“Can we walk here?” we asked, although the communication wasn’t nearly as elegant as that and consisted of the Arabic words “mashaa” (walk) and “mumkin” (possible) and some infantile miming.
“Tamaam,” he replied. OK.
And so it was that we set off on foot into ancestral village of Osama bin Laden.
Everywhere else in Wadi Hadramaut, the vast and lush canyon system in the midst of the eastern Yemeni deserts, we’d been able to travel independently, albeit with police checkpoints.
Not here. I’d been told Wadi Daw’an, an offshoot of the main canyon, was even nicer than the rest of it but was off limits to tourists. An Australian guy I met in Mukalla said the previous week a guy who spoke fluent Arabic, looked like a local and dressed in the Hadrami manner had been turned back at the police checkpoint at the start of the Wadi.
But after a couple of days in Sayun, Kors — a Dutch NGO worker based in Mukalla — and I made friends with the tourist police at the Sayun Palace and they issued us with a permit to visit the wadi with one of their approved (and, I suspect, kickback-paying) taxi drivers.
As soon as we turned off the main highway and into the much quieter Wadi Daw’an, I knew this was a good idea. Without all the commercial traffic and without the tourist taint of places like Shibam, it immediately felt more appealing.
The scenery was the same as the rest of the Wadi, which seemed to be a mix of film sets from two different Hollywood movies. The flat and alluvial valley floor was like a Lawrence of Arabia set with date palm groves, mud-brick forts and kuffieh-clad Arabs riding camels, but the gorge itself seemed like it was straight out of a John Wayne western amid the desert mesas near the Grand Canyon.
The style of the villages were different too, here built in terraces halfway up the canyon walls rather than on the valley floor.
We went through one of the regular police checkpoints, where our permit was carefully scrutinised. Soon after that we went past another checkpoint, this one next to an army base where we collected our Kalashnikov-wielding soldier. He proved to be likeable and quiet, which are attributes I find highly appealing in companions who are armed with automatic weapons.
At first it seemed he didn’t want us to leave the car except for a couple of roadside photo stops, such as at the road sign showing we were entering the enticingly-monikered Daw’ani village of Rehab. I’m sure he and our driver still have no idea why we so amused by the fact we went into and out of Rehab twice in one day.
But he gradually warmed up. At one stop, when I asked if it was OK to take his photo, he misunderstood, unshouldered his Kalashnikov and handed it to me so I could pose with it.
And when we reached the town at the end of the wadi, Al Khurayba — the home village of the bin Laden clan — he was fine for us to walk, although he was always within a few metres of us and had his Kalashnikov ready at all times.
The village seemed no different from most of the others in that part of the wadi — a series of mud-brick houses set against each other in an impossibly picturesque (and defensively advantageous) organic style. The streets were twisting paths and we followed one up, traversed across at the cliffline to another part of the village and then returned via a madrassa, the village school chorussing with the voices of excited children.
There was nothing to indicate this was the provenance of the bin Ladens, a family who until the events of 2001 in New York and Washington, had been far better known as a Saudi construction firm that still advertises on Yemeni television.
And in any event, Osama bin Laden is just one of a huge number of Hadramis to venture into the wider world to make their, er, name.
A couple of evenings before, I’d been sitting drinking coffee at the informal local men’s dominoes centre located in the dusty main square of the 2500-year-old village of Shibam and ended up talking to one of the Hadrami diaspora. He was based in Saudi Arabia but explained that while there are about a million people now living in Wadi Hadramaut but there are now six times that many living in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia who can trace Hadrami bloodlines.
The previous day, Kors and I had visited Tarim, a city famous for the dozens of once-opulent mud-brick palaces built by the diaspora when they came home from making their fortunes in the far east. The most famous of these was As-Sayed bin Sheikh al-Kaf, famous for his Singapore hotel, who in the 1920s built a huge and ornate palace in Tarim.
The architectural style was best described as pick-and-mix and I suspected it was the cultural equivalent of the hideous McMansions that plague the exurbs of modern western cities.
The Al Kaf Palace was a crumbling shadow of what it must have once been but enough remained to give an indication of what can be done with enthusiasm and mud. “See this,” an enthusiastic attendant explained as he gestured towards corbels and cornices in the ceiling, “All mud.”
Outside, we walked past a dozen or more similarly ornate structures, all also rotting away. We poked around in one, Kors demonstrating a faith I did not share in the residual strength of a partially collapsed palace just off the main street.
For all the forbidden and guerrilla appeal of Wadi Daw’an and the crumbling opulence of Tarim, Shibam remained the biggest drawcard of the area.
And for good reason. All the other defensive encampments in the valley were nestled against or halfway up the rocky walls of the canyon. Shibam was on a remnant of rock that allowed it to look down on all sides to lower ground, while still being right next to the grazing and crops of the valley floor. Being such valuable real estate, when land on this little defendable piece of real estate became in short supply, they began building up.
A millennium before Manhattan was to follow the same dynamic, Shibam had eight to ten-storey towers built from mud. Little wonder that early 20th Century visitors from the West dubbed it “the Manhattan of the desert”.
Arabic architecture overall is predominantly geared around privacy, followed closely by being good in the heat. Mud towers take a bit of maintenance, but this girl was not interested in being sequestered away from the rest of the world.
Dusk was the perfect time to be there. This was the only place where I ran into tourists in any quantity in Yemen, a factor which was to play a part in what followed.
Just like in the other Manhattan, Shibam had been having a bit of a hard time but people still paid a premium to live there.
We had a tour of one of the houses — or at least the male/public section — from a man who was hoping to sell us antiques from his shop on the ground floor. We didn’t buy any antiques (apparently, it’s an Arabic word which means “made in a factory and then buried in mud for a month then unearthed and given a claim of 18th Century provenance”) but the tour was really interesting.
This was on the rooftop terrace, looking across the Wadi to the Bronx of Shibam.
An evening Quranic madrassa — Koran school — for the Shibam kids.
The full moon made for atmospheric scenery.
All in all, I loved it. The best part was with the exception of a couple of the dodgy antique shops, people still lived their normal life there rather than creating this Disneyland version for the sake of tourists.
Which made what happened next a little hard to take. A couple of days after watching the sunset over Shibam I’d flown to Socotra, where I received an email from Kors.
“Dude, did you hear the news?” he wrote. “Four Koreans got killed in a bomb-attack in Shibam. That’s really f@#$ed up!! What if it was the group of Asians we met? Take it easy out there?”