Najran: Al Ukhdood Ruins.

– Originally posted 15th June 2014.

On our last visit to Najran, we missed out on two things – Al Ukhdood Ruins and Al Raoum Castle. We only have a couple of weeks left round here so headed back down to see some friends and finish what we started.

Al Ukhdood (The Trench/Ditch) is an ancient settlement, 3,000+ years old. It was a Christian Aksumite town (obviously not always…) on the old Arabian trade route, that the Jewish warlord Dhu Nuwas laid siege to in the 6th century. It was the old “convert or die” job, and thousands of Christians were made martyrs, being thrown into the burning trench. It’s rumoured that refugees from Najran got as far as the Roman Emperor to tell their tale. The Abyssinians (Aksumites) later came and took revenge, conquering the region. One legend says that Dhu Nuwas committed suicide by riding his horse into the Red Sea…

The first point of note is that it was a Christian town in what was then Yemen. It’s easy to forget about pre-Islamic days when you’re here. A second point is the link with Ethiopia. Having been to Aksum and read a bit about their empire, it’s the first time I’ve seen evidence of it in Saudi Arabia.

The site itself was a little difficult to get into at first. After a web of lies and begging we managed to get in without the “required” permit for westerners, promising to leave our cameras behind. It seems to be hit and miss whether they let you in or not. Anyway, we got in…

There appeared to be some half-hearted attempts at rebuilding going on, but most of it was just scattered rocks, ruins and the occasional wall with pictures and Thamudic inscriptions on. Seeing ancient sites here is always welcome, even if they aren’t taken care of very well. Cue the theories about treatment and resources given (or not) to the Yami tribe.

 believe this is a protest against the World Cup being held here way back when.

I believe this is a protest against the World Cup being held here way back when.

Snakes on a...

Snakes on a…

In the evening we watched the football, Mexico to begin with. This reminded me that I made a promise to a Mexican friend in Korea (Hi Ruben!) that I’d next meet him in Brazil for the World Cup. Instead I was sat on the Yemeni border unaware that eyes were watching us…

In the morning we climbed up a little mound to get to Al Raoum Castle, another thing we missed last time, an old castle of a Yemeni king.

The Allies take a Yemeni stronghold.

The Allies take a Yemeni stronghold.

45 minutes up. 25 down.

45 minutes up. 25 down.

King of the castle...

King of the castle…

We also had a couple of other firsts on this trip. I mentioned in my previous post about Najran that it straddles the border with Yemen – the border that the Houthi Rebels control, and that the Yami tribe are from this region, who are Ismaeli – not in the dominant Sunni sect. So security and loyalty to the King are a bit questionable at times. Needless to say, this means several more checkpoints on the road down and around the town. Last time, we had no fuss whatsoever. This time however, they stopped us just outside of Najran and took our IDs for a few minutes after some questioning. Nothing too out of the ordinary there, but just unusual for us since normally they leave westerners be in our experience. They might be wary of the fact that the US Embassy explicitly tells US citizens to stay at least 50km away from the Yemeni border without permission and a military escort (pretty hard for us since we’re actually pretty close to another section of the border where we live). The British Embassy prefers simply to say, “take care.” Also, Khamis is quite a conservative town, but not once have I been told to go and pray by anyone except well meaning regular folk. Shortly after we arrived in Najran a mutawa pulled up, tooted his horn and told us to go and pray. He visited our apartments the next day, asked me in Arabic if I was staying here, I smiled and said I only speak English (the truth, but also the regular way to get people off your back). He pulled up and went inside for a snoop. I suspect he knew that we knew he had no business asking us for anything, so was polite and went straight for the IDs and phone number at the desk when we weren’t there to stop him. There was probably a mix of our details being taken by the checkpoint, and this lovely fella having a nosy, but the next day in college we got a phone call from their MI5 equivalent asking where we’d gotten to, because they were watching us in Najran but didn’t know where we’d gone. Detective work at its finest. They were directed to speak to our embassies and so hopefully that’s the last we hear from them. Positive discrimination is alive and well here. Having embassies that have a bit of umpf is a little reassuring for us, but makes you wonder about nationalities that come from lands with weaker representation.

I like Najran for its ruggedness and contrasting ideologies, even if Big Brother was a bit more active than we’d have liked. That isn’t so common in the Asir, but this wasn’t the Asir, this was Najran.

Mark and Ted were 'ere 2014.

Mark and Ted were ‘ere 2014.

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Mada’in Saleh

– Originally posted 19th May 2014.

Al Hijr to the locals, and Mada’in Saleh to everyone else. The jewel in the Kingdom’s crown. The must-see attraction in Saudi Arabia. Frowned upon by some because of the judgement of God brought on the idol worshipping, she-camel murdering community through the prophet Salih (earthquakes and mighty blasts from the sky no less, yikes!) killing all but the faithful and Salih. Ogled at with hungry touristy appetites by many others who can’t access the feast that is Mada’in Saleh. I’m not usually a superstitious kind of man (I don’t often like to wear green, but I don’t think that compares to legendary acts of God jinxing a place), and a visa isn’t something I have to worry about, so up I went to see this little-known gem.

Once in, we drove past the first tombs to avoid the other few cars who entered with us at opening time, and headed straight for the most iconic Qasr Al Farid. It stands alone, dominating the area with its striking magnificence. An unfinished tomb carved into a solitary giant rock in the desert. I’ve been to Petra and Lalibella, but they don’t have anything quite as startling as this. For such a world wonder, and for a gobsmacking zero riyals, we couldn’t quite fathom why we were the only ones stood there looking into its beauty. It’s no secret that tourism in the Kingdom is almost non-existent, but there are still millions of people living here, and I can’t stop racking my brain to try and figure out just why historical sites like these aren’t annoyingly overcrowded like its Nabatean sister in Petra. Not even a little bit. Since I complain about tourists ruining my tourism, I shouldn’t worry that this was not only the complete opposite of that experience, but it just so happened to combine with it being perhaps the most breathtaking combination of man-made architecture and natural landscape I’ve been to on planet Earth. That was a mouthful. It’s hard to say, but it’s definitely up there with the best. Saudi Arabia most definitely has something to offer world tourism if only it would open up its doors. We did actually meet an Austrian university group in Al Ula before we drove up to the site, complete with smiling-at-us-she-people (With hair and faces! We collapsed under the pressure!) that confused the cultural hell out of us. This is the one and only time we’ve come across tourism in the Kingdom, but they had a special invite from the government. I suspect they were as surprised to see us rolling into the car park unaccompanied as we were to see their pretty white faces glistening in the sun.

Qasr al Farid. I had to get the crowds to part so I could take this one.

Qasr al Farid. I had to get the crowds to part so I could take this one.

The circular route is littered with tombs small and large, with no one or next-to no one looking at any of them. Occasionally a 4×4-type vehicle would turn up and slow down so the passengers could wind down their windows and take a quick snap before continuing on down the track. Even less occasionally, people would get out, stand from a distance and watch us walk up to, into, and over the enticing tombs. I’m not sure why we seemed to be the ones exploring more than others. Perhaps they were under orders from their tour guides, or maybe they were intimidated by the non-existent security. Generally, there was an absence of everything; people, guards and cameras, so we assumed that if no one was there to stop us then we must be allowed to do whatever we pleased. We climbed on top of a couple of them, some of us (not me) a couple more, to take in the spectacular views of desert and red rocks. Sensational wind-eroded sandstone patterns were everywhere to be seen, with some remarkable shapes created by millions of years of nature doing its thing. Old settlements were dotted around which we were free to clamber upon. A few smatterings of litter and junk could be seen, but admittedly a whole lot less so than the rest of the Kingdom.

Could've picked a better picture? Perhaps. But I like it. It's my blog.

Could’ve picked a better picture? Perhaps. But I like it. It’s my blog.

Al Khuraimat. Maybe...

