Discover more from backstory
is where the nightmares start
April 2023 A Statista report gives estimated damage to Ukrainian housing in the year Feb 22 to Feb 23 as $50bn. The bald statistic says nothing of the number of homes destroyed and the trauma caused.
May 2021 A study in the journal Sleep by Erin Wamsley of Firman University finds that a quarter of our dreams relate to impending future events and over half relate to specific past experiences, frequently multiple experiences. Additionally about a third of dreams that concern impending events also connect with past memories. She concludes, "...the activation and recombination of future-relevant memory fragments may... serve an adaptive function."
In layman's terms: dreams may be an attempt to try and work out what went wrong and make sure it doesn't happen again.
September 6th 2023
Shortly before dawn, the dream starts. I am walking up a Welsh country lane when I meet a farmer on a quad bike. He tells me to go home. I cross a stream and reach the cottage. Inside it has become Middle Eastern: the walls are dusty white, there are narrow stone stairways leading upwards, the crooked roof is held aloft with twisted, natural timbers, and the windows are crowned by semi-circular stained glass lights. Then it happens - the usual twist. I turn a corner and a wall is missing, the house extends beyond what I had thought were its limits. The floor is untrustworthy, there is a sense of space and people going about their daily business, and suddenly I am an intruder. I stumble forward and find myself among a crowd of people. There is a feeling of strangeness, and impending disaster.
I wake abruptly.
I've had this same dream for over thirty years, and each time it shape-shifts, adding new elements . The Welsh angle is new, for example, but there is also a notable absence. For the first time in dozens of night-time episodes, I did not encounter the old Yemeni man dressed in the traditional clothes of a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He was a real character back in the 1980s and his name was Sayyid Abd al-Karim Ibrahim. We first met shortly after he passed away.
I switch the radio on and make a note in my dream diary (I recommend keeping one - they are very entertaining when you look back).
In more than forty years of travelling, I have had several traumatic experiences, the sort that ought to give you nightmares. I fell off a cliff in the Caucasus when my horse had a cardiac arrest, I've been shot at several times, and I was drugged, robbed and left for dead in an Indian monsoon drain. Even worse was the time I lost my way on a 1,100-foot vertical wall of Croatian rock and got stuck in an overhang, shaking and dry-mouthed, with the pine trees far below like little bits of moss, my toes on tiny ripples of rock, my fingertips screaming - like my climbing buddy, Robbie. "Climb down," he ordered from the end of the rope thirty metres below.
"I can't!" I gasped.
"Just do it," came the terse response. Not wanting to further annoy him, or die, I climbed down. He pointed out the correct route. After a while, my knees stopped shaking and I resumed.
None of these dreadful experiences have made any impact on my dreams. As far as I know my brain has spent no time at all decoding and unpacking them. But that nightmare of the mysteriously expanding and treacherous house has deep roots in several unrelated occurrences, none of which seemed traumatic at the time.
In the summer of 1993, I went back to Yemen. I'd grown tired of being a journalist in South-East Asia and yearned for the place I'd loved back in the 1980s. I was also thinking I could teach a few English lessons and plan The Great Novel (planning continues to this day).
I was sure of one thing: that I wanted to live in the Old City. Of all places in the world where I had previously lived, it was the one where I felt most at home. There was something about its intricate labyrinth of alleyways, the brilliance and banter of its magical market, and the stupendous hand-made houses rising to eight or nine stories. And each of those houses was a labyrinth in itself filled with wonderful devices, like the window that allowed you to squint down from the ninth floor, identify who was hammering at your door, then pull a rope to open a door eighty feet below.
In that top room, the mafraj, a Friday afternoon would be spent chewing qat leaves and the sun would slide away, sending farewell beams of light through those semi-circular coloured windows. Then, if you cared to glance out across the city, you would see a hundred other mufaarij, all lit with similar dapples of blues, crimsons and green, and all containing small groups of friends locked in conversation, or more likely sitting in companionable silence, 'Solomon's Hour' as they call it. Occasionally there would be an electrical storm and bolts of forked lightning would crackle across the crenelated rooftops. Then the lacey geometric patterns of whitewash with which all walls are daubed, would be revealed, looming forward like a thousand and one Miss Haversham wedding cakes.
In the 1980s this was where I had lived. My first house was in the quarter called Bustan al-Sultan, the sultan's garden. We had the top floor of Beit Ibrahim, living above a Yemeni family. I made plenty of new-boy mistakes, like bumping into the veiled daughters of the house on the stairs and asking their names (gasps of horror, clatter of escaping feet on stairs, then giggles from the garden). More politely, I asked to meet my landlord, Sayyid Ibrahim, but was told he was unwell. This latter exchange happened several times.
Each quarter of the Old City was grouped around a mosque, a bathhouse and a garden. The human waste fell from toilets high up on the flanks of the houses. Since the traditional toilets separated urine from faeces, the latter dried quickly and was then burned to heat the hammam. The ashes were spread on the gardens where vegetables flourished. It was a perfectly harmonious eco-system requiring very little water.
