The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once. Albert Einstein
To get anywhere from Sanaa, you must climb the rugged peaks that ring the city and journey down the other side. You must leave behind the dusty streets, drive by the roadside hub hub sellers and their pyramids of striped watermelons, pass the white-bearded man walking his donkey to market, his wife and children straggling behind. Maneuver through the traffic jam at the taxi stand on the outskirts of town, the last place to hire a ride. Only then can you approach the desert, a place where time waits for you, not as a moment or a measure, but as a destination.
Before 1995, foreigners in Yemen were not allowed to travel outside the capital without permission from the Ministry of the Interior. Fortunately the government suspended the permit policy after the civil war; in theory, we are free and safe to travel anywhere in Yemen. But government roadblocks and inspection checkpoints remain. At the top of the peaks that mark the fringes of Sanaa, a uniformed man waves us over to the side of the road. We wait while he walks to a small metal hut, presumably to inform his superior that foreigners want to pass. He returns, waving us on with a casual flick of the wrist, as if he is done with us. The old van plugs along, steadily descending the mountains.
We’re off to see the fabled ruins of Marib and Baraqish in a faded canary-yellow 1970s Volkswagen bus with Marcus and Jamie, a couple we met at the school where we are employed. Jamie’s brother Michael is visiting from Boston, and we only have the weekend, Thursday and Friday, to get to Marib and back before work on Saturday. An early morning departure is best not only for our quick trip, but also to avoid driving in the overwhelming midday heat. My husband Ed and our two-year-old Sofia were ready before we heard the distinct rumble of the old VW outside our gate at sunrise.
Despite riding in an automobile, I feel that we’ve traveled back in time. Yemen does that. Even though you may be watching television in a roadside restaurant, somehow you’re not quite in the current century. It’s not just the lack of a reliable power supply, or the presence of lepers and beggars. It’s not the farmer plowing his field with oxen, or the women harvesting sorghum with hand-scythes. It’s not camel-driven sesame mills or even donkey carts going to market. It’s the Yemeni people, their lack of rushing, their complete engagement with the present. Time seems manifest here. I turn around and watch the city disappear as we head into the desert.
Three months earlier, in January, tribesmen seeking jobs and payment from the government kidnapped an American oil worker and three colleagues. They were released well-fed and unharmed after four days, with no public revelation about the negotiations. A few weeks later, a group from France was diverted to the nearby village of Shabwa after visiting the ancient city of Baraqish. All seventeen of the mostly elderly tourists relaxed in village homes, enjoyed traditional feasts, watched folk dances, took walking tours of the village. The tribe released the French hostages after five days, and news stories of the tourists’ adventure appeared in Yemeni and French papers along with a photograph of the group, their arms filled with parting gifts of traditional jewelry, daggers, woven baskets, and antique firearms. Ed and I joked that we could get rich contracting with tribes to stage kidnappings of European tour groups, promising them adventures of “authentic village life” and “traditional Yemeni hospitality.”
Most incidents in the Marib region involve foreigners losing their brand new Toyota Land Cruisers. Reports of expats forced from their vehicles and left to walk to the nearest checkpoint appear frequently in Yemeni papers, but we shrug. These things happen all the time.
The road meanders into a valley. We reach another checkpoint where a lone soldier standing by the side of the road motions for us to stop. Soldiers emerge from a tiny guardhouse, stare incredulously. “They’re probably wondering how we got this far,” whispers Jamie.
“Amriki,” Marcus explains. “Ina mudaris, fi Sanaa.” We are Americans. Teachers in Sanaa. And my wife’s brother from Amrika. We are going to Marib, the temples, the dam, and Baraqish. The soldiers nod. This makes sense, what else would we be doing? They turn away, and after a few minutes of hushed discussion, the man in charge motions to a soldier, and tells us that we can go on if we have Mohammed with us for protection.
We all know Mohammed will not offer much protection. One small man, with one gun, even if it is a Kalashnikov. What match would he be? But Mohammed is our ticket past the checkpoint and without him we will be sent back. Ed moves back with me and Sofia. Mohammed climbs into the van and sits beside Michael on the middle seat. “Salaam Alekoum,” he greets us. “W’alakoum a’salaam,” we reply. Marcus asks him how long he has been posted at the checkpoint; he says he’s only been there a few months. What village are you from? Jamie asks. “Thula,” he says, and we tell him we know his village, it is beautiful. Marcus tells Mohammed that we all live in Sanaa and work at the madrassa al’dowalia, the international school, except for Michael, who is visiting from Amrika and doesn’t understand Arabic. Michael, a grad student in astrophysics at MIT, sports tattoos, forbidden in Islam. Mohammed is staring, especially at the tattoo of the scantily clothed waitress hoisting a platter of a pig with a huge apple in its mouth. Mohammed is eighteen years old, and this desert outpost is probably the farthest he has ever been from home.
Conversation wanes. “He has a gun, Mama,” Sofia says. I stare at the barrel of the rifle, tilted slightly in our direction and roofward. I glance out the window, then turn to look at the back of Mohammed’s head. His black hair and the gun barrel glint in the sunlight. Mohammed relaxes and leans the Kalashnikov against the seat. The barrel points at Ed’s head. With the back of his hand, Ed gently edges the barrel of the gun towards the window. The Volkswagen ambles along.
A white Land Cruiser approaches us from the opposite lane, the first vehicle we have seen all morning. As it passes us it slows down and swerves off the side of the road, creating a swirling trail of dust. It turns 180 degrees. There are six, maybe seven men inside the Land Cruiser that is now traveling in our same direction, easily overtaking our van. They are driving just an arm’s length away, directly alongside. I stiffen. No one says a word, not even Sofia. The men stare at us, and start talking excitedly. They begin laughing so hard that the whites of their eyes and teeth appear oversize, almost cartoonish. Their Land Cruiser passes us, then veers left, spins around resuming its original course, leaving us plodding along the road in their dust.
We arrive at the Marib dam, one of the wonders of the ancient world, whose water once transformed the desert into a flourishing green garden so massive and so famous that references to the dam appear in several ancient texts, including the Koran. Now only a portion of the dam still stands, and the fabled green gardens, the miles and miles of fields and flowers and fruit trees are gone. But even after thousands of years of lying in ruin, the dam’s gigantic stone walls tower over fifteen meters into the air. I can see the original sluices and spillways carved long ago, and water channeled by a new dam still flows on the other side. The water seems so green compared to the parched dun-colored rocks along the shoreline, to the hills and mountain peaks that repeat the same striated colors endlessly into the horizon.
We pile back into the van and head out over the uneven sand to the old city of Marib, the same city the ancient Greek historian Strabo described in his chronicle Geography.
Mariaba, the capital of the Sabaeans, is situated upon a mountain, well wooded. . . The people cultivate the ground, or follow the trade of dealing in aromatics, both the indigenous sort and those brought from Ethiopia; in order to procure them, they sail through the straits in vessels covered with skins. There is such an abundance of these aromatics, that cinnamon, cassia, and other spices are used by them instead of sticks and firewood.
Historians regard Strabo as one of the more accurate ancient chroniclers, not like that spinner of great fables, Herodotus. But well wooded? Cinnamon sticks for firewood? It’s hard to imagine. The ancient city of Marib is deserted, dilapidated, disintegrating. It sits upon a mountain, that much is true. The city is eerily beautiful. Buildings seem to rise organically from the rock, like sandcastles clustered on a beach. Our soldier Mohammed seems unimpressed; his home village of Thula is an ancient stone fortress high atop a mountain surrounded by vegetation, streams flowing into a large cistern in the heart of town, a thriving, bustling place. full of farmers and merchants. There is no life here, no stray dogs. No hawks or golden kites overhead, no snakes underfoot. Not even a scorpion.
I scan the brown horizon, look for the row of towering stone columns about a mile or two in the distance. We stand by the van, gazing at the monolithic pillars. “Mahram Bilquis,” Jamie says, softly. We drive downhill to the site, and several boys and young men scurry out from behind a ridge and greet us as we park close to the pillars.
