of food 
and water and soon fell asleep. 

By dawn the temperature had dropped and the wind had 
swung around to the south. This meant the Eritreans would have 
to wait for the wind to change before taking us any closer to Ka- 
maran harbor, which lay another fifteen miles down the east 
coast of the island. This was where we wanted to go, but we 
might have to wait as long as two more days before the winds 
were favorable* Our desire to go with the circumstances was ter- 
ribly short-lived, and in typical Western fashion we became im- 
patient and decided to walk across the sand dunes. Idrise 
strongly advised us against this decision, but when he saw that 
we were determined to go, he pointed into the desert and said 
that there was a North Yemen Army outpost seven miles to the 
south. We said goodbye and left as dawn broke, with two quarts 
of water each, a compass, a bag of dried fruit, and an approxi- 
mate route penciled onto our chart to indicate the way to the 
army camp, 

A cold wind buffeted us head-on as we walked across the sand. 
We encountered camel footprints, followed the edge of a man- 
grove swamp, and walked up and down sand dunes that grew 
bigger and more disorientating with each step. The heat arrived 
without warning, but we had no choice but to hurry on, in fear 
of being caught in the sand at midday with so little water. What 
fools we were, We should have listened to Idrise; now it was too 
late to change our minds. If we turned back, there was no guar- 
antee the boat would still be at the beach. 

We continued south, gauging distance by our pace, which we 

A Palace for Mr. Buona Notte I 43 

estimated at two miles an hour, and agreeing that for safety we 
should stay within sight of each other. But soon our group 
stretched out to over a mile in length. For periods I lost sight of 
the others in the wind-blown sand, We stopped to rest and re- 
group every hour, and incredibly, after the second rest stop Geor- 
gik and Suzanne announced that their water was gone. 

"Why didn't you sip it slowly?" Ellen asked. 

"We were thirsty," came the obvious reply. 

We shared water and walked on. There was nothing but sand 
and rocks in every direction. 

After more than four hours of walking we spotted the army 
outpost j a distant boxlike structure that sat atop a low hill rising 
out of a vast flat plain, which shimmered in the midday heat. 
With the last of our water gone, we hesitated only briefly before 
starting across this last obstacle. As we approached the hill, a 
strange sight became visible through the waves of heat. On the 
summit I could see men dressed in white skirts jumping up and 
down. What the hell were they up to? 

We stepped through strands of rusted barbed wire and climbed 
a slight slope that formed the base of the hilL Completely oblivi- 
ous to the possibility of land mines or other nasty devices, we 
crested the summit and surprised a soldier sitting on a rock. He 
was in casual dress — a white, pleated, knee-length skirt, black 
leather shoes without socks, a polyester sport coat, and a pink 
shirt buttoned at the neck. The handle of a jambia, the tradi- 
tional curved dagger, protruded from the center of his embroi- 
dered waistband at a suggestive angle. 

Clearly, nothing could have been further from this man's mind 
than our unexpected arrival. He leapt to his feet with remarkable 
speed, picked up his Kalashnikov, then, realizing the unfriendli- 
ness of this gesture, put the weapon down, reconsidered his po- 
sition as a soldier on duty, and picked it up again, being careful 
not to point it at us. We all stood there, uncertain what to do. 

"Keifbalakr (How are you?) I ventured, 

"M-hamdu-tillahr (Praise the Lord!) cried the skirted soldier. 
™ slung the assault rifle over his shoulder, shook our hands en- 
thusiastically, and invited us in for tea. 


The jumping men turned out to be Yemeni soldiers enjoying a 
game of volleyball in the middle of the desert. The court had 
been set op between a sandbagged field gun and the concrete 
blockhouse. Joining us in the blockhouse, the players did every- 
thing they could to make us comfortable. Were we hungry? 
Thirsty? We had just broken years of boredom for these men. It 
was not surprising that they were eager to show their gratitude. 

We had arrived from the open desert without food or water, 
two of us were barefoot, and Suzanne was crying with relief. 
When she pulled the flowered scarf from her face, I could see 
damp lines below her eyes where the tears had flowed down her 
smooth, dusty cheeks* It was obvious that something extraordi- 
nary had happened to us. The soldiers knew that there was ab- 
solutely nothing to the north of this outpost* So where had we 
come from? We must have generated a great deal of suspicion as 
well as sympathy in the minds of these men. Their confusion was 
evident, but they remained hospitable and friendly, even though 
conversation was impossible without the dictionary that we had 
absentmindedly left on Uqban Island. We drank hot, sweet tea 
before they took us by truck to army headquarters in the old 
British residency that overlooked Kamaran harbor. 

There Major Abdul Rahman introduced himself and made us 
welcome. He also gave us lunch; more goat — half a carcass, 
draped over a bed of rice on a serving platter nearly a yard wide. 
Oval loaves of warm> chewy, golden brown flat bread came with 
a fiery paste of ground red chilis and a dish of gray, doughy 
wheat paste that enclosed a reservoir of fat-and-marrow soup. 
To accompany the meal there were warm bottles of Coca-Cola. 
The lunch was delicious and the hospitality reassuring. 

Several hours later we were handed what looked and tasted 
like hedge trimmings. This was qat, a mildly inroxicaring leaf. 
We chewed, time passed, and when we were all feeling relaxed 
and cozy, the major announced that we were under house arrest. 
We surrendered our passports, handed over our money, and 
spent the next ten days waiting as the army looked into the pos- 
sibility that we were Soviet spies from Eritrea, 

A Palace for Mr. Buona Notte I 45 

Longing for company, the major softened the shock of his an- 
nouncement with several bottles of White Horse whiskey, and he 
accepted us as his personal guests pending the outcome of the 
investigation. Later in the first day an interrogator took state- 
ments from us, and the next morning Robert, Georgik, and I re- 
turned to Uqban to show the major the yacht in order to verify 
our story of the shipwreck. Three speedy fishing boats were com- 
mandeered from Makram, a small fishing settlement on the west 
coast of Kamaran, and the return to Uqban took less than two 

When we entered the lagoon from the southeast, we immedi- 
ately saw black shapes swarming over the yacht: looters were 
already at work. As we reached the beach, three soldiers leapt 
into the knee-deep water and charged ashore. They were two 
hundred yards from the looters when they leveled their weapons 
and began shooting. Loud bursts of automatic gunfire echoed 
down the beach. We yelled for them to stop, frantically insisting 
that there was nothing of value on Ciea, but the major indicated 
that these were merely warning shots to scare the looters away. I 
was relieved to see the men on the sailboat fleeing to the other 
side of the island, where a large motor-powered dhow was wait- 
ing for them. They staggered into the sand hills, bent double be- 
neath the weight of tremendous loads. I wondered how these 
men had arrived so soon after our departure. We had spent two 
weeks on the island without seeing anyone except the Eritreans, 
yet suddenly dozens of men were climbing all over the yacht. 

Our camp had been demolished. The looters 1 priorities were 
obvious: all the food was gone, as were the bedding and gas bot- 
tles. The stove was left standing, with the oven door open, It was 
interesting to note that two of the buried bags had been dug up. 
This confirmed my earlier suspicions that we had been watched 
during our stay on the island. I thought back to the night Geor- 
gik and Suzanne had heard voices, i suspected the looters were 
the same men, and felt relieved that they had had the courtesy to 
wait for our departure before helping themselves to our belong- 
m gs, I could see that someone had dug down to the layer of gar- 
age in my hole but had gone no further. My things were safe for 


the time being, but I was uncertain of the major's intentions, so 
while the others excavated their valuables, I decided to leave 
mine buried. 

When I arrived at Clea t Major Abdul Rahman was walking 
around the area, carefully examining the piles of neatly sorted 
booty. He inspected the snipped battery cables and the half-re- 
moved screws that secured the compass to the binnacle. The re- 
maining anchor chain had been pulled out of the locker, and the 
engine bolts had been cut off with a hacksaw. Sail bags were 
stuffed with ropes, miscellaneous tools, and plumbing fittings 
from below deck, Following the confusion of gunfire, Robert 
had gleefully invited the major to take everything. The man 
hardly needed prompting. He continued to survey the scene for 
several minutes before speaking. "What you can carry is yours," 
he explained in a detached voice. "The rest is mine." 

He didn't have to elaborate. We understood perfectly, and no 
one responded to his statement. Like the looters twenty minutes 
earlier, we saw the major's point: his men had the guns* The fisher- 
men who had brought us to the island had initially been jubilant at 
the thought of sharing such a prize, but they too fell silent when 
they realized they would get nothing. Clea was the major's plum. 

The fishing boats were brought from down the beach and then 
loaded with the most portable and valuable articles. While this 
was going on, my uncertainty concerning our fate at the hands 
of Major Abdul Rahman began to dissipate. Realizing that we 
had no control, I grew strangely resigned to the situation. The 
soldiers continued sorting through the booty, and I returned to 
the camp to dig up my belongings. The gunfire and the chaotic 
scene of looting had unnerved me, and I felt confused and dis- 
tracted as I pulled my bag from beneath the garbage. Dry sand 
immediately filled the hole as the bag came free. Not until we 
were well away from the island, with no possibility of turning 
back, did I look into the sail bag and realize I had left the smaller 
one behind. At the time, the notebooks seemed like a minor loss. 
We had been rescued, and my mind was overwhelmed with a 
sense of relief. Ten years would pass before \ felt the need to re- 
turn to the island to search for those lost pages, 

Going Home 


During our captivity on Kamaran Island I became even 
more resigned to our circumstances and began to take an interest 
in the country. I was gradually introduced to the Yemeni people 
through daily contact with our guards and their families, who 
treated us more like house guests than prisoners. 1 enjoyed one 
soldier, Ahmed, who had a fair command of English, in particu- 
lar. We talked about qat. Thursday (the day we arrived) is tradi- 
tionally the day to chew, so when I noticed the soldiers gathering 
on Friday afternoon with armloads of qat, I asked Ahmed why 
they were going to chew again. 

"It is like this," he explained. "Do you see that small, white, 
domed shrine?" 

"The one standing by itself to the west of town?" I asked, 
looking out the window. 

"Yes, that is the one. It is a saint's tomb, and today we will 
chew to celebrate the saint's birthday." 

"I understand." 

Saturday a similar scene developed. Once again the soldiers 
arrived with their long bundles of qat wrapped in newspaper and 

11 Ahmed, why do the men chew today?" 


"We chew to celebrate the day after the saint's birthday," he 

"And tomorrow? What will be the occasion? Will you cele- 
brate two days after the saint's birthday?" 

"Yes, exactly!" He laughed. "And you will join us, please." 

The afternoon qat-chewing ritual continued throughout our 
stay, and I began to develop a taste for the bitter leaves. Qat is 
the Yemeni version of afternoon tea, the most obvious difference 
being that instead of sipping an infusion of leaves, you put the 
leaves in your mouth and chew them. Ahmed called qat the great 
social equalizer, and this certainly fit with my observations. For 
several hours on most afternoons the major, the lower-ranking 
soldiers, and one or more of the suspected Soviet spies would 
contentedly chew foliage and smile at one another, I could not 
join in the conversation, but it was a delightful way to pass time 
as we waited for our release. 

We couldn't leave the grounds of the residency during our stay, 
but qat was brought fresh from the mainland. It was evidently 
part of our room and board, and may have been in exchange for 
the items the major had stolen from us. For ten days we chewed 
leaves, ate goat, and drank whiskey. All things considered, it was 
a very civilized arrangement, 

The whiskey provided the major with an opportunity to prac- 
tice his English. Most nights, after a few drinks, he would fear- 
lessly launch himself into Arabic thoughts for which he had no 
English sentences. He managed to make himself understood, 
largely because the theme never varied. He spent these evenings 
concocting different versions of how he had saved us. Each story 
was intended to enhance his own role in the adventure and to 
cover up his failure to respond to our distress signals, which must 
have been clearly visible from his front verandah. 

One evening the major told us the story of how he had planned 
a midnight commando raid on Uqban Island. "The attack was 
planned! One hundred by one hundred chance!" he slurred, 
pounding the wooden tabletop with his fist. A fine layer of dust 
puffed ten inches into the air before settling on the glasses. Our 
forearms were stuck to the table with perspiration, "The orders 

Going Home I 49 

were written!" he continued. "We did not know you were our 
brothers — we would have killed you! The shore guns were 
trained on the island. The troops were made ready. We thought 
someone was directing a bombing raid on Kamaran Island I" 

The major sloshed more whiskey into the glasses, then sat 
back with arms crossed and eyeballs askew, The man seemed lost 
in youthful dreams of a distinguished military career that had 
never happened. Had he gone bonkers at this desert outpost? 
Had he planned to utilize the local fishing fleet for the invasion? 
And what shore guns was he referring to? It seemed as if he had 
Uqban Island confused with Dunkirk or Normandy. 

It seemed reasonable to assume that the major had seen or 
been notified of the flares from the lighthouse. He was probably 
confused by the unusual sight and couldn't decide what to do. I 
later learned through the port authorities in Hodeida that several 
of the freighters had reported our distress signals to the harbor- 
master at Salif, the nearest mainland port, but there had been 
nothing he could do to help us. He could not obtain clearance to 
send the government launch to investigate. Port authorities later 
claimed that our rescue was further complicated because Uqban 
is in a highly sensitive military zone. Rumors that Russian gun- 
boats from Ethiopia were hiding near the offshore islands were 
enough to keep commercial shipping well away from the area. 

I grew tired of the major's nightly war stories. One of them 
told of a Russian MIG strafing Id rise's boatload of goats. These 
tales were unbelievable, and the entertainment value soon wore 
off. I devoted my time to writing while the events on the island 
were still fresh in my mind. I spent the days by myself or talking 
to Ahmed about the remote villages that lay hidden in the moun- 
tains of North Yemen. My initial interest in the region was stim- 
ulated by his descriptions of towering fortresses constructed 
from hand-hewn stone and mountain citadels with crumbling 
mud-brick battlements, Ahmed brought these fairytale castles to 
life by talking about the people who lived in them. He had grown 
U P in Manakha, one of the most strategic mountain villages 
guarding the western approach to the fabulous capital, San'a. He 
told me about the beehives he had kept on the terraced moun- 


tainsides as a young boy, and described the excitement that was 
generated when the first bicycle was brought to town. I was cap- 
tivated, and became interested in visiting the places he talked 

After ten days on Kamaran Island, we were free to go. Two sol- 
diers took us to the mainland in a military launch. The journey 
from Kamaran harbor to Salif took thirty minutes. Driving south 
to Hodeida with our army escort, we picked up a young Peace 
Corps volunteer who was hitchhiking at sunset. He worked in 
Hodeida and had rented a crumbling old house built by a Turk- 
ish merchant more than a century earlier. The house was conve- 
niently located near the city markets, and the young man gener- 
ously offered us a room. We stayed for five days, spending much 
of that time cleaning the house. The American lived in a state of 
squalor that an Eritrean goat smuggler would have found intol- 
erable. After the pristine conditions on Uqban Island, I found the 
household filth unbearable. The climate of Hodeida was un- 
pleasant as well, and I decided to leave the hot coastal plain as 
soon as possible. 

The first morning in Hodeida, Georgik and Suzanne went to 
the French Bank of Indochina to inquire about having money ca- 
bled from Paris. While explaining their predicament to a teller, 
the manager, who was from Lyon, overheard their story of the 
shipwreck. He was delighted by the tale and took them to lunch. 
After listening to the entire story, he provided them with an 
apartment and introductions to friends in Hodeida, and, without 
being asked, arranged for a modest loan that would allow them 
not only to get home but to take their time doing so. 

On hearing this, I looked forward to going to the U.S. embassy 
in San'a. I had approximately $350 in traveler's checks, which 
was not enough to get me back to the United States. I didn't want 
to risk the possibility of cabled money going astray, and so for 
the first time in seven years of travel i felt the genuine need to ask 
for a favor from the diplomatic corps, I wanted a small loan. Five 
hundred dollars would be enough to get me to New York* 

Georgik and Suzanne moved into their apartment the next 

Going Home I 51 

day. We exchanged addresses and said goodbye. They wisely 
took this opportunity to free themselves from the group, and as 
time passed, I grew to envy their quick decision. 

Three more days went by before the Yemeni Department of 
Immigration finally issued us two-week tourist visas* I walked 
out of the office with my passport and was immediately caught 
up in a flurry of airborne litter. Wind-whipped plastic bags, card- 
board, and unidentified flying particles of colorful paper swirled 
about me like autumn leaves as I walked toward the market- 
place. The streets of Hodeida were a trampled, multicolored col- 
lage of imported packaging. The town seemed to be disappearing 
beneath a tide of labels, cartons, cardboard advertising, and a 
small fortune in flattened aluminum soft-drink cans. Because it 
was dry and fresh, however, the street litter did not have the of- 
fensive smell of Western household garbage. Moving through the 
laneways was like being in a perpetual ticker tape parade. The 
market stalls were hung with plastic gewgaws of every color and 
description. Squeaky children's toys and blaring portable tape 
players of immense proportions competed for the viewer's atten- 
tion with the hand-pulled carts and gridlocked, honking traffic. 
Like a plague of desert locusts, the storm of consumer goods had 
descended on the old marketplace. 

I continued into the market, where I caught sight of stern Yem- 
eni men seated in ancient barber chairs on the sidewalk as razor- 
wielding barbers fussed over them. Pausing by one of these 
streetside chairs, I listened uneasily to rhe slow rasping sound of 
sharpened steel moving over the skin to produce irregularly 
shaped but perfectly shining orbs. 

On the morning of our fifth day in Hodeida, Robert, Ellen, 
and I took a shared taxi to San'a. The driver managed to stuff ten 
passengers into his Peugeot 504 station wagon before we de- 
parted. En route we stopped for tea and gas . . . lunch, prayers, 
qat, more tea and more prayers, fresh lime juice . , , more qat> a 
flat tire, water for the radiator, and frequently to pee at the side 
°f me road. Every fifteen to twenty miles an army check post ap- 
peared, where we were stopped at gunpoint and asked to show 
0Ur trav el permits and passports. After a spectacularly uncom- 


fortable and scenic five-hour drive through a high mountain 
range dotted with the fortified stone towers of medieval -looking 
villages, we arrived at a broad plain surrounded by more moun- 
tains. In the center of this plain was San'a, an ancient city still 
partially enclosed by mud-brick battlements. 

We made a long, winding descent, entered the city, and found 
our way to Al Qa, the old Jewish quarter, which lay outside the 
city walls, just to the west of the sailab, the seasonal riverbed that 
runs through San'a from north to south. We had been given the 
address of Carolyn Ross, an American nurse, who graciously put 
us up during our stay. She lived with several other aid workers in 
a traditional Yemeni tower house. The five floors were connected 
by a steep spiral staircase, and we were shown to separate rooms 
on one of the upper floors. 

I had not eaten all day, and by the time we arrived I was hun- 
gry. I asked Carolyn where I could find a local restaurant that 
served typical Yemeni food. 

"Something authentic?" she inquired. 

"Yes, a place that doesn't cater to Western visitors," I re- 

"I don't know how traditional you are willing to get, but there 
is a place nearby that should still be serving lunch " She smiled 
as she handed me a small sketch map that indicated a series of 
laneways leading to the restaurant. "There's no signboard on the 
building, so keep an eye out for the bread sellers." 

I went in search of the place and fifteen minutes later arrived 
in front of a Yemeni restaurant. Colorfully veiled women were in 
the street, selling stacks of steaming, crusty flatbread from bas- 
kets balanced on their heads. Male customers, with the warm 
bread already folded under their arms like newspapers, were 
clustered outside a blue, wood-framed doorway set into a mud- 
brick wall. I bought my bread and waited with the others. A 
dozen disheveled men were suddenly disgorged from the door- 
way, the waiting crowd surged forward, and 1 was carried into 
darkness by the momentum of the surrounding bodies. 

Blinded by the rising heat and smoke billowing up the stair- 
way, I descended slick, foot-worn stone steps and entered an in- 

Going Home ! 53 

ferno. It was difficult to move freely in the crush of bodies, and I 
was immediately damp with sweat. Flames from ferociously hot 
earthen ovens shot into the main room and illuminated a writh- 
ing throng of lunch guests and kitchen staff. Following the ex- 
ample of those around me, I climbed over the tables and steam- 
ing ceramic dishes until finally I managed to wedge myself 
between two heavily armed strangers. With hand gestures these 
men instructed me in the technique of throwing wads of paper at 
the waiter to attract his attention. The floor was littered with lit- 
tle balls of paper. I struck the man between the shoulder blades 
on my second throw, and he nodded vaguely in my direction. He 
was soon at my table, yelling something in Arabic. 

"Saltah!" I yelled back, following Carolyn's instructions. I mo- 
tioned to my mouth with my fingers for emphasis. My compan- 
ions chortled roughly, and the man disappeared into the confu- 
sion of bodies and airborne paper balls. There was no menu, 
and only one dish: saltah, a spicy potato, garlic, and mutton 
stew covered in a green froth called hulba, a sauce made from 
whipped fenugreek paste. The stew was served in earthenware 
pots so hot they left circular burn marks on the scarred cabletops. 
There wasn't room for everyone to be seated, and many men 
were squatting on the tables with their shoes on as they helped 
themselves from large, steaming communal pots. 

The waiter fought his way back to my table and sec down three 
identical bowls. I took the pot nearest me and ate with my fin- 
gers, using small pieces of bread like an edible spoon. The meal 
was delicious, but Carolyn had seriously understated the rustic 
charm and unpretentious service. I hadn't been prepared for a 
meal in such a place, and as I ate, I understood the meaning of 
her smile when she made her recommendation. 

I was charged with energy by the time I finished. This was 
partly due to the high concentration of chilis in the saltah, but 
also the result of the excited conversations and pandemonium 
around me. Uneaten bread was left on the table or handed to 
fellow diners. After finishing my lunch, I staggered back over the 
table and washed my hands in a basin next to the stairs. A soiled 
terry-cloth hand towel hung on the wall, but I preferred to wipe 


my hands on the seat of my pants. I paid the equivalent of two 
American dollars before allowing myself to be carried by the ris- 
ing tide of bodies up the stairs and back to daylight, air, and the 
relative calm of the traffic-jammed streets. If that was a typical 
Yemeni meal, I told myself, I could well understand why people 
chewed qat in the afternoon. It seemed reasonable to resort to 
euphoric substances in order to quiet the mind and body after 
such an experience. 

On the horizon, a towering wall of dust approached the city. 
This was a sandstorm blowing off the Empty Quarter — the 
Rub'al-Khali, an immense desert that lies far to the east. I re- 
turned to the house in AI Qa, and soon the sun was obscured by 
the advancing curtain of fine reddish dust. 1 didn't go for a walk 
in the afternoon and stayed up late that night drinking tea with 
Carolyn. She told me about her work as a midwife in San'a, and 
I talked about my weeks on Uqban and Kamaran islands. Thick 
auburn curls fell to her shoulders, and as our conversation pro- 
gressed I found myself attracted by her humor and intelligence. 
Carolyn was also very pretty, and after the stress of being on the 
island, it was a pleasure to lose myself in her good company. 

When it was time to go to bed, she brought extra blankets to 
my room, along with a candle and matches* She closed the door 
quietly on her way out. Before falling asleep, I lay on my back 
and looked up at the ceiling ten feet above me. The entire room 
was neatly plastered with a layer of white gypsum that nicely 
caught the light of my bedside candle. The ceiling beams were 
spaced about three feet apart and were roughly rectangular in 
cross section. None of the beams were straight, and they ap- 
peared to be fashioned from slender trees, eight to ten inches in 
diameter. In the course of spanning the room, these hand-hewn 
beams meandered in slow, graceful curves. The smooth coating 
of plaster flowed over the beams and down the walls in such a 
way as to give the impression that the room had been carved 
from a single block of soft white chalk. The ceiling undulated in 
accordance with the random course of each individual beam, 
and by candlelight the general appearance of the room was very 
pleasing. The interplay of shadows on the stark white surfaces 

Going Home / 55 

made it difficult to distinguish where architecture ended and 
sculpture began. The beautifully irregular wall surfaces were dic- 
tated by the whim of the builders and the nature of the materials 
used. No attempt had been made to create straight lines or per- 
fectly flat surfaces, and the overall feel of the space was harmo- 
nious, functional, warm, and sensual — the precise qualities of 
an ideal bedroom. I slept well that night. 

When I awoke it was not yet light, but somewhere in the dis- 
tance I heard the crackle of static from a poor-quality loud- 
speaker, There was silence once again before a booming voice 
rolled across the darkened city as the morning call to prayer be- 
gan. From a second and more distant minaret another voice 
called out. A multitude of amplified voices soon filled the morn- 
ing stillness, and I sat up to listen to the mesmerizing, incompre- 
hensible words as they drifted back and forth across the sleeping 

I wanted to watch the sunrise, so I pulled on a pair of pants 
and started up the spiral staircase that led to the roof. As 1 as- 
cended the wide stone steps, I was bathed in the rich aroma of 
freshly baked bread from the kitchen on the ground floor, In 
semidarkness I felt my way upward along the cool walls, and 
soon arrived at a low wooden door. I lifted its hand-forged catch 
and emerged onto a section of flat roof that was surrounded by a 
masonry wall four feet high. Moving to the edge of the roof, I set 
my hands on the mud-brick wall and looked across the darkened 

At first there were only random pinpoints of light and vague 
rectangular shapes. The call to prayer finished, and as the air be- 
gan to warm, a soft morning light filtered into the awakening 
city. Shadows became noticeable, and 1 caught my breath as the 
jumble of towering earth-colored buildings became visible. My 
first impression was that during the night I had fallen back in 
time and awakened in the midst of a fairy-tale world from my 
childhood. I looked out at a gingerbread fantasy in which every 
surface was adorned with mad geometric designs, covered in 
giggles of white cake icing. Each facade blended into the next, 
and the thousands of whitewashed, irregular window frames, the 


low-relief zigzag friezes, and the openwork in the stone walls 
grew indistinct in the middle distance until they finally melted 
into the buff-colored mountains beyond the city walls. 

The splendor of San'a could not be taken in at a glance. Each 
visual morsel deserved careful attention. Among the first archi- 
tectural details to catch my eye were the roof finials. The most 
distinctive of these adornments had a stepped, saw-toothed pat- 
tern that was most striking when seen from the street. The rows 
of white zigzag shapes appeared to be interlocked with the sky, I 
have since been told that this is to insure that heaven and earth 
are joined. Watching this first sunrise over the city, I understood 
perfectly well the symbolism of oneness expressed by the finials. 
I had been unprepared for this sensation of attachment. No one 
had warned me about the allure of San'a, and in my surprise, I 
was caught off balance — seduced without a struggle. The mag- 
ical, otherworldly beauty of the city took hold of me, and I didn't 

Nearby, I could see delicate gypsum tracery of brilliantly col- 
ored stained glass fanlights, while in the distance white minarets 
thrust above the skyline to bathe in the first pinkish glow of 
dawn. Protruding discreetly from among the cluster of buildings 
were the white nippled domes of the Ottoman mosques. Observ- 
ing these sights, I couldn't help but amuse myself with thoughts 
of how the austere Islamic faith could allow such sensuous reli- 
gious architecture. 

As households began to stir, black swallows darted over the 
rooftops and ghostly white clouds of smoke from breakfast fires 
floated through the confusion of buildings. The smell of burning 
wood and charcoal drifted past me, and deep in the twisting pas- 
sageways dark figures moved slowly. 

Despite the high technical skill evident in the exterior stone- 
work, I was surprised at the apparent lack of pretense. There 
were no ostentatious displays of wealth or style. Perhaps these 
expressions were confined to the interior of the houses* San'a had 
a unified look, but Pm not certain why this should be so, because 
closer observation revealed chaos rather than order. The struc- 
tures were similar but at the same time unique in their range of 

Going Home / 57 

unexpected variations on a theme. On the facade of a nearby 
building I counted twenty-three windows. Of those windows, 
three were similar. The other twenty were so completely irregu- 
lar and placed in such random fashion, that it was impossible to 
determine their precise function, let alone establish where one 
floor began or ended. If there had been an original plan for any 
of these buildings, it escaped my notice. The millions of mud 
bricks and hand-cut stones appeared to have been placed by in- 
dividual whim, I was looking at something eternal, ageless, and 
precious — a place where I could leave myself far behind. The 
city of San'a was a spectacular living monument to the playful 
genius of the Yemeni builders, 

I felt optimistic about my arrival in San*a, and the following 
afternoon Robert, Ellen, and I went to the U,S, embassy to report 
the shipwreck and the loss of most of our belongings* I had al- 
ready been warned about the possible delays in transferring 
money to Yemen, but I must have been dreaming when I imag- 
ined I might get help from the embassy. That afternoon we were 
introduced to American diplomatic hospitality. We waited for 
more than an hour beneath the arrogant gaze of a Marine guard 
seated behind bulletproof glass. I never saw the man blink nor 
heard him say a thing other than "Yes sir" and t( No sin" When 
the consular official finally made his appearance, he breezed into 
the reception area and immediately pointed out that the embassy 
was normally closed on Friday (the holy day). He then informed 
us that we had interrupted him at an "official diplomatic lun- 
cheon." He actually managed to make me feel guilty for not co- 
ordinating my problem to suit his mealtimes. 

With a condescending indifference that I still remember with 
astonishment, he asked what we wanted* Looking at this man's 
ample midsection, striped silk tie, starched collar, immaculate 
fingernails, and perfectly shined shoes, I recalled the turtle eggs 1 
had eaten on Uqban Island and calculated how many more I 
tnight have had to eat if the Eritreans had not showed us a gen- 
erosity this man would never have considered, much less offered, 
He recited a poorly memorized statement outlining our rights as 
merican citizens and the responsibilities of the embassy. As he 


spoke, I was given the impression that several dozen American 
citizens were shipwrecked each week in Yemen and the over- 
worked staff was just going to have to draw the line somewhere. 
We were not offered as much as a glass of water, and assistance 
was limited to showing us to the door and pointing vaguely in 
the direction of the country's only international-class hotek 
Three nights in that hotel would have exhausted my remaining 

We returned the following day to file our report, but by then I 
wasn't in the mood to ask for favors or a loan from these em- 
ployees of the United States government. They would have in- 
sisted on keeping my passport and flying me directly home on an 
expensive flight. Neither one of these conditions appealed to me, 
and I decided to take my chances with the generosity of the Yem- 
eni people. 

My remaining $300 in traveler's checks could have lasted me 
for several weeks in Yemen, but I decided co leave San 'a as soon 
as possible- The least expensive flight to Europe was around 
$250, and so I spent the following days visiting the airline offices, 
asking for a discounted flight out of Yemen, If this wasn't possi- 
ble, I suggested flying now with the promise of sending a check 
later. I tried Royal Jordanian, Alitalia, Air France, Ethiopian 
Air, Aeroflot, and others. Not surprisingly, only one airline was 
vaguely interested. 

I visited the office of Syrian Air twice and established a good 
rapport with Mr. Rashid, the manager. Robert and Ellen, who 
had plenty of money, were intrigued by the possibility of free air- 
line tickets, and persuaded me to let them join me on my third 
visit. Foolishly, 1 let them come along. We were served thick, 
sweet coffee from a polished brass tray, and they sat in on the 
end of a delicate discussion that had lasted for several hours over 
the previous two days. 

"This is a very good story, you know, and we would like to 
help you," Mr Rashid told me. "There are always empty seats 
on our flights to Damascus, and 1 think we can make some ar- 
rangements." This, I felt, was the prelude to a generous offer. 1 
tried not to reveal my eagerness or desperation and merely nod- 

Going Home i 59 

ded in order to let him continue. He asked me to tell him once 
again how we had been taken from the island in a boatload of 
goats- This portion of the story struck him as extremely funny. I 
think he delighted in trying to imagine himself in a similar situa- 

We both enjoyed our little game of drawing out the conversa- 
tion with as much suspense as possible. Given the situation, the 
tone of the conversation, and my understanding of hospitality in 
the Middle East and Asia, I felt extremely confident that the 
manager would simply surprise us with an offer of complimen- 
tary tickets. In return, I would refuse, and offer to make at least 
a partial payment* Mr. Rashid would exclaim that this was out 
of the question, and point out that he knew I simply did not have 
the funds. What was important for him to be able to convey was 
the fact that he wanted to help* We were not to question the ex- 
tent of his assistance. This exchange would increase the pleasure 
for both of us, and at the same time emphasize his generosity and 
my gratitude. 

We were in no rush to conclude our talk, but as we chatted I 
could sense Robert's growing impatience and desire to partici- 
pate in the exchange. The thought of his getting involved filled 
me with dread, so I tried to bring the negotiations to an end. I 
had gone over the details of my financial situation with Mr. 
Rashid earlier, but 1 sensed that before his final surrender he 
wanted one last measure of drama* I must be left in doubt until 
the end. I listened to his words but took the meaning from his 
eyes. I felt certain he was going to help us. 

"How much of the full fare can you afford?" he asked, 

In my mind I formed an answer. I would go over the compli- 
cations of having money cabled, the scene at the embassy, and 
rny genuine need. I would also express my thanks for any small 
favor he could provide. This would give Mr. Rashid his opening* 

Unfortunately, I never had the chance to express my thoughts, 
ecause at that precise moment Captain Jones saw his opportu- 
nity. "We can pay two hundred and twenty-five dollars!" he 
blurted out. 

* don t know how he arrived at that amount, or what his inten- 


tions could have been, because his comment completely contra- 
dicted my entire story at the crucial moment, I stiffened in my 
seat, totally mystified, Mr. Rashid stared at me in a state of simi- 
lar confusion. Moments earlier, ail had seemed clear. We had es- 
tablished trust, and the subtle exchange had been fluid and full 
of grace, I had claimed destitution, but now there seemed to be 
extra funds available* How could 1 explain to Mr. Rashid that 
for personal reasons I didn't want to ask Ellen for a loan? How 
could I excuse the fact that Robert and Ellen actually didn't need 
his help? Whatever was going on in his mind, it was obvious that 
the mood had been broken. I felt the manager withdraw. 1 was 
ashamed. Mr. Rashid was stripped of the pleasure of his gener- 
ous offer, and felt betrayed. I was deprived of my credibility, and 
the airline ticket. 

It was an uncomfortable situation, which I only added to by 
apologizing, blushing, and walking out the door, with the other 
two Americans following, I was furious, but once on rhe street 
all I could say to Robert was 'Thanks, genius!" I didn't wait for 
a reply but turned to walk to the office of Air Yemenia, the do- 
mestic carrier. I didn't know for certain if it had planes that flew 
out of the country, but this was the last airline. Perhaps someone 
in the office could help me, 

I seated myself at a desk opposite Mr. Yusuf al-Iriyani, the 
manager of Air Yemenia. Tea was brought, and I started to pre- 
sent my weli-practiced story. No more than a minute passed be- 
fore Mr. al-Iriyani set the official army report aside and said, 
"What can I do to help you?" 

"Well, there's more to the story," I replied, wanting him to hear 
me out before saying no. 

"It's not necessary — I believe you need help. What can I do? JT 

Mr. al-lriyani began to smile. He realized how surprised 1 was 
at his trust in me but concealed any acknowledgment of this. He 
believed my story and understood my problem, Mr, al-Iriyani 
was remarkable for his rare blend of thoughtfulness and effi- 

"We fly as far as Cairo, so the ticket from San'a to Cairo is no 

Going Home I 61 

problem. Cairo to Athens is around fifty-four U.S. dollars. From 
there you are on your own." 

I offered to send him payment later, but he refused. 

"Don't worry, the airline will survive* But I want you to prom- 
ise me one thing/' 

"What is that?'* I asked, slightly stunned by the unexpected 
turn of events. 

"The next time you see someone in need, I want you to pass 
on this favor* It was given to me, and now it is yours." 

I was remarkably touched by this wise response to the situa- 
tion. Rareiy does one receive such valuable life lessons in an air- 
line office, I immediately agreed to his condition, Mr, al-Iriyani 
wanted to know who else was with me on the sailboat, I men- 
tioned Robert's and Ellen's names, and the following day, when I 
returned, I was handed three ticket folders, 

"What are the two extras for?" I asked, without opening the 

"For your companions/ 1 he said with a smile, 

"Yes . . . for my companions," I replied dryly. 

Two days later I was sitting in a plane at the end of the runway 
of SanVs international airport, I could finally relax. Vibrations 
from the engines lulled me into a pleasant state, and I thought 
back to a night on the Red Sea when the stars became unstuck 
from the heavens and I rode down the face of giant waves cov- 
ered in silvery foam. There was the vision of Idrise's blue-and- 
white sail on the horizon and the sight of an exhausted sea bird 
tumbling out of a fantastic night sky to sit with me until dawn. 
In my mind 1 was walking along the cliffs of Uqban Island when 
the plane began to move down the runway. As it gathered speed, 
I realized that a seven-year journey had come to an end. I was on 
my way home. 

A Sack ful of Locusts 

San* a, North Yemen, 1988 

I stepped onto the runway at 3:30 A.M. wondering how I 
would get into town and where I would stay. Armed guards who 
had surrounded the aircraft were now shuttling passengers into 
a bus to take us to the darkened terminal. Between the immigra- 
tion desk and the customs checkpoint I was approached by a 
short man with black curly hair protruding from the bottom of a 
skullcap. 1 could hear him talking, but took little notice of what 
he was saying. 1 was exhausted. Waiting beside the conveyor belt 
for my bag* I observed the man's dress as he approached, in turn, 
each of the foreign men who had been on the flight. He wore a 
black sport coat over what appeared to be a powder-blue cotton 
nightgown. Girdling his waist was a three-inch-wide belt of pur- 
ple velvet richly embroidered with gold and silver threads. 
Shoved behind the belt was his jambia, a wicked^looking ten- 
inch curved dagger in a green leather sheath. The man wore 
black leather shoes without socks. He looked like all the taxi 
drivers pressed behind the metal barricade as they waited for 
passengers. He wandered back to me and repeated the same un- 
intelligible phrase. I looked around once more for my bag. 

"Meester Hereek?" I finally understood him to say. 

"What?" My voice squeaked its amazement. 

A Sackful of Locusts I 63 

"You are Meester Hereek?" 


"Your car is waiting." 

I hadn't ordered a car, but the man was insistent. When I of- 
fered my bag to be inspected at customs, the man at my side dis- 
missed the uniformed officials and armed guards with an impa- 
tient wave of one hand. Everyone smiled courteously. Who could 
this fellow be? 

We drove into the night, 

"Our destination?" I inquired. 

"To Queen of Sheba Hotel," he replied. 

1 asked who was paying for such luxurious accommodation, 
thinking that he might be hustling clients in return for the usual 

"Do not worry . - - you are welcome to Yemen," my escort re- 
assured me. He patted my knee and smiled while indicating 
obliquely that the room and car were to be provided without 
charge. 1 was confused. 

The smiling man in the blue nightgown introduced himself as 
Mohammed Aziz Alaghban. He had been sent by Yusuf al-Iri- 
yani, the former manager of Air Yemenia who in 1978 had 
helped me leave the country. Now Mohammed was to be my 
murafiq — my protector, driver, and traveling companion. "I 
will take you where you want to go," he assured me. 

How could Mr. al-Iriyani know that 1 was returning to Yemen 
after ten years? 1 still don't know, but 1 remembered enough 
about the country from my first visit not to ask. There is no such 
thing as knowing "the real story" in Yemen* There are far too 
many versions from which to choose. Motivations vary; mystery 
remains a constant. 

Mohammed left me at the front desk of the hotel, promising to 
return late that afternoon. After lying on my bed for an hour, 1 
realized that sleep was impossible and decided to go for a walk. 

Light filtered into the city. The upper stories of a thousand- 
year-old stone building were touched by the predawn glow, A 
lead-colored light spread through the chilly depths of darkened 
passageways paved with blue-gray stone. The twisting laneways 


were nearly deserted, but as I moved through the shadows I 
could smell the smoke from household breakfast fires. I passed 
two soldiers with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. The 
men were shivering beneath the hoods of their olive-green over- 
coats as they crouched beside a miserable-looking fire of card- 
board boxes and plastic bottles, I moved further into the city, 
where rows of veiled women were selling loaves of steamy bread 
from cloth-lined tea chests* The wooden chests were covered 
with blankets to retain the heat. The freshly baked bread gave off 
a delicious aroma of barley and sorghum flour. I bought one of 
the five-inch-wide loaves and sat down in a streetside teashop to 
sip a thick foamy drink made from ground coffee husks and 
sweetened condensed milk, A crushed green cardamom pod 
floated on the surface. The sun was rising, 

A man approached. Dressed in a beige sport coat over a full- 
length orange terry-cloth bathrobe, he performed an extraordi- 
nary dance in the street. He twirled with arms outstretched and 
his palms opened to the morning sky. Like a dervish he continued 
to turn, and as he did so he began to sing and smile in the dusty 
road littered with refuse. At first I thought he was crazy; then it 
occurred to me that he might be merely happy. I couldn't under- 
stand hts song, but as he drew near I could see his eyes — wild 
and unblinking black orbs that saw a world I could never imag- 
ine, A single white dove flew overhead, displaying a pinkish hue 
beneath its wings. 

A young daredevil wearing a skindiver's mask darted out of a 
lane astride a carpeted bicycle. He peddled furiously past the 
dancing man without paying him the least bit of attention before 
disappearing into a narrow alleyway pinched between two build- 
ings. Like a phantom, the cyclist seemed to vanish into the mud- 
brick walls. A hint of dust hung in the air to reassure me that 1 
had not imagined the scene. 

I enjoyed the view from my table, and it was nice to feel so 
comfortably dislocated in a strange city. I wondered if I was the 
only one relishing the bizarre sights, but when I looked around 
the tables to gauge other people's reactions, 1 realized that the 
sight of me drinking a cup of coffee and eating a piece of bread 

A Sackful of Locusts I 6$ 

was infinitely more provocative than carpeted bicycles or twirl- 
ing madmen singing in the street at sunrise, I cleared my throat 
self-consciously as I attempted to become inconspicuous through 
nonchalance. I dug into my pants pocket for a letter The man 
continued his song to the sky as I smoothed the stiff page on the 

Months earlier, a friend in New York had given me the name 
of a Mr, Martin Plimsole, an English instructor at the Bristol 
Language Institute in San'a, I had heard through our mutual 
friend that Mr Plimsole had been living in Yemen for six years. 
He spoke the San'ani dialect perfectly and had read Arabic at 
Cambridge. I had returned to Yemen to search for the journals 1 
had buried on Uqban Island ten years earlier, and I somehow 
thought Mr. Plimsole might be able to help. I had written to him 
at once. It was a rather formal letter, introducing myself and 
briefly explaining the shipwreck in 1978 and my plans to revisit 
the island. He had been described as an ethnographic walker, so 
I took the opportunity to suggest we might go on a walk in the 
mountains during my stay. I envisioned a kindly middle-aged 
man who favored gray herringbone blazers and wool gabardine 
slacks cut generously at the waist — perhaps the sort of out- 
doorsman who might take along a tin box containing a set of 
hairbrushes, binoculars, and a silver butter knife for spreading 
gentleman's relish on dry biscuits imported from England. If 
there was a shop in San 'a selling Wilkin and Sons apricot pre- 
serves, Martin Plimsole would know the place. 

I was gratified to hear from him within three weeks of posting 
my original letter, but I wasn't quite sure what to make of his 

Dear Eric, 

Many thanks for your letter. I was away in Spain for a few 
weeks, I visited Galicia where people are so melancholy , , , 
then on to Leon where they are also melancholy. I traveled to 
Portugal and found the people there even more melancholy. 
The friend I was with thought he was going to die so we left the 

y before *he Great Fire of Lisbon — having eaten and drunk 


far more than was good for us* 1 spent a few days in Cairo, 
where people thought my Arabic hilarious. 1 found the Egyp- 
tians anything but melancholy. The cafes there serve a hot 
milky drink with nuts in, which is ambrosial. I rowed around 
the Niie in the sunset, and listened to a tape of readings by Ben- 
jamin Zephaniah, an English Rastafarian poet, in the City of 
the Dead under the shadow of the Qait Bey mosque. It's begin- 
ning to get cold in San*a, which always makes me want to go 
on walks. PM is right in recommending Jaba! Bura, I once went 
walking there* climbing the last part of the mountain with my 
nose on a level with a donkey's farting fundament. A Bura 
burro. There's a strange bit of forest along the way — loud 
with the cries of baboons. What I'm trying to say is I should 
love to go on a trip with you. You asked what you could bring, 
A piece of cheese would be nice, and a supply of cigarette bang- 
ers. The sort that you put in a cigarette and blow up the end. 
Hope to see you soon, 


I refolded the letter and returned it to my pocket. Rastafarian 
poets? Flatulating fundaments? What sort of man might he be? 
And the cigarette bangers, what were they for? I had been con- 
cerned about practicalities such as proper footwear, medication 
for chloroquine-resistant strains of malaria, and whether I would 
need an umbrella. But having put these matters aside, I found 
myself taking an immediate liking to Mr, Martin Plimsole. 

