by Lily V. Filson
In the summer of 2005, I arrived in a Yemeni coastal port on a road trip that had brought us from the lofty tower-palaces of Sana’a, capital of Arabia Felix for the Romans, down to the Tihama plain on the Red Sea. Apart from this narrow sea, little separates Tihama from East Africa, but much more than mountains separates Tihama from Sana’a. The air got exponentially hotter and saltier, and the landscape flattened into an arid brown. Our destination was Al-Hodeidah, also seen as Hudaydah, in the Latin alphabet’s perpetual attempts to nail down those mutable Arabic vowels. Translated, it becomes “the iron,” a metal charged with magic and miracles in the long memory of Arab lore, and one which has recently been through the fire of a brutal war.
But back to 2005: as a foreign girl, the fisherman were enthusiastic to show me everything; some I could identify, others had melted into slime. Most impressive for everyone there were the long masses of shark corpses rolled together like so many unsettling logs. Yemeni machismo won the day, and with great flourishes, a row of teeth was sawed out of one’s mouth, tied up in plastic, and ceremoniously presented. Those teeth travelled around the length of almost all of Yemen on that trip, and five years later, I was in Florence, Italy, where a graduate program was letting my creativity flourish in unexpected ways. I was exploring jewelry design, and the shark teeth which had been my gift in Hodeidah now occupied a small velvet pouch, and they became the stuff of a dream I sketched in silver that quickly took shape at a bench in a workshop in the Oltrarno. In another life in 2013 across the world again, they walked the runway as part of the inaugural New Orleans Fashion Week; those few teeth were destined for a very different life, but their ultimate connection to Al-Hodeidah on Yemen’s Red Sea coast invests them now with a gravity beyond the passing their flashing moments of past glamor.
It is now 2018, and this otherwise obscure Red Sea port has cropped in intermittent articles which attempt to convey its apocalyptic scope on an unimaginable world stage. In this war, a calculated and intentional genocide of millions of Yemenis has been playing out for around four years. Hodeidah is the point of entry for Yemen’s capital Sana’a and the population-dense north of the country for all imported food (upon which Yemen has relied for decades), medicine, aid, and the infinity of things shipped into what had been a healthy market before being methodically targeted. At the behest of a deeply-unpopular president whose elected tenure has long since expired, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia unleashed the gates of hell upon virtually every city, every province, every port, every airport, every market, every farm, every fishing boat, every water system, every school, every hospital, every major historical site, every museum; exceptions are few. Attacks on Al-Hodeidah have been carried out in spite of numerous warnings that to do so would be sealing the death letter of starvation for millions; bombs fell on its fish market and its hospital, and fresh news of strikes on civilian targets seems to never stop.
To be a fishermen in Hodeidah went from a laid-back life to a near-certain death sentence. Out of all of the fishermen who introduced themselves and mugged for our cameras, I wonder who still lives, if any. Never could the fisherman who gifted me the shark teeth imagine such an apocalyptic future, and never did I imagine that these silver and shark tooth earrings could have relevance to the scene of such heinous war crimes. When I remember Hodeidah, I remember brightly colored boats, wide smiles, the abundance of all the Red Sea had to offer, but most of all their unbridled, enthusiastic generosity; they gave what they had to a stranger, and even now, that kindness of the ghosts of Hodeidah speaks for them.
Lily V. Filson is an adjunct Professor at Tulane University