My Journey in the Heart of the Arab World

April 25, 2023

Quentin Muller

The World's First Skyscrapers, Shibam, Hadhramaut, South Yemen. All Photos in this Report are by Quentin Muller. 

The first time I visited Hadhramaut was in 2021. I was transiting through for just one day on my way to Socotra. I was supposed to spend a few months on the island to teach French and write reports. It was my first time in Yemen, and I was incredibly excited because the country's history had fascinated me for years. I had worked hard to obtain the necessary papers and visa to access the country. I vividly remember when the plane began landing in Seiyun, and I was looking out of the window at the stunning landscapes below. I was overcome with joy and found myself crying, along with my ex-wife, who was also emotional. This moment was one of the most beautiful days of my life: landing in Yemen. Months later, I returned to report on the country's rich architecture and history.

International tourism has returned slightly to Hadhramaut. It is now possible to reach Hadhramaut by plane. Yemenia Airways, the national airline of Yemen, offers a weekly flight from Cairo, Egypt, to Seiyun. During the landing phase, the aircraft flew over a sea of milk for several minutes before minor anomalies appeared on the perfectly satin-like surface. These peculiarities form canyons, which deepen to reveal an impressive network of valleys surrounded by red canyons, whose cliffs sometimes take on human shapes. A surreal feeling of landing in another world before the wheels finally land on a small runway. The airport, about the size of a small provincial train station, has an entrance designed like a multidimensional gate from the science fiction series Stargate SG-1. Ahmed is waiting at the exit among the families. People's hands and eyes are glued to the windows, trying to see the arrival of their loved ones. Two soldiers were seated on small chairs. One of them says, "Are you with Ahmed? Oh, that's good! Welcome to Hadhramaut!"

The Manhattan of the Desert

For several years, Ahmed used to work as a full-time tourist guide; he has been receiving visitors from the United States, Canada, and Australia in search of unexplored countries. He says, "When some foreigners call me, I always check who I have to deal with first. If their Facebook shows me that they are converted Salafists, I refrain from bringing them because they might flee to join some theological schools in the region. I am responsible for their coming and their return." 

Thanks to the cooperation of the local authorities, the majestic landscapes of Wadi Hadramaut and Wadi Dawan, along with their unique architecture, have found international visitors. After the Arab Spring and the protests that weakened the government in 2011, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) intensified its attacks in the region. However, the group has since fallen back into relative anonymity in Hadhramaut.

After several days of torrential rains caused by a monsoon coming from India, the roads of the Seiyun Valley have been cut off by floods. Children and adults are bathing in these natural pools, swimming between thorny shrubs and reddish rocks that have tumbled from the tops of the canyons. The light vehicles are being escorted through the torrents by men pushing the four wheels to prevent them from turning over. On each side of the canyon, dwellings built of mud hang like fortresses and dominate the valley. Some of these structures are whitewashed, while others have colorful patterns of blue, orange, or yellow. Hadrami architecture is a fusion of the French Renaissance style, the troglodyte houses of the planet Tatooine in Star Wars, and Dracula's castles in the Carpathians.

As the horizon clears, Shibam appears in the distance. Dubbed the "Manhattan of the Desert," it seems to rival the peaks of the canyons. Yemenis are proud to claim that Shibam had skyscrapers before New York and that they are the oldest in the Arabian Peninsula. This is no small feat when considering the towering glass structures in Dubai, Doha, or even Riyadh that have become symbols of power. 

As the sun begins to set, a warm light illuminates the brown and white facades of the centuries-old houses of the city. In 1982, Shibam became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a few years earlier, Pier Paolo Pasolini chose the yellow city as the setting for his film "A Thousand and One Nights" (1974). In the late 90s and early 2000s, Shibam became an international tourist attraction, attracting up to 30,000 visitors in the high tourist season (October, November, December).

"Shibam has existed since 300 BC. But that does not mean that the houses are from that time. They are always renewed because they sag with the wear of time," narrates Salma Samar Damluji, a professor of the architecture of the Islamic world at the American University of Beirut. "Historically, Shibam was the commercial and traditional capital of Hadramaut. All the caravans used to come there to exchange incense and other goods that were transferred through the desert or the Indian Ocean. These goods then transited to Jeddah or Damascus. It is one of the few towns built in an open space in the Wadi, unprotected by the canyons."

The city has only one main arched gate, and a wall surrounds it to protect it. Other smaller gates, which are closed at night to prevent invasions or thefts, were used for the comings and goings of the locals. 

"Wealthy merchants inhabited Shibam. The city's expansion was done vertically and not horizontally, mainly to avoid encroaching on the agricultural land located north of the city," says Salma. Each floor has its use. The ground floor is used for storing food; the first floor keeps the animals at night, the second is a space for negotiations and transactions between men, and the third and fourth floors are reserved for families. "Thanks to the articulation of the windows, you can see out without being seen or look at the buildings in front without being seen back. The houses don't have inner courtyards, but they do have skylights called 'Shamasa.' The ceilings are high and have windows so the rising heat can escape. All of this was very ingenious," continues the architect.

Despite a marginal recovery of well-regulated tourism, Shibam has lost half its population. The old town now has only 2,800 inhabitants, compared to 5,000 a few decades ago. The cobbled streets twist between tall buildings of up to seven floors. Some souvenir shops are open only for the occasional arrival of groups of tourists. A man opens his store, and as with every building door in Shibam, made from precious wood and decorated with talent and meticulousness, he passes a wooden key with toothbrush-shaped pins through a lock. Locks, which are the centerpieces of Shibami doors, are sold as decorative or collector's items. The Alibaba Treasure, with its weather-beaten storefront, sells wooden antiques from doors that have been replaced. They look like owls with their sharp ears or the crowns of little kings. Each has a different color and design related to the door it once guarded. For 10,000 to 25,000 Yemeni riyals (10-25 euros), it is possible to buy some, as well as old traditional daggers, silver necklaces, old postcards, or dallah (traditional Arabic coffee pot).

Hassan Aideed, in charge of the historical preservation of Shibam for UNESCO, hopes that "tourism will come back. We hope the war in Yemen will end one day because life has almost stopped here. If yesteryear's foreign vacationers start returning, then this city will be safe. We are afraid that Shibam will depopulate and become a ghostly historical site. Without the inhabitants, there will no longer be the possibility of renovating the city." Since the 1940s and 1950s, the region has continued to lose its population, with immigrants mainly leaving for economic reasons to Saudi Arabia, so much so that a former Yemeni minister used to name Wadi Dawan: "Wall Street" because of the immense success of certain Hadrami families who have become billionaires, like the bin Ladens.

The Yellow City

With the aid of European funds, UNESCO has been carrying out a restoration project for several years, renovating many buildings in danger in Shibam. Heavy rains, which are intensifying and becoming more frequent due to global warming, damage the mud structures. Water infiltration into the foundations from roof terraces can cause poorly maintained homes to collapse. UNESCO has hired 46 artisans from the city and has been teaching renovation techniques to dozens of young Shibamis.

Awad al-Salem Hatif, 41, visited his building to see the renovation progress. The terracotta walls hold excess external heat, which doesn't conduct through them. "We will come back to this house when it is renovated. I left it 18 years ago because it was too small, and my family was starting to grow. So I moved to the suburb of Shibam, but my new home has always been a place of passage. I come back here every week. I couldn't help it. I can't leave the city. Most Shibamis have a strong sense of belonging to this century-old city." On the second floor, workers are busy renovating the room's ceiling. Awad, stirred by the rebirth of his grandfather's house, recites an old Hadrami poem called The Yellow Vow: "To work, button your belt. Carry mud for you and drop the mud in front of you. Even the best drugs do not remove the fats from ghee. Go beyond yourself because it is the greatest feat of a man's life to build a house within the walls of the yellow city (Shibam)."

At night, children play Beyblade tops outside while small herds of sheep enter the buildings. The call to prayer rings out, and Abu Haitam emerges from the darkness of an alley—the 74-year-old man, with sunken cheeks and protruding ribs, motions to follow him. At the door of his building, he points out huge cracks. The door to his house cannot close anymore because the base of his building has collapsed. "My house has been falling apart for ten years," he shouts in a strangled voice. "I alerted UNESCO, but they are not helping. They have no interest in renovating mine because I'm a poor guy. UNESCO only favors the powerful, just like the Yemeni state. He gets emotional and says we have no government, no supervisory authority! Two families of seven live in this building. Everything is crumbling. The walls are damp. We live in a house that can collapse on us and kill us at any moment."

The following day, Abu Haitam and other owners whose homes were also in danger stormed into the UNESCO premises, demanding to know why their families were not on the list. Salem Saleh ba-Ya Shout, a Shibami engineer employed by the organization, says to Abu Haitam, "We promise you that once the properties are fixed, yours will be next. We selected buildings in worse condition than yours!" A commission consisting solely of Shibamis is in charge of deciding on the hierarchy of buildings to be repaired. The conversation continues, and the noise level does not decrease. Abdulrahman al-Habshi, UNESCO's coordinator of the renovation mission, apologizes, "his house is in danger, and he wants priority for rehabilitation. I can understand that. But it is wrong to say that the commission is corrupt. He does not understand our organization and our work. If we do not start with his house, it becomes personal." Due to inflation and delayed budgets, only 28 buildings were saved out of 40, leading to frustration. "Thanks to the UNESCO program, we are passing on our knowledge of maintaining century-old buildings to the younger generation. We want to preserve it. This city is an attraction for the whole world, highlighted by UNESCO, and its title of world heritage is a source of pride."

An Old Religion and the Sea

Shibam has long been the economic capital of Hadramaut, while Tarim, located 50 km further east, has consistently held the title of spiritual capital. The Almihdhar Mosque, with its legendary minaret built in 1914, stands like a white guard tower, illuminating the city and its modest, reserved inhabitants. It is not unusual to encounter young Malaysians and Indonesians in the streets. "They are fellow students of Islamic theology," says Maurizio, who hails from Italy. He adds that there are also French, American, Canadian, and English students. The Yemeni Islamic University, Dar al-Mustafa, boasts elaborate Islamic architecture and is bustling with aspiring scholars studying fiqh (Islamic law) that evening. Clad in white or purple dishdashas, the young men attentively listen to their teachers recite passages from the Quran. Hundreds of fan blades spin above the white kufis to cool the atmosphere.

"Tarim is renowned worldwide as one of the premier centers for studying Shafi'i fiqh. It's a branch of Indonesian Islam brought by Hadrami traders hundreds of years ago. The Hadramis are a people of skilled trade, and some ventured as far as Asia with their boats," explains Maurizio.

Maurizio, born Christian and later an atheist, ultimately embraced Islam following a business trip to the United Arab Emirates. Imams informed him about the exceptional Tarimi teachings. "I wanted to become a scholar, but when I was advised about Yemen, I laughed out loud. I had an image of a country plagued by terrorism and war. However, I was told that Tarim is far removed from all these issues. Here, if I lose my wallet, no one will take it. I'm renting a house in the city, but the owner doesn't want me to pay him rent. I enjoy it here."

Architect Salma Samar Damluji confirms the unique character of Tarim, "There is a very beautiful and tolerant Sufi tradition in Tarim. The Hadramis introduced Islam to Indonesia and western India between the 13th and 14th centuries from the coast. There is still a substantial Yemeni presence in these areas."

Mukalla, the Rebirth of Art

To reach the coast of Hadramaut, one must navigate through the canyons carved by millennia of rainfall. High above the Arabian Sea coast, a line of cars and trucks descends from the canyons of Wadi Dawan, slowly entering Mukalla under a large, partially worn arch that announces the city's welcome. From 2015 to 2016, this coastal city became the capital of al-Qaeda. Since the jihadists fled in 2016, security measures have been tightened at the city's entry points.

No one has forgotten how the militants emerged on the night of April 2, 2015, as if they were ghosts rising from the earth. "They arrived in the middle of the night. Few of us heard gunshots. In the early morning, everyone said that al-Qaeda had invaded the city, but we couldn't believe it. Outside, their militants dressed like us, and no black flag was flying in the sky," says Abdullah, 35, from the old city. Today, the city resembles a pirate's hideout, with terracotta and lime structures hardened by cement and a whiteness weathered by the sea wind. The arched windows, courtyards, and balconies lend a Hispanic feel to Mukalla.

The port city has since regained tranquility, security, and music. In a brand new building, Mukalla celebrates a special graduation. On stage, a hip-hop group called Wax on Crew performs in front of an audience of female students in blue hats and male students in black gowns. Everyone enthusiastically applauds the acrobatic dance moves of the masked performers, while at the back of the room, children fidget, trying to mimic the dancers' steps. This is a significant victory for the 29-year-old Safa Hamdi, who, in 2017, with six other Hadramis, established an artist incubator called Meemz. "In Mukalla, dance, music, and art are slowly being reborn after more than 27 years of absence and a year of life under al-Qaeda," she says. Non-Islamic culture vanished after the unity of Marxist South Yemen and the more religious and conservative North Yemen, the civil wars of 1994 and 2014, and the invasion of al-Qaeda. "We hope to see the return of all these 'Meemz' (the letter 'M' is pronounced 'Meem' in Arabic) in Mukalla, like the theater (masrah), artistic institutions (maehad), and music (musica) that had disappeared. 