By the time I left the teashop, the man had stopped twirling. 
He sat upon a pile of rock rubble at the side of an alleyway. One 
of the female vendors had offered him a loaf of bread, and he 
chewed contentedly on the crust. 

Leaving this scene behind, I walked for several minutes before 
losing my way in the maze of dust-laden back streets. I didn't 
mind being !ost> because I had no particular destination in mi nd. 
My intention was to continue walking through the old city of 
San'a until I was tired enough to sleep. The thirty-hour plane 
journey from New York to Yemen had taken me beyond mere 
exhaustion, I floated on a cloud of adrenal vapor, bleary-eyed, 

A Sackful of Locusts / 67 

yet hopelessly wide awake and full of anticipation. I had been 
wandering through the empty city since before daylight, when 
the call to prayer had dislodged all true believers from their 
warm sleeping places. By the time the night watchmen in the 
grain suq had ceased calling to one another, it was light enough 
for me to begin picking out architectural details as well as less 
obvious distinguishing features of the city. The garbage struck 
me as remarkable. The discarded paper packaging reminded me 
of the storms of litter that had filled the streets of Hodeida in 

I stopped to look at a section of roadway strewn with trash. 
The colorful expanse of flattened litter that lay before me re- 
vealed all there was to know about Yemeni brand loyalties. 
Imbedded in the surface of the road was a blue polka-dot pattern 
made up of discarded lids of Nivea skin cream containers. Labels 
from Dutch Lady evaporated milk cans displayed pastoral scenes 
from nineteenth-century Holland, and Topaz Brand double- 
edged razor blades protruding from the compressed debris made 
barefoot walking inadvisable. Red-blue-and-silver bottle caps 
carrying the Pepsi-Cola logo in Arabic script sprinkled the 
ground like discarded coinage^ and judging from the cans, Por- 
tuguese sardines in tomato sauce were clearly less popular than 
fava beans from China, Gazing at the flattened, dried body of a 
pigeon that had become amalgamated with a padded bra bearing 
fresh tire marks, I became self-conscious. Plastic bags bounded 
past me like tumbleweed as I continued walking. Farther down 
the lane I glanced back to see a blanketed figure looking at the 
ground that I had so meticulously examined moments earlier. 

Yemen, as 1 correctly guessed, is a country of imports. My 
opinion was supported by the evidence underfoot. An astute 
wholesaler or small goods merchant could devise an entire mar- 
keting strategy for specific neighborhoods merely by checking 
the surface of the roadways. So intent was I on uncovering the 
traces of my past that no object or thought seemed too insignifi- 
cant. Even the litter spoke to me that first morning, I wandered 
aimlessly, searching for deeper meanings. The commonest sights 
m y attention. Weeks later 1 was to stride over this same gar- 



bage without giving it a second thought. It would gradually dis- 
appear through familiarity. 

Children were making their way to school as men returned 
from the markets with bundles of fresh vegetables and clear plas- 
tic bags full of red meat. I fell in step behind five men carrying 
identical towels with pink, yellow, green, and blue stripes under 
their arms. They entered an open doorway set in a whitewashed 
stone wall, and 1 followed. Warm, moist air blew over my face 
and forearms as I stepped into the dim light This was the en- 
trance to a hamrnam, a public bathhouse. Once inside, the men 
turned to the left and immediately disappeared. Quickening my 
pace, I followed them down a short corridor that opened onto a 
domed room. An empty stone fountain dominated the middle of 
the floor. As I paused to allow my eyes to adjust to the light, the 
men moved farther into the shadows, and were soon tost in the 
steam and darkness. I heard a wooden door open and close but 
saw no movement. The thick stone wails gave off a damp earthy 
smell and amplified the sounds of male voices and splashing 
water from the inner rooms. I felt like an intruder as I stood in 
the partial light beneath the dome. 

I stepped back onto the street and walked to the rear of the 
bathhouse. Sensing my curiosity, an attendant, bared to the 
waist, showed me the fires below ground level. The stone floors 
and water reservoirs of the bathhouse were heated directly by a 
slow fire. Fresh cow skulls, assorted animal bones, and hides 
were used for fuel. Horns gave the most heat, the man told me. 
Fuel lay in heaps near the arched openings to the furnaces. In the 
jumbled piles I could see skulls, bones, discarded clothes, old 
rubber thongs, leather shoes, and worn-out truck tires. The at- 
tendant tapped one of the tires and then gave me the thumbs-up 
sign to indicate that tires burn well. Little smoke was escaping 
from the roof vents, which caused me to wonder if the frightful 
smell of burning rubber and hides entered the bathhouse. 

As I wandered farther, a pair of window shutters creaked open 
high above me. Lifting my gaze, I saw a cobalt sky framed by the 
familiar mud-brick facades frosted like gingerbread with gypsum 
plaster. They looked like the result of child's play — handmade 

A Sackful of Locusts I 6<? 

and ageless- A woman's bare arm appeared from a darkened win- 
dow and hung a caged gray parrot in a patch of sunlight. The 
arm withdrew, and I continued walking. 

By seven o'clock I was standing in front of a man selling lo- 
custs- He was seated on a brick behind a blanket covered with a 
three-foot-high mound of reddish brown insects. Demonstrating 
how to eat them, the man first pinched off the wings and dis- 
carded them, then popped the body and legs of the locust into his 
mouth. 1 tried one. It tasted like crunchy, smoked milk powder. 
The locust was good, although it might have been even better 
lightly salted. 

The locust seller, pleased that 1 had eaten one of the insects, 
spoke to me in English. "We consider the locust to be a delicacy, 
but a ram's head is preferred to a sackful of locusts." 

I told him that neither ram's heads nor locusts were readily 
available in my country. 

"Correct!" he replied knowingly- "In Amreekee you eat the hot 
dog, the hamburger, and the potato chip." 

In yet another narrow laneway, with just enough room for two 
loaded camels to pass, a horn began to blare* A vehicle was ap- 
proaching. The pedestrians backed against stone walls as the 
honking vehicle moved forward. Three veiled women faced me 
from the opposite side of the lane. The car advanced, passing be- 
tween us, and as it did so a protruding fragment of chrome trim 
caught hold of my trousers just to the left of my zipper, I heard 
the sound of ripping fabric before I knew what was happening. 
When the dust cleared, I inspected the damage. My skin was un- 
touched, but the entire upper section of my left pant leg was torn 
open to reveal most of my thigh. 1 couldn't see the women's faces, 
hut they obviously enjoyed the sight of my naked leg. They didn't 
Point, but the movements beneath their veils betrayed their con- 
vulsive laughter. 

The prospect of having to walk across an entire city full of 
veiled women with my thigh exposed suddenly made me feel tre- 
mendously weary. I paid a man on a motor scooter the equiva- 
em of $1,50 plus a sackful of locusts to take me back to my 
room. The morning had been well spent. It was time to sleep. 

Motoring with 


The following afternoon I found my way to the Bristol 
Language Institute, where I was disappointed to learn that Mar- 
tin Flimsole was visiting friends in Jordan. He would not be re- 
turning to San'a for another week, so I decided to begin my 
search for the journals without hirn. The next morning Mo- 
hammed picked me up promptly at 6 A.M. to take me to the 
coast. My plans were mindlessly simple: first we would drive 
from San*a to Hodeida, then make our way north to Al-Lu- 
hayyah, the coastal village nearest Uqban. In Al-Luhayyah we 
would hire a boat to take us out to the island, where I would dig 
up the journals. The following day we could take a leisurely drive 
south along the shore of the Red Sea as far as Hodeida. A late- 
afternoon drive through the mountains would have us back in 
San'a before dinnertime. 

It was on the second day of our journey-, while motoring north 
from Hodeida j that we drove into a towering wall of dust. The 
heat was terrible. Hot wind riddled the car with a hail of grit as 
the sun disappeared. We could no longer see the road. Plastic 
bags flew at us like a lost squadron of dehydrated kamikaze jel- 
lyfish. The windshield wipers were soon fouled with the bags, 
making it impossible to continue. Mohammed, showing the 

Motoring with Mohammed i 71 

same calm assurance he had when he picked me up at the airport 
four days earlier, eased the car to the side of the road to wait for 
the storm to pass. 1 checked the temperature inside the car. Forty- 
eight degrees Celsius (ii8°F) — two degrees hotter than the day 
before. We were on the Tihama, a fifty-mile- wide coastal plain 
renowned for its debilitating climate and featureless landscape. 
Five major wadis, or seasonal riverbeds, cross the Tihama from 
east to west. We were somewhere south of Wadi Mawr. I reached 
into the back seat for the water bottle, but found it empty. The 
hot plastic stuck to my sweaty palm. I felt dizzy, and hot air filled 
my lungs. Stupefied by the heat, I collapsed against the door of 
the passenger seat, a damp, torpid lump. 

There is a great wind called shamal that blows from the north 
across the Arabian Peninsula during the months of December 
and January, as well as May and June, The sand-laden wind can 
block out the sun and bring down aircraft by clogging the air 
intake to the engines. Vehicles have been stripped of their paint 
in these storms. 1 asked Mohammed if the storm we were in was 
a shamal. 

"No, this is only garbage — it is nothing," he answered, fas- 
tening his black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh around his face to 
keep the fine dust out of his mouth and nose, "It will pass," he 
added, his voice muffled. 

As we waited for the storm to clear, I thought about Mo- 
hammed's reactions to events. Few situations seemed to affect 
him in predictable ways. The previous night, on our way from 
San'a to the coast, we had stayed in a hotel in Manakha. Late in 
the afternoon I had been standing on the roof enjoying the spec- 
tacle of rising mist billowing up the mountainside and flowing 
between the tall stone buildings when gunfire erupted in a nearby 
laneway, Two long bursts — thirty shots or more. From where ! 
stood I could tell the direction of the shots, but the narrowness 
of the lane made it impossible to see the gunman. People on ad- 
joining rooftops smiled knowingly at each other* No one seemed 
1 armed * I retreated down several flights of stairs to where I 
ound Mohammed nibbling at a fresh bundle of qat. 1 asked him 

at had ha PPened, but he seemed unconcerned. 


"It is nothing, only gunfire." 

I explained that gunfire, especially automatic-weapon fire in 
populated areas, was a cause of grave concern where I came 
from. I asked if something might be wrong. 

£S A child has been born," he replied, placing a leaf of qat into 
his mouth and chewing contentedly. 

1 asked how he could be sure of this theory. 

"By listening to the rhythm of the bursts. The short bursts are 
the deadly ones. It was the husband shooting. The gunfire makes 
the wife and child happy, and announces the birth to the village," 
His slow smile told me to relax. 

When the storm of plastic bags had subsided, Mohammed 
pulled onto the road once again, and we continued north. We got 
as far as the signpost indicating the turnoff to Al-Luhayyah be- 
fore being stopped by a Land Cruiser full of soldiers. Two of the 
men seated in the back carried rocket-propelled grenade launch- 
ers, while a third stood poised behind a fifty-caliber machine gun 
mounted on a tripod. Their expressions made me reconsider my 
plan to wander off the main roads without proper travel docu- 

To go anywhere in Yemen one must first obtain a tasrib, a road 
permit, that specifies exactly where one can travel. Border areas, 
certain archeological sites, oil fields, and tribal lands not under 
government control are off limits. Thinking that I could go 
where I pleased, I had picked up a permit in San'a that allowed 
me to visit the major cities and villages along the main roads. 
Unfortunately, I didn't realize that the Red Sea coast and islands 
north of Hodeida were in a highly restricted military area. There 
were vague rumors that the Palestine Liberation Organization 
had a training camp on one of the islands and that Russian mili- 
tary supplies were off-loaded somewhere near Salif, but neither 
of these possibilities, nor the fact of our proximity to the termi- 
nus of the Hunt Oil pipeline near Kamaran Island, sank in until 
we were confronted by the soldiers in the Land Cruiser, 

This encounter with rhe military was our first opportunity to 
talk our way out of a difficult situation. 

Motoring with Mohammed / 73 
"Where is your road permit for the coast?" one soldier asked 

"Well, 1 don't have one ..." I started to explain, with Mo- 
hammed translating, but 1 got no further. Two minutes later Mo- 
hammed and 1 were heading back in the direction from which we 
had just come. 

Not knowing what else to do, I visited the local Lloyds of Lon- 
don agent at the Hodeida Shipping and Transport Company. 
Kenneth Beadle, the manager — a ruddy-faced Scot with a gin- 
ger-colored beard — crushed my hand in greeting. He was 
dressed in a crisp white shirt with short sleeves and double- 
pleated shorts in blue drill, which had been ironed by an expert 
Freckled kneecaps and golden hair covered the gap between the 
bottom of the shorts and the tops of his white knee socks. Kind 
enough to interrupt his work to look up the original insurance 
claim for Clea, he opened the thin file> and as I suspected, there 
had been no salvage* No one had been sent out to conduct a sur- 
vey, and there were no photos or other records* He suggested that 
the boat might still be on the island or being used by the local 

Mohammed and I checked the fishing port south of the city 
center, but no one had seen a boat that fitted Clea's description 
or knew the story of the shipwreck. Using a series of remote back 
roads, we again attempted to drive north of Hodeida to talk with 
people in the fishing villages of Ibn Abbas and Khawbah, but had 
no luck. Once again we were turned back at an army checkpost 
that guarded the coast. Not wishing to pass the night in the 
dreadful humidity of Hodeida, we made our way down a coastal 
track as far as Wadi Rumman before turning inland to join up 
with the main paved highway 

We continued south toward Zabid on a black asphalt road 
anked by light brown sand dunes perfectly proportioned in 
e ^ery way. Not a twig was visible on the trackless expanse of 

immering sand. Eventually we came upon a man dressed in a 
lte r °be hiked up to the knees. He was carrying an axe over 


his shoulder as he strode, with long purposeful steps* over the 
sand dunes, and he presented a strange sight in the heat of the 
day, carrying neither water nor an umbrella. I asked Mohammed 
what the man with the axe might be doing. 
"He is collecting wood/ 1 

"But there is no wood to collect, 55 1 innocently remarked. 
"It is not important," Mohammed replied, I didn't pursue the 

An hour later a similar exchange occurred as we drove into the 
market town of Bayt al-Faqih. In front of the police station, a 
crowd of men had gathered to look at a body lying motionless at 
the base of the front steps. 

"What is happening, Mohammed?" 


"Nothing? 55 

"It is only a dead man. I will show you the suq. We will buy 
khadi for our wives to perfume their hair. Then we will look at 
the sheep*" 

Khadi is the sweet-scented flower of the pandanus palm {Pan- 
danus odoratissirnus), which is cultivated along most wadis of 
the western escarpment. Women place the cluster of tiny flowers 
in their hair beneath a piece of fabric or plastic for a few hours. 
Khadi gives the hair a wonderful scent, which I immediately rec- 
ognized from the fragrance of the fresh flowers. 

I appreciated learning about the pandanus flowers, but Mo- 
hammed and I were having difficulty sharing most of our other 
interests. What I viewed as remarkable, he saw as commonplace. 
A dead man in the street or a lone woodsman in the desert did 
not stimulate his thoughts. Likewise, he was perplexed as to why 
I wanted to find a sailboat that had been wrecked ten years ear- 
lier. I hadn't owned the boat, so what was the purpose of my 
search? He realized that I was looking for something and that he 
had been hired to assist me in any way possible, but regardless of 
where I wanted to go, we somehow always ended up looking at 

Mohammed took advantage of our journey to compare the 
price of village sheep to those in San 'a. Id al-Adha, the Feast of 

Motoring with Mohammed I 75 

the Sacrifice, was still months away, and he planned to fatten 
three or four sheep on the concrete balcony of his apartment in 
San'a He would keep one of the animals for himself. The others 
he planned to sell at a profit. 

4t And what will your neighbors say when they see sheep on 
your balcony?" I asked* 

"Nothing/* he replied, "1 am getting this idea from them three 
years ago." 

There were many things to see in Zabid: a citadel from the 
Ottoman occupation, the maze of covered passageways through 
the seedy marketplace, and the decorative brick facades hidden 
within the courtyards of private houses. Since before the twelfth 
century Zabid has been known as a center of Koranic studies, 
specializing in the Shafi'i school of Islam- The city has prospered 
through grants and donations sent from throughout the Sunnite 
world, and private libraries containing rare manuscripts are 
found in family homes as well as in the many mosques and reli- 
gious schools- But I saw none of these things. Instead, Mo- 
hammed and 1 looked at sheep. We pinched and slapped their 
flanks, nudged them with our toes, and lifted the smelly creatures 
to check their weight as Mohammed discussed prices. 

1 had wanted to inspect a rare twelfth-century minhar (pulpit) 
in the Asha'ir Mosque that had been specially made for readings 
of the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet). More than twelve 
hundred years of history lay waiting for me in Zabid, but I found 
myself helping Mohammed force the reluctant rear end of a 
sheep into the back seat of his car, I reminded him that we would 
not be returning to San'a for another two days. 

"What is two days to a sheep?" he replied. 

The following morning Mohammed bought two smaller sheep 
in the village of Hays, That made a party of five, two people in 
wic front seat and three sheep in the back- Mohammed had 
enough livestock for his baiconv. 1 did n't want to seem presump- 
tuous, but since it was I who had flown ten thousand miles to 
search the coast of Yemen, I suggested that we drive south to the 
ntrean refugee camp at Al-Khawkhah. I wanted to talk to the 


people who lived there on the off chance that someone might 
know of the men who had rescued me from Uqban Island, 

When we arrived at the camp, two policemen were talking to 
a group of angry Eritreans. Mohammed, overhearing the conver- 
sation, told me that an Eritrean woman had been raped by Yem- 
eni soldiers, While this discussion was going on, a young man 
came up and introduced himself as Tibo. He spoke Arabic and 
Afar fluently and communicated well in English. As he took us 
on a tour, he described daily life and explained why the camp 
had been established. 

Less than one hundred miles to the west, he reminded us, 
across the Red Sea, lay Ethiopia, one of several countries to be 
devastated by civil war and the worst drought in recent African 
history. Strategically located above the Horn of Africa and over- 
looking the southern entrance to the Red Sea, Ethiopia is in a 
favorable geographical position to receive aid from Western 

As a response to the drought, the United States, Canada, Great 
Britain, France, and other countries set out, in 1984, to "save the 
children." The plan included the children of the northern prov- 
inces of Eritrea and Tigre, the centers of the secessionist guerrilla 
movement. There were the usual distribution problems, geo- 
graphical as well as political. Although grain, high-protein bis- 
cuits, and milk drinks were airlifted to Ethiopian cities by British 
and U.S. military cargo planes, the poor rural areas, especially 
those sympathetic to the guerrillas, were receiving little, if any, 
food. Britain offered to parachute food and supplies directly into 
the stricken areas, but the Ethiopian government said that the 
bags of grain might break. Armed truck convoys transporting 
food from the cities to selected distribution centers further in- 
sured that none of the food fell into the wrong stomachs, Tibo 
explained that this selective starvation by the Ethiopian govern- 
ment had encouraged people to make their way across the Red 
Sea to refugee camps like the one at Al-Khawkhah. 

The community was divided into three sections: the housing 
area, the school and boys' quarter, and the clinic. About fifty 
children lived in the boys' quarter. Some were orphans, but many 

Motoring with Mohammed I 77 

of the boys' parents lived in Eritrea, Tibo, like the others, had 
three meals a day consisting of a steamed flatbread called injera 
eaten with a soup made from tinned tomato paste, pepper, flour, 
water, and chilis. The people drank water or weak tea, They had 
lived on this diet for seven years, 

The clinic at the camp was funded by the United Nations. Lo- 
cal Yemenis came to take advantage of the free medicine and 
treatment, which may or may not have been in keeping with the 
original plan, but the arrangement helped make the camp more 
acceptable to the surrounding villagers. In any case, the Eritreans 
were in no position to object. Like the other five to ten thousand 
refugees in Yemen, the people of Al-Khawkhah camp soon dis- 
covered they had few rights, as the African and Western aid or- 
ganizations moved in to control their lives. 

The representative of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) who 
ran the camp was half Yemeni and half Eritrean. The interna- 
tional aid organizers distrusted one another but were united in 
their hatred for this man, who they claimed was embezzling 
funds, A power struggle had developed between the ELF repre- 
sentative and Oxfam, the British aid organization, each of whom 
used the threat of National Security (secret police) intervention 
to blunt the other's efforts. The Eritreans were aware of their pre- 
carious situation and went to great efforts to smooth any possi- 
ble difficulties between the rival aid organizations. These at- 
tempts to please everyone left the refugees with little control over 
the running of the camp. It was humiliating, but Tibo claimed 
that the people remained grateful as well as optimistic. They had 
a safe place to live. 

The men could not work in town, but were allowed to practice 
subsistence fishing if they had the approval of the local sheik. 
Some had been able to make their way to Saudi Arabia, where 
they could save enough money to get their families out of the 
camp. These men might be gone for years, and many never re- 
turned. Most, however, remained in the camp. The women made 
straw mats and sold goats. The transport of goats across the Red 
Sea, as practiced in 1978, was still in evidence but had fallen into 
ecune. Starting in 1983, the boat trade had been restricted by 


both the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni governments, in order to en- 
courage domestic livestock production. 

The uncontrolled flow of Eritreans into Yemen was also 
viewed as a problem. Who qualified for refugee status? No pass- 
ports or other identity papers were available for Eritreans leav- 
ing Ethiopia. These people managed to get to Yemen either by 
walking overland to the Sudan or by sailing across the Red Sea 
in open boats. The official Yemeni policy toward them was 
friendly but unclean They were generously provided with a place 
to live, but as the camp was set up they could not integrate with 
Yemeni society. The young Eritrean boys excelled at the local 
schools, and I understood why: education provided them with 
the only opportunity to leave the camp. 

I asked Tibo about the rumor that local soldiers had raped one 
of the camp women* 

"I cannot say. It has happened before. There is nothing we can 
do about these things. Life will not change for us in this place. It 
is better we find a life elsewhere. We dream of going home, to 
our own country." 

In Yemen it is the custom for a man to buy his wife. The money 
is given in trust for the woman. The average price for a Yemeni 
woman is between 2,0,000 and 40,000 rivals ($2000-$4ooo). In 
Al-Khawkhah, poor Yemeni men, or those seeking an additional 
wife, were coming co the camp to arrange marriages for consid- 
erably less than the going rate. In Eritrea this is not the practice, 
but what were the alternatives for a young woman in the camp? 
Once outside, she was in a better position to change her life and 
help her family financially. 

Returning to the car, I showed Tibo and the group of men who 
had joined us on our walk several photos of Idrise and the others 
who had rescued me from Uqban. They looked at the photos 
carefully, but could not identify the men. A policeman came over 
and talked to Mohammed. The investigation into the alleged 
rape was creating an ugly scene, and my presence was not appre- 
ciated. I was politely asked to leave the camp before sundown — 
preferably sooner, This suited Mohammed, who would have 
been mortified to pass the night there. For him, three sheep in the 

Motoring with Mohammed I 79 

back seat of the car was nothing compared to a night in a refugee 
camp- 1 felt quite the opposite. 

A man carrying a sackful of onions hitched a ride with us to 
his home, which lay a mile or so from the camp* Ibrahim had 
been having little success selling his onions to the Eritreans. He 
invited us into his tumbledown reed hut patched with plastic 
sheet and cardboard, a dwelling that was modest even by Ti- 
hama standards. When 1 accepted his invitation to spend the 
night, I noticed Mohammed rolling his eyes toward the sky, "Al- 
lah!" he declared, 

Ibrahim, like millions of other Yemeni men, had gone to work 
in the Gulf states during the oil boom of the 1970s. He had saved 
money and now had his own business selling produce and sun- 
dry items to the outlying communities near Al-Khawkhah, His 
operation consisted of buying a mixed donkeyload of tomatoes, 
onions, cigarettes, dried fish, and plastic trinkets at the weekly 
market on the main road, then making the rounds of the family 
compounds, selling two tomatoes here, an onion there, between 
market days, Ibrahim was his own boss, but little else could be 
said in favor of his enterprise. Much of the business was done on 

We sat about on tall bed frames strung with hemp rope. A wall 
of battered oil drums filled with sand provided a windbreak, pro- 
tecting us from the hot afternoon breeze. Dry and wrinkled with 
age, Ibrahim's wife looked as if she had grown out of the ground. 
She was tired, and it was clear that she had spent a lifetime ar- 
guing with her husband, Ibrahim had not provided her with the 
comforts of life, and there were no children. She killed a chicken 
for us, but when she asked her husband to contribute an onion 
to the meal, he hesitated* 

"Don't you have one of your own?** he mumbled. 

"No," she replied, 

Handing his wife the smallest onion he could find in the sack, 
hrahim made no secret of the fact that the onion given that night 
w ould mean less business for him the following day. 

After dinner he produced a small television set from a card- 
oard box wrapped in cloth. Beneath the night sky, he connected 


the television to a car battery he kept in a separate box. A dozen 
people from the surrounding huts drifted over to watch an Egyp- 
tian soap opera followed by a military parade. Mohammed teth- 
ered the sheep to a palm tree, and we slept on cots beneath the 

We had failed to reach the fishing villages on the northern coast 
or collect information about the fate of the sailboat, but rather 
than return to San'a directly, I asked Mohammed to make a de- 
tour. We drove south from Al-Khawkhah, then east into the 
mountains, toward the village of Yafrus. Stories from various 
sources indicated that Yafrus had been a center of mysticism for 
more than fifteen hundred years. The tradition had been passed 
from the Jews to the Christians and finally to the Moslems. The 
present-day mosque had been built near the ruins of a synagogue 
dating from the third century. 

In San'a I had met Dr. Obruk, an effusive Turkish scholar vis- 
iting from Ankara. He claimed that Yafrus was the original home 
of the Cabala, an occult theosophy practiced by rabbis and me- 
dieval Christians as welt as some contemporary followers. The 
Cabalists believed that through a secret mystical interpretation 
of each letter and word of the scriptures, one could gain access 
to the divine mysteries. 

Yafrus was also known as a center for healing. Sufi pharma- 
cists collected herbs, bark, and other substances from the coun- 
tryside to sell at the mosque* Medicines for the stomach, urinary 
tract, and kidneys were available, as were burn ointments and a 
special salve for gunshot wounds. 

The mosque that now stands was constructed five hundred 
years ago in honor of Ahmed Ibn'Alwan, who lived in Yafrus 
during the Rasulid period, from 1 119 to 1454, a time of vigorous 
artistic and cultural development in Yemen. A Sufi scholar and 
poet, Ahmed Ibn'Alwan wrote numerous books on Islamic mys- 
ticism and Sunni law. Having enjoyed the pursuit of pleasure and 
vice in his youth, he spent his later years in meditation and study. 

Mohammed and I turned off the main road and started up a 
gravel track leading to Yafrus, Entering the whitewashed court- 

Motoring with Mohammed / 8 1 

ard of the mosque, I noticed a man in leg irons hobbling toward 
the ablution tank. The people of Yafrus had confined this man to 
the mosque, hoping to cure him of his madness. It turned out he 
had been there four months, but he seemed happy enough with 
his situation. I had heard stories that mystics from the area were 
known to beat themselves with chains, but I saw no chains apart 
from the ones on the man's ankles. 

Mohammed showed extreme reluctance to inquire about flag- 
ellants. "These things are from the past. They are not impor- 
tant," he insisted. 

"But they are important to me," I stressed, 

Mohammed had become increasingly uncomfortable and use- 
less as a translator 5 but when we approached a qadi (judge) out- 
side the mosque, he did ask questions about the flagellating mys- 
tics for me. I was encouraged by the holy man's long, thoughtful, 
impassioned responses in Arabic, but Mohammed translated his 
comments simply as "Yes, he agrees," or "No, he cannot say 

Correctly sensing that he had failed me, Mohammed stopped 
at the side of the road to show me what he called the Yemeni 
chewing-gum tree (Ficus vasta). He pounded the bark away from 
a small area with a rock, and white, milky sap appeared. The sap 
dries in the sun for a day before someone peels it off, I pulled off 
an old piece and tried it. The elastic substance was similar to 
chewing gum in texture, although the flavor was more akin to 
that of a rubber band. The tree we stopped to look at was visited 
frequently. Scars covered the trunk as high as a child's reach, and 
suitable rocks for pounding the bark lay at its base. 

The following morning we visited the suq of Ta'izz. Mo- 
hammed had more shopping to do for his wife before our return 
to San'a. The marketplace within the old city walls was not large 
enough to get lost in, but instead of wandering on my own, I 
decided to follow Mohammed as he walked from one vendor to 
jhe next. He had grown up in Ta'izz and knew many of the shop- 
keepers from his childhood. 

Veiled women with imported stainless steel knives squaned on 

e cur bsides, peeling prickly pears for the morning shoppers. 


Stacks of puffy golden fried bread steamed on tall countertops as 
wheelbarrows full of cabbages, apples, grapes, and bananas 
rumbled over the rough ground* The bananas were nestled on 
flat pieces of cardboard to prevent the skins from becoming 
bruised from the jostling. More wheelbarrows maneuvered 
through the impossibly narrow and twisting streets. In the shade 
of wide umbrellas lay piles of green and red tomatoes, green chili 
peppers, purple onions, yellow mangoes, russet sweet potatoes, 
and carefully constructed pyramids of green limes. Folding tables 
were covered with blue-and- white plastic thongs from Taiwan, 

The cool morning air held a multitude of fragrances, and the 
pungent, sweet, musky smells of cooked food reminded me that 
I had not yet eaten. Small boys cautiously worked their way 
through the crowd of male shoppers. Balanced on tin cans atop 
the boys' heads were 6ery terra-cotta bowls of saltah, which the 
boys steadied with folded pieces of cardboard to protect their fin- 
gers. The newspaper sellers, the dust, the early-morning light, the 
crowds of coffee drinkers engaged in thoughtful silence, the jan- 
gle of animal bells, and the smell of harness leather and donkey 
shit put me in a pleasant mood. 

A line of stunningly beautiful women entered a lane and 
passed within a few feet of me. Their perfume filled my nose as 
well as my imagination. Unveiled, these women moved through 
the suq as if they owned every brick and pavingstone in the place. 
Mohammed told me that they were from Jabal Sabir and had 
come to sell qat in the marketplace. These mountain women are 
renowned for being the most ferocious bargainers in the country, 
but this reputation is largely offset by their great beauty. With 
their turmeric-colored cheeks, eyes lined with kohl, and long 
sprigs of sweet-smelling basil draped seductively over their ears, 
they looked inviting* 

"Don't stare !" hissed Mohammed. 

The pharmacists in Ta'izz sold a type of wood that looked fa- 
miliar to me. They called it oud s which simply means wood in 
Arabic. Little chips of it were displayed in large glass apothecary 
jars. Fingering a piece, I recognized it as gaharu, a type of aloes 
found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Oud produces a 

Motoring with Mohammed ! 83 

thick sweet scent when burned over charcoaL In Yemen, small 
ceramic braziers of it are frequently used to perfume men's cloth- 
ing beards, and underarms during important qat chews or wed- 
dings. The guests wave the smoke onto themselves with their 

Driving north from Ta'izz, Mohammed stopped to buy qat. 
He bought an extra bundle for me to try. 1 began to pick the 
leaves and chew. The sheep in the back seat bleated, and their 
dry pellets of shit littered the floor. Before long the qat began to 
take effect, and we settled in for the long drive back to San'a. To 
pass the time, Mohammed told me the story of Rashid and Safia. 
He spoke for more than an hour, pausing only long enough to 
stuff more leaves in his mouth, 

Rashid was fifteen years old when he fell in love with Safia, a 
girl from the village of Raydah. She was named after the Proph- 
et's daughter, and by her eleventh year she already bore the signs 
of exceptional beauty* One day Rashid went with his father to 
ask permission to marry Safia. The girl's father said, "I agree to 
the marriage, but you must pay me one hundred thousand riyals 
as a bride price, plus a Toyota Land Cruiser*" This was an impos- 
sible sum, but Safia was a lovely girl, and Rashid, in the flush of 
young manhood, was determined to have her as his wife. 

He set off for the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, where he labored 
for fifteen years, living simply and sending money back to his 
brother to put in the bank. He sent letters to Safia via his brother. 
She lived with her family and waited for her fiance to return. Saf- 
ia s s beauty and reputation grew as the years passed. She loved 
Rashid and adored the attention her suitor brought her. 

By 1976, Rashid was ready to return to Yemen. He bought a 
Toyota Land Cruiser and began his return journey with 300,000 
nyals in cash. During the long drive across the desert between 
Riyadh and Najran in Saudi Arabia, he began to think about his 
promises as a young man. Certainly the bride price was too high, 
Perhaps the father would reconsider. Rashid could use the truck 
t0 help him start his new life in Raydah. 

He arrived at the village, and soon after that a big welcoming 
Party was held for him by the men. A few days later Rashid and 


his father went to the house of SafiVs family. Rashid had not seen 
Sana in fifteen years, and he was stunned by her beauty. When 
the men discussed details of the marriage, he announced, "J 
would like the marriage to be arranged immediately. What are 
the terms?" 

"As we originally agreed," replied the father, 

"But certainly the price is too high," Rash id began. 

"If it is too high, iook elsewhere for a wife." 

"Arrange the marriage," said Rashid, "but on the understand- 
ing that you and your family will never ask for anything more 
from me. The one hundred thousand riyals I will give you is 
much more than enough for the wedding gifts, the goats, qat, 
clothing, gold jewelry, and marriage party," 

The girl's father agreed to ask for nothing more if Rashid 
would pay the promised sum, Rashid's father bore witness to the 
man's words, 

"And the Toyota?" the future father-in-law asked, 

"Ail right," said Rashid, "Here are the keys," 

The wedding took place. The marriage was happily consum- 
mated, and Rashid and his new wife began their life together af- 
ter fifteen years of waiting. The story of their patience and devo- 
tion had spread to the most remote villages in the area. The 
father-in-law boasted of the handsome price he had received for 
his daughter. Safia, in turn, was thrilled at having commanded 
such attention. The wedding had been a wonder. No woman in 
the region had ever generated so much admiration and envy* 

Safia was a good wife, and Rashid began looking for ways to 
invest his remaining money. He first bought a secondhand truck 
to transport goods between San'a and Raydah, but it broke 
down continually, and he finally sold the vehicle at a loss. He 
then bought a freezer in San'a and had it transported to the vil- 
lage. He became one of the first sellers of frozen French chickens 
in Raydah. The business turned a modest profit, which pleased 
Rashid, because most of his savings had been spent on the wed- 
ding and setting up house. It was not easy for him to adjust to 
married life after years as a single man in the oil fields. 

Not long after the wedding, Safia's mother began nagging her. 

Motoring with Mohammed I 85 

She wanted gifts and money from Rashid. At first Safia refused, 
reminding her mother of the promise not to ask for such things. 
But the mother continued to pressure her. "He has so much — 
he has worked in Saudi Arabia for fifteen years!" the mother ex- 

Rashid and his wife were happy together, and it was time for a 
family. Safia was soon pregnant. With a baby on the way, she had 
less strength to argue with her mother, Rashid loved his wife, and 
when she finally confided in him he was not angry. He decided to 
make a small gesture. The first gifts were insignificant and for the 
mother only. Later, Safia 's father and brothers demanded gifts as 
well, and Rashid's remaining capital began to disappear. 

Tensions developed between Rashid and Safia. They argued. 
After four months, the money was gone and payments were due 
on the freezer. Rashid had to borrow money from his father. The 
savings from fifteen years of labor had been spent. Now Rashid 
had only his frozen chickens. He argued bitterly with his wife 
one night and struck her with his open hand. Safia went to sleep 
in her father's house, which, under Islamic law, was her right. 

Three days later Rashid's father went to ask for his son's wife. 
"My son lost his temper — they had words in their own home. It 
is not your concern. I ask you for my son's wife," 

Safia's father refused to return his daughter. Rashid was hu- 
miliated. The entire village had followed these events keenly, and 
everyone knew the full extent of his sacrifice. He loved Safia, but 
the shame he feit was unbearable. 

Four more days passed before Rashid snapped a clip of bullets 
into his father's Kalashnikov and went to reclaim his wife. He 
knocked on the door, but there was no response. The Toyota — 
his Toyota — was proudly parked beside the house. Rashid 
knocked again, this time with force. "Open the door! 55 he called 

Rashid's father-in-law appeared behind the metal bars of a 
ground-floor window. "What do you want here?" he jeered. 

Nothing unreasonable — 1 only want my wife. Let me in so I 
can talk to her. If I have done wrong, we can still reach an under- 
standing. Let me in," he repeated. 


"You will not have your wife. Go home." 

"So be it," muttered Rashid. He leveled his rifle and without 
another word fired three bullets into his father-in-law's chest 
The man was dead on his feet. He slumped to the floor, out of 
sight, Rashid shot the front-door lock to pieces, then kicked in 
the door. The mother-in-law ran to investigate the commotion 
and was cut down by another burst of gunfire. 

The final tragedy approached. Safia appeared. When she saw 
the bodies of her parents riddled with bullet holes, she screamed. 
Rashid, overcome with emotion, cried, "You are my wife, I worked 
fifteen years for you! Your family has taken everything from me* I 
am a fool. You would not come with me!" Completely out of his 
mind, he shot his wife dead and then fled to Saudi Arabia. 

Mohammed still received occasional letters from Rashid, who 
was planning to work in Saudi Arabia until 1992,. He was paint- 
ing houses and office buildings in Jidda to cover his blood debt. 
One day he would have enough money to come back and settle 
in the country of his birth. Enough time would have passed so 
that SafiYs relatives would not demand his life; instead, the Is- 
lamic court in San'a would decide how much he must pay SaftVs 
family to compensate them for the death of one man and two 
women. The death of the father would set Rashid back at least 
320,000 riyals; the mother and daughter would come to an ad- 
ditional 150,000 riyals each — nearly $50,000 altogether. He 
had also lost his Toyota Land Cruiser. 1 found it a strange irony 
that even after death, his wife's family continued to milk him of 
his earnings. 

According to Mohammed, Rashid had no immediate plans to 
remarry. "Because of stories like this, we southerners don't like 
to marry girls from the north, There are too many problems," he 

I wasn't amused. It was a disturbing story, and far more com- 
plex than a simple case of injured male pride or random domestic 
violence. My sympathies were with Safia, but 1 didn't see how 
else Rashid could have responded in the Yemeni village setting. 
Given the sequence of events, tragedy seemed inevitable. 

Motoring with Mohammed I 87 

Xhe journey to the coast had been a success for Mohammed. He 
had the sheep, several rounds of his wife's favorite smoked 
cheese from her hometown, Ta'izz, pandanus flowers for her 
hair, bakhour to perfume her skirts, and a set of ceramic coffee 
bowls from the village of Hays. He would receive a warm wel- 
come. By comparison, I had little to show for my efforts. 

'Tell me, 511 Mohammed asked as I stepped from his car, "are 
these sheep not fine?" 

"The sheep? They are not important," I joked, using his favor- 
ite expression. 

"A sheep for Id al-Adha is not important?" he exclaimed. 
"And what do you know of sheep?" 

"Not much," I said to myself as I watched him drive off. Stand- 
ing in the dust at the side of the road, I realized that although I 
had discovered next to nothing about how I might return to 
Uqban Island, I had learned a great deal about the futility of sin- 
gle-minded effort. Visions of a serendipitous journey through 
Yemen and toward my journals began to fade. Even at this early 
Stage of my search, it was clear that if I were to achieve my goal, 
it would not be in a linear fashion. There were going to be com- 

Apart from Martin Plimsole, no one in the country had a very 
clear idea of why I had come back to Yemen or even what I was 
really searching for. Realizing this, I suddenly felt a great affinity 
with the woodcutter I had seen walking across the sand dunes in 
the heat of the day. He was looking for wood on a treeless plain; 
I was searching for notebooks that lay buried on a desert island 
somewhere over the horizon. We were on similar missions. 


New Customer 

Late one morning, five days after returning to San'a, I 
found myself watching two Yemeni boys playing a game of darts 
near Bab Shu'ub, the northern gateway to the old city The boys 
had made their darts from discarded syringes. Chicken feathers 
were attached to the plungers to improve the balance and flight, 
and the darts thudded into a piece of white S tyro foam with sur- 
prising accuracy* 

Other street games were in progress. I could hear the distinc- 
tive clack-dack-clack-clack-dack of the devil's balls, a game that 
was played with two smooth plastic balls fastened to either end 
of a twelve-inch cord, Midway along the cord was a metal ring, 
through which a player put his middle or index finger. The boys 
manipulated the cords in such a way that the balls described 
matching arcs as they struck each other above and below the 
hand. The object of the game was to keep your balls clacking 
louder and longer than anyone else's. It was not difficult to imag- 
ine where the term "the devil's balls" came from. The toy, clearly 
a curse from Satan, was tremendously popular, and the frantic 
clacking could be heard in every neighborhood. 

Another boy had made a windmill-like propeller from the split 
neck of a plastic water bottle. As he ran or faced the wind, it 

New Customer Welcome / 89 

nun rapidly in front of his face on a short length of wire at- 
tached to a cardboard headband* With head down and arms held 
out like airplane wings, the boy shuffled his bare feet excitedly 
and then blasted off. He banked right into an alleyway and dis- 
appeared on an unknown mission. 

I was passing the time watching these games as I waited for 
Martin Plimsole. It was twenty minutes iater than we had ar- 
ranged to meet, and I was beginning to think he wasn't coming 
when I noticed a bicycle weaving its way uncertainly down a 
congested laneway. A thin, fair-skinned man clung to the handle- 
bars of the rickety-looking three-speed as the front wheel jerked 
from side to side to avoid potholes, pedestrians, and the hulks of 
wrecked cars. Although the bell rang out, the crowd paid no at- 
tention. The man pumped his knees awkwardly, trying to 
maintain balance at slow speed as he aimed for open areas that 
invariably closed at his approach. He seemed constantly on the 
verge of a collision, but each time he saved himself at the final 
moment. It was obviously not his first bicycle ride through the old 
cit>\ He wore a cream-coiored sport coat (of Hungarian 
manufacture, as I later learned) and a fine white cotton shirt with- 
out its detachable collar. His pant legs, tucked into a pair of 
well-worn green socks, were lightly soiled with chain grease. The 
mudguards rattled and the bell sounded one last time as the cy- 
clist came to a halt just beside me. It was Mr. Plimsole, out of 

"Hello there! Awfully sorry I'm late." We shook hands as he 
continued talking. "Bit of a problem at the Bristol Language In- 
stitute, We had a man, actually a flasher, wandering about, A 
Saudi, Fd guess, from the description. Not a flasher by our stan- 
dards, mind you, but he was frightening the female teachers. He 
kept leaping out of the bushes and displaying his open hand. 
Across the palm he had written 1 want woman with a ballpoint 
Pen. Bit of a laugh, really, but we did have to call the guard. Any- 
way, that's why I'm late. Are you hungry?" 

We sat in a local cafe that served a fiery minced lamb stew fra- 
grant with the aroma of cumin, fresh coriander, garlic, and a fen- 
ugreek paste called hulba. We ate the bubbling stew from a 


blackened terra-cotta pot, using pieces of golden-brown flat- 
bread known as mulouj. Hulba is customarily eaten during the 
noon meal because Yemenis believe it softens the stomach lining 
and enhances the effect of qat later in the day. "Hulba opens the 
way for the qat" is a well-known expression. 

When 1 handed Martin the cigarette bangers he had asked for, 
he chuckled to himself, but pocketed the small tins without com- 
ment. He asked me about the shipwreck, and then I told him 
about my recent journey along the coast with Mohammed. He 
found the story amusing. 

