Treks for the Sophisticated Traveler: True Adventure: A Sojourner in North Yemen
by Annie Dillard; Author of “Teaching a Stone to Talk”
published: March 16, 1986 for NYTimes
Seven travelers’ tales from all corners of the globe. Adventure is where you find it — or sometimes where it finds you. With the exception of a few adventurous French people, no one visits Yemen – North Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula – yet it is the most interesting place I’ve found on earth. (North Yemen, here called Yemen, is agreeable to American travelers; it is South Yemen where one Marxist faction recently ousted another.) I nearly perished of boredom in Rome, solely because I’d so recently seen Yemen, where the people were so civilized and the cities so beautiful. This conviction arose while I was in Yemen, although fat-tailed sheep walked in the village streets, and the buildings were partly mud, and the women wore black veils, and the men wore big, curved knives. The main fact of Yemen is its steep, high mountains -not ridges but peaks, pinnacle after pinnacle rising from thin, shadowed valleys thousands of feet below. The mountains are 5,000 to 12,000 feet high, pale sandstone, almost bare of vegetation at their tops. Incredibly, it is on the very pointed summits of these impossible mountains that the Yemenis built their towns. Until recently, they could scarcely travel from town to town: to deliver messages, they yodeled. You often can’t tell where the mountains end and the towns begin. Looking out from a mountaintop onto a maze of dry pinnacles and precipitous valleys, you see no sign of culture at all, until your eyes become accustomed to the immense monochrome scale. Then you can make out tiny, carved villages on almost every peak, their ancient walls rising right out of the summit rocks. Oddly, these tiptop tribal villages are agricultural. They are mostly self-sufficient, growing barley, sorghum and wheat and grazing sheep and goats. (Villagers who live near roads crush the grain heads by driving Toyota trucks full of laughing children over the floors of the granaries.) To grow so much as a blade of grass, the mountain villages have to irrigate. And where does the water come from? The women get it, running a few thousand feet down and up again with jugs on their heads. Yemeni women wear a traditional costume, with legs and head covered. (I adopted this garb as a mark of respect for my host country and because it was comfortable, appropriate to the climate.) As farmers, the Yemenis had to cooperate to irrigate, terrace and trade. They grew kindly. Other Arabs were herdsmen who had to compete for scarce water and grazing land. They grew fierce. I was in Yemen after an earthquake. Everyone who had a car routinely ransacked his own house for a share of his precious few household goods in order to drive all day over the mountain roads and give it to the earthquake victims. Also as a matter of routine, gas station owners opened their tanks, so that gas would be free, and all the salaried workers pitched in one month’s wages. Arab hospitality to stran-gers is famous: women gathering hillside herbs asked me to their houses for tea; men at bazaar stalls beckoned us to join them for lunch. Just as startling was the benign patience with which a young Yemeni spelled out to me some of his human responsibilities: ”If someone is sick, or old, or poor, well, we give our food; we get that person clothes; we build for a widow a new house if the old one is falling down.” Yemen’s capital, Sana, which dates from pre-Islamic times, was cited in an appeal by Unesco in 1984 as a city that should receive funds in order to finance the renovation and preservation of its ancient beauty. Its thick-walled townhouses and mosques elaborated with fretwork and arched filigreed windows look like castles in a daydream. You can travel from Sana to the Empty Quarter, the center of the Arabian Peninsula, where some tribal patriarchs live in black tents and camel transport is still the mode. Or you can drive down a famously beautiful mountain road to the Red Sea beaches, where fishermen throw round nets to catch perch.