Through Yemen On Camel Back [Archives:1998/01/Culture]

January 5 1998

Carmen Rohrbach is a biologist who more than 10 years ago started writing books for children as well as taking photographs of many different countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe to hold her own photo’ exhibitions. She has recently gone around Yemen on a three-month trip on camel back. Ramzi Al-Saqqaf of Yemen Times met Ms. Rohrbach and filed this interview.
Q: Is this your first time in Yemen? A: It is actually my third time in Yemen. I first came as a tourist just for a few days, but this time I am going at a more leisurely pace. It is very beautiful to see the landscape, the people and the markets. My interest is to mix with the people and get to know more about them.
Q: What has attracted you to Yemen? A: The most attractive thing is how friendly all people are. All men are very respectful and friendly towards me. They asked me where am I from and what was doing in Yemen. I was always very patient because I thought, when I am here in this country like a guest, the people have the reason to know why I am here. So I explained 100 times.
Q: How were you treated as woman traveling alone? A: As a woman I could sit with the females of any household I visited I met very nice Yemeni women who asked me many questions which I could not understand. I communicated with smiles and laughter. I was very surprised how powerful Yemeni women are. They are not oppressed by their menfolk. It is sometime the opposite. They are powerful, strong and beautiful. Rural and bedouin women are very eager to learn, but it is a very hard life in the countryside. Development, however, cannot be stopped. So I looked to see how it is, not to criticize. It is not my right to criticize. This is my intention in my book; to write the truth.
Q: Have you ever felt unsafe during you journey in Yemen? A: Yemen is more peaceful than many other countries. I really felt very safe because I never heard a bad word. I heard before I came about kidnapping problems, but it has nothing to do with tourists. This is like a game between the government and the tribes.
Q: What do you think of the Yemeni folklore? A: The singing, dancing I saw in some weddings in different parts of the country were very interesting. Yemen is so different. The people speak, look, and behave differently. The food is good.
Q: How did people relate to you as a foreigner? A: They were very curious to know how is life in Germany, about religion and why I am not a Muslim. They could understand after a short time that there is only one God, but we have different ways of praying to God.
Q: How do you record your travel experiences? A: I memorize the events I witness and take photo’s. Later, when I am resting from my travels, I write down my experiences in my notebook.
Q: What have you come out with from your trip to Yemen? A: I will tell the German people and European people in general how life is here in order to help bridge the culture gap. In Germany and in Europe people have wrong ideas about not only Yemen, but about the whole Arab world as well. They think that women here are treated like prisoners, a wholly false idea. We must all begin to understand each other.
Q: I understand that you had to buy a camel. How much did it cost you? A: I bought it and sold it after the end of my journey. I lost some money, but not so much. It would have cost much more than if I did not buy it. I could not take a camel without its rider as well as another man to act as a guide. Then I have to pay the rider and the guide. If I hire a camel I would also have to hire the rider.
Q: Did you not have a guide? A: I had a guide in Shabwa who led me from Wadi Ridhwan to Wadi Hadhramaut. I went alone to Shibam. I got permission from the police to go where I like. I told them that it is important for my book to have experiences with camels. It is very nice to have a camel or any other animal as a companion, to be together with the animal the whole day and night. I said I was together with my al-wasim (the handsome one) which is the name of my camel. He was sitting there near the fire and I brought my tea and it was a full moon. Most time, I slept alone outdoors. As a biologist, I am not afraid of animals. If there are mosquitoes in the area, then I pitch my tent, otherwise I like to sleep outdoors. Q: Camels can sometimes be quite moody. How did you manage with al-wasim? A: We spent 3 months together, becoming the best of friends. I treated my camel respectfully because camels can be very angry. I always spoke with him and never hurt him. It was sad when I had to say good bye.
Q: Known for Arabs as the desert ship, how different is a camel from other animals? A: Every animal is different. It is very important to have a good feeling for the behavior of animals. A camel speaks with his body, with his eyes and ears.
Q: What did you learn from the bedouins? A: They taught me everything; what is the best food, what I have to do in the night and how to take care of myself. They taught me very well.
Q: How did you manage, water-wise? A: I had a water filter with me. When I wanted tea I boiled some water; there was no problem. I never had problems with illness, sickness and I have a lot of medicines. I gave some sick children the medicines they needed.
Q: When are your going to publish a book about your travels in Yemen? A: The book, in German, will come out in the autumn of 1998. It can be translated into English and may be other languages. I have not decided yet.
Q: Any last comment? A: Yemeni people are wonderful. I can make a comparison between other people from other countries. I know many different countries. But here it is very special. I do not know why but you can meet nice people in every country but here everyone is so kind and helpful. You make friendships immediately, and are treated as a member of the family.