en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 50, Number 5September/October 1999

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Last Place In Yemen

Written by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Photographed by Wolfgang Wranik

For much of the year, mists shroud the peaks of the 1500-meter (4900') Haghier Mountains above Hadibu, the largest settlement on the island of Suqutra. Its 3625 square kilorneters (1400 sq mi) littte explored by scientists, Suqutra has been biologically isolated since Tertiary times, and about a third of its plants and animals occur nowhere else. Such endemic species include, above, from left, the chameleon Chamaeleo monachus, one of 24 endemic reptiles; the Socotra sparrow (Passer Insularis), the most common of the island's six endemic birds; Scolopendra valida, a meat-eating centipede with a painful bite; the damselfly Enallagma granti, the sole endemic of 20 dragonfly species recorded on the island; a male land crab of a nocturnal species not yet found in 1997 at 700 meters' altitude (2300') in the middle of the island; the fruit of the cucumber tree Dendrosicyos socotranus), one of many Suqutran plants that has adapted to seasonal rain and drought by its tissues; Phaulotypus insularis, a bizarrely shaped grasshopper relative that is one of some demic species of jumping insects; and the perennial Babiana socotrana , a member of the iris family.

The origin of the island's name is in itself obscure. Arab writers have glossed it as suq qatr, the Emporium of Resin, but it probably derives from the Sanskrit dvipa sakhadara, the Island of Bliss. This in turn may be a version of Dh Skrd, which appears in South Arabian inscriptions and seems to have given the Greek geographers their home-grown sounding name for the island, Dioskurida. The etymological enigma is compounded by questions about the racial origins of the Suqutris, whose veins are thought to flow with South Arabian, Greek and Indian blood, with perhaps a dash of Portuguese.

Medieval writers did their best to shroud the island in a mist of dubious or downright incredible facts. Ibn al-Mujawir says that for six months of the year the Suqutris were forced to play host to pirates, who seem to have worked en famille: "They are a mean bunch, and their old women are meaner than their men." For defensive reasons, he writes, the islanders took to sorcery, and when the late 12th-century Ayyubids sailed for Suqutra with five warships, the Suqutris magicked their island out of sight. For five days and nights the Ayyubid fleet quartered the seas, but found no trace of it.

Eight centuries on, Suqutra occupies an apparently stable position 12½ degrees north of the Equator. It is home to a breed of dwarf cattle, to wild goats and donkeys, and to civet cats, which lurk in an eccentric arboretum where a third of the flora is unique to the island. The only pictures of Suqutra I had seen were of trees like yuccas and other potted plants but bizarrely mutated and enlarged; a few illustrating a British colonial official's visit to the Sultan in 1961; and Wellsted's drawing, done in the 1830's, of a scene near the capital Hadibu, which owed more to the Picturesque than to observation. As for the written sources, my scant knowledge of the place was founded on rumor and travelers' tales.

Clearly the only way of proving the island actually existed, was not some elaborate fiction, would be to go there. But how?

For half the year, Suqutra is cut off from the rest of the world by violent storms; for the other half, a small plane is supposed to go there twice a week. The islanders number around 40,000, but I had never met a Suqutri and knew no one who had. Yemenis in the capital, San'a, if they had heard of the place, thought of it as the very margin of the world.

And then, unexpectedly, the door to Suqutra opened. I was in a shared taxi when I heard something that made me sit up. It cut through the low hum of talk, audible as a stage-whisper. It was that phonemic phantom of South Arabia, the lateral sibilant which is a sh hissed through the corners of the mouth. I turned to the speakers: "You must be Mahris."

"No, we're from Suqutra—if you've heard of it."

I must have stared at them longer than was polite. They brushed off my apologies and we started chatting. Sa'd and Muhammad had finished secondary school in Aden. They were going home to be teachers. "And you're flying from al-Mukalla?" I asked them.

"We wanted to, but the plane's full and will be for weeks. You see, it's the end of al-kaws, the season of storms, and everyone's going home. We're travelling by sea."

