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  Letter from Yafa'

by Salma Samar al-Damluji

Dr Damluji returned to Yemen in February, after an absence of five years, to attend an international conference on mud-brick architecture convened in Seiyun by the University of Hadhramaut. She later travelled to Aden and Yafa’. Her publications on Yemen include: ‘A Yemen Reality’ (1991) and ‘The Valley of Mud-brick Architecture’ (1992).

On the second day of our excursion to the highlands of Yafa’ we reached al-Qudmah. This is the tribal village of Fadhi al-Naqib who lives in Abu Dhabi but had arranged for a friend of his in Aden, Hassan Ubaid, to accompany me as host and guide. We had spent the previous night in Dhiyan where I had the opportunity to admire the six storey stone house which Salem Saleb Muhammad has recently had built there. This is an encouraging example of a new building in traditional Yafa’i style, apart from the reception room on the top floor which follows the Sana’ani pattern.

On our way to the house of the village headman, Shaikh Abdul Rabb Ahmad Abubakr al-Naqib, we passed an old man proceeding in the same direction. I was struck by his dignified bearing and the refinement and gentleness expressed in his features; as I reached for my camera Hassan exclaimed, ‘This is our Shaikh’, and jumped down from the car to embrace the old man. Later, above the simple doorway leading into the walled courtyard of the Shaikh’s home, I saw a notice saying, ‘No visitors, please, after 7.30pm’! The walls and ceiling of his spacious reception room were decorated with carved gypsum, and there were fanlights above the windows. ‘Yafa’ ’, remarked our host with a warm smile, ‘is an entity in itself al—Mawsata is its heart, and the heart of al-Mawsata is al-Qu’aiti’. The district of al-Mawsata, which also includes al-Qudmah, is said to have a population of over 100,000. Upper Yafa’ has been divided into five districts since before Islam, reflecting the balance of tribal forces in the area.

Some, if not most, of the traditional rulers in south Yemen originated from Yafa’, like, for example, the Abdali Sultans of Lahej, the Qu’aiti Sultans of Hadliramaut and even, it is thought, the Bin Afrar of Mahra. Hassan told me that local Shaikhs or headmen are chosen not for their martial qualities but for their knowledge, wisdom and judgement, and that they, unlike all other Yafa’is, do not bear arms.

Earlier we had gone up to al-Suhallah, the village of the Al Bin Salali, the stronghold of Yafa’i master builders. There we met Mu’allim Hussain bin Mubsin bin Mis’ad who had accompanied us to al-Qudmah, and we later stopped at al-Ribat to watch Abdulrahman Saleb Ali and his team of masons cutting and chiselling stone into blocks measuring 5ft x lOin square; each block, Bin Mis’ad told us, cost 4500 riyals — a huge sum to ordinaryYemenis although the equivalent of less than thirty US dollars. Later that day we were joined by Muhammad Munassar alWardi, another builder but also a poet, who greeted me in verse specially composed for the occasion.

In Yafa’, surrounded by stone-built tower houses rising sheer above the terraced mountainside, one is transported to a world different in time and space: here the harshness of Nature is tempered by the ingenuity, enterprise and cooperative spirit of the Yafa’i people; I saw numerous social projects — schools, recreation centres, roads — all resulting from local community initiatives, private donations and self-help.

The following day Muhammad al-Wardi, Haidera, Hassan’s brother-in-law, and I proceeded to al-’Ayasah to visit the tower house built at al-Hamra by the late Abdullah Qasim al-’Aissa’i, brother of Shaikh Omar al-’Aissa’i who lives in Saudi Arabia. We were met by Sa’adiya, Abdullah’s widow, a charming personality and exemplar of a generation ofYafa’i women who combine traditional values with a free and independent spirit. She supervised the construction of Abdullab’s house and lives there on her own despite the fact that all her children are in Saudi Arabia. She told me that she was deeply attached to the house and to ‘the air ofYafa’’. So she only goes to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage, al-Umra and to visit her children, and then hastens back. She received us in the company of her brothers who live in the neighbouring village. Her house, surrounded by mountain peaks and deep gorges, occupies a spectacular position scenically and geographically. It was built in 1985 by masons from Al Bin Salali, and is a triumph of authentic craftsmanship over the makeshift culture of cement: it was a joy to see it. Sa’adiya, moving in a haze of incense, showed us round the house. Its beautiful diwan overlooks Wadi ‘Ayasah and Wadi ‘Amaq, the latter enfolding a cluster of stone houses belonging to members of the al-’Aissa’i family and built during the past fifteen years in traditional Yafa’i style. One of the two adjacent mosques has a slim stone minaret reminiscent of those at Jiblah. Visible from the roof of the building is the district of al-Qama’ and the stone-built villages where Shaikh Omar and Ali Abdullah al‘Aissa’i used to live. I enquired the name of the highest peak across the wadi and was told that it was Jebel al-Darfan, ‘kingdom ofjinns’, where no one could build. The story goes that some people did once build a house there and slept the night inside, only to wake next morning to find themselves out in the open! We next visited the living quarters of Abdullah’s house which is four storeys high, each storey comprising two rooms with two bathrooms; this means that the average Yafa’i house boasts between six and eight bathrooms — an international benchmark of luxury!

Our breakfast that morning consisted of papaya and other fruits, different kinds of Yafa’i bread, and delicious honey Sa’adiya told me that she was sent ‘gallons’ of honey from Saudi Arabia; it originates, of course, from Wadi Du’an, and it occurred to me that perhaps Hadhramaut was nearer to Jedda than Yafa’, and that there must be a ‘honey route’ from Du’an to Jedda, just as there had been an incense route several thousand years ago linking the cities of Hadhramaut with north Arabia.

