– Originally posted 11th January 2014.
“Until 1985, no roads served this area; it was a closed world. This isolation, together with the spectacular appearance of some men of the tribe, constitute a large part of the area’s attraction. At a crossroads of the tracks, al-Farshah is one of the weekly meeting points of the Tihami Qahtan. It is an almost forbidden village, where outsiders are barely tolerated. A visit here is not a matter of a tourist excursion. A police check-point bars the way into the Qahtani Tihamah and it is necessary to explain the purpose of my visit.”
Men like this are still very visible indeed.
The long curly hair is a unique feature of the Tihami men.
Topless men aren’t seen these days.
On my return visit, I don’t expect to see anything like this.
– Thierry Mauger, Undiscovered Asir, p40 (1993). All photos are owned by Thierry Mauger.
Upon reading these words and seeing these pictures, I had put al-Farshah to the top of my list of places to visit. It turned out that it’s not far away from where I live, maybe an hour’s drive. Mauger talks about the hostility he encountered, forbidden photography, needing a police escort (which I’d also read about from more recent travellers), the dress and make-up of the local men, the lack of dogs and donkeys, the Korean built road, the tracking skills of the Qahtanis of Tihama, the traditional way of life and the signs of infrastructure, technology and the modern way of life beginning to take over.
The main problem I find when travelling round the region is that the souqs are often held when I’m at work, so it’s hard to try and get a sense of what happens in the town on souq day. This unfortunately made al-Farshah look like a normal, uneventful town. We did indeed have to pass through the checkpoint at the end of Sarat Abidah and the beginning of the descent down Aqaba Qahtan (or Aqaba Farshah), but we didn’t have to stop. There were also noticeably more Tihami dressed men around. Their sarongs (wizara) naturally covering quite a lot of them, with their daggers (jenabi) and flower head bands (lewia) proudly on show. A lot of them also had longer, curly hair the same as in Mauger’s pictures. But it was a concrete town with a roundabout in the middle with the usual fake model of something supposed to be traditional in the middle, right next to a small ‘park’ that had the signature plastic seating areas of Saudi Arabia. There wasn’t any sign that this place differed much from the next town apart from the majority of men donning the older style of Tihami dress. We didn’t stop to look around, as there wasn’t anything worth stopping for unfortunately. It also wasn’t souq day, so perhaps I should return on that day and start clicking away in the middle of the souq like Mauger to see what intrigue that might bring. The way he describes his behaviour actually seems quite rude, but then he is a photographer and I’m not. One thing I noticed that was quite different to Mauger was the presence of donkeys, more than I usually see in the area. I also suspect that his suspicions of change due to the new road and the modern Saudi Arabia creeping in have been proven right. It isn’t the closed off town it used to be. It is however, a little dangerous I’m told, and was informed of this beforehand by some locals. It’s near the Yemen border and can be a little rough around the edges at times due to the characters it attracts because of the smuggling of arms, drugs and alcohol. After our walk in Wadi Lejb, we returned and had lunch nearby. The local men dressed like the pictures above who were sat outside didn’t even blink an eyelid at the sight of two very white men going into the restaurant. The restaurant worker however, inquired of my friend, asking if he was from Pakistan. His beard is looking pretty henna-like to be fair.
We drove in the opposite direction of our destination – Wadi Lajab – to take a peek at the real border town, al-Raboah. It’s technically in the 10km buffer zone between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It’s a very significant town when it comes to smuggling people and non-people up into the Kingdom. This time we were stopped at the checkpoint, and ID’s taken off us whilst we waited. A call was made to the soldier’s superior asking if two lovely Brits could take a look around before heading back in the Wadi Lajab direction. This sounds like a fuss, but it actually wasn’t. We drove in and tried to find things to see. It was still Saudi Arabia, obviously, but was kind of not at the same time. It was more like the last lonely town before Yemen. Disappointingly it was also just a regular town with nothing much to see, so we headed back out pretty soon after we had gotten in. I suspect that if Raboah was our actual destination and we’d spent more time there, which goes for Farshah as well, we might have found something of interest in the people or the town. We’ll have to leave them for another day now that we know how to get there. I suspect that enlisting the help of some local Qahtanis like we did this day might be a good idea again.
We continued our journey into Wadi Lajab and coincidentally, like Mauger, met a Yami man from Najran. Not as surprising for us as it was for Mauger. The Qahtan and the Yam have a volatile history, and our companions weren’t as interested in him as I was. Whilst tribal warfare has well and truly ended, old loyalties die hard. Tribes still play an important role in modern Saudi society. It not only gives them an identity, but it gives them a community to rely on in times of trouble, whether that is the need for ‘blood money’ in the event of a murder, or simply a scuffle in the street. In Najran I was told by the Yam that they are strong, and the Qahtans told me the same about themselves. There is definitely a hint of strength and tradition in both of the tribes that can’t be seen in others as much.
Wadi Lajab, a crack in the eastern part of al-Qahar mountain, is quite spectacular, with granite and sandstone boulders scattered around the narrow crevice we walked down. Tall rock faces caved us in, with the occasional pool of water blocking the path and trees popping out of the side of the cliffs. It’s not possible to walk down the wadi when it’s been raining, one of the reasons this trip had been put off by a few weeks. It’s nice to have to scramble over boulders and lose your footing traversing a rock face before landing in a pool of water. Sometimes health and safety restrictions can prevent members of the public from having that opportunity, but not here.
Fancy a dip?
This is when it hadn’t been raining.
Back up the longest aqaba road in Saudi Arabia, we went to a local Yemeni’s house to hear him play the lute (oud). I thought this was the first time I’d seen one played, and it certainly is here, but then I remembered I saw a Lebanese pop star play one for us in his home in Beirut about 11 years ago. To see one played here though, is very unusual. They’re a people that love music, and they like to sing, but sadly it’s on the “to be frowned upon” list these days.
We ended the evening in the house of one of my students in the village of Wahab in Sarat Abidah. I made the joke that they are Wahhabi, and they said even other Saudis mention this. They have no relation to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of modern day Wahhabism that dominates the style of Islam across the land. Coffee and dates by the open fire whilst we met the family and made chit chat under the shadow of a couple of guns. We were their guests, something we hadn’t actually expected when we set out in the morning, so they honoured us with the traditional killing of a lamb to be the centrepiece of the feast. I’ve reluctantly come to get used to people welcoming me and treating me as a guest – despite my protests that I’ve been here 9 months – and little things paid for me every now and then don’t hurt my conscience too much, but the killing of a very expensive lamb was a tad unexpected and one wonders how this is going to affect my hospitality when I eventually return to England’s green and pleasant land. I owe the world a lot.
One of the brothers, already sporting a pistol around his shoulders, upon hearing we were leaving decided to fire off his rifle into the starry night sky as we said our goodbyes. A brief countdown would have been nice, as I was looking the other way and wasn’t expecting it. You might say I got a little fright.
My day with some Qahtanis on their home turf was a brief but delightful insight into another way of life for another tribe. If all goes to plan, I’m back in Sarat Abidah next weekend with another student. He has camels! There is a sense of ruggedness in that area that is missing from other towns, much to my delight since it’s so close by. A repeat of Sarat Abidah and al-Farshah is on the cards for some better exploration. I wonder how much I can actually see though, as there are places we mentioned to them that even they weren’t keen on going to due to the locals being a little more hostile to outsiders. This of course, makes me want to go even more.
The seven settlers of Qahtan from as far north as Riyadh and as far south as Dhahran al Janoub:
Rafedah Abidah Jahader Hebab Sheraif Senhan Benibishar