"You must find a Yemeni with influential friends* It is the only 
way to get things done here," he told me. "In order to return to 
Uqban Island, you must first get permission from the National 
Security Police — not an easy task, I assure you* For some reason 
the Yemenis are very sensitive about the coast near Saudi Arabia. 
I can't risk getting involved directly, but I will see if I can find 
someone to help you." 

We went on to talk about various aspects of Martin's life in 
Yemen over the previous six years. I was surprised at his age: he 
was in his lace twenties. As our conversation progressed, I real- 
ized 1 was in the presence of a true original. Martin was one of 
those rare individuals who had found his place on earth. He 
owned a house in Kent and was unmistakably British, but there 
was little doubt that Yemen was his home. His good humor and 
quiet confidence attracted me immediately. Despite his knowl- 
edge of the people and the country, he was completely without 
pretense. I spoke almost no Arabic, yet he was perfectly willing 
to accommodate me in any way he could. I found it remarkable 
that a man of his experience would be so open with a perfect 
stranger. It is far more common for a person in his position to 
hoard knowledge, occasionally doling it out to a privileged few. 

I soon discovered that Martin and I shared a similar sense of 
the absurd, and that day at lunch our friendship began. Before 
leaving the cafe we set a date to go for a walk in the mountains, 
in four weeks* time. Then Martin invited me to chew qat with 
some of his Yemeni students. We walked to a nearby qat suq- 
Although I barely knew enough Arabic to count to ten, I decided 


New Customer Welcome I 91 

buy my own. Martin advised me on price and quality before 
drifting off to make his own purchase, 

I approached a vendor seated on the ground, a man sur- 
rounded by eight other men. Some of them were buying, while 
others, like myself, were merely comparing prices. The vendor 
transacted at least four deals at once. People crowded around 
him so that I had trouble following the negotiations. I watched 
money and qat change hands several times before stepping for- 
ward to select a rubta (bunch) of the leaves. 

"Kam riyal?" (How many riyals?) I asked. The vendor made a 
gesture with his fingers that I didn't understand. 

"Sixty riyals he is asking," a man at my side explained. "How 
many are you wanting?" 

I indicated that I wanted two rubtas, but at 40 riyals each. The 
English speaker yelled something at the vendor. The vendor 
shook his head, and then held up four fingers and drew his right 
index finger across the middle of his left index finger. Four and a 
half fingers indicated a price of 45 riyals. 

*Tammam y sadiqt" {All right, my friend?) the vendor inquired, 
stuffing one man's purchase into a plastic bag before turning to en- 
gage yet another buyer. Stacks of worn bills passed from hand to 
hand. The money was bent double and then counted out with 
surprising speed. Hundreds of vendors up and down the street 
were busy conducting similar transactions. I agreed to the 
price, but as 1 handed over the money an onlooker complained 

"Hatha agal min asar al-hagigi!" (That is less than the real 
pnce!) Earlier he had paid a higher price for a similar quantity 
from the same vendor. 

Ma shi! Tarheeb liz zaboon" the vendor replied. Everyone 
laughed, including the disgruntled man, who walked away, sat- 
isfied with the explanation. 1 asked the English speaker what the 
vendor had said. 

"He say, £ New customer welcome.' " 

I found Martin arguing loudly with a man sitting in the shade 
°f his truck surrounded by dampened burlap sacks full of qat. 
"Buy this qat!" the man yelled. 


"Why should I?" Martin replied, 'it is much too expensive/* 
"Buy it because it is the best!" 
"How so?" 

"It will make you fuck well and conceive a son. What more do 
you want? Here, take two bunches." 

Martin laughed and took a closer look at the qat. After decid- 
ing that the quality was in keeping with the price, he told the 
vendor that he was unmarried and not ready for children but 
would buy it anyway. A small crowd had gathered to listen to the 
exchange. For them, the conversation was of far greater interest 
than the price. Seldom did they have the opportunity to hear a 
foreigner speak their language so deftly. 

We worked our way out of the qat market, Martin pushing his 
bicycle* Walking to the party, he translated the graffiti scribbled 
on the stone walls. The first two read the eye of en vy leads 


third one, don't piss on this wall, reminded us of our 
civic responsibilities. 

We turned from the street down a low passageway and were 
soon climbing the stone staircase of an old San'ani tower house. 
At each landing Martin called out, "Allah! Allah!" This, he ex- 
plained, was to alert any women on the upper floors that men 
from outside the family were arriving. The warning allowed the 
women enough time to cover their faces or step into private 

On an upper floor we were met by Ahmed All, one of Martin's 
students. After exchanging greetings, he ushered us into a white- 
washed room with windows that admitted light on two sides. 
The floor was covered with inexpensive red-and-blue oriental 
carpets. Laid out around the perimeter of the room were padded 
backrests, elbow bolsters, and mattresses upholstered with red 
plush and gold piping, on which about ten young men were re- 
clining. They greeted us warmly by shaking our hands and then 
touching their fingers to their lips, then indicated places for us to 
sit. Water flavored with incense was brought in a Thermos. A 
small brazier was passed from one man to the next. 1 took my 
turn fanning the sweet smoke onto my clothes and hain A four- 

New Customer Welcome / 93 

foot-tall water pipe sat in the middle of the floor. Attached to its 
base was a twenty-foot-long hose, covered with lurid green cro- 
chetwork, that ended in a turned hardwood mouthpiece. 

Once we were all settled, Martin took a look at iny qat, then 
laughed kindly. 

"Whafs the joke?" I asked him. 

"You will have trouble sleeping tonight. That lot you just 
bought is the sort of qat one buys for long road journeys. It is 
known as truck driver's qat/ 5 

I wasn't sure what to expect. 1 hadn't chewed in a formal set* 
ring in more than ten years, but I knew from my reading that 
poetry, music, and dancing often accompanies traditional qat 
parties. Observing the television set, video player, and soccer pic- 
tures hung on the walls, 1 somehow doubted there would be any 
religious poetry or tribal dancing with daggers that afternoon* 
As Martin's students passed the hose of the water pipe to one 
another, they first politely turned the mouthpiece downward. 
When it was my turn, I took a puff. The sweet, cool smoke was 

Martin explained that each qat session is different, though 
there are certain rituals that have developed over the past several 
hundred years. Cool drinking water and soft drinks are usually 
set in front of each guest, as the leaves make one thirsty. Several 
spittoons are set about the room. After the initial excitement and 
anticipation of the afternoon dies down, people begin to chew in 
earnest. Twigs and branches are often thrown across the room to 
friends as gifts. The chewed leaves are stored in one's cheek as 
new leaves are packed in; the distended cheek of an experienced 
chewer could probably accommodate a regulation -size billiard 
ball. The green mush between the teeth is not attractive, and the 
taste is bitter. 

The group passes through different psychological phases, 
which vary with the quality of the qat, the occasion, and the 
mood of those present. People relax during the first stage of 
c e wing, which may last two hours or more. Qat sessions serve 
many purposes, but most important, they help create a sense of 
Unity arr *ong the chewers. People come together as equals during 


the daily sessions and discuss important issues concerning fam- 
ily, business, or politics. Seating is arbitrary, and most of the con- 
versations are open to anyone present. 

The entire session may last anywhere from three to six hours. 
At first, thoughts are stimulated and conversation dominates. At 
the ideal qat session, Martin explained, each person contributes 
what he can — jokes, poems, stories, or music. After two or 
three hours, the qat quiets the tongue and thoughts turn inward. 
This state of quietude should arrive shortly before sunset, a time 
commonly referred to as Solomon's hour. 

During the transition to this more reflective state, oud music is 
often played by one of the guests. The oud is a Middle Eastern 
stringed instrument similar to the European lute. The music is 
intended to bond the listeners further and to enhance the com- 
munal feelings. Love themes, some of them quite erotic, are com- 
mon in the lyrics, but the music itself is intended to induce a 
dreamy state and transport the listener. 

To overcome the excess of thinking and to change the com- 
munal mood, men will sometimes dance. Others become talka- 
tive. Arguments are not uncommon toward the end of the ses- 
sion, as the sense of unity continues to disintegrate. An hour or 
so after sunset, the men spit out the leaves and quietly depart. 
This procedure of losing oneself in an ever-changing group of in- 
dividuals is repeated each afternoon, and is a powerful socializ- 
ing force in Yemen. 

Classic qat sessions are rare these days, and my afternoon with 
Martin and his students was consumed by the telling of bawdy 
stones, followed by a discussion of Yemeni love lyrics and a vid- 
eotape showing the highlights of the 1986 World Cup soccer fi- 
nals. I remember Saleem, one of the older students, telling a story 
that involved a play on words, The word sinayenee {literally* "lit- 
tle tooth") is a Yemeni family name; it is also a child's term for 

There was once a young widow who lived in the mountains. 
She cultivated a small plot of land to support herself. One day 
she discovered that one of her stone walls had been moved- Her 

New Customer Welcome i 95 

neighbor, a man by the name of Sinayenee, had trespassed a 
distance of one cubit [the length of the forearm, approximately 
eighteen inches) onto her property in order to dig a well. A sec- 
ond neighbor examined the wall and agreed that the widow's 
claim was legitimate. A dispute arose over land and water 
rights. The three neighbors went to the sheik of the village for 
a hearing. The widow and Sinayenee, the accused well-digger, 
told their stones. The second neighbor spoke last. In front of 
the assembled men of the village, he confirmed that Sinaye- 
nee t he man, but meaning his penis — had penetrated the 

widow's property (suggesting her private parts) to a depth of 
one cubit. "And she is complaining?" exclaimed the sheik. 
Everyone laughed, but the widow won the judgment. 

"Ahhh . . . qat," remarked Ahmed Ali. "It is a paradise of the 

Similar stories continued for more than an hour* The qat 
started to loosen my thoughts, and 1 felt a sense of well-being 
radiating from my chest. The effect of the leaves was negligible, 
as the conversation seemed to create a momentum of its own, 
Martin and the others fell into a discussion of popular Yemeni 
love songs, but in the hands of these second-year English stu- 
dents the romantic mood was lost entirely. I recall the following 
lines: "The sounds of your footsteps are like notes of the music 
walking up a stairway of my hearing organ" and u Open your 
buttons and share your beauty ... he who grasps your pome- 
granates [breasts?] needs nothing else. Come here, and don't be 
stingy with your saliva." 

As the young men continued to discuss pomegranates, I asked 
Mohammed, the unmarried youth seated next to me, to describe 
the ideal Yemeni woman. His immediate reply suggested that he 
had given serious thought to the subject. 

"She must be beautiful, delicate, honorable, patient, and clean 
m s pirit and self. A woman should combine sweetness, strength, 
and beauty in all their aspects." 

This thoughtful reply caught me off guard, and as I mulled 
over his response, Mohammed was drawn into another discus- 
S10n an< 3 the conversation passed me by. Ahmed Ali slid a video- 


cassette into the machine, and we watched World Cup soccer un- 
til sunset. By then the leaves had most certainly taken their subtle 
effect. 1 have never had any interest in soccer, but that afternoon 
I watched every move of the Argentinian star Maradona as he 
befuddled one player after the next, Everything seemed soft, es- 
pecially my head. The incense-flavored water flowed down my 
throat and cooled my stomach. I tried without success to imagine 
myself as a young student chewing leaves with one of my school- 
teachers under similar circumstances. 

The stars were out when Martin and I stepped onto the street. 
I thanked him for the invitation and wished him luck on his night 
ride across the old city- Mounting his bicycle unsteadily, he dis- 
appeared into the shadows. Moments later I heard a muffled cry, 
followed by what sounded like a bicycle going into a ditch filled 
with discarded tin cans and plastic bottles. 

Standing perfectly still, enjoying the night air, 1 realized that 1 
must have entered the final stage of the qat experience, when all 
thoughts turn inward and one's sense of fellowship dissipates. In- 
stead of investigating the sound, I turned and walked off into the 
darkness, laughing to myself. Days passed before I saw Martin 
again. His bicycle had survived the crash; his Hungarian sport 
coat had not. 



Curtains stirred behind the dusty pane of an upper-story 
window as a hand withdrew from sight. A potted geranium sat 
on the window ledge, warming itself in the sun, while I stood 
knee-deep in a layer of cold night air that lingered in the shaded 
alleyway. Next to me stood Pascal Marechaux, the French archi- 
tect and photographer, whom I had met the previous week. He 
had brought me to the mud-brick house in San'a where a French- 
woman, Najiba, lived with her Yemeni husband and twelve 
dogs. Pascal was delivering a bag of oranges, as he often did, and 
I had come to listen to the old woman's stories. 

The instant Pascal called out from the front gate, a horrible 
chorus of barking dogs erupted from the far side of the wooden 
fence. The knotholes in the planks had been nailed over with tin- 
can lids. A woman yelled at the dogs in Arabic, and at once the 
animals fell silent. Moments later Najiba stepped through the 
gate 5 bringing with her the smell of dog hair and dust. She could 
no longer invite visitors into her home because of her invalid 
husband and the dogs, but she was willing to speak to us in the 
alleyway for a short while. 

Najiba was unsteady on her feet and bent over with age. She 
was not feeling well that morning. She had broken her leg re- 


cently and could walk only with great difficulty. Her dry, y e {, 
lowed hair was unbrushed and blew stiffly in the breeze. Behind 
her tired smile I could sense the exhaustion of a long and difficult 
life. Pascal translated from the French as she spoke. 

"It is sometimes painful to talk about the old Yemen," she be- 
gan. "There was this feeling of terrible isolation. Beautiful and 
complete isolation. It was frightening at first. The country was of 
another world. Arriving in San'a for the first time, I felt like I was 
walking into a church ... as if I were seeing a place from my 
past. You could hear the birds, and the streets were clean. You 
can't imagine how clean. There were few strangers, and people 
took care of their neighbors," 

As Najiba's thoughts drifted back to a different time, we let her 
taik without interruption. She had arrived in the country in 1949 
with her first Yemeni husband, whom she had met in Paris, 
where she converted to Islam and took an Arabic name. (Najiba 
means "the clever one."} They traveled by sea as far as Aden and 
then looked for a truck heading north. The night before Najiba 
left Aden, she watched from the street as Englishmen in evening 
dress waltzed with fair-skinned ladies on a hotel rooftop near 
Steamer Point. She was leaving behind all that was familiar, and 
little did she suspect that forty-one years would pass before she 
saw Paris again. 

The waltz music soon passed from Najiba*s mind as the bat- 
tered truck labored its way up Wadi Tuban, a dry riverbed lead- 
ing into North Yemen from Aden. The road, barely a track, was 
so rough that she could not look out at the broken landscape. Al! 
of her efforts were confined to holding onto the hot metal dash- 
board and bracing herself against the terrific jolts that bounced 
her between the driver and her husband. Her feet did not reach 
the floorboards, and only during the stops when the truck broke 
down, or at landslides, did she have an opportunity to look at 
her new country. The dusty journey from Aden to Ta'izz, a dis- 
tance of one hundred miles, took three days. The driver was ex- 
perienced, but as the truck negotiated the narrow roads through 
the mountains, the passengers knew their lives were in the hands 
of Allah. 

Najiba i 99 

When the truck broke down for the final time, Ta'izz was in 
sight- Najiba and her husband entered the city on foot. She knew 
no one in Yemen and spoke little Arabic. Her first home, which 
was built of mud bricks, had no toilet. Despite her Arabic name, 
she did not feel very clever when confronted by her new house- 
hold tasks. Cooking over a wood fire, drawing water from deep 
wells, and grinding flour by hand were skills that did not come 
easily to a woman of her experience. The Yemeni women helped 
her as best they could, but it took years for Najiba to adjust to 
the changes in her life. When she arrived in Yemen, there were 
no paved roads, nor a postal system. Public executions by sword 
were not uncommon, and the massive ironclad timber gates to 
the walled cities were closed from 8 p.m. until sunrise. Najiba 
had left Paris for a kingdom of donkey trails and feudal lords. 

Imam Ahmed, the supreme ruler of Yemen at the time, also 
lived in Ta'izz. In 1949 his subjects believed he possessed super- 
natural powers. Looking at his dark, staring eyes, they were con- 
vinced that the Imam could read their thoughts. Indeed, his eyes 
seemed to be everywhere. From his palace he could see far into 
the narrow laneways of the suq and observe the activities of his 
people. No thought or action seemed to escape his attention, Na- 
jiba credited his extraordinary eyesight to a pair of British Army 
field glasses; his subjects were unaware of such modern devices. 

The Imam cultivated a fear of his psychic powers, and he let it 
be known he communicated with the spirit worid. Servants 
could hear him talking to the jinn (spirits) when he was alone in 
his room, but they could not understand what the jinn replied. 
Imam Ahmed was also known to have a power over poisonous 
snakes. At night he spoke to his snakes, who told him where to 
find lost gold and jewelry (usually at the bottom of dry wells). 
The snakes also warned him of plots against his life. A man with 
such contacts was not to be trifled with. 

As described by Najiba, the single telegraph line strung be- 
tween Ta*izz and San 4 a, the two main cities in Yemen at the time, 
Was esse ntial to the running of the country. When people wanted 
to contact the Imam or make a request, they would send him a 

€ gram. Most of his administrative work was conducted by tel- 


egram or with handwritten notes on small pieces of folded paper 
The Imam had several counselors and a qadi to assist him, and 
he considered each request carefully before making his judgment, 
A reply was an acceptance. If he refused, there would be no reply. 
Nearly everyone respected the Imam, who was generally viewed 
as a fair but unforgiving father to his people. 

Najiba told us of the time she had come in contact with Imam 
Ahmed in the hospital at Hodeida. "He was a great man!" she 
exclaimed with feeling. "Formidable!" 

"How so?" I wanted to know. 

The Imam, she explained, was recovering from gunshot wounds 
after an assassination attempt in 196 1. He wanted breakfast, but 
he could not make the two Catholic sisters understand his re- 
quest. Still weak from his wounds, he managed to stand up on 
the bed. The sisters watched in astonishment as the Imam (who 
weighed close to three hundred pounds) strutted about the mat- 
tress, clucking and scratching like a chicken while flapping his 
one good arm. When they understood his simple pantomime, 
they burst out laughing. He wanted chicken eggs for his break- 
fast. Remembering the scene, Najiba laughed as if the incident 
had taken place that morning. 

During my search along the coast with Mohammed, I had visited 
the Imam's former palace in Talzz. The building had been turned 
into a museum to display the bourgeois comforts enjoyed by the 
ruler and his family. Contrary to popular stories today, the Imam 
did not lead a luxurious or happy life. Many rumors detail his 
lavish and degenerate existence, but the lurid accounts of a des- 
potic morphine addict with an appetite for dancing girls and 
young boys are largely untrue. The ticker seller at the palace had 
whispered to me that the Imam had ninety wives, who danced 
naked for him each night, I doubted the man's story, and looking 
through the palace, I didn't find a room that would have accom- 
modated half that number of naked women standing buttock to 

From conversations with a former doctor of the Imam's wives, 
I knew that he did not chew qar or drink alcohol. Sexual excess 

Najiha i ioj 

was also unlikely, as he suffered from impotence after an unsuc- 
cessful operation to cure his frequent bouts of hemorrhoids. A 
European doctor had injected morphine into his lower hack to 
relieve the pain, but the procedure had been bungled, and for the 
rest of his life Imam Ahmed endured great pain from the waist 
down, which led to his dependency on morphine. Then there 
were the assassination attempts and gunshot wounds. The Imam 
spent the final days of his life in an electric rocking bed, watching 
his health and his kingdom fall to pieces. According to a French 
radiologist working in Ta'izz at the time. Imam Ahmed died of a 
heart attack and not from lingering wounds from the numerous 
attempts on his life. 

Of the supposedly lavish furnishing in the palace, I noted a 
chipped enamel chamber pot concealed in a wooden box with an 
upholstered toilet-seat cover. On one of the upper floors I found 
an English-made electric stove with two spiral heating elements 
and a grill plate suitable for making toasted cheese sandwiches. 
There was a collection of Victorian-looking medical instruments 
that featured a stainless steei corkscrew. Other royal treasures in- 
cluded an Electrolux refrigerator that ran on kerosene, an elec- 
tric blanket, and a plastic owl clock with eyes that shifted from 
side to side sixty times per minute, Far from evoking the mystery 
and architectural splendor of the Alhambra or the sumptuous- 
ness of the furnishings in the Topkapi Museum, the Imam's palace, 
with its collection of fountain pens, toasters, and Bulova wrist- 
watches, brought back memories of my middle-class American 
childhood in the 1950s. A dust-laden Hostess cupcake wrapper or 
a Howdy Doody lunchbox would not have been out of place. 

Imam Ahmed was the last of a long line of Zaidi rulers in 
Yemen. The Zaidi dynasty extended back to 897, when Yahya 
al-Hadi ila'l-Haqq was summoned from Medina to negotiate a 
peace between the warring Hamdan tribes near the town of 
Sa da in northern Yemen. Having settled the dispute, this clever 
rnan must have recognized a fertile situation, because he soon 
had a vision, a message from Allah, in which he saw himself as 
the ruler of the tribes. He convinced the tribal leaders of his di- 
vine mission, and in this way Al-Hadi Yahya, as he was later 


called, became the first Imam of Yemen. He established his rule 
based on the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet. For the 
next thousand years varying parts of Yemen were ruled by the 

It is common knowledge that Imam Ahmed kept most Yem- 
enis in ignorance of the outside world, apparently in an attempt 
to protect his people from evil. The Imam was a deeply religious 
man with a paternal love for his subjects. He saw modern life as 
having no moral values. As the absolute spiritual and political 
leader of the country, he perceived it as his obligation to shelter 
his people from the corrupting influences of the West. Imam 
Ahmed felt he understood the outside world as well as he under- 
stood feudal life in Yemen, and he feared the effects development 
might have on the religious life of his people. 

British and American oil companies were maneuvering to get 
into Yemen as early as the 1930s and 1940s. When Standard Oil 
offered the Imam $2 million in return for permission to conduct 
a seismic survey* he told his advisers that oil was the devil s urine, 
then refused the offer. Two million dollars was a tempting sum, 
but it was a pittance compared to the cost of getting the oil com- 
panies and their governments out of Yemen if things didn't go 

Secluding Yemen from the twentieth century meant that the 
Imams subjects were also deprived of decent health services and 
modern schooling. The nondevelopment of the country frus- 
trated educated Yemenis, as well as other members of the royal 
family, who were aware that other countries, especially Egypt, 
were making the transition from outdated monarchies to mod- 
ern forms of government. The powerful ShafVi merchant class 
from the south was much more interested in developing free en- 
terprise than in maintaining a dynasty based on religious purity 
and one-man rule. 

Najiba followed these changes in Yemeni society with interest 
but was preoccupied with her own problems. Her husband 
changed on his return to Yemen, and shortly after they moved to 
San'a he began to beat her. He would not come home nights and 

Najiba I 103 

then started to sleep with other women. Najiba was miserable, 
but without a family or tribal group to back her up, there was 
little she could do. One morning at breakfast Najiba's husband 
oounded her to the floor with his fists. It was not the first time, 
but when he started to jump up and down on her chest for not 
putting enough sugar in his coffee, she knew it was the end. She 
fled to the hospital where she worked as a translator. The direc- 
tor provided her with a room, and Claudie Fayein, a respected 
French doctor, helped care for her. Weeks passed before the 
bruising on her chest disappeared. 

Few foreigners lived in Yemen at this time, and those who did 
could consider the Imam to be their protector. When Imam 
Ahmed heard the story of the beating through his fourth wife, 
who lived in San'a, he immediately sent a telegram to a local 
judge, who intervened. But the husband was tough. He wouldn't 
grant a divorce, because he would lose face and access to the 
money he habitually stole from Najiba's earnings at the hospital. 
In order to force him to divorce Najiba, the judge threw him into 
an asylum for the insane and destitute sick. The man was deter- 
mined to have his way and lasted eight days under frightful con- 
ditions before going to pieces. He finally agreed to the divorce 
and was released. 

Instead of returning to France, Najiba, who loved her work at 
the hospital, stayed in San'a. She remarried in 1956. Her second 
husband, Mahyoub, was said to be kind, but their life together 
was also marred by tragedy. Mahyoub wanted a family, but after 
four years of marriage there was no child. In Yemen a barren 
woman is looked upon with ridicule, and a husband can right* 
fully divorce a woman who cannot bear children. Realizing that 
her husband had to take another wife, Najiba encouraged him to 
do so, reasoning that the birth of a child by the second woman 
would save her marriage, 

Mahyoub married a divorced woman, who soon became preg- 
nant. Najiba and the second wife did not become friends. The 
woman stole things from the household and was jealous of Na- 
ijba's relationship with their husband. When a baby girl was 
0r n, the new wife proved to be a negligent mother. Najiba took 


care of the child as if it were her own, but it died in her arms 
before it was three months old. Najiba was shattered. 

With the death of the baby, the second marriage lost its pur- 
pose, Mahyoub sent the second wife away so that there would 
once again be peace in the house* Life was quiet for a while, until 
the second wife, humiliated by her rejection, decided to seek re- 
venge. She went to her sister, who told fortunes beside the curb 
in the old city. Using a basket of seashells and stones, the two 
women put a spell on Mahyoub. When Pascal asked what sort of 
spell, Najiba replied: "Since that day, he has been only a brother 
to me." Mahyoub never made love to her again. 

The second wife married three more times before throwing 
herself headfirst down a dry well and breaking her neck. Remem- 
bering these events, Najiba shrugged her shoulders and laughed. 
After all, it had happened so long ago. She tottered, and Pascal 
and I reached out to steady her* 

"fa va, Najiba f" Pascal asked. 

"Out, ga va, mon fils" she answered, holding his forearm. She 
did not look well. 

At the end of more than an hour's reminiscing, Najiba stared 
hard at me and asked what I was doing in Yemen. Pascal told her 
the story of the shipwreck and of my return to search for my 
journals. She seemed to soften, as if realizing that I too had fallen 
under the spell of the country. She understood very well how 
Yemen can seduce the unsuspecting visitor. 

"It is good to come close to danger and death," she eventually 
said to me. "What you saw out there [in the storm and on the 
island] made you feel alive. You must hold on to those feelings. 
One who grows old without such memories has nothing." She 
took a breath before continuing. "Memories . . . they are our 
souvenirs from a lifetime of forgetfulness." 

Pascal handed Najiba the bag of oranges, and we let her go 


The Experts 

The days continued to come and go, and lare one morning 
Martin asked how I was getting along with my plans to revisit 
Uqban Island. His question wasn't one I much enjoyed thinking 
about. Like fishing, most activities in Yemen involve an extraor- 
dinary amount of waiting around for something to happen, and 
after having spent two aimless weeks in the country, I was just 
beginning to appreciate what a formidable project I had created 
for myself. With the network of army checkposts, random police 
roadblocks, required travel permits, prohibited military and 
tribal areas, and armed villagers suspicious of a stranger's every 
move, I found it impossible to travel freely. This inability to act 
independently made long-range planning pointless, I was deter- 
mined to persevere, but in order to keep my mind clear, it was 
essential to start discarding excess baggage. The first thing to go 
was my grip on real time, the minutes and seconds by which we 
organize our lives, It hadn't taken me long to realize that in a 
country where Allah was caiiing most of the shots, there was lir- 
e sense in distinguishing between five hours and five weeks, 
ost of my time thus far had been spent sitting around confused 
bo j| rUStratec ' as 1 pertained fantasies of digging up my note- 


Before trying to reach the coast a second time, I decided to 
seek out the advice of foreigners who had spent considerable 
amounts of time in the country, I assumed that their knowledge 
of how to get things done in Yemen, gleaned from years of expe- 
rience, would help guide me in the right direction. With this plan 
in mind, I set out to meet the local experts. 

First on my list was Nicholas Amis, whose primary activity 
seemed to be walking through San'a carrying a clipboard and a 
folding chair, Each morning at precisely seven o'clock he set up 
his chair in front of one of the city's twenty-three public toilets. 
Every day it was a different toilet. He penciled notes until nine, 
at which time he folded up his chair and walked home. 

"Malak?" (What are you doing?) the men would ask as they 
waved their hands in the air. Nick hardly spoke Arabic and could 
not explain. Weeks passed as the rumors spread through the 
marketplace, Early one morning I found him comfortably seated 
on his chair in front of a public toilet, and I listened to his story. 

"None of them believed me when I told them I was conducting 
a survey." 

This was not surprising, Nick was studying the toilet habits of 
Yemeni men and boys, UNESCO, USAID, and the Peace Corps 
wanted to renovate a public toilet as part of their contribution to 
an international effort to preserve the old city of San 4 a. Since 
there was enough money and time to renovate only one of the 
twenty-three facilities, Nick was searching for the one used most 

The Islamic Trust of San'a owned the public toilets but no 
longer maintained them. They are usually situated near a public 
garden, a bathhouse, or a mosque, "You can smell them from 
twenty paces," Nick told me. Approximately thirty paces down- 
wind from where he sat I could see a row of four plastered domes 
set behind a rough stone wall. This structure was an eight-stall 
dry-composting toilet, built more than one hundred years earlier. 
During a lull in the activity I took a quick look inside, No water 
was available, and the smell of dried urine was overwhelming. 
On die floor of each stall was a slit in the stonework over which 

The Experts / 107 

one could squat. Beneath the floor excrement tumbled down an 
inclined shaft to the collection area behind the building. 

Before the introduction of indoor plumbing, Yemeni tower 
houses had similar squat toilets on each floor, one above the 
other, Urine was directed to a drain that led to a specially pre- 
pared stucco surface on the exterior of the building. Given the 
height of the buildings (four to six stories) and the hot, dry cli- 
mate, the liquid evaporated before reaching the ground. The ex- 
crement fell to the bottom of a tall airshaft shared by all the toi- 
lets. As water is scarce in Yemen, these dry-composting drop 
toilets were ideally suited to the climate. Only in rural areas are 
they still in use. 

The dried excrement used to be collected from the household 
and public toilets by men known as mukharwis, who would take 
donkeyloads of the stuff to the public bathhouses to be burned 
as fuel, The resulting ash was then sold to farmers to spread on 
their vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. The entire recycling 
process was self-sustaining and regulated by city officials. Prices 
were fixed, and there was even a standard unit of measure, khab- 
sbat al-khara, the basket of shit. Now that discarded truck tires 
and fossil fuels are more commonly used to heat the bathhouses 
and there are few drop toilets in use, the mukbarwis of San'a 
have no work. These days the excrement from the public toilets 
is hauled off by trucks to be dumped. 

Nick explained all of this with keen interest. Before arriving in 
Yemen, he had worked in the Environmental Planning Bureau of 
the Oregon state government. The toilet project was his intro- 
duction to the field of international aid. 

"Well, look at it this way/' he said. "The job has given me an 
opportunity to meet the people, the average Yemeni. Sitting in 
places like this puts me in touch with people I would normallv 
never meet." 1 admired his optimism. 

Don't forget to count me!" one old man called out as he en- 
tered the toilets. The time was approaching nine o'clock, and the 
corning shift was nearly finished. 

People have not always been as helpful as that man," Nick 


pointed out. He had begun his work speaking little Arabic 
When men spoke to him, he could only smile and shrug his 
shoulders in response. One of the few questions he understood 
was "Aysk ismak?" (What is your name?) 

"Nick," he would reply, gesturing to himself, 

"Neek!" many of the men would exclaim with indignation 
Nik, pronounced "neek," means fuck in Arabic, *Nik nafsak ya 
makhnuthr (Well, fuck yourself, you faggot!) they would yell at 
him before striding off to a different toilet. 

This level of conversation continued for several days, until 
Nick discovered what his name meant in Arabic, After that he 
decided to use his nickname, Arnie. 

Once the men understood his purpose for loitering near the 
toilets, they became more helpful — too helpful. They used the 
toilets more frequently than usual in hopes that their favorite one 
would be chosen for renovation* Their "help" threw off the sta- 
tistics, but little could be done to keep the survey a secret. Nick 
had become a well-known figure throughout the city, 

I dared to ask whether toilet paper was used. Nick told me that 
most of the old men picked up stones to clean themselves with, 
or used scraps of discarded paper and cardboard off the ground. 

"What is the ideal stone?" I asked. 

"A smooth one about the size of a golf ball," Nick replied, 
"Historically, a basket full of stones was left by the toilets. After- 
ward, the stones were placed in a separate basket, to be cleaned 
and reused." 

I found this story difficult to believe. 

Nick's project was funded by UNESCO's Old City Preserva- 
tion Office, with a small assistance grant from US AID. The Peace 
Corps would provide construction materials, and the local Yem- 
eni development organization promised to supply the labor, Af- 
ter many months of notetaking and detailed calculations, Nick 
figured out that the toilets at Hammam Madhab received lioo 
to 1500 men per day. The building, which consisted of seven 
stalls, had a sound structure and was selected for the renovation 
project. Water faucets would be installed, and the interior Wi 

The Experts / 109 

would be covered with qadad, an impervious plaster consisting 
of crushed pumice, lime, gypsum, and animal fat. The esti- 
mated cost was around $35,000 to $50,000. At $5000 to 
$7000 per stall 5 the toilets would be the most expensive in 

But a dispute soon arose over design, The Yemenis wanted 
frangiy European-style toilets, but Nick and the funding organi- 
zations felt that the traditional dry-composting toilets would 
help conserve water. At the estimated 1500 eight-liter flushes a 
day, Hammam Madhab would use 84,000 liters of water weekly, 
336,000 liters monthly, and slightly more than 4 million liters 
annually. Originally, no water had been used at these toilets. 

It was finally decided that because the Yemenis would be re- 
sponsible for maintaining the toilets, they should be flush. This 
made some sense because of the disposal problem. More impor- 
tant, the sophisticated flush toilets would represent progress, a 
milestone in city planning. I wondered how well the stones 
would flush. 

I had heard of a Catholic priest in San*a who carried a confes- 
sional booth in the back of his car, and I decided to seek him out 
next. Unfortunately, he too was unable to offer any practical sug- 
gestions on how to obtain permission to visit Uqban, but he was 
happy to spend an afternoon telling me stories about his work. 

Father Philippe grew up in Lille, a city in the industrialized 
north of France, He attributed his interest in missionary work to 
the slow-wined textile factory workers who populated his home- 
town. He couldn't wait to leave the place. "It was a solid-faced 
town of normal activities and mediocre thoughts/* he told me, 
"not very mystical or spiritual." 

As a young man, Father Philippe longed for an active life with 
religious purpose. Toward that end, he was ordained in 1950 and 
trained for three years in Tunisia. The people and climate suited 
M*n, and for the next thirty-five years he worked in the rural 
Moslem communities of North Africa, In 1985, at the request of 
Mother Teresa, he went to North Yemen, where Mother Teresa 


had previously established three communities: a hospital for the 
elderly in Hodeida (1971), a leper clinic in Ta'izz (1972.), and an 
orphanage in San'a (1973). 

Mother Teresa returned to Yemen in 1985, with a simple re- 
quest. "She is a bit of a hard woman," remarked Father Philippe, 
Meeting with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, she pointed out that 
she could expand her work in Yemen only on the condition that 
her sisters received spiritual support. Catholic priests would have 
to be admitted into the country. If this was not possible, many 
other countries were asking for her help. 

"Fortunately, a translator was present to help sweeten her 
words," Father Philippe explained. Mother Teresa was granted 
permission to bring three murshids (spiritual leaders) to Yemen. 
Because of his fluency in Arabic and thorough understanding of 
Islamic culture, Father Philippe was selected as one of them. 

The priests worked on a variety of projects. One set up a pro- 
gram to rehabilitate delinquent boys and former criminals. An- 
other distributed food and medicines to poor villages. Father 
Philippe worked on a wide range of irrigation projects, but like 
his two associates, he felt that his primary purpose was to min- 
ister to the spiritual needs of the Catholic sisters and the Chris- 
tian community He conducted Mass in a hall above the City End 
Supermarket, and it was true that he listened to confessions from 
within a portable booth constructed by the Filipino congregation 
of the Catholic church in San'a. The booth and chair folded up 
and fit in the back seat of Father Philippe's car. 

Mother Teresa's leper clinic in Ta'izz was called the City of 
Light. Outpatients came every day to take their pills, and eighty 
to ninety patients stayed for one or two months during the first 
stages of their cure, especially when they had open wounds. The 
lepers easily hurt themselveSj because they had lost all sensation 
in their fingers and toes. Burns were common. There was a sim- 
ple operating theater, and when I asked Father Philippe what 
kinds of operations were being performed, he replied, ''Well, 
they mostly cut off fingers and toes. But the major problem is 
that the nerves are constricting." 

A French doctor who had arrived two years earlier found a 

The Experts I in 

simple way to revitalize the nerve endings by operating on the 
nearest joint. Father Philippe recounted witnessing one of these 
operations. "It was very moving. The patient couldn't pick up a 
pencil, because he couldn't feel it. After the doctor opened up the 
elbow joint, the man had the good use of his hand." The follow- 
ing week the same man was back, u Hakim, hakim" the man im- 
plored, "last week you opened my right elbow and made it bet- 
ter. Before you go today, please operate on my left elbow." To feel 
pain in his hands gave the man hope. 

A village for lepers had been built beside the City of Light. The 
outpatients who lived there could marry, and the families helped 
one another build their houses. The men worked in Ta'izz, while 
the wives and children generally stayed in the village. Because 
leprosy is not inherited the children were healthy. 

1 asked Father Philippe why the Catholic Church would set up 
a mission in a Moslem country if conversion were not one of the 
primary goals. He admitted that it would be dishonest to say that 
the ultimate purpose was not to open the Yemenis to the Gospel, 
but that this must be done freely, through their own thoughts. 
"We provide help and friendship," he told me. "Conversion is a 
matter of individual choice." The Catholics did not oblige any- 
one to believe, nor did they distribute Bibles in an attempt to at- 
tract people. Father Philippe described his goal as helping indi- 
viduals to get free of their own fears and the constraints of their 
social life, "The object of our work is not to bring in a lot of 
medicine or to perform baptisms. We want to make the people 
more aware of their lives — to help them help themselves, in the 
most appropriate way possible." 

In many ways Father Philippe felt he had better communica- 
tion and understanding with the leaders of his neighborhood 
mosque than he did with some of the rival Christian churches. 
He told me what had happened the previous year when he at- 
tempted to organize a joint Easter celebration with the Angli- 

On the Saturday night before Easter," he said, "we have the 
J^ng night vigil, with the celebration of fire, readings of the Old 
estament, and the celebration of the water. I suggested to the 


Anglican bishop that we could adapt this part. He was invited to 
select passages to read from the Bible. We could have a small 
party together afterward. Later, the Catholics would go to Mass 
and the Anglicans could do as they wished," 

The bishop was suspicious, however, and would not commit 
himself. In the end, he explained that the Anglicans were willing 
to invite the Catholics to join them for a Sunday sunrise service. 
At 5 a.m. on Easter Sunday, the bishop, along with his congre- 
gation and several Filipinos from the Catholic congregation, set 
out on foot toward Jabal Nuqum, a nearby mountain. The walk 
ended badly: the interdenominational procession was rounded 
up at gunpoint by the government security forces that patrol the 
main roads of San 1 a from sunset to sunrise. The bishop had for- 
gotten to obtain a permit for the gathering, 

"It is a strange thing," Father Philippe pointed out, "a pity, 
really, that in this country we cannot be more united in front of 
Islam. The Moslems see us bickering and they are amused. They 
ask me who is a Baptist, who is an Evangelical > a Presbyterian, a 
Pentecostal, a Catholic. I try to explain that the differences are 
similar to those between the Shiites and the Sunnis, but the Mos- 
lems are quick to point out that in Yemen the Shiites and the Sun- 
nis, and even the lsmailis, can and do pray in the same mosque. 
The Christian community in San'a has not set a good example of 
similar cooperation. The Moslems don't understand how there 
can be more than one version of the Bible, k suggests to them 
that Christianity has not been thought out properly, because 
there is but one version of the Koran. I understand why there is 
not a great interest in Christianity here. For me, Yemen is a good 
place to be in touch with the roots of the Arabic world. It is the 
genuine Islam here. Very tolerant, and very open-minded. Mercy, 
charity, and compassion — these are the true teachings of Islam. 
Considering the present political situation in the Middle East, 
and considering Western media coverage, how many people are 
aware of these aspects of the Moslem faith?" 

"Precious few," I replied. 

The Experts I 113 

Giuseppe Montello had spent most of his eighty-two years near 
the Red Sea, He was born in Ethiopia before World War I, when 
the country was still called Abyssinia, After a lifetime of work in 
Aden and San'a, he thought of Italy as just another foreign coun- 
try, and he rarely went there to visit relatives. He had brought up 
his family in Yemen and was still active as an engineering consul- 
tant, travel agent, and importer of machine parts. He helped 
Yemeni families place their children in European schools, and the 
people referred to him as Sidi, "wise old grandfather." The nick- 
name was appropriate. 

Father Philippe gave me Mr. Montello's address, and so one 
afternoon I took tea with him in his street-level office. 

"What does this country produce?" he asked. Then, without 
giving me an opportunity to respond, he said, 'The exports con- 
sist of a few sheep, cowhides, and small amount of fresh fish sent 
to Saudi Arabia. Salt is the one exportable mineral, but it is being 
extracted by hand, dynamited from the salt flats at jabal Milh in 
the northern Tihama. Slabs of salt pried out of the ground with 
crowbars and then hammered to bits by hand — ridiculous! Is 
this the way to build a modern economy? 

"There are no resources in Yemen, no ways of earning foreign 
exchange in a country whose economy used to be based on re- 
mittances from an army of migrant workers. Two billion dollars 
a year were being sent into the country. It has now dropped to a 
third of that figure* As work declines in Saudi Arabia and over- 
seas, the men come home to find no work* They can't compete 
with Pakistani labor in the Gulf, and at home many of the big 
development projects are run by foreign governments that im- 
port their own skilled labor. The Koreans and Chinese are the 
best examples of this* 

The ratio of imports to exports is three hundred to one! Ap- 
pearances have changed, but the simple fact remains; the country 
produces nothing. Biscuits are manufactured in Yemen, but they 
are phantom exports — all made from imported ingredients. 

money that comes into this country is all spent on imported 
goods. The cost of living is high in Yemen because everything 


comes from overseas. Therefore, wages have to be high, Yemeni 
labor costs are no longer competitive*" 

I mentioned the recent discovery of oil near Marib. 

"You ask about the oil. No one has seen a penny of the oil 
money! As oil revenues increase, foreign aid decreases. Millions 
are being spent on defense to protect the oil fields. The oil will 
only offset the decline in remittances and foreign aid. The antici- 
pated volume of oil was 200,000 barrels per day. So far they are 
producing 130,000 per day Nobody knows what the actual re- 
serves are, and now everything in the economy hinges on the oil. 
Agriculture has suffered because of the years of the migrant 
workers, in the 1970s and early 1980s. Mountain terraces that 
took hundreds of years to build have washed away because of 
lack of maintenance. Agricultural production in 1972. was twice 
what it is today, with the exception of qat and potatoes. In that 
year the Yemeni men started a mass migration to find work in 
the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. One million, out of a total pop- 
ulation of six million, left the country. These other countries 
were spending their oi! money on huge development projects. 
Those projects are finished now. The men have come home. Who 
knows what will happen? We pray for the oil " 

He poured more tea for both of us, then continued with his 
story 7 . 

"For three years the government has prohibited the import of 
fruit and vegetables, electronic goods, machinery, autos and 
trucks. But all these things are available. Half of the imported 
goods are being smuggled. The Toyota agent is paying the 
Land Rover dealer not to import spare parts. Cars, especially 
Mercedes and Peugeots, are driven across the border from Saudi 
Arabia. No import permits are officially allowed, but 3t the bor- 
der the drivers pay the customs officials what they want. With 
customs papers, one can register the cars. It is not difficult. 

"What can one say about Yemeni life? What is today will not 
be tomorrow. Look at the street. Did you see this in The 
honking, the dust, the crush of people, clogged traffic. Simple, 
honest people from the villages swarming to the city to gawk at 
the store-window trinkets. When 1 first came here, water was 

The Experts f 115 

being delivered in carts pulled by camels. Now all this garbage 
strewn everywhere. This time of play must come to an end!" 