“Salaam Alekoum, Salaam Alekoum.” Greetings rise around us and when the boys hear our chorus of replies in Arabic, offers of tours and recommendations of where to stay and eat erupt, along with a question: do we want to see them climb the pillars? The men of Marib are known for this feat and their photographs appear in every travel guide. The pillars are solid limestone, stand at least ten meters from the ground and are roughly two meters wide and one and a half meters apart. Some lean precariously, some have diagonal cracks and missing chunks. All are weathered, roughened by hundreds of years of blowing sand that withers everything in this dry land. Sure, go ahead.
They each stand between two pillars and extend both arms flat on the pillars above. Now spread-eagled, they span the insides of the pillars with all four limbs and shimmy their way up. The three of them have spidered to the tops within minutes, even the one who is missing an arm. “How did you lose your arm?” asks Marcus, when they are back on the ground.
“Karaba,” is all he says. Electricity.
Sofia wants to try too, but she can’t touch both pillars at the same time. They are so massive and she is just two and a half. Ed hoists her onto his shoulders, and she slaps the stone a few times, then wants down to run around in the sand again. Everything is the same color—sand, rocks, stone—yet there is so much to see. A wall has just appeared, one meter thick, jutting out from the ground in front of my feet. I squat to touch the carved inscriptions, running my hands over the large letters of Sabaean script, lines and curves carved thousands of years ago. The labor of carving these words into stone warrants a message of importance. An honor, a proclamation, or a devotion. We have all fanned out, each of us pursuing a different route through the sand, and it appears that everyone is having the same good fortune. Walls and columns sprout out of nowhere, but reveal only a little of what lies below.
“Time,” Horace wrote in his Epistles, “will bring to light whatever is hidden; it will cover up and conceal what is now shining in splendor.”
It’s hot in Marib. This may seem obvious. We’re in the desert on the Arabian Peninsula, but the weather in high-altitude Sanaa is normally so comfortable—cool mornings and evenings, hot only in the midday sun. By comparison, Marib is sweltering in April. The sun is directly overhead, and the local boys have disappeared. Sun is a constant here so close to the equator, and day and night cycle with minimal seasonal fluctuation. The twelve-hour days seem long and harsh. No one works midday, not even the camels. In contrast, moonlight illuminates the night, turns the sand into a silver sea, exposes the snakes and scorpions and gargantuan poisonous spiders that roam this land. Night would seem treacherous without the heat-free shine of the moon.
Tired and hungry, we head for the hotel. We have to get an early start in the morning if we want to see Baraqish before we head back to Sanaa. The Bilquis Hotel advertises a four star rating with “beautifully decorated rooms, fully air conditioned, hot water, peace, quiet, and comfort.” It is a modern, circular hotel with hallway windows that face the desert and rooms that overlook the interior courtyard pool. Quiet it is and we are too tired to notice the décor. I ask Marcus where Mohammed will sleep and he says that the hotel will take care of him.
Sofia falls asleep easily. Ed succumbs soon after. I struggle with the air conditioner, turn the knob to control the temperature and fan. The unit hisses out a faint stream of air. I open the sliding glass door to the inner courtyard, gaze at the moon’s garbled reflection in the swimming pool. I think about the book I’ve been reading on Wendell Phillips, an American who led an archaeological expedition here in 1950. His team uncovered the ruins of the city of Qataban, destroyed around the beginning of the Christian era. The site, with its inscriptions of South Arabian script, bronze lions, gold necklaces, ossuaries, tombs, and one of the finest alabaster heads in all of antiquity, secured his team a place in history. Yet Phillips’ aspirations lay in Marib, only forty miles away. Eventually Phillips made it to Marib and was able to excavate a large portion of what Yemenis call Mahram Bilquis, temple of the Queen of Sheba, revealing a temple nearly three hundred meters in circumference, a temple so magnificent that many considered it the archaeological triumph of the day. If it weren’t for the efforts of archeologists, Marib wouldn’t even appear in the tourist guidebooks. If it weren’t for this swimming pool, the moon would shine only on sand.
