Remembering Yemen

3 June 2011

Back in the late 80s, I did a consulting gig with the United Nations Capital Fund in (then Communist, Soviet Union ally) South Yemen. I was the first American to visit the country in 10 years. I called our State Department to inquire about getting a visa and was told “We don’t talk to them, and they don’t talk to us. If you go there, you’re on you’re own.”

Yemen is a desert, beautiful country with dramatic canyons and brick homes built at the base of steep cliffs with overhanging rocks which to me expressed the deep fatalism and trust in Allah of it’s inhabitants. They had a tribal justice system in the rural villages that worked for everything from squabbles over chickens to life-giving water distribution rights. I saw both at work there when we visited a small village in Hydraumat. We stood in the doorway of a government building, watching as a man handsome as Omar Sharif listened to two men take turns pleading their cases for what we knew what. Omar listened to them, a combination of boredom and annoyance on his features, until he suddenly saw the three foreign visitors in the doorway, which he knew meant something important was going down, possibly a development project. He made a sweeping motion with his hand as if brushing away flies and the two altercators quickly decamped.

Later, Omar took us to see the water distribution system, and how he collected taxes for the water use. It amounted to a sheet of paper, onto which he had recorded how many liters of water each family in the village had consumed, and how much they paid for it.

Today, due to the rebellion, there is no diesel fuel for the water pumps. In a matter of days, cities like Sana will run out of water.

Yemen is a desert.

Rupert Scofield


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