Bit of a strange place Tarim. Like Sayun, 40km back down the wadi, there’s also a fair bit of money knocking round in Tarim. Not quite as many contemporary, no-more-than-two-storey, ’luxury’ style houses or gleaming 4WDs as Sayun but enough to suggest a higher than national average disposable income. OK, so it’s only a small proportion of the population in this income bracket and the vast majority are as poor as mosque mice but if there were beggars in Wadi Hadramawt, I didn’t see any. That’s more than can be said for the rest of Yemen. Inequitable maybe but at least there seemed to be some sort of trickle-down effect from the local pockets of wealth in the area.
The attraction of Tarim, however, isn’t the relative lack of poverty or plastic wafting in the breeze but the derelict buildings in the town centre which frankly, are amongst some of the most astonishing palaces ever built anywhere. Between the mid 19th century and early 20th century, there was a bit of a trading boom between the Hadramis and the countries of South Asia, South East Asia and East Africa. The upshot of this was that a whole bunch of Hadramis who’d migrated east as either religious scholars and academics or labourers ended up with shed loads of money to send or spend back home in the wadi. Hence the palaces. Astonishing for two reasons - firstly because they’re built out of mud bricks and secondly because there are no words to describe the architectural style resulting from the fusion of Neoclassicism, Rococo, Art Nouveau, Mogul and Art Deco that you’re confronted with.
Now when I arrived in Tarim I discovered that the camera issues I’d had for a short while in Ma’rib had returned big-style so consequently I’m relying on my memory here. But I don’t think my lack of photos of the palaces in Tarim is a bad thing at all. Turning up somewhere with minimal information of questionable reliability and without having seen any pictures is about as close to being an intrepid adventurer as you going to get these days. If you really can’t cope with being a latter day Freya Stark then try www.yemenweb.com for photos and www.idontlikesurprises.com for therapy. Anyway back to the palaces, the majority of which were built in the early 20th century by families who had not only acquired mega-bucks overseas but also a passion for architectural eclecticism. What I find curious is the fact that despite the strong trading links being with the East, the predominant architectural style of the palaces I saw seemed to be European. Italianate balustrades, sweeping stairways, grand salons and internal Rococo plaster work all finely executed out of mud bricks - and all slowly crumbling to pieces.
During the civil war in the 1970s Wadi Hadramawt was in the Marxist Peoples Democratic Republic of South Yemen so one person having one big palace would have been a ‘first up against the whitewashed wall and shot‘ offence however, the palace owners had seen the writing on the wall well in advance and had legged it out of the country. The Marxist Government appropriated the abandoned palaces and they were used and maintained as homes for the poor. Upon the unification of Yemen in 1992 the palaces were returned to their owners who responded with a spontaneous round of indifference to the idea of returning to the family pile. The few who have returned are far more interested in low maintenance homes built of modern materials with good plumbing and enough parking space for a fleet of 4WDs. And who can blame them? I mean, it’s all very well getting dewy-eyed and romantic at the thought of living in a mud palace but would you really want to live somewhere where you’ve got to go out and rebuild the roof every time it rains? No, I didn’t think so and neither do the owners who obviously don’t view their architectural heritage with quite as much sentimentality as we do.
However, amidst all this grandiose decay, there is one palace that’s in slightly better nick than most due to the efforts of a restoration fund founded by a small bunch of possibly French and maybe deceased benefactors. Maybe French because the hand-written information sheet stuck up in the entrance hall appeared to be in French, and maybe deceased because it looked like it had been written considerably more than a lifetime ago - it was so faded and crumbly. If the benefactors are indeed all deceased this would certainly explain why the small amount of restoration work that had been done in the past was beginning to look like it could do with a bit of restoration work itself now. Known as al-Qaf Palace, it was built for Sayyid ’Umar bin Shaykh al-Qaf who allegedly used a book of architectural style templates to come up with mix-and-match design for his palace in a style that one guidebook called ‘Javanese Baroque’. I could see the Baroque but the Javanese escaped me I’m afraid. The Art Deco bathroom with its few remaining panes of the stained-glass windows must’ve been something else to see - once. Most of the rooms are empty and on the upper floors many are a mess of fallen ceilings and broken windows. On the first floor the rooms are in a reasonable state of preservation with a few dusty relics dotted around and it’s not hard to imagine the former grandeur of the palace when you stand in the one room that still has intact stained-glass windows with intricate lattice work.
It was on the palace roof terrace that I met my ’trip weirdo’. There’s always one when you’re away travelling - sometimes a local but usually a tourist and in this case a Frenchman who was something in IT back in the real world. Now I thought the al-Qaf was good value for 150YR (£0.42, US$0.82) but not this guy - he pissed and moaned about how he’d been ‘reeeped off’ and kept banging on about how dusty the palace was. Frankly I’d seen more dust in some of my hotel rooms but I guess his budget for accommodation was higher than mine while his budget for entrance fees considerably lower. This wasn’t a snap judgement either - I’d already clocked him back in Ma’rib where he’d been whinging to the malevolent hobbit about having to pay 100YR to look at Mahram Bilqis. If I’d been the hobbit I certainly wouldn’t have given him the old ‘human leg bone in the cemetery’ routine - no siree! Anyway, I nodded occasionally in a non-committal sort of way and decided to see if I could count all 365 mosques in Tarim as he started to give me the benefit of his wisdom on all things Yemeni. I was up to my 34th mosque-type building when I realised he’d actually stopped to ask me a question.
"Eeet is nervous eeer, nes’t pas?"
"Sorry…er…how d’you mean…er …’nervous’, porquoi?
"Le terrorisme", he whispered then paused, "…et bin Laden."
"Bin Laden?…..as in Osama? …..and al-Qaeda?"
He raised his pointy finger to his lips and ‘shushed’ me.
"Hadramawt….eee was living eeer and now eeet is many with le terrorisme so eeet is nervous, oui?"
I know it was unforgivable of me but I told him I was far more terrified at the prospect of having to listen to him ever again, not just in Yemen but in my life, than I was at the thought of Mr bin Laden giving me grief. No, I didn’t happen to agree that just because Osamas’ dad was originally from this neck of the woods it meant that every Hadrami was a paid-up member of al-Qaeda. Muhammed Awad bin Laden left Hadramawt around 1910 and went to work in Saudi where he got mega-rich and built a business empire and good for him. And yes, I did happen to know that the bin Laden Construction Company that’s got the contract to develop the infrastructure in Hadramawt is part of Osamas’ dads empire and so what? Just because one of your 55 kids has gone off the rails doesn’t mean you can’t have a life. So I’m sorry but I couldn’t take any more - it was rude and horrible but the Frenchman had to go. He left.
I never finished counting the mosques but I was well impressed with the minaret on the al-Muhdar Mosque which is either the tallest in Hadramawt or Yemen and is either 40m or 50m high depending on who you’re talking to. If you fancy a soft drink in unusual surroundings then try the stall in the grounds of the al-Qubba Rest House just outside town. The rest house was closed for business but if staying there is as bizarre as the building and the unusual gardens then I’d be up for it.