This story was produced in partnership with the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
One of the most well-known folktales on Socotra, a Yemeni island in the Indian Ocean known for its otherworldly landscape and extraordinary flora, is of its first European visitors and their encounter with a local trickster known as Rehabhen.
As the story goes, the Europeans, having arrived by ship, began to confiscate the islanders’ livestock for themselves. Rehabhen devised a plan to get rid of this foreign menace. Among the Europeans was a beautiful woman who had caught Rehabhen’s eye. One day, he kidnapped her and brought her back to the cave where he lived. He then slaughtered a goat, covering his arms in its blood, and set it on a spit to cook. Rehabhen approached the foreigners and showed them his bloodsoaked arms, gesturing toward the smoke in the distance, to the fire where, he told them, he was roasting the woman so he could eat her. The Europeans fled in terror. Soon after, Rehabhen married the beautiful woman, with whom he had many children. To this day you can find vestiges of her European influence in Socotrans with blue eyes.
I heard this story on a recent visit to Hadibu, Socotra’s large, overcrowded capital. The afternoon was ticking away in a muggy diwan, the small stone room set to the side of homes in southern Yemen. Cushions lined the room’s perimeter. I was in the home of Salem Daheq, a former member of parliament and director of Socotra’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). We sat with a few other men who worked in environmental conservation, along with my driver, Abu Isa, who also used to work in environmental conservation.
We were chewing qat, a leafy mild amphetamine-like plant whose subdued high makes one prone to pondering. We chatted in a mixture of Arabic and English. Naturally, the conversation drifted—from tales of tricksters to rumors of jinn and the sort of magic for which Socotra had been renowned in antiquity: Two of the men I was with swore their ancestors had caused British occupying soldiers to get sick simply by casting evil glances at them.
Soon enough, though none too soon for Socotra’s citizens, the British Empire abandoned the island, just like the foreigners whom Rehabhen had outwitted. Now, a new kind of occupation has come to Socotra, part of a regional struggle for influence between Gulf powers seeking to expand their political sway and economic footprints, eager to monetize the island’s most prized resource, its environment.
Sitting about two hundred miles south of Yemen, and one hundred fifty miles east of Somalia, Socotra is the largest island in the Arabian Sea, about half the size of Crete, and the namesake of the archipelago of four islands of which it is a part. It has fascinated outsiders since antiquity. One legend has it that Aristotle advised Alexander the Great to hunt down the island’s extraordinary aloes, which were prized for their medicinal value. Centuries later, early Greek Christians thought Socotra might possibly be the location of the Garden of Eden, as it was a landmass teeming with water and otherworldly flora in a region of deserts and scrub brush. Medieval travelers held a keen interest in Socotra because, in a region dominated by Islam, its inhabitants were Christian, thought to be converted by Greeks a millennium earlier.
One third of Socotra’s flora is endemic: Three hundred plant species do not grow naturally anywhere else in the world. The most iconic among them are the dragon’s blood trees that sprout like heads of broccoli across the island’s mountains and plateaus. Meanwhile, 90 percent of Socotra’s thirty-four reptile species are endemic, 95 percent of its land snail population is endemic, and the island is home to several species of endemic birds, such as the Socotra scops owl and Socotra warbler. In 2008, Socotra was named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its rich biodiversity. The island is often touted as the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.”
In recent years, UNESCO has also considered adding Socotra to its “List of World Heritage in Danger,” joining Syria’s Palmyra and Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Already, 157 of Socotra’s endemic plant species are considered critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Reports from Yemen’s EPA to UNESCO have expressed concerns over the extent to which Socotra’s biodiversity can be protected from encroaching forces, such as unchecked development, a population boom, and invasive species, let alone the destruction wrought by climate change. Meanwhile, the success of environment-focused international-aid projects on the island remains modest in the face of these challenges.
And while Socotra has been spared much of the violence and famine that have wrecked Yemen’s mainland, the archipelago and its nearly seventy thousand inhabitants have felt the repercussions of that conflict nonetheless. As the most far-flung region of a failed state, with a national government that has all but collapsed, the island has become ripe for foreign exploitation.
Socotran cunning may have fooled the first European visitors in the tale of Rehabhen—cunning that was noted by medieval explorer Ibn al-Mujawir, who said that Socotra remained protected from invaders thanks to its Christian sorcerers, who cast spells that made the island invisible to passing ships. But in the twenty-first century, European and Arab powers descending on the island are far less skittish. They come enchanted by the so-called primitiveness that scared off earlier outsiders, hoping to cash in on the island’s many charms. Whether this latest wave of encroachment winds up in some future legend of Socotran beguiling is anyone’s guess, but even so, the island’s future—even to which country it will ultimately belong—seems uncertain at best. Socotra’s ability to resist outside influence may be coming to an end.
In 2015, just after major conflict broke out in Yemen, a rare weather event caused two cyclones to hit Socotra in quick succession. The storms wrecked much of what limited infrastructure existed on the island and decimated indigenous trees, killing more than a dozen people.
In the absence of a functioning Yemeni government, the post-storm cleanup was largely handled by the Khalifah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation, the humanitarian arm of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since then, the foundation has become an extension of the UAE’s soft power efforts to exert its control over the island through infrastructure and economic development, not unlike China’s efforts to deepen its influence in Africa, though on a much smaller scale. Emirati companies now dominate Socotra’s electricity, oil imports, and a fish-packing facility. Emirati funding also supplements some local government salaries, supports the army, and is improving Socotra’s road system. Etisalat, an Emirati telecommunications company, has erected cell phone towers across the island, which function much better than the local telecommunication company’s network, on which it is notoriously difficult to make a call, let alone access the internet.
Exactly what the UAE’s plans are for Socotra is unclear. It’s true that its investments have made life easier for many people, as the Emirates has filled the role of both state and benefactor. But parts of life on the island have also become more expensive, due to the oil-rich Gulf nation’s control over basic services. Some observers worry that Emirati businessmen and government officials want to develop Socotra for tourism and industry without sufficient concern for environmental protection, neglecting the very thing that has attracted outsiders to Socotra for millennia.
The UAE’s presence has also contributed to the erosion of traditional culture, such as Socotra’s indigenous language and the reciprocal relationship islanders have had with their environment. That decay had begun prior to the 2015 cyclones, but now feels like it’s in overdrive.
As anthropologist Nathalie Peutz noted in her 2018 book on Socotra, Islands of Heritage, many people here feel that something is amiss on their island, “a sense of Soqotrans having strayed from the ways of their ancestors.” The accelerant, as Peutz sees it, is the irresistible, if double-edged, promises of progress. “Once beset by famine,” Peutz wrote, “the island in more recent years has been plagued by a hunger of a different kind: a hunger for landownership, riches, and power that, in hindsight, makes the days of (actual) hunger (ayyam al-ju’) seem like days of plenty.”
Local Socotran councilman and educator Mohammed Saad Taha put it to me this way: “Most of the population moved to the cities, built, became educated, and thus they have an easier life. However, the truth is that life in the countryside differs from life in the city, and people used to be more active in preserving their heritage, language and environment. Now we find that children and young people have become urbanized. It is as if they are not from Socotra, but came from another country.”
I visited Socotra in October 2022, which is usually when heavy downpours end a hot and blustery summer. But the rains hadn’t come that year, and people were worried. On our way to Hadibu from the airport, my companions, Ali and his uncle, Abu Isa, pointed out the parched land all around us. Amid the barrenness, bottleneck trees peeked out from behind the rocks, their bulbous cream-colored trunks, a hint of Socotra’s alien-like flora that thrived past the sharp granite peaks that lorded over the coastal road.
I’d learned about Socotra while living in Yemen as a foreign correspondent a decade prior. The island is a national treasure of sorts, even though many mainlanders have never set foot there. I’d heard about its dragon’s blood trees and pristine beaches. I knew about Socotri, a semitic language unique to the island that predates the use of Arabic in southern Arabia, and that it was at risk of dying out. I was especially enamored by what I saw as quirks in Socotra’s history, like how, in the early 1940s, British officials considered Socotra as a location to settle Europe’s Jewish population, instead of Palestine (the idea failed to gain much traction). Socotra seemed like a place still untainted by mass commercialization. Just like the outsiders before me, I was fascinated by its apartness, though of course the island was never truly isolated from the world to the extent that foreigners imagined.