I’m still hot. I think a shower will help, and it does. The cold water provides the relief I need to fall asleep, wet and unclothed.
At least for a while. I wake, soaked in my own sweat. I open the door, crane my head outside, peek to see if someone is walking down the hall. There is no sign of anyone, and the hall is dimly lit, so I step out into the hallway and open the window to the outside, hoping that a cross breeze will bring in fresh air. Back in the room, I stand behind the door, fan it back and forth.
“What are you doing?” Ed moans.
“Making a breeze,” I say. He laughs, then concedes the breeze feels good. I close the door, step into a cold shower and stumble to bed again. I fall in and out of sleep, think about the temple and pillars, how Philips’ team and Yemeni workers uncovered halls and temples, found the paths that fountains of cascading water had carved into stone, excavated mausoleums and tombs littered with bones, pottery, alabaster bulls, and sacrificial altars with gutters for channeling blood.
I must have drifted off, because I wake again and open the door. Someone closed the hall window. I feel a fine layer of sand under my toes as I slide the window open and fan the door until air is circulating. “You know, Lee, some hotel employee is probably hiding just around the corner to watch the naked woman come out and open the window,” Ed jokes.
Maybe. I am so hot I don’t care, awake in this room with an air conditioner that doesn’t even work as a fan. Stripped and sweating, I shower again so I can sleep for a few hours before the sun blazes again.
In the morning, we meet for an early breakfast of eggs and flatbread at a table overlooking the pool and decide that a swim is a good idea, despite the thick green scum concealing the water. Once we all plunge in, the floating scum doesn’t matter. In the middle of the desert, immersion in cool water, no matter how fetid, cannot be underestimated. I delight in my body’s shiver, savor my goosebumps, close my eyes and swim.
For ages, we humans had no clock but the sun, moon, and stars. We observed heavenly bodies, marked and measured their movements, anticipated their return. Our bodies were (and are still) fine-tuned to these cycles of our orbiting planet. The rhythms of night and day are buried deep within us, in a portion of our brains that regulate these circadian rhythms and our autonomic nervous system. Cats and dogs share these rhythms, as do all mammals. So do cockroaches, beetles, flies, and even some forms of yeast. That we living beings are tied to our planet’s journey through space—ellipsing around the sun, our moon tethered along for the ride—becomes obvious when we experience jet lag, the disorienting result of flaunting these rhythms. Who of our ancestors could have imagined that time could be divided so infinitesimally, delineated into zones with borders that we would one day cross? Time travel is possible. Just fly across twelve time zones, then tell me what you feel.
Perhaps the conflict between the archeologist and the locals was about the perception of time. In the Western world, time is linear. Our past and our history are behind us, and the future is before us, a future of progress. Schools use timelines to give us perspective, to situate history from then to now, the future a blank line, the arrow on the end following the same level horizon it always has, never rising or plunging, never turning around or changing direction. Just following the only course possible, straight into tomorrow.
The Yemeni view of history situates past events on a continuum with the present and the future. Viewing the ruins of Mahram Bilquis as a great treasure of antiquity is not important to the Yemenis. It’s not that they are ignorant of their culture and history. Instead they view their heritage not as part of a distant past but as fluid. Things come, things go, things remain. The American team lived and worked on a Western schedule while surrounded by an Eastern one, just like we do. Not only did the clock control their labor, but they perceived time as unchanging, immutable, stuck forever on a fixed point in space. Maybe the whole thing was a cultural misunderstanding.
Or maybe the Yemenis didn’t want outsiders rewriting their history. If what they wanted was to remain in command of their own history, their future, the first step was to control the present.
Now, nothing of the temple Mahram Bilquis is visible except for the monoliths and the edges of inscribed stones that rise from the ground. The sand that seals this site, the sand that Yemeni workers painstakingly excavated by hand and carted away on the backs of oxen just fifty years ago again conceals the temple, obscures a vast oval complex of rooms and halls, tombs and altars, that rests underneath. Sand and time have preserved Mahram Bilquis, until the day comes when someone decides to unearth it again.