Less than a month after that meeting, I bade an emotional farewell to my San'ani friends. For them, the great and wide sea teems with leviathans and other terrors. "You'll end up," they said, and in all seriousness, "in the belly of a whale." At their insistence I had written my will. With me was Kevin, recently returned from four years in Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown and Chiang Mai. In the Far East he had suffered from breakbone fever and from not being in Yemen.

Three days later we arrived in the small town on the Hadramawt coast which Sa'd and Muhammad had said was the main port for Suqutra. It was late afternoon and the sun slanted, mellifluous, across a broad bay. The only craft were a few hawris, slender, sharp-nosed fishing boats. They hardly moved, so calm was the ocean.

At a tea house that smelt of fish we asked about a boat to Suqutra.

"I'll take you to Salim bin Sayf," said a boy. "I think he's going to Suqutra soon. And he's the best nakhudhah anywhere." Nakhudhah! That was a word with resonances! Persian for a ship's captain and used in Arabic since the time of Sindbad, it recalls the days before the sextant, before even the lodestone.

The boy took us to the far end of the street, past the school and up an alley where we knocked on a plywood door. Salim bin Sayf stuck his head through the door, bushy bearded, rheumy in the eye, the very picture of the best nakhudhah anywhere. He was sailing for Suqutra "on the eve of Wednesday." At first suspicious of why we should want to go by sea, he softened when we explained that as foreigners we'd have to pay for the plane tickets in dollars, which meant they would cost us five times what they cost Yemenis. Anyway, the plane was full.

We asked how much he charged. Salim tugged his beard, the gesture that means "Shame on you!" and named a ridiculously low price.

"And what about food?"

He looked us up and down. "Can you eat what we eat?"

I tugged an imaginary beard. Salim chuckled and we said goodbye until "the eve of Wednesday."

On the appointed Tuesday evening, down on the beach once more, we scanned the water. There was no sign of an oceangoing vessel. A child was standing in the shallows, lazily casting a weighted net into the water. We walked over to him, fearing the worst. "Where's the nakhudhah Salim bin Sayf?" I asked.

"I don't know." He cast the net again. "But that's his sambuk out there." The boy pointed to a boat that seemed little bigger than a hawri. The only difference was that it had a single forward-raking mast. The hull was painted red and yellow.

"That's the one that goes to Suqutra?" The boy nodded.

The seas around Suqutra are notorious for their unpredictable winds and mountainous swell. I remembered reading an old verse, in a book of cautionary tales for sea captains, which spoke of the perils of navigating between the island and Cape Hafun, the tip of the Horn of Africa:

Between Suqutra and Hafun's head,

Pray your course be never set...

Somewhere out in the 420 kilometers (260 mi) of open ocean that separated us from Suqutra, Leviathan was licking his many pairs of lips.

On board the sambuk, which rolled even in this calm sea, a kerosene lamp was lit. A smear of light revealed a deck crowded with boxes, oil drums, ropes, anchors and bodies. There were 15 other passengers, already embarked and asleep. That made 23 of us in an open 10-meter (35') boat, and the voyage would last two nights and a day.

The nakhudhah Salim was last on board. Bare-chested, issuing orders, he had somehow grown bigger and younger. A crewman skipped below deck and cranked the engine to life; Salim produced a compass sitting on a bed of woodshavings in a twine-bound box. He lined the box up with the mast and secured it with a few nails banged into the deck. At one in the morning we weighed anchor and headed, on a course of 110 degrees, for the ocean.

Salim told me about his family. His father and his ancestors had been skippers here for as long as anyone could remember. His mother was a Suqutri from Nujad on the island's south coast. The lamp was turned low. Salim kept his eyes on the stars. A cord, looped round the hewn tiller, tightened and then slackened in his fingers.

"Nujad is where they come down the mountains to pasture the flocks. Lubnan, my father calls it." Lebanon, the land rich in milk. He refolded the tarpaulin he was sitting on and wrapped himself in a large striped blanket. "They make these in Suqutra. You see, everything comes from their flocks—milk, butter, cheese, wool, meat."

