A late summer’s night in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. The rain is belting down, lightning flashes rip across the hills round the city, thunder rumbles, but the storm seems suspended over the open L-shaped courtyard of this adobe house. This is the style of the buildings in what was once the Jewish quarter: in through the front door; up two short flights of stairs at right-angles and you’re in the courtyard with the main reception room and five or six other small rooms off it, as well as endless storage spaces and passageways to other houses; up another short flight there is a top room. Normally, I take a quiet pleasure in the play of the different volumes of space, the filtered light of the alabaster windows, the lines of the whitewashed, uneven walls with their shifting landscapes played on by the evening light, and the streaks of dust that texture their surfaces. But not tonight.
This is the wet side of summer in Sanaa, high up at 2300 metres. I was told what to expect. I sit miserably in the kitchen with Renaud – my friend and generous host – contemplating the rain through the open door. We swap fantasies of taking over the Marines’ bar in the American Embassy or some perfect restaurant in Paris, or just watching old movies. Incongruous memories of growing up in Luton in the smog flood me while we gloomily share a tin of tuna rather than go out and get soaked all over again. Thoughts of the delicious, large, grilled white fish and great rounds of flat hot bread in the restaurant at the other side of the quarter are so tempting, but not if it means braving this deluge. No wonder the three old men who do everyone’s laundry in their sunken little space round the corner – one of them always asleep at the back – are fed up. They can’t hang out their long lines of pants, headdresses and shawls, sarongs and thawbs (the white outer garment worn by men) above the pavement to dry, and customers need them for the Thursday/Friday weekend.
The garbage dump ten metres from the front door will smell sweet tomorrow, though for some reason the stench it normally gives off doesn’t reach the house. For the very poor who scavenge there, along with the cats and dogs, life will be even more difficult. Last night we made the mistake of coming home via the open fruit and vegetable market and sloshed through the remains of squashes, tomatoes, peppers, corn on the cob, greens and grapes, the tide rising over our socks. Kids were using up-turned wheelbarrows for shelter, just as they use them to sleep or rest in, for wild racing with squealing junior passengers, as well as selling prickly pears and transporting everything imaginable from the shops to customers in the neighbourhood. Practical, fast and very hard work.
The rain eddies turbulently down every sloping street, to meet in lakes that form in any flat space. Parts of the main square are more than a foot deep in water. Cars set up washes so strong that the battered taxis stall – their drivers, sometimes in army uniform or straight from teaching or the office, can’t possibly afford to keep them in good repair. The new rich quarters to the south and north, with their guards, their high walls, enclave living, and often stridently ostentatious architecture, are no better off. Their streets and muddy lanes are well flooded. But there, nobody walks – travel is by Toyota Land Cruisers and Mercedes, with bodyguard/chauffeurs.
In the old city, one of the world’s urban wonders with the adobe, brick and stone architecture of its mosques and great houses, five to eight storeys high, there is more danger. Badly maintained houses collapse or are terribly damaged in an environment that is already menaced by old families selling up, incomers using new materials that don’t at all match the style, demolition, neglect or bad restoration and conversion. For the poor in squatter areas this sort of rain can be fatal. About fifteen were said to have been drowned by a torrent and their flimsy plastic shelters washed away. Others have died in flash-floods in the Wadi Hadramaut to the east and on the Tihama plain along the coast of the Red Sea.