Wadi Hadramout is a broad chasm cut a couple of hundred meters deep into the desert. When the rains do come they flush straight through it creating a lush green valley with palms as far as the eye can see. With nothing but lifeless desert surrounding it, this was the only inhabitable corridor within hundreds of miles, and starting in the 10th century BC people took full advantage. What remains to be seen is remarkable. To protect against flooding and the occasional neighbor with a shotgun, towns grew upwards rather than outwards. The eight story 500-year-old buildings of Shibam, Hadramout’s principal city, are concentrated in a square kilometer creating canyon-like streets that bear an uncanny resemblance to midtown Manhattan. Except for all the camels and the stench of their dung.
Trade in frankincense and myrrh brought riches to the region, precious few traces of which remain. Seyoun, where I spent the night, is dominated by a 300 room palace which I spent hours wandering through. When I thought that the attraction had been sapped of any remaining interest I stumbled across the Seyoun Public Library just by the exit. A librarian sat barefoot reading an English newspaper, his desk facing a very lonely shelf of books. He was eager to practice his English.
With Seyoun’s literacy rate of barely 50% the library is not exactly a happening spot in town. “No one comes here, they have no interest in reading and books. Maybe one or two people per month. But I sit here all day, every day. Meanwhile, young people just want to watch television,” he scowled. The library was paid for by the government of the Netherlands. No doubt there is a website somewhere, boasting to have funded the first public library in Wadi Hadramout, keystone for development.
Given his lack of business it’s no surprise that the town librarian has another source of income. After several minutes of chat two men came in holding a pile of videocassettes. A few words of Arabic were uttered and a wooden stamp removed from the drawer, each cassette receiving a well-inked smack before getting wrapped and taped inside a sheet of paper. As he was stamping the paper on all sides, I asked what it could possibly say.
“It says, Town of Seyoun Video Censorship, Reviewed. If people want to bring videos out of Yemen they need this stamp, otherwise the videos will be confiscated. I have to watch all of these videos to make sure that they are OK.”
“What kind of things would they not be allowed to bring out?”
“Things that are prohibited. Things that are not allowed.”
“Like what?,” I pried further, unwilling to let this lie.
“Sex,” he whispered sheepishly with an embarrassed grin. “Sex and Osama bin Laden. These things are not allowed.”
“Have you watched all of these videos to check them for bad things?” He did have a little TV and VCR next to his desk but he hadn’t yet budged from his chair.
“There is no need for this, these people are my friends,” he said resolutely as he handed over the wrapped and stamped cassettes in exchange for about $1.