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Yemen’s strange passion for topiary

The gardener of Aden

How a strange passion for topiary is flourishing in the land of al-Qaeda

How a strange passion for topiary is flourishing in the land of al-Qaeda

Nicolas Pelham | February 19th 2018

It began two years ago with a few snips to a Damas bush. Before the week was out, Omar Slameh, who heads a provincial department of environmental management in eastern Yemen, had his 24 municipal gardeners clipping shrubs into pyramids, globes and hearts. Soon they were decorating ancient thoroughfares with six-foot-high teapots, incense burners and doves. By the year’s end they could produce entire Quranic verses in living greenery.

Such feats of topiary would have dazzled any city. That they should bud in a war-stricken country facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and in an isolated corner regarded as al-Qaeda’s stronghold, beggars belief. But Slameh is convinced that horticulture is an effective method of peace-keeping. “They plant explosives. We plant trees,” he says, bristling with civic pride. Manicured foliage fosters a sense of normality and order, he argues.

Tucked in Wadi Hadramawt, a broad canyon that cuts 200km across the east of Yemen, Seiyun is half an hour’s drive from Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home. Seiyun itself has come under repeated attack from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadists’ most lethal affiliate. Over the past four years, it has raided the town’s central bank, stormed the airport, triggered car bombs outside its governorate and army bases, and driven 30-car convoys flying black ensigns through its streets. It has chased away foreign oil companies with a spate of kidnappings, assassinated several local officials and published manuals for lone wolves on how to sew suicide vests. 

But unlike Mukalla, Hadramawt’s provincial capital on the coast, which fell under jihadist rule for over a year, Seiyun has never been captured. It is home to Yemen’s only functioning civilian airport. It offers an escape route for Yemenis at a time when many of the ports and border crossings have been closed. Its relative security is not a coincidence, according to Slameh: bushes clipped in God’s name on the roadsides and roundabouts act as protective amulets, he says.

The soil that nurtured Slameh’s art is fertile ground. Hadramawt’s people have been beautifying their towns since merchants hauling frankincense and myrrh from the Indian Ocean to Palestine rested their camels under its palms, and the tradition survived during British rule of the Aden Protectorate. Hadrami oases are garlanded with fairy-tale cities. Mud-built skyscrapers capped with whitewashed parapets soar out of the sands. Dawan, the bin Ladens’ home, defies gravity, hanging precariously from a cliff-side. Minarets taper into pointed spires, betraying far-eastern influences. Merchants took Islam to Indonesia and brought back its architecture. Yemenis manning the praetorian guards of the maharajas and nawabs in Hyderabad and other Indian cities decorated their retirement homes with elaborate Moghul twirls.

But Yemen’s answer to Capability Brown insists his shrubs and techniques are home-grown. Slameh has coated his ugly second-floor municipal block with designs for his next generation of topiary, and talks of exporting cut hedges to other desert cities in the Gulf. The hundreds of students who arrive from Indonesia and Malaysia each year to study in the Hadrami madrassas, he hopes, might even take his designs home. In some Islamic cities, they could become, well, hedgemonic.

Slameh also nurtures a fragile hope that tourists might come when the war ends, despite the Hadramawt’s well-established reputation as a place to avoid. Travellers have bemoaned its treacherous paths since the age of classical Islam. Ibn al-Mujawir, a 13th-century scholar from Iran, dubbed it the Valley of Ill-fortune, and said its women were witches. Britain’s political officers trembled at the posting. While advertising the city’s safety and charms, Seiyun’s city chief kept me locked up in a hotel under armed guard with two armoured cars topped with anti-aircraft guns on standby at the gates. And a visit to the governorate and the city’s towering mud-brick palace a few hundred metres away required a sizeable convoy. But Slameh is prepared for better times. He has fashioned a “welcome” sign at the airport – cut, of course, out of hedges.