Up Wadi Daw’an

Image14 April – Last night again the day came to a close with the qat rite, that Adnan and I chewed until 2 am. Maybe I felt a very slight effect this time because I took longer to fall asleep. But the most conspicuous effect was the rubbing of the harder leaves on my gum that became irritated. When Geraldine saw me with this ball in the mouth, she burst into laughter, while I was moaning with pain.

At 9 Geraldine comes to wake us up and wishes us a good day, but we go on sleeping one hour more. Then we bend to her desire to have breakfast in the palm tree grove with the fruits we bought last night, a sort of picnic. She still has a bee in the bonnet, swimming in the pool, and tells off the hotel owners again for not getting the pool ready yet. She puts it into her head to go to the public swimming-pool, not a very sensible idea given that departure will be by the 1.30 pm bus. However we manage to talk her out of it.

We all get onto the same bus, but they’ll be going back to Sanaa, while I ask to be dropped at Qatn from where I will make my way up to Sif, in the so-called Wadi Daw’an branch of Hadhramawt, well-known for its beauty but difficult to explore for a lack of public transport. Moreover the distance is considerable. In the stretch between Sayun and Qatn, of maybe 40 minutes, I have some of the rice and fish we have bought.

I take leave from my friends and I take a minibus at Qatn that leaves me at a roadblock. Here helpful soldiers take an active role to find me a car up the valley. Some drivers put forward preposterous requests for money, but I know it’s only a matter of patience. In fact after 45 minutes’ waiting, a driver tries to gather passengers to fill his minibus. We negotiate the fare between all, and I fiercely oppose being charged more than the rest. We agree on 350 riyal, that we get down to after some real Geraldine-style bargaining, in a determined but easy-going way and with well-explained arguments.

We drive up the marvellous Wadi Daw’an with enormous rock bulwarks that border it under skies of unique colours. I can see villages, houses and strongholds build of mud bricks in a unique style, some in bad repair, others perfectly kept. We stop at a crossroads; we must wait for another passenger. Some raindrops gradually turn into a shower that wets the road and the fields. I get off the bus and take refuge under a shelter. A boy keeps a beautiful little monkey tied on a chain that was captured in the area. It moves like a human being. The rain becomes tremendous, a blessing from the sky in this arid land and a rare natural event. The shelter is not enough to protect me and I get back to the bus.

When we start again I can see numerous waterfalls of muddy water pouring down the cliffs in a continuous gush that gives birth to streams invading the bridgeless road. We drive along the marvellous village of Hajarayn that I’ll visit tomorrow, and finally we get to Sif.

I feel right inside the adventure now. I’m the only guest at the basic four-room hotel, with mattresses on the floor and splendid carved wood doors. I have dinner at a roadside restaurant whose owner gives me directions to continue my journey tomorrow further up the valley, that he says is even more stunning, rather that head for the coast straight away. At 9 pm the village is dark and I feel they want to close the restaurant. The scattered houses on the mountain side are quiet. A few youngsters in a group are talking in the street under a lamp. The air is delightful, but I haven't got anything to do but retire early and make up for lost sleep to make the most of the day tomorrow.

15 April – At 7 am I was already up and before long I was going out to explore Sif among the children going to school. The girls are already entirely covered in black and plenty even on their head and eyes. They are so tender when from under this atrocious cape you notice the curious and mischievous spontaneity of a child asking you innocently for a pen or enquiring what your name is. They have not been locked for good yet in the prison of their dress and house, a life sentence that is a woman’s destiny from the day she is born. How sad! In fact older girls are never around, never.

ImageUpon completing my walk around Sif the time is 8 o’clock and I take my luggage to hitch-hike to Hajarayn. I have to wait nearly one hour before a car takes me, but I’m driven right down to the path leading up to the wonderful village on the cliffside. This man recommends me not to linger more than two hours because the early afternoon may be rain. At noon I start walking to the hospital, but a boy obligingly takes me there on his motorbike. Here I have to start hitch-hiking again, as there are no buses to Khraiba. I actually don’t know if I’m going to find a hotel at all, because my guidebook doesn’t mention one, contrary to people who assure me to the opposite. I choose to trust the locals. If worst come to the worse I’ll sleep in someone’s house.

Some soldiers who get off a vehicle help me find a car to take me to the crossroads where the Wadi forks into one branch crossed by the road to Mukalla and a second one which ends at Khraiba.

A car eventually leaves me at a place with some no-frills restaurants. It’s 12.30 and I think some food won’t come amiss and will give me some energy to continue this difficult and uncertain day. The chicken with rice is very tasty and I am surrounded by many friendly people that take an interest in me and ask me questions. In particular the bread man whose job it is to flatten the dough like a thin pizza and slap it energically into the vertical cylindrical oven called tannur, at whose centre the heat is burning. He then takes out these discs of excellent scorched bread with a hook and piles then on the side. He's choking in the smoke from the meat grill and I too have to move if I don’t want to get smoked.

After lunch I waste no time. The afternoon is long, but I don't know how it will end. Transportation is a problem in this part of Hadhramawt and I don't see a lot of cars around. They tell me I should wait a bit further away under a scorching sun. I observe that since the morning a light mist is hanging in the air, maybe due to yesterday's rain.