Beit al-Ibrahim had fine views of the garden from its mafraj, but there were drawbacks: for example, the scorpions. They liked to sneak under cushions and rugs. While hunting one down, I found a large silver coin that had got lodged in a crack between stones. It was a silver dollar dated 1780 bearing the image of Empress Marie Therese of Austria Hungary. This seemed like a magnificent piece of treasure to discover until I found that the coins were still legal tender in Yemen and commonly used in more remote areas. Another slight issue was the custom of Sayyid Ibrahim's family to commandeer the place at short notice. One day the flat was ours, the next would come a polite demand to 'borrow' it for a wedding party.
One night I woke with a start to find an old man at the foot of the bed. He was wearing a white tunic cinched with a gold-embroidered belt and dagger. For a few seconds we stared at one another with interest, then he stepped back through the solid stone wall. Next morning the women of the house were wailing: Sayyid Ibrahim had died during the night. I have never been able to explain this experience, not least because I am sure ghosts do not exist. All I can suggest is that, somewhere in my subconscious sleeping brain, the wails of mourning registered and I constructed an appropriate dream. I knew Sayyid Ibrahim was seriously ill. I knew there was an impending event. What was harder to explain was that months later, while chewing qat with my friend Tim, he was flicking through some old photographs when I spotted someone I recognised: it was Sayyid Ibrahim, the man I had never met, not in life.
By 1993 the Old City was significantly altered. The alleyways had been dug up, sewers laid, and the streets paved. There were street lights. That ancient system of burning dried human poo at the hammam was gone: instead, bottled gas was used. Residents had modernised, installing washing machines and flush toilets. As a result, the water table, struggling to cope with demand, had fallen by hundreds of metres, leaving all the traditional wells dry and requiring deep boreholes with diesel pumps.
A little bit of the magic had gone. In my search for a house, I began to look farther afield. Someone told me about a house in the old Jewish quarter, al-Qaa. This separate part of the city had been abandoned by the Yemenite Jews in 1948 when the Israeli government flew them all, en masse, to Tel Aviv. Irrespective of how that turned out for the individuals involved, it was a calamity for Yemen. The Jews brought an essential diversity to the Yemen, not to mention traditions of silver-smithing, woodwork, weaving, pottery and tool-making that would be sorely missed. (Not all went. A few villages remain in the north of the country, resisting Israeli blandishments, stubbornly refusing to adopt a new life of drifting aimlessly around shopping malls and eating pizzas).
In 1993, almost half a century after the original inhabitants had abandoned the place, al-Qaa was still intact. The mind-boggling maze of its alleyways was too narrow for cars, although enterprising motorcyclists would delve inside, and many houses had retained their character. Up one particular alley I was taken to a tiny wooden door in a stone wall.
From outside, this place gave nothing away. It might have been a cow byre. There were no windows, just the occasional embrasure high up, as though it had been built for defence. The house, however, was not tall. An edict from 1751 had forbidden Jews to build houses over nine metres high. After some prolonged hammering on the door, a man appeared. Not from the door. He seemed to grow from the wall down the street and came scurrying forward with a suspicious grin on his face. I never could get rid of that first impression of Nazir, the man who would become our landlord: Dicken's Uriah Heap steeped in The Arabian Nights, then seasoned with touches of Nosferatu and Benny Hill.
"Kefin," he smirked. "Please come in."( I should explain that there is no letter 'v' in Arabic and my name was often mispronounced. Unfortunately that rendered it as meaning 'death shroud'. If that wasn't bad enough, I worked with teachers called Ray, Paul and Nick, which crudely translate as, Irrigation, Piss and Fuck. The students never had any trouble remembering any of us.)
Entry to what we would call Beit Nazir started with two steps down into a cool dark vaulted hall. The unpaved alley had risen a couple of feet over the centuries since construction. From this entrance lobby/cellar, a stairwell curved up into an upper courtyard, and from there more narrow steps led up, or down, into rooms. "The Jews had to have every room on a different level," Nazir said, as if this was somehow an error on their part. But I was in ecstasy. All those narrow twisting stairways, the stone benches, the carefully crafted doors. I loved it.
Traditional architecture in Yemen is a glorious riposte to the inhuman arrogance of Western modernism. You can stick your glass walls and concrete up your Corbusier for all I care, give me hand-crafted and natural any time. But the best was the mafraj, the long top room. The windows had only shutters, no glass, and above them were tall arched sheets of alabaster stone. Cut by hand, they were thin enough to let light stumble through in delicate shades of amber and gold. I jumped up on a ledge and inspected one of them. Over time its own weight had caused it to swell and bow; a dark craquelure had spread across its surface. Each pane was a miracle.
"They were too mean to buy glass," Nazir shouted up at me.
