The Corner of Pretty
First meeting of the Tiny Perfect Professor
I survived a rather hellacious, 24-hour marathon flight from Toronto to the Yemeni capital of Sana’a via Amsterdam and Jeddah.
I should have known something was up for this excavation when I was first interviewed by Professor Dr. K at the annual American Anthropology Association symposium in Philadelphia, December, 1995.
Dr. K official title was the Project Head of the Canadian Archaeological Mission under the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). He had been working on this site in Yemen since 1982.
Actually, truth be told, he moved to Yemen because he and his crew, and many other “western” archaeologists, got kicked out of Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. His bailiwick had been Iran, but now it would be Yemen.
For my part, I had come from Toronto to Philadelphia with fellow Near Eastern Studies grad student, Emily Rachman, to hang out with my old/young dig friend Serge Avery and other old archy cronies from digs of the past. Serge was working in Philadelphia, and I was in the graduate program at University of Toronto.
I had already gained invaluable experience from previous excavations in Palestine, Israel, Syria and Jordan. The archaeological world is a small one at best, Old World archaeology world even more so. As such, there is no trouble into running into someone you know, met or worked with in the field, especially the Middle or Near Eastern field which I specialized in.
I had noticed that Dr. E at the meetings, but didn’t initiate any talk as I was ensconced in meeting my old friends who were now scattered all over the world. He was a bit of a weird cat anyways.
There was a break from the meetings and he took my friend, Serge Avery and I, aside at the annual meetings which we were attending.
We thought that he just wanted to chit chat.
“Are you interested in working on my dig in Yemen?”
We were both caught off guard by this as I personally had always wanted to go to Yemen, and working there might be a bonus and a good way to see that country.
Naturally, we both expected that he would ask us about out archaeological experience on previous excavations. I had previously been in his “Islamic Art and Architecture” course at the University of Toronto, and I guess he thought I looked like a potential victim to take on his dig to Yemen.
However, his first questions that he broached to us on the subject had nothing to do with archaeology whatsoever.
He looked straight at us and said—
“Do you drink?”
This seemed like quite an odd question to ask someone. I was a bit taken aback and before I could answer, Serge sounded a confessional and said—
“I drink,” but quickly added, “but not to excess!”
Then Dr. E gave me a squirrelly eye, reminiscent of some swashbuckler argh matey, I gulped and shot back—
“No, I don’t drink at all,” I quipped, sounding much like someone from the Temperance League which I am not. Just good old Methodist/Presbyterian upbringing I’m afraid.
“It’s not about you; it’s about the rest of the staff,” he chirped back at me.
Then he laughed his piratey kind of laugh, and said that he just wanted to make sure that if we got hired for the job that we would bring the alcohol allotment with us on board the flight.
I thought this was kind of daft and said that since Yemen was a Muslim country that I wouldn’t be wasting money on that, nor would I want any additional weight to add to my carry on.
“Let me get this straight. You want me to buy alcohol so others can get drunk,” I said.
Dr. E wasn’t impressed.
“You gotta be kidding.” I chuffed.
He said, in his sing songy patronizing style—
“Look, I don’t really give a shit if you drink or not.”
Hmmm, a red flag was starting to go up!
“Just as long as you bring in your allotment of two liters for the rest of the crew to enjoy.”
I found this a trifling bit odd.
Am I now responsible for someone else’s drinking habit?
More importantly, as a poor student, am I shelling out of my pocket for their habit?
A bit cheeky if you ask me?
Little did I know the pisstanks and bootleggers that I would meet once I was on the dig?
I should have known better as archaeologists have a reputation to uphold— boozers and cradle robbers, and sometimes grave robbers. More to the point, I wondered—
“Were we going to excavate or get inebriated?”
Later, over a coffee and a beedie, Serge and I laughed our asses off over this proposition.
“What the hell was that all about?” asked Serge.
“Beats me! That was weird—I don’t get it?” I chimed in.
We both wondered what the hell kind of an excavation it would be, as it seemed alcohol was now some kind of a prerequisite.
Back in Toronto, when I was still planning to join the Yemen expedition, I had coffee with two fellow University of Toronto archaeology friends, Linda Wilding and PhD candidate Lisa Cooper in a funky uptown café.
I think Linda had already had previous dealings with him through the NES department, and because of Lisa’s close connection with her advisor, Professor Cuyler Young, she would have heard rumours about Dr. K while being at the Royal Ontario Museum.
They both forewarned me about his dig, based on his past digs.
One bit of information that stuck out was that, according to them, there was never repeat staff on any of his digs: which meant that the staff couldn’t stand him.
That should have sent up another red flag right there.
One thing most profs prefer in the field is a return of staff who have worked with them, especially if you get along with them in the first place.
It’s only natural that some archy staff will probably not get along, but not the whole damn crew! As with any job, crew dynamics are critical and can often make or break the dig season.
This was apparently the latter case with him.