After breakfast, we check out of the hotel and head for the new town of Marib, to stock up on bottles of water and petrol for the drive home, and to find food because there is nothing between Marib and Sanaa. We find a typical Yemeni roadside place, its large metal doors open all along the front and side, leaving the customers to dine al fresco, even as they sit in the shade. It is crowded and a large numbers of trucks fill the parking lot, a sure sign of good food. We all walk inside, wash at the faucet on the wall and sit down at a table. As usual we are the only foreigners, and Jamie and I are the only women. Ed, Sofia, and I sit on one side. Marcus, Jamie, Michael, and Mohammed go to the other. Mohammed places his Kalashnikov on the table before he sits down. The barrel points directly at Ed, who gently pushes it aside.
What is unusual about this place is the mural painted on the wall, a pastoral scene with evergreen trees and a lake, people conspicuously absent. The menu is typical. Today they have ful, broad beans cooked with garlic and oil; fasoolia, white beans with peppers and tomatoes; laham, roasted lamb; meshekl, a vegetable mixture of squash, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. All of this is served with tea, large rounds of steaming hot flat bread, and zahawig, a spicy tomato sauce. We sip our hot tea, tear pieces from the flaky bread, and use it to scoop the food into our hungry mouths. Sofia eats mostly bread, but occasionally she dips the edges in ful and then takes a swig from her Canada Dry cola.
Back in the van, we head for Baraqish, nearly an hour away on a desert track. Walls and towers appear in the distance as a dark blur long before we arrive. Poised on the eastern bank of a large wadi, Baraqish must have been a lush oasis in the midst of all this sand. The phrase “middle of nowhere” could have originated here; there is nothing except the faint hint of mountaintops in the direction of Sanaa and the occasional dot of green against the expanse of rock and sand. My guidebook says that travelers are “neither allowed nor wanted,” but there is no one in sight who would care. There isn’t much I can find written about Baraqish (at least in English) even though it was the capitol city of the Ma’in kingdom. In its most glorious period, Baraqish controlled a large portion of the incense route. Strabo called it Athrula and recorded how it was “mastered without a struggle” by Aelius Gallis, who took it as a garrison for a futile campaign to control Saba. Locals say that in ancient times, neighboring tribes used Baraqish as a base to fight invaders. There are no defending troops now, and we are hardly invaders.
Marcus drives the van up to the wire fence surrounding the abandoned city, and by the time we all have our feet on the ground, an armed guard waits for us at the gate. He is not a government soldier, but a local who seems unfazed by our arrival. He unlocks the gate and welcomes us in, “Marhaba.”
Marcus asks questions, translating the guard’s answers. I try to pay attention but my senses are overloaded. This is a ruined city, ancient, tumbling with the decay of time, but it is different. Underneath my feet are potsherds too numerous to count, and scraps of cloth and metal that shine despite the dull dirt that covers everything. Mounds of broken ceramics lie in piles against the fence, scattered around the ruins by Italian archaeologists who have been working here off and on since 1992. The city was inhabited until the 1960s. Newer buildings were built on top of existing ones and as a result there are layers upon layers of civilizations in this one location. The walls reach fourteen meters and are in remarkably good shape. There are too many watchtowers to count. Anyone approaching Baraqish could have been spotted miles away. I can easily imagine people here, children shouting and running through the street, the bleating of sheep, the laughter of women at the market.
Stones are exquisitely cut and the limestone is smooth and clean, the carved inscriptions so precise, so perfectly rendered that function and aesthetics appear to have been linked in the creation of this city. It must have presented a great display of wealth and beauty. We walk along, looking at the layers exposed, newer houses built on top of large limestone structures. Around a corner we come across what looks to be an apse in a domed shrine or temple, a vaulted projection from a wall, the stones in the center tumbled onto the ground. Thousands of years’ worth of buildings remain here, storage rooms, houses, mosques, all built over the previous civilizations’ storage rooms, houses and temples. We wander for a while in silence and then agree it is time to head back to Sanaa.
