Najran: Down on the Yemeni Border

Images of Najran. Photos copyright Martin Souster.

Images of Najran. Photos copyright Martin Souster.

The road is long, mostly straight through the rocky desert, sometimes winding through mountains while giving way to congresses of baboons. It’s the deep south of Saudi Arabia. Evidence of car crashes all the way down didn’t manage to dampen our spirits, neither did the multiple checkpoints manned by guards more interested in looking at their phones than anyone heading south. They are more concerned when you come north. Illegal immigrants, gat, hashish and alcohol are often smuggled up from Yemen.

Najran is flat and surrounded by mountains on either side. It sprawls out for almost 30km in every direction, littered with date palm trees and many beit teen (traditional mud houses) and qasrs (forts/castles). The people are noticeably different. They wear their shemaghs wrapped around their heads instead of draped around their shoulders like a lot of the Asir region. They told me it’s the style of the Yam, the main tribe around those parts. They also have some Wa’eli and Makrami families. Makrami is a big giveaway as to just how much Najran differs from the rest of the country. Makrami can be a synonym for Ismaili, which is a sect of the Shia branch of Islam. Saudi Arabia is officially Sunni Wahhabi, and Shias tend to be located in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom or down in Najran in Yam territory. The Yam give an impression of being strong and proud of their tradition. They hinted that they are not the same as the Muslims in the Eastern Province who are seen as weaker and downtrodden. I’d previously heard some derogatory comments about Ismailis, but this was my first time encountering them in the flesh.

We headed into town to see the Qasr Emara, an old castle built in the traditional biet teen style, but with modern modifications to accommodate things like electricity cables. 1361 was inscribed into one of the walls, which means it’s less than a hundred years old (it’s currently 1435 in the Islamic calendar). It’s a great example of the local architecture, overlooking the low roofs nearby and mountains in the distance.

Where I live, there is a woman’s souq, where men shouldn’t venture. In Najran however, souq al ajuz was quite open, with women manning regular stalls while both sexes mingled about. Perhaps another sign of the differing traditions within Saudi Arabia. The women were still clad in complete abaya and niqab. The modern attire appears to have well and truly spread everywhere, stamping out the more traditional colorful clothing you read about in older writings. Cameras were sheathed for this part, as even though it felt more open, photography in places where women are present is still frowned upon.

We popped round to the souq el jenabi, a market specializing in traditional daggers which are worn a lot more around Najran. They’re renowned for their craftsmanship. BBC reporter Frank Gardner, who was shot in Riyadh, returned to Saudi Arabia not so long ago to make a new documentary. He went to this exact souq and was given a jembiya (dagger) as a gift when they heard his story. The generosity of this area knows no bounds, especially when you hear the price of some of them. We were shown one which we were assured has a handle made from rhino ivory and would set us back 200,000 riyals ($53,000). We weren’t sure whether to believe them or not, but they’re known for selling them for as much as $10,000 or more which still begs the question, who the hell buys these things?

Souq el jenabi. Photos copyright Martin Souster.

Souq el jenabi. Photos copyright Martin Souster.

We spent the rest of the evening in the house of our new friend and unofficial guide. It was only the second time I’d been invited into the house of a Saudi family. We were given a fantastic spread and told about the history of Najran. Najran prides itself on always listening to the Abrahamic prophets. All of them. There were Jewish settlers here, then Christian ones. The Al Ukhdood ruins in Najran actually hold a famous trench where Christians were buried after a scuffle with the local Jews. Ali, one of Mohammad’s (pbuh) closest friends and son-in-law later visited Najran and the locals were dumbfounded by his sincerity and willingness to commit his entire family to Islam, no doubt influencing them to eventually accept the new faith. I don’t think the significance of it being Ali that visited should be missed, as he is an important figure in Ismaili sects of Islam.

We toasted some marshmallows after dinner and sat out under the night sky, some donning their thick farowas which keep them warm in the cool winter evenings. We received some tremendous hospitality in Najran. It embarrasses me to think how we treat our guests in Britain. We really are an unfriendly people compared to other parts of the globe. It’s very humbling to witness that my culture has many things to learn from people we often label with the most derogatory of terms.

Before we set off home we chanced a look at Najran Dam. We wound our way through the mountain tunnels to get to the dam, which is on the border with Yemen. Yemen has some trouble at the moment and is quite the no-go area for westerners. The north isn’t controlled by the government, but by the Houthi rebels. We had a kilometer of no-man’s land in between us and them, with no police or security in sight because we’d crept in when it was closed. An alarm sounding prompted us to take our photos and head off back through the mountain.

Najran is quite the place. More traditional, different in culture, fantastically friendly and hospitable, with little gems like the hundreds of beit teen and jembiyas all around. It’s more rugged, original and with a hint of lawlessness. If you ever get to Saudi Arabia, put it near the top of your list. I’ll be back.

Mark Payne

About Mark Payne

Mark lives and works in Khamis Mushait in the south west of Saudi Arabia. He is trying to make the most of his time there in the culturally rich and quite unknown mountainous Asir region of Saudi Arabia.