They also told me that on one occasion his whole staff abandoned him at the citadel where he came down with a bad spell of malaria—I guess, he nearly died.
* * *
Fast forward to a couple of months later at the Pearson International Airport in Toronto for the KLM flight departure area, February 27th, 1996.
It was here that I met up with the Canadian contingent: Karl (the ceramic typologist) from ROM and a budding undergraduate ‘bone lady’ or physical anthropologist whom I will call—Kathy.
I ended up chumming around with Karl who promptly bought what I thought was the ‘alcohol allowance’ for Yemen. Karl had also brought along a huge Eddie Bauer thermos, so I thought he was going to have a hot coffee or something prior to the flight. Turns out, the designer thermos was empty, that was until he proceeded to fill it with a 26 ounces of vodka right in broad daylight, in front of the airport security guys no less.
In most places, this might not be a problem, but you aren’t supposed to do such things in public in conservative Canada, especially at an international airport no less.
OK, so I thought he was going to try and sneak more booze into Yemen masquerading it as a hot drink. Little did I know this when he proceeded to pour quite a few liberal shots of vodka into the little plastic mug that screws onto to the designer flask.
After a few of these ‘shots’, Karl was flying before he ever got off the ground.
In between sordid conversations and his slurring of speech to me as we waited, he managed to finish the whole thermos full of vodka.
Then just prior to boarding, and by now fully cut, he went to the “Duty Free” and promptly bought the allowed two liters of alcohol and another which he duly put in the now empty thermos even though one litre was by now already coursing through his body.
Dr. K and his girlfriend were already in Yemen, but I guess he didn’t think that I would buy any alcohol, so he had burdened me with a carry-on which was a huge wine-making kit which I am sure would get the once over by Yemeni customs.
As it turned out, both Dr. K and Karl were old bootleggers from days gone by with Dr. K making some cheap Cab-Sav and Karl making up a batch of nasty date wine during the course of the dig.
I did; however, give in and bought a one liter bottle of vodka for the crew as I was sure I wouldn‘t drink any of it.
* * *
We met up with Kathy and eventually got checked onto the KLM flight where was seated, Karl promptly ordered a double vodka and we proceeded on our merry way.
The only time there was a lull in drinking from most of the occupants on board was when we entered Saudi airspace and we were told that—
“Ladies and gentlemen, with respect to Saudi Islamic customs, we are not allowed to serve any alcohol whilst flying in Saudi airspace so could you please finish your drinks now before landing in Jeddah for our fuel change.”
There promptly was a clatter of glasses and bottles as everyone chugged down their last beer or double vodka. Those who had duty free bottles out in the open scrambled to hide them in the overhead luggage as we were going to refuel and have the cabin cleaned by the austere and pious land crews in Jeddah.
I managed to not catch a wink on the flight mostly because of the boisterous Karl who was serenading anyone within earshot.
He must be a hell of a lot of fun back home and how does he keep down a steady job? The flight was a bore and this was a time when they allowed the bloody swine’s to smoke on board which drove my sinuses crazy.
Feb. 29th Sultan Palace, Sana’a
We eventually got to Sana’a and after we got through the myriad of all the customs paperwork and were picked up by a taxi once we were outside the airport.
Dr. K wasn’t there waiting for us as he was down on the coast already preparing our site in Zabid. The air was a bit pongy, and I was told later that it was because the airport was strategically placed next to the garbage dump.
Remarkably, there was no fight with the taxi pirates, but I did protest when they tried to stuff my camera-laden pack on the roof of the Peugeot 606.
In the late afternoon sun, my first impressions of Yemen would be forever etched in my brain.
It was like arriving in a fairy tale land of mediaeval Islamic architecture which resembled gingerbread houses. We trundled off to the Sultan Palace Hotel which was located near the Old City.
We entered the impressive four- storey stone hotel through a heavy wooden gate, past a pleasant courtyard that was protected by a bamboo roof. There were a few other hardy travellers who were presently filling their faces with the hotels finest fare.
We duly surrendered our passports and then staggered up the uneven steps to our rooms. Kathy had her own spacious room and Karl and I were stuffed into a smaller one overlooking the busy, yet narrow street.
Reaching out room was more like an aerobics workout because some of the steps were built for giants and not these dwarf-like Yemenis.
I later found out that most of the hotels in the Old City of Sana’a had originally belonged to extended families who would house everyone and their livestock in these tall stone houses.
We were too knackered after the 24-hour flight to do anything and we barely managed to collapse in a heap on our beds. Beds, if that what you call them, as they were just thick foam pads covered by a beautiful Yemeni fabric that lay on raised plaster plinths underneath a now open, wall length window.
A low wooden night table with lamp separated our two beds. I quite like it and there was something quite familiar about the room, but I was too sleepy to suss it out.
There were two choices for lighting: either the gloomy fluorescent bar over head or the glaring of a 60WT bare bulb.