"What about fishing?"

"There's some. The real Suqutris are bad sailors. That's why we Hadramis marry Suqutri girls. It puts some salt in their blood."

I looked back to where the town had been, and gone. Beneath me the diesel thumped yet, somehow, did not disturb the calm.

Salim was still at the helm when I awoke. It was as calm as ever. The sea curdled where the prow cut through it, then recon-gealed in the sambuk's wake. An odd flying fish shot out of the water like a spat pip. In such a sea, "without a stir, without a ripple, without a wrinkle—viscous, stagnant, dead," perhaps at this very spot, Conrad's Lord Jim had abandoned the doomed Patna.

Our six-ton sambuk, the Kanafah (no one ever used the name, and even Salim had to think before he remembered it), had been built a few years ago in al-Shihr. Below the waterline the hull was of teak. For the rest a cheaper hardwood, jawi, "Javan," was used, with pine planking for the deck. Powered by a 33-horsepower Japanese engine, she was also lateen-rigged like all Arab craft but her sail would only be used in emergencies. "Diesel engines started coming in the mid-50's," Salim said. "By about 20 years ago they'd taken over completely. If we were under sail it would usually take about five days to reach Suqutra. In weather like this, much longer."

The Suqutri passengers were silent men with wild, auburn-tinted hair, wrapped in huge Kashmir shawls and looking queasy. If they did speak, it was in undertones, all aspirants and sibilants like the soughing of the wind in treetops. It reminded me of Hebridean Gaelic. To a speaker of Arabic, the Suqutri language sounds like a distant and dyslexic cousin. But occasional words are familiar and, in time, I realized that it shares with the Raymi and Yafi'i dialects of Yemeni Arabic the past-tense k -ending, another revenant from the ancient languages.

The second night, Salim was at the helm again and I joined him, curious to learn more about techniques of navigation and whether much knowledge had been passed down from its heyday among the Arabs, the 15th and 16th centuries. During this period, the celebrated pilot Ahmad ibn Majid led the field in a science in which mnemonic verses played the part of charts, and nakhudhahs held international conferences to discuss abstruse points on winds and stars.

"We all know Ibn Majid," Salim explained. "Nakhudhahs consider him their ancestor. But now we rely on the compass. See, we started on a course of 110 degrees. Now it's 135 degrees. By the time we reach Suqutra we'll be following a course of 150 degrees. If we went in a straight line, the current would take us into the ocean."

"And if there were no compass?"

"Ah, every nakhudhah knows the stars. Those two point to Mirbat in Oman; those, to Qishn; then," he went on, running his finger across the sky, "Sayhut; Qusay'ir, al-Shihr, al-Mukalla, Aden, Djibouti, Berbera, Abdulkuri, Qalansiyah, Hadibu. Every three hours you must change to a new pair of stars as the old ones fall away."

I lay back, leaving Salim at the tiller, wrapped in his woolen shamlah. The old familiar constellations above me were rearranging themselves. Where the Plow, Orion and the Little Bear had been, there was now an array of new signs above like the overhead route markings at a highway interchange, but on a cosmic scale.

I was awakened by the dawn call to prayer, which Hadid, one of the crew, chanted before the mast in a thin voice as penetrating as an alarm clock's bleep. A change had come over the sea. The dead, viscous surface was now alive. We were still six or seven hours off Suqutra, but even this far away the invisible island was loosing its aeolian forces on the water. Over breakfast Hadid told us that the sea off Suqutra was always za'lan, angry. "This is nothing. Often the waves come over the deck. I've done this journey many times, and I've usually been soaked from start to finish."

And then it appeared. First just a smudge on the horizon, it resolved into a line of cliffs with a streak of white sand at their base. We headed for a spot where the line dipped. The dip became a broad strath carpeted in seamless green, its sides framing a foreground of palms and the low cuboid houses of Qalansiyah. Hadid hoisted his red-checked headcloth as an ensign and we dropped anchor in water of incredible clarity. A couple of sambuks and a few hawris bobbed around us; shoals of fish darted under the hull. A hawri came and took us to the shore. Sa'd was there too with a notebook to list the incoming goods. Salim, Hadid and the others were greeted with a gracefully choreographed double nose-touch accompanied by little sniffs. Sa'd and I shook hands.

