Years ago, we visited an ancient, silent walled city but I cannot now find it on any map. Or is it simply that I have forgotten its name. It was in Yemen. Was it all a dream?
North from Sana’a
On that day, D and I and a friend working in Sana’a drove out of the city. Those were the years when it was still possible to roam freely in that part of the world. As we climbed up the winding road northwards in the cold sunlight, we passed field after field of qat, the narcotic herb favoured on both sides of the Red Sea for its feelgood effects. I remember hearing that every afternoon a plane filled with freshly harvested qat flies from Sana’a to Djibouti, for onward distribution in Ethiopia. I don’t know if that’s still true. But I do know that every field of qat is taking up land where food crops could be grown instead.
Above the fields and scraggy orchards, perched on rocky outcrops or mesas, loomed Yemen’s mud palaces, tall ochre-coloured constructions looking strangely like tall enigmatic sculptures in painted adobe, pierced by many small windows.
When we reached the highlands, the sun went in and the terrain began to change to something like desolate moorland: flat, dour; nothing to see along the road for hours except something like heather stretching away into the distance. No traffic that I remember, few roadsigns. A sense of wandering into a desolate, forsaken region which had to be crossed if we were to achieve our journey’s end and, for much of the time, in silence. The views on either side, though empty of people or anything else, were oppressive.
At length we came to what seemed at first to be an ancient ruined citadel. In a sense it was: a fortified but still living city, an urban artefact built mainly to protect… whom? From whom?
We parked just outside its mud walls and walked up through a narrow but massive gate; it could have been in Mycenae. In an instant we found ourselves in a townscape centuries old: narrow empty lanes; withdrawn, secretive and private spaces, barred to us, dwellings hidden away, all dark and profoundly silent. The great shuttered adobe tenements and palaces reared above us into the grey sky. We could have been in a mad version of Basilicata. I suppose now that it was merely depopulated, like the deserted villages we have seen in later years in Muscat. That is not what it felt like at the time.
Wanting to see the inhabitants – some signs of life, a market perhaps – we were to be disappointed. Apart from a few shadowy figures – women in burkhas in the Yemeni style, so secretive that there is netting covering the eye-slit, and one or two older turbaned men weaing their ancestral decorated daggers in silver sheaths at their waist – the only people we saw were children. They ran down the empty alleyways to laugh and stare at us, and then suddenly became shy and began to edge away, then run.
One of them, a girl, paused to give us one last look. She must have been seven or eight, dressed in a black robe with an embroidered cap or bonnet to conceal her hair. As she stared at us and we at her, we saw that the bonnet’s embroidery was gold filigree, patterned elaborately. It glinted in that pale afternoon: an extraordinary sight which we would have liked to have looked at more closely. But then she too turned away and ran afer the others. The alley’s silence returned to cloak us.
There was no point in lingering there. Slowly we walked down to the great gate and back into the dull afternoon, and left. Thus we returned to Sana’a and its honking evening traffic and international airport and hotel bars filled with Gulf Arabs drinking scotch. Above everything, the Call to Prayer from the thousand-year old mosque in the old centre, once heard and never forgotten. We came back to the world where we witnessed, with shame, the old men from the emptying villages come down to the tourist market to sell their daggers: “the world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.” And then we flew away.
But I can’t help thinking of another story, which I heard when I was a student. It said that in the 1940s or 1950s, Saudia authorities discovered a community in the far south which had been isolated and self-sufficicnt for so long that it was pre-Islamic and knew nothing of the Prophet (PBUH) or of Muslim practices. Swift action was taken. The community was stormed and its members instantly dispersed, the inhabitants ‘moved somewhere’ and the village obliterated in conditions of the greatest secrecy. I don’t know if there is any truth in that story, either, but it’s intriguing.