The night that Jack cooked for us was a sombre one.
Jack was our trusty tour leader, who once stood on the top of Everest and had 73 trips to the Yemen under his belt before we came along.
After we had had our 'regulation' curry to burn out any bugs we might have caught, we all sat in a circle round the fire for the witching hour, with the teapot buzzing away gently over the flames.
William, our 'resident' Sunday Times journalist, BBC reporter and star entertainer, had a severe cold. He insisted he had contracted it while swimming in the Red Sea - he had done so in contravention of all prudence, but everyone else knew he had brought it with him from England's safe and cosy Oxford. It made him uncharacteristically quiet.
So Fred made the running. Fred's wife was called Yoka, which William, the joker and journalist he was, turned into 'jokey', affectionately but disrespectfully. Fred and Yoka were Indonesian Dutch by origin, citizens of the offshore-island of Jersey by residence, but somehow now living in Poland; they had joined our motley crew from Warsaw.
Lit fitfully by the flames of the fire, Fred was telling us of German atrocities in Holland during the Second World War, the time of his childhood. Eventually, Fred, the enterprising Dutchman with the steely-blue eyes, reached the present: he had used all his cunning to bring capitalism single-handedly to unsuspecting Poland by setting up the very first private Bank there, which, the way he told it, seemed a charitable activity. He had not told us anything about his life before, and his account now made him sound almost likeable. For me, in my fireside-induced post-prandial stupor, it had all melded into a potpourri of capitalist atrocities. Then, in mid-flow, he became rather conscious of having allowed us, possibly, a fleeting glimpse of his soul. So, without warning and resolutely raising his voice from the intimate fireside level, he turned on me. I was sandwiched between him and the cold-stricken William, who was not interested and fiddled around with his short-wave radio to find the BBC Word Service, his second home.
"Well, Rainer", Fred now boomed, "we haven't heard anything from you yet; you are a bit of a dark horse, aren't you?" He contrasted the Englishness of his idiom with a multi-European accent that always had you wondering if he was speaking in English, German, Dutch or Danish.
Linking into his experiences of the war, I explained my crazy childhood, changing schools five times in four years, and how the war had affected my life. My father had refused orders to shoot Jews and was killed in the war. I was the only one left of a set of triplets and did not return to Vienna, the place of my birth, until the age of 11, but had not taken root anywhere till the age of 23. Somehow, my account sounded neat and to the point, and so I was rather pleased to finish it off with a smug "Well, and now you know why I am a pacifist!" They seemed to understand, if their silence was anything to go by. Not even William, never short of a devastating quip, ever ready to diffuse any serious mood with flippant wit, said anything. He really did have a bad cold, never mind where he had picked it up.
The next day it so happened that our itinerary led us into the most dangerous region of the Yemen, the volatile North-East of the country where government control is at its most tenuous.
"Do not point your camera anywhere near people in this region, not at men either, or you may get shot", Jack, our trusty trip leader, sternly warned us. He was not a man of drama and would rather say too little than too much. After the family-feud shooting in broad day-light we had witnessed in Ta'izz a few days earlier, we had no reason to doubt his word.
So it was in an atmosphere of apprehension that, after the obligatory military government checkpoints, we approached the final, local tribal road block. On our way through the desolate plain, we had already passed lone tribal warriors wandering along the deserted road, armed to their teeth with kalashnikovs, pistols, hand grenades, bullets and knives. We had learned in the few days of travelling around the North to raise our hands in nonchalant friendliness to greet anyone armed, and we were alright if they responded with a wave. On the way to Marib, the seat of the legendary Queen of Sheba, nobody did.
The Bedouin guard at the checkpoint wanted to examine our luggage - a huge bother considering the artful stringing up of the huge heaps of baggage on the roof-racks. Yahya, our seasoned, no-nonsense Yemeni driver, with a pistol under his seat, shook his head dismissively. The guard hissed hostility through his teeth but shifted his ground, demanding that we turn back as the area was not safe. Apparently, our vehicles might be fired on by suspicious Bedouins, resentful of the modern government road cutting through their tribal territory. Yahya was a man of experience, with gunshot scars on his forearm to prove it; as the personai driver of the last Imam of North Yemen, he was wounded in one of the many assassination attempts on the tyrannical ruler's life. He decided to offer the implacable guard some baksheesh, but the guard would not take it. He obviously meant what he had said. This is the point where Europeans would give up, but in an Arab society there is always a way round everything.
On condition that they would put armed guards on our three cars, we could enter their territory. The deal done, cigarettes changed hands, and off we went - one heavily armed guard each standing on the rear bumper of each of our Toyota Landcruisers, scanning the featureless horizon like radar screens for any sign of trouble. I could not help but remember how the last team of archaeologists eventually had to make a hasty retreat from Marib in the dead of night only a few years earlier when the Bedouins could no longer put up with the strange preoccupations and godless habits of the infidel foreigners, in their odious shorts and ridiculous sun-hats.
