04-Mar-2006 -- The Governorate of al-Jawf has long been a byword for disorder. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a travel writer and expert on Yemen, wrote that "the main interest of the people of al-Jawf is, and always has been, fighting". It is certainly true that the tribesmen that live there are no strangers to conflict: an affinity with violence has indeed cemented its place in North Yemeni tribal systems. But there is another side to the people of al-Jawf: an astonishing generosity, despite being just about the poorest region in Yemen, alongside a sharp sense of humour and legendary hospitality.
I'd been trying to visit al-Jawf to look at some British Embassy projects for some time. Security concerns meant that gaining entry to the Governorate was a difficult and bureaucratic process. A previous attempt failed at the first checkpoint, despite my having the necessary documents. On this occasion, things nearly went the same way: the ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Interior had agreed, but the Governor of al-Jawf had not. A frantic round of phone calls took place on the morning of travel, and eventually I was allowed to go. Travelling with me was `Abdu l-Majīd al-Fahed, the Director of CDF (Civic Democratic initiatives support Foundation), a Yemeni NGO that has worked with the UK on projects to prevent tribal conflict over water resources. We were also accompanied by an eight-man military escort, equipped with a vehicle-mounted machine gun, which had been sent by the Ministry of the Interior.
On the way north from Ṣan`ā' we stopped at the Ma`īn ruins of Barāqiš, recently excavated by an Italian archaeological team. This is a fascinating site, with some interesting Islamic period structures in addition to the ancient Ma`īn ones. Peaceful wandering wasn't much of an option, however, as we'd been joined by a further eight-man military team sent by the Governor of al-Jawf, bringing my escort up to the grand total of sixteen.
We continued to the administrative town of Ḥazm, where we had lunch at the house of the local council representative, `Abdu l-Ḥamīd. This was my first taste of Jawfiyy hospitality: many different Yemeni dishes were laid out on the floor, which our hands collectively dived into to pull out bits of food that we wrapped in shards of flatbread. Once full, we sat back and started to chew qāt and talk about the issues of the day with the local tribesmen of the Hamdān clan. Majīd mentioned the DCP, and ushered me to get the map out of the car. Much discussion about directions, roads and tribal areas followed, before it was decided that we should make an attempt on the point. It was 4 p.m. by then, so I was a bit dubious about getting there and back before dark, but nobody else seemed to think it would be a problem. One car went into town to fill up with fuel, and we filled up with our tribal protection of three armed Hamdāniyys (`Abdu l-Ḥamīd and his son, Muḥammad, and another whose name I didn't catch) along with Khālid al-`Amoudi, a security official originally from `Adan (Aden), before setting out as an advance party.
The point was SE of Ḥazm, and we headed over very rough farm tracks for a few kilometres, past more Ma`īn ruins, before `Abdul suggested that we take the 'main road' east. This turned out to be a thick strip of flat compacted sand that separated the beautiful mountain ridge of al-Lawdh from the desert scrubland of the area in which the point is situated, al-Sayl. Although not a road at all, it was easy to drive quickly on it and we made good progress, taking care to skirt wide of villages to avoid the risk of pot shots being taken at an unfamiliar vehicle. At about 5 km from the point we needed to turn south across the scrub. We stopped to let the second vehicle catch up, and looked at some camels that were in fabulous condition: one of the females would fetch about 500,000 Yemeni Riyals (US-$ 2,500) - a fortune in Yemen. After a while we carried on even though the second vehicle hadn't appeared, as I was worried about the failing light. `Abdul skilfully guided me onto the faint tracks of vehicles that had previously crossed the scrub until we reached another strip of flat sand that took us to 65 m from 16N 45E.
By this time, the pre-dusk light had beautifully illuminated the al-Lawdh mountains to the North. One can see the long shadows cast onto the sand by our team to the East, and the Landy in the distance to the South. Unfortunately, it was impossible to photograph clearly the view to the West because of the rapidly setting sun. It was a lovely time to be at that particular spot, but Majīd was concerned that we should get moving. He explained that that particular stretch of land was 'reserved'. In other words, it was at the centre of a dispute between Hamdān and the neighbouring tribe, the Baniy Nawf: in fact, the point lay virtually on the tribal border. Disagreement over this land had led to conflict in the past, and it would be extremely dangerous if our Hamdāniyy companions were to be found here. It was then that I realised that the second vehicle had taken up a covering position to the North.
I was supposed to be in al-Jawf to look at ways of preventing conflict, rather than starting a new one, so, after a quick team photo (left to right: Muḥammad, Khālid, `Abdul, Majīd and the unnamed Hamdāniyy tribesman) we zoomed back off through the desert. It was exhilarating to be driving quickly across the sand: the mountains turned pink, then night descended and the qāt started to take its effect. We had reached our keif, as Yemenis say, and were soon back in the safety of Ḥazm.
Notes: For more information about the involvement of the British Embassy Ṣan`ā' in the DCP, or confluence hunting in Yemen, please see the previous visit to 15N 49E.