The guard escorts us to the gate, and Marcus hands him some riyals. Most likely he relies on these tips. At the gate we are met by a group of children, some asking for pens, “Kallam, kallam,” and some just practicing their English. “Hello, friend. What iss yourrr name?” An older boy tries to sell us carved marble heads that fit inside his palm. He says they are old, antique. I remember stories of tourists who buy antiquities only to have them confiscated at the airport when they depart. It is illegal to export artifacts without the proper verification and the permits to export.
“Bi kam?” Ed asks how much it costs.
“Saba miya,” he says.
Seven hundred riyals. Less than five dollars. Most likely these heads are not antiquities. If they are, they are quite a bargain. Either way, none of us buy the marble heads.
We pause for minute, look at the vacated city of stone before we get back in the van. By the time we are on the Marib road, we grow silent. The government doesn’t consider traveling towards Sanaa a problem, and we have Mohammed, so Marcus gets waved on at the checkpoints without even coming to a full stop. When we reach the checkpoint where Mohammed is stationed, we pull over, and hand him some riyals. Since yesterday we have paid for his food, but a soldier’s pay is notoriously low, and he has been kind. We say goodbye and give him our thanks. He stands at the side of the road waving as we pull away. “Ma’salaama Mohammed,” Sofia says as she waves out the window. “I bet he wishes he was coming with us,” says Jamie.
Mohammed fades away as we head toward the mountains. We spot Jebel Nuqum, the first sign that Sanaa is near. The sun approaches the horizon and we won’t be home until well after dark, well after Friday prayers are completed. We are quiet the rest of the way.
Desert winds carry sand, sometimes grain by grain, often in blinding storms, huge clouds of dust that can obscure the sun and hide everything in plain sight. When the wind calms, sand falls into streams and riverbeds, in fields, on trees and towns. And sand irritates eyes, which is why camels have such long, thick lashes. Desert people cover their heads not only for protection from the sun, but so they can quickly cover their faces when another dust cloud approaches. Sand finds its way into anything, everything. If I dust the flat surfaces in our house before leaving for work, by the time I return they will be covered in a fine, even layer of silt. Annie Dillard writes: “…we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial.”
If not for sand, the ruins of Marib would be gone, nothing but jutting fragments of pocked limestone eroded by time and weather. It took less than twenty years for the portion of Mahram Bilquis excavated by Phillips’ team to again be covered in sand, and now the process of removing sand has begun once more. Yet in time the winds will come, sand will rise and fall, dust devils will swirl on the horizon.
Lee Gulyas is an Okie married to a Hungarian and received an MFA from University of British Columbia. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals including Fugue, The Malahat Review, Event, Barn Owl Review, Quarter After Eight, and The Common. She lives in Bellingham, WA and teaches at Western Washington University.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: Surprises are part of the process, part of the fun. I originally imagined this piece as linear, with a traditional narrative arc. But I soon realized that was folly—to transcend time, history, and cultural bias meant another structure entirely.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: There’s so much good advice, all useful at different times. Be greedy. Be curious. Trust yourself. And if you already know where a piece is going, what’s the point? What’s worth pursuing is the mystery. Brevity is a great and accessible resource, especially since the addition of craft essays. The best advice is to be part of a community. Attend readings. Promote other people’s work. Buy books. And buy them from an independent bookseller.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: In nonfiction, Orwell, Didion, Dillard, Bernard Cooper, Langston Hughes, and Steinbeck. I work with amazing people; my colleagues Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola are a never-ending source of inspiration and enthusiasm. I love any writer with curiosity, regardless of genre.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? (Remember, I’ve been there! Hahahahahaha!!!) A: Ah, a dream space. Quiet, clean, mine. I used to write in a café, but it sold, and the ambience changed. Sometimes I write on the bus. Airports are highly productive. I always have a notebook, and also several projects going at once. Unfortunately, when is more of an issue than where.