Artist in Yemen

I will be in Sana'a, Yemen, May 27-July 10 2006. I'll be working on my Arabic language skills and painting every day, walking around asking questions about food and gardens and perfume and incense. I'll be studying and living at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies(CALES)in the Old City of Sana'a. Although I usually paint in reverse on glass, in Sana'a I'll be working in watercolor and mixed media on paper.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Back from Weekend Number Two

Oh my, time flies by. I'm sorry to have such a long time between posts; I want to post more often, if only for my own recollection later! I'm a little overwhelmed by my life here I guess. There is so much going on I don't know where to start so I don't start at all.

I'm making good language progress, although I have a deep down escape urge leftover from school that makes it hard to get excited about class, even though I love my teacher and I learn a lot from her. I'm just so much better at learning outside of class.
I'm not painting nearly as much as I hoped I would, although the ideas come pouring in. I feel like there isn't ever the long uninterrupted time in my studio.
I'm delightfully, exhaustingly distracted by the dazzling environment I'm in. Just walking in the street I see, feel, hear and smell so many things that when I come back to my room I need a lot of down time to process it all.
I started an Arabic calligraphy class, and realized I was crazy to take on one more thing although almost all the paintings I've been working on have English and Arabic text, and I really want to improve my Arabic writing which currently looks like the work of a careful second grader.

I try to end most of my days by going up to the rooftop. It's a lovely time of day to be there. Sana'a is a very dusty city which makes for pearly sunsets. Just after sundown, the mosque nearest my house starts up the call to prayer. I don't know why it's the first, but within seconds all the others start calling also, and the sound spreads in all directions in a ripple, different voices layering over one another. It's a beautiful sound. I don't even mind it at 4AM, most of the time.
I love the view of the Old City from the rooftop. It's very handmade, with almost no straight or parallel lines. My friend Greg Schoon always says "all straight lines lead to hell" which makes the Sana'a skyline a heavenly place. Even the minarets lean slightly, each with its own particular direction and angle. The houses are elaborately decorated, even at the top floors. The construction materials (doors, windows, even the hardware) are mostly locally made which gives the houses a strong feeling of a particular place.
My neighborhood, in the Old City is a hallucinatory mix of the mediaeval and the 21st century. My favorite example of this is that my usual internet place is right across a narrow little street from the donkey market. There are blacksmiths working nearby, making all kinds of tools and housewares.

But I promised to write about my weekend. I got back this afternoon, exhausted. Thursday morning I went alone to Shibam-Kawkaban. Shibam is at the base of a 1000' cliff, and Kawkaban is at the top. There is a footpath that connects the two. Kawkaban is a very old walled fortress village, that still closes the gate at 7PM each night! I spent two nights at a tiny two room hotel in Kakaban, operated by a family that made me feel perfectly at home and welcome. Both mornings my host Yahya sat me out on the roof at sunrise with a glass of strong sweet Yemeni coffee.
My first afternoon, I took a walk across the plateau, through terraced fields of wheat and qat. It got all blustery and cold and stormy, so I scurried back, freezing cold, and Yahya greeted me with a thermos of tea. His wife Hafitha made me a delicious dinner of chicken and potatoes with lots of cumin, and heated water so I could clean up, a wonderful luxury. Yahya had great ideas for walks in the area, and the next day I went out on a long ramble he suggested. I walked back down to Shibam, where there was a big weekly market and caught a ride to Thulla, another walled city, and walked about 7 hours, with thousands of feet in elevation change both up and down. Each village I walked through was walled and fortified, with beautiful mosques and cisterns, and rich in tower houses. The most amazing architecture is EVERYWHERE! It's just part of daily life. I came back to the hotel bone tired. I went on a shorter walk today because I had to get back for class this afternoon, but the landscape was much more dramatic, the most extreme mountains and rocky slopes I have ever seen. Everywhere are stone terraces, evidence of thousands of years of human labor. I sat on a big rock and watched life on the terraces, men out plowing with animals, women harvesting wheat, girls herding goats and fat-tailed sheep, whole families planting. I looked far across deep wide gorges at tiny hamlets clinging to the slopes amid terraces, terraces, terraces, off into the haze. Now I'm sunburned: the Red Badge of Idiocy.
I wasn't at all up for class when I got back (I'm too much of a morning person to be up for anything at 4PM, even when I haven't been hiking all morning and then negotiating for a ride back through Yemen!) but I went anyway and my teacher Sina took me to the military museum. It was not a particularly inspiring museum, but it got Sina talking about her memories of the civil war that she lived through as a teenager. I really appreciated her first hand accounts of that time. Again I am reminded of what an easy life I have had.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don't go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don't go back to sleep. -Jelaluddin Rumi