This was my second visit. When I arrived, I was hit by smells that brought me back to my time on the mainland: frankincense, must, and the mulchy scent of qat.
The island was at a crossroads. The Saudis, who lead an Arab coalition at war with the Houthi rebel group that controls northern Yemen, have had a military presence on Socotra since 2018. The Saudi presence was downsized after the UAE gained more control and influence, though the Kingdom has since fallen in line with the Emiratis’ soft power approach by building schools around the island, large bright-orange structures that create a cruel dissonance among otherwise struggling villages.
Near the Saudis’ military base was a Yemeni military base flying a separatist flag—red, white, and black stripes with a blue triangle and red star. This is the flag of the formerly independent, Marxist South Yemen, which has been taken up by separatists in southern Yemen—financially supported by the UAE—seeking to break the country once again into two independent states. Socotra lies off to the side of this political scramble, its young men serving whichever army happens to be in control of the island.
Hadibu is a seaside town plagued by unfinished concrete structures punctuated by spikes of rebar, a sign of its rapid expansion. Trash lined the streets, goats nuzzling the piles for food.
That evening, I ate dinner on an outdoor plastic table among the trash and goat dung–lined streets with Abu Isa and Ali. The restaurant was relatively new in town, sitting just on Hadibu’s outskirts. Foreign visitors paid $11 for every meal, regardless of what they ordered. Socotrans ate for free if they were with foreigners.
The international flight had come in that day, which meant tourists were still in Hadibu before going off on their island excursions—to Firmihin, where dragon’s blood tree forests grow thick; to Shu’ab, a beach of white sand reached only by boat past pods of dolphins playing in the waves; or to Arher, where a freshwater stream winds between tall sand dunes that plunge into the sea.
My itinerary was sparse, since I simply wanted to see where the winds of Socotra took me. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to visit with Abdullah Aliyu, known locally as Abdullah the Caveman, one of Socotra’s main tourist attractions. He does indeed live in a cave, sort of, splitting his time between his cave above the Detwah Lagoon, on the northwest corner of the island, and his home in nearby Qalansia, where he lives with his wife, children, and grandchildren. Abdullah uses rudimentary tools for his day-to-day existence at the cave, going barefoot, wearing a necklace made of dolphin teeth. He invites tourists lounging on the nearby beach to join him at the cave, where they sit and have tea, and watch him catch fish from the lagoon with his bare hands. For all this, a performance that is partly historical and partly from his imagination, he is often paid tips.
Abdullah, of course, represented something of a contradiction between Socotra’s past and future, never mind the tension between culture and profit. He was an integral part of a tourist industry based on the idea of Socotra as an isolated backwater, which is part of what makes it so attractive to outsiders looking for an exotic vacation on a remote isle. I couldn’t deny that Socotra fascinated me for the same reasons, even if I suspected Abdullah’s gig to be something of a charade.
As if on cue, Abdullah walked past our table. He was thin and wiry, his hair askew, and wore a jean jacket with the phrase i live for adventure printed across the chest pocket, as well as a yellow and green futah, the wraparound skirt that many men wear in the coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
“There he is. The caveman in the city!” Ali exclaimed, and called Abdullah over to our table. We chatted. He invited me to come visit him in his cave to see the stingrays, unfurling phrases in English, Russian, and German. I felt like he saw me as another gullible tourist, an easy mark for his caveman schlock, but I was still glad for the invitation.
Then, with hardly a goodbye, Abdullah left us, off to another table and another conversation, making the rounds before he left Hadibu that night for the other side of the island and his seaside home in the cave.
The next morning, Abu Isa and I left for Abdullah’s home in Qalansia, passing between an azure sea and brown cliffs that lead to the Diksum plateau. We drove past a military base that flew the flag of a dissolved country, past the small, dusty airport and the brightly lit hospital funded by Saudi Arabia.
