Sage of Sanaa - Saturday Telegraph, 30th October, 2010
I had an appointment to meet "the sage of Sanaa" in his sitting room perched on the summit of a medieval tower-house in the heart of the ancient capital city of the Yemen. Tim Mackintosh-Smith is a man who translates Arabic verse for fun, whose spoken Arabic is so good that he can playfully switch between variant Yemeni accents, and who, just a month ago, completed a trilogy of books that has taken him across the entire Islamic world in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta - the Muslim Marco Polo. He is now just short of fifty and has lived in the Yemen for more than 30 years, but is neither a flamboyant expatriate nor a pious reclusive convert hidden behind a beard and an earnest new identity. Rather, he remains proudly British, a member of the Church of England who plays the organ to cathedral-close standards, with a mother living in an old rectory in Lincolnshire and a brother restoring old churches.
“No don’t move. You’ll get hopelessly lost. I will find you Barnaby. It will be important to have eaten a good lunch to line your stomach, before we begin our afternoon chew. I am afraid all I can cook up is tea.”
“No, its no problem at all – even if you hadn’t written that superb review in Country Life you would be most welcome. And by chance it couldn’t have been a better day, I have just come back from the Gulf and as for the rest of the week I am already booked-up to chew with Abdul –Wahab or Hassan.”
Then Tim lurched into Arabic, before quoting some Vergil, then reminded me to eat heartily, but to be back at the Borj hotel by about 3 o’clock. I handed back the telephone to the hotel’s guard, who refused to even think of accepting any payment.
The timing of my visit to the Yemen could not have been better, for October is a wonderful month. The mountains are lit with bright gashes of green, brought about by the second spring (in autumn), giving life to the terraced fields that contour the hills. The heat, though impressive, is not oppressive, and with the harvest in, the souks are burgeoning with fresh fruit. It is also the season of weddings, so that in every other village there were tented feasts, sword dances, proud processions of warriors in their finest and music. I knew Tim would also be at home, having just completed a speaking tour in London and then the Gulf to help launch the last title of his Ibn Battuta trilogy, Landfalls.
Yet in so many other ways it is not such a good time to be visiting the Yemen. A couple of Belgian tourists and their Yemeni driver and guide were machine-gunned in the Wadhi Hadramut last year. In March of this year, some visitors from South Korea (surely among the world's least prominent targets) were blown up by a suicide bomber while photographing the town of Shibam. The day before I flew out, there was another attack on a British embassy car (the second this year) and while I was there both the French and the British embassies were evacuated, bombs were detonated and assassinations took place during National Day. A low-grade war continued to rumble away on the northern frontier.
So why was I in the Yemen? In part because a charismatic Iraqi archaeologist (whose work I much admire) had been plotting to get me invited to the Yemen for years through her friends in the Ministry of Tourism and Information – and having already refused two invitations, I felt it would be bad luck to refuse a third. I also desperately yearned to see for myself the places that I had already written about in my history books about the Prophet Muhammad and his Four successors to Caliphate. And now that I was fifty, I thought it was important to add new skills to my life, like meeting a free scholar and chewing Qat in a medieval rooftop. I was now of an age to read, digest and if need be, ignore the dire warnings of the Foreign Office.
Our local guide, Muhammad, and our driver, Abdul, were charming and did their best to reassure us. We were not to worry, for Abdul was also an armed policeman. Muhammad told us not to be concerned if we were kidnapped, for he had been held for 18 days (in the company of a delightful-sounding English geologist) and had found the food to be plentiful, with a fresh goat slaughtered every morning. However, in a certain tribal district in the mountains they had both asked us to pretend to be German for our own safety. My face must have betrayed me, for Muhammad relented and offered up Austrian as a compromise. There are many disagreeable things to which a modern British traveller must be prepared to undergo on behalf of "security" - strip searches, US Homeland Security and the like, but pretending to be German was a step too far. In the event, nothing more frightening happened to us than being wished good luck and bade a whispered "Be careful" by three men in dark glasses in an enormous darkened car - twice.
At the end of a week of travel, checking up on Fatamid mosques, mountain-top citadels and ancient pre-Islamic trade-routes, I reached my primary goal - Tim's sitting room in Sanaa. I had gone to meet Tim because he is in that small band of British travel writers who really matter - because their passionate immersion in another culture is lifelong and true - like Paddy Leigh-Fermor at home in the Mani or William Dalrymple in Delhi. As so often I found out that a lifelong passion had been acquired quite by chance. Tim had gone up to Oxford (assisted by a music scholarship due to the excellence of his organ playing) to read classics but whilst there had switched to classical Arabic. At that time in Oxford, Arabic literature like classical literature was taught but never spoken, though one of his tutors privately suggested that he could fill this gap for himself by spending a year in Arabia. Which he did, much to the surprise of his other tutors, by absenting himself in the Yemen between 1982 and 1983. This would later be extended by another 9 years when Tim took up a teaching post in Yemen for the British Council before the Gulf Wars complicated matters and he was forced to go private. His first literary intention, bolstered by the acquisition of a series of motorbikes, had been to trace all the journeys of T.E.Lawrence in the Middle East on period bone-shattering bikes. This youthful quest was crushed by a visiting writer, Edna 0’Brien, who had accepted a British Council invitation to lecture in southern Arabia, and had told Tim (who was acting as her local host and guide) that it ‘was a crime to live here and not write about it.” So Tim had set to work, not with a flourish but quietly with a typewriter. He also had the wisdom to keep hold of the security of a day job, and to avoid all all the outward panoply of being a professional writer (the search for the right publisher, a powerful agent and an impressive advance) until he had a finnished typescript to show them all.
