Manakha is a small town in the mountains northwest of Sana’a, surrounded by several smaller towns. We took a bus there last Friday, accompanied by the head of the college and a very bored military escort. The bus left Sana’a at eight in the morning, and according to the official-looking itinerary, we would be arriving in Manakha at 10:30 with an hour to spare for “walking around.” We were behind schedule almost immediately, first because we were stopped at the checkpoints on the outskirts of Sana’a, then because everyone had to take pictures of something, and finally because in order to get the full cultural experience on this cultural expedition, we had to stop for a “unique Yemeni breakfast” of beans and bread, which tasted a lot like the beans and bread we eat every morning at the college, only more authentic.
We stopped in Manakha for a minute, but there was no time left for “walking around,” so we drove straight to the second stop: Jebal Sabri. Sabri is the head of the college, “jebal” means mountain, and “Jebal Sabri” means Sabri’s mountain. Sabri is originally from Manakha and has grand plans to develop a conference center on his land, but so far the plans remain in the planning stage. The mountain was very nice and green though, a fine place to hold a conference if you ask me. We hiked up the mountain a little ways until we reached a little reservoir and a baby goat, but we were still running behind schedule so we didn’t make it any further.
The next stop was al-Hajrah, an old Jewish village hanging onto the side of a cliff. The Jews have a long and not-so-happy history in Yemen, subject as they were to the various whims of Islamic kings and caliphs from Muhammad’s lifetime on. They specialized in lots of things that Muslims wouldn’t touch, like silver, so they were allowed to stay on as (what seems to me) second-class citizens. Large Jewish communities could be found in the North, South, and Northeast of the country, living alongside Muslims. They endured some ridiculous laws and customs (especially considering that the Qur’an singles out Jews and Christians as “People of the Book” worthy of equitable treatment), but the trickle of Yemeni Jews into Palestine after WWI finally turned into a total desertion after the Israeli state was established and an unofficial war was declared on Jews in Yemen. There are actually a few hundred Jews left in Yemen today, a fact that many people here seem strangely proud of.
The entire Jewish population of al-Hejrah emigrated in 1949, leaving their buildings and shops empty and their town almost deserted. Al-Hejrah is the rare Yemeni town that depends almost entirely on tourism dollars, which wasn’t a bad idea for such a beautiful village until all the tourists left the country a few years ago. The town was completely boarded up before we arrived, and doors constantly flew open as we walked around. People ran ahead of me with tables on their heads and had their wares laid out by the time I walked by. I would politely refuse the giant earrings for sale, they would gather their stuff up and sprint ahead of me, and everything would be nicely prepared when I walked by them again a minute later.
We left al-Hejrah with a few trinkets in hand, headed back to Manakha for lunch. We were treated to some traditional Yemeni dance after lunch, which was fine as far as these things go. I’m not normally a big fan of dance unless (a) there is someone pretty to look at or (b) there is someone I know to look at (of course Paul Rosenfeld twirling his way to an A in Modern Dance class fulfills both of these criteria). That being said, the addition of weapons, as well as some strange moves that might have been labeled “homoerotic” had the plague of homosexuality not been eradicated in Yemen, kept things interesting. Then there was the requisite part where they ordered us to dance, and most of us obliged for some sort of endless Ring Around the Rosie thing (Tik used his weasely ways to weasel his way out of it).
That lasted a long time. In the afternoon we drove to another nearby village, this one a clean and important Ismaili shrine. I’m done with the Wikipedia-esque history lessons, but if you’d like to learn more, feel free to Google Al-Hotayb. The point is that it was very clean with a little shrine at the top of a tall mountain where we met a well-spoken kid from Illinois. Then it was back on the road for an even more terrifying journey home than usual, thanks to fog so thick we couldn’t see the police car’s lights leading the way, and also it was pitch-black.
Okay, enough with that. Tik keeps this blog pretty well updated on our experiences, but I have noticed that there are scarcely any updates on my beard. I wish I had better news to report on the facial hair front, but unfortunately, like the rest of my body, my fledgling beard is having a hard time in Yemen. It doesn’t help that there is a kid from Dartmouth here with an awesome Dartbeard all over his Dartface, which he is always waving around at everyone who walks by.