More quaint and less bustling than Hadibu, Qalansia sits near a long stretch of pearl-colored beach that is popular with tourists. The town itself consists of stone houses and a few shops that sell basic foodstuffs. In town, we ran yet again into Abdullah. He was wearing his same outfit as the other evening, on his way to the town mosque for Friday prayers.
Abdullah told us to wait for him at his house where we sat on the diwan’s tiled floor. A small green bicycle leaned against the wall in one corner, a sack of wheat from Oman in another. A ceiling fan whirled overhead, a welcome respite from the stale afternoon air. After finishing prayers, Abdullah entered with a plate topped with rice and grilled kingfish, and another plate of grilled squid. I thanked him for welcoming us into his home, and he pointed to his eyes, a gesture of hospitality. As we ate, Abdullah and Abu Isa swapped stories of tourists who had amused them, speaking in Arabic instead of Socotri for my benefit. There were the vegans, whose diet all but confounded Abu Isa; Russian tourists who started drinking as soon as they woke up in the morning, something Abdullah said happened regularly with Russian groups. (It’s possible to bring alcohol from abroad into Socotra; and there are alcoholic beverages made from local dates too.) Eventually, Abdullah told us his story.
When he was a boy, he said, it wasn’t all that uncommon for rural Socotrans to live in caves. He was, in fact, born in the cave where he spends so much of his time. As a young man, he served in the army of South Yemen, when it was its own separate country from the north. Other than that short stint in the military, he’s made his living as a fisherman, and now as a tourist attraction. He said he had sixteen children, and guessed his age to be about sixty, though he didn’t know for sure.
Abdullah’s cave-dwelling enterprise was, obviously, a complicated one. In 2012, he says, he encountered a French woman on the beach, and it occurred to him to take her to his cave to show her the skeleton of a whale jaw he’d been storing there. He saw that the woman was enamored by his cave (or probably more so that he claimed to still live in it). Around that time, it occurred to him that the cave itself could be a tourist site, that it was a part of his life he liked to show off. Aside from the problematic nature of playing up a primitiveness in order to entertain tourists, all of whom come from backgrounds far more privileged than his own, Detwah Lagoon, where the cave sits, is Socotra’s only Ramsar site, a designation for wetlands of international importance. Abdullah often fishes in the lagoon in order to feed his visitors, and viewed the land around his cave as his own—not private property per se, which it isn’t (the concept itself was anathema to the island until not so long ago), but more so that he and the lagoon were fundamentally, spiritually connected. He didn’t like outsiders giving him directives for how he could live on it.
I asked him what the difference was between Socotra’s tourism during, say, the early aughts versus today. While Abdullah seemed to enjoy using his limited English with me, for serious matters, such as this, he responded in Arabic.
“In the beginning there was no organization, and it wasn’t a problem,” he said. “Now things are organized and there are problems.” Specifically, he was referring to the local government’s efforts to ensure that tourists stay on organized tours with specific agendas, rather than being allowed to roam the island freely—a restriction ostensibly put in place to help preserve local culture. In the 2000s, the United Nations invested in developing campgrounds around the island as part of its ecotourism infrastructure. Tourists are supposed to use these campgrounds exclusively, but in the absence of a strong state, the process has been rather haphazard. Local communities argue over whose camp foreigners will stay in, hoping to earn money from hiking tours and providing basic foodstuffs. Abdullah said that working with foreigners was once effortless when there were fewer rules and fewer people jockeying to earn cash from them. Now, bringing tourists from a popular beach to his cave isn’t quite as seamless. For example, when I was visiting, his half-sister was roaming the beach demanding payment from tourists for visiting Abdullah’s cave.
As Socotra has become a more popular destination, locals who are able to capitalize on the boom rely on relatively inflexible travel itineraries that utilize established campsites that dot the island. Within that framework, Abdullah is a throwback, just some guy who goes to the trouble to replicate a fantasy of a more primitive life, hosting strangers in his cave and cooking them fish he’s caught with his own hands, even if the fish he catches for them is technically protected. While we were chatting, he mentioned the whale carcass he’d discovered years ago, and how he’d collected ambergris from it. Word spread quickly about his stockpile, he told me, and soon he was receiving phone calls from people in Saudi Arabia and the UAE hoping to pay him for his haul. He made a comfortable amount of money for a few months—around fourteen million Yemeni riyal, or about $116,000 at the time. “I became an important person,” he said, though it was clear he preferred his current fame to the attention he’d received for the ambergris. To him, it felt like a burden. “People were always asking me to buy cars for them,” he said.