This was rubbish. The truth was that the Jews had been careful never to reveal their wealth, knowing that any show of riches would inspire jealousy, with possibly painful consequences. What had happened was that they had ignored the modernising trend to install glass, relying instead on the traditional material. Not that they were all poor. This would probably have been the home of a prosperous jeweller: Yemenite Jewish silver being much sought after.
Now Nazir pulled out an electric torch. He wanted to show me the secret chambers, storage cellars under the house that led into a catacomb of cellars. "This is where they kept their treasure," he whispered, then realising I might get ideas, added sourly, "But they took it all with them." I could see from the holes in the floor that someone had been digging.
We moved in. Myself, my ex-wife Judith, five-year-old Caitlin and Conor who was two. Caitlin befriended the wild cat who lived on the stairs. Conor named it George after his Grandma's cat. But this was not a cat for purring and strokes. It concerned itself with territorial disputes and dynastic wars. One night it brought home a rival, dead. No one was allowed near it except Caitlin and, like many oriental despots, it was advisable to leave its presence backwards. Otherwise it might bury its teeth in your calf.
Sometimes I would hear banging at night, strange noises coming from below. Once I went to Nazir's house next door and asked him about it. He looked shifty, denying any responsibility. "Probably a jinn," he suggested. "Or that cat." As the months went by, it became increasingly irritating. I was convinced that Nazir was tunnelling under us, desperate to find buried treasure.
Our kitchen was a cosy black hole down three steps from the upper courtyard. We had a two ring gas cooker, an electric fridge and a table. Power cuts were frequent in that year before the 1994 war. Without electricity no water could be pumped up to the house and we would go without, sometimes for over a week. (That is nothing compared to the current situation in Sana'a, a capital city without electricity for years.) We learned how to shower with a few of mugs of cold water. At qat sessions I'd dress Conor up like a tribal chieftain and Yemeni friends would solemnly shake hands then tickle him.
One Friday morning I was standing in the kitchen, making a cup of tea, when there was a weird bang and the floor moved. As I watched a stone lifted and Nazir's head popped up covered in white dust. "Kefin," he exclaimed, as if surprised to find me. "Do you know there is a room underneath your kitchen?"
I crouched down and saw that he was right. It was a view that would become a standard part of my recurring dream: that long view into a mysterious new wing of a house, lit from hidden windows and doorways. At the far end I saw a movement. A figure that had been peering around a corner withdrawing. Maybe it was Nazir's wife, but in my dream it has become Sayyid Ibrahim.
Nazir climbed out, still holding his sledge-hammer and chisel. "You're not using it, are you?"
"How could I? I didn't even know it was there."
"Good," he said, "In that case I am going to rent it out."
For the next week, the hammering and banging got much worse as Nazir refurbished this horrible dark hole ready for new inhabitants. A small room next to the kitchen was also breached and claimed.
I found all this encroachment very disturbing and began to fantasise about sealing Nazir inside his self-made dungeon.
And then one day, everything stopped. I woke at dawn, staring up at the ceiling. It was one of those glorious cool blue Sana'a mornings. What had wakened me? Was it the lack of noise? The absence of a call to prayer?
Then, bursting into this pregnant silence, the vicious scream of jet engines directly overhead followed by the distant crump of a huge explosion. War had begun.
Twenty years later, long after the conflict that resulted in my departure from Yemen, I went back to Beit Nazir. I found the alleyway, but struggled to find the front door. Not a surprise: Nazir had moved it.
A passer-by showed me where to knock and Nazir opened the door. In true Uriah Heap fashion, he greeted me like an old friend, forgetting that we had parted disagreeably. He had demanded a huge amount of money to repaint the house and I had refused. In the end we settled for 7,500 rials.
Now he showed me around and I saw how my money had been spent. The lovely stone staircase from the front door was gone and even the upper courtyard where we had spent hours playing with Conor's toy soldiers was gone. Nazir had 'redeveloped'. That one old house was now sub-divided into a dozen flats and home to four times that number of people, many of them Somali refugees. I found it difficult to believe this was the same house. But then we reached Nazir's mafraj and I saw, with relief, that the alabaster windows were intact. He had added fake plastic flowers in vases, but the translucent stone was untouched.
If I thought that visit would deflate my dreams, I was wrong. Over the years the dream has grown more powerful and more frequent. Violation of one's home, it tells me, is more disturbing than falling off a cliff. Sometimes I am lost in the Old City, wandering unseen by the crowds, as if I myself have become the ghost. Then I reach a house, The House, and I stumble through the rooms, trying to figure out where the extra spaces have come from. I'm baffled and disoriented. Sometimes I spot an old man, dressed in a white tunic with an embroidered golden belt at the waist, but he always disappears around a corner or behind a curtain before I can grab his attention. The dream is no longer a nightmare. I used to wake from it feeling jittery and confused, but now it comes like an old friend. I reach for the dream diary, thinking, 'Isn't that funny? Still crazy after all these years. Excellent.' Sometimes the home I grew up in gets spliced into a Yemeni tower house. Elements of life in Wales are creeping in. I'm processing. It's adaptive. I just don't know what for. Not yet.