There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.
Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), Henri Rousseau, 1891
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.
We’d never seen anything as green as these rice paddies. It was not just the paddies themselves: the surrounding vegetation – foliage so dense the trees lost track of whose leaves were whose – was a rainbow coalition of one colour: green. There was an infinity of greens, rendered all the greener by splashes of red hibiscus and the herons floating past, so white and big it seemed as if sheets hung out to dry had suddenly taken wing. All other colours – even purple and black – were shades of green. Light and shade were degrees of green. Greenness, here, was less a colour than a colonising impulse. Everything was either already green – like a snake, bright as a blade of grass, sidling across the footpath – or in the process of becoming so. Statues of the Buddha were mossy, furred with green.
―Geoff Dyer, Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It
In the countryside, the old stories seemed to come alive around me; the faeries were a tangible aspect of the landscape, pulses of spirit, emotion, and light. They “insisted” on taking form under my pencil, emerging on the page before me cloaked in archetypal shapes drawn from nature and myth. I’d attracted their attention, you see, and they hadn’t finished with me yet.
Over the plains of Ethiopia the sun rose as I had not seen it in seven years. A big, cool, empty sky flushed a little above a rim of dark mountains. The landscape 20,000 feet below gathered itself from the dark and showed a pale gleam of grass, a sheen of water. The red deepened and pulsed, radiating streaks of fire. There hung the sun, like a luminous spider’s egg, or a white pearl, just below the rim of the mountains. Suddenly it swelled, turned red, roared over the horizon and drove up the sky like a train engine. I knew how far below in the swelling heat the birds were an orchestra in the trees about the villages of mud huts; how the long grass was straightening while dangling locks of dewdrops dwindled and dried; how the people were moving out into the fields about the business of herding and hoeing.
There are landscapes in which we feel above us not sky but space. Something larger, deeper than sky is sensed, is seen, although in such settings the sky itself is invariably immense. There is a place between the cerebrum and the stars where sky stops and space commences, and should we find ourselves on a particular prairie or mountaintop at a particular hour, our relationship with sky thins and loosens while our connection to space becomes solid as bone.
Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti’d celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.
–Annie Proulx, “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” from Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Sometimes, when one is moving silently through such an utterly desolate landscape, an overwhelming hallucination can make one feel that oneself, as an individual human being, is slowly being unraveled. The surrounding space is so vast that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep a balanced grip on one’s own being. The mind swells out to fill the entire landscape, becoming so diffuse in the process that one loses the ability to keep it fastened to the physical self. The sun would rise from the eastern horizon, and cut it’s way across the empty sky, and sink below the western horizon. This was the only perceptible change in our surroundings. And in the movement of the sun, I felt something I hardly know how to name: some huge, cosmic love.