I don't have to wait long, however, maybe 5 minutes, before I see a blue lorry on whose deck school pupils are crammed. I take a step forward without hesitation and ask the driver if he can take me; immediately he invites me to get into the cabin. He doesn't want any money, but he will leave me at a place that lies yet an hour and a half’s walking time away from Khraiba. Along the way we drop the schoolboys at their respective homes and we have to return them their bundles of tied books and note-pads or tea thermos flasks they had taken to school. After leaving the last pupil the driver is so kind as to take me to the next village located past a steep slope. He drops me there and turns about.

I start walking, but a pickup stops by and lets me get on behind, in the open air and with the euphoria aroused in me by the speed and the beauty of the landscape. He takes me forward a bit, then signals he will stop in the palm shade to chew the qat with other people. From the road I can see the wadi edges, here perceptibly narrower, and the fertile bottom occupied by an extremely elegant palm forest. The villages are at the foot of the cliff, all of unheard-of beauty.

Again a boy takes me a bit further on his motorbike. All in all, after all these lifts, I am, according to what people say, at an hour's walk from Khraiba and I set out with pleasure without thinking of waiting for other vehicles. Of course the backpack is heavy on my shoulders, but the landscape compensates for all the trouble. At my walking speed, I can enjoy the series of unbelievable perched villages of warm clay colours, interspersed by occasional plastered or painted houses.

It was precisely this morning when I walked past a small building site. The bricklayers noticed my inquisitive look and invited me to come in. They were working with their hands, daubing layers of mud on which they placed the clay and straw bricks. They told me that the gypsum plaster called nura, is used to protect from the rain. Another interesting news I picked today concerns the sada, the caste Adnan and his Alaidrus family belong to. Well, the people I was talking to had a rather negative opinion of the aristocratic privileges that they claim. There seems to be a link between these people and Sufism in Hadhramawt, considered as not so rigorous a religious practice.

This conversation, that as usual also touched the topic of religion, made me think of the odd clash between a formalistic Muslim religion that imposes rules on every possible aspect of daily life (such as the number of prostrations you make when praying) and the Arabs’ utter lack of rigour, the possibility of stretching the rules, bargaining and getting things you would deem absolutely ruled-out if you reason according to Western mentality where time, a date, a given word carries a precise meaning of commitment.

Still one of those people alleged in attempting a gross biased comparison between Christianity and Islam that we don't like rules. This is probably true to some extent for Western Christendom, because we have elevated religion to such an abstract and intellectual domain that we stopped thinking much of rite and rules and we look down on them as a mere exterior fact, a formality and heritage of the past. Still a rule has a precise meaning, helps us to live, gives a sense to what we do. After all does not man live in a material space, in a finite time and is he not conditioned by material facts? Actually I have revalued rules after getting in touch with Eastern Christendom.

It's nice to contemplate the clay villages that merge into the landscape and make it human because inhabited; the sky is however getting dark, strong gusts of wind are blowing that raise clouds of dust and bring raindrops from far away. I hasten my pace, as I wouldn't like to be trapped in a downpour like yesterday's, but now I can see the village at the end of the stretch. I get to the hotel, where again I am the only guest. It's an old house whose minimality is disarming, with a staircase of high lopsided steps, about 60 cm wide, climbing in short steep flights up the three storeys of the building.

My room has no furniture, only some foam mattresses are dumped against a wall, and its four windows have their shutters closed. I open them at once, observe the village life, then I'm up to the rooftop. The few raindrops can't turn into proper rain, and when they're over completely, I go out for a stroll. People have flocked to the riverbank to watch the stream now swollen with muddy and impetuous waters from distant rains. It must be an unusual happening. The village is very lively, with a lot of stalls, but also a lot of rubbish around, a plague that afflicts Yemen nowadays.

I have some cheese and bread for dinner, because there doesn't appear to be a restaurant, and anyhow I don't want to look for it. I then sit in front of the hotel with a reading book, but I feel I am at the centre of everyone's gazes. A boy approaches and admires my reading a book and my devoting time to an intellectual activity, something the Arabs don't often do – he says. This gives him the cue to talk with disillusion about the present decadence of the Arabs, their absence of abilities, the necessity to import everything and depend on other people's technology. How true this is! But I am sorry to feel him depressed on the state of his nation. I tell him that the hope for the future lies in the young generations like his.

Comes the blind owner, and a few youngsters make fun of him, but I want to set an example so start talking with him on purpuse. He informs me that tourism started in 1991 with Italian groups, the year the two Yemen's were reunifies. Come to think of it, a French group has arrived to the other nicer hotel that has been opened for them.

Someone tells me that the village upstream of Khraiba is the one Bin Laden's family comes from. In fact I have seen this family name written on signs.

A child asks me who I came here with, and when I tell him I came just by myself, he gives out a cry of great astonishment. I realise that it may well have been folly to make me come to this remote land on a completely independent basis. But I'm happy and proud of myself. It's bedtime now: the hotel shutters are closed and I am sent up to my room.