In the face of this, my response seemed weak. "Sounds pretty 
grim," I said. To change the conversation, I asked Mr. Moiitello 
whether he would retire in Italy. 

"Retire? Leave Yemen? Never! I love this wonderful country. I 
will work here until I fall to pieces." 

Before I got up to leave, Mr. Montello asked me if I was work- 
ing in San'a. When 1 told him about the shipwreck and the search 
for the notebooks, he sat back in his chain chuckling ro himself. 

"And may God help you, young man," he muttered, looking 
out the window. 

At times it seemed like the deeper I looked into the foreign com- 
munity, the further I distanced myself from Yemen. One after- 
noon, while trying to interview the wives of Hunt Oil workers in 
the City End Supermarket, I was approached by a trim older 
man. He wasn't pushing a cart, and I thought he might be the 
store manager, coming to protect his shoppers. 

"You want to know about Yemen?" he said. "Well, you can 
ask me. These women don't know a thing. They beat a path from 
the supermarket to the video library upstairs and then back 
home. Hell, you'll never see them inside the old city. Some three- 
week expert at the embassy told them that they might get ab- 
ducted. Never heard such a fool story. No sheik on a white horse 
would be caught dead with one of them, I'll goodandgoddamn 
guarantee ya that! By the way, Skip Chandler's the name." He 
held out his hand to shake. Three of his fingers were missing. 

We drove back to his house, which was situated in a walled 
compound protected by Yemeni soldiers. He wanted to show me 
his gun collection; I wanted to ask him about the possibility of 
falsifying road travel permits. We got drunk instead. 

*i own a house on Cyprus," he told me. "The people are civi- 
fed there. Well, the Greeks and Turks still have some things to 
sort out, but I'm away from all that. The government's got this 
scheme called the Resident Retirement Program. You show them 
a bank statement and a work history and write up a biography 


for yourself. If they like what they see* you're in, Fm twenty 
miles from Limassol, one of the most beautiful places I've ever 
seen. You can have the United States. Fve got a house in North 
Carolina, but Fll give it to my kids from my first wife* I'm mar- 
ried to a Filipino woman now. A beautiful, gentle woman, 1 love 
her. Back home they'd call her a nigger. Fll never go back. Hey, 
Fm doing all the talking! Let's go over to the Mile High Club. Fll 
introduce you to Bob." 

We found Bob unloading cases of beer from the back of a Ford 
van, He had converted the front porch of his house into a bar 
known as the Mile High Club. The back of the bar was an ex- 
panse of bamboo poles nailed directly to the exterior wall of the 
house. Polaroid photos of Skip, Bob, and their buddies were 
pinned to the wall next to currency notes from different coun- 
tries. Two five-by-s even -inch cards caught my eye. They read 
"Nine out of ten men who have tried camels prefer women" and 
"Why are camels called the ships of the desert? Because they're 
full of Arab semen," 

A Willie Nelson tape filled the porch with a truck driver's la- 
ment. We drank Pepsi-Cola and Scotch. It was eleven o'clock in 
the morning. I could detect the rusty, metallic smell of a cast-iron 
frying pan that had been left half submerged in a sink for several 
days. Fragments of egg, coffee grounds, and bacon fat probably 
lined the sink. As the wind shifted, I picked up the odors of ciga- 
rette butts, salted peanuts, and empty beer cans. I wasn't sur- 
prised when Bob told me he was a single man. He worked in 

"That's the swimming pool and tennis court they [the Yemeni 
government] promised us in the brochure," Bob told me, gestur- 
ing toward the dirt-and-stone parking lot surrounded by a bor- 
der of eucalyptus and casuarina trees. "Yep, the Yemenis are 
pretty good at finishing things seventy percent." Bob liked to 
speak in terms of percentages. 

I listened to the two men talk. On the surface they appeared to 
be old hands, seasoned veterans of the expatriate community 
But the more I listened, the more I realized that they remained 
firmly attached to a long-since-vanished segment of American 

The Experts i ny 

society. They lived in Yemen, though they could have lived any- 
where; their way of talking and responses to ideas remained 
squarely in the American middle class of the 1950s. Living mu- 
seum pieces, they had set themselves adrift socially, and their fa- 
miliar reference points had faded with time. They considered 
themselves worldly, but the term was applicable only in the geo- 
graphical sense, because they didn't seem to connect with their 
surroundings. Skip had his house and wife in Cyprus, but for 
Bob and thousands of contract workers leading similar lives 
across the Middle East and Asia, there was no such thing as 
home. Isolated by language, insulated by work, and housed be- 
hind Cyclone fencing topped with coils of wire, they led the lives 
of well-paid, tax-exempt, nomadic prisoners. It didn't take long 
to understand the bravado that masked the loneliness of their 

The Mile High Club was a gathering place for these lost souls. 
By the time I left, the Scotch bottle was empty, Bob was feeling 
100 percent, and I had forgotten the purpose of my visit. 

At a teahouse located just off Ali Abd al-Mughni Street in San'a, 
I looked across the table at a man who could not stop talking, 
He was a friend of Martin's whom I had invited for tea. His name 
was Edwin Peebles. 

** Absolutely ghastly stuff!" he exclaimed as he stared into a 
streaked water glass filled with a steamy, clay-colored liquid. 
Broken tea leaves floated on the surface of the drink, which had 
been sweetened with two tablespoons of sugar, mixed with con- 
densed milk, and covered with a fine layer of road dust, A satis- 
factory beverage, considering the establishment, but hardly Ed- 
win Peebles's idea of a proper cup of tea. 

Edwin was from Beaumont, Texas, It was rumored that he had 
acquired his British accent in Yemen, He had lived in San'a for 
fifteen years and was employed by the Great Mosque, where he 
restored page fragments from a recent find of ancient Korans. 
tdwin had important friends in the government, and I was eager 
to talk to him about the best way to approach the National Se- 
curity Police about returning to Uqban Island. Unfortunately, he 


was in an agitated state that morning and was determined to tell 
me about the day he reregistered his car. 

The incident had taken place a month earlier. The registration 
papers for the vehicle, he explained, had long since expired, and 
he had grown tired of slipping bundles of riyals to the police who 
stopped him. Because Edwin knew the manager of the taxation 
department in a distant city, he had decided to make a day's out- 
ing in the hope of getting the paperwork sorted out quickly and 

The morning of his journey, he placed several bottles of chiiled 
mineral water on the passenger seat of his car before setting off. 
The air, he recalled, was heavy with the smell of freshly turned 
earth as he motored north from San'a. Stopping at a roadside 
stall, he purchased a small watermelon, then cut neat slices from 
it with a knife he kept in the glove box for that very purpose. He 
explained how he had wiped the blade on a tissue and then gazed 
out at a spectacular view, Mountain walls, textured with tier 
upon tier of stone terraces, extended from the canyon shadows 
to purple-black summits, where the silhouettes of stone towers 
sat in the clouds. Atop jagged promontories, abandoned watch- 
towers from the Ottoman occupation linked the ruins of for- 
gotten garrisons. Edwin ate half the melon and handed the rest 
to a passing goatherd* The boy scooped out the sweet red flesh 
with his lingers. The rind went to the animals, and Edwin drove 

When he arrived at the tax office, he spent about an hour and 
a half visiting his friend. They were negotiating a price to register 
the car when the office suddenly emptied. His friend looked up 
and said, "Would you like to go to an execution?" Edwin 
thought the man was joking, but the invitation proved to be gen- 

Edwin didn't think a foreigner would be allowed to go to an 
execution, but he and his friend joined a gathering crowd of on- 
lookers wending their way through the maze of cobbled streets. 
They were led to a dingy, dull-colored building made up of small? 
ill -lit rooms littered with garbage and smelling of urine* This was 

The Experts i 119 

the local judiciary. They came upon a tall man of about sixty-five 
-ears tied up with red plastic rope. He looked confused, as if he 
didn't know quite where he was going. The rope held his arms 
behind his back, so that he looked much like a trussed chicken. 
This was the man who was to be executed. He had just written 
his last will and testament in a nearby room. 

Out of an adjoining room came a small crowd, in the middle 
of which was a woolly-headed man who also looked a bit dazed. 
Edwin was introduced to this fellow, who was the executioner. 
The man had just been to the office to collect his money. The 
court had had a terrible time finding someone to actually pull the 
trigger. The man was paid 5000 riyals ($500) to do the job. As 
Edwin and the woolly-headed executioner shook hands, the man 
announced that if a foreigner was going to be present, he would 
like to be paid in American dollars. This was meant as a joke, and 
everyone laughed, with the exception of the condemned man. 

When the room emptied, Edwin and his friend from the taxa- 
tion office followed a subdued crowd for five minutes to an open 
area between the grammar school and the hospital. Classes were 
still in session as 250 people in tribal dress gathered in a rough 
horseshoe shape. The crowd stood four deep. No one spoke. A 
billowing mist rolled across the execution ground, obscuring 
everything except the waiting group of people. One side of the 
crowd was made up of the condemned man's family, the other 
half of the family of the man he had shot, 

Edwin admitted to feeling quite horrified by the situation. He 
felt certain he would be sent away at some point. To the contrary, 
a dozen suited people from the government offices turned up, 
and instead of sending him away, they formed a line on either 
side of him. Much taller than the others, he was quite the center 
of attention. Then the hospital staff arrived: an Egyptian doctor, 
a Yemeni doctor, and two nurses, one Egyptian, the other Rus- 
sian. Many of the office workers giggled and joked as a means to 
relieve the tense atmosphere, 

A van arrived from the courthouse. It was huge, like a furni- 
ture removal van — completely solid on the sides, with no win* 


dows. The man to be executed was guided out of the back and 
into the middle of the crowd, which faced the van. At that mo~ 
ment one of the white-coated doctors took charge of the pro- 
ceedings. The condemned man wore a white robe with an un- 
bleached muslin shawl around his shoulders and head. These 
were taken from him and spread on the ground. He was given 
ten minutes to say his prayers, which he did upon his knees. 
When he finished, the crowd stepped forward. Edwin couldn't 
see the man and so moved to within six feet of where he was 
kneeling. Curiosity drew him to the scene, but at the last moment 
he decided he should not be so close. The execution was not for 
strangers; it was a family affair. Edwin retreated twenty feet, to 
stand with the dignitaries. 

The event had started with a shooting. The condemned man 
had killed a neighbor following an argument over a stone wall 
separating two fields of sorghum. While he spent a year in 
prison, negotiations were carried out between the two families 
involved. Those who forgive a murderer by letting him pay blood 
money are highly regarded, but the family of the dead man 
would not accept money as compensation. They were offered 
twice the normal amount of 200,000 riyals, but they refused. 
The Islamic court wanted them to forgive, but the wronged fam- 
ily wanted the man's life. 

The doctor helped position the man face down on the ground, 
then, with a felt-tipped pen, marked the area where the heart was 
located. The executioner stepped forward with an assault rifle, 
stood over the prostrate man for a long moment, then fired a 
short burst through the man's back. It was over in an instant. The 
doctors had watched the execution as if it had been a normal 
medical procedure. A stretcher and an ambulance were about ten 
yards away, to take the dead man immediately to the hospital, 
and a group of women from his family waited with a white 
shroud and perfumes, with which they would prepare the body 
for burial. 

The crowd turned to walk away, chatting about their normal 
concerns as if nothing had happened. Stunned by the event, Ed- 
win Peebles could not move. He had to be led away by his friend. 

The Experts / izi 

Judging by both families' reactions, the execution came as a re- 
lief. The dispute was settled. The final solution was easier to ac- 
cept because the executee was old; he had lived his life. It seemed 
fair that he should die, because the man he had shot was young, 
w ith a new wife and small children. If the man had not been ex- 
ecuted, a far bloodier confrontation would have erupted be- 
tween the families, possibly involving many other deaths* 

Shaken but in control of himself, Edwin managed to obtain his 
new car registration later that day. He paid quite a lot more than 
he had expected, but then, he got more than he had bargained 

Having finished his story, Edwin got to his feet, shook my 
hand hurriedly, and marched out the door of the teashop. I never 
had a chance to ask him about his influential friends or possible 
contacts in the National Security Police. 

In my search for local knowledge, some of the best stories came 
from the most unlikely sources. One afternoon my attention was 
drawn to a set of red suspenders stretched tautly over a man's 
paunch. Tooled into the back of his leather belt was the name 
Biliy. His T-shirt read "Kickin Ass on the Wild Side of Town," 

Billy wore a goid Rolex watch on his left wrist. White Reeboks 
protruded from the cuffs of a pair of Levi 501s, and his baseball 
cap looked as if it had recently been dry-cleaned, The thumb of 
his left hand was hooked into a front pocket. The right hand 
grasped a frosty can of Budweiser been His eyes, hidden behind 
the mirrored lenses of his Ray Ban aviator glasses, seemed to 
gaze into the middle distance. He wore a look of simmering bo- 
vine violence. 

"Yeah, this is it!" Billy told me, without shifting the Ray Bans 
,n m y direction, "The big day. Everything hinges on this day." 

It was the Fourth of July. I was standing in the garden of the 
American embassy compound in San'a. An announcement came 
over the loudspeaker that the tug-of-war competition was about 
to begin. The first event would be men versus women. 

Looks like macho time," Billy told me as he lifted the red- 
w hite~and-blue aluminum can to his lips. He must have been 


twenty-five years old, but he had the corpulent body of a man 
twice his age. 

Ten Hunt Oil workers, along with three United States Ma- 
rines, had challenged all of the American women to a tug-of-war. 
One of the Marines sported a pair of the largest ears I have ever 
seen. They sat at right angles to his head and might have given 
him trouble in a strong wind. He had no chin, but presumably 
knew how to kill with bis bare hands in four seconds. Mustard 
was smeared on his white T-shirt. 

The barefoot men had been drinking, and when the whistle 
blew, thirty-five women in ripple-soied jogging shoes promptly 
pulled them onto their backsides. There was nervous laughter as 
the men struggled to their feet, I could see Billy working his jaw 
muscles* To regain his composure, he popped open another beer. 

"Hey! 1 got one for ya," he suddenly blurted out to me. "Yeah, 
just last year 1 heard that seven out of ten dogs in Yemen were 
rabid, and so's I borrowed an M-i6 — semiauto — from my 
buddy. Climbed to the top of the American School and dusted 
twenty -two of the fuckers till I ran out of ammo, Hell, turned out 
four of 'em were petsi Real sorry about that. Neighbor's children 
weren't too happy Not one little bit! And did y'all hear the one 
about Norman?" he continued. 

"Norman who?" 

"Stormin' Norman — the hostage.' 5 

I vaguely remembered hearing rumors that an oil worker had 
been taken hostage five months earlier by one of the tribes along 
the edge of the Empty Quarter. Billy tipped the brim of his hat to 
a three-hundred-pound woman in shorts who was eating a plate- 
ful of brownies, 

"Norman was taken by the Bakil tribe, out in the desert some- 
where around Marib. The oil pipeline cut right through their 
country. Hadn't received the promised benefits from the pipeline 
contractor or the government. Heard they wanted a school real 
bad. The Bakil treated Norman good, but shit! 1 know Norm 
he's not the kinda guy to sit around and wait for a situation to 
clarify itself, if ya know what J mean. He lost his temper — blew 
up! He swore, jumped up and down. The Bakil were spooked. 

The Experts I 123 

couldn't decide whether he was funny or crazy. They tried ro 
uiet him down with whiskey, but Norm wouldn't take a drop. 
The Bakil had never heard of an oil man that didn't drink whis- 
key Something wasn't right. They kept him until he started run- 
ning around in front of their women without his shirt on, 
Dressed in cut-off blue jeans. Real short, like underpants, Thar 
was the turning point, Yemen Hunt sent out a negotiating team 
real quick, but by the time they arrived it was all over. Hell! The 
Bakil, fiercest tribe in the Jauf — they just let Norman go. I think 
they musta decided they didn't need the school that bad. Too 
much disruption. They'd messed with the wrong man." Billy 
took a final sip of beer, draining the can. 

I left the festivities early, but kept Norman's story in mind, 
hoping to get the details from a more reliable source later. Re- 
turning to my hotel room that afternoon, I collected my bags and 
thanked the manager for his generosity. Out of a sense of de- 
cency, 1 couldn't justify accepting a complimentary room any 
longer, I also wanted to live in humbler surroundings. A cab took 
me to an older section of town outside the old city walls, where I 
could stay at the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, which I 
assumed to be a community of Yemeni and American scholars. 
The institute rented rooms at a reasonable rate, and a phone and 
kitchen were available. 

Stepping out of the battered cab with my suitcase, I noticed 
plastic bags of human shit splattered against the metal front gate 
of the institute. I attributed the mess to neighborhood kids; it 
certainly didn't look Sike the work of a terrorist group. I pressed 
the intercom button, which had been missed by the barrage, and 
a buzzer sounded, so I could pass through the security gate. 

At the front door I was confronted by a bespectacled, shuffling 
fnan of about forty who introduced himself as the resident direc- 
tor. He wore a checked flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows and 
khaki field pants aged to perfection. He had not received my let- 
ters of introduction and questioned me closely as to whether I 
a d paid my $25 annual membership fee to the institute's busi- 
ness office in Portland, Oregon. Slightly amused, I suggested that 
e P non e head office to check out my story. As he gave me a brief 


tour of the building, I found his clipped syllables difficult to 
string together into words, His eyes bulged at unexpected mo- 
ments, and he had the irritating habit of walking off in midsen- 
tence. When the resident director wasn't talking to me directly 
he made funny high-pitched "Hmmm?" sounds to himself, ob- 
viously enjoying a private joke. Within minutes of my arrival I 
realized I had made a mistake, but not wanting to spend the 
afternoon in search of a more suitable place, I took a room. 

The institute was run along the lines of a freshman college dor- 
mitory. Notices taped to most of the interior wall surfaces out- 
lined rules governing the use of the telephone, light switches, 
door locks, and private and public areas, as well as dust control, 
mail delivery, and number of guests permitted, A separate and 
more restrictive set of rules applied to those individuals wishing 
to entertain Yemeni guests. One could not sit on the toilet with- 
out being confronted with written instructions covering such in- 
tricate tasks as flushing and showering. "Report all leaks to the 
resident director; all who occupy this house will appreciate your 
cooperation' 1 read a sign in the kitchen. 

1 grew to like the notices and later photographed many of 
them. On the walls of the common living room, lined with sci- 
ence fiction paperbacks and James Michener novels, I read the 

Use of washing machine: Members of the 
Institute — no charge. Nonmembers — ten 
riyals per load. 

Letters of introduction will be provided for 
members at no charge. 

Photocopies: Two riyals per page* 

Typewriter rentals: Members — no charge. 
Nonmembers — ten riyals per hour or 
fraction thereof. 

The Experts I 125 

The kitchen smelled of cockroaches, dust, and stale popcorn. 
Meals were not shared, and the residents hoarded their supplies 
of peanut butter, Ritz crackers, tins of beef stew, and other super- 
market food in separate cupboards. 

The resident director lived in mortal fear of being misquoted 
by visiting journalists or writers, and for this reason 1 was rated 
slightly higher than the substance smeared on the front gate. 
During our first and last conversation, he made it abundantly 
clear that despite his fluency in Arabic and four years in the 
country studying the social structure of the northern tribes, he 
didn't know anything, could make no introductions to anyone 
who did, and was unable to rent me one of the institute's four- 
wheel-drive vehicles, which had been purchased for that pur- 
pose, I had trouble even persuading the man to let me into the 
library. Judging by his hesitation, I anticipated a veritable store- 
house of signed first editions by the great travelers of the Arabian 
peninsula: Carsten Niebuhr, Wilfrid Thesiger, Harry S. Phil by, 
Charles Doughty, and Bertram Thomas. But once inside, I dis- 
covered a jumble of dusty books with no apparent filing system, 
dead plants, obscure research papers, three broken typewriters 
(one in Arabic script), and a photocopy machine that no longer 
worked. Material could not be taken from the library to be pho- 
tocopied elsewhere. 

The director watched over his domain with a zeal that left me 
totally mystified. On two occasions I witnessed European re- 
searchers leaving the grounds — one in tears, the other in a 
rage — because they had been turned away from the library, 
which was supposed to be open to the public. The man guarded 
the place like a mother hen, checking to make sure no one was 
using his laundry soap or stealing Upton tea bags from his cup- 
board. After my second day at the institute, I remembered the 
plastic bags of excrement and could no longer be certain they 
had been thrown by Yemenis. 

Two paleontologists and a geologist from the Museum of Nat- 
ur * History in New York were staying at the institute, and the 
sector followed them around like a puppy wagging his little 


tail. At night the four of them drank Ballantine Scotch and, n 
hushed tones, discussed their search for early hominid fossils in 
Yemen. They chortled over sightings of alluvial fans, secondary 
graben floors, and globular stomatopoda in the way sorne men 
discuss women's breasts. I asked one of the scientists to identify 
a fossilized clamshell I had found in Wadi Zabid with Mo- 
hammed, The man held the shell fragment in the palm of his 
hand and regarded it in much the same way a butcher looks 
knowingly at a lamb chop. 

"Jurassic," came his reply, "Not very old." 

"How old?" 

"About two hundred million years." 

As a nonspecialist, I felt the shell was sufficiently old to keep 
as a souvenir, 

Frank, the geologist, was older and less secretive about his 
work, I asked him what he had done before coming to Yemen to 
dig for fossils. His answer took me by surprise. He told me that 
he had worked on the moon, 

"On the moon?" 

"Yes, 1 helped map the surface of the moon, using satellite inv 

According to Frank, the detail of the terrain on the moon as 
seen by U,S, satellites was so accurate that he could distinguish 
boulders less than ten meters in diameter. This comment gave me 
an idea. Clea*$ hull was longer than ten meters. It occurred to me 
that satellite imagery might be a way of checking to see whether 
the sailboat was still on the beach of Uqban island. I asked Fruik 
if there were similar satellite images or aerial photos of Yemen. 

"But of course," he replied. "LANDSAT has covered every 
square inch of the earth. "There is also Spot Image USA — they 
have an office in Reston, Virginia. The standard aerial photos are 
also available, but we don't use them much anymore," 

1 asked him whether there were copies of these photos in 
Yemen, He told me that he knew of two sets, one at the Mapp* n S 
and Survey Office and the other at the Ministry of Natural Re- 
sources and Oil. I asked what it would take to get a look at the 

The Experts I 12,7 

"Permission from the Ministry of Information or National Se- 
curity Unfortunately, for you it is impossible to obtain clearance 
as an "individual. If you had a very good friend in either of the 
w o offices, you might have a chance." 

I explained the story of the shipwreck and the journals buried 
on the beach, then asked whether he knew anyone I could talk 
to He thought for a moment before writing a name on a piece of 

It came as a great relief to have finally met a genuine expert. 


She Is Very Tired 

m Can you see anything?" I asked. 

"No, the beach is completely empty — nothing in the water, 
either. If there was anything left of the sailboat, we would at least 
be able to see the shadow of the hull," 

Nigel Dawson, who worked at the Ministry of Natural Re- 
sources and Oil, was showing me aerial photographs of Uqban 
taken on February 9, 1979, one year after the shipwreck. With a 
pair of stereoscopic viewing lenses, we scanned the entire nine- 
mile length of the island* The eight-by-eight-inch black-and- 
white photographs had been taken from 17,000 feet, but the de- 
tail was remarkably clear. By overlapping two adjacent photos 
and looking through the lenses, we could see the island in three 
dimensions. A forty-two-foot sailboat would have been visible 
on the clean sand beach. After looking at the island with great 
care, I wondered where the boat had gone. Someone must have 
taken the yacht off the beach, because not enough time had 
passed for the hull to have disintegrated. I thanked Nigel for Ht& 
assistance and left the office. 

Later that morning I opened a nautical chart of the area sur- 
rounding Uqban Island to determine where the looters might 
have come from, Khawbah and Al-Luhayyah, the two major 

She Is Very Tired I 1 29 

fishing communities nearby, seemed the best bet, and I decided 
to make another attempt to reach these villages in hope of find- 
ing a way out to the island. 

I found Gazem, a local guide, dozing on a teashop bench just 
off Saif Bin dhi Yazen Street, near the Department of Antiquities. 
I told him my plan, "You will never get a permit to visit Al-Lu- 
hayyah," he told me. "Visitors are never granted permission to 
visit the coast north of Hodeida." 

Initially, comments such as these spurred me on. The more re- 
sistance I encountered, the harder 1 tried, and it took some time 
to realize that in a country like Yemen, this frontal approach to 
problem solving can only add to the futility of effort. I was begin- 
ning to lose my bearings* 

Gazem went back to his nap, and I found my way to the travel 
permit office to fill out the standard form. 1 included Al-Lu- 
hayyah with ten innocuous destinations in the same general area. 
The man with the rubber stamp took the completed form but did 
not question me. The afternoon heat must have muddled his 
thinking, because thirty minutes later I was back at the teashop 
with my permit for the coast. Gazem was incredulous. We de- 
cided to leave that night. 

Gazem had been born in the Ethiopian port town of Massawa 
in 195 1. His mother was an Italian Catholic, but Gazem was 
raised as a Moslem by his Kashmiri father, who ran a fabric busi- 
ness near the harbor. Before working as a translator in San'a, 
Gazem had been a guerrilla fighter in Eritrea. Prior to the war he 
had been trained as a civil engineer, specializing in the construc- 
tion and maintenance of public roads. He later put his education 
to good use: he excelled at blowing up roads, especially roads 
carrying government army vehicles full of soldiers or weapons. 
Following two years of fighting, he escaped on foot to the Sudan, 
then traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he surveyed roads for three 
years^ There he met an Italian nurse, whom he married. They 
settled in Yemen and had two children, and Gazem now carried 

3n tal,an P^sport. He had not heard from his family for seven 
years, 7 

G azem spoke Italian, English, Afar, and Arabic fluently. He 


was my idea of the perfect traveling companion: inconspicuous 
fearless, and quick-witted. He could find humor in nearly any 
situation. Few details escaped his attention, and I would not 
have enjoyed driving down a road that he had mined with explo- 
sives. He was very thorough. 

It was well after dark as Hussein, our driver, followed the 
northern road out of San'a. From the market town of Amran we 
took a road heading west, arriving in Hajjah just before mid- 
night. After sleeping for a few hours, we started driving again. 
Before sunrise we had passed through the last army checkpost 
beyond Hajjah and were driving down a back road to Wadi 
Mawr and the coast. In six hours the heat would climb near no 0 
Farenheit, and we wanted to reach Al-Luhayyah before then. In 
low gear we moved down a rocky track that led to the valleys 
lost in darkness far below, Our headlights illuminated short sec- 
tions of a two-lane road cut into the cliff face, but I could see 
little else at that early hour. Hajjah had been a royalist strong- 
hold during the civil war twenty years earlier, which explained 
why the roadside was littered with the hulks of demolished ar- 
mored personnel carriers* The rusted war vehicles had long since 
been stripped of their valuable parts. 

At one point our bouncing headlights came upon a flat-roofed 
hut built two feet from the road against the cliff face. Alongside 
the hut there was just enough room to park a car. When I glanced 
into the structure as we crept by, I saw a human shape, wrapped 
in a blanket, lying on a rough wooden cot made of tree branches, 
A floor jack, air compressor, and hose were visible beside the 
bed. There was a pile of shiny mechanics' tools, and I could make 
out a blackened cooking area where a teakettle sat on a metal 
stand against one walk An assortment of discarded tires lay 
about the ground in disorderly piles. The car's headlights moved 
on, leaving the building in darkness. 

Farther down the road I concluded that the hut was a one-man 
tire repair shop. It was certainly in a perfect location for such a 
business. There were no villages for many miles, no competition, 
and on the rough road flat tires were common. People with nre 

She Is Very Tired / 13 1 

roblems would find themselves in a poor position to negotiate 
the price for repairs. 

Morning light filled the sky as we reached the foot of the 
mountain, The road leveled out, and we passed through a village 
that looked like an open-air dormitory. Dozens of high, wood- 
framed cots strung with rope lay scattered across the road, so 
that we had to slow down in order to wend our way safely 
through the sleeping men. None of the blankets stirred as we 
passed. Sunrise was an hour away, but already I could feel the 
debilitating coastal heat in my lungs. 

In the dry riverbeds, donkey caravans appeared, the animals 
loaded with stone cooking pots and hand-forged iron plows. The 
men who led the animals were taking their merchandise to Suq 
At Tur, the local weekly marker. Turnip-domed reed huts and 
black-skinned people came into view. Traditionally, the olive- 
complexioned landowners lived on the mountaintops in fortified 
stone castles for defense, while the darker-complexioned tenant 
farmers, mostly of African descent, worked the flatlands and 
lived in communities of simple but elegant reed houses. This pat- 
tern of settlement continues in the Tihama. 

The reed houses, which are typically fifteen to twenty feet tall, 
are built on circular mud foundations fifteen feet in diameter and 
are distinctly bullet-shaped. They have no internal supports, 
which lends a sense of spaciousness to the interior. The plastered 
ceilings and walls are nearly a foot thick, for strength and insu- 
lation. On the insides, the upper sections of the domes are often 
painted with colorful geometric and floral designs similar to sim- 
ple embroidery. On the lower portions of the wall, dozens, if not 
hundreds, of brightly painted plates of varying sizes are dis- 
played, sometimes covering every bit of wall surface. Consider- 
mg the humid climate of the Tihama, the interiors of these build- 
ings are remarkably cool and very pleasant to sit in. The roof is 
usually bound on the outside with patterned ropework, but 
saw one house in Wadi Mawr where the classic design had 
een modified by setting an old car tire on the pointed roof, pre- 
sumably to reinforce the tip of the dome. That morning I also 


noticed several reed houses crowned with homemade television 

Women and young girls, dressed in ankle-length smocks, | e <J 
their donkeys to the wells as the landscape became bathed in a 
warm orange glow. The sun had just risen. Other women were 
already drawing water from the stone-lined wells. Switching off 
the motor, we coasted to a halt to watch from a distance- 
Above the ticking sounds of the cooling engine I could hear 
squeaking rope pulleys and the indistinct voices of the women. A 
black rubber bucket constructed from riveted sections of an old 
car tire rose into view, and a woman emptied its contents into a 
large funnel protruding from the top of one of the amphora* 
shaped terra-cotta jars hanging on the sides of a donkey. The 
women had wrapped lengths of black and red gauzy fabric 
around their heads, and many had stained their hands and feet 
dark red with henna. As they walked I could catch glimpses of 
their yellow and orange pantaloons beneath the long black 

Before we drove on, Gazem collected a branch from a thorny 
shrub that grew at the side of the road. "Solatium mcanum" he 
said. "The toothache bush. There are many plants that these peo- 
ple use for medicine," He showed me how to make an efficient 
and disposable toothbrush by chewing the end of a freshly cut 
acacia twig, In the villages, charcoal is sometimes used as a den- 

The car door slammed shut and we set off again along the 
rough track. I noticed a flowering desert rose and a variety of 
aloe plants, including Aloe vera, which is used for sunburn. 
Other succulents grew out of the rocky terrain. Off to our right, 
firewood collectors and their camels meandered through a land- 
scape of huge purple boulders set on brown sandstone terraces. 
The camels were heavily laden with five-foot lengths of dry 
twisted wood, which the men had somehow split with their 
puny-looking axes. The wood collectors, dressed in typical Ti- 
hama fashion, wore white gathered skirts with matching jackets 
cut like sport coats. On their heads were tall, wide- brimmed 
straw hats similar to a witch's cap with a flattened peak. The 

She Is Very Tired I 133 
camels carried hand-chiseled grinding stones and metal cooking 

These men and their camels were also on their way to Suq At 
Tur. I wanted to visit the market, but we didn't have time. The 
heat was upon us; it radiated from the ground and burned us 
from overhead, and the humidity soared. As we hurried down 
the road that followed the dry riverbed, conversation lapsed. 
There was only the sound of the bouncing car springs and the 
engine. At each bend in the road gravel spat from beneath the 


Flowering acacia trees with clusters of bright yellow blooms 
grew near the road, and we stopped to buy acacia honey at a lone 
stall constructed of flattened oil drums. Considering the lack of 
traffic on the road, the shop seemed a monument to optimism. In 
the darkened interior of the stall I could see shelves of old plastic 
bottles containing the thick amber liquid. Stacks of horizontal 
beehives, looking like logs, sat on low platforms in the nearby 
fields. Ten to fifteen hives were piled on each platform, to allow 
ventilation and to protect the honey from invading ants. Plastic 
sheets, looking very much like discarded shower curtains, cov- 
ered the hives to keep the sun and rain out. 

The beekeeper approached our car. He wanted twenty dollars 
tor the liter bottle in his hand. The price didn't sound correct- 
Kroeni honey 1S arguably the best in the world, and a liter can 
cost sixty dollars or more in San'a. I wondered whether I was 
assur?/ T ^ ° r h ° ney dlluted w,th su S ar *y™P> but G azem 
teration 6 3 rem ° te *"* Am W3S Uttie " sk of adu| - 

ch!Iw !,mbed ° Ut ° f tHe C " t0 Sh0w me the two ™! ways to 
he nlac^H pUnty ' R ^ movin 8 the beeswax stopper from the bottle, 

ball t 1 1 S Ju T u P ° f h ° ney m the dust " " lf k rema '" 5 ^ * 
"onev haX * th f duSt absorbs the d ™P> that means the 

honey sa ^ T ° r SUgaf ^ " ° ur dro P <* 

held a lit P T ed 00 t0 P of the dust - For the second rest Gazem 

b «ni The drl ^ X V? dr ° p - Honey that contaitls will 
, " edro P didn't burn. 

beekee Per and then passed the bottle around for 


Hussein and Gazem to sample. We dipped our fingers into th 
bottle. I soon lost count of the flavors as they slowly melted into 
my mouth and tongue before drifting to my nose; the taste was 
sublime. I felt as if I had never enjoyed real honey before. By 
Yemeni standards, I hadn't. 

The beekeeper smiled when he saw the expression of pleasure 
on my face* "For Madam!" he suddenly exclaimed in a rough 
manner. To emphasize his point, he made an upward thrusting 
motion with his fist and forearm. Very Italian, I thought to my* 
self. I knew that Saudi men consider Yemeni honey to be an aph- 
rodisiac, and therefore concluded that this was the message the 
beekeeper was trying to convey. The honey would make us virile. 
The recommended dosage was one tablespoonful per day. We 
drove to the coast with the flavor of honey in our mouths and the 
strength of ten men in our loins. 

By the time we arrived in Al-Luhayyah, at 9 A.M., the heat was 
ferocious. The fishermen had not yet returned from the previous 
night's work, so we waited in a tumbledown cafe overlooking the 
waterfront. The building sat on a corner, and to aid ventilation 
two of the exterior brick walls had been knocked out. The work 
appeared to have been performed with a sledgehammer. Sweat 
rolled down my face and dripped from my chin, and my fore- 
arms left long wet patches on the wooden table top. Perched on 
stiltlike roots, mangrove trees grew thickly along a mudbank 
that ran parallel to the shoreline. The tide was well out, and the 
stink of hot mud and rotten fish entrails engulfed the town. 

Seated at an adjoining table, three men shared a piate of what 
looked like a stack of eighteen- inch -wide whole-wheat griddle- 
cakes soaked in yogurt. I couldn't imagine eating pancakes in 
such heat. The yogurt, I later found out* was curdled camel's 
milk. Gazem ordered two items for us. The first, known as hanid, 
was a blackened fish that 1 recognized as cold smoked mullet 
a regional specialty, according to Hussein. A single lukewarm, 
oily morsel sat on my tongue for some time as my two compan- 
ions reduced the mullet to a jumble of fine bones and a skulk 1 

She Is Very Tired I 135 

didn't bother asking for the recipe. "Good > * J* 1 managed to say, 
wallowing with difficulty. I wondered where I could wash the 
heavy smell of smoked fish from my hands and mouth. What I 
longed for was a simple glass of cold, freshly squeezed orange 

The fish carcass was removed from the table as a bowl full of 
what appeared to be premasticated Wonder Bread mixed in a 
light motor oil was set before us. Following Gazem s example, I 
rook a small bit of the mixture in my fingers and placed it in my 
mouth. It was delicious, and as 1 chewed, my nose was filled with 
the thick perfume of well-ripened bananas, freshly baked bread, 
and honey. Fatut, as the dish is known, is made from leftover 
flatbread from the tandoor oven, bananas, warm clarified butter, 
and honey. Dates are sometimes added to the bowl before the 
ingredients are chopped with an inverted water glass. 

From where we sat 1 could look down the streets of the rav- 
aged town. During the days of the coffee trade, wealthy mer- 
chants had built elegant houses in Ai-Luhayyah, Ornately carved 
wooden balconies shaded by delicate latticework now hung pre- 
cariously from the plastered facades. Sea gulls perched atop 
coral -block walls that leaned in all directions* Carved door- and 
windowframes that deserved to be in the National Museum in 
San 'a lay discarded in piles of salty rubble that had once been 
walls. Revenue from subsistence fishing would never enable the 
inhabitants to rebuild the town, and the central government had 
more urgent concerns than restoring Al-Luhayyah as a historical 
landmark for sentimental reasons. The city contains unique ex- 
amples of Turkish Red Sea architecture, but most buildings are 
beyond saving. The people have built newer and plainer houses 
to the north and east of the old city center. 

After our meal, Gazem asked the pancake eaters if they knew 
anything about a shipwreck on Uqban Island ten years earlier. 
^ he men were from Al-Luhayyah but claimed to know nothing 
j. e ,nci dent. I didn't believe them, because the glow of the 
igmhouse is visible from town. People would have noticed im- 

e -lately if the nightly sweep of the searchlight had stopped, 


and I was determined to find someone who remembered or was 
willing to talk. Our plan was to wait until the fishing boats came 
in so that we could ask someone to take us to the island. 

A dust storm blew through town. As window shutters banged 
in the distance, I pulled up the bottom of my T-shirt to cover my 
mouth and nose. Through squinting eyes 1 saw T a phantom shape 
advancing down the street. Dressed in a swimming suit, the fig. 
ure seemed to float above the ground, his feet and lower legs ob~ 
scured by the billowing clouds of dust. The man was balancing 
an object that looked like a barbell across his shoulders, but as 
he drew near, my vision of a Yemeni weightlifter faded and I 
could see that he was carrying a long stick with hundreds of sil- 
very, dust-laden fish clustered at either end. The man wore a 
skin-diving mask over his eyes and nose, which allowed him to 
move through the storm in relative comfort. Minutes later, when 
the storm abated, the apparition had vanished, 

Gazem, Hussein, and I waited an hour before the small fishing 
boats known as hurt appeared on the horizon. The noise of their 
outboard engines drifted across the glassy surface of the water. 
We met them at the beach, and in a characteristic display of 
quick thinking, Gazem at once asked a fisherman to take us to 
Uqban. There was ample time to go and return before sunset; it 
was only 10:30 a.m. As I stood in the ankle-deep water, worry- 
ing about permits from the police and whether the man's boat 
could make the twenty-mile journey across the open sea, Gazem 
busily finalized the rental of the boat. The negotiations took no 
more than five minutes. For $70 the man would take us. I ac- 
cepted the fee without question, even though I knew that $70 
would have bought the boat. This sum represented an entire 
month's profit for the fisherman, but the price didn't strike me as 
exorbitant. He was taking a risk. We were strangers, and I knew 
that what we wanted to do was prohibited. After waiting ten 
years for this opportunity, I wasn't about to jeopardize our de- 
parture by arguing over a few dollars. It was more important to 
leave before questions were asked. I bought several bottles o 
drinking water while Hussein located a shovel. Seating myself in 

She 1$ Very Tired I 137 

the thirty-foot-long open boat, I realized it was identical to the 
boat that had taken the major, his soldiers, and me to Uqban 
Island ten years earlier 

Waiting for our departure, I was dumbfounded at the ease 
with which Gazem had arranged transport. No one had tried to 
stop us. My excitement began to grow as I imagined myself on 
the familiar shores of Uqban Island. How would it feel to return? 
In less than two hours we could be digging in the sand. Surely I 
would find something buried on the beach. I carried an old pho- 
tograph of the camp to help locate the spot. Details from ten 
years earlier came to mind: walking on the beach at dawn, the 
scalloped seashell that Suzanne had found to hold our soap, 
black manta rays leaping out of a turquoise lagoon, and diving 
sea birds with green webbed feet. I saw myself sitting in the shade 
of a low coral cliff watching a blue-and-white sail approaching 
the island- 
As the fisherman began to push the boat away from the shore, 
my reverie was interrupted by a sudden silence that fell over the 
waterfront of Al-Luhayyah. The fishermen and customers who 
had been haranging each other over the morning's catch had 
stopped talking, I looked up and noticed a man who was clearly 
neither a fisherman nor a shopper, Unshouldering his Kalashni- 
kov, he waved us back to shore. There was nothing to do but 
return. The man asked Gazem where we were going. 

"Oh, just out to have a look at the mudflats and mangrove 
trees," he said with remarkable coolness. 

The plainclothes policeman was unconvinced by this explana- 
tion. We waded ashore and soon found ourselves at the home 
of the chief of police, who received us shirtless and barefoot, 
dressed in a pair of striped pajama bottoms. His fingers bore 
tresh inkstains from an antiquated black fountain pen he held in 
is hand. By coincidence, this man was a distant relative of Hus- 
sein, our driver. These two spoke amicably for five minutes, but 
ere was "othing the chief of police could do to assist us without 
wntten permission from the National Security Office in San'a or 
eida. M y P er niit was valid for Al-Luhayyah and the nearby 


coast, bur not the island. He politely asked us to leave town be- 
fore sunset. 

During the conversation in Arabic, I heard the name Arafat 
mentioned several times. It didn't take long to make the conneo 
tion between Yasir Arafat, the leader of the PLO, and the Red 
Sea islands, and it finally dawned on me why the islands lay 
within a military security area. I could appreciate why the coast 
was so carefully guarded if a PLO camp existed on one of the 
islands. But for whatever reason, it was abundantly clear that no 
one could visit the islands except the fishermen, and even they 
were watched closely. 

It was maddening to realize that if it had not been for the un- 
timely arrival of the policeman on the beach, I would be halfway 
to Uqban. The debilitating climate merely added to my sense of 
failure, but I tried to conceal my feelings of frustration* 1 decided 
that while we were in Al-Luhayyah, it would be prudent to con- 
tact the sheik of the fishermen. When I asked for him, however, I 
was told he was sleeping, so we returned to the cafe to wait. 

Soon a man walked into the cafe and sat in a nearby chair. 
Given the heat and humidity, he looked unusually cool. We nod- 
ded politely to one another* 

"Why are you come here? 1 ' he asked in an engaging manner. 

"Tourist," I replied j assuming that the man wanted to practice 
his English, I wasn't in the mood for a language lesson. 

"No, why are you come here?** he repeated. 

"I want to visit the islands," 

"No, let me tell you — you are come to ask about the boat" 

Hearing this, Gazem moved closer. I asked the man what boat 
he was referring to, 

"I am Mr. Mansur Hassan. I know everything," 

"Everything? All right, where is this boat?" 

"On Al-Murk Island." 

"Wrong island," I replied. "The boat I'm looking for was 
wrecked on Uqban Island," 

"Yes, but she not stay on Uqban." He laughed. 

According to Mr. Mansur Hassan, a large storm had lifted 
boat off the beach of Uqban a year after the shipwreck. The w 

She Is Very Tired I 139 

and waves had carried it eastward to the southwest reef of Al- 
jvlurk Island. This explained why Nigel and I hadn't been able to 
locate the boat in the aerial photos: we had been looking at the 
wrong island. 

"AKMurk, this is where she lies. I see the boat last yean She is 
on her side on the coral." 

People gathered in the cafe to listen to our conversation* I 
pulled a nautical chart out of my shoulder bag, spread it on the 
table, and located Al -Murk, It was exactly five miles from where 
we sat. Judging by the currents and the position of the numerous 
reefs and islands, it seemed unlikely that the boat could have 
drifted eastward; the prevailing winds from the north would 
have pushed it to the south* I wasn't altogether certain that Mr, 
Hassan and I were talking about the same boat, so I asked him 
to describe in detail the vessel he had seen. Borrowing my pen, 
he began to draw a rough sketch. More people crowded into the 
cafe, blocking the stinking breeze from the mudflats. I felt suffo- 
cated in the still air, yet a sense of keen anticipation filled the 
room, Mr. Hassan drew with an unsteady hand, but there could 
be no mistaking the features. The cabin layout, mast, and place- 
ment of the steering wheel convinced me that he had seen Clea. 
He correctly described the maroon sails, the shape of the 
anchors, the location of the engine, compass, batteries, and other 
valuable fittings. 

