Chapter 9: Forget Huntington Beach.
(I am writing a series about Yemen because what is currently happening there is terrible beyond. My inaction disgusts me and so I am going to introduce you to to the country because… the place, people, culture all deserve to be saved. Catch up, if you wish, on the links right here… (Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8)
We dragged worn carcasses from the water, from the best wave in the entire world, after I don’t know how long. It was one of those surfs where time stops or rather ceases. We stood on mossy rocks and felt exhilarated. Tired. Happy. Genuinely happy. A few Yemenis had found perches in the cliff across the road and were chewing qat, watching us. Vaguely unimpressed.
We threw our boards into the Landcruiser jabbering about how happy Sam George would be with our discovery, wondering if it was a typical day or an out of the ordinary bump, asking our photographer if he captured any photos of our shredding? He lowered his Blue Blocker slightly and said, “Totally…” though clearly had no idea. He was not a surf photographer and new fangled digital cameras were not good enough for magazine quality yet so he was shooting film.
It was probably better that way. Visions of little jams danced in my head as we hit suburban Mukallah. The outskirts were typical Arab. Three story cement buildings. Wide streets. Mosques. Photos of president Al Abdullah Ali Saleh looking down from light posts. Qat. But there was a feeling in the air that was… otherworldly. Maybe it was the electricity of that surf slowly dissipating. Maybe it was the eons of history floating between Chinese motorcycles and Russian tractors. A Greek navigator commented about the nomads and fish eaters that had set up a trading post on the town to send frankincense to the far corners of of the known world which explained the Indian, Persian and central Asian architecture in city’s center.
It was a perfect set up, hugging a bay and facing the sun. Naked, towering hills proudly flanked the city. The water was surprisingly blue. We drove to the far end and found a perfect ancient hotel with giant bay windows that swung open to a square. We negotiated with the proprietor for a while and he seemed uninterested in renting us a room. A crowd of serious men began to gather and listen to our handicapped blend of Egyptian and scholarly Arabic. Suddenly Ghamdan elbowed us and said, “Let’s go.” We had stopped listening to him by now, more or less, but his urgency seemed out of character so decided to shuffle after him back to the Landcruiser. When we got there we asked what was up. He said, “Too many beards.” And didn’t elaborate further which was also out character. Ghamdan was always one to wink at perceived danger. He was not winking now. He was nervously fiddling with his Kalashnikov.
We agreed to move to a hotel a kilometer up the river that flows through town, just outside the old city. Annoyed because it didn’t have giant bay windows and was named Al-Khail. The Horse. A few years later we would end up staying at the ancient hotel and it was everything it should have been. A few years after that the city became the home of a revitalized Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the target of poorly guided Saudi bombs. Sickly and cruelly decimated.
But that day the sun was setting as the call to prayer began to filter and I knew that no better surf town existed on the face of the earth.