The bearded stranger was my excuse to stop building my brother’s house for a while. It was early afternoon, close to 40 degrees and I was very surprised to see a foreigner get out of the back of Ahmed’s Toyota pick-up with some of his sheep.
I took him around the town and then back to my house. Al-Hajjarein had been described as a ‘prosperous place’ in our year 493 (1100 in the Christian calendar) but now had just 6,000 or so people. A few farmers but most people worked in nearby Seiy’un. I told him why the mosques were unfinished: sons of the town went to earn money in Saudi and sent back their contributions to build a mosque. Our South Yemeni government took 50% and they stopped giving.
My brother’s house had to be finished, though: it needed to be ready for his forthcoming wedding. I asked if the stranger could help because we had only got electricity three months ago and I wasn’t experienced with it. ‘Not that’, he said, ‘maybe something else’. We walked back past the pool created by the floods nine months ago, now green and slimy. I asked if he would help make some bricks at the pool, for the house. ‘Not that’, he said, ‘maybe something else’.
We fed him when we got home, rice and vegetable stew, and I quizzed him. What’s the opposite of music, what’s the solution to the Palestine problem, things I didn’t know. I showed him around the house, from the roof where we slept, through the rooms stacked with mattresses for us to rest on, all the walls finished smoothly with lime and painted. He saw just four floors, not the bottom two with the animals and the kitchen. He liked the rope which goes all the way up the stairs. It is attached to the bar on the front door: when someone wants to come in we can, whatever floor we are on, pull the rope to let him in. When he asked for some water before he headed back to his hotel in al-Qatn I laughed and asked him to help me with ‘something else’. It was the time of year when we had to clean out the town’s wells. We tied a rope and harness to the person who would do the cleaning, and the other end to three men who would walk slowly towards the well to lower the cleaner. I showed the harness to the stranger. ‘Not that’, he said.