On board, Kevin and I had felt no discomfort from the boat's motion but now, on dry land, we were both hit by the effect of 36 hours on the ocean. My brain seemed to swivel on gimbals inside my skull. One of the passengers, a native of Qalansiyah, took pity on us and invited us home. He led us along narrow alleyways where the ground quivered and the walls throbbed. When we arrived at his house, the only two-story building in the town, he took us to an airy upstairs room with yellow walls and a repeating calligraphic frieze, the Islamic creed, "There is no god but God," stenciled in pink. We were ordered to lie down.

Half an hour later the worst of the delayed motion-sickness had worn off. It was then that I realized something was different: there had been no interrogation. Usually in Yemen a newcomer, and particularly a foreigner who speaks Arabic, is subjected within moments of arrival to intensive questioning on every subject. There is rarely any other motive than a wish to break the ice, and to this end the interrogation is very effective, preferable by far to an embarrassed Anglo-Saxon silence. It is a small price to pay for often bewilderingly generous hospitality. Here, though, no demands had been made on us. Writing of his visit to the island 160 years before, Wellsted said of the Suqutris that "the most distinguishing trait of their character is their hospitality." Nothing has changed.

The only losers in the hospitality stakes are the goats. That evening our host slaughtered one for the Kanafah's crew and the two nasranis. It was a skull-smashing, cartilage-wrenching occasion, a Homeric feast, its victim the first of a hecatomb which was to fall as Kevin and I wandered the island.

Salim said it was time for bed. After all, for the last two nights he had, Odysseus-like, "never closed his eyes in sleep but kept them on the Pleiades." Before turning in he spoke to Kevin and me. "Come with us tomorrow. We're going round the island to Sitayruh, my mother's village in Nujad." We agreed eagerly. "It's a ten-hour journey so we must be up before dawn. Sleep now." We bedded down with the crew in Ali's courtyard.

At 4:30 in the morning the cold was bitter. Our course took us under the lee of the cliffs, disturbing the cormorants that nested in the rock-face. Over to the southwest Salim pointed out two distant islands, the Brothers, rising from the sea like plinths waiting for statues. "That's where I go shark-fishing." At the village of Nayt, a few huts on the beach, we dropped an oil drum of salt into the sea; a boy swam out and pushed it back to the beach. Further on at Hizalah, where half a dozen tiny stone cabins clung like barnacles to a cleft in the rocks, another boy swam out and climbed into the sambuk. He stood on the deck, dripping, like the half-seal, half-man amphibians of Norse legend. After a panted exchange in Suqutri he plunged back into the aquamarine water and fetched a hawri, in which we deposited a spare anchor.

Soon after, the cliffs rose again, 500-meter (1600') walls striated horizontally and falling sheer into the sea. At last, where a tiny settlement called Subraha appeared at the foot of the cliff wall, Salim broke the spell of silence. "This is the start of the Nujad Plain, where people bring their flocks down from the mountains." Kevin pointed out that there didn't seem to be any way down. "Oh, there are paths, not that you'd call them that," Salim said. "The ledges are sometimes only this wide." He showed a span. "In some places they use ropes. And their flocks can be several hundred head."

We arrived at Sitayruh an hour before sundown. The shoreline was busy, a metropolis after so many hours of near-empty coastline. Men staggered under unidentifiable loads, draped across their backs like huge rubbery cloaks, which they tossed into a beached hawri before returning to reload at the little headland that formed the bay's eastern arm. Landing was precarious and we had to jump, between breakers, from the boat which took us ashore.

