– Originally posted 30th December 2013.
We headed north up through Arabia Felix, following the old caravan route from Oman, Yemen and then up to Jeddah and the Levant. We started in Abha and finished 120km north in Rijal al Hajar territory where the Amr, Shehr, Asmar and Ahamar tribes originate, making up the tribes of the Azd. Our destination was the small town of Tanomah Bani Shehr, high up in the Sarawat Mountains in the Hijaz. Historically this is not part of the Asir, which has become the general name of the south west of Saudi Arabia to make modern administration easier. The Asir encompasses the lands surrounding Abha, Khamis Mushait and the mountains in the south west. Down the mountain there is Tihama on the coast inhabited by the nicknamed Bahri (maritime people), and further north up the mountains on the old trade route lies the Hijaz inhabited by the so called Jabali (mountain people). There is a local story about the tribes of the Azd fighting the Ottomans in the 19th century. There was a Frenchman, Tamisier, in the company of the Turks and he was astounded to see the Shehr tribe displaying the Union Jack before they went to war. The story goes that 20 years previous, a group of “Asir” tribes came together to attack Yemen, and in Mukha the Al-Shehris ransacked the British consulate, confiscating their flag, and subsequently keeping it. Tamisier must have got quite the shock upon seeing his enemy’s flag flying high in the rugged mountains of Arabia.
The drive up to Tanomah is pleasurable. Baboons are as common here as they are on Mount Soudah near where we live, and more than once I had to brake and put my hazards on as a congress made a dash for it across the carriageway. Warning signs of fog, steep inclines and sharp turns made it a more interesting drive. I don’t think anyone should really complain they have to wind round steep mountain roads in the mountains of Arabia. Apart from the sometimes well hidden speed bumps, it’s a joy to cruise down, and a welcome break from the manic Khamis-Abha Road – truly the most unenjoyable road I’ve driven on in this entire country. In Tanomah, we were greeted by our host whom we’d been put into contact with through a mutual friend. We were very generously placed in the guest house of his cousin, Colonel Mohammed Farraj Al-Shehri. We settled in, and then our unofficial tour began.
In Upper Tanomah we saw the old souq al sabt (Saturday Market) which rather unfortunately now takes place on Fridays so we just missed it. We stood on Wilfred Thesiger ground, much changed by concrete buildings and car parks with the old Sheikh’s house (where Thesiger more than likely slept) watching over us. I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d make of the transformation today.
We drove up to get a magnificent view of the town, on a clear day by Tanomi winter standards. Upper Tanomah perched over in the distance, with Ma’na Mountain on one side and Safha and Isa (Jesus) Mountains on the other. Aqaba Barma falls (literally) just over these hills and descends rapidly into the warm coastal lands of Tihama. “The Outcrop” acts as a divide between Upper and Lower Tanomah. It’s incredible to see the old town of Tanomah, so small and scattered in the valley, surrounded by the new sprawling concrete houses that modernity brought. The road is only a few decades old, and modern Saudi Arabia just a few more decades older than that. Progress and their “industrial revolution” seems to have given the town an almost unnatural boom in all senses. In all senses except agriculture, as the march of concrete and tarmac as well as some climatic changes has left this once extremely wet and fertile land much drier than years gone by. The granite rocks surrounding the town that once poured rainwater down freely are sadly not as busy as they used to be.
We wandered around Al-Dahna’a village, looking at forts and houses covered in gypsum that acted as plaster to coat the rocky beit (houses). Not the muddy beit teen we found in Najran and find in Khamis and Abha. We passed an ancient disused well, just lying there in the open. I recently learnt, much to my amusement, that water from a well is called beer in Arabic. Stories of clan disputes and grandfathers hiding in forts, guns at the ready filled our conversations, until we got two unexpected and unwelcome visitors. There are wild dogs everywhere I’ve been so far in Saudi Arabia, but these two seemed to be the most domesticated I’d come across, as they were penned up and acted as guard dogs. Well, guard they did. They escaped from their enclosure and to their credit did their job remarkably well. Rocks had to be thrown. No one wants to throw rocks at animals, and we were aiming beyond them so they would chase them, but it got a bit tense in all honesty. We were glad of sanctuary in the disused 400 year old mosque.
We were treated to some home baked khobz (bread) our host’s mother kindly made for us in the afternoon, and in the evening we had another delight in store. We visited an elderly gentleman’s space, Fayez Dah Doh. A retired diplomat who’s kept the old traditions alive. He isn’t showing off his possessions and skills for tourists to show “how it used to be”, he simply hasn’t stopped doing what he does and has built up quite the collection of artifacts, books, photographs and personal belongings through the years. We checked out his private museum which held one of the main reasons we had travelled up there. Wilfred Thesiger’s photograph’s of Tanomah and the neighbouring Al Namas from April, May and June 1946, when no cameras had been here before. It’s fascinating to have seen these, and to see how it compares to today – the not so distant future. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford stores all of Thesiger’s photos from his travels and has kindly posted them on their website for all to see. I showed my students his photos of Abha and Tanomah and they were pretty amazed they existed. It seems people round here aren’t aware of them, and if the interest of my students is anything to go by, they’d lap them up if they were on display. Class project in the pipeline.
