Seen in the Yemen: Travelling with Freya Stark and Others, by Hugh Leach, Arabian Publishing, London 2011, 308pp. £45
This book of black-and-white photographs from western Yemen in the 1970s complements and pays homage to Freya Stark's 1938 work, Seen in the Hadhramaut, which Hugh Leach encountered early in the 1960s. He admired its style and sought the author out, knocking on her door at her Asolo home in 1975. Stark was 82; Leach exactly half her age. "During a long afternoon and evening I found we shared many interests in common, among them a deep affection for the Arab world, the poetry of Matthew Arnold and 1930s screw-thread Leica cameras." Before he left, Leach mentioned that he would soon be posted to Sana'a. Shortly after his arrival in Yemen he received a telegram that informed him, "Arriving Wednesday, Freya."
Seen in the Yemen comprises 200 of the 3,500 photographs that Leach took during his posting in the country. In an entertaining introduction describing the book's origin in that first encounter with Stark he describes the tour of western Yemen they made together, and his decision to pick photographs of "the sort of 'portraits' Freya liked to take". She features in some of them: most entertainingly in one shot surrounded by inquisitive children, the watchful British ambassador (with stick) not far behind.
The finest of Leach's photos conveys the importance of the family in Yemen that strikes every visitor. It depicts three generations of men: father, son and grandson, on the outskirts of Sana'a. The man, gripping the legs of the sheep slung over his shoulders, looks faintly baffled. His worldly son, in a jacket with the wide lapels and safari pockets of 1970s tailoring, has dropped his sheep as if too proud to be captured holding it and stands a touch defensively with his arms folded. The grandson, shy and amused, in lace-less sneakers that are comically large, peeks mischievously from beneath the bunch of forage held by his grandfather.
Leach has captured Sana'a before its skyline was disfigured by satellite dishes and water-tanks and there are biblical images of men ploughing, drawing water, winnowing millet. A fine shot shows a squatting, half-naked man in the desolate Tihama, weaving cord from grass. Black-and-white inevitably encourages a sense of timelessness, but look more closely and modernity is everywhere, with Pepsi advertisements, a roundabout, zips, a Kalashnikov assault rifle hanging from a nail. An old man with a squint in Sana'a squats before cursive Arabic graffiti that actually pays tribute to a local football team.
The final photographs depict a community that has disappeared completely: the Jewish silversmiths of Sadah in the north of the country. Leach visited it in 1971, surprised to hear that, after Operation Magic Carpet, they were there at all.
This book, thirty-five years in contemplation after John Murray abandoned it on cost grounds, is a worthy companion volume to Stark's. Magnificently produced, on faintly pearlescent paper, it manages to be grand and understated simultaneously. Anyone with even the briefest acquaintance with the people and the landscape it depicts will love it.
© James Barr 2013