– Originally posted 23rd December 2013.
Saudi Arabia is heterogeneous. Even going down the mountain from Abha into Tihama you can see differences in culture, terrain and wildlife. It isn’t just a country of oil rich Arab sheikhs, far from it. A friend of mine had recently moved down to Najran on the Saudi-Yemeni border, giving two colleagues and I the perfect opportunity to take our first road trip where I was to actually drive.
The road down from Khamis Mushait to Najran is a delight. The driving in Khamis can be haphazard at best, crowded and uncoordinated. Immediately outside of it the roads begin to empty, the quality of roads start to improve and the place looks better kept and ever so slightly cleaner. It takes between 3 and 4 hours to drive from Khamis to Najran, depending on how annoying you find the alarm that goes off in your vehicle when you exceed 120 km/h. Long, mostly straight roads through the rocky desert, sometimes winding through mountains whilst giving way to congresses of baboons. Down past Sarat Abidah and into Dahran al Janoub, the last stop in the Asir province before you hit Najran. The deep south of Saudi Arabia. In Dahran al Janoub we stopped to take in some beit teen, traditional mud houses that look like forts. Some are in use still, a lot aren’t. When you’ve only ever driven in Khamis and Abha, the thought of a 3-4 hour drive in unknown territory can be quite daunting. However, once you’re out there you realise there aren’t any dangers to be seen, especially driving down on a Friday morning when everything in general is quieter. It’s actually extremely enjoyable and some of the views are quite spectacular. Evidence of car crashes all the way down didn’t manage to dampen our spirits, neither did the multiple checkpoints manned by guards more interested in looking at their phones than anyone heading south. They are more concerned when you come north. Illegal immigrants, gat, hashish and alcohol are often smuggled up from Yemen.
Najran is flat, surrounded by mountains on either side, with Yemen beginning over one of the ranges. The roads are less busy, it’s well kept, there are lines on the road and it’s easy to navigate – it’s basically one road with everything else coming off it. It sprawls out for almost 30km in every direction, littered with date palm trees and many beit teen and qasrs (forts/castles). The people are noticeably different. They wear their shemaghs wrapped around their heads instead of draped around their shoulders like a lot of the Asir region. They told me it’s the style of the Yam, the main tribe around those parts. They also have some Wa’eli and Makrami families. Makrami is a giveaway as to how Najran differs from the rest of the country in a big way. Makrami can be a synonym for Ismaili, which is a sect of the Shia branch of Islam. Saudi Arabia is officially Sunni Wahhabi, and Shias tend to be located in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom. The other place is down in Najran in Yam territory. In the past there has been some trouble, but I’m told the current Prince is highly thought of by the local tribes, so Najran currently supports the Saud dynasty. The Yam give an impression of being strong and proud of their tradition. They hinted that they are not the same as the Muslims in the Eastern Province who are seen as weaker and down trodden. I’ve heard some derogatory comments about Ismailis whilst in Khamis, so this was my first time encountering them in the flesh. In parts of the Asir region there are rival tribes of the Yam, as well as a more extremist Wahhabi streak. In Najran, they rather strangely told us that they don’t have any terrorists down there, as they don’t like to grow long beards. We knew what they meant, but it was an odd way of saying it. It was strange to hear the ‘t word’ mentioned unprompted and so frankly, as it’s not usually banded about (mainly because that harsh stereotype generally isn’t true about this country) but it seemed this was one way the Najranis like to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Kingdom.
We headed into town to see the Qasr Emara, an old castle built in the traditional biet teen style, but with modern modifications to accommodate things like electricity cables. 1361 was inscribed into one of the walls, which means it’s less than a hundred years old (it’s currently 1435 in the Islamic calendar, the calendar the country runs by). It’s a great example of the local architecture, overlooking the low roofs nearby and mountains in the distance. In Scotland they say roofs so don’t even think about trying to correct me.
Next, souq al ajuz came calling. In Khamis there is a woman’s souq, where men shouldn’t really venture. In Najran, it was quite open, with women manning regular stalls whilst both sexes mingled about. Perhaps another sign of the differing traditions within Saudi Arabia. The women were still clad in complete abaya and niqab, the modern attire appears to have well and truly spread everywhere, stamping out the more traditional colourful clothing you read about in older writings. I was feeling extravagant and splashed out a whole 5 riyals ($1.25) for a Najrani-style handmade mijmar (oud censer) to make my flat a bit more fragrant. Cameras were sheathed for this part, as even though it felt more open, photography in places where women are present is still more than slightly frowned upon.