Abu Isa added: “The person who spends money, we call him kareem. For a long time, people will be talking about how that one person bought everyone clothes and food. His generosity will be renowned.”
Ali and Abu Isa had, in fact, told me several stories of Socotrans coming upon cash and spending it quickly. There was a man who used to wash his new car every day with water from individual plastic water bottles, who would buy lunch and qat for everyone in town, and who now can’t even afford his own cigarettes. They told me of a man who spent all his money campaigning for former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 1999 reelection campaign. Saleh won easily and the man went broke. Ali and Abu Isa laughed at these stories, as did I, but I was also left puzzled at this relationship with money, as if it was meant to be shed as soon as it was obtained.
In Islands of Heritage, Peutz writes about how reciprocal giving was part of Socotri culture in the time when sultans ruled the island, prior to 1967. A sultan would tax his citizens, but was then expected to provide for them when needs arose. Meanwhile, villages were expected to host large feasts for sultans whenever they visited, sometimes the only occasion when villagers would eat meat. It was a culture in which hoarding was intended for hosting, which wasn’t too far from stories of Socotrans’ great sums of cash quickly spent.
After lunch, Abdullah and I set off along the bright beach for his cave. We got out where the pristine sand turned rocky. Abu Isa stayed in the truck. Abdullah and I waded through the low tidal waters of the lagoon, hugging the shoreline that ascended to a rocky hillside. He picked up floating trash along the way, cans and plastic bags, and threw them onto the shore to be collected later.
He pointed out the black shells of oysters attached to a half-submerged rock. “When I was born, my mom cut the cord with an oyster shell,” he said.
After a swift climb up crumbling rocks, we arrived at a large cutout in the hillside, the cave’s hollow going back farther than I could see. Into a tall piece of sandstone at the cave’s entrance, the word welcome was carved, though this minor defacing of nature didn’t seem to bother Abdullah—rather, he embraced the message of hospitality.
“A Russian tourist did that,” Abdullah said with a smile.
I sat at the cave’s opening while Abdullah gathered wood to make a fire for tea. The sea sparkled in the afternoon sun before me. Abdullah showed me a necklace he made of dolphin teeth that he wears for tourists.
“Is it customary to wear this necklace?” I asked him.
“No, I came up with the idea myself,” he said.
“Tatawer,” was the word many Socotrans used to describe the change their island was experiencing. It means development in Arabic, but could in this case be translated as a progression toward modernization, or an abandonment of tradition. Tatawer was a general notion, but there were specifics it represented too. When I asked Abdullah how he saw Socotra changing, he told me that with tatawer has come “plastic and trash.”
It had come, too, in conversation with a couple of women who were part of a handicraft collective just east of Hadibu. “There’s tatawer now,” one of them, Selma, had told me. “Everything is developing. It’s not like how it was before.”
We were sitting together in a back room of their collective’s small shop that sold woven baskets to tourists. For Selma, it was the widespread consumption of qat that was to blame for negating the positives aspects of what tatawer could bring.
“Men will have a family and children, and they won’t even think about them. If they have qat, then all is well. They can forget about their worries,” Selma said.
I asked why she thought qat use had grown so rapidly. Qat caused Socotrans to become complacent, she said—yet there were plenty of problems that deserved more attention.
“How it was before, you’d get your salary, and you could buy the things you need for your house, you could buy food with that salary,” Selma explained. “Now the salary doesn’t cover the costs of basic things.”
Mona Ahmed, a woman who ran a small nursery of indigenous plants in a village outside Hadibu, was less prone to such hand-wringing. She had an answer for Socotra’s future: “There is a common proverb for the Socotran woman. ‘If time rubs you, scratch the earth.’” In other words, turn back to the land.