. * . clothes, books, colored pictures . , , a toilet here, radios, 
ropes — so many beautiful things!" 

"You know the boat well," I remarked. 

Yes, I know everything, and I tell you why I know everything. 
I took these things myself, I was the customs officer" We both 
started laughing, I was amused that a government employee 
would so proudly announce his part in the looting of a foreign 

Encouraged by his admission and my friendly response, the 
°ther men spoke up, Gazem translated. 
J t0ok the fla re gun!" one cried out jubilantly. 

frie H°£ k * e gaS bottlesr Maimed another. "And he, my 
nd there, took the cooking pots. We took everything!" 


The cafe was soon in an uproar as more people came forward 
with their stones of plunder* I remembered the scene of pillage as 
men swarmed over the boat in 1978. They had been driven off 
with gunfire. Spontaneous laughter broke out. United by this dis- 
tant episode, we somehow found the frank admissions of thiev^ 
ery amusing. 

No one in the cafe knew how 1 had arrived on Uqban Island 
or what the sailboat was doing on the beach. One man thought 
we had been repairing the hull. The small crowd was equally 
mystified as to our reasons for leaving the boat unguarded. Why 
hadn't we put her back in the water? The beach dropped off into 
deep water, they told me. It would have been no problem to re- 
float the yacht* 

I explained the shipwreck, but I didn't feel like trying to ex- 
plain the nature of insurance claims. Instead, I asked for an arti- 
fact from the boat. I wanted a souvenir. I offered to pay. A scrap 
of sailcloth, a book — anything would do. 

The men laughed at my ignorance. "The things we took are 
gone now," one of them toid Gazem. Ten years is a long time on 
this coast Nothing lasts in the salt air. 

I was referred to as "the man who was lost at sea." Coining 
from people who knew what a storm could do to a small boat in 
these waters, I took this title as a sign of respect. Many of these 
men had friends who never returned after a bad storm. A young 
boy of about twelve described Clea as he had seen her ten 
months earlier: "She has been in the sea for so long, and now she 
is very tired." 

Another boy soon arrived to tell us that the sheik of the fish- 
ermen was awake and would see us now, I said goodbye to the 
men in the cafe, whose excited discussions continued as Gazem, 
Hussein, and I walked to the north of town. Keeping to the 
patches of shade as much as possible, we soon entered a court- 
yard, where we found Sheik Ali Abbas and two other men reciin^ 
ing on tall cots in the shade of his house. In the center of the yard 
an arbor covered with leafless grapevines provided little protec- 
tion from the sun. The sheik offered tea, then came right to the 
point Once again Gazem translated. 

She Is Very Tired / 141 

4i You have come to ask about the boat. 1 will tell you what 
happened. The men in town have told you a storm brought your 
boat to Al-Murk Island, Ha! That is not the truth* Along with 
men from Khawbah, they dug the boat out of the beach during 
the first high tide and towed it to Al-Murk. It was hard work, but 
on Al-Murk we could visit it daily co take the things we needed. 
These men here, they know the story," He gestured to his com- 

One of the men confirmed the claim that the boat was on Al- 
Murk, "It is on its side in this much water, 1 ' he said, indicating a 
level just above his knees, "Everything has been taken. Water fills 
the inside. It is difficult to approach. We don't go near it any- 
more. The boat is finished/* 

As he continued, I caught the sound of a commotion on the 
nearby beach, We couldn't see a thing from within the courtyard* 
but I judged the angry voices to be coming from the smoking 
ovens, where people had been preparing fish as we arrived. Sheik 
Ali Abbas allowed the furious argument to escalate for twenty 
minutes before he excused himself. A big man of about sixty, he 
had a stomach that protruded over his belt, and he walked with 
a peculiar penguin-like gait. 

Half an hour later he returned to his cot, wearing a tired 
expression that suggested that life in Al-Luhayyah no longer held 
any surprises. As the leader of this obscure fishing community, he 
had seen it all before, Two men had been arguing over the joint 
ownership of a fishing boat, There had been a knife fight — 
nothing unusual. They had slashed each other with their blades, 
but no one had been killed. 

The sheik drew himself up on the cot once again and yawned. 
I could see that he was bored with my questions. To speed the 
conversation to a conclusion, he mentioned that the two men 
who were sitting beside him had recently returned from fishing 
a 1 night. They were tired. In such heat, was it not better to sleep? 

e sailboat was wrecked, I did not have permission to visit the 
1S anc * s > an d nothing of value was left on the boat. What more 
was there to discuss? 

But I continued, sensing that this might be the closest 1 would 


ever get to recovering my journals. I asked how the fishermen 
had discovered Clea. As I suspected, many people had noticed 
that the lighthouse was not working. Cautious by nature, the 
fishermen had waited to see what would happen next. One night 
the two men now sitting with the sheik were fishing near Al- 
Bodi, one of the outer islands near Uqban. They were perplexed 
when they saw colored flares in the sky, but they continued fish- 
ing. The men had no explanation for these lights, and not until 
several evenings later did they decide to investigate. They ap- 
proached the southeast corner of Uqban sometime after mid- 
night. I realized this must have been the night Georgik and Suz- 
anne heard voices and saw sparkling lights on the water. A third 
man went ashore before dawn to have a look. Georgik and Suz- 
anne had not imagined the voices. We had been watched, 

"The man saw five people, two women and three men/' 
Gazem explained with renewed interest. "He knew about your 
journeys to the lighthouse and the location of your camp, but he 
couldn't understand why your boat was on the beach. Soon 
other fishermen in the area came to know of the white people on 
the island. The fishermen waited and watched. When you left the 
island with the black men and their goats, they brought a large 
motorized dhow to the island and began removing things from 
the sailboat. They believed this boat was a gift from Allah. They 
worked through the night, loosening bolts on the engine, remov- 
ing tools, and filling bags with the most valuable items. By dawn 
they were busy at the camp. They worked quickly, knowing the 
white people would soon return." 

1 asked if either of the two men had been at the sailboat when 
Georgik, Robert, and I had arrived with the soldiers later that 

"Aywa!" (Yes!) exclaimed one man, "The soldiers, they shot at 
us. The bullets passed overhead like this." He made a ducking 
motion, ts We grabbed everything we could carry, but too much 
was left behind. We knew it was the end, so we ran. When the 
soldiers left we returned, but they had taken the best things. 

Gazem told the men that I had been with the soldiers that 

She Is Very Tired I 143 

morning and had pleaded with them not to shoot anyone. On 
hearing this, one of the fishermen came over to where I was 
seated and shook my hand vigorously, I was equally delighted to 
meet him- Ten years earlier we had stood at the opposite ends of 
a desolate beach on Uqban island* At that time he had been noth- 
ing more than one of many little black dots swarming over the 
yacht. We spoke for another half-hour about our different ver- 
sions of what happened on the beach that mornings but the sun 
was already on the horizon, Unless we left soon, we wouldn't 
arrive in San'a before midnight. 

In an unexpected flush of blind optimism, I envisioned myself 
returning to Al-Luhayyah within a week, two weeks at the most, 
I asked Sheik Ali Abbas if he could write a short letter to the 
National Security Police to confirm that Clea was now on Al- 
Murk Island. He refused to write the note and became irritated 
when pressed for an explanation. My persistence seemed to 
make him uncomfortable. Maybe he thought I was trying to seek 
compensation for the loss of the sailboat; that would have been 
the Yemeni way, 

Gazem asked if we would be able to hire one of the fishing 
boats when we returned. 

"lnshallah" (God willing), the sheik replied vaguely. He turned 
to engage the two fishermen in conversation, and we ceased to 
exist. We drove out of Al-Luhayyah just before sunset 

Dessert in the Desert 

I awoke AT five the next morning after the long drive back to 
San'a. My eyes were closed, but through my bedroom window at 
the institute 1 heard the crunching sound of heavy-soled boots. 
The sound grew louder. Soldiers were running in step for morn- 
ing exercise. They counted cadence in Arabic. One man sang out 
short plaintive cries, a pause followed, then a moving refrain 
thundered back from the ranks of young men. The voices were 
proud as well as powerfully evocative. From beneath my blanket 
I imagined a line of turbaned warriors with arms interlocked, at 
the edge of a dying fire, performing a dance at dawn before going 
into battle. The essence of Yemeni manliness, pride, and self-es- 
teem was clearly conveyed as the soldiers passed by. The tramp- 
ing sounds and voices gradually grew indistinct as they moved 
down the roadway. I fell back into my dreams and awoke two 
hours later. , -m 

The telephone was ringing. A man from Hodeida wanted 
talk to me. I didn't know anyone in Hodeida. The caller intro- 
duced himself as Abdallah Kareem. Roughly translated, tn« 
man's name meant "the slave of God will provide." „ He 
nounced that he could help me get clearance from the ^ at ' 0 " w 
Security Police to return to Uqban. When 1 asked how he kn 

Dessert in the Desert I 145 

m y phone number, he ignored my question. It made me feel un- 
easy that a stranger knew of my plans. I asked who he worked 

"I work for no one ■ . . and 1 work for everyone," he replied 

I understood his position immediately. He was a fixer, one of 
those shadowy figures who are indispensable in places like 
Yemen. Their sole mission in life is to facilitate unusual or nearly 
impossible projects. Ideally, they collect from all parties in- 
volved. I was pleased the Slave of God had called* 

Abdallah Kareem questioned me closely regarding the events 
of 1978* He wanted to know the name of the sailboat, the dates, 
and particularly the names of any Yemeni soldiers I had met on 
Kamaran Island. I had the information with me. He asked if I 
would be at the same number later in the day. He would make 
some phone calls. When he called back at 5 p.m., he told me 
enough about the chronology of the shipwreck and details of my 
stay on Kamaran Island to convince me he was well connected 
with either the army or National Security. 

"The boat is well known. We may have no computers here, but 
we remember these incidents very well," he said with a laugh. I 
wondered who he meant when he referred to "we." I asked about 
permission to return to the island. 

'There is no problem, but it will take time," Abdallah cau- 
tioned me. 1 took this opportunity to let him know that I was 
agreeable to compensating him for his services, if that would 
help speed up the process. 

"But of course!" he replied. He told me that he would call 
again when he had news. I waited for several days. During that 
time nothing happened, or, more precisely, none of the expected 
happened. We spoke on the phone frequently. First Abdallah's 
contact in the National Security Office was out of town* for un~ 
nown reasons. Then he was unavailable, owing to a student 
demonstration that had turned nasty in Ta'izz. As a result of a 
young woman's being insulted while collecting water, eight sol- 

ers were to be executed. "It is a bother," Abdallah said, in a 
m °ment of supreme understatement. Then the Iraqi prime min- 


ister visited SatVa. Security had to be arranged; an armed convoy 
of fifty vehicles was needed to escort him to and from the airpo n 
My relatively trivial request was set aside. 

I understood the unimportance of my plans, but my visa was 
valid for only thirty days. I was near the end of my fourth week 
in Yemen, and I wasn't confident I could get an extension. I soon 
grew anxious, then suspicious. How long could it take to get 
clearance? Another month? A year? A lifetime? I felt I was wast- 
ing my time- All I had to go on was Abdallah's voice over the 
phone, continuing to remind me that there were no problems. 
Lack of time is not considered a problem in Yemen, 

One day I would be told " Everything is fine," the next day "It 
is not possible/* Then it was merely a question of getting a letter. 
From the tone of his voice, I could tell the Slave of God was re- 
lishing the uncertainly, Mumkin (maybe) and bukra (tomorrow) 
were two expressions I got to know well More days passed, but 
the letter did not materialize. I pressed Abdallah, but his stan- 
dard reply was always "There is no problem ... we have ap- 
proval* You must be patient. Everything is being arranged." 

I considered trying a different approach, but nothing came to 
mind. I soon had a new name for the voice on the telephone: Mr* 
Mafeesh Mushkilah, Arabic for "no problem " I wondered if he 
was simply incompetent^ or perhaps an employee of National Se- 
curity with instructions to block my plans with a variety of de- 
lays. By calling me frequently, he could keep me in one place. 
Although I had come to realize that Uqban Island was situated in 
a military security area, if the secret police wanted me out of the 
country, they would have simply picked me up and taken me to 
the airport. Perhaps I was being watched, One thing had become 
abundantly clear — the Slave of God was not providing me with 
anything tangible* 

I decided to leave town for a day in order to relax and rethink 
my plans* Gazem would arrange a car and driver. I was inter- 
ested in visiting two important archeofogica! sites to the east of 
San'a, where the mountains meet the desert. Both destinations, 
Barakesh and Marib, are at the edge of the Rub'al-Khali desert, 

Dessert in the Desert ! 147 

the Empty Quarter. I also wanted to visit the ruins of two Sa~ 
baean temples in the same area* One, Mahram Bilqis, was dedi- 
cated to the moon god Ilmuqah. The other, smaller ruin, consist- 
ing of fi ve an d a k a '^ closely spaced limestone pillars, is primarily 
noted for the daring village boys who climb the thirty- foot pillars 
and then slide down between them at great speed, using their 
bare feet and backs to brake themselves. 

These and other sites to the north and south were built along 
the ancient trade route once linking Dhof ar, in Oman, with Petra 
and Alexandria. Camel caravans loaded with frankincense, 
myrrh, spices, exotic animals, gold, silk fabric, and precious 
stones had plodded this trail until a sea route joining the Medi- 
terranean with the Far East was discovered in the first century 
a.d. At that time the inland trade route began its long decline, as 
the coastal cities grew in importance. 

Gazem and I jostled each other as we dozed on the front seat 
of the Land Cruiser next to Ali Mohammed, our driver. To avoid 
the heat, we had left San'a before daylight, driving east toward 
the Rub'af-Khali. I woke up during the long winding descent 
to the desert floor. Searching for a notebook in my shoulder bag, 
1 came across a packet of astronaut ice cream. The blue-black- 
and-silver label displayed a spaceman floating above the surface 
of the moon, I knew I was carrying this freeze -dried version of 
Neopolitan ice cream to the edge of the great desert in the middle 
of the summer for a reason, 

Unexpected gifts often accompany imminent departures to 
far-off places. Minutes before I stepped onto my first plane flight, 
from San Francisco to New York in 1968, a bystander in the de- 
parture lounge handed me a large watermelon. I took it on board 
and carried it with me for two days before dropping it down a 
'ight well from my room on the fifteenth floor of the Roosevelt 
Hotel on East 45th Street, I still remember the forbidden thrill of 
watching the green shape growing smaller and smaller until there 
Was n{ >thing. Nothing, that is, apart from the surprisingly loud 
report of a watermelon exploding at the bonom of a concrete 

1 have since found myself in possession of similar gifts, but un- 


doubtedly the most unusual of these keepsakes was a gopher on 
a leash that was handed to me as I was setting off on a donkey 
journey near Band-i-Amir lakes in central Afghanistan in 1971, 
It was my prize for winning a two-hundred-yard, barefoot race 
against an Uzbeki potato farmer. I had told him that his donkey 
wasn't strong enough to carry me and that my legs were stronger 
than his donkey's. 

"We'll see who has the strong legs," the farmer challenged me, 
hiking up his pant legs. 

We ran two lengths of his freshly plowed field for the prize. 
Following the race, a great deal of money changed hands in the 
local teashop. But beyond the intrinsic value of the gopher^ I ap- 
preciated the rodent on a deeper level. It was presented by the 
farmer as a gesture of friendship, a genuine souvenir to connec 
me with a person and a place in time. 

In a similar spirit, the astronaut ice cream was given to me 
as a going-away present by a friend in California, It was an 
appropriate gift, lightweight as well as practical. Freeze-dried ice 
cream in the desert? I intended to enjoy it under adverse condi- 
tions. I would wait until I was overwhelmed by heat and the frus- 
trations of travel. At that moment I would tear open the foil 
packet, eat the ice cream, and think of home. 

Light was just coming into the eastern sky as the road straight- 
ened out, and I put the packet of ice cream back into my bag, 
Gazem was awake. Looking out the windshield, toward the 
north, he remembered a recent episode. Lighting a cigarette, he 
told me the story of the American oil worker who found a suit- 
case bomb in Wadi Jauf. "A pair of smoldering ankles protruding 
from his boot tops . , Gazem reminisced, "I hear that is all they 
found of the poor man. A terrible mistake. He had just arrived in 
the country. It happened to the north, not far from here." 

Apparently the oil worker and his Yemeni driver had stopped 
on a remote road to investigate a suitcase sitting on top of a mat- 
tress. A suitcase at the side of the road? What could it mean? The 
two men discovered the secret minutes later. The resulting explo- 
sion was so powerful that investigators first thought the car had 

Dessert in the Desert / 149 

run over a land mine. Others suggested that a rocket-propelled 
grenade had hit it. But the explosion was too big for a grenade. 
When they examined the bodies, the ear, the road, and the blast 
fragments more closely, the investigators finally decided that a 
bomb concealed in a suitcase had exploded inside the vehicle. 
Reconstructing the sequence of events, the American embassy 
officials came to the conclusion that the men had picked up the 
suitcase, brought it back to the car, and placed it on the passen- 
ger seat. The oil man had then clicked open the latches and lifted 
the lid. The driver must have been standing behind the oil 
worker, because most of his body was found. 

According to Gazem, the suitcase had been left by one tribal 
group for another. There had been a dispute over water rights. 
Who could have guessed that two innocent strangers would 
come upon the trap in such an unlikely place? 

As I listened to the story, I realized that I would have re- 
sponded in exactly the same way. Curiosity would have com- 
pelled me to look in the suitcase, 

Gazem finished his tale as we arrived in Barakesh. For nearly 
an hour we had followed an indistinct desert track. Stepping 
from the cab, I noticed that Gazem's eyelashes, hair, and shoul- 
ders were laden with fine dust, 

Barakesh is considered to be the best-preserved ancient city in 

Yemen. Although it lies in ruins, visits are sometimes difficult, 

because two nearby villages claim jurisdiction over the site. To 

avoid violent conflict, the villages take turns extorting what they 

can from visitors on alternate days. It was still early, and we 

found ourselves completely alone. The ruined city is enclosed by 

I basrioned wall laid out in an ovoid shape, roughly three 

hundred yards long by two hundred yards wide. Constructed 

of smooth blocks of a beautiful calcite stone with chiseled 

margins, the wall reached a height of twenty-five feet. I poked 

around the slope of rubble at its foot; the site had never been ex- 

favated, and the temptation to pick through the debris was great. 

h *s fortified city had been inhabited for more than 1500 


I examined dozens of pottery shards decorated with a border 
of reddish brown ibex horns, Segments of brightly colored g] ass 
bangles were plainly visible on the surface of the ground where 
rainwater had cut shallow courses into the rubble. Climbing 
through a breach in the perimeter, I gazed across a city that 
looked like a complex sandcastle melted by gentle waves, R un . 
ning my hand over one of the remaining walls, I decided that the 
mortar between the bricks might be a good place to look for 
older fragments. I reasoned that the mortar would have been pre^ 
pared from nearby soil that considerably predated the walls, fr 
was also more prone to erosion than the bricks, so that hard, 
imbedded objects would be easier to see. I was correct in my as- 
sumptions. Within twenty minutes I had eased the edge of a 
carved stone cup from between two bricks. Judging from the 
curve of the rim and the interior profile, I estimated the cup to be 
three and a half inches in diameter and two inches deep. The ex- 
terior surface was lined with a finely worked, fluted pattern. [ put 
the fragment in my pocket. 

I didn't have much time to enjoy my find or the beauty of Bar- 
akesh. As I walked back to the Land Cruiser for water, 1 heard a 
distant sound similar to popcorn striking the inside of a glass pot 
lid. Thirty yards from where I stood, the sand danced in little 
puffs. I failed to make the connection between the distant sound 
and the plumes of dust on the ground. There were also strange 
little futt . . . futt , „ . futt noises, which corresponded with the 
puffs of sand. Each puff seemed to have an accompanying futt. I 
remembered old war movies on television, especially the parts 
where machine-gun fire strafed the beach. Suddenly 1 understood 
the relationship between the popcorn and the little flicks of sand 
1 was being shot at 

"Get down!" Gazem called out. Both he and Ali Mohammed 
had instinctively fallen to the ground the moment they heard the 
sound. Performing a crude imitation of Superman losing altitude 
rapidly, I knocked the wind out of myself. The popping sound 
subsided. We waited* When I looked up, a lone figure was strid- 
ing briskly toward us. There wasn't much we could do, so we 

Dessert in the Desert / 151 

srood up without dusting ourselves off and watched as the tribes- 
man closed in on us. 
"Just relax/* Gazem told me quietly. 

The tribesman turned out to be the ticket collector for the day. 
It was Friday, the Moslem holy day* The man was irritated that 
we had arrived so early. He wanted to know why Gazem and Ali 
Mohammed were not at the mosque. Was it not a rime to wor- 
ship? And who had given us permission to visit? Where were the 
permits? What, no permits? All right then, how about the 
money? The man's interest shifted smoothly from religious to 
commercial matters, 

"He thinks we were planning to leave without paying," Gazem 
told me. The tribesman was perfectly correct in this assumption, 
but Gazem expressed surprise at the suggestion. A few uncertain 
minutes passed, and then a cloud of dust miraculously appeared 
on the horizon, The cloud grew into a vehicle, a long-wheelbase 
Toyota Land Cruiser. More tribesmen? I wondered. What if this 
man was collecting fees out of turn? The resulting confrontation 
could be bloody. I fingered the cup fragment in my pocket and 
directed my thoughts to distant places. 

The vehicle came to a halt, and five corpulent German speak- 
ing men disgorged themselves onto the hot earth. Draped with 
telephoto lenses and videocameras, they were completely oblivi- 
ous to the situation. They began taking pictures — pictures of 
the desert, the walls of Barakesh, each other, and finally, the 
tribesman. I wondered what it would be like to see a man cut in 
™t by machine-gun fire. Gazem fell quiet as the tribesman, mo- 
mentaniy confused by the newcomers' fearless behavior, was 
n rented by a portly man dressed in shorts, T-shirt, and a silly 
and 1 t ! rry " Ci0th hat « 1 don,t k ^w what he was trying to say, 
motiolT, * inte f* ed in 6nding out ' Gazeni cau § ht ™Y *Y* and 
The friK f ° Ur Car > and We moVed awa ^ from the S rou P' 

^ An m , ad tak6n h °' d ° f ° ne of the cameras > ™ d th ^e 

e ^ed the d T^' A * ^ dmb ^ mt ° the front seat and 
m ?me k^° 0T j 1 heard ° ne of the meo touting, "Das isi 
**era t du schwemhundr We didn't wait for the reply. 


AH Mohammed started the engine and we moved off slowly Th 
scene was lost in our dust traiL I was relieved not to hear th 
sound of gunfire. 

"Well, now!" Gazem exclaimed with a short laugh. "Let's g 0 
see the ruins at Marib." 

Gazem and I made the standard tour of the Marib area. After 
he showed me the sluice gates of the great dam that had been 
built across Wadi Adhanah in the eighth century B.C., we exam- 
ined a field of stones bearing Sabaean and Himyaritic inserip^ 
tions, nudged pottery shards with our feet, and then lost all inter- 
est in walking around in the midday heat. We drove on in search 
of the temple ruins at the edge of the Empty Quarter, 

Sweat and dust were smeared over our faces and necks as we 
bounded across the desert. The stone pillars of Mahram Bilqis, 
our destination, soon appeared in the distance. The place is also 
known as the Temple of Refuge, a title that fit in perfectly with 
our plans. It was much too hot to go in search of the elliptical 
foundations in the surrounding sand dunes, so Gazem and I 
flopped down in the shade of eight magnificent limestone pillars 
to take refuge from the sun. 

Shifting desert sands had long since reclaimed the ruins. The 
temple had been built for the worship of Ilmuqah, the moon god, 
a male diety regarded as the divine lover, affectionate and merci- 
ful. To the Bedouin, the moon is the giver of life and refreshes 
and guides men on their night journeys. Looking at the ruins pro- 
truding from the dunes, I remembered the moon depicted on the 
label of the astronaut ice cream. I felt for the packet in my bag; it 
was there. AH Mohammed had fallen into a stupor in the front 
seat of the car. My shirt was saturated with perspiration, and a 
dusty paste clung to every exposed bit of damp skin. The mo- 
ment had arrived. I ripped open the foil packet, snapped off two 
bits of freeze-dried ice cream, and handed one to Gazem, We ate 
in silence, absorbed by our own thoughts. 

A thin line of men and their camels moved on the horizon- 
Their dark shapes quivered in the heat. 

"Those people are as hard as rocks," Gazem muttered. 

Dessert in the Desert ! 153 

The Styrofoam-textured dessert crunched between our teeth, 
d the flavors of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry mingled in 
aD mouth. The ice cream was pretty good. 1 handed another 
^ e to Gazem, A bead of sweat rolled down my face as I read 
P he°!ist of ingredients. The corn sweeteners, mono- and diglycer- 
ides polysorbate 8o> and artificial colors and flavors reminded 
me of home. 

The School Project 

Waiting for the Slave of God to look into travel possibilities 
with the National Security Police, I spent hours in the San'a tea- 
houses with Gazem, following local gossip. It seemed perfectly 
reasonable that while I waited to collect my old stones, I should 
keep pace with the current ones. 1 became absorbed with the 
time-honored Yemeni tradition of taking hostages in order to 
bring attention to important grievances. 

One morning, while taking tea with Gazem just outside the 
gates of Bab al-Yemen, I heard about the ordeal of the people or 
Al-Harum, an isolated village in Wadi Dahab near the Rub ai- 
Khali. In exchange for allowing the Hunt Oil pipeline to be con- 
structed through their land, the government had offered to bUU_ 
a school. The pipeline contractor, Consolidated Contracto 
Corporation (CCC), promised to install an irrigation pump, i . 
ther of these promises had been kept. During the construction^ 
the pipeline, three young men from the village had been K 
accidentally when their car collided with a truck owned oy 
Korean construction company. The company agreed to f ■ 
180,000 riyals to each of the three families, bringing the ^ 
compensation paid to nearly $54,000. It paid the money _ 
Islamic Court, but because of unforeseen delays the tuna 

The School Project / 155 

e t reached the families of the dead men. There was no 
n °h ol and now the people were being run down by construc- 
tion vehid^^^ The villagers lost their patience. 

[n November 1987 the men of Al-Harum took their first hos- 
tage, a Lebanese employed by CCC The hostage, as it turned 
ou t was quite happy to sit around. He continued to earn his sal- 
ary although he wasn't working, and he found the village relax- 
ing compared to his neighborhood in West Beirut, During his 
two-week stay in Al-Harum he ate well, slept for most of the day, 
and spent the afternoons leering at the young women. What 
made the situation intolerable to the villagers was the fact that 
no one came to negotiate for the release of this freeloader. He 
proved useless as a hostage. The government would never build 
a school in exchange for this man, so they let him go. 

In a second ransom attempt two months later, the same group 
of tribesmen captured the oil man Norman Whittle. 1 had not 
forgotten Billy's account of Stormin* Norman, and by good luck 
I later met Norman's girlfriend, Donna, who lived in the old city 
of San'a, At breakfast one morning she told me what had hap- 
pened. It had all started with a phone call six months earlier. 
Donna had been expecting Norman after work when the phone 
rang, It was Hunt Oil. Norman would not be home for dinner. 
"He's been taken hostage," the voice said flatly. 

Donna explained that she hadn't been surprised. She hung up 
the phone and returned to the kitchen to turn off the burner un- 
der the curried chicken. Taking a bottle of beer from the fridge, 
she sat down to think. She considered the possibilities, then let 
her mind go blank, Anything could happen, but she had been in 
Yemen long enough to know the value of patience* There was 
tittle point in either worrying or hoping. 

As Donna was opening another bottle of beer, Norman was 
running through the night. He loped across broken ground, com- 
1 ? ' osr - In his spare time he ran for exercise, but this was his 

Sk° PP ° rtUllity t0 fUn f ° f hiS Iife ' Somewnere behind him in the 
s hould SS ' armeC * tr ^esmen were looking for him. His captors 
caus Nj laVe ta ^ en ^ s runn ing shoes along with his car keys, be- 
e orman wasted no time escaping. He simply ran over the 


nearest hill and disappeared from sight. A Yemeni tribesman car 
rying a twelve-pound Kalashnikov and wearing leather boots 
without laces cannot run nearly as fast as a frightened Welsh 
man dressed in a T-shirt and cut-off blue jeans. Norman quickl 
outpaced his pursuers. By the time the moon was up, he had 
covered nearly twenty kilometers through totally unfamiliar 

When lights appeared in the far distance, Norman followed 
them until he came to a cluster of stone buildings. Dogs barked 
in the crisp night air as dark figures took him to a small room 
where he explained his escape. He spoke little Arabic, but the 
villagers understood his story well enough. Congratulating him 
on his heroic run, they apologized for not being able to take him 
to the main road until the next day. Meanwhile, they offered 
their hospitality, and the simple dinner soon lulled Norman into 
a pleasant night's sleep. Before drifting off, he heard the men 
laughing quietly. Not until the following morning did he under- 
stand the joke. 

As he slept, one of the men drove the rounds of the neighbor- 
ing villages to see if anyone was missing a hostage. Norman had 
run to a different settlement, but unfortunately, the people in the 
area were all from the same tribe. When he awoke, his original 
captors were ready to take him back. 

Returning to Al~Harum, Norman fell sullen and became un- 
cooperative. Instead of taking tea with the people, he practiced 
his Arabic curses. Later in the day, on an impulse, he threw his 
walkie-talkie through the window of his Land Cruiser. Then he 
ate an orange and a can of jalapeno peppers from the ice chest m 
his truck, continuing to sulk. By early afternoon he had begun to 
bellow and scream. When this produced no response, he took off 
his shirt and ran around bare-chested. The villagers were bewil- 
dered by this totally uncharacteristic behavior. Never before had 
the tribesman taken a hostage who ran around half naked in 
front of their women. What sort of man had they brought into 
their village? 

On the third morning of the villagers' ordeal, a Land Cruiser 
full of tribesmen arrived from nearby Wadi Jauf, Word Ha 


The School Project I 157 

ched them that ''their man Norman" had been taken, Nor- 
worked in their territory and was therefore under their ju- 
nction. The new arrivals argued that if anyone was going to 
rake him hostage, they would. The men of Al-Harum began to 
t t h e i r choice of hostage. Before settling matters with the 
government, they would have to negotiate with their neighbors 
over the right to hold Norman. A settlement was reached, and 
the men from Wadi Jauf withdrew, 

Norman added to his captors' discomfort by refusing to accept 
their hospitality. The refusal to take food in Yemen, as in other 
Arabic and Asian countries, can mean one of only three things: 
that the guest feels the host cannot afford to provide food, which 
shames him; that the food is unclean or not well prepared; or 
that the guest has such a hatred for the host that he does not wish 
to diminish that hatred by sharing food* To refuse hospitality can 
be a serious matter. 

The men tried to explain that they had nothing personal 
against Norman but were merely using him to open a dialogue 
with the government. They wanted a school for their children, 
and they knew of no other effective way to stimulate a serious 
discussion. However, their explanations fell on deaf ears; Nor- 
man continued to refuse to eat their food. 

The man who had been assigned as Normans host finally 
could take it no longer* Making the ultimate gesture of trust 
and friendship, he sent his lovely unmarried fourteen-year-old 
daughter to serve the strange white man his breakfast. The girl 
was unveiled and alone when she laid out the tray of food. She 
poured coffee and allowed Norman to look at her face, in order 
to show him that he was considered one of the family. She tried 
her best, but Norman remained unmoved, The family was dis- 
traught . 

Norman continued to scream and make a nuisance of himself, 
k suspect that a Yemeni man behaving in this way would have 
rifPk an d gagged or simply knocked unconscious with a 
mad Un ^ C v '" a S ers ' oc ' cec ' Norman in a stone tower, bur he 
out 6 SUC ^ a cornmot * on tnat tne y were soon forced to let him 
a gam. He walked around freely, with confused men with ri- 


fles following him everywhere. The sight of a yelling, half^ak 
white man was too much for their sense of decency, howe 
and that night the men talked. They decided that Norman had \ 
go. He was a nuisance they could well do without. He had vio 
lated every known rule of hostage etiquette. They decided to 
throw him out of the village the following day. The school p ro j 
ect could wait. 

Sensing that the end was near, Norman softened. He couldn't 
have been proud of his behavior, and perhaps to show the tribes 
men he bore them no ill feelings, he sang English rugby songs 
including "The Hole in the Elephant's Bottom," for their enter- 
tainment. Norman sang loudly and off key, and one can only 
imagine the effect his singing had on such people. It was just as 
well the assembled tribesmen and their families could not under- 
stand the raunchy lyrics. If they had, the songs might have cost 
the Welshman his life. 

On the morning of the fourth day Norman found himself 
standing alone on the main road between Marib and San'a. The 
kidnappers, driving his Land Cruiser, retreated to the safety of 
their hills, and a passing truck brought Norman back to San'a, 
where Donna was still waiting. 

The villagers had not had much luck, but according to Gazem 
that was not quite the end of their story. After their run-in with 
Norman, months passed before the men of Al-Harum felt confi- 
dent enough to make a third attempt to get the school built. On 
the morning of April 2,0, 1988^ Gazem was traveling the back 
road to Marib with Hussein, a tribesman from the north. Neither 
of them was armed. In the back, seated on either side of an ice 
chest filled with soft drinks and bottled water, were two BBC 
filmmakers on their first visit to the country. They were conduct- 
ing a survey of the ancient cities along the frankincense route in 
preparation for a documentary film, and they spoke no Arabic. 
Rounding a corner on a mountain track, the four men encoun- 
tered a row of oil drums and two parked trucks blocking the 
road* Armed men surrounded the car, and Gazem, Hussein, an 
the two filmmakers were taken hostage. 

The School Project / 159 

It was the second day of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Dur- 
ing Ramadan it is not permitted to eat or drink or have sex dur- 
ing the daylight hours. People usually remain quiet throughout 
the day in order to conserve energy. By staying up late at night, 
they can sleep longer during the day. For this reason, at two 
o'clock the following morning the tribesmen were busy making 
tea and food. Hussein took this opportunity to escape by walk- 
ing into the darkness and disappearing. There was a brief search, 
but the villagers returned without him. 

Nothing much happened that afternoon. The captors didn't 
seem particularly unstable or murderous, a fact much appreci- 
ated by the two Englishmen, and an uneasy calm settled over the 
village. People moved about as little as possible, waiting for 
nightfall and the breaking of the fast. The following morning 
Gazem awoke to the sounds of birds at dawn. In the still air he 
also heard the far-off sound of helicopter blades beating the air. 
The thump, thump, thump of the big rotor carried across the 
barren hills. Something would happen that day. Hussein had 
found help* 

The night of his escape, Hussein had walked for two hours 
until he arrived at a road. Not long after that a car approached 
He explained to the driver that his own vehicle had broken down 
and he needed to go to Marib to buy new parts. The driver had 
not yet learned of the hostages, so when Hussein handed him 50 
nvals, he took him to the main road. After arriving in Marib at 
ZTl US L Sem contacted *e army commandant, who was not 
my trom his own tribe but a distant relative as well. Late in the 

Z m r tW ?. tBi ; ks ' three T oy«as with fifty-caliber machine 

waked trt^ fr ° m the Vlik § e - Whik the 

selvesfor ln ' i 1C ° Pter t0 arriVe ' the villa § ers PrtP^d them- 
w akji an attack. 

*d told hiT d ° f helic ° pter ' the § uards to Gazem 

^ns[ a ti ne 5 " * e tWO white men " Gazem *** b ^er 
la ^edsoL^ C ° mments for *e filmmakers. The helicopter 
dtStance ™*Y- A man stepped out, and the helicop- 


ter left. The man walked into the village unarmed; he had b 
sent from San' a to negotiate with the tribesmen. 

For the next five hours issues were discussed, and the outcom 
was fair to both sides. In return for the release of the hostages 
the government would arrange payment of the 540,000 rivals^ 
the deaths of the three young men. As for the school, the govern 
ment promised to reconsider. It had gone back on its original of 
fer because there weren't enough school- age children to justify 
the expense. The students had been directed to a regional school 
in a distant village, but this arrangement was not acceptable to 
the parents, who wanted to be with their children. The people of 
Al-Harum could keep the stolen vehicles, but on the condition 
they would not take any more hostages* The dispute over the ir- 
rigation pump would have to be addressed through the CCC rep- 
resentative in San'a. To assist, the government would pressure 
the company to make good its offer. Finally, the villagers would 
allow the BBC to return later in the year to film the archeological 
sights along the frankincense trail. 

The government and the villagers stood by their promises. As 
Gazem and the two filmmakers prepared to leave Al-Harum, the 
tribesmen lined up along the road, apologized for any inconve- 
nience, and then waved goodbye like a group of excited school- 
children brandishing automatic weapons. 

A political analyst at the U.S. Information Service in San'a 
found the settlement encouraging. The conflict had been resolved 
fairly, but more important, the tribal people had acknowledged 
the fact that the government might actually have something they 
wanted. It was possible that they were beginning to equate the 
central government with social services such as schools, medical 
clinics 5 and agricultural assistance. This represented a quantum 
leap in understanding for the fiercely independent tribes, whose 
combined private armies might still be capable of overwhelming 
the government forces. For generations the Yemeni and Saudi 
Arabian governments have endeavored to buy tribal loyalty In a 
display of impartiality, the tribes, renowned for their ideologic 3 
unreliability, have accepted payments from both governments 
and then done exactly as they have seen fit. The tribes along the 

The School Project I 161 

border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen lack neither money nor 
weapons. The Saudis nurture unrest in the area, partly pending 
future oil discoveries, but primarily to maintain a weak govern- 
ment on their southern flank. 

The political analyst cautioned that although a settlement had 
been reached, it was unlikely that the concept of taxes in ex- 
change for government services would be embraced during this 
generation ... or the next. 

The people of Al-Harum were only partially satisfied, but they 
were willing to try the new style of negotiation. An armed dele- 
gation from the village would travel to San*a to encourage the 
government to build a school for their children. If this didn't 
work, they could always go back to taking hostages. 

One Mind, 
One Heart 



Glancing away from the pandemonium that engulfed the of^ 
ficiaPs desk, I noticed a dusty ivy vine suspended on a string. The 
vine had crept in one window, climbed the wait, crossed the en* 
tire length of the room on the overhead string, and then left the 
room through a different window, I was waiting my turn to ap- 
ply for a visa extension* It was the end of my fourth week in 

White paint flaked from the ceiling, littering a beige carpet 
that bore the burn marks of thousands of cigarette butts toed out 
by anxious men. Chrome chairs upholstt-red in green velvet lined 
one wall, yet all of the thirty-odd visitors to the office were on 
their feet, with the exception of myself and whoever was seated 
behind the desk, I couldn't see the man because he was obscured 
by the pack of sweating applicants, who brandished dozens of 
passports in their fingers like fans of oversized playing cards. 
Each man specialized in a different nationality. One held only 
Egyptian passports, another Somali* and a third Pakistani. These 
men were practiced in the art of securing visa extensions to help 
foreign workers remain in the country. They also obtained exit 
visas that allowed Yemenis to find work overseas. The Korean, 
Chinese, Russian, British, French, American, German, Swiss, 

One Mind, One Heart / 163 

h Italian, and Japanese passports waving about in the hot 
C ins air revealed the complexity of foreign aid to Yemen, 
m One man opened his briefcase on the chair next to me. Inside I 
Id see a jambia, a clip-on necktie, a bundle of qat, more pass- 
C orts, prayer beads, cigarettes, a Koran, a car license plate, a pair 
of" rubber bathroom slippers, and a spray bottle of cologne. He 
seemed well prepared for a variety of situations. 

The man behind the desk barked orders, and the tide of pass- 
port men surged forward and backward according to his com- 
mands. I could hear passports being slapped on the desktop. The 
official's voice ranged from a confidential murmur to terrific 
shouts of "Mahmoud!" at which point a stoop-shouldered assis- 
tant would shuffle into the room to carry out some thankless 
task. Desk telephones rang simultaneously, but the calls were left 
unanswered. I felt no need to push my way toward the official, 
as I had not yet prepared my reasons for a visa extension. I was 
officially allowed a one^month visit. It was my twenty -eighth day 
in the country, and I was feeling justifiably nervous about my sta- 
tus. I could fly across the Red Sea to Djibouti to renew my visa, 
but I preferred to avoid the extra expense of airfares and a hotel* 
More significant, if I left the country, there was no guarantee of 
being allowed re-entry. 

Two young men entered the office. Their white skin was 
sunburned, and a two-day growth of whiskers darkened their 
cheeks. They wore rumpled cotton pants fastened at the waist 
with drawstrings, and the sleeves of their faded T-shirts were cut 
away, revealing tufts of underarm hair. Assuming Western privi- 
lege, they approached the crowd of men surrounding the desk. 
As the men parted, I caught my first glimpse of the seated official, 
He was a heavyset man. One side of his collar was turned up, 
a ^d his necktie had been fastened in obvious haste. His huge 
stomach kept him some distance from the desk, and I noticed 

at 0ne of his shirt buttons was undone. But despite these signs 
of slovenliness, I became aware of his clear and watchful eyes. In 
a Suture of exaggerated helpfulness, he held out his arms to the 
young men, with palms upturned, and cocked his head slightly 
t0 one side. 


"And how may I help you?" he asked in English. 

The men, who heid Austrian passports, asked for an exit and 
re-entry visa that would allow them to bicycle to Aden, then the 
capital of South Yemen. Even I knew their request was as absurd 
as trying to obtain a re-entry visa to Israel for a round-trip j 0 u r 
ney between Tel Aviv and Amman. In 1988, the most common 
way for foreigners to go to Aden from North Yemen was via Dji- 

Until quite recently relations between North and South Yemen 
were cordial but complicated because of their dependency on aid 
from countries with opposing interests. North Yemen, backed by 
the United States and Saudi Arabia, practiced free enterprise, 
while the economics and politics of South Yemen were influenced 
by the Soviet Union, The Yemens shared an acute need for 
money, but until the USSR left South Yemen or the recently dis- 
covered oil reserves near the Yemens' common border allowed 
for economic independence, national reconciliation seemed a re- 
mote possibility. 

On May 2,2, 1990, North and South Yemen reunited to be- 
come the Yemen Republic, But this was of little help to the Aus- 
trian cyclists in the summer of 1988, and I wondered whether it 
was arrogance or stupidity that provoked them to announce 
their plan. 

"You will not go to Aden," the official told them coolly* 
"But we know that it is possible to go/ 5 they said, trying to 

convince him. "We must get the permits here." 
"I will assure you, it is not possible," the official said iri a 

louder voice. 

"You don't understand — " one of the cyclists began. He was 
immediately cut off by the man behind the desk. 

"No, my friend, it is you that does not understand. This is my 
office, and I am telling you that you cannot go to Aden," 

"But we must go to Aden. We have bicycled all the way from 
Austria. It has taken us eight months to get this far. We have 
made our plans," they explained, using their best Western iog ,c * 

"Yow can go to hell, but you will not go to Aden!" the orficia 
bellowed at them. He pronounced bell like bail, and the Austn 

One Mind, One Heart / 165 

- misunderstood his comment. They thought he was referring 
aD ^ n a i t ernate destination in South Yemen. 
t(>it Where can we go?" one of them asked hopefully. His friend 
looked for the town on a map. 

"To hell you can go to hell! Do you understand hell? Mah- 

rnoudf MahfftoudF The man was in a rage. The ignorance of 
these two white barbarians infuriated him. Specks of saliva flew 
from his mouth. 

The Austrians were befuddled by the display of anger. They 
had cvcled so far, and now this — a crazy man in the visa office. 
Their expressions of helplessness as they were ushered from the 
room were unforgettable. I never saw them again or learned of 
their fate, When I looked back at the desk, the official was star- 
ing at me, 

"And you \ Where do you want to go?" he demanded. 
"Not to Aden," I replied. 

The man sat back and smiled, obviously pleased with my an- 
swer. He broke out laughing. No one else in the room uttered a 
word. He invited me to sit in a chair near his desk, "Mahmoud! 
Mahmoud!" he yelled, and two cups of tea were soon brought. 
Abdullah Saleh el-Jeradi introduced himself and then asked why 
I had come to Yemen. 1 told him about the journals. 

u Ah, so you are pursuing vour dreams," he said, "And where 
do we find the answers to our dreams? We find them where the 
earth touches the sky — on the horizon. It is always so. You are 
chasing a mirage, but never mind, you will come to eat lunch 
with me," 

He concluded the morning's work by dismissing everyone in 
the room with a wave of his arm. No one protested. Turning to 
me, he muttered^ "One mind, one heart, one feeling . . . how can 
there be two?" I wasn't sure 1 followed his thoughts, but I nod- 
e as if I did, hoping the meaning would come clear later. It 
seemed prudent to give the impression that we had established 

add 6 ° f understandin 8- As we left rhe office for luncn ' he 
E m y Passport to the dozens of others already bulging from 
h * coat pockets. 
Saleh el-Jeradi seemed to relish my company and acted as if we 


had met through mutual friends. He told me that he had orice 
visited Washington, D.C, as part of a training program to stud 
immigration surveillance procedures. His brother had lived in 
the United States for more than twenty years. One day during his 
training Saleh decided to type his brother s name into one of the 
terminals to see what he could find. The amount of information 
that appeared on the screen astonished him. Everything was 
there — especially the personal details of his brother s life, ob- 
scure facts that Saleh was unaware of. The report impressed him 
greatly, and the computerized information system provided him 
with his most lasting impressions of the United States (memories 
of public liquor stores and the Grand Canyon had faded with 
time). "Seeing is believing," he told me, using one of his most 
frequent expressions. 

As the days passed, I wondered what had happened to mv 
passport and visa application. Saleh seemed to be too busy enter- 
taining me to take my concerns seriously. The afternoon after we 
met, he took me to a Yemeni wedding. At the lunch I found my- 
self seated with five hundred men from the Hashid tribe, who 
had gathered in the dining room of an old summer residence of 
Imam Yahya, Yemenis eat quickly, and soon the long tabletops 
were ravaged as a result of the feasting. There were the usual 
joints of stewed mutton and a fatty soup of bone marrow and 
goat vertebrae. Terra-cotta pots bubbled with saltah, and my fa- 
vorite Yemeni sweet, bint al-sahn — literally, the "daughter of 
the dish" — was served. Bint al-sahn is a round, strudei-iike, lay- 
ered egg bread topped with a sprinkling of blackened seeds and 
drenched in a mixture of honey and clarified butter. Shafout, a 
dish that I had heard of but never tried, turned out to be eigh- 
teen-inch whole-wheat crepes soaked in a tasty green sauce of 
yogurt and milk blended with garlic and chilis. Freshly minced 
coriander leaves gave the dish its greenish hue. 

Seated across the table from me was a country cousin of the 
bridegroom who gnashed his teeth and belched loudly, obviously 
enjoying his meal a great deal. There was little conversation, || 
hundreds of arms crisscrossed the tabletops in search of food - ^ c 
ate with our fingers. No women were present; they had gathere 

One Mind, One Heart I i6y 
elsewhere. The actual wedding ceremony was to take place on 
the following day. 

Automatic pistols appeared in nearly every waistband, and 
guards wandered between the tables with assault rifles slung over 
their shoulders, scanning the room carefully. When we had ar- 
rived, I had seen armed men roaming the gardens and the sur- 
rounding streets. Noticing my puzzlement, Saleh said, "One 
never knows what might happen at these gatherings." He patted 
his coat pocket. 

Soon it was time for the platters of stewed sheep's heads. I con- 
tinued eating, wondering about the proper way to eat a sheep's 
head. I didn't have to wait long to find out. There is a trick to 
cracking open the skulls. You place the thumb of one hand in an 
eye socket (with the eyeball still intact), and span the skull and 
grip the roof of the mouth with the fingers. The other hand 
grasps the lower jaw. A sharp twisting motion is accompanied by 
a sickening snap and a popping sound. When done properly, the 
slippery skull and jawbone come away in two pieces. Then you 
prise open the cranium. 

Not every man could manage the trick, but the growling 
tribesman across from me was an expert. People handed him 
their sheep's heads, and for several minutes I watched as he skill- 
fully wrenched the jaws away from a dozen skulls. It was not an 
appetizing sight. 

"One mind, one heart!" exclaimed Saleh from across the ta- 
ble. Everyone's mouth and hands were covered in sheep fat and 
honey. By the time we rose from our chairs to wash our hands, 
the tabletops and carpeted floor of the dining room were littered 
with glistening jawbones and broken skulls. 

The next two days passed in similar fashion, with much eating 
ut no news of my visa application, 1 ate with Saleh % family one 

ternoon. The following day I was taken to an open-air restau- 
^nt that specialized in dishes from Wadi Hadramawt, in South 

brick n 11 ttinS ° n StraW matS in the Shade of a whitewash ed 
feet WC watched as )' oun g men prepared our meal a few 

with 1 ^ tosseci wliar looked like wire coat hangers strung 
me at into three-foot-wide fire pits dug into the earth. A 


large garbage-can iid was placed over the pit to help smoke th 
meat. When the meat was cooked, we were each handed a COat 
hanger portion. The shared plate of rice mixed with cardamom 
pods, tomatoes, and raisins went nicely with the greasy morsels 
of charcoal-flavored goat 

The day my visa was to expire, I again mentioned my pass- 
port; I had not seen it in two days, Saleh worked a toothpick 
between his teeth as he asked how much time I needed, 

"Two weeks?" I asked hopefully. 

"Here," he said, producing my passport from his pocket. 
"Seeing is believing/' I replied. Saleh had given me six addi- 
tional weeks. I was beginning to understand the Yemeni mind. 


The Cafeteria of Hope 

My TOES ACHED with cold as I hurried to Bab al- Yemen, the 
southern gate through the old city walls. Stonemasons, carpen- 
ters, and general laborers hoping to be picked up for a day's 
work squatted in the morning sun, displaying the tools of their 
trade in buckets or on burlap bags, I was an hour late meeting 
Martin Plimsoie, because my watch had stopped during the 
night. By coincidence, Martin had overslept as well, so that we 
arrived in front of Bab al-Yemen at the same time. He had 
brought a friend along — Kevin, who also taught English at the 
Bristol Language Institute. It was the beginning of the school 
reak for them, the day we had settled on for our departure from 
anja. With no particular destination in mind, we planned to go 
walking in the mountains for a few days. 

None of us had eaten that morning, so we found a teahouse 
b U e 0f «>ugh-looking men and hurried through a meal of fried 
* ns ' bread ' and nutmeg-scented tea. The fresh green onions 
brealf ^ mea ' tainted our breath for hours - Finishing 

arrived ^ ° ff ° n f ° Gt f ° r the nearb y taxi stand " When we 
queued loQ g" di stance Peugeot 504 station wagons were 
U P and slowly filling with morning travelers. We selected 



a sturdy-looking car and sat down in the middle seat to wait fo 
more passengers. 

Martin pointed through the front windshield to a veiled 
woman making her way across the large asphalted parking area 
By local standards of dress there was nothing particularly re ^ 
markabSe about her clothing. She was dressed in a sbarshaf 
black garment that covered her from head to ankle in veils and 
long pleats. The delicate fabric caught the breeze in such a way 
that every movement of the woman's body was accentuated with 
a biilowy grace, The clues to her age, social status, and shape 
were too subtle for my untrained eye, but a Yemeni man would 
have read these signs at a glance, Her posture, hands, feet, and 
the quality of fabric told the story 

What made the woman's appearance unusual was the charcoal 
brazier perched on her head. Made of sheet metal, it was about 
eighteen inches in diameter and was supported on a two-foot- 
tall, slightly conical stand that flared at the bottom, so that it fit 
her head like a hat. She presented an odd sight, dressed in her 
black veils with a smoldering hat atop her head. The brazier left 
a line of dense white smoke high in the air, conspicuously mark- 
ing the woman's course through the predominantly male crowd. 
The smoke trail reminded me of a steamship at sea, 

Everyone was in motion. Men crossed the taxi area pushing 
identical green wheelbarrows filled with assorted merchandise, A 
three-foot mound of freshly scrubbed carrots was wheeled into 
view, dramatically backlit by the low morning sun so that they 
gave off a translucent orange glow. One man trundled by with a 
barrowful of shiny green melons stacked like cannonballs. The 
next man's wheelbarrow held a pile of freshly decapitated calf s 
heads. Vendors flowed along either side of our taxi, and my 
vision was soon confined to the view out the front wind- 
shield. There were wheelbarrow loads of long purple eggplants? 
freshly polished red apples from the Tihama, dusty mounds o 
toasted locusts, and what appeared to be daikon radishes. The 
radishes, known locally as qushmi, reminded me of a passage ^ 
had read by Ibn al-Mujawir, who visited Yemen in the thirteen^ 
century. He had written about "The Edict of the White Radish \ 

t to wait for 

to a veiled 
arking area, 
ticularly re- 
sharshaf a 
in veils and 
such a way 
ttuated with 
and shape 
man would 
is, feet, and 

the charcoal 
it was about 
a two-foot- 
so that it fit 
essed in her 
= brazier left 
ously mark- 
male crowd. 

irea pushing 
rchandtse, A 
vheeled into 
so that they 
ed by with a 
imbaUs. The 
Stated calf's 
ixi, and my 
front wind- 
ie eggplants, 
* mounds of 
idishes* The 
: a passage 
ie thirteenth 
ite Radish": 

The Cafeteria of Hope I 171 

The Daulah Gauhar told me that the radishes are sold split in 
four parts- Why? I asked him. Because it was told that a long 
rime ago there was a woman that used one in her vagina. The 
sheik of the village, having heard about this, gave orders that 
radishes could only be sold if they had been split, and they have 
since made it a law. 

The law had evidently been changed, because the radishes in the 
wheelbarrow were still intact — and of impressive proportions. 

Another of the green wheelbarrows contained a human body. 
It was shaded by a large black umbrella and wheeled slowly 
through the crowds by a teenage boy, who walked between the 
long wooden handles. As they drew near, I could see the ema- 
ciated figure of a neatly kept man arranged on a blanket, his head 
lolling back with unblinking eyes. His disfigured limbs were 
folded in al! directions, but he did nor strike me as being gro- 
tesque. In one of his clawlike hands he clutched a microphone* A 
car battery, a loudspeaker, and a small amplifier were nestled in 
the blanket next to his body. He was broadcasting his request for 
alms, Yemenis give generously ro the poor, and I saw many peo- 
ple put money into the wheelbarrow. The attendant made a well- 
practiced circuit of the taxi area before moving to the next stop. 
The wheelbarrow disappeared, and soon the amplified voice be- 
came indistinct in the commotion of the morning crowd, 

A garland of sweet-scented jasmine flowers was thrust through 
the window at my side. I instinctively motioned the young girl 
away, but the thick perfume lingered for several minutes, and 1 
soon regretted not buying the string of delicate white flowers, 

When the taxi was filled, the driver collected 100 riyals from 
each of the eight passengers. In the back of the cab lay two spare 
arts (both flat), an engine block, a crankshaft, bur no tools. 
As we started off, I noticed that the floor was covered with a 
oraUprint linoleum. Magazine cutouts of unveiled, overweight 
Women w ith bare arms were pasted to the door panels. The steer- 
' gearshift lever, and rearview mirror were carpeted, 
thr a W ^ ms * ca ' counterpoint to the sober religious themes: 

^dimensional postcards taped to the dashboard depicted 
cen es from the life of Mohammed, and the top border of the 


windshield was lined with glittering, multicolored decals bear" 
prayers from the Koran for a safe journey (possibly the owner^ 


idea of collision insurance). The vehicle was more than a taxi 
cab; we were passengers in a portable shrine, which paid homage 
to the Prophet while keeping us mindful of the pleasures of the 

Kevin told us of an orientation speech reportedly given by the 
U.S. embassy hospital staff to single men working for Hunt Oil 
in San'a, in which the men had been instructed to swab them- 
selves down with Clorox bleach before and after sex with Yem- 
eni women. The possibility of an oil worker talking to a Yemeni 
woman, let alone touching her, was so remote that the precau- 
tion seemed ludicrous. It is much more common for Yemeni and 
foreign men to go to Djibouti for sex. Our laughter caused the 
driver to complain to the other passengers that Nasranis (follow- 
ers of Jesus of Nazareth) never bothered to learn Arabic. He felt 
that we were excluding them from our joke. Martin replied in 
perfect Yemeni Arabic that this was entirely untrue. He told the 
Clorox story, and soon the conversation turned to women and 
sheep, Martin translated the comments for me. 

"Are the English girls as good as sheep?" the driver wanted to 

"I wouldn't have any idea. I have never had an English girl/ 1 
replied Martin, without missing a beat. 

"Do you get to see the faces of your Yemeni girl students?" 
another man wanted to know. He was scrunched in the back seat 
with a loaf of bread stuffed behind his jambia. Martin told him 
that several of the young women in his class lifted their veils dur- 
ing English lessons but lowered them before leaving the class- 
room. This response elicited an excited discussion that I couldn t 
follow but that reminded me of locker-room banter back home. 

Martin asked if we were going to stop at the Girls, a popular 
restaurant on the San*a-Hodeida road that is run by two un- 
veiled women. Nearly all the long-distance truckers and taxi 
drivers stop there to eat and to look at these hard-working 
women, about whom there are many lurid and highly unlike y 

The Cafeteria of Hope I 173 

»vtfi|1 we eat with the girls?" Martin wanted to know. 

"No, we will do other things with the girls," said the driver, 

Ch »Godwilling ," Martin replied. I laughed, but the other passen- 
ers fell silent. Smiling dreamily, they seemed lost in unlikely pos- 

S,b The e man with the bread in his belt broke the reverie by re- 
counting a sexual adventure in Hodeida many years earlier "We 
were pillows for one another,* he began (this is a Yemeni expres- 
s ,on for lovemaking). "That woman from the Turkish quarter in 
Hodeida — she was the very best. I remember her. She was 
creamy chocolate brown and smelled of ambergris." 

Other men described the intoxicating musky scent of women's 
clothes after being perfumed with bakhour, a Sight brown gran- 
ular mixture imported from Aden and India. It is burned over 
charcoal in a small ceramic brazier that is placed beneath a four- 
foot conical frame of rattan. Clothing is draped over the frame, 
and clouds of perfumed smoke permeate the fabric. Alterna- 
tively, a woman can lift her skirts and stand over the brazier, al- 
lowing the smoke to waft into her underclothing. The scent, sim- 
ilar to that of frankincense or myrrh, lingers in the clothing and 
on the skin for hours. 

I knew the smell of bakhour from my walks through the twist- 
ing lanes of San'a. One afternoon I had met a group of young 
women in one of those narrow passageways* Fully veiled in 
black, they walked toward me without a word or a glance to ac- 
knowledge my existence. I stepped aside, allowing them to pass 
by closely. Then they were gone. Continuing on my way, I was 
soon bathed in a delicate trail of perfume. For a moment I won- 
dered where it had come from, but then I knew. The fragrance 
filled the lane way, lingering as a tantalizing reminder of the 
women with the perfumed skirts. The encounter made me appre- 
ciate fully the delicate pleasures of grace and modesty. 

"Ah, happy talk!" exclaimed our driver as he accelerated 
down the road. So engrossed had we become in our discussions 
°f sheep, women, and perfume that we had forgotten to stop at 
the Girls, 


"We're almost to Bajil!" Kevin noted. 

"Time flies when you're talking about sheep," I replied. 

The mountain road straightened out, and I could feel the Sow 
land heat. Following a wide graveled riverbed that held a ribbon 
of clear running water* we drove by garden plots of banana 
corn, and sugar cane* Then we left the foothills and entered the 
Tihama. The section we crossed was utterly desolate. Scrubby 
acacia trees clung to life in the dry, sandy soil, and a hot wind 
from the north buffeted the car, making me feel drowsy as we 
approached Bajil. 

The taxi dropped us off in a wind-whipped flurry of plastic 
bags and hot grit, so we took shelter in a restaurant to wait out 
the dust storm. We had our choice of chicken or goat. Kevin and 
I had the chicken, which was dry and stringy. Martin claimed 
that the goat was delicately flavored and succulent, but judging 
from the number of toothpicks he carried away after the meal, I 
doubted this. Outside, an ice can emerged from a cloud of dust 
It was pulled by a donkey, but no one appeared to be leading the 
animal. Nine rectangular ice blocks, each eighteen inches wide 
and nearly five feet long, were roped to the swaying wooden cart. 
Wet burlap sacking protected the ice from the sun but not from 
the dirt. The cart disappeared into the dust again, and we left the 
restaurant after the storm had subsided. 

Bajil is an ugly town and is likely to remain so, because its 
buildings are made of reinforced concrete. The hideous shopfronts 
were put up soon after the completion of the nearby Bajil Cement 
Plant, in rhe days before concrete forrnwork techniques had been 
mastered by the local builders. The town is best known for its ex- 
tensive collection of dented oil drums, tire repair shops, cement 
dust, embroidered women's dresses, and high-quality qat. 

There is also a spiritual aspect to Bajil. Nearby a yearly festival 
known as the ziyarah of Waii al-Shamsi is held in honor of a lo- 
cal saint. The celebration has its origins in a Sufi/animist tale 
about a man by the name of Shamsi, who freed a nearby village 
from an ogre a thousand years ago, The monster demanded a 
yearly tribute of one virgin. It was not clear whether consump- 
tion or consummation was the goal of his desire, but Shamsi put 

The Cafeteria of Hope f 175 

an end to the ogre's appetites by cutting him up with a sword. 
Ever since that time people have come to Bajil to obtain barakah 
(blessings) from the saint's tomb. Wali al-Shamsi is also associ- 
ated with childbearing, and barren women make pilgrimages to 
the tomb, hoping to become fertile. 

Looking at the filth and the shoddy architecture of Bajil, I w as 
intrigued at how a spiritual life could exist in such a place. A 
friend who witnessed the festival a couple of years earlier told 
me that it started our well, but sometime before dawn frenzied 
male dancers bared to the waist began to plunge jambias into 
their bellies as musicians played furiously on goatskin drums. The 
veneration of saints, self-mutilation, and fertility rites seemed 
wholly incongruous with the modern industry and squalor of the 
town. This juxtaposition of past and present is one of the most 
striking features of Yemeni society. In San'a I had seen men in 
hand-forged leg irons shuffling past storefronts selling computer 
software, and veiled women walking the streets with new color 
television sets balanced on their heads. In Bajil, a roadside town 
littered with derelict vehicles and reeking of sump oil, it was pos- 
sible to observe a spectrum of human behavior that spanned 
more than a thousand years. But as far as I was concerned, the 
place was hot and ugly. I couldn't wait to get out of town. 

Before leaving Bajil, we went shopping on behalf of Sheik 
Ibrahim Dabri, whom Martin had met on a visit to the moun- 
tains two years earlier We located a perfume shop that was open 
at midday. The selection of scents was unremarkable, but we lin- 
gered over the variety of labels. There were Passion de Golf, 
Boom-Boom, Jigolo, No Man's Land, and others. Martin was 
looking for Sexational, but the shopkeeper had sold out and we 
l t0 SCttle for ^ bottles of Casino de Paris. 
We hitched a ride out of Bajil in the back of a truck and two 
urs later arrived in a small village at the base of the moun- 
ts, where we took refuge from the sun in a fimduk, an open- 
twelv f ,ng u house - lite ^Hy, "a Place to obtain relief." The 
milled f h r00( 0i corru S ated metal was supported by un- 
floor [ Iaid ° n tree_trunk P° sts set into th e pounded earth 
n the shade of this structure approximately eighty cots 


were arranged in groups of five or six. The exterior walls were 
clad with flattened oil drums. 

No vehicles would leave for the mountains until late after- 
noon, and so to pass the next few hours we went to the market 
place to buy qat. There we met Mustafa, a handsome Somali 
man who taught English in the village school. There were rto 
classes in the afternoon, so he joined us in the funduk. Mustafa 
told us that he had taught in the village for five years, but each 
year he returned to Somalia to visit his wife and children for two 

Little interest was generated by our arrival in the funduk. I 
couldn't determine who was in charge, but our needs were taken 
care of without our asking. One boy brought bottled icewater to 
each of us, while another set up a rail water pipe. We separated 
our bundle of qat into three equal portions and began to chew, 
sipping water to quench the thirst that accompanies qat chewing. 
There was little conversation* I enjoyed the peaceful ambience. 
The other men showed a polite interest in us, but we were by no 
means the center of curiosity. This suited me, because 1 was ner- 
vous about the local officials. We had no permits to visit the 
mountains, and the longer we remained in the village, the 
greater, it seemed, our chances of being questioned were. Chew- 
ing qat did not strike me as the best method of finding a ride, but 
I had little desire to stand in the sun. Ar least in the funduk we 
were out of sight. Mustafa sent small boys to inquire about 
transport. Meanwhile there was little to do but relax, chew; and 
puff on the madaa (pipe). A group of men wanted to know if we 
were Turkish or Iranian, Listening to Martin's Arabic, it didnt 
occur to them that English was our first language. 

The qat began to make me feel very relaxed. As sundown ap- 
proached, a television set mounted high on the wall of oil drums 
flickered to life. To coincide with the end of the nationwide after- 
noon qat session, an oud player performed on the screen for an 
hour. His voice and the sounds from the nine-stringed instru 
ment were predictably soothing. 

Absorbed as I was by the music, I hadn't noticed that most o 
the locals had quietly wandered off and the funduk was near 

The Cafeteria of Hope I 177 

empty- The sun had set. My serenity was interrupted half an hour 
later by the arrival of a stranger, who announced that a truck had 
been found. With our cheeks bulging with qat, we followed 
Mustafa quietly through a series of darkened laneways to an 
open area where two small roads intersected. I felt as if I had 
floated to this spot, I don't remember what became of Mustafa. 
There was no truck, but that didn't matter. I would happily have 
passed the night in that pleasant place, staring at the road and 
waiting for the sunrise. 

Some time later I noticed two yellow headlights approaching. 
The familiar sight of Yemeni men hanging off the back of a Toy- 
ota Land Cruiser came into view. This reassured me that we 
would be in the mountains that night. 1 sat next to the driver. 
Cool mountain air blew through the cab as we bounced and 
lurched our way up an immense alluvial fan. The twelve-inch 
potholes that starred on the outskirts of the village continued as 
far as the first set of single-lane switchbacks blasted into the 
mountainside. Beneath the star-filled sky, huge succulents (Eu- 
phorbia ammak) and large rocks loomed up in the headlights. 
The air was fragrant with the scent of mountain shrubs, but my 
enjoyment of the journey was hampered by the terrific jolts and 
bumps. Certain sections of the road were so precipitous that I got 
out to walk, and at these points the driver put on a special tape 
of Egyptian popular music. He turned up the volume of the fe- 
male vocalist, engaged the gears, and somehow scrambled his 
way up the frightful inclines. The seemingly indestructible Land 
Cruiser was an even match for the skill and raw courage of our 
driver, and I was heartened to see that he had fortified himself 
with a tremendous wad of qat prior to our departure. A man in 
his right mind might have lost his nerve on that track. 

Scattered lights appeared on the mountain, and a half-moon 
shone clearly above dark, jutting peaks. The road ended at the 
village of Al-Makrab. Arriving just before midnight, we were 

en ln at the village school by four Egyptian schoolteachers. 
^ e superintendent of the school, a Yemeni, was also still awake. 
^^ receive d u & in the conference room, where we sat around the 
r 00 cus hions. He didn't strike me as being very pleasant, but 


then I couldn't understand a word of what he said. He kept a 
loaded pistol in his lap and exuded an air of indifference and self 
importance. I was glad when he left the room. The four Egyp 
tians, who stayed behind, were from a city in the middle of th 
Nile Delta called Tanta. From their descriptions the place 
sounded dreadful, but this didn't prevent them from talking in- 
cessantly about home and how much they longed to get away 
from the damp mountain air. 

All I wanted was to go to sleep. The teachers were Scout-mas- 
terish and energetic, possessing a wholesomeness and sense of 
purpose that I had not witnessed since driving through Salt Lake 
City, Utah, in 1969, They commanded a group of admiring stu- 
dents, who vied with one another for the privilege of performing 
menial tasks: bringing us tea; cleaning up the conference room, 
which was strewn with teacups, qat leaves, and school papers; 
laying out rough-looking mattresses and wool blankets. Martin 
was handed the only set of keys to the outdoor water tank and 
toilet. At the edge of a precipice, we unlocked the padlock of the 
water faucet, washed our faces, and brushed our teeth, and then 
we returned to settle down beneath blankets that smelled like a 
sackful of two- week-old gym socks* We shared the room with 
three Yemeni men and four foul-smelling water pipes* The close 
atmosphere was made more unpleasant by the odor of stale to- 
bacco, but I slept well. 

The next morning, just before sunrise, I wandered up the hill- 
side to the village square and asked the owner of a small teashop 
for warm water. He handed me an eight-ounce tin full of scald- 
ing water, which I let cool before rinsing my face and hands. The 
square was paved with damp flagstones and surrounded on three 
sides by handsome four-story buildings constructed of meticu- 
lously chipped blue-gray stone blocks. The arches, lintels, and 
round windows were finely proportioned, At one time the win- 
dows and doorways had been shaded with delicate wood over- 
hangs, but in recent years most of the wood had deteriorated, 
and in its place were crudely worked sheets of rusted metal. The 
fourth side of the square opened onto a view of distant rnouB- 

The Cafeteria of Hope / 179 

tains graced with stone terraces that disappeared into the hank 
of clouds just below the village. 

I sat on a cold metal folding chair in front of the teashop as the 
first direct rays of sun reached the village. There were no other 
customers at that hour, but I caught glimpses of bundled human 
shapes moving between the nearby buildings as I warmed my 
hands with several glasses of weak coffee. It was a fine morning, 
brisk and clear. The sun began to heat my face and clothing, 

A man herded four sheep into the empty square. He didn't 
bother tying them up while he erected a meta! tripod at the end 
of the square that overlooked the cloud-filled valley. The sheep 
were fifty feet from where I sat, and the smell of damp wool hung 
in the air. Pushing up the sleeves of his sport coat, the man laid 
one of the animals on its side. He immobilized the body with his 
legs and bent the head back until the throat was taut- A ten-inch 
knife appeared in his right hand. Facing north, toward Mecca, 
he put the blade to the right side of the animal's throat and mut- 
tered "Bismillah," cutting into the neck with a quick sawing mo- 
tion that severed the windpipe and jugular vein. As the blade cut 
more deeply into the neck muscles, the animal seemed to be very 
much alive and struggling. The man adjusted his grip on its 
muzzle and with a wrenching motion cracked the head back- 
ward, The distinctive wet popping sound of snapping cartilage 
was audible where I sat. The head came away from the body. 
The man clung to the carcass as it tried to run away. But it was 
too late to run, and as the blood drained the convulsions sub- 

After hanging the animal from the tripod by a heel tendon, the 
tnan cut a slit along the inside of each leg and peeled the skin 
back, using his bare elbow for leverage between the skin and the 
still-quivering muscles. The skin came away in one piece. Then 
e opened the stomach cavity, pulled the small intestine out, and 
toiled it up like a limp garden hose. In the space of ten minutes 
^e animal had been reduced to a pile of steaming, jointed meat. 
e man sharpened his knife on one of the flagstones before 
aching for the next quaking animal. 1 had butchered farm ani- 


mals myself, but there was something about the cool efficiency 
of this fellow's technique that unnerved me. I could too easily 
envision myself hanging from the tripod. 

When Martin joined me for coffee, he pointed to a signboard 
written in Arabic above the doorway to the teashop. "How 
nice!" he exclaimed. "We are sitting in the Cafeteria of Hope. 
Unfortunately, there seems to be little hope for the sheep this 

"No hope at all," I replied, glancing at the second animal wri- 
thing in its own blood- 
Sitting in the Cafeteria of Hope, 1 thought about fate — not 
only the fate of the four sheep, but also what had made me return 
to Yemen. If I had come to revisit the islands of the Red Sea and 
search for the traces of my past, what was 1 doing in a mountain 
village 150 miles from the coast? 

Over the years, my notebooks had taken on a new signifi- 
cance. I didn't question that. Like writing on old parchment, the 
remembered pages had grown more delicate and precious with 
time. They represented a lost segment of my life, and for that 
reason I found it disconcerting that the longer I stayed in Yemen, 
the less I worried about finding them. The country was proving 
to be far more seductive and tantalizing than I had thought pos- 
sible* That morning, for the first time, I was willing to admit that 
the search was not going well, and that maybe it wasn't impor- 
tant anymore. Accepting this fact, I caught a glimpse of my own 
fate. Regardless of what the notebooks contained, it was clearly 
my need to wander to remote places and lose myself in strange 
situations that had drawn me back to Yemen, and to the Cafete- 
ria of Hope. At another time in my life, this same need had taken 
me on a journey of seven years. 

The Egyptian schoolteachers appeared and explained that the 
governor of the province would be arriving at noon to lead a 
two-day meeting with the local sheiks at their school. Not want- 
ing to be questioned by any officials, we thought it prudent to 
leave as soon as possible. We passed the last house on the main 

The Cafeteria of Hope / 181 

ridge behind the village before we stopped to look down on the 
cluster of stone buildings. Surrounded by mist, Al-Makrab ap- 
peared to be floating in the clouds. In the distance triangular 
black peaks pierced the sea of clouds* and in the foreground we 
could see several hundred schoolchildren assembled in the yard 
where the meeting would take place. Red and blue banners bear- 
ing words of welcome in Arabic script were jostled by the chang- 
ing winds. A long row of more than twenty chairs had been set 
out, suggesting a large gathering. 

Hours later, Martin discovered the keys to the toilet and water 
tank in his pocket. I tried to convince him that there would cer- 
tainly be a second set of keys, but we all knew this was unlikely. 
I am sure the villagers still remember us as the stupid Nasranis 
who walked off with the keys to the toilet the day the governor 
came to visit. Martin intended to send them back with the first 
person going in the opposite direction, but at each opportunity 
we were so engrossed in conversation that he forgot. Soon it was 
too late. There were no more people on the trail, and we passed 
into the next valley. 

Climbing steadily into a further set of mountains, we contin- 
ued to gain altitude. The trails were good, and we had no diffi- 
culty finding our way The views into the valleys and up the hill- 
sides revealed little scenes of mountain life. A team of men 
worked on new terraces while women collected water from the 
stepped inner walls of a cistern and children led goats and sheep 
into the high pastures. Many of the fields lay bare, and dried 
stalks of sorghum, to be used as livestock fodder, lay bundled 
near the trail. 

Calls echoed from one mountain slope to the next, "Oooh . . . 

4w a voice drifted across a half-mile of open space separating 

ridges. "Oooh . . . Mohammed!" came the reply. Shouts of 

? ne or two words conveyed messages and saved a walk of an 

°ur o r more. Later in the morning I saw men carrying Sony 

a le ~ ta lkies with long antennas. These, I assumed, were for 
™ pnvatc conversations 

stumbled up the mountainside, following a rocky trail that 


meandered between the freshly plowed terraces. My legs and 
lungs were not up to the terrain nor to the exuberance of my tw 
companions, and I soon fell behind as they strode out of sight 
But I enjoyed the sensation of walking by myself. No people were 
visible as I moved across the mountain toward a slight dip in the 
ridge, where I joined the others at about 9000 feet. We sat on a 
pile of stones and ate a package of Burton's fig-roll cakes from 
Saudi Arabia, Scattered far below us, tiny stone villages clung to 
patches of land too steep or rocky for cultivation. 

We would pass the night in one of these villages, As we de- 
scended the far side of the mountain, I could detect a subtle 
change of mood. The women's clothing was different: they wore 
knee-length black smocks embroidered with brightly colored 
thread, and those in the fields had hiked up their smocks to re- 
veal baggy orange-and-black-striped pants that fit tightly at the 
cuff. Even from a distance I could see that the women had lightly 
colored their faces with ground turmeric, to protect their skin 
from the sun and wind but also to enhance their beauty. Their 
yellow-toned complexions flattered their clear wide eyes, which 
were lined with kohl. No one called out to us as we wandered 
across the high slopes of the valley, and ! could sense that we had 
passed an imaginary border and stepped back in time. 

After a while we stopped to ask directions from an old man 
who was training a young bull to pull the plow. 

'This bull is still learning," he explained. "And as you can see, 
he is not enjoying his lesson today. Where are you going?" 

"Mahall al-Dabri." 

"Good, that is my village* There it is, over there — nor too 
far." The cluster of stone buildings looked promising. There 
wasn't a television aerial in sight. 

We said goodbye and headed toward Mahall al-Dabri, but 
long before we arrived the village sounds reached us. Hammers 
pounded sheet metal, and there was the distinctive thump, 
thump, thump of a diesel motor pumping water. Donkeys 
brayed, axes thudded into dry wood, and a multitude of ham- 
mers chipped at stone blocks for a new road. The excited voices 

The Cafeteria of Hope I 183 

f children laughing and playing mingled with the sounds of 
work The confusion of random sounds suggested a community 
at ease with life. 

Flanked by tall houses, the narrow pathway through the vil- 
1 ee included stone steps worn smooth, and there was the faint 
scent of donkey and goat droppings. Women with elaborately 
plaited hair appeared briefly at doorways and windows but 
showed little interest in our arrival. The smell of wood ash 
seemed to emanate from the cold stonework, and wisps of smoke 
drifted out of windows and short chimneys set on the flat roofs, 
where coffee beans were spread according to their color and state 
of dryness. The beans started out bright red, then progressed 
through several shades of purple until they attained a dark 
brown colon The familiar greenish beans were inside the dried 
husks. The rooftops were lined with large rusty tins from which 
sprouted fresh stalks of basil; women wore the long flowering 
sprigs behind their ears. 

Walking through the village, I imagined that this must have 
been what life was like in seventeenth-century rural England, 
Everything in sight was crafted by hand: the stone walls, the 
clothing, the buckets, shovels, short-handled picks, and twig 
brooms, I took in these details quickly, because within minutes 
of arriving we were ushered into the sheik's house, where we 
would pass the night. 

The mafraj (reception room) was illuminated by a bank of tall 
windows, above each of which were fanlights of colored glass set 
into delicate gypsum tracery. Knotted rugs covered the floor, and 
the walls were hung with cheap-looking carpets depicting vari- 
ous scenes; Mohammed's ascent to heaven, the Dome of the 
Rock in Jerusalem, and a caravan of camels crossing the desert 
at night. A gilded plaster clock in the shape of a clipper ship was 
mounted next to a flyspecked photo of President Ah Abdullah 
a eh, and an ornamental niche decorated with plaster reliefs 
h eid a colorful row of Chinese Thermos bottles. On a far shelf I 
^ a see a miniature diorama of the Kaaba in the courtyard of 
1 e ^ reat Mosque at Mecca. The center of the room was domi- 


nated by a large brass tray holding five mada'a and two large 
thermal jugs full of drinking water, A few older men, uncon 
cerned by our presence, filed into the mafraj with bundles of q at 
to begin the afternoon ritual. 

Everyone in the room assumed the same posture: right knee 
up, with left leg tucked comfortably in front; left elbow resting 
on a firm rectangular cushion. A young woman entered the room 
carrying a large terra-cotta pipe bowl, which she held in both 
hands as if it were an offering- The woman, who was scarcely- 
taller than the four-and-a-half- foot water pipes, stepped to the 
edge of the wide brass tray to fasten the bowl to the top of one 
of the pipes. She was beautiful, and I found it difficult not to look 
at hen She was unveiled, and the sleeves of her long smock were 
rolled to the elbow. She approached the mada'a in much the 
same way a dancer approaches the exercise bar, with a sense of 
purpose and grace. The angle of her chin, the motion of her 
hands and fingers, the set of her shoulders, and even the shape of 
her little ankles and feet as she stood balanced on her toes fasci- 
nated me. The economy of movement lent dignity to her simple 
task, and I was charmed by these subtle gestures. Beneath her 
black smock, she had the flat chest of a young girl. This feature 
was not in keeping with the curve to her hips, small waist, and 
firmly shaped bottom* I wondered if the women in these villages 
bound their breasts for beauty, or out of modesty. The overall 
effect of the plaited hair, black eyes, turmeric-colored cheeks, 
and strong, graceful figure was lovely and enticing. 

Having fit the bowl to the pipe stem, the woman brought the 
turned wooden mouthpiece to her lips and began to pull steadily 
on the pipe while twisting the bow! onto the shaft to create an 
airtight seal. Soon the flow of smoke was to her liking. She un- 
coiled the thick hose covered in purple velvet and then walked 
toward me, offering the mouthpiece and allowing our eyes to 
meet for the briefest of moments, I rarely smoke, but I could 
hardly refuse her offer 1 took the pipe with both hands and 
placed it to my lips. The entire ritual seemed rich in secret ges- 
tures. The pipe gurgled. The woman w r aited for a moment, unti 
the aroma of sweet, mild tobacco had filled my lungs and nos- 

The Cafeteria of Hope I 185 

trils and then left the room. I realized that the sight of the 
woman preparing the pipe was probably about as tantalizing to 
a Yemeni man as the sight of a woman vacuuming a living room 
rug is to a Western man, but this knowledge did not detract from 
m y enjoymenr of it. As an outsider, I took full advantage of my 
right to romanticize an unfamiliar situation, 

Yemeni men continued to gather in the small, warm room, and 
the murmur of conversation around me produced a sense of well- 
being and companionship. The growing wad of qat in my cheek 
also helped, I appreciated Martin's translations, which gave me a 
feeling for the substance of the conversation. When compared to 
male bonding rituals in Western societies, qat sessions seemed 
very civilized. Sitting comfortably with a water pipe and a mouth 
full of leaves struck me as a much more intelligent and produc- 
tive way to spend an afternoon than guzzling beer out of cans in 
front of the television or stupefying oneself after work in a bar 
full of strangers, 

These thoughts were interrupted by Martin's account of a re- 
cent dispute in the village. It wasn't clear what had caused the 
argument, but there had been a scuffle between two women at 
the well. Blows were exchanged, and one woman had ended 
the discussion by stoning her opponent. Having observed the 
strength of the village women at work in the fields, I could well 
imagine the violent scene. The victor marched home, leaving the 
second woman bloodied and screaming for revenge* Quick and 
just resolurions of disputes are desirable in order to maintain vil- 
lage harmony, so the husbands of both women were called to the 
sheik's house, and the men of the village gathered to listen to 
the story. It was important for them to witness the judgment. The 
men chewed qat and smoked as each husband spoke for his wife, 
describing her injuries. The sheik levied fines calculated on a per- 

raise or per-cut basis; one bruise was worth 50 riyals, while a 
and° F a ^ raS1 ° n was wort h 75 rivals. The injuries were totaled, 
tion an f atnount was a S reec l on - There was an additional stipula- 

° n " the total amount was not paid promptly, the families 
W0 ^ld not be allowed to use the well. 

S ^ us k c ame down, 1 heard a group of men in the distance. 1 



wasn't sure whether they were chanting or singing, but as th 
drew near I could detect a purposeful tone to their voices. Dowrf 
stairs, a door was thrown open as a crowd surged into the 
ground-floor hallway. The sounds of shuffling feet and voices 
were amplified by the narrow stairway. Within moments, fifty 
men and boys had filed into the room where we sat. Once they 
had settled on the cushions arranged around the perimeter, the 
tempo and volume of their chant increased. We became wedged 
into this mass of new arrivals* so that we all sat shoulder to 
shoulder. A woman brought two small braziers of bakhour 
through the doorway, and great clouds of sweet, fragrant smoke 
filled the room, perfuming our clothing and skin, 

I soon learned that less than an hour earlier, a young woman 
had died in childbirth. The men had gathered to acknowledge 
the death publiciy and to pay tribute to the dead woman. No 
women were present, but wherever they were — either preparing 
the body or in their homes - — the men's voices would reach 

The chant didn't seem to have a beginning or end. It sounded 
as if they were saying, "Hang-a hang-Hal Hang-a hang-ila! 
Hang- a hang-ila!" The windows and doors were closed, and 
three additional mada'a were tit. The perfumed clouds of bak- 
hour dissipated, only to be replaced by a thick pall of fresh to- 
bacco smoke. For five minutes the chanting continued nonstop, 
but then a sayyid began reciting verses from the Koran. (Sayyids 
are a small but highly regarded group of north Arabians who 
claim descent from the famify of Mohammed, and they are 
looked upon as holy. In some areas their touch is believed to 
cure.) The voices immediately fell silent as he recited, frequently 
exclaiming, "Blessings on the Prophet and his good and pure 
family!" There were choral responses from the crowd, and when 
the verses stopped, the chanting began again. 

During a momentary lull in the chanting, Martin told me what 
the men were saying. "La illaha ila Allah" translates as "There is 
no god but Allah" — a reminder that death must be accepted as 
the will of God. 

The Cafeteria of Hope / 187 

Two pressure kerosene lamps were brought in, and the room 
began to warm up from all the people in the confined space* As 
the chanting continued, the sayyid kept count with his strand 
of ninety-nine prayer beads. After two complete rounds, one 
hundred and ninety-eight chants, he would signal a stop by again 
reciting from the Koran. Over the next four hours the chant was 
repeated 70,000 times to honor the dead woman. 

With the heat generated by the lamps, our bodies, and the 
water pipes, the room was growing unbearably warm and hu- 
mid, The shrill yelling of the younger boys cut through the 
deeper bass tones of the older men, and the smoke, the qat, the 
powerful voices, and the extreme discomfort of sitting in one po- 
sition for so many hours made my pulse race. Beads of perspira- 
tion stood out on everyone's forehead. The emotional state in- 
duced by the chanting and the close atmosphere feil just short of 
a frenzy. When the mouthpiece of the mad a a was handed to me, 
I pulled the sweet smoke into my lungs until the syllables of the 
chant became thoroughly jumbled in my mind. I passed the 
mouthpiece on and concentrated on breathing in order to fight 
off unconsciousness and an acute sense of claustrophobia. 

Time was compressed; voices vibrated through my body, hum- 
ming, pulsating, soothing and intrusive at the same rime. The air 
pressure in the room seemed to increase as the bodies all about 
me rocked in time to the rhythm of the words. I relaxed and let 
the vibrations of the voices pass through me without resist- 
«*fr Kevin had slumped into a corner, speechless, unblinking, 
stunned. I was alarmed by his chalky complexion but realized 
that I couldn't look much better. The windows were fogged up 
with condensation, and rivulets of water ran down the insides of 
the small windowpanes. At one point during the chanting I lost 
control of my hearing: words and syllables expanded and con- 
tacted as if distorted by the Doppler effect. 1 cleared my ears 
epeatedly by holding my nose and blowing until my ears 
Popped. As the sweat streamed down my chest, I tried to focus 

twee \ Sayyid S fingeFS ' ° ne by ° ne he st l ueezed the beads be ' 
en his thumb and index finger, counting the verses and con- 


trolling the tempo and energy level in the room* I concentrated 
on my breathing. 

During a break, Martin leaned forward and asked Kevin if h e 
was feeling all right. Kevin slowly blinked his eyes in response 
The floor between our crossed legs was five inches deep in dis^ 
carded qat leaves and stems. 

"We all must die. Blessings to our fathers and mothers who 
have died before us and will rise up for the day of judgment!" 
called out the old man, and immediately fifty voices thundered in 

Two men entered the room with armloads of qat and threw 
small bundles at our feet. We expressed our gratitude by selecting 
a few leaves, but passed the bulk to older and more important 
men. For visitors, it was polite to acknowledge the hospitality, 
but it showed good manners to offer the qat to others. 

The 70^000 chants came to an abrupt halt, followed by a pro- 
found silence* The outpouring of emotion had left everyone 
spent, I couldn't move, but a short while later the men began to 
file out of the room. Half-submerged in leaf litter, I was incapa- 
ble of speech. 

Across the room, Kevin was mumbling to himself and laugh- 
ing. "Hide the donkey , , . hide the donkey . , , behind the don- 
key, behind the donkey! That's what they were saying — hide the 
donkey — in a Scottish brogue. Imagine that!" 

"Are you all right, Kevin?" Martin asked again. 

"mat? Me? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Yes, of course. Hide the 

Kevin was not well at all* 

When the men were gone, two little boys began sweeping up 
the qat leaves with twig brooms. The windows were not opened 
after the men left, so I went up to the roof to breathe in tremen- 
dous lungfuls of cold mountain air. I could see pinpoints of dis- 
tant electric lights on the mountainsides. A bright half-moon 
bathed the surrounding coffee and qat terraces in a ghostly half j 
light, and the individual rocks of the terrace walls appeared to 
give off a dull luminescence. I stayed on the roof until I was shiv- 
ering. Re-entering the mafraj was like stepping into a sauna filte 

The Cafeteria of Hope / 189 

with cigarette butts. The smell of tobacco, bakhour, and fresh 
human sweat was intense. I opened a window to air the room, 
but the Yemeni man who shared the room with us immediately 
shut it. 1 opened a more distant window, but he closed that one 
as W ell, fastening the latch with such conviction that I wondered 
if he was trying to keep in the heat or conserve the highly charged 
atmosphere created by the four-hour gathering. I wasn't sure, but 
I didn't attempt to open a window again. 

Before sunrise I followed a winding stone pathway to a rocky 
outcrop that overlooked the village. In the foreground below me, 
a man approached the white courtyard and dome of the mosque, 
which clung to the edge of a precipice* Holding a tin of water in 
his right hand, he entered a roofless enclosure that looked like 
five stone- walled stables. I didn't understand his mission until he 
hiked up his zanna, an ankle-length dress, and squatted in one of 
the stables. Feeling foolish to have selected such a commanding 
view of the public toilets* I moved to a new spot in order to allow 
the other early-morning risers their privacy. 

Sunlight bathed the village in an orange glow and brought the 
stone buildings to life. Shadows formed, defining space as human 
figures began to appear. Smoke drifted from high windows and 
chimneys. As a light wind carried the valley mist up the moun- 
tainsides, I saw a group of men leave the village carrying long 
bars and short-handled picks. They walked to a terrace facing 
the village and began to tunnel into the rock wall. Because of the 
lack of soil in the mountains, the dead are buried beneath the 
fields. I could hear the chinking sound of the tools against 
the stone. 

I returned to the sheik's house as breakfast was being brought 
WO the mafraj. We drank steamy weak coffee spiced with gin- 
ger. A damp flatbread, similar to a crepe or the Ethiopian injera, 

mixed^ t0 US 00 3 thin alumimirn P latter > and hot ghee 
aro * Hk k rmentec * cow ' s m1 '^ was poured over it. Squatting 
bread w C ° mmunai P Iatter > we ate with our fingers. The hot 
wheat fl m ° iSt and fra S ram > smd!e d of sorghum and 

which ° Ur ' It$ UPf>er surface had a spongelike appearance, 
P rom pted Kevin to call the dish a Yemeni crumpet. 


The funeral procession took place as we prepared to leave Jvia 
hall al-Dabri. Male voices called out from the upper part of th 
village to announce that the body was coming, and sobbi C 
women and girls lined the flat rooftops. Beyond the women, p ur 
pie mountain peaks were disappearing into the cloud cover 
When the chanting men came into view, emerging from a lane 
between the stone houses, they carried a stretcher above their 
heads, The dead woman's body was wrapped in a simple white 
muslin shroud. The chanting and crying grew iouder as the 
procession reached the flat ground below the village and drew 
close to the sheik's house, passing within six feet of where I 
stood, I could see that the stretcher was made of unfinished 
wood, and two new handles suggested recent repairs. "There is 
no god but Allah — blessings upon him," the men called out, 
half singing. Their voices echoed across the terraced mountain- 

It was impossible not to be moved by the scene of communal 
grief, 1 was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of profound hu- 
manity. The scene conveyed a feeling of sadness, but also one of 
unity and fate. I realized how privileged I was to witness that 
moment. Linking life and death, this last tribute served to reas- 
sure those left behind that when the day of their death came, they 
would be honored in the same way. There was a structure to 
these peoples' lives. They understood the routines of a day and 
of a lifetime. They were not dulled by the repetitious nature of 
their existence or frustrated by expectations of a life beyond their 
grasp, They lived in a state of harmony that I found enviable. 
The villagers knew how to recognize the significant moments, 
For them, life was infused with meaning. 

I watched as only a stranger can in such circumstances — m~ 
volved superficially, yet separated by culture. But as an observer 
I was surprised to find myself suddenly overcome by a real sense 
of personal loss. My sorrow was not for the dead woman, or her 
child, or the villagers. The procession stirred up feelings that 
had repressed months earlier, at the death of my grandmother* 
There had been no ceremony and certainly no chanting 

The Cafeteria of Hope ! 191 

70,000 blessings to mark her passage. The procession was only a 
short way down the path when, in my mind, I placed her body 
on the stretcher. The chanting entourage walked into the rising 
mist, which streamed up the slopes. The men appeared and dis~ 
appeared in the clouds, but their voices carried clearly, I was 
filled with relief and a feeling of completion, That morning 1 
found myself attending a funeral for my grandmother. ! laid her 
ro rest in a remote, high mountain valley of North Yemen. 

Like Ants We Wander 

Leaving mahall al-dabri, we walked north as den 
clouds closed in around us. We increased our pace to keep war 
bur within a mile of the village we became disoriented, Lost in a 
sea of mountain mist, we followed narrow, rock-piled switch- 
backs that seemed to lead us in circles. Large patches of prickly 
pear appeared in the mist, and Aloe vera drooped listlessly from 
fissures in the cliff faces. During one ascent we broke through the 
cloud cover; in the sunlight the air was warm, and mountain 
peaks were visible in all directions. The distant views made me 
feel as if I had regained my sight. When we plunged back into the 
clouds, our vision became limited, and sounds provided the few 
clues to our surroundings. Young voices drifted to us, conjuring 
scenes of children taking their sheep to the mountain pastures. 
The distinctive thud of an axe bit into wood. Later we could hear 
the sounds of a mizntar, a double-reed pipe, and much later the 
distant voice of a woman singing, 

I felt we were lost, but how could we be lost? There was only 
one trail, and we had no destination. What Martin thought wa 
north, I took for south. Kevin was sure the direction was east. 

As we stopped to discuss our differing opinions, an old ma 
appeared out of the mist. Because he had his skirt hitched up t 

Like Ants We Wander I 193 

his waist, I could admire his spindly brown legs protruding from 
natty set of blue-and- white-striped boxer shorts. His legs had 
the characteristic high calf muscles of mountain people, We ex- 
changed greetings. 
"Where is north?" Martin asked. 

"North? What is north?" he replied. The term meant nothing 
to someone oriented by villages and fields. We were without a 
m ap and didn't know the names of any of the villages apart from 
those we had already visited. 

Martin tried a different approach. "Atn al-giblaf" (Which is 
the direction of prayer?) 

Without a moment's hesitation* the man gestured into the 
clouds toward Mecca, which lay to the north. 

For the rest of the morning we followed this fellow through 
mountain scenery that reminded me of eleventh- and twelfth- 
century Chinese landscape painting* The cloud cover created a 
heightened sense of distance, isolating scenes and forcing the eye 
to leap from the middle distance to the far distance and back to 
the foreground. Winding valleys were filled with mist, and verti- 
cal space was divided by wispy layers of clouds in motion, which 
revealed a variety of vanishing scenes that left me with a feeling 
of infinite space. The tiny figure of a man appeared plowing a 
terraced field at the edge of a great precipice. The clouds shifted 
and the man disappeared. Higher up, a mountain peak became 
visible, shrouded in shaggy forest. As we walked along the trail, 
the clouds opened to reveal tremendous drops or distant stone 
villages clinging to the mountainsides. 

Our guide left us at the base of a towering rock formation 
upon which sat a village known as Fingers. It took its name from 
five huge stone spires that rise dramatically from the mountain- 
top and point toward the sky. As we rested before climbing to the 
v '" a ge, the head of a wrinkled old man appeared on the far side 
°f a loose stone wall. He had been busy picking coffee beans by 
and. When he saw us, he came close to the wall to speak. 

^ where are you going?" 

"Ak^ moumaiRto Pf ^piied Martin. 

like ants we wander," the old man remarked. He then 


instructed Martin to produce pen and paper. "Now, write this * 
he commanded. 

Martin started writing down his words in a neat Arabic scrip t 
"He's composing a spontaneous poem for us," he remarked afte 
the first few lines* 

There is a long tradition of spontaneous poetry in Yemen. Ai 
weddings in the past, men from each family challenged and en 
tertained one another with eloquent or witty verses. Words, bo 
written and spoken, used to carry clout. Not long ago, tribal dis 
putes could be settled by poetry competitions instead of with 

Our poem read: 



i c _ 

I ask you, merciful Allah, creator of heaven and earth, 
You who keep the moon and stars traveling by night, and the 
sun by day, 

To protect Toyota Land Cruisers and foreign strangers who 

climb to the mountaintops. 
And I conclude my prayer with a blessing on Mohammed, who 

is honored in all the lands. 

When the man finished his recitation, Martin handed the 
poem over the wall. The man refused the piece of paper, explain- 
ing that the poem was for us — a souvenir of our visit, a prayer 
for a safe journey. We thanked him, then Martin pocketed the 
poem and we began our climb to the village. 

We became lost in the maze of alleyways, and the first man we 
stopped to ask for directions glared at us with an ill-disguised 
look of contempt* This was surprising, because the next fellow 
we approached broke out in a wide smile and dragged us off to 
qat party. We tried to explain that it was important for us to 
reach the next village before nightfall, but he would have none of 
our excuses. We were led to a large doorway that opened onto a 
room packed with men sitting on the floor. "Your uncles lov 
you!" one of them cried out, inviting us to join the party* The 
were celebrating the return of a friend who had just spent twerv 
years working in Saudi Arabia. Someone brought us two bow 
of food, one containing yogurt, the other a generous helpmg 0 

Like Ants We Wander / 195 

lamb stew. We ate in haste, but before we could manage a polite 
exit bundles of qat appeared. This meant we would have to stay 
for at least another hour, 

We asked a man seated nearby if he knew the trail to our des- 
tination, the village of Al-Durahimi. 

'The path is small," he replied thoughtfully, 

"How small?" Kevin wanted to know. 

"The smallest " 

A discussion ensued concerning our intended route. I couldn't 
follow the details, but it was obvious that the men didn't want us 
to go. They claimed that the trail wasn't safe, but I suspected they 
wanted to amuse themselves with our company. Someone men- 
tioned iron nails. 

"Iron nails?" I asked with interest. 

"Oh, they're nothing really — just part of the trail where it 
gets a bit steep," Martin explained. He had come the same way 
two years earlier with a French musicologist, but he seemed ex- 
ceptionally vague about the details of the path ahead. 

"It is too late . , . you won't be able to find your way if it gets 
dark . . . stay here where it is warm and chew qat ... it will rain 
soon." The men gave us many good reasons why we should nor 
continue, but we were determined to stick to our original plan, 
so we left Fingers in the afternoon. The walk to the next village 
would take at least two hours. Three hours of daylight remained, 
so we started off feeling confident, A light rain began to fall. Be- 
yond the village the trail disappeared over a sharp drop-off be- 
fore continuing downhill in a series of tight switchbacks. We 
carefully picked our way through cactus and loose rock, two 
hundred feet down the slope. The rain continued. 

Martin had difficulty remembering the route, and we made 
several wrong turns in the terraces, where garden paths crossed 
the main trail. Repeatedly we were forced to retrace our steps. 
There was little chance of becoming seriously lost, but our trial- 
and-error method was costing us valuable time. Our provisions 
consisted of a single packet of Petit Beurre finest tea-time biscuits 
product of Kuwait), half a liter of water, an eight-ounce spray 
otT e °^ Casino de Paris cologne, and a pack of Yemeni ciga- 


rettes. Without matches, food, blankets, or shelter, we were to 
tally unprepared to pass a night on the mountain. 

Walking into a deep ravine choked with banana plants, Mar- 
tin attempted to reassure us that he could recognize the signifi- 
cant landmarks, "Just to let you know I'm not lost," he said, li d 0 
you see that big rock over there? Well, I took a shit just to the left 
of it two years ago." 

We took him at his word, but five minutes later we were again 
stumbling from one rocky terrace to the next, surrounded by 
more banana plants. The huge green leaves obscured the view in 
all directions. Martin and Kevin plunged on as I paused to in- 
spect a strange plant that looked like a succulent red dandelion 
with white tips. The flower was perched on a three-inch brown 
stem. This was Scadoxus multiflorus, the snake plant. Yemenis 
believe that snakes eat the flower and live in areas where the 
plant grows* When villagers are troubled by venomous snakes, 
they can summon a snake man, who chants verses from the Ko- 
ran until the snakes come quietly and allow themselves to be cap- 

I was about to continue walking when I noticed a movement 
on the mountainside above us. A man was carefully picking his 
way down a steep trail. His eyes were on the pathway, and he 
had not yet seen us. But as Martin and Kevin moved into an open 
area, he instinctively dropped behind a bush. I wondered why he 
was hiding. 

For a moment I remained concealed, then 1 stepped out from 
the cover of large green fronds and waved at the man in such an 
exaggerated fashion that he couldn't very well pretend that he 
hadn't seen me, He stood up. I gestured with my arms to ask him 
where the trail went, and he turned and motioned straight up the 
mountain in the direction he had just come from. Although we 
were seventy-five yards apart, I could sense that he was mortine 
to have been spotted first, especially by a stranger. People in 
these remote areas have to be cautious. There are no police, an 
the frequent land and water disputes are often settled with bursts 
of gunfire on lonely sections of trail. 

Following the man's gestures, we found the main footpa 

Like Ants We Wander I 197 

later we met the lone traveler, who wore a cream-col- 
^dzann* beneath a gray sport coat. A three-inch-wide leather 

0 overed with purple velvet held his jambia, and on his head 
a light blue plastic shower cap similar to the kind provided 
^expensive hotels. Behind his jambia was a pistol, a pair of rub- 
br thongs, and a large assortment of ballpoint pens. He wanted 
to know where we were going. It was unusual for foreigners to 
be in the area, especially on such a remote trail. The mountain 
people are extremely wary of strangers, and there was no mistak- 
ing the man's suspicions. 

When we told him our destination, he looked at our feet and 
said, "Mush tammarn!" I knew the expression: it meant "no 

"What does he mean by 'no good 5 ?" I wanted to know, 
<s He says the trail is very bad — we will never make it in our 
shoes. He thinks we should go barefoot," Martin explained. 

"Barefoot? What on earth for?" I said. 1 looked at my feet, 
which were nestled in thick wool socks and a pair of very expen- 
sive New Balance running shoes. The shoes featured high, pad- 
ded ankle supports, an adjustable lacing system, and patterned 
soles for traction. The breathable Gortex uppers were reinforced 
with leather* This footwear was designed, manufactured, and 
marketed for just this sort of varied terrain. What was the fellow 
talking about? When 1 glanced at his feet, I understood. Leathery 
yellow calluses covered his soles and grew up the sides of his feet. 
He could grip the mountain slopes with his toes and judge the 
rock surfaces by feel. Wiggling my tender toes, 1 realized that the 
man with the shower cap and bare feet had the superior equip- 

He shrugged his shoulders and continued down the trail, leav- 
ing us to our plans. We walked to the base of the mountainside, 
where the trail began to climb steeply. Kevin went first and dis- 
appeared into the mist, climbing steadily on all fours. There were 
scrambling sounds; a few small stones came down; then silence, 
1 went next. Along one section I was forced to climb on hands 
and knees. Rain-laden bushes released a chilling shower at a 
touch. Reaching out to steady myself, I grabbed a cactus pad by 


mistake. Farther on, thorny shrubs pierced my hands in a dozen 
places. It was miserable going. 

Kevin called out from somewhere above me, "Martin 

* * - ™re 

you sure this is the way? 5 ' 

Below me came the reply: "Yes, it goes up for a while, as I 
recall. It gets somewhat worse, then better," 

This vague pronouncement was not very reassuring, but it was 
the broken thongs next to the trail that worried me. The sight of 
split rubber toe straps in the mountains of Yemen should be 
taken as a danger sign. Where Yemenis can't walk without 
breaking their thongs, the average visitor should not go without 
a rope. I have watched village children follow their goats up 
rocky cliffs that no beginning rock climber in his right mind 
would attempt without a belay. 

We climbed to a narrow saddle surrounded by thick shrub- 
bery. A patch of ground had been cleared as a resting place, but 
with so little time to spare, we immediately started down a steep, 
muddy chute flanked by more thorny shrubs and cactus. Large 
granite splinters protruding from the slick earth provided treach- 
erous handholds and footholds. This section of trail looked like 
a gigantic cheese grater; if one of us fell, many pieces of flesh and 
clothing would be left behind. 

At the bottom of the chute we walked through a small forest 
that terminated at the edge of a forty-five-degree granite face. 
When we moved onto the rock, we were immediately chilled by 
a mist flowing from somewhere far below. The white clouds that 
swirled about us made me feel weightless, as if I were floating 
next to the mountain. But where were we? Gauging from the 
steepness of the slopes on the other side of the mountain, I imag- 
ined we were on an exposed rock face three hundred feet above 
the valley. But with visibility limited to one hundred feet, there 
was no way of knowing for sure, I confined my attention to fig- 
uring out how to get across the rock. 

We walked upright most of the time, following crack systems 
and wide ledges, but frequently we had to crawl along narrow, 
root-filled bits of soil that appeared to be fastened to the granite 

Like Ants We Wander I 199 

with damp moss, I didn't like the look of those sections. We con- 
tinued on, and soon the slope became so steep that when 1 stood 
u right, 1 could reach out and touch the rock wall with my hand. 
Sometimes we wandered blindly, finding our own separate ways, 
f his careless attitude was the perfect prelude to a climbing dis- 

"Watch yourselves along this bit," warned Martin, tapping his 
walking stick on a section of loose granite flakes. As if to illus- 
trate his comment, a flat stone became dislodged and clattered 
down the rock face, then launched itself into space, I counted the 
seconds to measure the drop, but rime passed and there was only 
the sound of the wind in my ears* We continued climbing with- 
out comment. I was thankful for the cloud cover, which ob- 
scured what must have been a spectacular and terrifying pano- 
rama. I began to think about the iron nails. What were they? And 
if the going was this difficult now, what would the route be like 
when we arrived at the nails? The rain came down in large cold 
droplets that pelted our backs and made the rock slippery. We 
lost our way, then Kevin found a fragment of broken thong and 
we followed his lead* 

Martin called out the names of birds. "That's an African sun- 
bird — note the flash of iridescence on its chest . . * Ah, and a 
hammerkop — hammerhead in English, you know. Surprised to 
see him up here in this weather." He mumbled something about 
a cinnamon-breasted rock bunting, but I was too busy looking 
for footholds to pay much attention. I assumed he was making 
these comments to break the tension. Unfortunately, this was not 
the case. His nonchalance was entirely due to impaired vision. 
Rain droplets had speckled his glasses for the previous half-hour, 
and he was not aware of our dangerous footing. 

The rock now angled at sixty degrees. Kevin and I clutched the 
wet stone like a pair of migrating limpets. Another bird flashed 

y. I scarcely took note of it, but a moment later, without warn- 
ing, Martin let go with his hands and performed the astonishing 
c *t of standing U p r Lgh t on a nine-inch-wide ledge. Feeling secure 

e hind his rain-spattered spectacles, he knew no fear. 


"But I say, wasn't that Tristram's grackle?" he exclaimed. 
"Martin . , " I started to speak bat could nor complete my 

"No, I'm quire sure it was — that distinctive patch of red be- 
neath its wing." Martin stood planted, as if his feet were encased 
in concrete. He hung his cane over his left forearm and then re- 
moved his glasses. Looking off into the middle distance^ he pro- 
ceeded to wipe down the lenses with his shirttaiL The sight of 
him standing there in the wind was magnificent and horrifying, I 
tightened my grip as I waited to see what would come next 
Thirty feet above as, Kevin was frozen to the rock with his head 
averted. He did not want to watch Martin's plummeting form 
disappear into the clouds below. 

"You know, it's damned irritating not to be able to see prop- 
erly with the rain on my spectacles. You two are lucky to have 
good sight." He squinted once again before replacing his glasses, 
then fell silent as he glanced downward. With his cane still hung 
on his elbow, an expression of surprise came over his face. He 
seemed to hesitate, suspended between the mountain and the 

"Good Lord!" he muttered. 

Turning to look over his left shoulder, he swayed briefly before 
reaching out with his free right hand and grabbing the mountain. 
We continued the climb in silence, and it wasn't until the follow- 
ing afternoon that Martin renewed his interest in bird life. 

We moved up the rock face another three hundred feet before 
arriving at a dirt trail. The path wandered over a slight rise be- 
fore leading onto a knife-edge ridge, where we stopped to rest for 
a few minutes. The rain had let up, bur we were soaked, and it 
would soon be dark. We moved along the ridge in single file, un- 
certain of how far we had ro go. During the two-thousand-foot 
descent that followed, the cartilage beneath my kneecaps was 
ground to a gritty paste of pure misery. 

"The nails — I can see the nails!" Kevin called from ahead. 1 
caught up with him, and we stood in silence, horrified at the sight 
of a row of two dozen iron rods projecting eighteen inches from 
the rock wall. Lengths of hand-hewn stone had been laid end to 

Like Ants We Wander I 201 

end on top of the rods to form a makeshift ledge, and smaller 
stones had been used to fill in the gaps. The drop wasn't quite 
vertical, but it was steep enough that if you lost your footings you 
would careen down the mountainside and end up as an unrecog- 
nizable sack of splintered bones and battered pulp at the bottom. 

Martin decided to find an easier route. He groped his way 
back to the ridge, but within minutes he had tost his cane over a 
far more frightening cliff* I watched it slide down the mountain- 
side before disappearing from sight, spinning slowly end over 
end into the clouds, Martin rejoined us at the iron rods. 

Fearless Kevin offered to go first. He started across the ledge 
upright, but within twenty feet he had assumed an unorthodox 
but more sensible position, moving on all fours in a crablike 
fashion, with feet first and stomach uppermost. As he worked his 
way across, I could hear the ledge of loose rocks shifting beneath 
his weight* 1 was mentally preparing myself for the crossing 
when the mist cleared* As cultivated terraces appeared five 
hundred feet below me, I felt ill. My cheeks flushed. I wanted to 
wait for the mist to obscure the view, but there was no time. It 
was getting dark, and we had to get off the mountain. I crawled 
on all fours, with the yellow stripe on my back facing downward. 
At the halfway point 1 decided to conquer my fear of heights by 
looking down. I looked, and immediately regretted doing so. I 
completed the crawl without taking another breath. 

Martin moved toward the ledge. His glasses were again cov- 
ered with raindrops, but somehow the sight of him blinking and 
groping his way along, half blinded by the rain, seemed incred- 
ibly funny. A rock tumbled down the cliff, and we all laughed. 

"Oh God, I wish I was back in Tanta!" Martin joked as he 
reached the safety of solid rock. 
To Tanta!" we cried out in unison. 

The trail improved, and soon we were off the mountain, slosh- 
ing our way into the village of Al-Durahimi, People were surprised 
to see us 5 especially at such a late hour. Where had the Nasranis 
come from? We hung around a couple of open doors looking mis- 
erable, but no one extended an invitation to enter, although one 
man st0 Pped us to find out where we had come from. 


"From Fingers,*' we toid him, 

"Impossible! There is no road from Fingers," he replied suspi 

"We took the footpath," Martin explained. 

"The footpath . . . ? There is no god but Allah!" the man con- 
cluded, clearly astonished that three strangers would attempt 
that route unaccompanied. 

We walked through the village with the squelching sound of 
our shoes echoing down the mud- and dung-splattered laneways 
A young boy approached. Did we need a place to stay? He led us 
to the Scientific Institute, a vocational training center for village 

"Would you like to stay with the Egyptian teachers or the So- 
mali teachers?" our guide asked as the rain drummed down on 
our bare heads* 

"The Somali teachers," Martin replied, remembering our talk- 
ative Egyptian hosts from two nights earlier. As he spoke, a head 
popped up unexpectedly from behind the school wall. 

"Where are you from?" the head asked in English* 

"Britain, and the United States. Where are you from?" 

"Tanta!" came the reply. I heard a muffled snort from Kevin as 
he struggled to contain his laughter. 

Out of politeness, we entered the concrete-walled bedroom 
shared by five Egyptian teachers. Each man had a bed and a 
nightstand. There was space for little else in the room, which was 
only about fifteen by fifteen feet. Mosquito nets, brown and limp 
with age, hung above each bed. 

While students swarmed into the room to practice English and 
speak Arabic with Martin, we were served cups of hot black tea* 
but for some reason our hosts were oblivious to our wet clothes 
and chattering teeth. After we had talked to the teachers for half 
an hour, we were summoned to the sheik's house. We walked for 
another twenty minutes in the rain to get there. J was drenched, 
and by the time we staggered up the spiral staircase leading to 
the upper floors of the sheik's house my knee and ankles were 
emitting disturbing popping noises similar to the sound o 
wooden pencils being snapped in half. Having arrived in the 

Like Ants We Wander I 103 

mafraj, we changed into dry sarongs, T-shirts, and warm sweat- 
ers When I removed my wet socks, I noticed that my feet were 
waterlogged and three of my toenails had been blackened by our 
descent. We sipped cups of hot qishr, an effusion of ground cof- 
fee husks and ginger, and watched a program on Yemeni televi- 
sion: double-exposed over a scene of breaking waves, a man in a 
cheap suit was playing a flute. For dinner we were served bowls 
of rich, fatty goat soup. 

Martin was drawn into a discussion with a young man who 
was intrigued to know how an intelligent, learned man could not 
be attracted by Islam* The sheik's brother, in the meantime, 
wanted to know if we were married, Kevin and I said that we 
had girlfriends at home but that Martin, at age twenty-nine, was 
still single. When asked why he had not married, Martin told the 
men he was saving himself for an elderly heiress. The men im- 
mediately advised against this, claiming that "all women live to 
be two hundred years old," a Yemeni expression that means no 
man outlives his wife* "Take a young woman who can give you 
children," they suggested kindly, Martin thanked them for their 
advice before continuing with his explanation of why he had not 
become a Moslem. 

I fell into conversation with Kevin, who told me that cloves 
were sometimes offered with qat to counter the dry, unpleasant 
taste of the leaves. According to Kevin, cloves were only offered 
to married men. 1 wanted to know why. 

u The Yemenis believe that chewing a clove will produce a 

"A what?" 

A stonker — you know, on bonk," he repeated in a conspic- 
uous North Midlands accent. 

On bonk?" 1 asked, confused by this expression as well. 
"Christ! A stonker! A stiffie! The Yemeni men figure you'll get 
a ^ erection if you eat cloves. That's why they don't offer them to 
unmarried men," 

I finally understood, "Well, if they offer us qat and cloves, 
couldn't we tell them that Martin practices animal husbandry?" 
Kevin didn't think our hosts would be amused. Probably not. 


A small polite group had gathered around Martin, who was still 
searching for a convincing reason why he had not converted to 
Islam. He hadn't yet found one when I fell asleep forty-five min- 
utes later. 

At dawn I eased open the wooden shutters near my mattress, and 
a stream of brisk air blew over my face* I looked above the village 
and beheld a terrifying sight: the mountain. I could see where we 
had climbed the day before. The narrow ridge above the iron 
nails was touched with a thin line of yellow light. Higher up, I 
located the approximate spot where Martin had stood to clean 
his glasses, By rough estimate, I judged the fall to the rocks {not 
including bounces) to be at least one thousand feet. I felt grateful 
not to have had a view as we scrambled through the clouds the 
day before. From the warmth and safety of the bedroom, it was 
difficult to imagine a footpath traversing those towering rock 

I closed the shutters to keep out the light. The four Yemeni 
men who shared the room with us looked tike corpses. They slept 
on their backs, completely covered by their woolen blankets. 

Before anyone was awake, I went to the bathroom to wash my 
pants, rinsing out the mud in a plastic bucket half filled with cold 
water. Climbing into the wet pant legs was pure torture. 1 shiv- 
ered until we were back on the road, and my legs gave off steam 
until the pants dried in the sun. 

We walked for two hours on a graded road before being 
picked up by the first vehicle that came along. Leaf springs 
strained as the Land Cruiser lurched down the steep mountain 
track, which was littered with rock rubble and silt from the pre- 
vious day's rain, As we moved ahead cautiously, villagers busily 
cleared debris from the road. A truck load of armed tribesmen 
came into view, climbing a steep section of the track, headed in 
our direction. As they drew near we pulled to one side, but they 
blocked us by stopping in the middle of the one-iane road, and a 
man came over to find out what we were doing. Martin men- 
tioned that we had been visiting Sheik Ibrahim Dabri. This was 

Like Ants We Wander I 2,05 

the truth. The men didn't change their grim expressions, but they 
allowed us to leave the mountains. 

The road flattened out as we entered the top of an inclined 
wadi system that drained to the west. Tamarind trees and um- 
k re ll a . s haped acacias reappeared. Far off to our left, an aban- 
doned saint's tomb came into view, set on a hill covered with cac- 
tus. Consisting of a set of cream-colored domes surrounded by a 
high stone wall, it looked like a monument to mother's milk. 

Continuing toward the sea, we passed open-air classrooms 
shaded with vast corrugated metal roofs and filled with young 
boys. We bounced down the wide valley, swaying from side to 
side in a lazy motion. I could feel the coastal heat drying the skin 
on my face until it became taut. Proud, black-skinned Somali 
men strode along the roadside, looking magnificent in their tur- 
bans and ankie-length robes of pure white cotton. We left these 
dignified figures choking in yellow clouds of billowing dust. 
When the roadside garbage reappeared, I knew we were getting 
close to civilization* We bounded along the sand track for an- 
other hour before arriving at the paved coastal road that runs 
between Hodeida and the Saudi Arabian border. I could not see 
the coastline, but I knew it was only twenty miles away. We were 
less than forty miles from Uqhan Island. My journals were so 
close, but there was nothing for me to do but wait, because no 
one would take me to the island without government permission. 

We caught a ride south to Hodeida. It was 1 p.m. when we 
arrived at the qat market, where the consumer frenzy was intim- 
idating. The Hodeida marker specializes in shami qat, the grand 
cru of qat. Taxis, minibuses, trucks, motor scooters, bicycles, 
and private cars jammed the entrance to the parking area, and 
horns blared and men screamed as unarmed traffic police tried 
unsuccessfully to keep order with their silly whistles. While 
truckers unloaded burlap bags full of fresh leaves, thousands of 
|? en mi lled around the stalls, checking the merchandise. Sweat 
owed over coffee-colored cheeks bulging with chewed leaves, 
and veins stood out on the necks and foreheads of both venders 
an d buyers. 


1 entered the crowd of jostling customers, but immediately f e ] t 
helpless in the tide of bodies. Leaves were shoved in front of ^ 
face with shouts of "Tammam! Tammam! Best quality! Look' 
Look!" I didn't have the strength to worm my way into the mael* 
strom of shoppers to search out a bargain; the heat and eonh> 
sion within that heaving sea of green leaves and damp bodies was 
too much for me. We made our purchases at the edge of the mar< 
ket, then limped to a row of nearby restaurants. 

Half stupefied by the excitement of the qat market, I couid fee! 
my legs beginning to stiffen from the previous day's walk, I was 
overwhelmed by the intensity and strangeness of what we had 
seen over the past seventy-two hours. I sat at our table trying to 
order my thoughts, but the strangeness continued. A man 
brought my order of fish and rice to the table, J waved the flies 
aside and stared at my lunch. My lunch stared back. A large fish 
head, with eyes intact, was looking directly at me from the center 
of a bed of steaming rice. There was little sense in sending it 
back. Bismillah, I ate. The cheeks were delicious. 

Driving to San'a that night, we were stopped repeatedly at 
roadblocks, where soldiers armed with assault rifles thrust their 
flashlights and faces into the interior of the taxicab. We handed 
our identity papers to the soldiers through windows on one side 
of the vehicle as qat stems, empty water bottles, plastic bags, and 
crumpled cigarette packs were thrown out the windows on the 
opposite side. 

We drove into the night. I stared out the window at the dark- 
ened countryside. I saw the Cafeteria of Hope and the bloody 
sheep carcasses; a funeral procession chanted in the mist, and a 
beautiful mountain woman in perfumed skirts smiled at me* 
Martin stood on a thousand-foot cliff cleaning his glasses with 
his shirttaiL I felt dizzy. Sometime before midnight we arrived in 
San'a. When I woke up the next day at noon, I knew there were 
going to be problems. I couldn't move my legs. 


The Bathhouse 

i couldn't STAND. Surely an ice pick had been driven into 
each of my kneecaps. Every sprain from years of walking came 
back to torture me. A taxi driver helped me to the front door of 
Hammam All, a bathhouse at the edge of the old Jewish quarter. 
Out of modesty, I had never used a Yemeni public bathhouse be- 
fore. The thought of sudsing myself up in some dank, fetid grotto 
filled with half-naked, sweating strangers did not appeal to my 
sense of hygiene or safety. Certainly a visit would be interesting, 
but I wasn't altogether sure 1 needed the experience. It was my 
kneecaps that finally convinced me to go — I needed to steam 
my legs back to health. 

Tottering barefoot on a smooth reed mat, I changed into a sa- 
rong and left my clothes with the bath keeper. I rinsed my feet 
with a ladleful of cold water before painfully groping my way 
through a steam-filled labyrinth of underground stone passage- 
ways that connected a series of temperate and hot rooms. The 
floor was slippery, and I moved uncertainly in the dim light, At 
la *t I entered a room where I found a group of men dressed in 
damp futahs lying on the floor, their bodies glistening with 
sweat, Hot steam filled my lungs as the door thumped shut be- 


hind me. One fellow sat against a stone trough, ladling 
over his head. Another sang quietly while three younger 
danced in a row along one wall. An older, dignified-looking ^ 
spat an expertly aimed ball of phlegm into one of the two co " 
drains and then motioned me to take a place in the center ofT 
room. the 

"Tammam, sadiqf" (Everything all right, my friend?) a you 
bath attendant asked me as I limped across the damp stone floof 
Someone behind me poured a bucket of hot water over my 1^ 
The attendant washed down an area where I was to sit. 1 eased 
myself onto the floor but found it too hot, so I slid closer to the 
wall, where half a dozen bodies lay perspiring in silence. I wasn't 
sure what to do next. I wasn't ready to lie down on the slick 
worn stones, * 
Out of the steam and darkness a voice spoke to me. "Medium 
sadiq — it is only medium. Yesterday? The floor, it was like fire," 
The voice eased my anxiety without diminishing the mystery 
of this dark bathing place. Near the wall opposite the dancers, 1 
lay on my back and looked up at the domed roof with its four 
small glazed skylights, one of which cast a beam of light across 
the room, illuminating a shaft of rising steam. Within minutes of 
entering the heated chamber, perspiration was pouring from my 
body. The room had an earthy, sensual smell that I found pleas- 
ant. I must have been several yards below street level, but after 
negotiating all the steps and odd passageways, I was completely 

Feeling comfortably lost in this underworld of hot stones and 
moist air, I recalled my tour of Hammam al-Maydan weeks ear- 
lier. I thought of the animal bones and stiffened hides the stoker 
had shoved into the furnaces. The realization that goat horns, 
car tires, rubber thongs, and cow patties were probably burning 
just a few feet beneath me did not detract from my enjoyment m 
the slightest. The steam and hot stones bathed my body in a va- 
por of soothing warmth, and I soon became lost in my thoughts 
and sensations. 

Partially obscured by steam, the three young men continued 
their dance. A stranger invited me to follow him through a short 

The Bathhouse I 209 

vaulted passageway to an adjoining room, I could hardly see as 
he poured a bucket of tepid water over me. I did the same for 
him, and we returned to the hot room. I was beginning to enjoy 
myself. More men arrived, some of them with children. At ran- 
dom moments bodies would rise from the floor to engage in 
unusual calisthenics: pull-ups from stone ledges, knee bends, 
and bizarre twisting motions from the waist. They waved and 
flapped their arms before flopping back onto the hot stone slabs. 
The exaggerated sounds of dripping water, the heat, and the 
movement of bodies, in the darkness made me feel as if I were in 
a damp cavern near the center of the earth, where people never 
saw the light of day or breathed cool air. Lying among the other 
bodies, I relaxed as the sweat poured from my skin. At ten- to 
fifteen-minute intervals men left the hot room to cool off, but I 
was content to steam myself into oblivion. 
u Sadiq — come, please*" 

One of the attendants was speaking to me. He opened a damp 
wooden door and led me into a room lined with stone benches, 
where other bathers were being scrubbed by slim young men. 1 
handed my attendant a plastic bag containing a bottle of sham- 
poo and a bar of sandalwood soap. With a gesture, I asked 
whether ! should remove my sarong. The man shook his head, 
then poured hot water over me. Grabbing a bundle of palm fiber 
that looked and felt very much like a pot scourer, he began to 
scrub my limbs with long practiced strokes, and the dead skin 
and dirt were soon rolling off me. He went at me so vigorously 
with a pumice stone that I would not have been surprised to see 
blood, and I wondered if, in his enthusiasm, he was removing the 
body hair along with the skin, He frequently rinsed me with hot 
water poured from a section of old inner tube. 

The man knew his job well, and the treatment continued with- 
out a word being exchanged between us. My hair was sham- 
pooed twice, then I had an elaborate head and neck massage that 
sud 1 reduCed me ro a s P in ^less lump of jelly. The attendant 

sa A 1 my b ° dy Untii 1 Was covered in a froth y coat of fragrant 
^ndaiwood^scented bubbles. He washed my feet and hands, 

ed m y knuckles and my neck, and could easily have dis- 


membered me for all I cared. Seldom have I felt so clean or Da 

The man motioned that I should wash my private parts, and 
after I did so he poured another cascade of hot water over my 
body. But this was not the end. Another complete sudsing ensued 
as his strong hands worked over my calves and thighs. The pain 
was spectacular, but I was incapable of uttering a word in pro- 
test. My feet tingled and then suddenly went cold, and my toes 
were numb by the time a cold sweat broke out across my brow, I 
must have stayed in the hot room too long. I became nauseated 
then dizzy* I recognized the signs of an imminent blackout and 
leaned over to put my head between my legs, but it was much 
too late for such measures, I don't know how the bathing ritual 
ends under normal circumstances, because the room started to 
tilt at an angle; I had the distinct impression that someone was 
lifting the far end of the solid stone bench. But the bench re* 
mamed perfectly stationary as I fell sideways onto the floor. That 
is all 1 remember. 

I must have been washed down and helped to an adjoining 
cool room, because it was there I found myself sometime later. 
Stretched out on a stone slab, I had no idea where I was when I 
awoke* There was no recollection of time passing or movement 
from one room to the next* There was a voice* 

"Tammam, sadiq?" One of the bath attendants was speaking 
to me. 1 perceived only darkness and coolness* 

"Yes . . * tammam" I replied without opening my eyes, A hand 
touched my shoulder reassuringly, then withdrew* 

Sometime later, not trusting my balance, I moved cautiously to 
the edge of a wide stone pool to ladle water onto my legs* My 
eyelids and lips were covered with salty perspiration. Returning 
to the slab, I lay down and closed my eyes once again. The smell 
of the beach on Uqban Island came back to me. I could see the 
familiar curve of shoreline, and in the distance, sitting motionless 
on the horizon, was a lone blue-and-white sail. Lying there, 1 fi~ 
nally accepted that the point of my journey had shifted. When I 
first returned to Yemen, the country and people merely provided 
an exotic backdrop for my search, but as I was caught up in th e 

The Bathhouse / 211 

maze of events and personalities, I found myself focusing more 
n the present. Perhaps there was more sense in embracing new 
experiences than in endlessly wandering about in search of the 
old ones. After all, it wasn't exactly the Holy Grail I was looking 
for. Without abandoning my hopes, I felt the burden of my orig- 
inal plans fall away, and I was left with a wonderful sense of re- 

I doused myself with another bucket of cold water to clear my 
thoughts, shivering as the water flowed down my sides and onto 
the stone platform. Steam rippled through two parallel shafts of 
sunlight that pierced the darkness, I heard far-off voices, muted 
and unintelligible. Safe within the subterranean warmth of the 
baths, 1 drifted back into the comfort of my thoughts. 

The Yemeni men were much more modest than I had expected. 
They covered themselves completely from waist to ankle with 
their long futahs. Eye contact was discreetly avoided, and pro- 
longed conversation between strangers was confined to the well- 
lit changing room. 1 had heard stories that the women often went 
naked in the hammam, but this seemed unlikely. According to 
Martin, the women are allowed to use the baths on an average of 
three days a week. They go to wash, but it is also still customary 
for Yemeni women to visit the baths to purify themselves after 
menstruation. The women from a household often bathe at the 
same time, and like the men, they enjoy dancing in the hot 
rooms. Their days vary according to the bathhouse, but as a rule, 
men always have the use of the baths on Friday, the holy day. 

The hammam may also be rented before a wedding. A day or 
so before the wedding night, the bride visits the baths with her 
friends, the women of her family, and the women from the 
groom's family, who are thus given an opportunity to inspect the 
merchandise. The groom bathes with his friends and relatives 
just before "the night of entry," the night the bride's veil is lifted, 
the bride and groom see each other for the first time, and the 
Carriage is consummated. In the older houses of San'a there is a 
special room just off the mafraj called the Flower Room, within 
which the unveiling and deflowering take place. 

Lying on my back in the damp heat, I found myself trying to 


imagine such a night. When I sat up later, I could see a row of 
young boys kneeling. Dressed in identical striped bath towels 
they faced a mihrab, a niche set into the wall of the changing 
room that indicates north, the direction of prayer, 

I felt foolish for not having come to the baths before. My fears 
of disease and low morals were completely unfounded. The sort 
of random sexual adventures associated with Western bath- 
houses were unthinkable. Hammam Ali was a model of cleanli- 
ness and piety* Most of the seventeen hammams in San'a are as- 
sociated with a local mosque, and men often use them for their 
ablutions prior to prayer Public bathhouses have existed in 
San'a since ancient times and are modeled after the Roman baths 
found in Egypt and other parts of North Africa. Hammam Yasir 
is said to be at least one thousand years old, and many of the 
other bathhouses are four hundred years old* 

After ladling cold water over my feet one last time, I returned 
to the changing room, feeling refreshed. The bath keeper handed 
me a dry towel, then helped me out of my wet sarong, which he 
iaid out to dry* I rested for another twenty minutes, then got 
dressed and paid the bath keeper 30 riyals. the equivalent of $3* 
This sum included a tip for the attendants who had taken care of 
me. People smiled and nodded kindly as I stood up to take my 

Stepping onto the street, I felt as if I had been underground for 
several days. My legs were weak, but there was no pain as I wob- 
bled down a laneway crowded with dusty sheep* 


It Was Not Written 

Two French archeologists invited me to move out of the 
American Institute, where I had been staying, and into an old 
Yemeni house they had recently finished restoring. It was located 
in AI Qa, the Jewish quarter of San'a, Over the years they had 
put together a fine library full of books, maps, photographs, and 
other reference materials covering Yemen and the Middle East. 
At sunrise I could usually be found writing at one of the two li- 
brary desks, A diffuse light filtered through alabaster windows, 
and beside me there was a pot of hot black tea flavored with 
Yemeni honey. 1 would continue working until late morning, 
when Miriam, the fifty-year-old Somali cleaning woman, would 
arrive. My brief conversation with her never varied, 

Bonjour, monsieur" she would say, making eyes at me. 
Ahhh , , , bonjour, Madame Miriam" I would reply. 

Covering her mouth with both hands, she would then break 
Qui in a spasm of belly laughs. Miriam weighed about two 
undred and fifty pounds and was the delight of my mornings, 
^he was the first person I saw each day. 

A n;er her arrival I would take a walk. Afternoons were fre- 
quently spent chewing qat with Martin and his friends, Wednes- 

Y w as a special day at the house: as many as a dozen people 



would congregate for lunch in the high-ceilinged dining room on 
the third floor. The windows of the room overlooked an old 
neighborhood of family compounds, vegetable gardens, and 
leafy trees. Minarets and television aerials pointed into the sky 
where black birds circled overhead on the warm updrafts. 

