The perfumed gardens [Archives:2005/807/Culture]

January 13 2005
A view of Old Sanaa the Arab culture capital 2004
A view of Old Sanaa the Arab culture capital 2004
Irena Knehtl
[email protected]
For The Yemen Times

There was and there was There was basil and there were lilies which grew everywhere. You who tend the lilies, do you know how many leaves does it hold? You who studied the book of God, tell me how many stars are in the sky!

How many fish in the water. And dots in the Quran.?

Place of scent

The Arabian Peninsula is an area with strong flavors, and smells too intense, and contrasts much too extreme, stretching from the desert lowlands, mountain tops wrapped in thick clouds, wilderness, to the cities and villages of Yemen, and the shores of the Red and Arab seas, turning over to the Indian Ocean. With secrets in it, and the sky beyond. It is here that the scent is the strongest. Scent, so it is being said, also clears the darkness of vision.

This is also an area with rich commercial and cultural links. It was them who have illuminated this earth with knowledge. And its book patiently coped and circulated among the learned men from China and the West.

Since the time immemorial extensive trade links were maintained with China, India, the Spice Islands, the Banadiri coast, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Lamu, the Comoros, Sofala, Maldives, Samarkand, and the West. The highway brought knowledge, the mountains provided protection and liberty. But it was not until last century, that Arabia and the West resumed a commercial intercourse, only this time the commodity was oil.

Scent of place

Spring: Colors are intruding from everywhere, colors from the Tihama, colors from the Red and Arab sea, colors from the outskirts of the desert Al-Rub Al-Khali. The mountains were now on the move, like waves in the sea, and danced, covered with green and gold, gold and green. Apricots spread out their branches and dropped so many blossoms.

By March, the geometric terraces turn into hanging gardens in a million shades of green. In April blossom all other trees. By the grace of God, the sky opens – most years – and the land gives off that most magical scent of all, rain of dust, smell of life and death. Here each village has its own history, a village with its stories, jokes, nicknames, intrigues, conflicts, reconciliation, nights of singing and poetry. A village for which all lands are far away, even the land one comes from. Breads that are made from blend of wheat and barley flour milled grain, grown on Yemeni terraces, were full of flavor, soft and bumpy irregulars. From where wheat, barley, millet, raisins reach the suqs of Sanaa. Where I come from, there too people have faces in the shape of their mountains. And those mountains I loved, it meant being free.

Beauty of scent

But smells like music hold memories. Outside Sanaa, the Wadi Dahr valley has shrunk and I gave grown. It had tress along it. And a murmur of approval rose from the crowd. I felt that this city was mine, it gave me a great sense of well-being. Their voice, and their tone were so reassuring that it made me more attached to its fate. The rain fell upon my way that year for a third time, a slight breeze obliged, and shades of oblivion awaited me.

Sanaa, today after renaissance has a different face, modern and prosperous with the Old City raped into sand colored wall, where north wind scatters flowers every spring. Sanaa which is enveloped by scent of orchards and blossom, adorned with carved arabesques and verses of Quran. Its roses blossom in a thousand varieties. Where poets themselves were far more numerous and innovative, both in style and content. I entered the gate and the roses told me I could pass. Houses of Sanaa applauded from the lofty windows. It houses that store honey in jars.

Scent of beauty

Sweet scented jasmine blossoms lingered in the air. A soft wind blew from the mountains through the orchards in flowers. A longing for the past, for its purity. Cool air of the summer night. An exhilarating rumor, a vessel, which sails through storm after storm and which sometimes wrecked, is that not what this city is? Waiting its lawyers to be uncovered veil by veil. It is people, traditions, history, proverbs, peddlers, calls, sights, smells, weddings, births, and humor. It is what people do in their houses, their material surroundings, how they spend their leisure time, their daily schedules and holidays. It is how people respond to each other, remind of beautiful moments in their houses designed for comfort, and the intimacy of narrow alleyways. These things are veiled, and they and I were on the same side of the veil. In the sky a light cloud had just obscured the crescent moon. It remained silent and then uttered a sight. Will be sun tomorrow less bright? Sanaa was still the place for dreams.

Strength of scent

Many years ago, when I came to Yemen, I did not understand the strong link between the brown mountains and the blue sea. It seemed, only the sky had a blue depth. And here were mountains which turned dark after the sunset. Time that had two faces, the length in the rhythm of the sun, and the depth in the rhythm of passion. But that was at the beginning of a long journey in space and time. Onset of a great journey. That day the wind from Sanaa carried a sharp perfumed scent of apricots. The stars were taciturn, there was no music, not a sound, no secrets. A frail crescent at the end of the month of shawwal. New stars arose, and other waved. The way was flat and stony, grain by grain. A path illuminated by the moon at right, at the distance a line of mountains.

Each new day was launched on a fresh landscape, one which reached out to grab our full attention. We were constantly at the mercy of sand storms. The smoke of frankincense, sweet and clear, sweetened our drinking water. The sea was calm and the wind mild. We saw famed cities reduced to dust. So much deceit, so many regrets, and so many things it could have been experienced differently. A burning wind outside a town, in the shade of the palm trees, which was built out of mud and clay. Brick minarets shoot up with a dome chiseled by shadow of the earth brown wall and dense orchards and sparking brooks. From the very beginning we shared the same enthusiasm for the common journey, the same taste for food and music, our eyes had the same taste for beauty. As we moved higher, they would frequently put raisins, almond and nuts into my palm. One, two, three They talked about love as they would know all about it. We flew through clouds, walked on the Red and Arab Sea, wore an exhausted smile. Memories that are now hidden under the carpet of memories.

Harvest of scent

Incense, fragrant resins, spices, herbs and perfumed wood were the items the Arabs traded in long before petroleum. Yemen as the center of this trade prospered, and its history is subject to tales. Sanaa assumed significance, since the early days and trade and commerce played an important role since earliest times. Further testimony is the suq of Sanaa. Walking into the suq for the first times takes you back in time. Winding pathways greet you as do the fragrance of incense and spices, sizzling food, and lively chatter and bright-lit sops. Here old and the new mingle, and the present revisits the past. It has retained much of its old-world charm. Everything from the purest silk to the cottons, to copper pots, household items, to gold and silver is sold here. Frankincense can be found everywhere, and in all possible forms, which nestle with rows of fragrant oil, and powders, spices, dried lemons and dates, and elusive perfumes.

Faces make up the suq. And everywhere you look, there are hundreds of faces calling out from the shop fronts offering the best bargains. The suq of Sanaa is best enjoyed when you take your time to drink all the sights and sounds. The colors, noises, smells are overwhelming, yet welcoming. The dim passage-ways echo a tradition that is hundreds of years old with the richness of a heritage that makes the suq of Sanaa appear untouched by time. But leave me now to my stars, to make accounts of my journey. And to marvel at the beauty of the creation, how perfectly ordered it is. Life is like fire, you know, flames which the passer-bye forgets, ashes which the winds scattered. A man lived. Will we be remembered in a hundred years, or in a thousand years?