The Broader Picture: The ploughwomen's lunch

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS 1936 when Dame Freya Stark - who died last Sunday aged 100 - wrote the account of her journey through the South Yemen. In The Southern Gates of Arabia she followed one of the oldest trade routes in the world - with help from Pliny and the writings of an anonymous Greek sea captain - and entered 'Frankincense country', which had at its heart the 'cliff-bordered valley and narrow defiles of Hadramaut' running parallel to the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. It was the people of Hadramaut, according to her sea captain - 'and no other people among the Arabians' he added dramatically - who had the honour to 'behold the incense tree . . . .'

Dame Freya was only the third European woman to go into the Arabian interior, and the first to go there alone - an eccentricity which caused the government such concern that it provided her with a black male slave servant as protection. She travelled through Hadramaut - by car, though there were few roads - to the ancient cities of Shibam and Sayun, with their elaborately decorated multi-storey mud houses that tower over the plains like primitive skyscrapers.

Wadi Hadramaut has always been fertile farmland, rich in alluvial soil washed down from the mountains each year in the rainy season and, as elsewhere in southern Arabia, irrigated from an extensive network of underground cisterns. It is women who still do much of the work, covered from head to foot, despite the heat, in the copious layers of black traditionally required by Islam - the whole lot topped off with an extraordinary beehive straw hat.

The hats are a protection from the sun, of course, but they serve a secondary purpose: as lunch-boxes. During the harvest, the women set off to work in the fields at dawn and break at about 10.30am, when they take out a kind of Middle-Eastern ploughman's lunch - pitta bread and cooked vegetables - from the tall crown of their hats, which serves, presumably, as a mini-oven.

The farming methods have been little changed by the various political upheavals the Yemen has undergone in the last few decades. Wadi Hadhramaut was once within the Aden Protectorate, then, after Britain's withdrawal in 1967, it

was subjected to the Marxist ideology of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, until the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. Last month the Yemen held the first general elections in the Arabian peninsula to consecrate this act of union.

Nearly 60 years ago, Dame Freya, waiting to get through the city gates at Shibam, watched the people coming in and out of the city: 'beduin, soldiers, citizens in turbans' and then, 'women with rubbish baskets on their heads'. It's nice to think she might have been seeing the same odd hats without realising what they were for.

Photograph by Ben Edwards

(Photograph omitted)