Al Khuraimat. Maybe…

With our two Hungarian friends we met in the airport. I think of myself as pretty good at sarcasm, but the absence of dry Euro-sarcasm in my life here was made evident in their company. A couple of times I missed the sarcasm in their comments much to my embarrassment. I've just forgotten how to be subtly funny these days, it goes down like a lead balloon here, so I've regrettably cut that kind of humour out of my conversations in KSA. I can add that to the list of things I've lost whilst living abroad, as well as knowing how to speak English properly. This last sentence is just to make this comment even longer than it already is.

With our two Hungarian friends we met in the airport. I think of myself as pretty good at sarcasm, but the absence of dry Euro-sarcasm in my life here was made evident in their company. A couple of times I missed the sarcasm in their comments much to my embarrassment. I’ve just forgotten how to be subtly funny these days, it goes down like a lead balloon here, so I’ve regrettably cut that kind of humour out of my conversations in KSA. I can add that to the list of things I’ve lost whilst living abroad, as well as knowing how to speak English properly. This last sentence is just to make this comment even longer than it already is.

It's an organic alien spaceship!

It’s an organic alien spaceship!

Like in Petra and Lalibella, you can’t help but marvel at the skill and time involved in the whole thing. Quite a feat if it was done today, never mind two thousand years ago. The desert, the tranquility, the architecture, the rock formations and the emptiness made it perhaps the best environment we’ve experienced in the Kingdom. The freedom to do as we pleased, unrestricted by police or nosy-parkers was bliss. Having nothing and no one to watch over us and instruct us on the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to do things was heaven, quite unbelievable in a place that should be high on the list of every traveller/tourist in the world.

In one way I’m happy that most reading this haven’t been to Mada’in Saleh, but in another, I need to tell you that you really have to go and see this place.

I'm aliiiiiive!

I’m aliiiiiive!

The Settlers of Qahtan.

– 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.

Men like this are still very visible indeed.

The long curly hair is a unique feature of the Tihami men.

The long curly hair is a unique feature of the Tihami men.

Topless men aren't seen these days.

Topless men aren’t seen these days.

On my return visit, I don't expect to see anything like this.

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?

Fancy a dip?

This is when it hadn't been raining.

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

Tanomah: Following Thesiger up into the Hijaz.

– 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.

Welcome to Tanomah Bani Shehr. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Welcome to Tanomah Bani Shehr. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

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.

Ma'na Mountain overlooks Tanomah. A possible location of "the myth of the seven sleepers."

Ma’na Mountain overlooks Tanomah. A possible location of “the myth of the seven sleepers.”

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.

The old mosque in Al-Dahna'a village. Possibly 400 years old.

The old mosque in Al-Dahna’a village. Possibly 400 years old.

An old fort. The ridge in the front is to help pour things down on would be attackers.

An old fort. The ridge in the front is to help pour things down on would be attackers.

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.

Warming by the fire in Mr. Fayez Dah Doh's place. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Warming by the fire in Mr. Fayez Dah Doh’s place. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Mr. Fayez bakes us some khobz. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Mr. Fayez bakes us some khobz. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Me, Mr. Fayez Dah Doh, Mr. Atef Abdulaziz Al-Shehri (our host) and of course, my new jembiya. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Me, Mr. Fayez Dah Doh, Mr. Atef Abdulaziz Al-Shehri (our host) and of course, my new jembiya. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

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.

The Outcrop, with Upper Tanomah to the right and Lower Tanomah to the left.

The Outcrop, with Upper Tanomah to the right and Lower Tanomah to the left.

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.

The old family home of Abdulaziz Atef Al-Shehri.

The old family home of Abdulaziz Atef Al-Shehri.

The decorative door.

The decorative door.

Traditional decor inside.

Traditional decor inside.

An old thobe and shawl for a single girl.

An old thobe and shawl for a single girl.

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.

Well hello. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Well hello. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Our visit was recorded on tanomah.com here: http://www.tanomah.com/magz/news-action-show-id-13736.htm

Najran: Down on the Yemeni border.

– 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.

Beit teen in Dahran al Janoub. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Beit teen in Dahran al Janoub. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Watch out for the...nothing. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Watch out for the…nothing. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

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.

Qasr Emara with Ted.

Qasr Emara with Ted.

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.

Souq el Jenabi. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

Souq el Jenabi. Photo courtesy of Martin Souster.

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.

Pre-dinner sweets with the lads.

Pre-dinner sweets with the lads.

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.

Saudis to the left of me, Yemenis to the right.

Saudis to the left of me, Yemenis to the right.

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.

Keep KSA clean!

Keep KSA clean!

Tihama and Faifa.

– Originally posted 16th November 2013.

Down the mountain from Abha, the sloping landscape and winding roads from as far south as Jizan and almost as far north as Jeddah encompass the lands called Tihama. Important historically in the frankincense trade, and culturally for its Tihami flower people. They have often been cut off from the West until recently, which means I can pretty much guarantee that most people reading this have never been there, and never even had it on their list. To get to Faifa (a town starting to put itself on the tourist map), our main destination, we had to go right through Tihama, down near Jizan and then up again to Faifa.

Camels! Glorious camels! Humming birds (well…one), kites (the bird kind, and again…one), baboons, sheep, goats and donkeys all stop by at the side of the road to cheer us on at some point. Also dead dogs. They seem like road kill, but they also seem to be left to rot, which isn’t a pleasant sight for anyone – never mind just dog lovers.

We hold our breathe at times as our driver demonstrates the fine line between excellent and terrible driving. At this point, my vote was with terrible. I was later to change my mind. I think.

The Long and Winding Road.

The Long and Winding Road.

Nowhere is safe...

Nowhere is safe…

Abha and Khamis are quite cool at this time of year, about 20c in the day, so it was nice to drive down into 30c+ in the Jizan area on a November morning. I should explain about the driving. Whilst I have a license and I’m willing to drive to places, finding people to go with us on trips who own cars is much more desirable for many obvious reasons. This day we went with some students of mine. I should explain about the “we” as well really. My Korean friend from Britain, yes that’s what I said, has started working for our college. We’ve only ever met in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, not sure where next – Afghanistan?

We climbed back up to Faifa, and it took me a while to realise that there are trees and plants everywhere. It’s actually remarkably green, which for Saudi Arabia is welcome – especially considering Abha is considered to be one of the greener towns, which I think means more than 3 trees and 10 blades of grass. The place was deserted, as we came during Friday prayers. It gave us a chance to stop undisturbed and take photos of the sloping terraced farms, houses on cliff edges and cable cars that transport belongings and groceries from one house to another. It really is quite nice and worth checking out. After a lamb lunch (where we got a very brief glimpse of the local gat, which I hadn’t seen since Ethiopia. The mind boggles as to how they get away with chewing that stuff in the open in Saudi Arabia – it seems Yemeni culture is alive and well down there) I found a local kid wearing a wizara, the local Asiri sarong style clothing, complete with jambiya, their ornamental (I hope) daggers. With the dad’s permission, we dazzled him and another kid dressed in the more obviously Saudi thobe and shemagh, with our camera flashes and great big signs that said “we’re tourists.” There weren’t many people dressed in this local kind of clothing, which was a bit disappointing to be honest. Didn’t they get the memo that we were coming?

I wonder if any have ever slipped down the mountain...

I wonder if any have ever slipped down the mountain…

I know what you're thinking. They trust kids this young with car keys?

I know what you’re thinking. They trust kids this young with car keys?

Some potatoes, a bag of sugar and some full fat camel's milk please.

Some potatoes, a bag of sugar and some full fat camel’s milk please.

On the way down, we saw some white men taking photos whom our new Saudi friend took delight in shouting a thousand welcomes at out of the window. Then we nearly drove off the cliff as our driver got distracted haranguing a baboon.

Back down the mountain, we parked up on Al Shaqaiq beach where I was surprised to find a very loose form of segregation, which seemed to just be “park where you think is appropriately far enough away from families.” Since it was rammed, this meant not very far away at all. So some lucky ladies got to see our sun reflecting white bodies from not too far away. The Red Sea is warm and a little too salty. Swimming in the Red Sea at sunset, watching the glowing red ball in the sky go down isn’t too bad all things considered. It was a strange scene I think. Families swimming and having barbecues on the beach as the sun goes down, whilst the ruffians skid around in the sand behind them in their pickup trucks, flashing their lights everywhere, and inevitably getting stuck in the sand.

After dinner, we coerced some flower men into getting their picture taken with me. By coerced I mean I got my Saudi friend to ask them. They weren’t dressed like real flower men, they were just regular guys who had flowers on their head, but it was close enough. Came away with some flowers for my head, which was nice. I got given the crap ones unfortunately, the guy with the good headgear offered a fraction too late and I was already putting my hand out to take the first ones offered. Couldn’t quite think how to refuse the first ones and accept the second ones…

My opinion of the driving changed as we got close to Abha. We ground to a halt, as there was a huge traffic jam. Asking people who were turning back, it seemed there was an accident all the way in Abha (20km away) and we were advised to turn back and try again tomorrow. Well. The finest example of crazy, dangerous, precise, skillful and bullish driving I’ve seen got us to the front in no time at all. He would fail a British driving test, but I would have failed the Saudi push your way to the front test.

Some might say seeing a humming bird, or lots of camels would be their highlight of the day. Others that visiting a fairly hard to get to village (it’s steep and dangerous when it rains) near the Saudi-Yemeni border would be. Maybe seeing the sun set whilst swimming in the warm Red Sea would top people’s list. However, I think I’m going to have to go with finding a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer in one of the shops. Completely blew me away. It wasn’t even a big shop, it was just there at the side of the road. Day absolutely made.

Scottish delicacies visit Faifa.

Scottish delicacies visit Faifa.

As a final note, I need to mention something about Saudi culture. Wilfred Thesiger was right. Saudi generosity is astounding. They are illogically generous with their time, equipment and money. I had a lovely conversation with the two chaps above about culture and this blog, and I talked about this generosity which seems to come naturally, and uncompromisingly – it’s really difficult/impossible to pay for things when you’re with them (we did manage to run away and buy our own swimming shorts before they could get them though!). It was perhaps the best day I’ve had in Saudi Arabia, and when I go home and Saudi Arabia starts to slip from my mind like it will, and people throw out the usual negatives about the place, I’ll tell them about my trip to Faifa and Shaqaiq with these gents. They are Saudi, they didn’t choose to be, they didn’t write their history books or create their laws, but they did choose to be nice guys and treat us magnificently.

Tomorrow in class, we’re reading a passage from Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (a previous blog post) about Arab generosity, because I want them to know that some Brits actually do have some remarkably good things to tell about their culture. We’re also reading it because my students are most definitely better than yours and we can read classic English literature on a Sunday morning.

Arabian Sands.

– Originally posted 1st October 2013.

“Two days later an old man came into our camp. He was limping, and even by Bedu standards he looked poor. He wore a torn loin-cloth, thin and grey with age, and carried an ancient rifle, similar to bin Kabina’s. In his belt were two full and six empty cartridge-cases, and a dagger in a broken sheath. The Rashid pressed forward to meet him: ‘Welcome, Bakhit. Long life to you, uncle. Welcome – welcome a hundred times.’ I wondered at the warmth of their greetings. The old man lowered himself upon the rug they had spread for him, and ate the dates they had set before him, while they hurried to blow up the fire and to make coffee. He had rheumy eyes, a long nose, and a thatch of grey hair. The skin sagged in folds over the cavity of his stomach. I thought, ‘He looks a proper old beggar. I bet he asks for something.’ Later in the evening he did and I gave him five riyals, but by then I had changed my opinion. Bin Kabina said to me: ‘He is of the Bait Imani and famous.’ I asked, ‘What for?’ and he answered, ‘His generosity.’ I said, ‘I should not have thought he owned anything to be generous with’, and bin Kabina said, ‘He hasn’t now. He hasn’t got a single camel. He hasn’t even got a wife. His son, a fine boy, was killed two years ago by the Dahm. Once he was one of the richest men in the tribe, now he has nothing except a few goats.’ I asked: ‘What happened to his camels? Did raiders take them, or did they die of disease?’ and bin Kabina answered, ‘No. His generosity ruined him. No one ever came to his tents but he killed a camel to feed them. By God, he is generous!’ I could hear the envy in his voice.”

-Wilfred Thesiger.