05-Jan-2006 -- Northern Yemen is tribal country. Two 'umbrella' tribes, Ḥāšid and Bakīl dominate, and each is broken down into numerous sub-clans. When entering the tribal areas you effectively become subject to their laws, and the customs of the area should be acknowledged and respected. Šaraf (honour) is paramount for the tribesman, and any perceived slight to this honour is considered a serious `ayb (disgrace, or shame). Northern Yemeni tribesmen are sedentary rather than nomadic, and as such are devoted to their land. The areas north of the capital, Ṣan`ā', around `Amrān, Ḥūth, Ṣa`da, and Khamir, are considered classic tribal territory.
Khamir is an easy two-hour drive north from Ṣan`ā' on (mostly) asphalt roads, but permission is needed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to travel the route. Despite having obtained this, difficulties were encountered at the military checkpoint just outside `Amrān, where the Yemeni police were reluctant to let me go further without an escort. A compromise was reached: two policemen armed with AK-47s would travel inside my vehicle from `Amrān to Khamir and back. In fact, `Abdullāh Abū Ṭālib and `Aliy Yaḥyā Hadmah proved to be most amiable company, and we chatted freely about the local tribes, farming, and differences between Yemen and the UK (of which there are more than a couple).
On arriving at Khamir, their local knowledge (`Abdullāh was actually brought up in the area) proved invaluable, as they were able to direct me to a gravel track off the main road at about 2.5 km from the confluence point. Of even greater import was their ability to reassure the local tribesmen that my presence there was not a threat, and to secure permission to enter their land. A series of rough, but navigable, tracks took us to within 350 meters of the point. `Aliy nobly opted to stay behind and guard the vehicle, whilst `Abdullāh and I trudged up a slight incline over parched earth and the low walls of the farm upon which 16N 44E actually lies. At the point itself, looking to the East, one can see the village of al-Matar, after which the area is named. In the view to the West there is a small irrigation pipe (half-way down the picture), which is clearly not working if the local flora is anything to judge by.
The land in al-Matar is used to grow the Qāt plant (Catha edulis). Qāt leaves are a stimulant and are chewed by most Yemeni men (and some women) often on a daily basis; the practice of chewing qāt has been part of Yemeni culture for centuries. In fact, a large proportion of agricultural land is given up to the cultivation of this highly profitable crop. Its value is such that small watchtowers, used by armed tribesmen to guard against 'qāt raids' by rival groups, are found all over Northern Yemen - one can clearly be seen from the confluence point (south view). Although the immediate area around 16N 44E is currently suffering from drought, qāt will, `Abdullāh assures me, grow there during the summer rainy season. But, at present, the fertile areas are restricted to those that the local tribesmen can afford to irrigate.
`Abdullāh had refused to be photographed at the confluence point: I attributed this to military sensitivities. However, on returning to the vehicle, and being reunited with `Aliy, it transpired that he wanted his photo taken in full uniform, which had to include the one helmet shared between the two of them. Once reunited with his helmet, `Abdullāh was only too happy to pose for a picture with me; the headgear was then returned and `Aliy had his turn in the Degree Confluence Project limelight.
By then it was 3:30 p.m. and we were well past qāt-chewing time (normally about 2:00 p.m. each afternoon) - a fact made worse by my making `Abdullāh and `Aliy stare at the stuff in fields all afternoon whilst searching for the confluence point. So it only seemed fair to drive into Khamir to treat the local constabulary to some hard-earned qāt from the friendly neighbourhood muqāwat (qāt seller). Note that the muqāwat is wearing a jambiyya (curved dagger) at waist height: these are worn by all tribesmen as a ceremonial weapon. To be without one's jambiyya would be a `ayb indeed...
For some notes about confluence hunting in Yemen, and the involvement of the British Embassy Ṣan`ā' in the Degree Confluence Project, please see previous visits to 15N 49E and 16N 49E.