Outside Mona’s home was a small grove of frankincense trees she’d cultivated, their knotted branches giving way to small silver-green leaves. The grove was a fraction of what had existed there before the storms in 2015. A patchwork fence made of date palm leaves kept the goats away. Despite her steadfastness, there was one concern—the drought—for which she did not see an easy cure. Her garden was suffering, and water was in short supply. “Since my childhood, I have not experienced any drought like this,” she said. “We hope that good will come from God.”
I first met Nasser Abdu in Hadibu, inside the restaurant of one of Socotra’s few hotels, a two-story establishment surrounded by endemic plants and owned by Almaz, a company affiliated with the family of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was a throwback to a time on the island before the overstated influence of Gulf countries.
Nasser was in his thirties, attuned to the land, and not just with the idea that it might turn a profit. He was a champion of environmental stewardship, which he began working in after graduating with a degree in biology from Sanaa University. (There is only one private university on Socotra, Socotra Archipelago University, founded in 2021, and funded by the UAE.)
Nasser was slight and eager, and regularly volunteered with a local cooperative he helped found that promoted beach cleanups, Earth Day, and awareness around the overuse of plastic. “Before, there was traditional environmental awareness,” he explained. “People didn’t have all the new challenges, like plastic and cutting down trees. Now all the challenges have increased. We didn’t have plastic before. So we need to spread awareness regarding these new issues.”
“Before all the communities would come together to solve problems. It would be discussed mutually,” Nasser continued. “They’d agree and they’d make an order: Don’t go fishing here. Don’t cut these trees.” The urbanization of Socotra, however, has led to the abandonment of such community-based practices in most parts of the island.
That the environment was something to be cared for in and of itself, and not as an extension of best farming or fishing practices, is an idea that was promoted in Socotra by foreign experts starting in the late 1990s. Nasser would be considered a success story by UN-funded projects that aimed to increase the sort of awareness he possessed. In other words, it was outsiders who told Socotrans that their island was like the Galápagos, that its plants grew nowhere else in the world, and thus should be valued for their singularity, rather than their utility. The following week, I reconnected with Nasser as he led a presentation on environmental conservation at a village school in Homhil, a rural region in Socotra’s northeast. He had traveled to Homhil with a small delegation from Socotra’s EPA, as part of a program to increase conservation awareness among a younger generation. A classroom full of middle schoolers was focused intently on Nasser as their teachers monitored the event. The generator he’d brought to power his laptop hummed just outside.
Nasser paced the rows of schoolchildren holding up a flimsy plastic bag. Beams of late-morning sun highlighted the dusty air around him. He told the students the bag was made from oil, and that the plastic would pollute the Earth for “thousands of years.” He spoke with urgency—Socotra’s towns, after all, were littered with plastic bags like this one.
He showed a short video on his laptop that he held up for all the students to see. The video showed images of landfills around the world. The children tried to pay attention—it was a movie, after all, in an area of few televisions—but the reality was that the lesson was a meager offering in the face of a much larger issue. The Socotran students would now know that pollution was a problem, but the problem was so ingrained in modern Socotran life, and with so few actual tools to fix it—other than the trash-eating goats—that the efficacy of the lesson was all but doomed to lie in just that—awareness.
After the presentation, Nasser said his goodbyes and loaded his generator into his pickup. He and the volunteers then headed back to Hadibu. The men from the EPA stayed in Homhil to chat with a local community organizer, Salah Omar.
Salah, fiery and a bit of a skeptic, tended a small nursery that grew frankincense and dragon’s blood saplings. He also helped manage the Homhil campground where tourists stayed while visiting the area. He wanted more support from the EPA, for better fencing that would keep the goats away from his saplings, as well as more funds for Homhil’s campground. But the EPA was strapped: War-torn Yemen had no budget for environmental programs. They spoke in Socotri, and from what I could make out, it didn’t appear like it was going well for Salah, and the conversation got a little heated. It didn’t help that Abu Isa, who has a background in horticulture, couldn’t resist pointing out to the officials that Salah had planted the frankincense saplings too closely together.
