By Haykal Bafana
For the old ones who still remember a Hadhramaut without cars and roads, a journey eastwards from Seiyun to the village of Taribah would be a brisk walk of at least four hours. Now, it is only a car ride of 15 minutes.
Taribah Saheel would be reached first, followed by Taribah Qibli and then Taribah Biladi, forming in total a triangular area of around 500 square kilometers. Hundreds of mudbrick houses are built along the sloping base of the tall sheer cliffs that hem in Wadi Hadhramaut, while the flat land nearer the center of the wadi is used for cultivation of crops like date palm, garlic, lime and wheat.
Badr mosque stands at the entrance to Taribah Saheel, flanked by a large graveyard. This is a common design feature of mosques in the Hadhramaut – a constant visual mantra that death is the certain destination of all. In contrast to the verdant farms which front Taribah, the graveyard is devoid of any greenery – the desert sun illuminates monochrome shades of brown earth, stone, limestone plaster and desert dust. The individual graves are austere – bare mounds of earth are topped by hand-cut gravestones, with the occasional grave hemmed in by a boundary of mud brick encased in limestone plaster. The gravestones are hewn from soft sandstone, and details of the deceased are carved on it.
An oft-quoted criticism in Hadhramaut when one talks of a beautifully decorated mosque is that “it is so beautiful, that you cannot concentrate on your prayers”. However, Badr mosque is the quintessential Hadhrami mosque – simple in construction, and spare in terms of architectural adornment. Stone blocks and mudbrick form the main structure of the mosque, with a single minaret. The walls of the enclosed prayer hall are completely white with nurah, a uniquely Hadhrami limestone plaster that is almost as reflective as a mirror when applied by a master mason, and entirely impervious to water.
When one enters the mosque, the faint smell of lubhan (frankincense) can be detected in the hushed silence of the hall. A sea of spotless dark green carpets surrounds the white islands of columns. As the prayer call is heard, men who were sitting reciting in murmurs from Qurans move to the front and form neat lines behind the imam.
It is during the prayer itself that a strange phenomenon is sometimes noticeable in Badr mosque, especially during the silent afternoon prayers of dhuhr or ‘asr. While the prayer is in progress, faint yet distinct whispers can be heard clearly, apparently coming from all directions at once. The intensity of the whispers never changes – even when one is in solitary prayer, the whispers can be heard at a constant level. And even more intriguing, the whispers are only heard when one is praying.
The Hadhramis of Taribah are entirely blasé about the phenomenon, as if whispers out of thin air were not particularly strange. In fact, when asked, they do not comment more than by saying “masha Allah” – by the grace of God.
To what cause then, does one attribute the whispers to? An acoustic effect resulting from the design of the prayer hall? One’s imagination? Or is there another less physical explanation?
Many are the Hadhramis of Taribah who have travelled to foreign lands in search of their fortune in life, and who have died there. With the traditional Arab inclination for oral history and genealogy, many residents of Taribah are able to recall the details of each and every one of their kin within the last century who have left and never returned. So Ahmad Umbarak Bafana’ remembers Muhammad Sa’id Bafana’, who left for Singapore in the 1930s. And Salim Ali Al ‘Amri recalls Abbas Muhammad Al ‘Amri who left for Sulawesi in the 1920s. And Gamar Abdul Rahman Bafana’ recalls her father, Abdul Rahman Sa’id Bafana’, who left for Uganda in the 1950s, and died there.
Thus despite the solitude of interment in distant lands, those who have died overseas are not forgotten in Hadhramaut. It is as if by being remembered, these sons of Taribah have in some manner been returned home.
As one prays in Badr mosque, one cannot help but feel that by means beyond our comprehension, those who have been remembered may be the reason behind the whispering mosque of Taribah, as if in death, they continue in prayer with those who are still in this world.
In prayer at Masjid Badr of Taribah, one cries with a tinge of sadness and a touch of joy, for those who never returned to Hadhramaut in corpus but whose essences have somehow found their way back home to Taribah.
A walk through the village of Taribah, Wadi Hadhramaut:
Haykal Bafana is a Yemeni lawyer and writer from Singapore, based in Sana’a.
Article first published on December 1st 2009, on Haykal BafanaFrançais