Under al-Qaeda, these couldn't re-emerge," adds the young woman. Shaima Bin Othman, another Meemz member, recalls, "Our parents' generation, having lived under the socialist regime, experienced a great period of accessible and varied culture and arts. Hadramaut is known in the country for its openness to the arts. We grew up with stories of theaters, cinemas, dances, and exhibitions but never experienced this period ourselves. There was a sense of frustration in our generation."

One of the artistic organization's projects culminated in August 2021 with the first Hadrami orchestra performance since 1994, an event celebrated throughout the country and supported by the American Embassy. Hitham al-Hadrami, a young conductor, recounts the success of the endeavor: "Meemz selected the thirty best young musicians in the area out of more than 300 candidates to train them in reading musical notes, playing in a group, and understanding the conductor's signals. The feeling was indescribable when we held the final concert after so much work. The region as a whole needs to revive the study of arts, music, culture, and architecture because that will bring life back to Yemen."

The Eternal Aden

UNESCO is also active in the former capital of South Yemen, Aden. In the Crater district, situated within a dormant volcano, a traditional Adenite house has been meticulously renovated. Its large, closed circular terrace, made of wood, reflects the oriental architecture, and its famous chanachils provide more space, light, and cross ventilation for the residents. "You can see what's going on in the street without being seen," adds Hagan Haidar, 40, who is in charge of the renovation works. "This wood is Burma teak from India. It's a rare and expensive material. We try to reproduce as faithfully as possible what these buildings were like before. It was depressing for me, an architect, to see all these houses falling into ruin," she says. Her team, mainly female, has worked to remove certain cemented parts of the house to reveal hidden wooden motifs. "People are pragmatic given the situation. They want their house to stand. We are renovating 20 old properties at the owners' discretion. Few accept because they fear that in the end, we will seize their property," Hagan explains.

In this overcrowded district, where cars and small donkey carriages constantly cross paths, the buildings hark back to the glorious past of the port city. During the time of the British protectorate (1839-1967), tribal conflicts had gradually ceased, and some elites had benefited from an English education. Some had grown wealthy thanks to the commercial opportunities offered by the port. "The most beautiful houses in Crater once belonged to Jewish merchants. They all left or were forced to leave after the creation of Israel, selling their properties," Hagan says. Under the influence of this urban minor bourgeoisie, Aden developed its architectural charms. 

The whole town remembers the French intellectual Arthur Rimbaud who passed through over a century ago. In 2010, two French booksellers found an exclusive photo of the poet by chance in an Adeni flea market. His former home in the same neighborhood was named "Rambow's house." However, it is unclear if the reference was to the melancholic poet from Charleville or the American actor Stallone.

Though his initial impressions of Aden were mixed, the city still commemorates Rimbaud with a beach named in his honor, believed to be his favorite bathing spot. Visitors to the beach must be escorted by a soldier from the Southern Transitional Council (a southern separatist group calling for South Yemen's independence and control of Aden), as they have established bases along the coast. 

On the fine sand lie old boat engines and the remains of hulls. Warning shots occasionally disturb the calm sea to alert the fishermen approaching the militarized zones. Oddly, machine guns do not disrupt daily life. Young people swim, others exercise on the beach, while the elders recline on floor mats, nonchalantly chewing qat (green leaves consumed throughout Yemen as a highly energizing drug).

In the late afternoon, separatist leaders often gather near the 11th-century Seera Fortress, which was constructed to deter Portuguese invasions. The fort, perched on a stark hill, reaching the top requires a long walk but offers a commanding view of Aden. On top, two young people pose in front of the scenery. One of them asks, "Where will the photo be published? Because we're skipping class and don't want our parents to see our pictures. Otherwise, we will be punished." A few other children were selling shell necklaces to the Yemeni couples who came for a stroll. 

At the fortress's base, a fisherman emerged from the water with a large fish wriggling beneath his arm, which he takes to a nearby auction. A small seafood market supplies the famous Ashsheraa restaurant, where customers can purchase fish and have it cooked over a wood fire for around 20 euros. The unforgettable dining experience offers a panoramic view of the fortress and Aden, both at rest under the night sky.

Quentin Müller

 Quentin is a reporter specializing in the Arabian Peninsula and focused on Yemen, Oman, and Iraq.