Hadhramaut in Western Eyes [Archives:1998/20/Reportage]

May 18 1998

One evening in October 1996, I found myself wandering in the moonlit streets of Mukallah with a torch in my hand. Trotting behind my Sudanese guide in his imposing white galabiyya and turban, we passed dimly lit houses, venturing into ever smaller alleys, before we finally reached a wooden door. My guide knocked, and we climbed up to the reception room on the first floor.
We entered a high room with a wooden ceiling and a carpeted floor, with cushions along the walls and bookshelves in the upper reaches. It was lit by a carbide lamp. A number of middle-aged men, clad in sarongs and kufiyya (white skullcap), gathered around an old man in his eighties, listening eagerly to his every word. As we entered, they turned and looked somewhat puzzled at the foreign woman who had entered their circle. My guide introduced me to Sheikh Abdullah Al-Haddad, Mufti of Mukallah, who died later on in 1997.
That evening, I got a feeling of how the European travelers in the 1930s, Freya Stark, Van der Meulen, Van Wissman, and Harold and Doreen Ingrams might have experienced Hadhramaut. The Mufti had been a student at that time in Tarim and later had become a prominent member of the judiciary, while my Sudanese guide was the son of the first Qu’ayti Minister of Education and later Prime Minister, Sheikh Al-Qaddal. The sense of history increased as Sheikh Al-Haddad kindly showed me old laws and told me the history of his life.
However, about one hour later electricity returned to the cheers of the youth in the street and the time warp came to an abrupt end. Mukallah, although suffering from a temporary crisis in electricity supply, had changed greatly since the days when those early travelers moved from their vessels ashore in small boats.
I had arrived a few days earlier after a nine-hour journey by car from Aden, and would continue by car inland, reaching Seiyun within 6-7 hours – a far shot from the earlier days when the journey from the coast to the inland required an arduous twelve days on foot, donkey or camel.
Although the pace of change is most striking in the booming city of Mukallah with its new university, hospitals, fish factories and new buildings springing up all the way to the airport at Al-Rayan, it is also visible in Wadi Hadhramaut proper. While the traveler on land can still marvel at the unspoiled image of Shibam, the Arabian New York, as it is often called for its mud-brick skyscrapers, cities like Seiyun and even Tarim nowadays feature concrete buildings, electricity, piped water supply to most houses, etc. Satellite dishes have reached most villages all the way to Qabr Houd.
The recently revived ziyara to this most famous of Hadhrami shrines has been revolutionized, as many visitors nowadays prefer cars and trucks to the traditional pilgrimage by foot and camel. Because the local telephone system is still somewhat behind modern standards, it is more likely these days to find the tribesmen carrying cellular phones than guns, although the latter have experienced a renaissance after tribalism has officially been restored after many years. Also, many children want to practice their English, learned in the now widespread government schools, on the foreigner, crowding around with “Hello Mister, where are you going?” whenever one leaves the trodden paths of the tourists.
The latter have arrived in large numbers, usually on package tours from Europe. For them, Hadhramaut is, at best, a three-day stopover on the ‘adventure trip’ around Yemen. During the tourist season, one can see small convoys of usually three to five jeeps speeding into the town centers, behind them large clouds of dust.
In front of the major tourist attractions, like the old sultan’s palace in Seiyun or the old, now crumbling merchant places in Tarim, the jeeps spit out their usually only scarcely clad occupants to the obvious joy of young local men who tend to see local women – other than relatives – only in black baltos with covered faces. After a quick browse through the attractions and a quick stroll through the souk, the spook in usually over in 30-60 minutes, leaving behind them a somewhat one-sided picture of Europeans – as well as a booming hotel industry.
By contrast, Western visitors, and particularly women who travel on their own, are still a rarity. As a researcher who spoke the language and dressed rather conservatively, I caused a great deal of confusion. While some of the suspicions of foreigners described by earlier travelers still linger, particularly in the religious center of Tarim, I was greeted by many friendly, curious and helpful faces. Women would wave at me from the windows, inquiring whether I was some strange Arab (or Muslim) woman, perhaps coming from another country and not having understood the proper code of dress, or people would question me in the streets about my doings.
In the old Mukallah library, housed in a large dark room at the back of the Omar Mosque, I was examined critically by the young men who mostly use the library for their studies or for reading the latest Arabic magazines. As only very few adventurous local women use the library, and then only to borrow books and disappear immediately, they were not used to the regular presence of a woman in their midst day after day. After some days of inspection and hushed discussion, the most courageous one approached me to find out about this stranger. Once he realized that I was not an obscure eccentric who only stared at Arabic books for obscure reasons, but actually spoke and read the language, we had a lengthy discussion which was joined by everyone present. After that, I was greeted friendlily upon every visit, and on a number of occasions received help from these young men.
Several times I was invited into houses, usually by people I had met through my work in the libraries and archives. Thus, I got a chance to witness the famous tea ceremony in Seiyun, where strong tea is laboriously prepared on a little coal burner before the beverage is served in intricate little glasses placed on silver plates, an event more impressive as it took place in one of those marvelous old houses with high ceilings and lavish decorations with carpets and cushions. I was also lucky to taste the Indonesian rijstaffel so often described for the 1930s, the ingredients of which came from a small specialized shop in Tarim.
While the relations with the Southeast Asian mahjar have been transformed thoroughly by political events since the Second World War, both the ribats of Al-Sihr and Tarim have once more a thriving population of some two hundred Indonesian, Singapore and Malaysian students, many of whom are sons of peranakan Arabs who see studies in Hadhramaut still as a good basis for a future career in Islamic teaching and daawah.
There is no denying that it was often exhausting to be an exotic stranger behaving at odds with the established norms of society, a woman with uncovered face walking about the towns or traveling unaccompanied by public transport. At the same time, this enabled me to meet many, often by chance – such as the youth gathering at my hotel to meet an Adenese lawyer who later provided me with a copy of an old journal, or the veiled girl who took my hand and wanted to introduce me to her family. Thinking back about my visits from a hotel room in Surabaya – where, incidentally, the lively quarter around Sunan Ampel reminds me in many respects of the Mukallah souk – I realize just how much I have grown to like this unique region of Yemen and its hospitable people.
By Dr. Ulrike Freitag, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.