Mr. Fayez then welcomed us into his half-open-air sitting area where he made some fresh khobz as we warmed ourselves by the fire. Tradition says the oldest guest has to pick four different spices for the Arabic coffee. I happily obliged, quite content to be taking part in this old ritual in the presence of a man who’s kept these traditions alive. In a land of SUV’s, smart phones and environmental catastrophes, it’s a privilege to have been there to see how things used to be, and for us that evening, still were. After a sha’ana (goat skin container) full of dates and solid samn (animal fat) was offered to us and tucked into, we talked about ourselves whilst dipping our warm freshly baked bread into lentils and Tanomi mountain honey and samn. Before leaving Mr. Fayez gave us gifts of basil to place on our clothing and two jenabi (plural of jembiya – the traditional dagger) decorated in the traditional Al-Shehri style. We couldn’t quite believe what we were given. You may have noticed my fascination with jenabi in previous posts. I don’t know why, perhaps because it gives a link to the olden days here, or maybe because people really do still wear them about and I just wanted one as well. We’ve no idea how old they are, or how expensive, but they’re not the plastic toys you sometimes see about that’s for sure. It’s a gift not to be sold on, but kept and then passed down. We signed our thank yous in his book and bade him farewell, feeling that little bit culturally richer and our bags and bellies that little bit heavier.
In the morning, we drove up Ma’na Mountain to look down over Upper Tanomah and “The Outcrop” before driving to the tip of Aqaba Barma where we looked down into the depths of Tihama, not able to drive because our car was an automatic – a horrible feature of most cars here. We passed the highest villages that are hidden even from Upper Tanomi and talked about everything and anything to do with Saudi Arabia, Islam, Thesiger, the Hijaz and the Asir. Our host really was fantastically knowledgeable about everything we asked about. My worry now is that I’ve either forgotten things, written them down wrong or misconstrued them in some way, there was just so much to take in.
Our last stop was the old family house of our host. Again, this wasn’t a museum – I don’t even know if Tanomah has a museum as we really had no need for one. The house is kept intact and cleaned every now and then, but no longer lived in. It was decorated in the old style found in these parts, very colourful, with artifacts from times gone by. Perhaps the most interesting thing for me was the old thobe for women hanging on one of the walls. It was like Joseph’s coat of many colours, quite striking and the complete opposite of today’s modern (rather, post-modern) dreich black abayas that have conquered the land. I’d like to see the frowns on the men if a woman tried walking around town in one today. It made me think of my previous post “I’d love to wear a rainbow every day.” I did learn something interesting about what I was previously calling a wizara, the local sarong the men wear. Apparently this is the Bahri (maritime) style in Tihama. The same piece of clothing can be worn by the Jabali (mountain people) draped around their necks and coming down over their shoulders, and is then called a misnaf. Another thing that really caught my eye was a rababa, which is very similar to the masinkos I saw in Ethiopia. One stringed violin type instruments that in Ethiopia are played to accompany dancing females serenading you for some birr (money!) but here are confined to the walls of old houses. The similarities, yet again, between East Africa and the south west of Arabia didn’t escape me. The last thing to steal my attention were some letters to our host’s grandfather from none other than King Abdulaziz – the founding Saud of modern Saudi Arabia. They hinted that they weren’t on the best of terms and talked about settling local disputes.
We finished in the house of the Colonel who put us up for the weekend. He welcomed us into his study to see his collection of photographs, old rifles, swords and jenabi. He presented us with a book he’d co-written with our host about Tanomah, which I’ve already devoured and my students were equally impressed. That’s twice I’ve mentioned my students liking what I showed them today, so you can guess how little teaching was done. I actually think it’s important they see and hear about these things, as I fear the youth of Saudi Arabia are rapidly detaching themselves from their roots. It terrifies me when I think of the lack of knowledge I now realise I have about my own roots.
I realise this is a bit more detailed than other posts, but I’m actually concerned how much my ignorance was highlighted over the weekend – particularly to do with flora, geology and architecture. I’ve never taken an interest in such things until I came here. I also realise that the writing has taken an almost romantic tone (particularly at the beginning), which is probably due to the fact I’ve been delving into the world of older writings and photographs about the area. We touched on the romantic side of Thesiger over the weekend, how he avoided photographing modern technology, even though it existed. He despised seeing the new world creeping in with the oil companies. I opted not to tell you about the usual litter, SUV’s, bored youth and lack of opportunities in the community, so for the record, those things can all be seen and told about. I think it’s much more interesting to resurrect something of the traditional culture here, rather than talk about socio-political issues caused by the modern state of Saudi Arabia. I think that can be left for a separate post about the country as a whole. It is also a helpful reminder to the outside world that these traditions do creep into modern society, but less so as the years go by. Far too often westerners look in from the outside and focus on specific negatives about the Kingdom, completely ignoring everything else that is in the country. Whilst those things can be part of the conversation, I hope posts like these can bring something else to the table as well.
Our drive home was equally pleasant, and hopefully the baboons we stopped to look at thought so too. For the second weekend running I was left with amazement at the richness of history and culture of this area, as well as the hospitality and generosity of the people. If you’re an expat in the Kingdom reading this, please stop reading and plan a trip somewhere. You’re in a privileged position to even be here, so don’t waste it.
Our visit was recorded on tanomah.com here: http://www.tanomah.com/magz/news-action-show-id-13736.htm