We popped round to the souq el jenabi, or the jembiya souq, a market specialising in the traditional daggers which are worn a lot more around Najran. They’re renowned for their skill and craftsmanship. The BBC reporter Frank Gardner, upon returning to Saudi Arabia after he was previously shot whilst in Riyadh, visited this exact souq in his documentary and was presented a gift of one when the locals heard his story. The generosity of this area knows no bounds, especially when you hear the price of some of them. We were shown one which we were assured has a handle made from rhino ivory and would set us back 200,000 riyals ($53,000). We weren’t sure if there was something lost in translation there, but with Arabic and English speakers around we left pretty confident that we understood the correct price. The only thing was then to decide whether we believed them or not. My students think they were having us on, but we’re not sure. They are known for selling them for as much as $10,000 or more which still begs the question, who the hell buys these things? We left the souq to look at some camel heads hanging outside a butchers and some girba, traditional goat skin water containers.
We watched the sun set on top of an old house a little out in the sticks, giving us a great view at dusk of the area and mountains surrounding the town and protecting them from the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are openly intent on taking Najran.
We spent the rest of the evening in the house of a lovely gent, Abu Saleh al Shaiban, the father of Saleh who works for the Najran branch of our company and who was very hospitably acting as our unofficial guide. It was only the second time I’d been invited into the house of a Saudi family. It was of course men only, but being a man in this country you controversially seem to just accept this and go with it since I’m one of the lucky ones in this privileged position. There isn’t really anything anyone can do about it anyway. We were given a fantastic spread whilst being told about the history of Najran. Najran prides itself on always listening to the Abrahamic prophets. All of them. There were Jewish settlers here, then Christian ones. The Al Ukhdood ruins there actually hold a famous trench where Christians were buried after a scuffle with the local Jews. This was unfortunately closed for some building work whilst I was there. When the prophet Mohammad (pbuh) was in Yathrib (Medina) the Christian priests in Najran got wind of this new message and paid them a visit, in the end agreeing to disagree. Ali, one of Mohammad’s (pbuh) closest friends and son-in-law later visited Najran and the locals were dumbfounded by his sincerity and willingness to commit his entire family to Islam, no doubt influencing them to eventually accept the new faith. I don’t think the significance of it being Ali that visited should be missed, as he is an important figure in Ismaili sects of Islam.
We were told about Chekhov Minosa, a French photographer who visited Najran in the 70s and was so impressed with it he stayed for two years taking pictures. They claim that he thought it was the best place he’d photographed in the Arab world. Not so long ago, he returned to show them some of his old photographs, but refused to give any of them away for free. I guess we’ll just have to buy his book. If the British have a history of exploring and writing about this part of the world, it’s becoming apparent that the French have a history of photographing it. When they were telling me about Chekhov I thought they were mistaken and actually meant Thierry Mauger who famously captured the Asir and Tihamiyan people on film. But no, apparently there was more than one Frenchman who ventured here when no one else really was. Arab News wrote an article on him which can be found here: http://www.arabnews.com/news/451772. We toasted some marshmallows after dinner and sat out under the night sky, some donning their thick farowas which keep them warm in the cool winter evenings. My friend was presented with a bisht by Abu Saleh al Shaiban, a decorative cloak used for special occasions, quite an honour. He promised that if we visit again we’ll all get one. This is another example of the tremendous hospitality we received in Najran, quite spectacular. It embarrasses me to think how we treat our guests in Britain. We really are an unfriendly people compared to other parts of the globe. It’s very humbling to witness that my culture has many things to learn from people we often label in the most derogatory terms.
In the morning we took a peak at Al Aan palace which gave us a nice view of the city. We saw another fort on top of a hill which we tried to find a road up to. It turned out it was a walk-up-only job and we didn’t have the time as we had to drive back to Khamis. Before we set off home we chanced a look at Najran Dam, which was supposedly closed. After some cheery American tourist greetings asking if we could sneak in anyway, followed by more helpful Arabic and the declared hope that the non-Muslims would soon be converting, the nice man let us through the gate and we wound our way through the mountain tunnels to get to the border with Yemen. The dam is the border, so we were looking out over Yemen. Yemen has some trouble at the moment and is quite the no-go area for westerners. The north isn’t controlled by the government, but by the Houthi rebels. We had a kilometre of no man’s land in between us and them, with no police or security in sight because we’d crept in when everyone was on their break. An alarm sounding prompted us to take our photos and head off back through the mountain.
Najran is quite the place. More traditional, different in culture, fantastically friendly and hospitable, with little gems like the hundreds of beit teen and jenabi all around. It’s more rugged, original and with a hint of lawlessness. If you ever get to Saudi Arabia, put it near the top of your list. I’ll be back.