Our ideas of the Arabian Peninusula have been hijacked: by images of the desert, by oil, by the Gulf War. But there is another Arabia.
For the classical geographers Yemen was a fabulous land where flying serpents guarded sacred incense groves. Medieval Arab visitors told of disappearing islands and menstruating mountains. Vita Sackville-West found Aden 'precisely the most repulsive corner of the world'. Arguably the most fascinating but least known country in the Arab world, Yemen has a way of attracting comment that ranges from the superficial to the wildly fictitious.
In Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, Tim Mackintosh-Smith writes with an intimacy and depth of knowledge gained through over twenty years among the Yemenis. He is a travelling companion of the best sort - erudite, witty and eccentric. Crossing mountain, desert, ocean and three millennia of history, he portrays hyrax hunters and dhow skippers, a noseless regicide, and a sword-wielding tyrant with a passion for Heinz Russian salad. Yet even the ordinary Yemenis are extraordinary: their family tree goes back to Noah and is rooted in a land which, in the words of a contemporary poet, has become the dictionary of its people. Every page of this book is dashed - like the land it describes - with the marvellous.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith lives in San'a, in a house lit by alabaster windows and standing on the ruin-mound of the ancient Sabaean city. His forays out of the mountains of Yemen have, however, taken him to many parts of the wider Islamic world between Morocco and China, on the trail of the fourteenth-century traveller Ibn Battutah. In the resulting books (Travels with a Tangerine and The Hall of a Thousand Columns), he explores the complex and fascinating intersections between present-day Muslim society and its own past. He has also presented a BBC television series on his journeys in search of Ibn Battutah. He has translated a number of works on Yemeni history from Arabic into English and vice versa and is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society.