Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Yemen's Functioning Medieval Society

An NYT article points out another facet of Yemen's endlessly fascinating panoply of ethnic & religious caste/sects.

In the half-dozen times or so that I was able to visit this ancient complex country, I was able to visit the Red Sea Coast mentioned in the article above. On a visit to Mocha, eponymous town where coffee of the same name was grown, I was unable to get a cup of java---coffee plantations long ago were replaced by the national narcotic, qat, which gives the effect of a dozen cups of coffee when chewed.

As a footnote, the Ethiopian army with elephants referred to in the Quran which was defeated despite overwhelming superiority was the inspiration for Saddam's decision to stand up to GHWB. In one of his narcotic reveries, the brutal thug discovered that GHWB was a Republican, whose party was represented by a pachyderm. His confused conclusion was that another Quranic miracle would ensue, and the army "led by elephants" would be miraculously defeated. But I digress.

Another anecdote deserves recounting. In 1990, when JCS Chief Colin Powell & DoD SecDef Dick Cheney flew to Riyadh with Ambassador to the US Bandar bin Sultan, Bandar asked them to bring aerial photos of Iraqi MiGs on an airfield and leave the closure pitch to himself. When the meeting with King Fahd took place on whether to allow American troops into Saudi Arabia, the reluctant Fahd was finally persuaded when Bandar showed the aerial reconnaissance photos and said they were of Iraqi jets parked in North Yemen---meaning the Saudis were pincered already militarily. Remembering how the Yemenis single-handedly kicked Nasser's troops out of Yemen in the early sixties [helped by covert US airstrikes engineered by the Saudis in cooperation with JFK], Fahd immediately consented to American forces being based for Operation Desert Shield inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I was told this story by someone accompanying Prince Bandar in the Saudi delegation from DC.

Of course, the follow-up is that Osama bin Laden went over to the dark side when the US & KSA decided to retain US bases in King Khalid Military City and elsewhere near the Iraqi border---pushing the religious UbL and his fervent AQ cadres into terrorist acts against the US and KSA.

Yemen of course, has a Jewish population of at least 4000 living in the old Royalist stronghold north of Saada. Ambassador Tom Pickering and David Ransom and myself discovered this group [I have photos from our '76 Jidda/Sana overland expedition] and Ransom & I spoke to the Jews in Arabic to ascertain their demographic and geographic extent. At the time, the Israeli-backed Near East Journal was claiming that all Jews had emigrated or been forcibly evicted from Yemen. The '76 State Dept discovery of Jews in Yemen was on Wikipedia, but mysteriously vanished a year ago.

I managed to travel with the German Ambassador Held and a Saudi friend Bernhard Von Der Planitz on another trip around Yemen. The city of Ibb was unique, as was Taiz where I purchased a lot of Bedouin jewelry.

Finally, the President of Yemen flew Ambassador [to Jordan at the time] Pickering and the rest of our small party to Marib, where we were able to purchase Himyaritic artifacts from BC and visit the famous dam. Here was where Solomon's bride Bilqis ruled and the Temples of Venus and the Moon were partly excavated by Albright before brigands chased them out in the early 20th century. The site is almost inaccessible now because of both terrorists and well-armed highwaymen who prey on wealthy foreigners attempting to visit the pre-Quranic civilization.

Now the PDRY [Peoples' Democratic Republic of Yemen] in Aden has united with North Yemen, but the Royalist Far North is still under the control of Abdullah Al-Ahmar & his Saudi-funded tribal alliances---I saw his cavalcade brazenly driving in downtown Sana once.

Yemen is Usama bin Laden's original family home, and the Yemenis still have a grudge about young Prince Faisal [later King] conquering Sana in 1930 and annexing most of Yemen [Asir, Baha, Najran, and other KSA areas] in the Treaty of Taif. Of the 15 "Saudi" passport holders in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, about a dozen were of Yemeni ethnic extraction co-opted by the strong Yemeni contingent in AQ.

This functioning medieval society has over 20 million people on an arid mountainous landscape populated by a male caste of narcotic-addicts who eat qat until noon and then "come down" drinking Scotch all afternoon. The deadly murderous knives with their rhinocerous-horn handles ["zambiyas"] are then deployed to settle scores and resolve disputes.

Oh, and by the way, better watch what you eat and drink. Montezuma's Revenge and Delhi Belly have nothing on the violent diarrhea eating on the economy can induce.

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