The traditional Yemeni meal had been a feast fit for a king. We had hiked all the way down to Shibam village for lunch, only to drive up the same route to visit the walled city of Kawkaban. Needless to say, since our car had to wait at Shibam, we had hiked down the beautiful plateau twice. All that hiking had made us ravenously hungry and I had jokingly commented that, “I could eat an elephant”. The Yemeni traditional lunch in reality could have had fed 2 elephants and among the 3 of us, we had struggled to finish even half of it. Food and hospitality go hand in hand in Yemen and the sumptuous amount of dishes offered to the guests is a part of the Yemeni culture. Typically consumed while seated comfortably on the ground, guests refusing the generous offering of their Yemeni host is considered as an insult. Thus we had sat. comfortably perched on soft cushions and I had seriously considered making my host happy by polishing off the entire meal.
The lunch had arrived with a stream of staff bearing massive platters and I had looked on in astonishment, as after unfurling the signature plastic sheet, they had plonked all of them in front of us. Soups, salads, breads, rice, main courses, side dishes, deserts ans endless cups of tea had spread in front of us. It had been a carnivore’s dream and from the marag (meat based soup), kabsa (spicy meat rice) to way too many goat meat dishes. Potatoes and honey had been generously used and I had gorged on Fattah ( bread mixed with bouillon, eggs and spices or mixed with dates and bananas) like a refugee. The afternoon had mellowed as we had struggled to finish our meal and the the surrounding apricot orchards in bloom had dazzled like freshly fallen snow. Post meal, qat had been brought out, sniffed, snipped and chewed and I had nearly fallen asleep on the slouchy cushions.
Kawkaban had unfortunately beckoned and I had unwillingly followed my 2 Mohammeds back to the taxi. This time we had not stopped anywhere en route until Mohammed had crunched gravel in front of Kawkaban city gate. An ancient fortified town, Kawkaban had been special. Not only had it dated back to 7th century, the beautiful fortified citadel had only 1 gate, which had ritually been closed every night and it had been an old Yemeni cultural hot seat. It had been the capital of an important 19th century Yemeni dynasty and had been famous for its affiliated school of music. Named after 2 jewel encrusted palaces, Kawkaban’s sheer location had provided refuge to low lying Shibam residents throughout centuries. Supposedly one of the toughest places to conquer in Yemen, during times of conflict, Shibamites used to scurry up the single cliff path to seek shelter in remote Kawkaban. The hill top town’s massive grain silos and water tanks had ensured sustenance during siege and although, a new modern paved road had been made Kawkaban easily accessible, architectural remnants of its unshakable history had been supposedly visible throughout the fortification.
Old kingdom of Sheba had lurked at every corner of Kawkaban and the crumbling honey coloured houses had been most photogenic. The late afternoon light had fallen in golden shafts and the entire village had literally glowed. Clouds had borne down on us and scurry village children selling prickly cactus pears from buckets had zipped in and out of them. A cold breeze had fluttered the green flags of mosque and after the customary checking of my passport and travel permit by the Houthi guards, we had walked around the village briskly. Simply built Turkish barracks had stood at the entrance of the famous iron Bab al Hadid gate and they had immediately given away Yemen’s Ottoman past.
Kawkaban had been small and the historic center had held beautiful honey coloured sand stone buildings. The dilapidated buildings had been full of character and some had also shown remnants of Yemen’s Jewish history. The lovely 18th century mosque Ash-Sharifah had been a striking building and it’s circular stone ablution pool had reminded me of stepwells in India. The village walk had been beautiful and it had felt like a lost time warped place. It had been siesta time and the little village had been bathed in a quiet, golden glow. Light and skies had played magical illusions and we had explored till it had been time for the sun to set. Slowly the village had stirred to life and quaint Yemeni rural people had sipped tea, stared and called out greetings to us. Bright blue shutters had been hurled open and strong breeze had scattered petals from the apricot blossoms in handfuls. With the soft sun turning the sky into beautiful violet and lilac, the fresh mountain breeze had gone colder and we had huddled in our jackets while hiking our way down. Shibam had lain below and it had been the last stop of our day.
Although my Kawkaban visit had been quite brief, the memory of that golden afternoon is etched on my mind forever. Irksome travel permits and unsettling political situations had restricted me from staying there overnight and I had left Kawkaban halfheartedly. However even as we had sped back towards the ribbon flat Sanaa metropolis, my mind had constantly wandered to the cloud covered small village. Best things come in small packages they say, and Kawkaban had been breath taking.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE