Tribal Warriors Become Tour Guides
Kalashnikovs may not be carried during class. As the students enter the classroom, before they greet the teacher, they drop their weapons in the corner by the window. But their curved dagger stays in their belt – it's an essential symbol of manhood for every Yemeni male.
This is an English lesson in the tribal area of Marib, a district of Yemen which is only in the headlines when foreign tourists are kidnapped there. The teacher is Richard Boggs, who's Irish, and he announces that the topic today will be "the past tense of regular and irregular verbs."
The students may have just entered the room as heavily armed tribal warriors, but they are now listening attentively, trying hard to come to grips with English conjugations.
The English lessons are the last phase of a project financed by German development aid, to train members of the local tribes to become tour guides for the archaeological sites in their territory.
Raising cultural awareness
The programme is called "Dealing with Conflict by Promoting Business and Employment," and it's run by the GTZ, the German government-funded organisation for technical assistance. The idea is to help young people earn money from tourism by training them and making them aware of their own cultural inheritance.
Marib is three hours drive east of the Yemeni capital Sana'a. It was once the metropolis of the Sabaeans, a people with a high culture which, three thousand years ago, controlled the routes through the desert for the trade in incense.
The Bible and the Koran both tell of the wise Queen of Sheba or Saba. The wealth and the splendour of the Sabaeans was legendary, the Romans were envious and called the Sabaean Empire "Arabia Felix" – "fortunate Arabia." Nowadays Marib is dominated by rival tribes who repeatedly engage in bloody feuds over land and power. There's nothing left of the area's former good fortune and prosperity.
"The archaeological sites here offer an incredible potential which hasn't yet been exploited," says the archaeologist Holger Hitgen, who is one of the initiators of the project. Currently, poorly informed guides from other parts of the country show the tourists around the excavations in Marib. The money goes to travel agents abroad or in the capital – the local people get nothing.
The family farm of Abdallah al-Goaibi lies near the ruins of Old Marib, where the antique metropolis lies buried under metres of rubble. Al-Goaibi is thirty years old and knows all about growing oranges and tomatoes, but, until recently, he knew very little about the Sabaeans, their magnificent columned temples and ingenious dams, which international archaeologists have been exploring and progressively revealing for the last several decades.
He's one of the twelve young men from the most important Marib tribes who were chosen by the governor for training as tour guides. Abdallah, from the Aqil tribe, suddenly found himself studying Sabaean history together with members of other tribes, some of which were the Aqil's rivals.
As one participant, Said al-Jusfi, remembers: "Three of the participants couldn't even talk to each other until they had passed their right hand over their brow." That's a gesture which allows tribal warriors to ignore a current conflict at least temporarily.
Archaeology was one of the topics in the course. "But it was much harder to show them how to deal with foreigners," says Hitgen. "For the Maribis, the foreigners are exotic, just like the Yemenis are exotic for the tourists."
Many questions had to be answered. How do you deal with women tourists wearing skin-hugging t-shirts, when you're only used to seeing your female neighbours' eyes through a slit in the veil? What do you do with the Kalashnikov during the tour? How do you satisfy the desire of the tourists to know more about tribal life and religion?
"It's an honour for me to show strangers my country," says Abdallah al-Goaibi – even if some of his fellow-countrymen don't think much of the tourists. But Abdallah doesn't just want the honour; he also wants to earn money from the tourists.
Sometime in the future, he'd like to build "a hotel like a Bedouin tent in the desert," he says. For the time being, he and the other participants in the course – no matter which tribe they belong to – have founded an organisation called "The sons of Marib." It's enabled the group to convince one of the largest Yemeni tour organisers to let them show the tourists around in their region.
But "The sons of Marib" don't have much work right now. Around New Year 2006, tribal people kidnapped tourists again for the first time in four years in the course of a dispute with the government.
The tourist business has collapsed as a result. But Hitgen thinks that initiatives like this could help secure the safety of tourists in the region in the future. "The more people understand that they can earn money with tourism, and the more they do so," he says, "the stronger will be the lobby against kidnapping."
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton