When the First Cars Came to Yemen ! [Archives:1998/25/Culture]

June 22 1998

It was some time in the early 1930s when the first car ever came to Yemen. After concluding the Yemeni-Russian agreement in 1928, a few cars were shipped to the Hodeidah seaport. One of these cars was given as a present to the Prime Minister at that time, Qadhi Abdullah Al-Amri. The ruler, Imam Yahya Hamid-ul-Din, also got one.
That beginning went unnoticed by the Yemeni people who animals such as horses, donkeys, camels and mules during their travels. The mountainous terrain made travel difficult and severely limited contact among people. As a result, people of the same area hardly knew each other. That is because moving from one area to another made the people at that time take along plenty of provisions.
A number of Italian cars then arrived in the 1940s following the conclusion of the Yemeni-Italian military agreement which supplied Yemen with artillery and various types of weapons. Due to the non-existence of roads at that time, these cars were used only in Hodeida and near the coastline to carry the weapons to Bab Al-Mandab and Mokha.

The weapons were disassembled and carried to Sanaa on camel back because there were no roads going through the mountains. One car which was given as a present by the Italians to Imam Yahya Hamid-ul-Din was also disassembled and sent to Sanaa along with an Italian engineer to reassemble it and teach some Yemenis to drive.
Mr. Ahmed Qalalah and Mr. Hamood Baather were the first ever Yemenis to drive in Sanaa, after being trained by the Italian engineer. The cars were driven only in Sanaa and its outskirts, such as Al-Rowdha to the north and Hizyaz to the south.
The presence of cars in Sanaa at that time gave birth to the idea of building a road connecting Sanaa with Hodeida. Hajj Hamood Baather was charged with supervising the road construction, which was done through ‘sukhra’ (unpaid or forced) labor. Every tribe through which territory the road passed had to participate in the building.
At the same time, Aden began to see some cars. Soon, Aden became the hub of car users. It also became the shopping place for spare parts and for maintenance.
First the British, then the well-to-do locals started using cars. But the main use of cars was for transporting imported goods from Aden, especially to Rahida in Taiz and Al-Qa’idah in Ibb. The ordeals that were incurred during these exhaustive trips have enriched the folktale literature of the country.
In Aden, songs were even played about several brands of cars and trucks.
In Hodeidah, the ingenius local population devised a vehicle which was halfway between the traditional and modern transport machines. Soon, local craftsmen used the wheels without the engines. An animal, often a camel or a mule would pull the hybrid machine. By the way, this tool still persists in Hodeidah today.
One of the interesting developments of using cars in Yemen at that time was the creation of a ‘kurushboy’ (a Yemeni version of garage boy). But actually, the task of the kurushboy was to serve as an assistant to the driver. Every driver employed two assistants to put stones behind the wheels of the car to enable the driver to shift into different gear, especially during uphill driving. The construction of good roads has driven the kurushboys out of business.
By: Ahmed Al-Dhefaari,