Kevin went to investigate the loads. They turned out to be sharks, split kipperwise, salted and dried. I found him examining a pile of fins, which they call rish, feathers. Some were enormous and had been cut off the hammerheads and makos whose flesh was stacked nearby. While this is exported to Hadramawt, the Suqutris themselves are said to be fond of the shark's liver, salted and preserved in its stomach. The fins were sold on the mainland for 1200 shilins a kilo, around $30 at the time. "We know they go to the Far East," said a voice from beneath one of the sharks, "but what do they do with them? They must be crazy to pay that much. Praise God!"

Hadid, who, like Salim, also had a wife here, appeared and led us over the dunes to the village. The houses were compounds of single stone rooms, bewigged with palm-frond thatch and surrounded by fences of the same material. We sat in Hadid's yard, eating dates and drinking coffee, until the evening prayer. A bowl of rawbah was passed round. In Yemen, rawbah refers to milk after the fat has been removed to make ghee; it is poured into a goatskin, which is inflated with a lungful of air and sealed, and then left to turn sour. Slightly sparkling, the Suqutris are addicted to it. At first we found it delicious; a fortnight later we were sick of the taste.

Hadid, Kevin and I went that night to Salim's house, where the crew and most of Sitayruh's adult male population sat waiting for more goat. The large compound was mostly in darkness, with a couple of lanterns making feeble pools of light. When the food arrived, we ate in silence while Salim carved bite-sized chunks of meat with which he constantly replenished a pile on top of the huge plate of rawbah-soaked rice. The evening went on. Riddles were told, tongue-twisters recited in Suqutri, English and San'ani Arabic, everyone laughing at my attempts to produce a lateral sibilant. Gradually, conversation changed to Suqutri, then subsided, until you could hear the beating of moths' wings against the lamp-glass.

Kevin edged closer to the bush, camera poised. The snake lay coiled and motionless, its gray and orange stripes camouflaging it against the twig shadows and sand. The lens was inches from it.

"They did say there weren't any poisonous snakes in Suqutra," he whispered, without turning his head. "Didn't they?"

"Yes, but I'm taking no responsibility for..."

The shutter clicked, the snake reared, swayed, then looped off. We found out later that it was a harmless desert boa, probably of the type called Eryx jayakeri.

So this was the Nujad Plain, Salim's land of rich pastures: a dry waste of dunes and low bushes.

We had set off early along the beach, then struck inland for Mahattat Nujad. "It's an hour and a half if you take it easy. And Mahattat Nujad is full of shops. And cars. You'll have no problems getting a ride to Hadibu," Salim told us. Five hot hours later we arrived at Mahattat Nujad. We had lunch in the police station; after the meal, we asked the policemen if there was a car to Hadibu.

"There may be one." The "may" was ominous. "In a couple of days."

The crossing of Suqutra to Hadibu, a direct distance of around 40 kilometers (24 mi), actually took four hours. It could have been quicker, but Ali Shayif, who drove us there in his pick-up, had to stop time and again to unblock his fuel filter or beef up the truck's sagging springs with wooden wedges, banged in with stones.

The next day we crossed the arena of the Hadibu Plain on foot. At the foot of the great shattered grandstand that backed it the going got rougher; the Hajhir peaks, said to be one of the oldest bits of exposed land on Earth, are of granite, but with a limestone topping that has crumbled and fallen like icing from a badly cut wedding cake. Fragments as big as houses, riddled by erosion, were home to shaggy goats which sat eyeing us from their niches like dowagers in opera boxes.

We made for a gap far above. As we climbed, the vegetation grew denser, streams appeared in unexpected clefts, and now and again one of us would exclaim at some new discovery, a spider's web constructed on perfect Euclidean principles or a caterpillar in poster-paint colors. But it was the plants that fascinated us most. Nondescript bushes erupted into bunches of asparagus, trees turned into organ pipes then chimney-sweeps' brooms, begonia-like flowers sprang from pairs of enormous conjoined boxers' ears.

Sap, juice, resin and gum exude from branches and leaves so fleshy they often suggest the animal more than the vegetable. Several species are edible. There are tamarinds, grape-like berries, wild pomegranates and wild oranges. Frankincense and myrrh made Suqutra an important outpost of the thuriferous mainland regions in ancient times, and other plant species produce everything from incense-flavored chewing gum to a kind of birdlime. Medicinal plants abound and the Suqutris use them regularly to treat scorpion stings, rashes and wounds. For over two millennia, one of the island's most famous products was the Suqutri aloe, whose soothing sap gained popularity in seventeenth-century Europe with the rise of the East India trading companies.

