Barat – A Yemeni Region Where Mountains Walk [Archives:2001/02/Culture]

January 8 2001

Irena Knehtl
Traveling across earth
wadies and deserts,
here I am
dusty, unkempt
(from Lyrics from Arabia)
I have been visiting the Barat region at the outskirts of Al-Rub Al-Khali (Empty Quarter) for a span of five years. This is not such a long time when one thinks in terms of relationships to places and people. But we seem to get along. In the past Barat used to be the brown and dusty, Barat without rain. But last time after substantial rains, it glared in the sun and looked happy
That day when we were travelling on the road to Barat, the wind carried around Sanaa the fresh scent of Apricots. As we advanced even the stars were without their usual whisper, and familiarity
Geography is often destiny. Southern Arabia with its volcanic mountains seems fortified from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. The north eastern region from Sanaa is half desert, covered with low bushes, and barren mountains. Farming is possible only in narrow valleys. On the way, larger markets and graveyards are protected by mud walls. Zebur is the name of the building style all along the eastern region. Jawf virtually surrounds mans most unfriendly desert, the Rub Al-Khali.
On the way, pieces of pottery and the remains of a forgotten city lies forever buried in the sand. What happened in between? A long sleep, an endless eastern pause. One does not talk of humans, they are here the most inconsequential beings. Even time here has two faces, the length in the rhythm of the sun, and the depth in the rhythm of passion.
Perhaps, I can explain how one gets there. First drive to the town of Houth in the north, and then straight east across the fertile Wadi Soufian. One first reaches Marashi then moves up to the mountains of Barat. Somewhere along the way everything changes, vegetation, houses, faces of people. It takes a good 10 hours drive to Barat. This then is the place of mans unavoidable meetings with destiny of nature: houses, mosques, towers, simply grow off the ground. Thus its inhabitants have created one of the most unusual cultures on the Arab Peninsula.
Houses are the most striking features of this region. They are in all shapes, and colors: square, round, towers: four to six stories high skyscrapers. Colors are the most decorative device: red or blue, with accompanying white straps surround windows, and doors. Houses are decorated also from inside, steps, and rooms. Flat roofs decorate gray and white triangular motives. Most houses have small vegetable gardens. The building of houses in Barat is an art. They are exist in anyones childhood dream. However, Barati dreams still sleep under the same roof: how to keep their future in their own hands. Markets in Suq al-Enan and Rajuza offer wheat and barely, dry fruits, animal fat, sweet dates, grapes, raisins, almonds, tea with the taste of mint, sugar, coffee, fresh vegetables, etc.. Here flavors are too strong, they smell to intense, and the contrasts are much too extreme.
Barat is home to the two oldest Arab tribes: Dhu Mohammed and Dhu Hussein. From these mountains came soldiers who during the founding of the Islamic State conquered vast territories for Islam and settled in such far away places as Syria, Morocco, Andalusia, and Malta. They also played an important role during the events of the Yemeni 26th September revolution. In the modern Republic of Yemen they are an important source of armed strength.
The tribesman of Dhu Mohammed are farmers who rely on rainfall for their cultivation of wheat and vegetables. When rains became scarce they migrate to the Southern, greener places such as Ibb. Migration is inevitable. Some Baratis, though have established themselves as successful merchants in the Emirates, Qatar,and in Saudi Arabia where they are valued for their capabilities. Barat is above all an old place where people have settled for a long time. They live here because this is the land of their forefathers and their fathers before them.
Modern times are different. The building of essential infrastructure and provision of services, how to play a role and contribute to local, national and in turn to regional economy are now issues of vital importance. The challenge here is to make modern times an instrument of opportunity and inclusion, not fear and insecurity. Rural areas such as Barat need first to think about quality and quantity of food supply, roads for commerce, clothes to wear, power to light their houses,and the irrigation of their lands in order to make life more comfortable. They will need capital for factories to produces soaps, and yarn, and packaging plants for their dates. Pride after all comes from living work.
Witnessing the awakening of the east is an intensive moment of excitement, enthusiasm and doubt. Here are unfinished revolutions, dreams, hopes, disappointments, loves, sorrows, sadness and so many things one would want to have different.
Unusual glamorous sunsets turning over to the darkness interwoven with light, golden, brown sun lines on their skies send, Baratis after saying their evening prayers, into the night dreaming. Curious children and blue mountains mirror from behind. I viewed it from a place where the wind carried small rare white blossoms. As in a dream everything used to be simple and clear. We breath their air, their scent, their strength. It was a rare moment, and I did not want to interrupt it as long as it was untouched in order to receive it untouched back once again.
Farewell they said.
Farewell we whispered.