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.

‘Thank God for the rain,’ people say, despite its dangers. This is much more than a pious phrase. The country is desperately short of water, now and in the long term. The population is over 17 million and rising fast, which makes agriculture more important than ever in the Tihama, the lowlands near what was until 1967 the British colony of Aden and the Protectorates on the corner of south-west Arabia, as well as on the vertiginous, startlingly beautiful terraces of the high northern mountains. Remittances from Saudi Arabia have effectively ceased since the mass expulsion of around 800,000 Yemenis by a Saudi government which was angry at Yemen’s official support for Iraq during the Gulf War. Oil prices are very low, and in any case contentious local politics in the oil-producing region of the country have resulted in blown-up pipelines and poor supplies. Yemen is even buying oil with precious hard currency. NGOs, of which there seem to be vast numbers, issue pessimistic reports full of unease about the ‘sustainability’ of any project they launch and worry about networks of clients and the distribution of favours and cash instead of organisation. World Bank officials scurry in and out, speaking their own language of policy choices and decision-making and occupying rooms en permanence in the biggest hotel.

Most NGO projects seem to be regarded as failures because of the difficulties of building networks and structures that survive when the organisation leaves. ‘How could they survive,’ a Yemeni aid worker asked in exasperation, ‘when so much depends on personal links, patronage and pay-offs by the central authorities to keep supporters happy?’ Civil servants are appallingly paid, so state apparatuses function poorly and are not much respected. Security apparatuses play an important role in the workings of the state. The Parliament elected in the second national elections in 1997 carries little weight, and its opposition groups are subject to intermittent harassment. Tribalism is a principle of government. Groups are being played off against each other in a constant balancing act and some regions have only minimal allegiance to the centre, meaning essentially President Ali Abdullah Salih. He himself is from a small tribal group, but he has the backing of important sheikhs. The northern tribes themselves, composed mostly of agriculturalists, have elaborate mechanisms for containing violence, but the encouragement of tribal divisions means that these ways of mediating disputes are under increasing strain. In the south, still smarting after defeat in the civil war of 1994, there is resentment at the lack of political interest and investment in Aden or the provinces. And there are Islamic radical groups that have their own agendas and alliances. The Saudis are always alleged to exercise their own influence on Yemen through pay-offs and pressures on frontiers at crucial moments. Overall, there is a feeling that long-term problems are not being politically addressed with any determination beyond that of safeguarding the position of those who already hold power.

Meanwhile, people say the number of destitute Yemenis begging or selling anything they can at traffic lights has shot up, and groups of kids and young men hang around the streets or play football in any available space till midnight. (The space where a month ago teenagers kicked up so much thick dust in their game that they magically vanished into it like phantoms is now a lake.) Very little street crime, I’m told. But there were three days of riots just before I arrived, people protesting furiously against sudden price rises in basic subsistence and other goods (including petrol). There is a strong sense of middlelevel crisis and uncertainty, together with immobilisme at the top.

Two weeks ago, outside the city, walking along a steep path cut across a cliff at over 3000 metres, I saw a storm sweep up at us, veiling the landscape as in some great Chinese painting. The terraces were a dense emerald green, every conceivable space wrested from the mountains by immense hard work and maintenance. The eagle that had flown so slowly and so close over our heads and the pair that were wheeling below headed for refuge rather than eyeing the new lambs shivering under their mothers. The four local men with their assorted rifles who had met us on the track, up from Sanaa for the weekend and away from their panel-beating work in the city, abandoned their plans for a quiet afternoon gazing out over the great narrow valleys below.

They were going to sit and chew the leaves of the qat shrub – now a widespread habit of Yemeni afternoons – and had to do it crammed into the cab of their Toyota pick-up instead of admiring the valleys in a glittering afternoon light. It was a poor alternative, because a beautiful view is part of the experience, but the news wasn’t all bad. Rain makes qat, now Yemen’s main cash crop, grow faster and brings down the prices. The men were singing and joking. There was an Ottoman fortress above their village perched on the ridge, and many more ancient ruins below its thick stone walls. The storm put paid to any sight-seeing; instead we talked enthusiastically about the availability of guns, and arms of all kinds, even though they had little idea of what they were carrying. Yemen must lead the world in guns per head of population, if anyone keeps those melancholy statistics. Stern edicts are issued prohibiting arms being carried, the Army stops cars for a couple of days to search for weapons, and then things carry on as before. That means, most impressively, big tribal sheikhs or political leaders sweeping around in Toyota convoys with bodyguards armed to the teeth. Still, the men we spoke to were sure of their own virtue. ‘We wouldn’t dream of kidnapping foreigners,’ they said, grinning hugely. ‘It would be shameful. Besides, we’re much too well-mannered.’

Well-mannered, and on the right side, too – with the President, that’s to say, and not using kidnapping as a means to extract favours, as tribes in some regions have been doing. Very effective in keeping tourists away, that tactic, and the number is severely reduced. My mind has occasionally wandered nervously to the possibility of being kidnapped on the streets of Sanaa, especially when friends say with relish that there’s nothing like two weeks or so being royally treated as the guest of a mountain tribe for improving your grasp of the local dialect, even though ‘most’ of their friends have never been snatched. ‘Very useful for an anthropologist,’ I reply, with unconvincing cool.

