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Volume 32, Number 3May/June 1981

In This Issue

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Impressions from a writer's notebook

At Work in Yemen

Written by Jon Mandaville
Photographed by Norman MacDonald

Once a year the monsoons blow on the southern highlands of Yemen. July through September, for three long months, great thunderheads billow up every afternoon from the coast through the high passes, hurling a barrage of lightning and rumbling thunder over Mount Sabur and Ta'akar, enshrouding the 3,660-meter giant of the Peninsula, Jabal al-Nabi Shu'aib, (12,000 feet) with roiling darkness. Sheets of rain whipped by gusts of wind pour down on the uplands. Runoff from the bare rock of the crests quickly builds to a torrent, falling precipitously down near-vertical gullies, tearing out boulders and bushes, carrying off patches of dirt, sand and pebbles to deposit it finally, thousands of feet below where the valley widens and the gradient eases.

Out on Sumara Pass an extra road gang huddles beside a parked yellow dump truck and back-hoe, ready to clear the coming slide of rocks across the highway. Over the road and down three meters (10 feet), a drenched farmer works frantically in a terrace field curving 12 meters (40 feet) wide along the slope, plugging rocks in a gap on the edge gushing with water from the flooded field. Beyond and below him far off to the west, the upper reaches of Wadi Zabid shine like a silver ribbon under the gray skies, running off to meet the new diversion dams down on the coast.

The elemental force of the monsoon floods is God's gift to Yemen, pouring water along the seven great wadi systems of the coast, falling on mountain fields, running off to the east in canyons or bursting up in artesian wells. It has made Yemen green, a nation above all of farmers.

But it is a gift for good or ill. It can destroy, denuding the hills of soil and life, sweeping whole fields and farm houses away. Or it can be tamed and managed.

The story of its taming is the dominant theme of Yemeni history. The Great Dam at Marib (See Aramco World, March-April 1978) testifies to the earliest determination and abilities of the Yemenis to manage the runoff. Another dozen diversion structures north, clear to Taif, prove that this is no localized accident.

In the mountains themselves, from north to south, nearly every outcrop is cut back level after level from bottom to top with terrace steps behind stone walls, a monumental feat of labor by a million and more farming families for more than 100 generations. These terraces hold back water for slow-ripening crops. They also create fields where none were before; each year the edge is built up still more to hold back the soil washing down from above. Deep in the valleys around Zafar, the Himyari capital of Roman times, the remains of their terraces are still found, with valley-wide walls to hold back the silt.

On the Tihama, the 48-kilometer-wide coastal strip (30 miles) running the length of Yemen, farming is done almost entirely on the beds of the largest wadis dropping westward from the mountains. As these valleys emerge onto the flat plain, their streams drop beneath the surface - except at the time of the monsoon floods. Then, the on-rushing waters widen out their beds, carrying their enormous load of silt — and any nearby fields - still further out onto the plain. In historic times this has happened but rarely, thanks to the early construction of a complex network of earthen and fired-brick dikes, weirs and canals which water yet wider stretches of the plain. Some of the best known medieval Islamic documents on agriculture and water rights were written by scholars of Zabid, the town from which Wadi Zabid takes its name. The first modern concrete dam in Wadi Zabid, finished in 1978 by an American construction firm after months of painstaking engineering surveys, was built right where the previous medieval brick dam stood.

What does the Yemeni farmer grow? More than you might think, it depends on the region. A small country, Yemen still has an enormous variety of climate zones within her boundaries, some of them in unexpected places. Down at sea level on the coast along the toe of the foothills, it's Southern California; bananas, papayas, oranges, and dates grow well there. But they're also grown - though not in profusion- in Wadi Ahjar, a tidy little crescent-shaped valley with plenty of spring water and southern exposure 65 kilometers northeast of Sanaa (40 miles) - at an elevation of about 2,400 meters (8,000 feet), with light frost in winter.

Depending on the location, mountain farms will grow grain on their terraces: sorghum, barley, wheat or millet. Some grow coffee as a cash crop, though it is seldom exported from Mocha these days. There have always been a number of fruit and nut orchardists in the mountain valleys: apricots, peaches, almonds, and walnuts. Increasingly, potatoes, tomatoes onions, eggplant and okra are planted for cash as commercialization takes hold.

A little east of the mountains, out towards the desert, lies vineyard country, which produces at least 21 native varieties of table and raisin grapes, everything from early small white seedless to late giant tokay and black. You'll find their Himyari ancestors immortalized in alabaster in the Sanaa and Zafar Museums.

The Tihama means melons, none of them small; it means cotton and tobacco, long staple and short leaf, sesame for oil, and dates. Tihama farmland is river bottom silt mixed with sand, which will grow anything if there's enough water - and if your crops can take 110 degree summer weather dropping to 85 degrees in the winter.

Because of these differences in temperature and elevation, light, soil, and water, it's difficult to find a common denominator in Yemen's crops. There is one, however, which rises above all of these variations, and is found everywhere there as well. Let Strabo identify it - Strabo, the friend of Commander Aelius Gallus, who led the ill-fated Roman expedition to Yemen in 25 B.C.

"Arabia Felix," says Strabo in his Geography, "is in general fertile and in particular abounds with places for making honey"

He is seconded by Pliny the Elder, that grand Roman magistrate and man of letters from northern Italy, who drives the point home a generation later in his Natural History: "The Sabaei are among the most wealthy of people," he declares, and lists among the most important sources of their wealth their production of honey and beeswax.

Honey? Beeswax? As a main source of wealth for the Queen of Sheba? Thanks to recent studies by the Yemeni historian Dr. Muhammad Bafaqih, we know now that this is certainly possible, not simply Roman gossip.

'The real challenge of ancient historiography is to test the truth of the classical texts with excavated artifacts, the things themselves. What Bafaqih has done is to show that rock paintings labeled with Himyari inscriptions found 138 kilometers east of Marib (90 miles) are not the crude sketches of forts or maps to water suggested by earlier archeologists; they are, in fact, accurate drawings - accurate even as to color - of clay beehives, still to be found, age-encrusted and deserted, in high cliff caves nearby.

So we have the hives. We also know some of the uses of the wax. The museum at Sanaa is filled with bronze dedication plaques, some six feet long, and small bronze statuary, cast by the "lost wax" method. By this method the image is carved first in wax, then the wax encased in clay; the clay is fired, the wax melts out, and the fired clay mold is ready to receive the molten bronze.

Erasable writing slates were made of beeswax also, in Babylon; they haven't been found yet in Yemen, but they will be, as archeological digging begins in earnest. It may be difficult to find physical evidence for the Himyari use of the honey, although laboratory analysis of broken pots might tell us much. A taste of honey was surely as sweet then as now; why else the frequent references to "honeyed lips" in the romantic poetry of early Arabia?

Every Middle Eastern geographer from the beginning of Islam to the present has commented on the abundance of beehives in Yemen. It has been a constant in Yemeni agricultural life. It still is today.

In the southern mountains near Ta'izz you may find 140 stacks of flattened-oval hollewed-log hives in a single group near the mountain acacia forests, nine hives to a stack. Up in the central mountain villages, the hives are rectangular, stand singly - usually on rooftops - and are fashioned of clay. Here the bees work the planted fields, the wild mints and cactus-like euphorbia. Down on the coast you've returned to logs. These are left rounded and stacked in great mounds of perhaps 50 hives each in the wadi beds, where the coastal acacia blooms yellow in the spring and early summer.

There's scarcely a farm village in the breadth of Yemen without its beehives of one shape or another. The uses of the product have changed some; there's a different mold, after all, for plastic plaques. Stores now stock paper notebooks for the schoolchildren. But a teaspoon of honey is still standard fare for women in childbirth. A sore throat calls for a special kind of honey; any kind will do, they say, to fight kidney disease.

But the best is for last. You won't really appreciate the honey of Yemen until you have tasted a favorite dessert, a simple but splendid plate of home-baked, flat, sorghum bread layered with smoky home-made ghee and the dark and pungent honey of the acacia bloom. it's reason enough.

We saw the beginnings of a pile of log hives down on a deserted stretch of coastline one summer. We were slogging through mudflats at low water to examine the new growth of a mangrove swamp, soaked equally with Red Sea brine and perspiration, gingerly detouring around the vague shape of rays, lurching over coral lumps and urchins, spooking up a flamingo flock, a spoonbill and heron, when a call of greeting reached us from the shore. Out of the thicket of dum palms growing along the water walked the lean, spare figure of a man. All bone and gnarled sinew, he gleamed like wet mangrove roots brown in the sun.

"The peace of God be with you!" he shouted as we turned and made our way over to him. "What would you be doing here? Where do you hail from? Are you staying long? Join me a while."

We followed him up into a small, shaded clearing, as glad as he for a break from the sun. Around one tree trunk he had arranged his sparse belongings. Among them was a plain glass liter bottle. This he lifted out, after settling us where what little breeze there was blew through. Opening the bottle, he carefully poured for each of us in turn a lidful of the thick, dark amber within; he had, he said apologetically, no cups. It was honey, the best he could offer his guests. He was a beekeeper.

He was also a lonely man. Three months earlier he had left his wife and four children back at al-Munira, 32 kilometers (20 miles) around the bay and inland. He was born in that place, farmed near it all his life, then last year lost his land. He didn't say why. "My family depends on me," he said. "Farming is all I can do. This honey will perhaps bring me enough to buy more land."

It could; a five liter can of dark Yemeni honey will bring $200 to $300 up north in Jiddah, and only a little less in Sanaa. He showed us his hives, only five or six trunks, piled over with brush for shade. "The bees", he said, "eat from the dum and 'council' trees" - the latter an apt Arabic name for the wide-spreading mangrove. It was near noon; in the heat of the day, the bees were made angry by any disturbance. The sullen whine raised a pitch. We didn't linger.

Back in the clearing, we talked a while before leaving, of farming and bees, of the weather, of God. Al-Munira has long been known in Tihama history as a place of learning, of pious men and honest judges. A man from al-Munira, he poured forth verse after verse of classical poetry, each line opening with the phrase, "God's blessing upon..." leaning forward eagerly and intensely to make certain that I understood. We spoke together like seminary students on the meaning of the chapter in the Koran called The Bees. "Your Lord inspired the bees, saying: Build your homes in the mountains, in the frees, and in the hives which man shall make for you." He knew the whole of it by heart.

Knowledge is found, like Yemeni honey, in the most unlikely of places.

The people of Yemen also farm the sea. Traditionally, not in very great numbers; yesterday's iceless coastal markets offered little demand in the 100 degree heat for day-old fish. Until the 1930's and 1940's, the Red Sea pearling industry employed thousands of sailors and divers; like the pearling industry of the Gulf, however, it slowly collapsed under the relentless flood of new Japanese cultured pearls.

The market for fish is steadily expanding these days, as electricity and refrigeration spread over the countryside. Daily runs of refrigerated trucks haul tuna, mackerel, red snapper and prawns along with other frozen goods up into Sanaa, Ta'izz, and beyond. But if s still a high-risk, high-capital venture. As `Umar al-Jabbani says, "There's never a rich day on the sea."

I met `Umar, a 22-year-old fishing captain from a small coastal village south of Hodeida, on the beach near al-Salif. He had bought himself a boat a year ago, saved and "borrowed a little from the family" to do it. It was new, built in Hodeida, an open boat with the graceful sweeping lines of a classic sambuk, 5.4 meters long with a 1.6-meter beam (18 feet by five and a half), a flat transom with an outboard mount. It cost him in Yemeni Riyals the equivalent of $2,250. The 15-horsepower outboard, purchased two months ago, cost another $1,200; then, there was another $1,000 for fishing gear - nets, lines, and the like. "Do I plan on eventually buying a larger boat?" he laughed. "Listen, I've got to pay off this one first!"

He had three young men with him for crew, from the same village. "We're all of us Zaraniq," he said, with obvious pride. "You know the Zaraniq?" It would be difficult not to know them; every chronicler of Yemen over the past 500 years has documented their fight against subjection by any outside power.

"With the four of us, that means," he explained, "that there are five shares in the profit—God willing - of this trip. One to each of us, and one to the boat." It seemed a reasonable arrangement.

With the growing market for fish, the government has been attempting to organize the fishermen of Hodeida into a cooperative, encouraging them to share their profits in return for a more secure pricing system, a jointly owned ice plant, and eventually, a marketing network of their own. It hasn't had much luck. Few are willing to risk their lives and capital on the hazards of the sea. Those that do are a special breed - gamblers, independent-minded, not your normal union type. "I could never work in Hodeida, in a shop or on the docks," said 'Umar flatly. "I fried it. Out on the sea, the air is fresh; I'm free to do as I like."

I've seen the old fishermen on the coast at Hodeida mending nets, sitting on rickety boats beached like themselves by age. I wished him well.

Along with the fishing, short and medium range shipping around the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea is brisk as well, and - there are busy boat yards. Yemen's tradition of the sea is built on the trade of the Indian Ocean more than it is on fishing. In the days of Roman Emperor Augustus and before, dhows like these were piloted skilfully down the steady winds of the monsoon seasons to India and back.

Today, in nearly every coastal town of Yemen, men are making boats and selling them. Some of these are small fishing boats like 'Umar's; nearly as many are 15 to 24 meters (50 to 80 feet) long, true freighting dhows, built on the same lines as in Saladin's day, and frequently with the same tools. The ribs are still fashioned from heavy branches grown twisted to the right angle, judiciously fit to place with adze and wedges. Within, each piece seems awkward and, in a tidy way, misshapen. Yet without, the breath-catching curve of deck from stern to bow holds the eye oblivious to the smaller irregularities. "

Shipwrights are notoriously traditional. Those of Yemen are no different in some respects. They stick doggedly to the same tested lines and keel. In rigging, the lateen has never given way to the Bermuda, despite the latter's obvious advantage in closing to the wind. They would not consider changing the shape of the sail; but they have been willing to drop the sail altogether. The dhows built today in Yemen are designed for diesel, like the fishing boats for outboards. The shipwrights in that respect at least have been a flexible lot, and it has meant the salvation of the industry.

So the people of Yemen are farmers and sailors. But they are also industrial workers and businessmen. Once again, just as with farming and sailing, they are working at old jobs but with new tools.

The resulting increase in productivity can affect even America. Take, for example, salt.

The rock salt you scattered on your driveway this winter might have been mined in Yemen. A Spanish firm purchased 28,000 tons of salt from Yemen one and a half years ago with the intention of marketing it for the roads of North America. They were working on another 100,000-ton order in 1980.

Salt mining is nothing new to Yemen. Several salt domes lift through the surface there, along the coast and east of the mountains. Medieval geographers speak of mining them for local and export markets, and they all are worked to some degree today. One in particular, however, that of al-Salif, has been singled out for development over the last 100 years.

Salif Dome rises beside a good deepwater inlet; it's a perfect location for export. In the late 19th century, the Turkish government built up a stone quay there, cut a road in to the central pit and set up a state-owned salt mining and export operation under its Public Debts Administration. By 1900, annual salt exports to India were proving impressively profitable. But soon after, English subsidized salt pans south in Aden undercut this trade. The town was left nearly deserted by the political events of World War I, and remained so many years thereafter while the new Royalist government established its footing.

There was a moment of excitement in al-Salif during the 1930's when an itinerant Italian engineer persuaded the Imam that this salt dome, like many others around the world, had oil under it. After a year of drilling and no sign of oil, the engineer and his crew disappeared into the sunset with the funds, leaving the rig silent at the top of the dome.

It still stands there today, looking out over renewed activities in the pit. Three years ago, Yominco, the present state-owned company in charge of the development and marketing of the mineral resources of Yemen, began signing contracts on the international market and now runs night and day shifts to fill the waiting ships. Contracts are lined up with companies from Japan, Kuwait, North Korea and Taiwan, and others are under negotiation.

Al-Salif is an open pit operation. In the intense heat of the Tihama, the pit becomes an oven by mid-morning. The surrounding 60-meter white crystalline walls (200 feet) focus the rays like a parabolic mirror on the central floor. Yominco has mechanized its loading operations here, so that the blasting and breaking crews work at night whenever contract deadlines allow. These crews take the slabs cracked off from the cliffs with dynamite and reduce them with compressor-driven jackhammers to chair-size boulders. The boulders then are moved by front-loader and truck to the first rough-crusher at the center of the pit floor, whence the salt moves on heavy belts up out of the pit and on to finer crushing plants and cleaning, out to the docks and into the holds of the ships.

At present, salt is Yemen's primary mineral export, but Yominco is cautiously optimistic about the possibility of developing iron and copper deposits, the full extent of which has still to be surveyed. The citadel at Sa'da sits on a small hill of slag left from ancient and medieval iron works which took advantage of nearby ore deposits. As with salt, there's more than enough historical precedent for extraction. But it will be a while before heavy industry employs many workers. Still, there is industry in Yemen: steel barrel plants, plastic buckets and tumbler factories, aluminum window frame assembly lines, not to mention several dairy products firms turning out quality pasteurized ice cream, yoghurt and milk.

Some of these industries answer new demands on the market; many others, old demands in new garb. Whichever it is, nearly all of them are family operations. One example might be Hail Saeed, the Candy and Cookies Man; he certainly started one - he and his brothers and their sons - and their sons.

The main industrial complex of the Saeed family lies just northeast of Ta'izz on the Sanaa highway. If the wind is right, you notice the sweet vanilla smell a mile before you see the buildings, which are partially hidden back away from the road by tall plantings of eucalyptus.

South of the road is the new plastics division; north, the cookies and candy buildings. I turned north, visions of Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory dancing in my head.

Derham Abduh Saeed is deputy general manager of this division, the officer most closely involved in the daily operations of the plant. At 29, he is an alumnus of Oklahoma City University's MBA program.

"I started as assistant general manager three years ago, and I think I've finally got the hang of it now," he said as he ushered me into his office. His casual rattling off of labor and production figures seemed to bear this out.

There are about 1,000 workers in the division, he said, working on a two-or-three-shift pattern, eight hours to a shift. Half of those on the cookie lines and a third on the candy lines are women. Their wages include home to factory and return bus service and day-care facilities at the plant. No women work on the night shift; it's for clean-up, machinery maintenance, and set up for the next day's run. Questions?

I had a few, but I was obliged to wait. A company lawyer came bustling in for a brief consultation before leaving for Sanaa to check up on new labor laws. When he left, I asked my main question: how did all of this start?

"Oh, it was the usual thing," he answered.

Derham's grandfather and great uncles were from a small farming village called al-'Uruq up in the mountains about halfway between Ta'izz and Aden. Like thousands of other men in the surrounding area, they worked down on the docks of Aden, saving what they could of their wages to send home for the family.

By 1940, the Saeed family had saved enough to set up the grandfather in a shop in Aden, where he sold sugar, flour, and other basic commodities wholesale. Concentrating on this line, he and the family prospered. By the mid 1960's, the family had given much thought to expansion into other businesses related to the commodities they knew. By 1966, however, it was clear that Aden was not likely to remain a safe location from which to run the expansion. The British were pulling out, and no one could be sure of the economic policies of the new government.

So, after a year of negotiation and maneuver, the business moved to Ta'izz, where it began shortly afterwards the construction of its cookie, then candy, factory. It was the first modern factory of its kind in Yemen, tooled up with the latest German equipment. Scarcely was it producing when ground was broken for the industrial - plastics - division.

Today, that second division dominates the Yemeni PVC pipe market, the pipe which is used almost exclusively for main water distribution and drainage systems. It also makes the large black polyethylene trash bags you see hanging on the shop doors of Sanaa and Ta'izz; no single product has had so strong an influence on the cleanliness of the cities of Yemen.

There are offices now in Sanaa and Hodeida, as well as in Ta'izz; every division of the company is steadily expanding. In 1978, three more lines of cookies were installed and last year production passed 50 tons, and this year it will be considerably more.

"There's room enough in Yemen itself for our increased production," says Saeed, "but we're always keeping other market options open. Last year 10 percent of our cookie production went south to Aden, and we're hoping to ship up to Saudi Arabia soon."

Did he plan on staying with the division to see it through this latest expansion?

"I'm involved with it now," answered Saeed thoughtfully, "and I suppose I'll be here for at least another year or two. But probably, I'll be moving around the other divisions over the next five or 10 years. You know, to learn about the overall picture of company operations. It depends on how well I do. It also depends on the family"

A family common-fund began it; now, more complex by far, a family council still runs it. As Derham said, "it's the usual thing." Usual, that is, in the freewheeling world of opportunity in Yemen.

And there is opportunity, in light industry, as the Saeed experience shows, but also in business, particularly the small, one-to-two-man businesses that you find everywhere in the Arab East.

Down at Hodeida on the docks, for example, I struck up a conversation with a pushcart water boy selling Vimto and orange squash to the longshoremen. He was 16 years old, he said, from Wasab Al Ali, a district town in the southern coastal range. Down there on the docks he was easy-going, confident, clearly in charge of the group of boys around him, not a hint of teenage cockiness to him. There's not much room for "teenage behavior" in the world of growing up in Yemen. As we talked, he carried on a running stream of joking banter with the longshoremen as they stopped for a drink,

His name was Mahfuz. Four years earlier he had come down to the port with his older brother, who had a job as guard there. When his brother left two years later to work in Saudi Arabia, he inherited his post, picking up what odd jobs he could find on the side as well.

"I got to know the other guards and some of the longshoremen, and they all thought that this would be a good idea."

What about the three-wheel bike cart he used? Where did it come from?

"Well, I had some money saved from guard duty. And the family back in Wasab put up the rest. It cost around 3,000 riyals ($666). But I'm making between 200 and 300 riyals a day ($55) after taking out the cost of syrup, ice, and about 20 a day for Muhammad here."

Muhammad was his 13-year-old helper from 'Udain, the next town south.

"No, I'll keep on with this," he continued, pouring out a glass of orange for a sweating driver. "Why go to high school? I'm making a lot of money. I send quite a bit of it back to my father, but that still leaves a lot. I want to get married in two or three years, and that's going to cost maybe 20,000 riyals. Marriage costs are pretty much up to us. The family helps on business matters, but marriage is different. I'd rather have it that way. Anyway, I have 10 brothers, so the family could only help each of us a little."

"What I might do..." his eyes narrowed in concentration; "I've been thinking of buying another one or two of these carts..."

Mahfuz is a good example of the small Yemeni businessman, but there are other small entrepreneurs about too. Like Ahmad 'Ali, the stone mason I talked to in Zafar.

We were sitting together, Ahmad and I, on a rock bench beside a pasture bordering the edge of Zafar. We looked out over a steep drop of some 150 meters (500 feet) to the green valley below. Zafar is an eagle's nest of a village sitting high on a hilltop beside and among great mounds of shaped stone, blocks and boulders, the remains of the fortified capital of the Himyari state which ran most of Yemen, north and south, from approximately 100 B.C. up to the first Islamic government there. Zafar's a little different from most of the farming villages dotting the hillsides around it. Built into the wall of nearly every house somewhere you'll find a block of fine alabaster or limestone, sculptured on it in bas-relief the figure of a bull or perhaps twining grapevines. Countless generations of Zafari families have been rescuing decorative pieces from the Himyari rubble. "We're Himyari up here," said Ahmad 'Ali only half jokingly, himself a stonemason and proud of his ancestors' work.

I had met him six weeks earlier on a visit to the new four-room regional museum at Zafar, recently opened by al-Qadi Ismail al-Akwa, Director of the Commission on Antiquities. Then, Ahmad had just returned from two months' work in Sanaa, dressed in a white shirt, pressed dark trousers and jacket, city shoes, and an ironed tan mashadda (the Yemeni turban) wrapped around his head. Now, I scarcely recognized him; he had on standard farming work clothes: futa (the Yemeni sarong), khaki shirt, sandals, and a headcloth. Then, he had been polite but not talkative. Now, glad for a break that late afternoon, he was willing to take the time, and like Mahfuz, made it clear that there were other things in life than money.

"I don't like working in cities, you know," he said, "but the pay's good; 20 riyals ($4.50) a standard squared and faced stone this big." He gestured with his hands a block half a meter square. "I can turn out three stones an hour like that."

That figures to about $500 a week. Not bad, if you're working every week of the month, most months of the year. The hammer weighs about one and a half pounds, and by noon it's heavy. But it wasn't the heavy work that brought Ahmad 'Ali back to Zafar.

"Sanaa... well, a small room there - if you can find it - runs 1,000 riyals ($225) a month. You don't bring the family. What you do is sleep in a workingman's hostel, maybe five to a room. You're trying to save money. And it's only for a short time. I did save money... Leave that one for me!" he interrupted, shouting across the field to the young man who was working with him on the house. After watching critically for a moment, he turned back to me.

"No, I don't like working in cities. I can find work out in the countryside. You make, maybe, only 10 riyals a stone, but the farmer or shopkeeper who hires you usually feeds you too. And the air's clean." In response to a question, he observed, "Yes, you can work in Saudi Arabia. I did, for three and a half years. I was in Tabuk, Riyadh and al-Hasa. Most of us here in the village have, at one time or another. Right now, there are maybe 80 men here in Zafar, and about 20 of them are up north. But... I don't like leaving the family/'

We sat for a moment in silence, looking down the valley. The sun was dropping low and the air was getting chilly; Zafar is about 2,430 meters above sea level (8,100 feet), and it cools off fast. The lengthening mountain shadows slid out over the fields, driving the farmers ahead of them with their ox teams.

Ahmad stirred. "I farm some; the family has pieces of land scattered around down there. We grow mostly wheat and sorghum. I'm trying to buy another piece. But you don't make enough farming to keep up with inflation. I guess I'll stay with stone work for a while. But I like it here. Not enough water, maybe, but I like it."

There's more than enough work for stonemasons in highland Yemen today, whether country or city, whether the construction is for big businesses, shops, or houses. The cities that they built 500 years and more ago are still alive and growing. Only, before, they grew upwards; now, they grow out as well. Ibb is a fair example of this.

Ibb is the provincial capital of one of the richest farming regions in Yemen. it's a mountain fortress town, a jumbled pile of gray and tan rock buildings three and four stories high, squeezed together and stacked over the top and around the sides of a hill in the middle of a mountain valley. Scattered over it are high splashes of trailing green touched with red - eucalyptus trees 24 meters (80 feet) high.

Seen up close, the city's a complex pattern of angles, arches, and steps, the patterned textures of rough-faced stone layered variously by each generation of stonemasons with a different style, different taste for color and grain in stone. The upper stories have rectangular windows with an arch of stained glass above; below, irregular ovals of thinly sliced alabaster, framed in plaster, let in the light - a trick of fenestration lost to this generation.

The hill of the town reaches out from a steep mountain on the east; up that hill are hundreds of years of twisting paths and cobblestone tracks to Ibb. The straight line of a stone aqueduct slashes down a ravine behind the town from the mountain crest above, a flume of white water created 400 years ago. Now it runs to a huge concrete holding tank with gray PVC pipe take-offs for the expanding city. And it's not enough. Most town water comes from wells drilled in the last 10 years out on the plain before the city.

These days Ibb is spreading east up the mountain, stepping over and through the old walls with scattered high, square, hillside villas. But most people can't afford the price of a view from the top. Wherever there's space in Ibb itself, more buildings are shoe-horned in; wherever an older building can carry another story, it's added on.

Stacking on stories is more than a problem of engineering, of stress and thrust, though the master stonemasons can do marvels with experience and plumb line. Islamic law always has been sensitive to human needs in the city, even as far back as the eighth century when the new city of Baghdad was designed and built. Is that addition going to block out your neighbor's sunlight? Will it look out over his courtyard, destroying his family's privacy? Will it cut off the prevailing winds which cool his house in the summer? There's a court challenge in any one of these issues.

And there's more to air rights than the cooling breezes. An old, four-story family house may have four different owners, each inheritor of a floor. If the building is torn down to make way for a new one, or collapses from neglect, the would-be builder must buy out the rights of each and every owner. In Ibb last year construction was held up for months while the builder negotiated with a top story owner for an unseen ghostly flat, five rooms hanging three stories up in the air. The advice of the best stonemason in the land is of no use here.

Add to these problems the widespread feeling that modern plumbing and electrical wiring are necessary, toss in the difficulties of adding these to an older house, and you understand why Ibb is rapidly sliding sideways to the west, away from the mountain and old town across the highway and onto flat farm land, whole new neighborhoods of square one-story houses and accompanying shop blocks.

Suburban sprawl; it's just beginning. It can only go so far in the closed mountain valley of Ibb; but up at Sanaa the long, flat plain running north and south from the city is an irresistible temptation to builders, private and public alike. There on the outskirts of the capital all day long the chink-chink-chink of the stonemason's hammer beats an accompaniment to the construction of houses and shops, mosques, schools, government buildings and business headquarters. One day trucks dump great piles of light green, white, and brown stone blocks on a lot. A day later stonemasons arrive and spend the morning turning over the stone, looking at the grain, the shades of color, select out pieces, then begin. Months later the jumbled mountain of stone is gone; in its place stands a square, finished building surrounded by stone chip and discards.

The powder of rock dust hangs over the city, mingling with the fine loess dust blowing off the vineyard lands of the tribes of Hushaish and Arhab northeast. On days when the winds swirl out of the high desert country of Mihm, the dust and smoke of the gypsum crushers and kilns, the plaster makers, add their flavor.

After the stonemasons, the next important group of construction men are the plasterers. Stone is rough and cold on the interior; it needs to be plaster-smoothed, eased into round. Board shelves and ledges attached to the walls are buried under rounded plaster layers and whitewashed clean.

Sharp angles and edges are avoided in Yemen - too impersonal, perhaps, uncomfortably precise, machine-like. Windows show the same search for the curved line. Though the lower clear-glass panes are framed square, these lines are broken without fail by that half-circle arch of stained glass design set in above, the design itself curvilinear arabesque, tear drops and crescents. Blocking in an arch is child's play for the stonemason.

This distaste for angular precision, this determined pursuit of the curved lines of God-created land and living things, joins in decoration with the local rock and clay foundation structure to blend the building into the land.

One final element remains to be added — is always added - to set it to life from distant view: a line of clay pots along the roof, planted with aloe, sweet basil and thyme, a roof-top kitchen which announces to the neighbors, "This family is cared for, cooked for, and well." Cooked for, one might add, with carved stone pots, a specialty of certain villages in the northern mountains.

Stonemasons are busy in Yemen today. But so are the cinder block yards and the new cement factories - and the building materials they turn out are cheaper than stone. And they're used; the market forces are at work.

But they're used primarily for international chain hotels and factories, warehouses, gas stations. Stone built houses are the hands-down choice for builders and buyers. Ahmad'AH, my stonemason friend from Zafar, shrugged when I asked why.

"They like them."

Maybe it has something to do with the feeling that holding onto one's roots, a sense of belonging, is more important than efficiency and cost accounting. Maybe it has something to do with pride in the fact that Yemen has been known for 1,000 years and more for its highrise stone and clay built towns and cities, knowing that every new coffee table picture book of Yemen features this traditional style as its main piece.

Four years ago the corporate headquarters at Yemenia, Yemen's national airways, built itself an oblong, hanging-glass-walled and brushed-aluminum skyscraper, indistinguishable from hundreds of others like it in Europe and America. It's still the only building of its kind in the country and not for lack of money.

No doubt its style is fine for jet set executives. But last year a law was passed requiring design review on all new construction, intended specifically to ensure conformity to Yemeni style. Out at Sanaa Airport, which receives thousands of Yemenis returning from work abroad each month, the new airport buildings were recently completed. And they're built of carefully patterned stone, right up to the top of the control tower.

At work, then, Yemen farms its terraced green mountainsides, coaxes honey from its historic hives, fishes the coastal seas, builds boats, mines salt and, here and there, founds an industry. But isn't there something else? Yes indeed. There's transport. In Yemen there has always been transport.

Yemen, in fact, has been on the way to somewhere for 4,000 years. Back in the days of Queen of Sheba, and before, it was crisscrossed with several main trails from Dhofar on the coastline of the Arabian Sea where frankincense trees grew and the sap was collected, north to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, where the resin was sold. Wherever these simple highways crossed a local path, towns grew up.

Later, as sailors learned the monsoon trade winds, ocean highways from India developed. At ports of call along the Yemeni coast close to water and the markets of the interior, land roads grew out to meet these highways. A different sort of crossroads town emerged. Every major city in Yemen today, on the coast, the desert, in the mountains, began as a crossroads, a place to trans-ship, change loads, to renew, repair and refuel.

Late one evening sitting with a dozen others in the mafraj (reception room) of 'Ali Abu Rijaal, the Governor of Hodeida Province, I asked him, "What do you think is the most important characteristic of Hodeida Province? What sets it apart from all of the others?"

Ali Abu Rijaal has a high reputation in Yemen as a scholar. He talks enthusiastically - and knowledgeably - with scholars about manuscripts and historical documents of the Tihama, and has done more than any governor before him to expand the educational system there. I expected him to mention its schools, its centers of learning. That wasn't what came out, at all.

'Transportation," he said, looking faintly surprised that the question was raised. "Hodeida is the gateway to Yemen."

Eighty percent of Yemen's imports arrive by sea through Hodeida and her sister ports. Off-loaded in truck-sized containers, crates, and bags, the goods are then taken by truck in a steady 24-hour stream on roads which fan north, east and south up into the mountains. Just as before, new towns are growing where these roads cross; the Yemeni crossroads town today is a truck stop.

On the Hodeida-Sanaa run, the first main crossroads town that truckers hit is Bajil.

Dinner at a truck stop is the same, whether you're at Billings, Montana, or Bajil: double-sized platters on the tables, home-made quality with farm-style quantity, not much more expensive, but served out fast. Truckers don't wait when they're most of them independents.

A large piece of Bajil lives by these truckers and has done since Hodeida was made the chief port of Yemen by the Turks back in the 1870's. Only, then the truckers drove strings of camels. They stopped in Bajil for the same reason stops are made there now: the first cool dry air of the foothills, a place to take a break before beginning the long climb up the mountains.

There were thousands of Turkish troops moving into the highlands of Yemen in those days, so they put in a fort and barracks and a large depot for army supplies. By the 1890's, Bajil had become a district center complete with courthouse, tax office and elementary school. The weekly Wednesday market rapidly became the largest in the area.

'Ali Senni, a Turkish freelance writer-photographer looking for a story, found that out the hard way when he arrived in Bajil about six one morning in 1913 from Sanaa. Dead tired but anxious to start out that evening for Hodeida, he persuaded the district officer to put him up for a nap in the government offices, which were next to the courthouse and main square.

"We had miscalculated," he later wrote in his book On The Road To Yemen, "and arrived on market day. No sooner had I settled on the couch than a great number of villagers, masters of disputation, gathered before the court offices. Their outcries, their shouts, their conversations rising and falling... in short, their boundless uproar... My God! if I didn't get sleep now, how would I make it through the night sleepless on the road?"

Bajil still is noisy, and it's going to become noisier. It's becoming a major crossroads town at the junction of the new highway funded by Saudi Arabia and running down the coast from the Saudi border. The present container-carrying semis and oil trucks from Hodeida and al-Salif will be joined there by dual rigs driving down from Jordan or even Europe. If you're running a truck stop in Bajil these days, you can't miss. Like Ahmad 'Ali, my stonemason, and Mahfuz, with his orange squash, its another way to earn a living in Yemen.

We pulled in about six, melted a little from the late afternoon sun. The cafes by the side of the road were deserted, the waiters wandering aimlessly among the plank benches under the awnings, swiping half-heartedly with towels at the tables.

"Where are all the trucks?" I asked one of them as we settled onto one of the benches and ordered tea. He glanced at me curiously and, walking back towards the kitchen, tossed over his shoulder, "They'll be here in a half hour or so."

They were. Sensibly, they were waiting in Hodeida for the worst of the heat to pass. As the sun went down the trucks came in, first in twos and threes and then in a steady line. Fluorescent lights came flickering on over the service stations, cafes, and shops, not just business-like whites but all the colors of the spectrum. Trucks filled up every possible space, and spilled out into the highway. The tables were filled, the waiters transformed into harried relay runners, shouting orders back to the kitchen as they ran stacks of dirty dishes over to the sinks to make room for newcomers.

All of the shops along the road were open now and doing good business; groceries and dry goods, fruit stands and spare parts stores. Televisions and radios shouted music and the news. The caravan had arrived from across the desert, but instead of the din of 100 bellowing camels folding themselves to the ground, it was the oscillating roar of gears shifting down, the staccato of local motorcycles, and ticking rumble of idling diesels.

Bustling Bajil, with its traffic jams and regional farmers' market, is the typical crossroads truck stop town of Yemen today. There are a dozen like her elsewhere in the country, and there will be a dozen or two more before the new asphalted roads are completed.

But this kind of town depends on the truck, and the truck, in turn, depends on the road. And there are still a few places -maybe there will always be a few places - where even a bulldozer can't make a road, where even four-wheel-drive vehicles can't go. Not even camels can make the trip; the gradients too steep, the path too narrow, the ground too rocky for their pads. That leaves the donkeys. It also leaves a different sort of crossroads town.

South of Bajil at the foot of Jabal Raima mountain sits the little town of Aluja. The feeder road from the coastal highway stops there on the western side; so do all the wheeled vehicles. Out the eastern end runs a narrow, well-defined path up the gorge. Before three miles have passed that path will have climbed 1,980 meters (6,600 feet), at one point skipping up more than 2,000 shallow steps thoughtfully built against the side of the mountain by some unknown dignitary in the past.

On the rolling 2,400-meter-high table top and upper flanks of Raima (8,000-f eet) is some of the most productive farmland of the entire coastal range. Early mornings, a steady stream of people and packed donkeys move up and down the path. Bajil services trucks, buses, and cars; Aluja services donkeys and walkers. It's a pack town.

On my way north to Hodeida from Mocha one day, I dropped off a friend at Aluja; he was going up to Raima for several weeks' stay with a couple of suitcases, assorted cardboard boxes and a large guitar case. It was eight in the evening by the time we reached the town, the mountainside twinkling with lights from 100 farms, each with its own portable generator. Aluja on its western side was ablaze with light. The several new restaurants there were filled with men; a couple of pickups and the last taxis of the day from Bait al-Faqih were parked haphazardly in the small, open space out front. As we entered the restaurant and sat down, not a head turned; most had finished eating and were watching the television which hung on a high shelf in the back of the room. Local news was on, reviewing new techniques in sorghum cropping recently introduced in Wadi Zabid, 80 kilometers south (50 miles). The owner, a roly-poly man in a flowered futa, white T-shirt and white skull cap, bustled over, drying his hands on a towel.

"What would you like?" he asked.

"Stew and bread and tea would be fine. And, could you give us the name of someone with donkeys who could take a load up to Raima tonight?"

"Simple," he said, and, raising his voice, called to a lean, wiry man leaning against the far wall. Glancing over at us, then back at the television set, then back at us, he reluctantly shoved himself away from the wall, gathered his cigarettes and matches off the table, and came over.

"'Abd al-Rahman, these people need some donkeys for Raima," explained the owner.

The man wasted no time on niceties.

"Fine. Where's your stuff?"

"Out in the car."

"Lets see what you've got." He headed out of the restaurant, waving at another, even leaner, wirier man to follow.

Beside the car by the light of a Coleman lantern, each suitcase and box was hefted and scrutinized in silence by Abd al-Rahman, while Ali (his foreman, as it turned out) concentrated on packing his left cheek with chewing tobacco. The large suitcase weighed about 90 pounds; it was filled with books. The two men took turns heaving it up and discussing with each other various packing possibilities. The guitar case presented another challenge; though light, it was a large and awkward shape.

Finally, they were done. Abd al-Rahman turned to me and announced in terms of finality, "The donkeys can't take the large suitcase."

"But surely" I said, "you can balance it with boxes on the other side!"

A question on his face, he turned to his foreman. We waited. Ali shifted his tobacco, carefully shot tobacco juice downwind, and finally said matter-of-factly "Not balance. Weight." Ninety pounds on one side and 90 on the other is 180 on the donkey. Even donkeys have limits on that grade.

We turned away, defeated. We would have to buy some boxes and repack lighter. And I would be late in Hodeida.

"Wait a minute! Where are you going?" said the boss.

We stopped and turned. "You said you couldn't take it," I explained.

"I said the donkeys couldn't take it. But Ali..." he gestured to the foreman, "can, or one of the men."

It wasn't the first time a city boy's overloaded pack was shouldered by a trailhand.

Crossroads towns and transportation; they all depend on roads. The kind of path twisting up from Aluja to Raima is an endangered species; there aren't many towns left in Yemen that lack access by car. There are, right now, some 1,150 kilometers of asphalt linking the main cities of Yemen (720 miles), with another 865 under construction (540 miles), paid for primarily by Saudi Arabia and the World Bank. But hooked into this system is a network of graded dirt roads you don't see on the standard map. And it's paid for by locally collected and locally spent income taxes- a tithe on annual income. Traditionally, this tax was paid to the central government; the central government these days turns back an average 65 percent of the receipts to the locally elected Cooperative Councils. They in turn meet to decide how the money is to be spent - on roads, for example, or schools, or utility systems.

The Cooperative Councils system effectively began on a country-wide basis in 1974; in the seven years of its existence, it has been a spectacular success. The village and town road network is its best testimonial. It takes the harvest out and the finished goods in and people both ways.

Moving people is as important a service of the new highways and secondary roads as moving goods. A mobile work force is important to Yemen's growing industrial sector. Its not enough for an unemployed construction worker in the northern mountains to hear about jobs for the asking in Ta'izz or Hodeida; he has to be able to get there. Nowadays, thanks to the new roads, he can - and fast, by a great variety of wheeled transport.

You can take a shared taxi, most likely a Peugeot station wagon with extra seats in the back and luggage rack up top. The driver's an artist at squeezing in extra riders.

Crowded in close, reserve breaks down; there's no better way to see Yemen. They're all there; the farmer, the merchant, the soldier, the student. Over the hours on the road, the world is covered: prices and taxes, farming weather, local gossip, war and peace. On long hauls, there's always a break for lunch or dinner. Each driver has his favorite restaurant, but the towns are generally the same for all: on the Sanaa -Ta'izz run, it’s Ibb; the Sanaa - Sa'da run, Huth; and on the Sanaa - Hodeida run, it’s Manakhaor...Bajil.

Bitting in the dusk at Bajil waiting for the taxi to reload you might see a large bus roar through. It left Sanaa two hours earlier than you, but you passed it in the mountains. Now it's caught up and moving towards Hodeida on schedule.

The Big Bus, Greyhound-style on a Mercedes chassis, came to Yemen two years ago to ply the asphalt highways. It makes three runs a day between the major cities, and it's steadily increasing its service. Clean, comfortable, and roomy - no more than one to a seat and clear aisles. it's also cheaper than a shared taxi. it's popular. Therein lies the difficulty; seats go on a frrst-come-frrst-served basis, without reservations. More often than not the bus is filled - and gone - an hour before the scheduled departure. You get up very early to catch the six o'clock bus these days.

There are still cheaper ways to go. In the city it's the motorcycle taxi, festooned with flags, four mirrors to the rear, four lights to the front, neon pink and green dyed feather dusters wired up right to the handlebars. Favored by students, labeled downright dangerous by their thoughtful elders (and the traffic police), it is still handy when nothing else is in sight. And there's hitchhiking.

Maybe it was once this way in America; maybe, sometimes, it still is. Out beyond the growing anonymity of the city and its extension along the main highways, the automatic offer of hospitality to the stranger applies to the road as well. If it's a long road and his bundle is heavy, the homeward hiker will accept the offer -yet never without some effort to pay something towards his share of the trip in cash or kind, however little he might have. He has taken the ride in the car as a temporary measure; he'll do such things only until he's able to buy a car of his own.

As things are going, that may not be long. Wages are up and labor is at a premium. The private automobile population is mushrooming. Many of these are in the form of pickups for the farming towns and villages. Agricultural Yemen, with its new roads, is balancing its marketing distribution system.

Other vehicles are country people transport, a broad spectrum of different sized, enclosed 4 x 4's: the Suzuki, the Daihatsu and the Toyota.

Recently, a few American Blazers have appeared, the largest yet on the market for size, power, comfort - and cost.

As the automobiles multiply, so do the gasoline stations, garages, and agencies to service them. And everyone, it seems, is his own mechanic. He can be; without emission control laws and similar regulations, the engines are built to the bare essentials, problems reduced to the obvious.

If you can't fix it, someone is sure to be around who can. One evening we drove in to al-Khawba, a small fishing village on the mud flat coast line south of al-Luhayya. I was afraid to go further; the transmission ground around like a turbine-powered cement mixer, the gear shift handle was too hot to touch. It looked like an overnight in al-Khawba, but the general store owner directed me to "the mechanic, AHmad"

Ahmad, working out of a makeshift lean-to on the village outskirts, spent the next hour and a half dismantling the drive shaft and putting it back together again. Finished, he came up to me, wiping his hands on a rag and said, "The problem was your handbrake drum. You must have driven on it while it was set. I haven't got the parts here, so I've taken out the drum. That’ll get you back to Hodeida. You can buy the parts there."

Just like that Ahmad was from south of Ta'izz, a long way from home.

"I heard that traffic was picking up on the coast road," he said, "and al-Khawba didn't have a good mechanic, so I decided to try it. Business hasn't been bad.

Of course, I work on outboards too."

So Yemen follows the opportunities, wherever they might be, helped along by the new ways to travel and new roads to travel on. Thaf s not new to Yemen either, though the speed might be. In the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, when the Kingdom of Himyar and Dhu Raidan was unchallenged, Zafar flourished as a trade and support center. Today it's a heap of stone rubble. Mocha, the booming coffee export market of the 17th century, and al-Luhayya, 19th century trade town are today half-buried under sand.

All countries have their ghost towns, and Yemen has its share; towns that stayed while the trade that built them went away. But Yemen survived and flourished.

There has always been more, much more, to the livelihoods of the people of Yemen than frankincense, myrrh and coffee. Unleashed now by the new transport network, the enduring economic strength of the country - the farmers and traders, shopkeepers and businessmen - is coming into its own.

This article appeared on pages 10-19 of the May/June 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: YEMEN

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1981 images.