11-Jan-2006 -- Ḥajja, one of Yemen's 20 governorates, is split awkwardly into two geographically distinct regions. Ḥajja the city is the governorate capital, and is located high in the Ḥarāz mountains that form Yemen's North to South 'backbone'. But, keep driving along the road that links the capital city Ṣan`ā' to Ḥajja, and you will quickly descend into the furnace-like Tihāma (coastal plain) region that separates the Ḥarāz from the Red Sea. Tihāma is reminiscent of the Horn of Africa in many ways, both in its terrain and its people, many of whom claim African descent. The African influence is exemplified by the circular reed huts that can be found throughout the area. The sky appears hazier than in the mountains, as testified by the pictures included. Finally, Tihāma is distinct from the mountainous regions by its almost complete lack of a tribal structure (compare my recent visit to 16N 44E) and the people living there are largely unarmed.
It is in this Tihāma region that 16N 43E lies. It took many hours to drive from Ṣan`ā' to the nearest town to the point, `Abs, but it was a pleasant journey through the spectacular scenery of the Ḥarāz. I was surprised to bump into a British couple at a military checkpoint: they'd been holidaying in Yemen, and were on their way to Ḥajja. Most tourists here are Italian, and it's always nice to meet fellow countrymen when far from home. However, this coincidence led me to inadvertently pick up the inevitable police escort, which accompanied me all the way to `Abs.
On arriving at `Abs, I explained the project in my politest Arabic at the local police station (note the large picture of President `Aliy `Abdullāh Ṣāliḥ above the entrance). It took almost an hour to secure their agreement, but enough of the officials there were curious enough to want to find out why this spot in the middle of farmland would be so fascinating to a British diplomat. So, we trundled into the desert as a two-car convoy: me and a plain-clothed policeman in the Land Rover, and six soldiers and another plain-clothed policemen in an open-backed police truck. An asphalt road took us to within 4 km of the point, from where we went off road onto a series of very sandy farm tracks deep into the al-Jir agricultural area. It would be impossible to describe the route, as it was so windy and complicated, but, with the aid of a local farmer, we got the vehicles to a pleasing 90 m away from the target. A short yomp over sand took me roughly into the centre of the field. A herd of cattle was being farmed to the East, which can be seen in the picture as tiny specks of white near the clump of trees to the left. To the South lay a few farm houses, and to the West lay a row of trees separating the farm of the confluence point from its neighbour, in front of which the vehicles were parked.
The plain-clothed policemen, `Aliy Ṣāliḥ `Aliy `Aoun and Muḥammad Bašīr, had been holding their reserve, but eventually couldn't resist the temptation and trotted over about ten minutes after I'd reached the point. In the picture, `Aliy Ṣāliḥ is wearing a fūṭa (a Yemeni equivalent of a kilt) and holding in his left hand a bag of qāt. Shortly afterwards, three local farmers came over from the houses. They were all from the same family - two were called `Aliy Muḥammad, and the other was called Ibrāhīm Muḥammad (the other [sic] `Aliy Muḥammads were 'unfortunately out in different fields'). I explained about the Degree Confluence Project, and they explained about their work. The farm in which 16N 43E lies is normally used for growing mangos, although there were no mango trees there at present. Mango trees were in evidence in neighbouring farms, however.
During the drive back to `Abs, Muḥammad Bašīr told me that, in addition to mangos, the local farms also grew figs and balas. I was forced to admit that I had no idea what Balas was in English, at which point he got very excited and insisted on us driving back into the agricultural zone to visit a balas farm. I then watched bemused as all the hardened soldiers that I'd been travelling with downed their weapons and ran around picking balas. The taste is very difficult to describe: almost syrupy, with a very mushy texture when ripe. They're certainly not unpleasant, but telling when they're ripe is something of an art, as the forbidding green skin often belies a balas ready to eat.
After having had their fill, the soldiers dropped me off at the next checkpoint and presented me with a large bag of balas. In return I bought them some qāt and gave them some ḥalwa (pistachio sweets) brought from Ṣan`ā', before driving on to al-Ḥudayda where I planned to spend the night. On the way, I reflected on the enormous kindness and hospitality one experiences wherever one goes in Yemen.
Continued at 15N 43E.
For notes about the involvement of the British Embassy Ṣan`ā' in the Degree Confluence Project, please see my earlier visit to 15N 49E.