The piste was good and flat, and with our three jeeps riding along in parallel formation, 500 yards apart to avoid each other's dust plumes, we swept to Barraqish apace. Disgorging from the vehicles, we warily trotted towards the ruins of Barraqish, with the three wild-looking men bringing up the rear for our protection. My interest in the site, fabled capital of the kingdom of Ma'in, was rather dampened by the scorching heat beating down on my head. Not even the 'musa'ada', the headgear worn by the Yemenis, which Yahya had kindly wrapped around my head, offered relief, and it was too glaringly bright to think. Barraqish, with its ruins and history, was one thing, for sure, but I was fascinated by the Bedouin guards. They were the fiercest, wildest-looking men I had ever come across. After all, a shot of these professional bandits, if this was what they were, would be a prize piece, a trophy in my arsenal of slides back home. I kept sneaking looks at them, weighing up my chances. Jack's stern words of warning receded to the back of my mind.
We clambered up the slight elevation on which the ancient city once had stood, a desiccating effort in the merciless heat. Before long we passed through the remnants of the old mud-brick city ramparts, and the moment we did, the guards seemed to relax. I had read about the concept of 'mahram' where the sanctity of place confers inviolability on anyone reaching it, even murderers - perhaps even picture snatchers, like the safe haven in children's games. So perhaps, I surmised, the guards had done their duty and were now relying on the law of 'mahram'. After all, it used to be practised very near here in Marib thousands of years ago in 'Mahram Bilquis', their name for the temple of the Queen of Sheba.
Now these wild men, with their kohl-rimmed eyes, were jumping from stone to stone, their AK-47s and other accoutrements of warfare jiggling and bouncing from their shoulders quite unceremoniously. They were clearly loosening up.
I cocked the lever of my camera to the ready-state.
The local guards had no idea what we, messengers from the occident, were getting so excited about in this place; pre-Islamic treasures are definitely not cherished here, belonging to the dark ages of their past, best forgotten. Nonetheless, the spirit of our quaint enthusiasm over rubble with inscriptions not even in Arabic clearly seemed to be catching.
I risked some more vague smiles at one of the guards, barely 16.
Then I raised my camera. Perhaps, I thought, he was a soft target, after all. Perhaps he was only a toy soldier. Perhaps I could pacify him with an overwhelming charm offensive, just for one priceless shot.
I put the camera to my eye.
Then it happened.
The armed youth deftly leapt over some huge Sabaean stone steles, oblivious of their momentous inscriptions, and lunged at me, ripping his kalashnikov from around his shoulder and thrusting it at me with one hand while tugging at my camera with the other. Horror of horrors: was he suggesting an exchange? Was he bestowing a dubious honour on me? Was it my last stand? Or was he calling my bluff? I did not know.
All I did know at that moment was that Jack had mentioned in passing that AK-47s did not have a safety catch. There were rather a lot of good people around me who I could harm, just by holding the thing wrongly! Was it wise at this desperately dangerous pass to decline the onerous honour? And so risk the wrath of a sharpshooter?
'He would be a good shot', it flashed through my mind, suddenly thinking of him again as a trophy object, neatly squared up on celluloid, tamed on film and put away in a box.
'That's my trigger', the one on the camera, the one I had already cocked surreptitiously. It was like an illumination. The sudden insight into my predatory instinct weakened my purpose, as the camera slid off my shoulders, inexorably to pass into the hands of the guard.
He had as little idea how to hold my weapon as I had about his. In fact, he fell about laughing like a child, like the child he was, at how I cradled his precious gun as if it were a baby, desperately avoiding any proximity of fingers to the trigger. With a broad grimace shining out of his kohl-darkened face, he roughly rearranged the gun in my arms and coquettishly placed my index finger on the trigger. I closed my eyes and ears to the pernicious bang I was about to release. I knew the sound of it from the endless noisy skirmishes the previous night at Wadi Dhar, when local tribes shot at each other over our heads all night, and I cannot say I liked it, even if old hand Jack just dismissed it as a bit of 'excitement' in the morning.
But nothing happened! No shot of any kind. When I dared open my eyes, it was clear that he had made a proper man and warrior of me - for the first, and last, time in my life, while, it must be said, he was a fair way removed from looking like David Bailey with my camera, except perhaps for the stubble on his face.
At that moment, the bubble of tension burst into riotous, rip-roaring hilarity, with somebody shouting at me: "Rainer, try looking aggressive!" So I did, causing uncontrollable mirth all around.
With devastating precision, like a time-bomb that had been ticking away, William, his Oxford/Red-Sea cold clearly behind him now, weighed in with merciless mockery, pointing at me theatrically to all around. "And wasn't this the fellow who told us only last night in our cosy camp that he was a pacifist? Look at him now, just look at him!"
Needless to say, the brilliant joke and its precision-timing was lost on the guard, though he thoroughly enjoyed my aggressive grimace. He laughed and laughed away, his teeth flashing like the bullets in his girdle. He was chuffed that I had become one of them, harmless at that, and laughter, not my camera, had 'tamed' him. He motioned Fred, of all the peopie he could have chosen, the man concerned with atrocities, into strategic position to take a shot of me with my camera, but the camera did not trigger; there was no picture left on the roll!
So neither weapon had fired a shot!
We exchanged names. Adnan was his name, and fierce and fabulous was his face. We exchanged our weapons and shook hands.
He returned to keep his peace, but what peace was I keeping?
Content © R Reisenberger, 1992