Farewell Yemen…for now
Endings and goodbyes. A last meal with Adebe – he had hoped a friend was arriving from Addis with some more shekla, but this had not materialised. Instead he handed me some special ground chili, expertly prepared by an old Ethiopian woman he knew, and said if his dad turned up some more records, he’d happily forward them to me. More unexpected kindness.
We talked some more, and he said he had spoken to his mother on the phone and she had cried throughout the whole conversation. This caused an uneasy silence to settle on our discussion, as he looked at the floor briefly. ‘I think I will have to go next back year,’ he eventually stated. It seemed like he was willing to take his chances. I wished him the best of luck, and he said the next time we eat Ethiopian food it will be in Addis – I sincerely hope this is the case.
The next day, I go for one last trawl through the Old City. Salim and his now three strong crew of ‘finders’ seemed to have scooped up what was left of the local vinyl, and I skipped through these last piles. In addition to some more nice Yemeni 45s, these included a series of badly scuffed Egyptian LPs, an entire Russian language course, and an exotica LP, with a cliched ‘Arabian’ theme – the best title on the album was ‘Rebecca from Mecca’. You get the picture…
I asked once more about the James Brown album. Still the asking price was $150 – the younger shop assistant said it was at his elder brother’s insistence. I probed some more, wondering how this price tag had been arrived at – I tried to explain that it would probably remain on this wall forever, if there was no possibility of a reduction.
“Yes,’ he admitted, ‘it’s been there for three years already! But I think my brother paid a lot of money for it. And now he is trying to make it back!” This admission was followed by some laughter from Salim’s friends. At least it now made a sort of sense, even though it was a hopeless endeavor.
I leave with Salim to buy some gifts, and look around the Old City for one last time. We go to the Jami’ al-Kabir, one of the oldest mosques in the Islamic world, apparently built after a direct order from the Prophet Mohammed himself. We walked to the top of the old caravanserai, where merchants would stay over night, their animals occupying the lower floor, whilst their rooms overlooked the stone atrium. It gave a beautiful view over the city – save for the satellite dishes, and metal water tanks, I doubt this view had changed much in nearly a millennia.
Yemen had one last surprise for me, though. As we finished our tour, we ran into a wedding procession. In addition to the noise of the crowd, a radio microphone was picking up the burr and whine of what looked like a bamboo flute, whilst a percussionist pounded away on a metal hand drum. This was not the metallic scittering of the dumbek ,heard in music throughout the Arab world, and into Persia and Turkey. This was something more robust, more definite. The music was blasted through the streets through an old metal tannoy.
Then there was the dancing, the odd twirl, dervish-like, the Jambiya (traditional Yemeni curved knife) blades flashing in the sunshine, once, in fact, almost lacerating the cheek of a careless passer by. As the rhythm thundered the dancers dropped, dipped and circled as the crowd whooped in approval. There was nothing implied about the movements – they were executed with exuberance and purpose. All the while the drummer played and the crowd clapped.
Finally a group of women, faces and bodies hidden in a sheen of black, save for smiling eyes. They hollered and shrieked, and it was unmistakable. The same shrill calls I’d heard in the music of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania, uttered as the music reached its happy crescendo.
In some ways, this was what I’d wanted to hear captured on record. A small cultural semblance that the Arabian Peninsula had once sat snugly in the Horn of Africa’s crescent, maybe at the time of Pangea; that the small barrier of the Red Sea hadn’t stopped a musical exchange between countries and continents. Difficult to quantify, sometimes impossible to prove, borders thankfully become fluid when it comes to such things.