22 April – I woke up at the dawn prayer with intense thirst. It’s not advisable to drink tap water, so I go down to the lobby and fill a bottle from a cold water dispenser, without giving too much heed as to what source it may come from. It was 5 am and conceded myself only two more hours of sleep because I want to leave early with a busy schedule. I would like to visit Jibla, two hours away from here, then hit Zabid for the night, but to do so I have to go back to Ta’izz as there is no direct way.
The road to Jibla is very nice, goes up the mountains and we come to dominate over beautiful valleys, now not literally burnt by the sun, but covered by low sparse vegetation. As I get near the large city of Ibb I think Jibla in its vicinity will be a disappointment, but I am wrong. At the crossroads with the main road, I get on a jeep that takes me to this pretty town spreading on a hillside. Its houses are build in stone and remind me the austere Mediaeval architecture of central Italy. The mosque minarets are peculiar. I go up to Queen Arwa’s mosque and am introduced to the imam. Usually non Muslims are not allowed into places of worship, but this man on second thought makes an exception for me that speak Arabic, as if it were a sign of good disposition or a half-conversion.
I go back to Ta’izz on another car, then have to make a long crossing in the outskirts to the Zabid taxi rank. I choose the minibus rather than the taxi and sit in the front. It’s comfortable, but I soon regret my choice thinking of the possibility of an accident. The elderly driver has a trembling arm, poor thing, and for a while I brood over the thought of ending out of the road. But chase the thought, saying that destiny is written.
While I was waiting for departure a young passenger offered me a generous handful of qat. By an odd coincidence I had told myself earlier today I would try chewing it once more to see if my insensitivity to it is real. After some time the driver wanted to supply me with more. I show him my swollen cheek, but no way, he takes a bag out from under his jacket and hands me another handful of leaves – this time not so tender as the first – with a fatherly invitation "Khazzin!".
The road goes down from the mountains and comes to the coastal plain of the Tihama. The air here is awfully heavy with humidity and the temperature has gone up a lot, even if we don't feel the heat yet because of the speed. A long stretch of barren land is covered with tufts of yellowed weeds, then follows a swathe of tilled land.
The driver tells me with a hearty smile we are in Zabid, after nearly three hours on the road, to be added to the 4 I did this morning between Ta'izz and Jibla and vice versa. I reach the hotel by motorbike, and without having a shower I take advantage of the last of daylight to visit the city grilled in the heat and dust.
It looks like a rural village in all respects with odours, animals and streets of fine sand. You wouldn't say it was a capital of science and learning. There are interesting buildings scattered, but the effect is a bit disappointing for the decadence of the place. The children pursue me at every step, but I manage to get over the usual request for a pen or coins with some of them and they accompany me talking for a while.
There is a couple of New Zealanders at the hotel that I meet again at the roadside restaurant. An exaggerated gas flame is used to heat up the food and its roar disturbs the place. You would believe yourself to be in a foundy.
This couple invite me to make the journey in their car tomorrow. Even if I am a bit sorry for not living the day of tomorrow in contact with the reality of the country, toiling up and down public means of transport, as opposed to spending it closed in a private car as an ivory tower, I don't hesitate to accept for my convenience and in order not to disdain their kindness.
Here people often ask me if I am Muslim, in the same matter-of-fact way as one would ask "How are you today?". Then they usually go on to ask if I am trying to approach Islam. Together with my negative, I have always coupled and expression of respect, just as I expect them to respect me, my ideas and beliefs. It may well be words thrown to the wind, but at least I try to convey a message. Well, tonight after dinner I have started an interesting dialogue with a group of boys. I go beyond the casual negative answer when they tell me "Inshallah you'll become Muslim". I tell them I do not wish them to convert to my religion, but want them to be good Muslims. So they should think of Christians, because we are brothers.
A friend of them comes by who has learned the whole Koran by heart. I ask him what method he followed and he explains. He has also read the Gospel according to St. Mark and points out to some discrepancies. I advise him to read Genesis to compare its story of Joseph with the version given by the Koran. We part with reciprocal esteem.
They invite me to a wedding to see the arrival of the bride accompanied by his friends among recitations and fireworks. A brawl breaks out, though, and two groups of young people confront each other with shoves and punches. It's the second one I've seen today!
23 April – I'm writing in the nice room of the mountain guesthouse at Hajara at over 2000 m. The climate is reasonable here, nothing to do with that oven of a place that was Zabid. I enjoyed an afternoon nap, while the sky was clouding over and low dark clouds skirted the mountains to let fall a few spare drops. A different light from the bright sun flooded the scene and this gave a reason more to underline the change from the place I was in this morning.
To follow with order, I left with the New Zealanders and their driver. He must be and Anglican minister and worked in Aden for nearly a year. We stopped at Hudeida fish market to observe the exchanges and the nice species of fish on offer, among which plenty of sharks.
An odd funny long-haired hippy-looking character – he says he's from Kamaran islands – took us around giving excited explanations with a lot of gestures and some words in English. When he realised I speak Arabic he renewed many of the explanations with greater enthusiasm and richness of detail. In Maghraba we had lunch and parted. From there I took a car to Manakha, then walked to Hajara with a stop to chat with a boy who wanted to know things about my country. In the evening I had a hearty meal at candle light because of a power cut, then live lute music and local singing. The dances are accompanied by a peculiar hissing sound of the mouth.