Nearer the crest, the vegetation thinned. Limestone gave way to naked granite. Suddenly, above us and sharply outlined against a brilliant sky, there appeared what at first seemed to be a line of giant conical funnels, their narrow ends stuck in the skyline. The upturned cones resolved as we got closer into branches, topped with spiky leaves and bursting out of a central trunk like fan-vaulting in a chapter house. Even after all the other weird flora, the sight was startling: it is with good reason that this, the dragon's blood tree, has become Suqutra's unofficial emblem. Botanically, and by one of those evolutionary quirks that makes the rock hyrax a cousin of the elephant, Dracaena cinnabari is a member of the lily family. The common name, according to Pliny, derives from blood shed during a fight between an elephant and a dragon, from which the trees sprang. Dragon's blood was formerly in great demand as an ingredient of various dyes, including those used in violin varnish and the palates of dentures; medieval European scribes made ink from it, and Chinese cabinet-makers used it in the famous cinnabar lacquer. Now, consumption is almost entirely local—the Suqutris use it to decorate pots and as a remedy for eye and skin diseases.

I climbed one of the larger trees, perhaps six meters (20') tall to the flat bristly top of its canopy. Its smooth bark was marked by scabs where the resin had oozed out and coagulated. In one of the highest branches I found a tiny lump that had been missed by the harvesters. It was globular and brick-red, the outside matte, the inner face glassy where it had been stuck to the tree.

A few miles east of Hadibu, along a shore that crunches with a litter of shells and coral, lies the village of Suq, the island's original commercial center. Proof that it was so in ancient times came from excavations carried out by a Yemeni-Soviet team of archaeologists, who discovered fragments of a Roman amphora and other, possibly Indian, imported wares. Suq was still Suqutra's capital when the Portuguese decided to occupy the island in 1507.

We had come to visit the fort of St. Michael, which the Portuguese captured from a Mahri garrison and rebuilt. It lies on a spur of Jabal Hawari, the eastern limit of Hadibu Bay. Most of the inhabitants of Suq seemed unaware of its existence, but eventually a boy showed us the way. A scramble up a rough track brought us to a flatfish area filled with the remains of a cistern, bastions and walls with rough lime-plaster facing that reminded Kevin of Albuquerque's fort at Malacca. The ruins are unprepossessing but the view over Hadibu Plain is panoramic: below us, palms crowded round a lagoon where a wadi met the sea; eastwards stretched a broad bay backed by dunes, while in the opposite direction were the little gable-ended thatched houses of Suq and, in the distance, the palms and houses of Hadibu; to the south, a thick cloud blanket was pierced by the Hajhir spires; in front of us lay the ocean.

It seemed incredible that this was just one of an immensely long chain of coastal and island forts stretching from Mozambique via Muscat and the Malabar Coast all the way to the East Indies—that, for a few decades, the Indian Ocean had been a Portuguese lake. Yet in the history of empires, this was one of the shortest-lived.

Following that abortive occupation by the Portuguese, Suqutra, on the whole, eluded the imperialist grasp—though never quite as spectacularly as when it vanished out of sight of the Ayyubid fleet. The Portuguese returned on and off but never stayed. The Omanis attacked half-heartedly in 1669, and the British tried it out as a coaling station before deciding on Aden, but their garrison succumbed to fever. The Suqutris of the interior, meanwhile, went on as before, collecting dragon's blood and aloes, and milking their goats. It was as if the Portuguese had been and gone and left nothing. Or had they? There were the legendary blue-eyed people of Shilhal. Or could they be an even older genetic throwback, connected with the claim of Cosmos and later writers that the island had been colonized by Greeks?

We hired another Salim, the owner of a battered green Landcruiser, to take us as far east as possible. We would finish the journey to Shilhal on foot.

There are no gas stations on Suqutra—you just knock on a door and fill a jerry can, if you're lucky. Gas is in short supply because of the difficulty of importing it, and costs up to five times the official rate in San'a; the cost of hiring a car is correspondingly high. After a lengthy tour of downtown Hadibu, we had a full tank.

An hour out of Hadibu, we were up on the high rolling moors, heading east under low cloud. Occasionally the cloud parted to light up a distant peak or hamlet, but at the village of Ifsir the rain set in, thick and wet. Here lived Salim's sister, so there was another caprine slaughter, another massive lunch of meat, rice and rawbah. From Ifsir to Kitab and Aryant the rain fell hard, turning the red road to mud and making the Landcruiser slip on the pass up to the higher plateau. But by the time we reached our destination, the village of Qadaminhuh, the rain had stopped. Kevin and I were dropped at a newly built house and wandered off into the sodden landscape while Salim went to find the owner.

Qadaminhuh is also known as Schools, from the big quadrangle of incongruous barrack-like buildings next to it. Here, a hundred or so weekly boarders live and study, boys from across this eastern region of Mumi. As we walked down the track towards the schools a fitful light broke through the cloud and a rainbow materialized. The place seemed deserted, but then a figure appeared from a doorway and headed towards us. He was dark-skinned and tall, clearly not a Suqutri, and before we could greet him he spread his arms in a wide sweep that took in the plain, the low surrounding hills and the rainbow, and said in rich and unaccented English, "Welcome to our...humble surroundings!"

Muhammad was an Adeni high-school graduate sent to do his obligatory teaching service on Suqutra. At first he had thought of it as a punishment posting. But up here in Mumi, he said, the scenery was so beautiful, the people so kind that you might imagine yourself in England. I agreed that even if the nearest country, in a direct line, was Somalia, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in northern Europe. "But in England you couldn't just turn up on someone's doorstep and stay for the night."

Sa'd, our host, expressed no surprise that two total strangers should be billeted on him. "It's our custom," he said simply. We asked Sa'd about the blue-eyed people of Shilhal; he, too, was skeptical, and spoke of the place—only a few miles away as the vulture flies—as if it might not have existed.

By seven the next morning we were high in the uplands under a lowering sky on the way to Shilhal. The going was hard, over sharp rocks dotted with tiny alpine flowers. Every so often we had to cross low walls of misshapen lichen-covered stones that were clearly very old: some authorities have taken them to be the ancient boundaries of incense plantations, but in fact they marked out claims allotted by the sultan for the harvesting of aloes.

We crossed a little dale, filled with basil and lemon-scented herbs, where we breakfasted on unripe tamarinds. The valley marked the beginning of cattle country, and up on the far top we passed a herd. Like their cousins in al-Mahrah and Dhofar, these were humpless beasts no bigger than a small donkey. Progress was slow, for at each hamlet we passed we were invited in for rawbah, and at lunchtime we joined an apparently never-ending feast in honor of a villager just returned from the Emirates. At the end of the valley the track climbed under a crag with walled caves at its base. Before us, a few houses in a hollow, was the village of the blue-eyes: Shilhal. It looked no different from the other villages of Mumi. It felt like the end of the world.

"A year or two ago," said Thani, in whose guest-house the clan of Shilhal were gathered, "a foreign woman came here. She might have been French, or Russian. I don't know. Anyway, we were sitting round like this, talking about history, and she asked us: 'Do you think your grandfathers were oranges?'"

There were tears of laughter at the memory. Thani got out of a leather pouch what looked like a clay cigar holder, then a fragment of tobacco leaf which he placed for a moment on the lamp before crumbling it and putting it in the holder. When his match refused to light I handed him my disposable lighter; he looked at it with curiosity then, shaking his head, handed it back. A second match worked. He took a single long drag then went on. "Then she said, I mean the people, not the fruit.' You see, 'oranges' and 'Portuguese' sound similar in Arabic."