We, Haidera and I, took our leave as soon as we heard the call to prayer and made our way towards Jebel Ahram to visit the site of the house built there by ShaikhAli al-’Aissa’i.The previous day, I had observed a cement tower on top oftheJebel, and I wondered how a man of Shaikh Ali’s status could bring himself to crown Yafa’s highest peak with hollow blocks of cement — as if wishing to encourage the local population to follow his example. I wanted to ignore the building but could hardly do so after receiving Shaikh Omar’s invitation to visit al-’Ayasah. If you are unfamiliar with the nature and design ofYafa’i architecture, you might think that this was just another cement building, five storeys high. But there is scarcely any need to compare a cement structure with a facade of hewn and dressed stone, and Shaikh Ali’s architectural aberration commands the whole panorama of mountain villages and inhabited wadis: al-Ghulain to the east, al-Sahila to the south, and al‘Ayasah to the south—east. What a blessing to find beside the tower a small stone-built mosque (about 5m x 4m) on a terrace approached by a flight of rock-cut steps. The Al-Nur mosque which, according to local tradition, is several hundred years old, is flanked by a large walled cistern and the grave of Shaikh Saleh Al-Nur. A house under construction nearby (for Hussain Abdullah al-’Aissa’i) comprised, I was told, two storeys of stone, with the rest being of cement blocks faced with stone. Although this arrangement looks all right on the outside, it undermines the integrity of the country’s traditional architecture; it affects the spirit and substance of the interior design which is bound up with the technology of traditional construction and its intrinsic features, such as vaults and arches. Muhammad Mubsin described changes in the nature and rules of local building as fundamentally damaging. How I wished that I had met Shaikh Ali before his house was designed and built.

We departed for al-Suhallah to have lunch at the house of Mu’allim Awadh bin Awadh al-Salahi who, together with Bin Mis’ad, had accompanied me on my architectural study ofYafa’ in the late 1980s and had helped me survey different examples of traditional building in all parts of Upper Yafa’. After lunch Awadh invited more than fifty people — headmen, village elders, master builders, professionals, teachers — to a qat-chew in a diwan near the souq. Accompanied by Haidera, I joined this large assembly but resolved not to chew I sat between the ‘builders and professionals’ who were quietly absorbed in their qat. Soon one of them rose to his feet to give me an official word of welcome, praising what I had written and published about Yemeni architecture and its importance... But it was clear that Awadh’s main objective that afternoon was to provide a forum within which builders and the public could interact and thus promote greater local awareness of the former’s concerns.

We discussed the reasons for the decline of traditional Yafa’i architecture during the past decade. They arise essentially from the requirements laid down by the property owner or client. Businessmen and merchants impose their own specifications on builders and it is this which leads to change. Master builders of Yafa’ realise that there are two kinds of modernity: improvement or mutilation. Discussion ranged over all aspects of the problem including the question of how masons from Al Bin Salali could devise creative solutions, instead of resorting to the easy option of using reinforced concrete to generate the wide spaces stipulated, for instance, in designs for diwans and reception rooms. I remarked that a solution was possible without compromising traditional technology and materials. We spoke about changes in design, and the use of cement blocks and pillars in the construction of secondary walls, and the substitution of staircases modelled on wooden ones for a central stairway — a practice which had made arches, the keystone of the old system, redundant. Al Bin Salah boast some 800 masons scattered in various places inside and outside the country and some of their most beautiful houses, standing proudly and confidently side by side, were built thirty years ago.

We were now on the way back to the village of Dhiyan to say farewell to Halima who had entertained me when I spent the night atAli Saleli’s house there. She had been attending a wedding and was a vision of saffron — from her brilliant dress to her powdered cheeks — and kuhi added lustre to her eyes. She showered me with gifts: green Yafa’i coffee beans, incense, a violet silk sash and floral patternedYafa’i dress, and a silver necklace with a Maria Theresa pendant which had belonged to her grandmother. After sunset we continued our journey towards al-Qu’aiti, as a full moon rose above a darkening landscape of ravines and hollows.

More than 60 pairs of sandals lay outside the door of the Al Ubaid’s diwan when I passed it on my way to visit Ja’afara, Ubaid Nasir’s wife. She received me in the living room on the third floor of their house. Her vitality and bright appraising eye belie her sixty years, for she has the figure and energy of a woman half that age. After relaxing in her company, I took my leave; but she insisted on escorting me down the steep stairway and across through the darkness to the door of the diwan. I noticed with relief that the pile of sandals outside the room was now much smaller, signifying the departure of a large number of Ubaid’s visitors. I entered, and there was Madyan, the singer and aoud player who had serenaded us in alQu’aiti with an impressive repertoire of lyrics from Aden, Sana’a and Hadhramaut, not to mention Sufi poetry from his native Yafa’. Hassan told me that after my meeting with the master builders ofAl Bin Salah, it had been decided to establish a society to preserve the traditional style ofYafa’i architecture, and that an expatriate Yemeni, who had taken a close interest in my visit to Yafa’, had donated 100,000 riyals to promote the society’s objectives. At that moment there was an electricity cut (inYafa’ there is power only from 2pm to 9pm); candles were brought and the haunting cadences of Madyan’s voice and lute could be heard far into the night.

The following morning we breakfasted with Ja’afara and Ubaid Nasir in the fresh open air of their verandah before starting out on our return journey to Aden. Between al-Qu’aiti and Al Bin Salah one is struck by the variety of colour in the stonework of the old buildings — shades of ochre, sepia, grey, even tinges of green in the parapets — and clustered together they resemble the walls and watchtowers of a fortress. Work on improving and widening the road is being financed entirely by the local community. It was one of many self-help projects that I saw during my brief but happy and rewarding trip toYafa’ — a land which will always have a special place in the architecture of my heart.

July 2000