We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
― Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod
In the past, humans hesitated when they took lives, even non-human lives. But society had changed, and they no longer felt that way. As humans grew stronger, I think that we became quite arrogant, losing the sorrow of ‘we have no other choice.’ I think that in the essence of human civilization, we have the desire to become rich without limit, by taking the lives of other creatures.
― Hayao Miyazaki
“My dear fellow,” said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outrè results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”
This is the first post of a series exploring foreign cultures. We begin with Yemen, focusing not on the bloodshed and the destruction wreaked upon her, but the humanity and beauty that make her both vulnerable and resilient. I’ll be posting more about the culture and arts of Yemen later this week.
The images that follow were graciously shared online by Rod Waddington, yeowatzup and Valerian Guillot, who have made most of their illuminating and risky work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. Please follow their magnificent output on Flickr.
As I curated these sets of people, places and animals, which date from 2010 to 2016, I could not help but wonder what has been lost in these few years. Are these buildings still standing? What has become of these people, especially these bright, playful children? I had to stop several times in my gathering to mourn the innocence and beauty that has surely been changed, if not destroyed. The human and cultural price in Yemen is very high.
Travel to Yemen is not suggested nor is it easily feasible, as the Yemeni Civil War and the presence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as airstrikes (Saudi and American), make it a dangerous place for anyone, particularly Westerners, who have been detained and kidnapped. Mismanaged from within and exploited from without, it is a place that is lost to the outside world. Some might think that the poorest country in the region, a desert nation without an oil industry, doesn’t hold much. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a beautiful country, with fantastic architecture and a long, proud history.
Faces of Yemen
Yemen lies on the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, near the crossroad of three continents, along trade routes that cross both land and sea. This has made Yemenis a very diverse group. Some trace their roots to Africa, especially the northern Sahara, some to Persia, ancient Israel or other nations, ancient or modern, on the Arabian Peninsula, while others hail from India and South Asia. There also Yemeni of European descent, particularly Russian and eastern European.
The vast majority are Muslim, but Christians, Jews and others have a place in the culture, although the advent of more extreme fundamentalism has strained that somewhat. You will notice that women’s faces are under-represented. All women are encouraged to cover up, regardless of faith, in order to avoid negative attention. Photographing women in Yemen can be risky and is discouraged. This is an uncomfortable truth for a nation that counts two prominent Queens in its history, the biblical Queen of Sheba and the beloved Queen Arwa, who ruled from her early twenties until she died at the age of 92.
Note the gentleman below wearing the jambiya, a ceremonial curved dagger that is a symbol of male honor and status in many Arab countries. They are worn on expensive belts and many of the hilts are made from precious substances such as jade or ivory.
The favored pet in Muslim households is the cat, admired for its cleanliness and beloved by the Prophet. Cats are commonly considered indoor animals while dogs are kept outdoors. It is said that Muhammad once cut a sleeve off of his robe rather than awaken his cat Muezza, who had fallen asleep on it while he prayed. It is good to know that cats have remained constant throughout time and across cultures!
Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, and until recently the capital, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. It has been a seat of power for much of that time, presided over by Sabaean (from Sheba) rulers, Himyarite Kings (who converted from polytheism to Judaism), Ethiopian Viceroys, Muslim Caliphs, local Imams of the Zaydi tribe and Ottoman Turks, who took the city twice over the span of a few centuries. Yemen includes four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the old city of Sana’a. Some of the buildings in Old Sana’a, including the Grand Mosque, are over 1,400 years old. There are more than 100 mosques, 12 bath houses and around 6,500 residences. These homes are several stories tall with flat roofs and elaborate decorative elements. The architecture is unique and lovely.
The Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix, “Happy Arabia”, because the country has a great deal of fertile ground. For centuries, much of the food for the Arabian Peninsula was grown in Yemen, which was also world-renowned for growing coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you may enjoy coffee mocha, named for the fabled medieval port that distributed it to the world. Mocha, or Mokha, isn’t much to look at now, as it was upstaged by other Yemeni ports long ago. Recent damage has plunged Mokha even deeper into poverty, but coffee is still grown in the Haraz Mountain region of Yemen, known as Jabal Haraz. Terraced farms are visible on the mountainsides and fortified villages cling to rocky mountaintops. Long ago, in order to break the Yemeni monopoly on coffee, Westerners stole plants from this region and transplanted them into their own countries.
Away from the mainland lies Socotra Island and the tiny islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa. Together with a few rocky outcrops that support seabirds, these islands make up the Socotran Archipelago, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a tough, isolated life for those who live out here, but it is probably safer than any of the mainland cities.
Approximately one third of the plant life here is endemic, occurring naturally nowhere else on the globe. The Dragon’s Blood Tree, Dracaena cinnabari, and the Bottle Tree, Adenium obesum, are the most striking of these plants. Socotra was occupied by some of the earliest humans during the Lower Paleolithic Period (1.7 to 2.6 million years ago) when it was attached to the mainland.
There are many inscriptions in the rocks of the island, most in Brāhmī script, which was used across south Asia and India, while others are in South Arabian, Ethiopic, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian. Socotra was once an important landmark and stopover for boats moving from the Arabian Sea into the Indian Ocean and vice versa.
In addition to mountains and beautiful white sand beaches, Socotra features a karst region with stunning limestone caves.
Here we will stop, although there are many more wonderful places in Yemen, including stunning Taiz with its walls and gardens and lovely Jibla, where “Little Sheba”, the powerful Muslim Queen Arwa ruled for more than seventy years. Her story is a story for a different post.
It is humbling to realize that Yemen was a sophisticated place in better days, a reminder that poverty and lawlessness are never as distant from the human experience as we would like them to be. May this terrible conflict end before more is lost.
None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.
Reality is shaped by human constructs of which nature never dreamed. Art exposes and reevaluates these things, creating necessary discomfort.
Let’s talk about money, once labeled the “root of all evil” in the Hebrew Bible. Our modern social system runs on it, and yet what is money? A promise that vouches that we are worthy of the things we need and want, a watermark of our usefulness. If you have more of it, you are thus a better person, right? Something in many of us seems to fidget at this, to recognize that there is error here, an error that has been multiplied many times over, creating cracks that reach to the bottom of our society and threaten the planet which cradles us. Mark Wagner reveals and exploits those cracks to create art.
This ingenious video presented by The Avant/Garde Diaries plays up sociopathological overtones, even putting Mark into an orange shirt and shooting in such a minimalistic way that he seems to be some sort of prisoner speaking from his jail cell, or, worse, some sort of serial killer of dollar bills hard at work in his dark attic, stabbing and slicing his victims into pieces for his brilliant, grisly collages. All this from a guy who might ride next to you in the subway-a hidden, dangerous subversive.
Despite their immense cleverness, intricacy and beauty, which make me smile in spite of myself, I’m not completely sure how I feel about Mark’s collages. The destruction of hundreds of bills that could possibly help people in need reveals a certain privilege, an artistic hubris that smacks of a large ego. And yet, I appreciate the boldness of striking at a taboo that has sanctified our currency. Many people believe it is illegal to destroy or deface the American Dollar, but that assertion lies in a gray area. It is illegal to alter or destroy a bill for the purpose of defrauding someone, but the government itself destroys bills or coins when they become too disfigured for use. Doing so for artistic purposes, or even for simple low-tech mischief, is not typically construed as a crime.
The message here cuts deeper. The very word currency refers not only to money, but to “the quality of being generally accepted or in use”. If we accept the system money creates without acknowledging that it has a dark side-the extra pressure and amplified greed which it adds to the common goal of survival-we fail to safeguard our souls and our world against the resulting injustices. And yet, if we suddenly reject a system that underlies our entire civilization, we will destroy that civilization. We have to establish some sort of compromise, recognizing that money is only material, a necessary evil, at least until humanity thinks of something different. And what of all that “digital” money, the disembodied credit that floats through our modern cities like a soul or a ghost animating our desires? Will that ephemeral nature make it even more powerful and more cruel?
I think the world needs iconoclastic art such as this to call out the conflict between morality and the system we have built to sustain our society. What do you think?
There is a danger, when thinking of the earliest civilized people, of putting too much emphasis on technology. One tends to assume that if you don’t have, at least, a lavatory and perhaps something that will take you a lot faster than your own feet, or a certain number of gadgets in the house, then you must be in some way, a bit backward and defective … the important thing to remember is that technology is not necessarily the same thing as civilization.
In our time… a man whose enemies are faceless bureaucrats almost never wins. It is our equivalent to the anger of the gods in ancient times. But those gods you must understand were far more imaginative than our tiny bureaucrats. They spoke from mountaintops not from tiny airless offices. They rode clouds. They were possessed of passion. They had voices and names. Six thousand years of civilization have brought us to this.
Hebgen Lake Earthquake, Montana, USA, August 1959 Public Domain Image by the US Government, Department of the Interior
The earthquake, however, must be to every one a most impressive event: the earth, considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet; and in seeing the laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the insignificance of his boasted power.
Holy Ghost Panel, Horseshoe Canyon, Utah Image by Katherine McDaniel
The wind whips through the canyons of the American Southwest, and there is no one to hear it but us – a reminder of the 40,000 generations of thinking men and women who preceded us, about whom we know almost nothing, upon whom our civilization is based.