The people of Shahara haven’t exactly had it easy over the last 500 years. Aside from the struggles of trying to squeeze subsistence out of mountain slope farming, they’ve suffered from centuries of attacks from neighboring tribes, not to mention the Turks and the Egyptians. But an extreme mountaintop location has helped repel them all. These are tough people and the Yemeni government has now opted just to leave them alone.
Despite lingering suspicion of anyone from beyond their slopes, tourists have started to seep into Shahara. The object of their interest is a spectacularly set 17th century bridge connecting two mountaintop villages. Surely this would be one of the top tourist attractions in the middle east were it not such an ordeal to get there.
Permission to travel to the northernmost parts of Yemen can only be obtained if you are accompanied by armed guards. So once again I had an escort, this time a pickup truck full of soldiers manning a heavy machine gun mounted on the back. In Sanaa it had seemed a wise precaution for this notorious tribal area. But after several hours irritation had set in, with the soldiers constant complaints about not enough food stops, and whining for me to buy them Qat like children begging for ice cream. In the heat of the moment, the $50 “fee” they were getting – a relative fortune in Yemen – seemed suspiciously like a scam.
At the foot of the Shahara massif, the driver pointed up to the most remote crags of the 2,500 meter peaks. This, the most unlikely location for a village in sight, was supposedly the end of the road. What a road this must be. Here I exchanged the soldiers and the Landcruiser for the back of a pickup truck. This was now tribal country and the three heavily armed locals in the front – all to be handsomely paid – meant more than anything else.
“No European could ever drive this road,” the driver smiled at me. “Only Bedouin.” Bedouin and Japanese, apparently, as a Toyota Landcruiser advertisement was filmed here several years back. The truck made its way up the seemingly impregnable heights, one hairpin turn after another. From the back of the truck it was impossible to avoid the views, straight down, just a tire-width away drops of more than 1,000 meters. Inevitably, at the steepest incline the motor sputtered to a halt. The thought of the bald tires and weary brakes made me hop off the back right away. The tribesmen all ran for stones to brace against each wheel. Given the absurd inclines, it was hard to believe that the tortured engine would make it the remaining distance. But a half hour’s work with a dagger had us back on our painstaking way.
A stranded tribesman with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder waved us down for a ride up, but stopping for him would lose momentum. We left him in the dust for the final stretch, resembling steps more than anything else. As we bounced into the village’s main square, I decided to walk down the next morning.
My best reference point for these tribal areas of Yemen is Peshawar in Pakistan. Like the Pashtun people, these tribesmen are fiercely loyal to their clan, overwhelmingly hospitable, and tough as nails. The friendliness of the village could not totally conceal some darker undercurrents, the sensation that people here could snap at the slightest.
As I sat on the edge of a cliff watching the sunset a crowd of children gathered around. A few spoke basic English. “Where are you from? What is your job? Do you like Adolph Hitler?”
Maybe nowhere else but here, a loaded question. “No, he was a very bad man and killed many people.”
“Yes, but no Christians, only Jews.”
This polite, at times even naive conversation, embodied the paradox of a journey through Yemen. That despite the smothering hospitality – the taxi drivers who refuse payment, the invitations to peoples homes, the sincere readiness to drop everything to help out a stranger in need – you never shake the feeling that a single violation of one of the strict conventions, will bring grave trouble. It’s difficult to explain.