Naturally, Karl the drunk, slept in my room which wasn’t so bad as he crashed immediately as soon as he touched his pillow. A few hours later just before sunset, we both woke as we were still suffering the effects of jet-lag.
Karl promptly ordered some fresh lime juice from the bowels of the hotel, and I thought this was a pleasant start, that is until he loaded the juice with the remaining vodka from his thermos.
At this point, the jet lag felt like a hangover so what the hell, we tippled a few drinks.
This summoned up some courage from within and we managed to fight our way up the steps to the roof.
The evening sun presented quite an orange aura for us on our first glimpse of the Old City. I quite liked the old hotel which had excellent views from this roof of the old city.
Now upon reflection and after that short nap, I realized the room and this hotel reminded me of Swahili architecture that you would find on the East African coast. The type that I would associate with my previous times spent in Lamu, but here the craftsmanship was more ornate or intricate. Perhaps the Swahili architects had borrowed from Yemen, but the truth may be that some of these Yemenis had followed the various trade winds and settled on the Swahili Coast in past centuries.
All the rooms had plaster work everywhere with incised or indented cupboards and shelves which broke up the monotony of the otherwise Spartan rooms. There were intricate, stucco patterns above the window and some type of stained glass above the window.
Sana’a is the capital of the new united Yemen and it is probably one of the highest capital cities in the world at around 5,000 feet. It is also one of the World’s Heritage sites and is under the protection of U.N.E.S.C.O.
It’s not your typical city in the Middle East not what you would come to expect on the Arabian Peninsula where we normally associate wind swept blazing desert heat.
In fact, apart from the occasional sunburst through the drifting clouds—it’s quite chilly here.
Sana’a is surrounded by mountains which makes it quite picturesque—hot, dry wounded mountains, with just a smattering of trees and vegetation.
At some point, Karl and I again stumbled up the giant’s steps on to the roof the next morning to take in our surroundings. On first glance, it looks like a very harsh climate indeed with very little rain, but it did look like it would rain on us while we looked around from the roof top.
Legend has it that Sana’a was founded by Noah’s son Shem and it is purported to be the oldest continually lived-in city in the world dating back some 7,000 years in antiquity.
I suppose that accounts for some of the decaying parts of the Old City, but I like it just the same as it reminds me of a city from the ‘Arabian Nights‘.
The Old City and our hotel are separated by what looks like a moat from the walled old city. It is, in fact, one of the many canals or ghayl that form an intricate canal system with an even more complicated ownership system.
They have been set up either to provide water for irrigating crops in the many varied gardens or miqshamah within the inner city sanctum or as is the case with the Sayilah—to provide runoff for the flash floods which frequent the highlands from time to time.
We witnessed one such flood in this ghayl and could see all sorts of flotsam and jetsam cruising past us. It halted traffic that was trying to cross the otherwise dry river bed.
At one point, a car went sailing by, no doubt caught off guard by the sudden flash flood further upriver. At the best of times, the sayilah which comes from the Arabic sayl for flash flood; it looks like a cesspool with all manner of garbage floating around.
I would not want to use it for watering my garden.
In recent years, UNESCO has provided funding and the former wadi has been paved with bricks and cobbles and the street that lined the Sayilah has also undergone massive rebuilding and paving with lights.
There is a great city wall that surrounds most of the Old City and from the outside looks like battlements. The technique for this is called zabur or rammed earth which is attained through using layers of mud mixed with straw.
Like India, the light here is intense and varies from shades of orange to burnt sienna depending on the angle of the sun.
The best light is in the early morning or late afternoon when many of the stone tower houses stand out like bastions.
The majority of tower houses have the bottom floors of quarried stone and the upper stories of burnt brick and a gypsum white-washing of both the façade and the interior rooms. The upper stories usually have a men’s only room called the mafradj and this is where most business is conducted, especially the chewing of qat.
The mafradj is a smallish penthouse which has windows set on gypsum frames with a semi-circle or half moon window above.
It looks like stained glass, but instead of lead tracery it is gypsum with coloured glass built in and this is called qamariyyah or ‘moon-shaped’.
Brightly coloured low cushions with fabulous Persian carpet designs are spread out on the floor against the walls to form a square and it is quite the convivial place once it is full of noisy qat chewers.
A number of older homes have been turned into hotels and quite often the restaurant is in the mafradj as I would find out later.
For the most part, everything is on a smaller scale than western building codes and as such, you have to watch your head upon entering any room, especially when you want to go to the washroom at night.
So in a nutshell this was the beginning of my dig in Yemen, and unfortunately, as the ‘dig season’ wound down, this would also be the last of my archaeology days in the dirt as the following year I started my career in ESL teaching because I could never seem to make any money out of archaeology.
Ironically, I was back in Yemen three years later for a visit whilst teaching in UAE, and eventually I landed a great job with a Canadian oil company teaching their trainees English prior to 9/11 and after, but that’s another long, sordid story.