books: Dragon's blood in paradise

Annabel Freyberg voyages to the end of the earth; Yemen: travels in dictionary land by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, John Murray, pounds 18
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Like many Englishmen before him, Tim Mackintosh-Smith has fallen in love with a faraway country and been tempted to express his love in print. Untypically, his acquaintance with Yemen, in the heel of Arabia, is not slight or even temporary. His home since 1982 has been a seven- storey mud town-house in Sanaa, the capital, and the depth of his experience shows.

Medieval history, pre-Islamic myth, the gossip of the marketplace, politics and personal experience have all been pressed into a rattlingly funny, learned and readable impression of a place where "the past is not another country", nor merely a few centuries old. Some families can trace their lineage back to Adam; oil is extracted from the same area as the frankincense and myrrh route (ruined by the arrival of Christianity in Rome); and the glorious Marib Dam, whose collapse in the 6th century led to a great dispersal of wealthy farmers throughout Arabia, was only replaced ten years ago by a new $70 million construction.

Mackintosh-Smith taps into this rich history, in which geography, fable and the present meet. He tells of the myth that the dam was eaten away by rats with iron teeth, and of how the King of Marib, warned of the impending disaster by a soothsayer, made his son slap him in public so he could claim he had been insulted, sell the dam and move away. He also gives more prosaic details of the destructive 3.2 million cubic yards of silt washed from the mountains each year, and of how rebuilding the dam symbolised a lost Arab unity.

He is susceptible to romance himself, dating his infatuation with the Arab world to a fascination with his grandmother's fanciful oriental watercolours and the strange misshapen red globule his father told him was the blood of an Arabian dragon (there are occasional, welcome shades of Bruce Chatwin), but equally entertained by reality. After two years studying Arabic at Oxford, he is unable to ask his way to the lavatory, but tickled by the imaginative possibilites of a phrase such as "Your words reveal the buttocks of your meanings", or that his motorbike is called a "fiery bicycle".

Tim Mackintosh-Smith's choice of Yemen for his university year abroad was governed by the thrilling recreation of Sanaa's suq at the Museum of Mankind in London. He chose well. Thanks to a suspicious Imam who resisted the oilmen's advances in the 1940s, Yemen is the only country on the Arabian peninsula not to have succumbed to grossly speeded-up modernity. Not that old customs have turned it into a museum. Since his arrival, Mackintosh- Smith has witnessed war, revolution, the reunification of North and South Yemen (twice) and the arrival of some million Yemenis thrown out of Saudi Arabia when Yemen incautiously sided with Iraq during the Gulf War.

Although he writes well about the vertiginous terraced highlands, his heart lies in the bustle of Sanaa, the city of which the prophet wrote: "There are three earthly paradises. Merv of Khursasan, Damascus of Syria, and Sanaa of Yemen. And Sanaa is the paradise of these paradises." In a far from tranquil century, Sanaa lost half its population from starvation in a siege in 1905, while in 1948 it was sacked by 250,000 tribesmen to avenge the assassination of the oil-shy Imam. His son never lived in Sanaa again.

Here he can indulge in the daily ritual of qat, as much of the population spends the afternoon chewing themselves into a mildly narcotic state. For centuries qat has been accused of corrupting the nation, and the author puts up a bracing defence of its use which almost convinces. Not so his belief that keeping women out of the public domain is probably for their benefit.

His final chapter is about a trip to the "end of the earth", the inaccessible Island of Suqutra, a third of whose exotic flora is unique. There, he reaches an understated full circle when he climbs a weird-looking, fan- vaulted dragon's blood tree, whose resin was once in great demand as a dye for violin varnish - and remembers his father's lump of it. "It is a book" states his introduction, "which, I admit, treads a thin line between seriousness and frivolity". This is exactly what makes it such fun.