I had heard the city mentioned a number of times, mostly because it is a prominent waypoint on the Chinese-built road between Sana’a and Houdaidah. We met early on Thursday morning for the hour and a half ride. Nearly all of the students turned up for the trip, which made us quite a large group. Over the previous month we had gained an American, a German, two Oklahomans, three Italians, an Australian, and a Canadian. The school was starting to feel wonderfully full and I enjoyed the diverse group of experience and personalities we were beginning to house.
The previous weekend Mubarak had stepped down and protests in Sana’a were starting to pick up again. As we drove up into the mountains above the capital plateau, one student looked back over the city lamenting that we would be away from the action on what could be an exciting day. “This could be the day that the revolution happens and we’ll miss it!” he joked.
At that time, the protests were still free of the government violence that trickled, and then flooded in, between the end of February and the end of March. That Sana’a could fall during our day trip was clearly a jest. The excitement no one wanted to miss was that of a people celebrating en masse an autocrat’s decision to step down or hand over power, not the sniping, spraying of sewage through water cannons, and shelling of residential areas that actually later came to pass.
After a pit stop somewhere in the brown gravely mountains south and west of the capital, we pulled off at our first stop: the school president’s mountainside real estate. I heard that he hoped to one day build a retreat center there. You had to admire his vision, even if you knew such a long-term investment would be unlikely for the foreseeable future. However, the school’s enrollment prior to AQAP’s international reemergence in 2009 was remarkable: at one point the school had to house students in a nearby hotel because the two dorm buildings and guest house were overflowing. I’m sure a retreat center near Manakha seemed a more reasonable use of resources in such prosperous times.
On the president’s hillside was a small house, and there lived a man who tended to the grounds and its fruit trees. He showed us where heavy rains had washed out some of the terracing and pointed out the farm’s cistern. The view was spectacular. A ribbon of black asphalt snaked along the hillside below. Beyond that were royal blue sky and a fall into another of
From the van parked on the roadside below a number of us carried up bags of roti scraps, food for the farmer’s goat. After hiking around the hillside for a while admiring the flora and the view, we hiked back down to the road and started up the hill before arriving at another lookout point. Shortly after, we piled back in the van and continued on.
A young boy, I now forget his name so many months later, led me through alleys and up and down stairs in the old town. The buildings stretched into the sky, large stone stacked on stone. The boy showed me where Jews had once lived, pointing out a wooden mantel above one house on which was etched a coffee bean and a star of David. He then took me to another of the town’s highlights: a tower house hanging precariously over an edge, propped up by a curving stack of stones.
After the short tour I rendezvoused with the rest of the group and we stood around the vans chatting at various levels of Arabic with a number of the local kids before moving on once again.
Our next stop was what seemed to be a relatively popular tourist hotel back in the city of
We had one more destination after finishing lunch: Hutayb. Ismaili pilgrims come from as far away as India and Singapore to visit this hamlet south of Manakha and pay their respects at the shining white mausoleum of Hatim al-Hamdi, a missionary prominent in a particular branch of the Ismaili denomination of Islam. They also come to visit the mosque he is said to have built, set on a cliff high above the mausoleum and standing sentinel over inspiring views of the
When we arrived we were at first not allowed to ascend to the mosque, the keeper of the key to the path’s gate having gone missing. In the meantime I bought some genuine Yemeni coffee from a nearby vendor, which I later went on to enjoy as I learned how to brew Turkish coffee in our kitchen. It was wonderful.
Of course the key-keeper was eventually found and we ascended the rocky promontory on which the mosque was built. Yet again, the views were mind-boggling (you’ve probably begun to see a theme here). The same seemed to apply here as elsewhere in Yemen, but on a grander scale: deep valleys, terraced the whole way down like a real life topographical map, falling away from improbably inaccessible villages built like castles along high points in the surrounding ridge lines. We snapped pictures and admired the view before heading back down to turn back towards Sana’a.
And so concluded our trip to Manakha and the nearby villages of Hajjarah and Hutayb. By the time I got back in the van I was exhausted and napped most of the way home.