"So what do you think—have you got any Portuguese blood?" I asked. In build the people of Shilhal looked the same as the other mountain Suqutris we had met; but a few of them did have fairer skin, and there were undeniably striking eyes that ranged between green and light hazel. Striking enough, anyway, for reports of them to circulate and become embroidered.

A man who had so far been silent, a dashing figure, bare-chested with a shawl thrown round his neck; replied. "They say that we, the real Suqutris, have two ancestors. One lived here in Mumi and the other at the western end of the island. In time, people came in from outside and married with their descendants."

I remembered the claim later, when reading an analysis by the Russian scholar Vitaly Naumkin of Suqutri palm-prints and teeth. He was able to come to few firm conclusions about the islanders' origins, other than saying that they are a mixture. However, he goes on, the inhabitants of the western and eastern highlands are both "mutually similar" and markedly different from other groups. Linguistically, he puts forward the hypothesis that Suqutri became isolated from the ancient South Arabian languages at some time between 1000 and 500 BC. This suggests a rough date for the settlement of the island by groups from the mainland.

It is probably true to say, then, that here, in these isolated communities on an isolated chunk of land, are the people whom another scholar called "the last real South Arabians." As for Portuguese forebears—if there ever were any in Shilhal—time has obliterated all memory of them.

Talk was reverting to Suqutri. I was interested to hear some Suqutri poetry and asked the Shilhalis if they knew any. It was the bare-chested man who answered again. "I have a little," he said, and chanted a haiku-length verse. It was received with sighs, then silence. I asked the man what the verse meant. He smiled. "Ah, it's about love. But I only know the words, not the meaning. I'm not a sha'ir, a poet."

Then I remembered the root sense of the word sha'ir: not a reciter of verses or an arranger of words, but one who was endowed with insight, one who perceived. Suqutri poetry is a dense thicket of ellipsis and metaphor. It needed a perceiver to see the way through it.

The next morning was bright and cloudless. We made our way slowly upwards over a cracked limestone pavement. Near the top of the hill, a breeze began to buffet our faces. Then the ground vanished. A 600-meter (2000') cliff fell sheer to white sand, white surf, blue sea where a single speck of black, a hawri, hung in motionless suspense between the elements. To the right was the great dome of al-Jumjumah, the Skull, then the long promontory of Ra's Mumi, a haunt of sirens, a wrecker of ships, a scimitar cutting the ocean. The last place in Yemen.

I remember sitting above the village that afternoon under a westering sun. Light raked across ruddy earth and bald limestone, across the grassy roofs and drystone walls of Shilhal. They were bringing in the goats. Virgil described the scene at Shilhal in the Eclogues:

Ite domum saturae, venit Hesperus, ite capellae.

Go, my full-uddered goats, go home, for the Evening Star is rising.

And, in the Georgics, Suqutra itself appears as the incense land of Panchaea. Virgil inherited the name from the pharaonic Egyptians, whose Pa-anch was a Utopian island ruled by the King of the Incense Land. The myth of the island paradise—from Pa-anc through Odysseus's land of the Phaeacians and Sindbad's fabulous isles, all the way to Bali Hai in South Pacific—is one of the most enduring in the world. Here, perhaps, at the end of Yemen, was its beginning.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith was born in southern England and has lived in Yemen for 17 years. His book Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, published by John Murray, won the Thomas Cook Travel Writing Award in 1998, and will be published in the United States by The Overlook Press (www.overlookpress.com). He is at work on a book about the travels of Von Battuta.

Dr. Wolfgang Wranik is a marine biologist at the University of Rostock, Germany. He has taken part in several scientific expeditions to the island, and is the author of Sokotra: Mensch und Natur (Suqutra: Man and Nature) published in 1999 by Eudwig Reichert Verlag Wiesbaden.

Kevin Rushby taught English in Sudan, Malaysia and Yemen before becoming a full-time author and photographer. His first book, Eating the Flowers of Paradise, was published this year by St. Martin's Press, and he is at work on a book about India. He lives in Yorkshire.

This article appeared on pages 8-21 of the September/October 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1999 images.