The strong sun of southern Arabia filtered through roundels of alabaster. By leaning across the sofa-like bed of powder-blue cushions, I could see the rooftops of medieval Sanaa through windows set with panels of blue and red glass. Five minarets rose like exclamation marks, revealing the location of a number of ancient mosques buried within densely packed streets populated by craftsmen, merchants and stall-holders.
From somewhere close by the smell of the donkey market overlay other neighbourhood scents still hanging in the breezeless noon air: the resinous shavings of the carpenters in the Nejjarine quarter and the burnt ozone and charcoal from the blacksmiths along the Haddadine alleyway. My host was downstairs washing a small bushel of qat, the drug of choice for a mid-afternoon chat in polite society in the Yemen. It looks disconcertingly like the clippings from a privet hedge.
The idea is to chew away at a trayful of qat prunings for three or four hours (through the enervating heat of the mid-afternoon) while admiring the view, chatting gently and now and then quoting a suitable quatrain of verse. It is the equivalent of being asked to an afternoon game of bridge - but without the aggressive sense of competition - and it culminates with a pot of tea.
One of the downsides of qat chewing is that you have to learn to store the cud of chewed leaves in your right cheek, which makes you look like the greedy kid who bought the biggest gob-stopper in the sweet shop. I soon found out that amateur chewers also slur a bit when they talk and swallow too much of their spinach-like mash when they sip from a cold glass of water. My other failing was not chewing away at the succulent stalks, to the extent that my host was forced to go through my clippings and re-present the best bits before I was offered any more leaves.
But in this supremely comfortable environment I had the time to find out what kept Tim in Sanaa. The city was, he freely confessed, "his muse", the inspiration for his writing and also his affirmation, for he dwelt among people who still valued faith, music, oral poetry, history, genealogy and conversation above disposable wealth. It was also cheap, so that the pittance earned by any literate writer from book sales was enough to keep him in food, water, books and friends.
He was clearly nourished by the friendship of his Yemeni neighbours, many of whom he had taught English and music over the past 30 years, as he now taught their children. Some of these friends carved alabaster, some composed poetic narratives, while others had risen to become ministers in government or professors of microbiology. Though Tim appeared completely indifferent to the bubble-like charm of expatriate and diplomatic society, it was also clear that the English friends that he had made in Yemen, the historians Julian Raby and Venetia Porter, and travel writers such as Kevin Rushby and Eric Hansen, had defined and continued to encourage him as a writer.
We broke off from talk to listen to the mid-afternoon call to prayer, billowing out from all the surrounding minarets and also marking an end to the siesta. Then we looked out through his rooftop windows, each seemingly acting as an inspiration for a dozen different books as Tim reeled off some of the potent history on his doorstep. We were perched on the edge of Sabean palace-mound from which the Queen of Sheba and Melchior (one of the Three Wise Men) would have left for their epic, pilgrimage like journeys to the Holy land, to meet Solomon and the Christ-child, respectively. Over there was the mosque of Ali, where the Prophet’s young cousin first arrived at Sanaa as a poor traveller and bedded his tired camel down in the courtyard of the tinkers, where old pots and kettles were mended. Whilst behind us was the great mosque where only a few years ago the oldest, and arguably the most bold and beautiful pages of the Koran had been found, ‘buried’ for safe-keeping above the vaults of the prayer hall. It was also in a street nearby that Tim bought his first copy of the travels of Ibn Battuta between 1325 to 1340.
It was also here in Sanaa that Tim had felt compelled to begin his researches after a Yemeni friend reported an old story that had been passed down in his family about the famous Moroccan-born traveller, Ibn Battuta. There is nothing of the diligent map-maker or the geographical explorer about Ibn Battuta, indeed his journeys if traced on a map of the Middle East look like a disordered cardiograph, as he wizzed backwards and forwards between the great cities of Islam, seeking wisdom from scholars and employment from Sultans, whilst continually allowing himself to be distracted by women, food, dervish mystics and an itching wonderlust. But only in the Yemen can you blink and instantly be plunged back 700 years into the street gossip of the 14th century. Then, as now, highland tribes kidnapped travellers, and tried to hold their own governments to ransom. Then, as now, to be free was to be armed, not just with a conspicuous dagger in your belt, but with guns tucked away in house, car, cave and granary. A recent survey suggested that guns still outnumbered people in the Yemen by four to one. Rebellion remains as valid a form of political action as voting; medieval cities are still occupied by the descendants of their original inhabitants; craftsmen are still respected, tribal elders are listened to, faith matters and poets and guns still speak.
As we parted, Tim gave me a line from Sterne: "The man who disdains to walk down a dark entry may be good for a hundred things, but he will never make a good sentimental traveller."
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by Barnaby Rogerson