One of the regular lunch guests had a friend who worked for 
Air France, so there were bottles of Bordeaux on the table, as 
well as pate de campagne, aged Brie, and individual rounds of 
goat cheese to spread on warm mulouj, the chewy Yemeni equiv- 
alent of a baguette. There were bowls of mixed green salad sprin- 
kled with freshly picked miniature tomatoes, and crisp baby cu- 
cumbers tossed in a mustard-and-tarragon vinaigrette. Large 
terra-cotta pots of cassoulet (minus the pork) were brought to 
the table, and there was chilled fruit for dessert. One day a creme 
brulee was served, followed by French roast espresso. After two 
months of drinking qishr, I enjoyed the coffee immensely. 

The company was made up of a diverse group of Koranic 
scholars, art historians, architects, photographers, employees of 
the French embassy, and a curator from the National Museum. 
At one of these lunches the conversation came around to a 
Frenchman by the name of Erich Frager, who had been kept in 
Hajjah prison for nearly two years without standing trial A 
woman from the embassy provided sketchy details of his arrest, 
but little else was known about his situation. His extreme isola- 
tion intrigued me, and I decided to visit the man. 

The morning I arrived by taxi in Hajjah, I went directly to the 
marketplace to buy bags of almonds, raisins, oranges, apples, 
cigarettes, and other items J imagined Frager might like, or might 
use to trade with the guards or other prisoners. Leaving the mar- 
ket, I realized I didn't know the Arabic word for prison, I walked 
to the police station to get directions, but unfortunately, the 
guards at the front door spoke no English and would not let me 
enter the building. Moving back a step, I put down my bags and 
said, "Nasrani" I held my wrists together as if handcuffed. 

"Fra-zhay! Fra-zhay!" the guards cried out excitedly. They w 
mediately understood that I wanted to take food to the only 
Christian in Hajjah prison. One of them took me by the hand 

It Was Not Written I 115 

n d led me to the nearest intersection, where he motioned me to 
stand out of the way, on the footpath. Stepping onto the busy 
roadway, he leveled his AK-47 at the oncoming traffic. The mo- 
torists reacted by honking and swerving around him as if he were 
nothing more than a stray dog in the road. I began to fear for his 
safety as he tried to commandeer a vehicle to take me to the 

Not wanting to run down an armed policeman, a taxi skidded 
to a halt. The policeman banged his weapon on the hood of the 
car and engaged the driver and his passenger in a horrible argu- 
ment. I thought there might be bloodshed until 1 realized that the 
men were merely discussing price and destination. 1 was shoved 
into the back seat, and as the cab thundered down the road I 
could hear the policeman gleefully calling out, "Fra-zhay! Fra- 
zhay!" The Frenchman obviously enjoyed a large following in 
the town* 

At the front gates of Hajjah prison, I was not searched. The 
bags of fruit explained all, 
M Fra-zhay? n inquired the gatekeeper. 
"Fra-zhay!" I nodded in reply 

I was led to a quiet building set in a corner of the walled com- 
pound. In a concrete room on the second floor I found the 
Frenchman taking a late morning nap. Frager shared the cell 
with two dozen other prisoners, and I found him sleeping on a 
mattress on the floor. He climbed from beneath his blanket fully 
dressed and greeted me warmly. Smoothing down his hair, he sat 
across from me at a small writing desk neatly arranged with 
books, pens, an ashtray, and a small wooden box containing an 
expensive brand of miniature cigars from Cuba. Set to one side 
was a stack of notebooks. These turned out to be his prison dia- 
n es. They reminded me of my own diaries, and I was quick to 
realize that those pages were his most treasured possessions. 

Frager was given one small loaf of bread each day and, like the 
four hundred other prisoners, was totally dependent on his 
friends and fellow inmates to provide him with food and what* 
^ver else he needed. No sooner had I handed him the two plastic 
a gs full of fruit than he was distributing the contents to men 


whose families lived too far away to visit regularly. Members of 
the French community in San 'a sometimes made the six-hour 
round-trip journey to Hajjah to deliver food and keep him com- 
pany for an afternoon. As a foreigner, he was allowed to drin 
wine, although he did so infrequently out of respect for his Mo 
I em cellmates. 

He did not seem surprised by my arrival. I introduced myself 
by telling him of my time in jail on Kamaran Island ten years 
earlier. The story established an immediate rapport between us, 
and he spoke openly about his situation. 

During the construction of a new hospital in Haj jah, Frager, 
thirty-two-y ear-old civil engineer from Paris, had been in charg 
of organizing the local builders* The project, which was funded 
by Saudi Arabia, had a duty-free license for the transport o 
building materials from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. From the begin 
ning, Frager suspected that Yahya Selba, the Hajjah subcontrac 
tor in charge of transportation, was using the license to inipo 
more materials than were necessary for the construction of th 
hospital. The excess, which turned out to be truckloads of rein- 
forcing rods, sacks of cement, and electrical and plumbin 
goods, was being off-loaded before reaching the hospital and 
then sold at a large profit* 

Frager was not involved, but there was little he could do to 
control the use of the license. He had lived in the Middle East 
long enough to know that the contractors would make his work 
difficult if he interfered with the operation, Ir was impossible fo 
him to inspect the trucks crossing the border, so he made an 
agreement with his transporters that he would pay only for ma 
terials delivered to the work site. He feit that as long as the hos- 
pital was built properly and on time, he could tolerate a moder 
ate amount of corruption. What difference could it make to his 

He soon found out, when the government auditing office in 
San'a ran a check on the hospital project. Frager was accused of 
smuggling and soon found himself in Hajjah prison, awaiting 

Following his arrest, three associates of Yahya Selba decided 

It Was Not Written I 2,17 

take extended holidays in Aden and Saudi Arabia. The Hajjah 

osecutor promptly put the remaining Yemeni transporters in 
rison, but only temporarily. These businessmen bought them- 
selves out within hours, for amounts as high as 50,000 riyals 
each Frager did not have the presence of mind to do likewise. 
While he sat in prison preparing the proof of his innocence, the 
Hajjah court began inquiries into his personal wealth and the as- 
sets of his company. 

Frager was accused of smuggling everything from one 
thousand tons of toilet bowls and washbasins to $10 million 
worth of cement and electrical fixtures. One day the prosecutor 
from Hajjah wanted $500,000 in fines; the following week the 
amount was reduced to $100,000, The Frenchman viewed all 
this as the court's way of testing his patience and his ability to 
pay. His company was bankrupt following the cancellation of 
the hospital contract, and Frager had no money of his own. 

"Then why are they bothering to keep you?" I asked. 

"In Hajjah, the prosecutor and court are entitled to ten percent 
of the final settlement. Justice is not their primary concern." 

Setting aside the conflicting accusations and legal discussions 
of Frager's guilt or innocence, the simple fact remained that 
Hajjah and the surrounding province have always been a major 
smuggling area. Hajjah is scarcely 250 kilometers by road from 
the Saudi border. Within half a day, a truck can deliver trailer- 
loads of anything from pirated Michael Jackson tapes to cab- 
bages to heavy weapons. The customs officials on the border are 
only too happy to facilitate the flow of goods, and one can safely 
say, without fear of contradiction, that smuggling was well es- 
tablished in the area before the arrival of this French civil engi- 

The reasons behind the easy movement of goods across the 
border are not difficult to understand. Hajjah province, a pow- 
erful royalist area, is allowed certain "trade concessions' 1 by the 
San'a government in return for nor stirring up old political is- 
sues, San*a stays out of local business matters, and Hajjah 
doesn't get involved in national politics. Anyone stepping for- 
w ard to defend Erich Frager would have to point the finger at 


Yahya Selba, the man in charge of transporting materials to the 
hospital. Such an accusation is unlikely, as Yahya Selba*s uncle is 
the chief adviser to the National Security Police in Hajjah. To 
consolidate his position in the community, Yahya Selba had re- 
cently made a "donation" of half a mi 0 ion riyals to the poor peo- 
ple of Hajjah during Ramadan, Things were not looking good 
for the Frenchman, who naively held onto his belief that his in- 
nocence would ultimately lead to his release. 

After the first few months, Frager told me, he had settled into 
prison life. He grew to enjoy the sense of fellowship, and his Ar- 
abic improved immensely* He shared his cell with murderers 

not criminals in the Western sense of the word, but men of prin- 
ciple who had upheld their tribal obligations by killing other 
men. The strength of the tribal system is based on specific rights 
and responsibilities, and avenging a death can be an obligation. 

In Yemen there is little stigma attached to being put in jail. In- 
deed, a prison sentence can often enhance a man's position in his 
community. It is an important rite of passage, especially for 
young men. Once a person is in prison, it is considered unmanly 
for him not to wear teg irons, because that would mean the 
guards did not consider him brave or clever enough to try to es- 
cape. During the Imam's time, a common punishment was to put 
a man's weapons in jail Without his jambia and rifle a man 
would be ashamed to be seen in public, so he would stay in his 
home until his weapons had served their time. 

Frager found it easy to maintain a sense of humor, as Hajjah 
prison was an excellent place to observe the human comedy on a 
daily basis. That afternoon I noticed one of the guards shuffling 
around the cell block wearing a set of leg irons, Frager told me 
that the guard was guilty of letting the wrong prisoner out of jail 
for the day. The man he had released was being kept for his own 
protection, because the family of the man he had killed refused 
blood money When two of the family members spotted the mur- 
derer walking through the marketplace one morning, they lost 
no time in unshouldering their automatic rifles and riddling him 
with bullets. The guard wore leg irons as punishment for his mis- 

It Was Not Written / 119 

Respected and trusted prisoners enjoyed certain privileges* 
Occasionally they could spend the entire night with their wives, 

ovided they returned to the prison early the following day* One 
rnan had been sentenced to sixty-five days, but he asked to leave 
after rhirry-five days because of previous business commitments* 
His request was considered by the prison director, then granted, 
on the condition that a family member take his place* The 
man's father sat in prison for ten days, and then one of his 
nephews filled in. When the sixty-five days were completed, the 
nephew was released* Justice had been served, responsibility 

This criminal justice system tests the limits of conventional 
Western thinking* Not long after Erich Frager arrived to serve his 
unspecified jail term, he witnessed the following scene: A man 
wanted to put his wife in prison for throwing a stone t hrough the 
screen of the family television set* The woman seemed to have 
temporarily lost her senses* The husband asked his father-in-law 
for advice, and the father-in-law suggested leaving her in prison 
for a few days to quiet her down. The husband, thinking this a 
good idea, led his veiled wife to the prison gates, where he dis- 
covered that they would have to wait several hours for the wom- 
en s section of the prison to open. To pass die time, he wandered 
through the jail, inspecting the men's cells. In Frager's cell one of 
the prisoners asked him why he had come to the prison. When 
the story of the broken television and the angry wife came 
out, the convicted murderers were shocked, A large commotion 

"Can't you settle the law at home?" one prisoner sneered. 
"Have you nothing better to do with your time?" cried out an- 
other man. 

Several prisoners ridiculed the husband; others gave advice. 
Despite his humiliation, the husband listened. He reconsidered 
his original plan, then changed his mind. Thanking the men, he 
^turned home with his wife. The prisoners were justifiably sat- 
isfied with the fairness of their decision. 

Ftager explained to me that during his most recent day in 
court, the judge had "joked" that he should pay him 400,000 


riyals in return for an easy sentence. The Hajjah prosecutor and 
Yahya Selba's uncle were also present. 
"But I am innocent/' Frager insisted. 

"If you want to be innocent and not play the game with us 
you can stay in jail," the prosecutor and the judge told him, 
Frager said that he would appeal 

The men laughed. "You want to appeal?" they said. "All 
right — that will add six months to your stay in prison. After 
that we can again discuss our terms and your innocence." 

Compared to these men, the prisoners in Frager's cell looked 
like a group of distinguished jurists. 

Having spent time in jail in the Middle East under similar cir- 
cumstances, I was familiar with the issues, I asked Frager 
whether he placed a dollar value on his freedom* Certainly he 
could afford to pay something. 

"The point is, I am innocent," he insisted. 

"Surely you must realize by now that your innocence is not the 
issue. It is a question of money," 

"I refuse to admit guilt/* 

The idealist looked at the pragmatist; the pragmatist looked at 
the idealist, I wished him luck. We shook hands, and I passed 
through the prison gates just before nightfall. During the three- 
hour drive back to San'a that evening I had ample time to mull 
over the details of the Frenchman's story. As I saw it, Frager 's 
biggest mistake was in not accepting kickbacks from Yahya 
Selba in the first place. At least then he would have had the 
money to buy his release from prison. As of late 1990, Erich Fra- 
ger remained in his cell, patiently awaiting a miracle. Apart from 
the sympathy I felt for him, his problems helped me put my own 
into perspective. Compared to his situation, my difficulties in 
trying to return to Uqban Island seemed utterly trivial. 

Back in San'a I continued to visit the baths at Hammam Aii, and 
slowly the pain in my knees disappeared. The weeks went by- I 
washed my clothes more often than was necessary, and when 
there was nothing left to wash and my legs felt better, I spent 
long hours walking through the old city. My sense of purpose- 

It Was Not Written I zzx 

ss was intermittently acute; I began to wonder with in* 
|CSS "^£ frequency if it was time to leave. 

as contemplating this thought during one of my daily walks 
. j came u pon a German man lost in an alleyway of the old 
r was short and bearded, and his shiny pate had been red- 
d^ed by the summer sun. He was in a panic, claiming that the 
>tarionai Security Police were following him. Within five minutes 
1 had heard his story. The lost man, who turned out to be a pro- 
fessor of art history, had been put through some fairly unpleas- 
ant moments, but 1 couldn't help finding them quite amusing. 
His fears of being pursued by police thugs were unjustified, but 1 
understood his confusion. 

The professor's original plan had been to visit an old girlfriend 
from his art school days in Berlin twenty-five years earlier. The 
two of them had written over the years, and finally, at her sugges- 
tion, his trip to Yemen had been arranged. Who knows what he 
anticipated before his arrival, but one thing became clear to me 
as he blurted out his story — the sojourn in San*a had gone 

Shortly after he arrived, the professor attempted to visit his 
friend at the home she shared with her Yemeni husband and their 
two children. The husband, who had earlier consented to the 
visit, changed his mind when the German man appeared. He for- 
bade the professor to enter the house. The woman was caught 
between her loyalty to her husband, who in the Yemeni setting 
was acting entirely within his rights, and her desire to make con- 
tact with her friend and rhe memories of her past. The two man- 
aged to see each other in a neutral and public place, and nothing 
questionable went on between them, at least by European stan- 

During his stay in San 1 a the professor mooned about the old 
c ity 5 wandering from one disaster to the next. He was constantly 
getting himself into difficulties while performing the most inno- 
cent acts imaginable. Within a very short time he had been ar- 
rested twice. The fi rst time was for operating a tape recorder in 
the marketplace. He knew no Arabic, but was accused of record- 
ln S private conversations. The local merchants quickly con- 


eluded that this was the work of a spy, and the police took the 
professor away in a van. In a later incident he was arrested f 0 
photographing a wall He had been attracted to a fine example 
of Arabic script, which proved to be an obscene reference t 0 
the buttocks of a woman by the name of Afra, on a wall near 
the Great Mosque, Angry neighbors surrounded the man and 
claimed that he was mocking Islam by composing a phoro of the 
obscenity with the Great Mosque in the background. The profes- 
sor did not understand the people's outrage. Again the police 
were summoned, and again the German was taken away in their 

It was shortly after his second encounter with the police thai I 
met him. He wore a harried look and was sweating profusely, 
and he had convinced himself that he was being followed. Over 
the next few days I occasionally caught glimpses of htm wander- 
ing through the old city with his camera and notebook. There 
was something about his posture and gait that aroused even my 
suspicions. The man seemed flighty and directionless, It was not 
until after I left Yemen that I learned what finally happened to 

One day the Yemeni husband could no longer tolerate the pro- 
fessor's presence. How could it be that there was nothing going 
on between his wife and this strange man? Had the fellow not 
flown thousands of miles and spent tens of thousands of riyals to 
see her? And why did he linger in the country? The husband's 
family and neighbors thought about these questions as well. 

Feeling that his honor was in question, the husband drove 
to the private house where the professor was staying and 
knocked loudly on the door. When the door opened, the hus- 
band slammed the bespectacled art historian up against the near- 
est wall with the butt of his Kalashnikov and indicated the quick- 
est route to the airport. After that incident, the professors 
activities took on a greater sense of purpose and direction. He 
was on the first available flight back to Germany. 

Abdallah Kareem, the Slave of God, who had promised to ar- 
range my permit to rerurn to Uqban Island, continued to be co 



It Was Not Written / 223 
rertaining as well as masterful in his presentation of good and 
bad news, but I realized that he was becoming increasingly 
vague. I was amused, but his behavior made it difficult to sustain 
serious interest in returning to the island. 

It came as no great surprise when he finally stopped phoning 
me, When I called him, a new voice answered and claimed that 
Abdaliah Kareem had left the country, "Business in Jidda " I was 

"When will he return?" I wanted to know. 
"Tomorrow. Or maybe next week , . the voice replied uncer- 

The phone call marked the end of a frustrating scenario, and 1 
never again heard from the Slave of God. I decided to try the 
frontal approach and went to visit the National Security Office 
alone. Because of the rumored persuasion techniques used there, 
the building is known as the Fingernail Factory. I was politely 
spared my fingernails, but my request to visit the island was nei- 
ther granted nor denied. 

One morning my situation was clarified by a sympathetic offi- 
cial who took me aside. "Don't wait for an answer that will never 
come; 1 he said. "There may be no substantial reason why you 
cannot return to Uqban, but believe me, you have no hope. You 
are looking for ghosts. There is nothing for you here. Go back to 
your country." 

Yemenis, like other devout Moslems, recognize five types of 
human behavior. According to the Koran, an act is obligatory, 
Permuted, neutral, reprehensible, or prohibited. There are no 
other possibilities. I asked the official if he was familiar with the 
Parage from the Koran that states "That which is not expressly 
forbidden is permissible." 

re^?!!* 6 Sa ' d With a kugk " A wise tho °g ht > indeed > but 
gr ully, lt d °es not apply to foreign strangers wishing to visit 
^tary security areas in the Yemen Arab Republic in 1988." 
room i 1 COnversation 1 ran out of id eas. Returning to my 
true y d ° Wn ° n my bed " 1 needed a da y to contemplate the 
Y eme natUre of thi "gs> especially the meaning of my stay in 
n - realized that it was unlikely I would have experiences 


to top my walk with Martin and Kevin or the journeys to 
Rub 4 a!-Khali and the Tihama with Mohammed and Gazem* 
Nothing was to be gained by prolonging my frustration about 
Uqban Island. I had lost my appetite for chasing vanished reali. 
ties. It was time to leave the country, and surrender whatever ob- 
scure hopes I still entertained that the journals could ever be 

The departure came quickly, I booked my flight and had one last 
dinner with Martin in the old city- He was late, as usual, and I 
waited for an hour outside the restaurant before he arrived on 
his bicycle, breathless. He had been playing the piano for a Yu- 
goslavian-Irish opera singer by the name of Dagmar. " Wagnerian 
proportions/' he exclaimed, summing up the woman's vast 
bosom and girth. 

We reminisced about our walk through the mountains and 
talked about how fate and circumstance dictate so much of life 
in Yemen, Martin kindly pointed out that it was highly unlikely 
I could have located the notebooks even if National Security had 
allowed me to go back to Uqban. "Don't worry about the stories 
you lost," he said. "There are always more to come, and it only 
takes a few good ones to keep us going," I agreed. We said good- 
bye, 1 packed my bag and went to bed early. 

Three hours before dawn I was sitting in the waiting room of 
the San'a airport. The place was filled with row upon row of 
Yemeni men wrapped in white cloth, wearing identical terry- 
cloth shawls draped over their shoulders. These men were hajis 3 
pilgrims on their way to Mecca, The room smelled of bath soap 
and their scrupulously shampooed hair. At the edge of this gentle 
throng of devout Moslems sat a rabbi dressed all in black, with 
ringlets of gray-black hair descending from beneath the brim of 
his beaver hat, incongruous as he appeared, the rabbi seerne 
completely at ease with the pilgrims, who in turn took no un- 
usual notice of this Orthodox Jew, 

The rabbi and 1 were aboard the same flight to Paris, When t 
seat-belt sign blinked off, 1 walked down the aisle to where 
was seated, I couldn't resist asking what he was doing in Yeme^ 

It Was Not Written I 225 

ourneys to ^ 
i and Gazem 
stration ab 0ut 
vanished realj. 
r whatever ok 
uld ever be re* 

id had one last 
is usual, and J 
he arrived on 
iano for a Yu- 
r, "Wagnerian 
woman's vast 

loontains and 
J much of life 
ighly unlikely 
I Security had 
>ut the stories 
e, and it only 
5Fe said good- 
ting room of 
jpon row of 
rntical terry- 
n were hajis 3 
□f bath soap 
:>f this gentle 
black, with 
the brim of 
bbi seemed 
00k no tin* 

5. When the 
o where be 
, in Yemen- 

f-Ie turned out to be Yusef Becher, from Williamsburg, a predom- 
inantly Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn. 

*J come to serve my people," he told me. 

Following the exodus of 45,000 Yemeni Jews to Israel during 
Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, the remnants of the Jewish 
communities became more scattered. Religious traditions were 
further threatened by the removal of ancient texts, including To- 
rahs and Talmudica! books taken by the departing migrants. 
There had never been a burning of holy books in Yemen, and 
many of the volumes and scrolls were priceless. The Yemeni Jews 
needed replacements for these holy books, and Rabbi Becher re- 
sponded to this need. 

He described his work as social and religious. Since 1979 he 
has distributed Torah scrolls, prayer books, Bibles, and other re- 
ligious texts to the Jewish communities in the remote mountain- 
ous north of Yemen. These items are sold for a small sum* which 
is immediately redistributed within the villages. The money is 
used to keep up Talmud-Torah classes, to subsidize the training 
of scribes, to support the old and sick, and to provide for poor, 
devout men who need assistance with the bride price, 

I asked about the rumors of persecution of jews in Yemen. 

'To the contrary," he replied. "Yemeni society is tolerant. The 
situation here demonstrates how well Jews and Moslems can live 
together without the interference of Zionism and Israel. Yemeni 
Jews are very orthodox, but they also chew qat with their Mos- 
lem neighbors." 

In addition to religious texts, Rabbi Becher sold shofars {ram's 
horns for blowing on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year), as 
w ell as kosher stainless steel knives for slaughtering animals. The 
cut must be as painless as possible, and a chip in the blade will 
make the meat unkosher. The rabbi took a delight in pointing 
out details. Local Yemeni knives, I learned, are good for only five 
or six chickens before they need resharpening. Using the Ameri- 
can-made stainless steel blades, a village butcher can cut up to 
j^o hundred chicken throats without fear of the meat's being un- 

The photos were next. 


"Here, look at this," he said, pointing to what looked lik e 
shallow bathtub chiseled into a stone wall. The bathing area sva s 
for women to perform peuilla, the obligatory immersion and 
cleansing following menstruation. Sexual relations are not al- 
lowed before peuilla. 

"They use rainwater whenever possible/* Rabbi Becher ex- 
plained, "It is yet another example of how Yemeni Jews are ob* 

He then asked what I had been doing in Yemen. When I told 
him, he lifted one eyebrow. 

"Do you know the difference between the intelligent man and 
the wise man?" he asked, 

"Tell me,' 1 

"The intelligent man is capable of overcoming problems and 
difficulties the wise man would have avoided in the first place, 11 

I returned to my seat with that illuminating thought. The next 
time 1 looked down the aisle Rabbi Becher had tied a small black 
box to his forehead. His eyes were closed, his lips moved. The 
box, known as a tefillin, contained handwritten bits of Scripture, 
A white shawl lay over his shoulders. The beaver hat rested be- 
side him on an empty seat. Rabbi Becher had begun his morning 

Outside, the aircraft engines roared steadily. All about the 
rabbi there was movement, as Yemeni women emerged from 
their black cocoons* Veils were removed; female faces appeared. 
A black pleated garment designed for modesty and concealment 
fell away to reveal a beautiful young Yemeni woman dressed in a 
checked Western-style shirt, Wrangler jeans, and cowgirl boots. 

Watching Rabbi Becher, lost in prayer amid this metamorpho- 
sis, I realized that my journey had come to an end. I surrendere 
my last hope of retrieving my journals. It was a relief to let them 

It Was Written 


Yemen changed me. The country may not have taught me 

touted and repelled me before finally overwhelming both my pa- 

"a m ^ d my h0Pe ' eVe " 3fer 1 c — set aside' my 
d earn of diggmg up my notebooks, the momentum of my cra^y 

srsri; ? e r st ,mportant iess °" 1 d s;: 

s n tL Y 'T^ ha , d r ° d ° With W '"finite possib.lities can pre- 
sent themselves when one gives fate a fair chance 

ter rom N 7ck If ^i**? le3 ™S Y ™ > I received a let- 

P^tedTt a est o f mC xl hiS "?* had bee " c °m- 

* pred ted He a 49,0 °°' Th " ° Ut to $ ^°° P« **> 

the village th a" h 'd S ° TT* *"5 Pe ° P ' e ° f A '- Harum 
the - rffom „ w!, d N ° rman h ° St3 ^ had needed in 

^rtened bv ,h had built them a school. 

-creasingl" Nlck S * — of incidents made it 

lon 8 before t he l e t rT ?, * ^ be ' and * was "'t 

60 be ean ^ , T° nS ' had leaf ned about fate and how to let 

One d my mmd * 

e *X a postcard arrived, inviting me to an exhibit of pho- 


tographs of Yemeni architecture to be held at the American Ar- k 

chitectural Foundation in Washington, D,C, I decided to g 0 Si 
Standing in front of a concrete wall hung with a line of framed 

photos, I examined one of the images closely. The sixteen~by- cc 

twenty-inch Cibachrome print showed the exterior wall of a 1c 

Yemeni tower house. The photographer had captured the archi- he 
tectural details and, inadvertently, the less savory features of two 

drop toilets that projected from the brickwork on the upp er lai 

floors. The splattered catchment area was just visible at the bot- Fe 

torn margin of the photograph. lar 

I fell into conversation with a weEI-dressed Yemeni man stand- for 

ing next to me. tor 

"What is it about the toilets," he asked, "that visitors to Yemen wh 
find so intriguing?" i 

'Their height?" I ventured. We both laughed, wri 

"Have you ever visited Yemen?" the man asked politely hut 
"Yes, several times. During my first visit to your country, in 

1978,1 was thrown in jail for ten days," plie 
"Really , . . and where was that?" 

"On a small island northwest of Hodeida, You have probably Fiv< 

never heard of it." toe! 

"Which island?" the man asked in a pleasant voice as he stej 

turned to face me. put 

"Kamaran." of 

"Which part of the island?" sm< 

"Near Kamaran harbor, on the east coast." °y J 

"Which building?" W< 

"The old British residency on the hill." * n 1 

"Which room?" he continued as his smile broadened. ^ or 

"Climbing the front steps, it is the main room on the left* of 

There is a picture of the last British resident on the wall." f° r 

"And one of his wife as well," the man added. "In 195 1 1 waS f °° 
imprisoned in that same room for two days. Imam Ahmed exile I 

me from the country for my political beliefs. I went to Ii ve in as ^ 

Cairo." to1 

He offered his hand. 1 took it, and in this way I met His Ex^ L qui 

It Was Written / 229 

l en cy Mohsin Alaini, the Yemeni ambassador to the United 

people moved about the exhibition space, sipping wine and 
commenting on the fine photographs, while the ambassador and 
I discussed the room on Kamaran Island, The lure of Yemen took 
hold of me once again. The evening coincided with the end of 
Ramadan, and I was invited to the ambassador's house, where a 
large group of people had gathered to celebrate Id al-Fitr, the 
Festival of the Breaking of the Fast. Headless carcasses of roast 
lamb set upon silver platters were cut up and served by uncom- 
fortable-looking white men wearing starched chef *s caps. Accus- 
tomed to presliced meat, the caterers were unsure of themselves 
when confronted with a whole cooked animal. 

After dinner, the ambassador asked if I had ever considered 
writing about my experiences in Yemen. I told him I had five 
hundred pages of manuscript without an ending. 

t4 [ think I might be able to help you find that ending " he re- 

Five months later the mud of Ai-Luhayyah oozed between my 
toes as I waded into the flat, warm sea, A few feet from shore I 
stepped into a fishing boat that smelled of rancid shark oil and 
pureed dates, a concoction that had been applied to the interior 
of the boat to preserve and season the wooden planks. The 
smelly oil also stuck to our skin and clothing. 1 was accompanied 
by Mr. al-Kibsi, an agent of the National Security Police in San'a, 
two local fishermen, a boatman, and a policeman from Hodeida, 
In the bottom of the boat lay a shove! I had bought that morning 
for 50 riyals. At the last minute I purchased six one-liter bottles 
°f water. The other men had provisioned themselves for the 
forty-mile round trip with several packs of cigarettes. We had no 
food apart from a package of glucose biscuits, 

During the drive from San'a the previous day, Mr. al-Kibsi had 
as ked me repeatedly why I had come all the way from America 
W look for some notebooks buried on Uqban Island. He couldn't 
quite get his mind around the idea. But his confusion was noth- 


ing compared to the confusion of the men in Al-Luhayyah when 
we arrived in the middle of a qat party at the house of the mudir 
or headman, that afternoon. 

Fifteen months had passed since my previous visit to A!-Lu~ 
hayyah. I remembered well the men's smirks, and their parting 
comments: "Of course we would like to help you . . . anything 
we can do * . . yes, yes, there is no problem, provided you come 
back with someone from National Security." Those men figured 
I had about one chance in ten thousand of ever returning to the 
village, let alone with the secret police. I had been forgotten until 
the moment Mr. al-Kibsi and I walked into the qat session. Scan- 
ning the room as I sat down, I thought several of the men might 
choke on their wads of qat. Their looks of cool detachment were 
quickly transformed into expressions of profound disbelief, and 
I found it difficult to conceal my great pleasure at the sight 
of their growing discomfort. It wasn't difficult to read their 
thoughts: how had I made arrangements with the National Se- 
curity Police, and was I back to prosecute the looters? 

Ali Abbas, the sheik of the fishermen, was summoned to con- 
firm my story, but regrettably he could not attend due to a sud- 
den illness. Other men whose names I remembered from my last 
visit were also unavailable. The people in the room could not 
leave without drawing attention to themselves, and a feeling of 
unease prevailed as I explained to the mudir my reasons for 
wanting to return to Uqban Island. Clearly everyone in the room 
thought I was either out of my mind or lying. In their view, I had 
to be looking for buried money or weapons. 

The cool breeze and flat seas promised a pleasant two-hour 
journey to Uqban, which lay twenty miles to the west, just over 
the horizon. The fifty-five horsepower outboard motor rumbled 
to life, and the little boat moved smoothly past tumbledown 
buildings and half-submerged hulks of abandoned dhows. Doz- 
ens of sleek red-and-white fishing boats sat placidly at anchor as 
we followed a circuitous channel through the mangroves and out 
to sea. The crumbling Turkish citadel set on the hill behind the 
city grew indistinct in the low morning haze as we met the first 
ocean swells. It was a beautiful, calm morning, an auspicious be- 

It Was Written i 231 

ginning to the day. I was lulled into a half-sleep by the vibration 
of the motor and the motion of the boat as it cut its way through 
gentle waves. 

1 awoke with a start. Six miles out to sea the motor died. We 
cleaned the two spark plugs with a fishhook, which was our only 
tool apart from the rusted plug wrench. We pumped gas directly 
into the cylinder heads before replacing the plugs. Pulling on the 
rope starter, we couldn't manage to coax a single cough out of 
the motor. There was no spark. When I checked the wiring, I 
found such a rat's nest of loose connections and frayed wires that 
I didn't know where to begin my search. 

The motor was hot, and without the slightest hesitation, the 
boatman opened a bottle of drinking water and emptied it over 
the engine to help cool it off. It occurred to me that this was an 
interesting way for the man to use "his" bottle of water. One has 
to be either deeply religious or a fool to waste water like that in 
such a situation. Sea water would have done the job just as well. 
There was no shade as the sun began to burn its way into the cool 
morning air, and with five liters of water for six people, I figured 
we were on our way to the promised land, or that other place. 1 
took my turn pulling on the rope starter until my fingers bled* 
Before long, the rope snapped off at the engine housing. So much 
for preventive maintenance. 

"Son of a bitch , . . why meV I asked myself out loud. No one 

Consumed by frustration, I sat down to rest, taking a deep 
breath and then exhaling with a loud sigh. It was going to be a 
long day. To ease their tension, my fellow passengers began to 
smoke furiously. Pushed by the waves and the morning's offshore 
winds, we were drifting farther out to sea. The remaining water 
w as quickly consumed, and there were no islands or other boats 
in sight. We didn't even have a set of oars. Two hours later, a low- 
sand island appeared. We drifted toward it, hoping to be washed 
ashore or at least to pass close enough to try swimming to it. I 
couldn't believe I was going to be shipwrecked in the Red Sea a 
second time. 

Just as it seemed likely we would miss the island, we sighted a 


small fishing boat on the horizon. Blinded by the low morning 
sun behind us, the men in the other boat were well past us before 
they noticed our waves for help. What followed was a typical 
Yemeni rescue operation. I was obliged to pay the equivalent of 
$15.36 to the fishermen in the other boat to compensate them 
for the time and fuel it took to tow us back to shore. This amount 
was more than a fair price, If they had not seen us, our chances 
of survival would have been small. From where they picked us 
up, there was nothing but open sea all the way to the east coast 
of Africa, 125 miles away. Without food, a sail, water, or oars, 
we might have lasted a few days. It is difficult to place a dollar 
value on human life, but that morning, by dividing $15.36 by the 
six of us in the boat, I calculated that I was worth exactly $2,56 
to a Yemeni fisherman: the approximate price of two smoked 

Instead of being swept our to sea, we returned to Al-Luhayyah 
after four hours on the water — badly sunburned, but otherwise 
intact. During our lunch of bread dipped in a puree of yogurt and 
tomatoes, Mr* al-Kibsi voiced a thought we ali shared: "We were 
very lucky. Fishermen don't usually go out that far. We could 
have died." I was in complete agreement Things could have 
turned nasty very quickly. 

"What would you like to do now? 17 he asked me. He envi- 
sioned the drive back to San'a that afternoon. 

"Find another boat," I said. 

"What . . . r he replied in disbelief. 

The other men looked up from their meal, and I could feel 
their eyes taking in the full measure of my madness. It felt good. 
We finished lunch and located another single-engine boat. On 
our second attempt, we succeeded in reaching Uqban Island. 

During the two-and-a-half-hour journey, I occupied myself by 
observing the sad state of Mr. al-Kibst's clothing. He had picked 
me up the previous day dressed in a regulation black wool suit, a 
white shirt open at the neck, and a pair of nicely polished black 
leather shoes with dark socks. He looked smart in the hote 
lobby, but by the time we were on our way out to the island or 
the second time his shoes and socks were missing, his pant legs 

It Was Written / 233 

were rolled above his muddied feet, and the skin on his ankles 
W as broken in several places. He sat in a sorry-looking card- 
board box on the bottom of the boat, in an unsuccessful attempt 
to keep the seat of his pants dry. The armpits of his soiled white 
shirt were ripped out, and two buttons were missing from just 
above his belt* I don't know what had become of his jacket. He 
had wrapped a red-and-white scarf around his head to protect 
his sunburned face from the driving salt spray that lay crusted on 
our skin and clothing, I could not help but feel sorry for Mr. al- 
KibsL He had tried so hard to help me. Dirty, seasick, exhausted, 
and with little idea of what possessed me or what he was going 
to do about his suit, he never once complained. 

At half past three in the afternoon of October 17, 1989, 1 once 
again waded through the shallows of Uqban Island. Buffeted by 
a hot afternoon breeze, I stood on the wet sand, less than twenty 
yards from where our camp had been in 1978. Returning to that 
beach was like stepping into a dream, and I was overwhelmed by 
the thrill of being back on that obscure piece of land that meant 
so much to me. As the memories closed in and the years fell 
away, I felt as if I had entered my dreams and was trespassing on 
sacred ground* 1 was afraid I had returned to a place where I had 
no right to be, 

A garbage-strewn fishing camp was situated where our beach 
kitchen had once stood. Empty oil tins., plastic bottles, and other 
floating debris bobbed at the water's edge. I imagined Georgik 
and Suzanne sunbathing on the beach amid the litter. Instead, 
hundreds if not thousands of dried and stinking shark carcasses 
lay in piles above the high-tide mark. The stomachs had been 
gutted for the valuable shark oil, and the fins and tails had been 
cut away to be sent to Singapore, where they would be packaged 
and exported as shark-fin soup. Bits of frayed plastic rope pro- 
truded from the sand. There were discarded nets and thousands 
of rusted tin cans. Rubbish lay strewn along the beach as far as I 
could see. On a low sand hill, a four-poster Tihama cot with a 
canopy of cardboard and corrugated tin overlooked the lagoon 
where I had once spent a morning watching giant mama rays 
ea ping through the surface of the blue-green water. 


Struggling to set these memories and impressions aside, I f 0 . 
cused my thoughts on one thing only: digging. We had to return 
to the coast before nightfall, and with the morning's delays, that 
left me with less than an hour to find the spot where I had buried 
the notebooks. Grabbing the shovel, I paced the approximate 
area and tested two places without success* I walked back and 
forth across the sand, trying to remember the site of our garbage 
trench. 1 was not in my right mind. Stupefied by the heat and the 
events of that morning, I stumbled about in confusion. I knew 
the direction of the trench from our camp, but I could not re- 
member the precise distance. Once I found the filled-in trench, it 
would simply be a matter of following it to the end nearest the 
water. Beneath that spot I hoped to find my journals. 

I dug at random and found nothing. The work was not easy. 
Of every three shovelfuls of dry sand, two shovelfuls seemed to 
fall back into the hole. The afternoon sun was intense, and after 
the first twenty minutes the other men lost interest in my search. 
They rested in the shade of the low coral cliffs, paying little atten- 
tion to my efforts. 

Continuing my search, I found our latrine, which was in a re- 
markable state of preservation. Long after human life vanishes, 1 
suspect, plastic tampon applicators will inherit the earth. Further 
digging in the same area produced more blisters and increasing 
panic, but nothing else. Then 1 felt the tip of my shovel slide off 
a smooth object buried in the sand. It was a bottle. The label was 
still perfectly legible: lime cordial from Sri Lanka. 1 remembered 
the synthetic flavor of the bright green syrup. The next shovelful 
produced tin cans rusted beyond recognition. I unearthed a piece 
of fabric: yellow Ripstop nylon with zigzag lines of stitching in 
maroon thread. It was a test piece from the day Georgik adjusted 
the bobbin tension on the sewing machine and stitched the sails 
for the dinghy. After eleven and a half years buried in the dry 
sand, the fabric and thread were in perfect condition. 

To establish the direction of the garbage trench, 1 walked a few 
paces toward the shoreline and began to dig in a line parallel to 
the beach. 1 soon located an empty marmalade jar. As 1 dug my 

It Was Written / 235 

w ay to the end of the trench, the boatman approached me, point- 
ing to his wristwatch to let me know I had fifteen minutes before 
the boat would have to leave. Digging with a renewed sense of 
urgency, I soon littered the surrounding sand with old aluminum 
beer cans, empty Johnny Walker Scotch bottles, and mango 
chutney jars from Madras. 

Digging deeper, I uncovered what appeared to be a scrap of 
white plastic. Pulling on it, I realized that it was the corner of a 
bag. I pulled again, but the bag would not come loose. I felt the 
skin on my forearms tingle. Setting down the shovel, I got on my 
knees and brushed the sand away with my fingers. I felt a flat 
surface and the edge of a solid object inside the bag. It was my 
notebooks. After waiting so many years, with all the setbacks, I 
had expected nothing. Stunned by my discovery, 1 became obliv- 
ious to the broken blisters on my hands and my sunburned skin* 

The reclining figures in the shade began to stir. Making a quick 
decision, 1 shoved the parcel into my shoulder hag, afraid that 
National Security would confiscate my find; then I continued 
digging as if nothing had happened. I like to think I was moti- 
vated more by prudence than by dishonesty, but regardless of 
these fine points, I had little interest in having secret police agents 
thumb through my past* 

It was time to go. I shouldered my bag, and Mr. al-Kibsi 
walked with me to the waiting boat. While I showed him the 
piece of yellow fabric that I had found buried in the sand, the 
fishermen took a good look at my excavations. They assumed I 
was looking for money or weapons and wanted to remember the 
exact spot. I am quite confident that since that afternoon they 
have spent many a fruitless hour digging up that beach in search 
of their own fantasies* 

We rode the ocean swells back to Al-Luhayyah and arrived 
just at sunset. By the time we were ashore it was dark* I passed 
the night in the mudir\ house, surrounded by sleeping tribesmen 
cuddled up with their weapons. Haunted by a strange feeling of 
unreality, I couldn't sleep. It was difficult to believe that my 
search had come to an end. Light finally crept into the sky, but I 


remember little of the journey back to San'a that morning, apart 
from the additional, welcome weight in my shoulder bag. 

In San'a I showed the notebooks to a friend who was familiar 
with the details of my search over the previous two years. 

"Mabrouk" he told me — you are blessed. 

"Allah kareem" I replied — Allah provides. 

Boat Breaks Down, 1989 _^~ Murk 


■ lC^— Hill Fort 



Shipwreck & 
* V I Beach Camp, 1978 

Y Kadaman 

•left f '^fc ^™ 

^ Kadaman 



Lighthouse - 

* Dahlia 
; Shoal 

^■Makram V s 

; ; |kKAMARAN/ 


■Army Post 


. r 


-A Ibn 




Ras "aJ-Yanven 

V4 M<as al- 

Rishah • 
Island • 

* Yacht Clea 
! February 1, 1978 


Al-Hubaishi, Ahmed, and Muller-Hohenstein, Klaus. An Intro- 
duction to the Vegetation of Yemen. Eschbom, Federal Re- 
public of Germany: German Agency for Technical Cooper- 
ation (GTZ) 5 1984. 

Costa, Pablo, and Vicario, Ennio. Yemen, Land of Builders. New 
York: Rizzoli, 1977. 

Daum, Werner, ed. Yemen: 3,000 Years of Art and Civilisation 
in Arabia Felix. Innsbruck: Penguin, 1988. 

Dorsky, Susan. Women of Amran. Salt Lake City: University of 
Utah Press, 1986. 

Fayein, Claudie. French Doctor in the Yemen. London: Robert 
Hale, 1957. 

Kennedy, John G. The Flower of Paradise: The Institutionalized 
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land: Penguin, 1971. 


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City. London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1983. 

Stevenson, Thomas, Social Change in a Yemeni Highlands 
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Varanda, Fernando. Art of Building in Yemen. Cambridge, 
Mass.: MIT Press, 1982. 

From the author of the acclaimed travel adventure 
Stranger in the Forest, on exotic ten-year journey 
through the remote country of Yemen. 

Shipwrecked in 1978 while sailing lo Athens by way of the 
Red Sea, Hansen buried his notebooks in a Dacron sail bag 
for safe-keeping. Leaving them behind in a hurried rescue, 
made possible by a boatload of smugglers biown-off course, 
Hansen returns ten years later to dig up his past and 
discover whyjthis ancient country left its indelible print on his 

Meet Mohomned, the first of many guides, who turns 
Hansen's first attempt to rescue his notebooks into a sheep- 
buying expedition. Experience the daily qat chewing session 
and this bitter leaf's subtle effects on the community of 
men who gaifter each day for this powerful socializing ritual. 
Hear the outrageous stories of hostages, missionaries, 
expatriates ajid ; refugees. And listen to the rhythm of 
gunfire bursts to learn whether a child has been born or a 
blood dispute settled. Although each effort to retrieve the 
diaries is thwarted, Hansen's initial frustration gives way as 
he becomes captivated by the Yemeni people and their 

fliis absorbing and enchanting book weaves together ancient 
customs and contemporary politics while taking the reader 
on a compelling journey in search of buried meanings in 
landscapes of powerful beauty.