Poetry is a much better way of conducting politics than kidnapping. ‘Have you heard the ode savaging the Prime Minister?’ a friend demands. This is a society which treasures its poets, who attack rival groups or outmatch each other in contests often dense with allusion, wordplay, special dialect terms and complex meanings. Flagg Miller, a graduate student from Michigan who is working on the poets of the mountainous Yafei region to the south, gave a fascinating talk about them, and about the roaring trade in cassettes. He believes there is more poetry now than for years, composed by more people, and maybe of a more generally accessible level.

I’m invited by a Lebanese friend working on women’s health projects to hear an especially admired singer and oud (lute) player, Yehya Nunu. He has collected many songs from all over the country as well as composing, but only performs in front of friends. There are a dozen or so of us, sitting on floor cushions in the mafraj (reception room) of a luxurious villa owned by a Lebanese building contractor. The walls are hung with expensive swords, silver-handled daggers, Oriental objects displayed as if in a museum. We all chew qat – there are bunches strewn on the floor in front of each of us; they are wrapped in damp cloths to keep them fresh. Fastidiously, we pick the smaller, more delicate leaves, and drink water and tea copiously to counter qat’s dehydrating effects. Many Yemenis chew a couple of times a week, from about two in the afternoon to six or seven in the evening. Aficionados love it for the alertness they say it produces, and for all the social rituals of conversation, the politics, the argument, the gossip that go with it Critics deplore the time and money spent, and talk about the dangers of the serious illnesses that have come with the increased use of chemical sprays and fertilisers on the qat crop. I prefer the nargileh (water pipe) and draw up the smoke through the lemon-scented water in the ornamental glass bottle.

The host makes a point of placing choice bundles of qat in front of the singer, whose own ideal is to begin in the afternoon and perform until dawn, singing whatever he wishes, at whichever moment he wishes. He’s in late middle age, moody, knowing the value of who he is and what he does, and demanding of his audience. Between rocking back and forth with the currents of the sometimes erotic songs, he shoots hard, examining glances at us in turn. ‘The quality of the listening matters so much,’ he says to me with an intense, quick look straight into my eyes. We have to be present, attentive, responsive at all times.

That kind of attention characterises the Beduin murafiq who guides my Italian host Marco, his driver Muhammad, and myself across the desert in a two-car convoy on the long drive east from Sanaa to Marib, and then down to the Wadi Hadramaut some eight hours away. He is tall and thin as a rake, with eyes that seem to aim like his rifle; far more reassuring than the 15-year-old kid with a rifle as big as himself whom the Army made us take on the bad stretches of the Marib road, with all his excited talk of bombing dissident tribes in June and cutting people up. The murafiq is not driving his own car. He’s for hire. To make any sort of money he’ll have to take us through – by night, since we were late leaving Sanaa – and then turn straight round and head back. Fifteen hours. Clouds, so no stars for orientation, but the desert is full of the Toyota tracks of smugglers bringing goods in from the Gulf and the murafiq knows it well.

It’s his territory, but it can still be dangerous. After some hours of night driving, and just when I’m thinking that Wilfred Thesiger would really despise this four-wheel drive voyage across Arabian sands, the murafiq suddenly shoots ahead of us to the right and switches off his lights, disappearing instantly in the total darkness. I’ve been told at the start that this is how skirmishes or chases are fought out, in darkness. There are headlights approaching in the distance. They swing across us and away to our left, hundreds of yards between us. The murafiq switches his lights on. We continue at high speed. Nobody makes any comment, and perhaps it was nothing. But given the contested border with Saudi Arabia not far to the north, nervous Yemeni army posts, and some danger of good old-fashioned hold-ups which might cost both drivers’ lives, that sudden burst of speed has put my nerves on edge.

The next day, in the little town of Hauta, known for its saints in their domed shrines (and now for those who oppose both the saints and their descendants on political as well as religious grounds), I recover memories of Hadramaut 38 years ago when I spent a year in Aden on VSO. There is a deep familiarity in the surge of awe at the limestone canyons forming the wide valley and deep wadis, the mud architecture of the lavishly decorated houses showing the rich influences of Indian Ocean cultures – India, Indonesia, East Africa and the Gulf, through which Hadramis have migrated for so long for reasons of trade and religion. The scale of the place seems vast, though the plateau is only 800 feet or so above us. The towns are much bigger now, crammed with Suzuki bikes and Toyota pick-ups and petty traders. There are no obvious signs of British rule, and few of the period from 1967 when Hadramaut was a province of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen till unity with the north in 1990. Only warnings about mines in the desert on the way down speak of the civil war of 1994 which the southern forces lost. Now land is being reclaimed by the former owners from whom it was confiscated, and some cultivators are miserably poor.

The honey is famous, but friends warn of fraud, sugar and foreign honeys mixed in. I buy some anyway. After the cool of Sanaa the heat in Hadramaut (37°) is severe, but welcome. For a visitor in winter this would be a paradise, not least for its glittering air and the desert night skies. The tock-tock of water pumps and the masses of date palms in their fields marked off by high banks of earth are still the same, but there is now a tarmac road most of the way through the wadi. I find with relief that I have little nostalgia for that first visit, just a sense of great good fortune that I was here and have vivid memories of this astonishing space that convinced me, as a callow teenager, to study Arabic at Oxford the following year. I owe that change and what followed to Hadramaut.

Two days later, we speed back across the desert at night in a convoy of four cars, for all the world like some World War Two naval battle formation. Sudden sand storms and brief but violent rains obliterate our sight. We lose our way once or twice, stumbling unexpectedly on a tiny Yemeni army garrison that’s very jumpy at our sudden appearance out of the night. The driver’s glad they didn’t take us for a detachment of Saudis or a tribal raid. So am I.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences