Seen in the Yemen: Travelling with Freya Stark and Others

Seen in the Yemen: Travelling with Freya Stark and Others 

by Hugh Leach, Arabian Publishing, 2011. Pp.320. Maps. Illus. (148 duotone photographs). Glossary. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £45. ISBN:978-0-9558894-5-5.

'Cold voices whisper and say – he is crazed with the spell of far Arabia, they have stolen his wits away.' 

The closing line of Walter de la Mare's poem, Arabia, is an apposite opening for Hugh Leach's mesmerizing book about Yemen. An OBE and eminent Arabist who spent a long career serving as a soldier and diplomat in the Middle East, Leach was not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, to have his wits 'stolen by the spell of Arabia'. But he is, perhaps, one of the few to have channelled his derangement into the form of a beautiful book.

Seen in the Yemenis an interesting amalgamation of three elements: the author's fascination for Yemen (from his time there in the 1970s), his passion for photography, and his travels with the intrepid explorer Dame Freya Stark (1893"1993). The plan had originally been to publish the book in the 1970s as a companion to Stark's Seen in the Hadhramaut (1938). Although the project fell through, Leach kept the idea alive and, now, some forty years later, has pulled together his thoughts, photos and memories of his travels with the Dame and other intrepid travellers across the wild and rugged terrain of Northern Yemen. In doing so he gives us a unique picture of faces and places "many of which, for unfortunate reasons, are no longer accessible either to foreigners or Yemenis themselves.

Freya Stark had last been in Yemen in 1940 at the behest of the British government which had sent her on a colonial mission to counter Fascist propaganda. Armed only with four rolls of film and a projector, she had toured the harems of various notables in Sana'a, showing her bewildered audience grainy films of 'everyday life in Edinburgh' and 'army manoeuvres at Aldershot.' Her assignment took her as far as the lairs of the wife of Imam Yahya whom, although she had never met him in person (The Imam had sworn never to set eyes on a European woman), she saw peeping at the films through a slit in the curtains.

Forty years later Stark returned to Yemen, though this time on a less formal mission: to explore the country's weathered central highlands. The author's portraits show an elderly woman (by then in her early eighties) yet one still full of life; with a walking cane in her hand and white cotton bonnet perched neatly on her head, she is seen in lively conversation with Yemeni men and women or snapping shots of grubby-faced children on her camera. Leach talks of her 'unfailing good humour, unremitting equability,' and describes her as 'uncomplaining of the hardships of travel and ability to make the most of every waking hour,' crucial ingredients perhaps for any traveller of this calibre.

Before unveiling his images, the author gives us a brief survey ofYemen's history "from pre-Islamic times to the twentieth century "in order to set the stage. Those with a thirst for photography will find interest in his short chapter on 'the world of Leica cameras,' the legendary German-made model favoured by famous travellers such as William Thesiger and Ella Maillart. (The 'two well-travelled ladies,' referred to by the author are in fact his two 1930s 'screw-thread' Leicas.) 

Capturing the intensity and beauty of Yemen's landscapes and people is no easy task for a writer or photographer. But Leach, with his stalwart belief in the power of black and white photography, shows that his Leicas are up to the job. His pictures may miss out on some of Yemen's many startling colours but in foregoing these, he is as able to capture light and shade in a dramatic manner, which make for an intense montage of shots. He talks of how the 'ease and promiscuity' of modern automatic cameras has sapped the discipline required to compose in those classic 'golden thirds.' 

The first set of shots is of Yemen's ancient capital. Those who have frequented Old Sana'a will no doubt take great pleasure in recognising the familiar sights of the old town, with its iconic skyline packed with soaring minarets and tottering gingerbread tower-houses. Photos of many another city taken forty years ago might be harder to recognise, but not Sana'a. The bright-faced children peeping out of wooden-shuttered windows, the smiling grandfather carrying a sheep across his shoulders, the two veiled women shuffling down a narrow cobbled alleyway their sitarahs billowing behind them "all these sights remain to be seen even today and remind us that, aside from satellite dishes, mobile phones and sputtering motorbikes, little else has altered the majestic old town.

Next we are whisked off to Yemen's central highlands for a glimpse into the lives of those inhabiting some of the country's extraordinary skyscraping villages, clinging to precipitous mountain spurs and peeping through wisps of cloud. We are taken from Bait Baws, Jabal al-Nabi Shu'ayb (at 12,000 ft, the highest point in the Arabian peninsula) and Kawkaban (two planets), to the crumbling ruins and cylinder-shaped defensive burjs (towers) of old Rawdah. The next chapter brings us down from 'the hard men on the hills' into the sand dunes, towns and scorching plains of the Tihamah, Yemen's narrow coastal region, which clings to the Red Sea. The home of palm trees, rope-strung beds, Sufi poets, keyhole-shaped doorways, crumbling Shafi'i mosques, sweaty camels and some of the hottest temperatures on earth.

The final, and perhaps most intriguing, collection of photographs record a journey by the author to the remote northern province of Sa'adah in 1971, which he visited with the consent of the then Prime Minister, aiming to rediscover the remaining Jewish families still living there. That very few outsiders, particularly Europeans, had visited in recent times can be seen by the expressions of astonishment on the local people's faces. Leach gives a fascinating insight into the looks and habits of this small yet ancient minority, who believe their roots in Yemen stretch back to the invasion of Judaea by Nebuchadnezzar, with their shoulder-length hair ringlets (zinnar), potent red wine and strict adherence to the Jewish calendar. He notes with regret their steady exodus from Yemen in the second half of the twentieth century. (The Jewish community in Yemen is thought to have shrunk from around 60,000 in the 1940s to around only 300 people today.) 

One can easily spend hours leafing through the thick pages of this book, taking in the sights of this striking land. The photographs have a strange way of transfixing you. Spend some time with them and you, too, will feel yourself succumbing to the spell of Arabia.

Tom Finn

Author: 
Hugh Leach