The discussion ended, still a little tense and with unclear results. Afterward, the officials gone, Abu Isa and I sat with Salah and talked about his quixotic project. “My family says I’m crazy,” he said of his nursery. “They say, ‘We farm date palms, but there you are farming trees.’ ”
There were no tourists in Homhil when I visited. In fact, the area’s main attraction, a natural freshwater pool that overlooks the Indian Ocean on the southern coast down below, was all but dried up due to the drought. The campground’s vista was a parched hillside. The land’s need for water overwhelmed any sense of beauty, and I wondered if tourists were avoiding Homhil because of the drought.
Salah had another theory about the lack of tourists, though. He suspected that travel agencies, which have proliferated in recent years, some of them run by Italians and Russians, were steering tour groups away from Homhil, since staying there required the tourists to pay a nominal fee—around $15 per person—to the local cooperative. (In nearby Arher, a popular coastal area, there are no such fees; the area is uninhabited, so there are no cooperatives to pay.) The Homhil cooperative, meanwhile, depended on these fees to pay for basic services—the school, a medical clinic, and food for community gatherings. While tourists may have the intention of contributing to Socotra’s economy, the truth is that most of them visit the island on ecotourism jaunts that have become increasingly organized and restrictive, such that their actual interactions with Socotri culture are negligible apart from tour guides, a coveted job on the island. Outside of Abdullah and his cave, immersion in local culture has become an afterthought of the tour circuit here. After the cyclone’s damage, and now with the drought, Homhil struggled to attract much attention.
I asked Salah what the biggest problem for Homhil might be when it came to attracting more tourists.
He thought about it, fiddled with stones as he spoke. “It’s the road,” he said. The paved coastal road that connects Qalansia and Arher sits about an hour from this village. The road to Homhil is all dirt and rocks, steep and treacherous. Abu Isa recalled driving tourists up this road who’d cried the whole way. People in Homhil had been complaining about its condition for more than a decade.
“Also there is another problem. We don’t have experience in farming. There is water. There is land. But basic tools and knowledge are nil.”
“There is no project that teaches people?” I asked, meaning an internationally funded project that helps people learn to farm their land. Traditionally, Socotrans have farmed little other than dates.
“There will be projects for a year or so,” he said, “and then they close up shop and leave the island.”
This was the problem with international development in general: Grants are subject to the whims of foreign administrators and their priorities. An international development project may end, its funding used up, just as it was starting to gain traction. Meanwhile, projects may be more designed to achieve international donors’ desired outcomes rather than what can most benefit a local community. As a prominent resident of an area that has been a target for environmental projects, Salah was privy to the pros and cons of foreign intervention. International specialists and researchers would visit Homhil, Salah said, and run the same project as the last group of specialists and researchers, repeat the same studies, the same evaluations, depleting budgets that seemed enormous to a Socotran villager. Yet Homhil still didn’t have a decent road to show for it, and Salah still didn’t have money for a better fence for his nursery—or proper training for how to manage it.
“I have no problem if a project director takes a big salary,” Salah said. “But from the moment he comes to Socotra, he has to work.”
Salah mentioned that a new group of foreign experts had come to Homhil recently, though he didn’t specify which institute had sent them. I wasn’t sure if he was withholding information or if the rotating cast of international experts was difficult to keep straight.
“They asked, ‘What soil do you have? What do you need? Where is the campground?’” Salah recounted. “I was in the cooperative at that time and I gave them the list. ‘We need water for the villages. We need a campground. We need solar panels.’ The guy said okay. He wrote everything down. ‘But I want to tell you something,’ I said. ‘I have one condition: Don’t commit the same sins as the first group. They traveled to Europe and then would return. They’d get experts from Europe and come to Socotra. And they stay like that, spending money on traveling back and forth. And then the money is all used up.’” He didn’t seem optimistic that the situation would change.
Later that day, Abu Isa and I headed down the steep dirt road to another campground by the sea in Di-hamri, where I was charged $10 for tea and some bread with processed cheese. At Salah’s, even though the Homhil locals charge tourists to stay at their campground, the tea most surely would have been an offer of hospitality (and probably would have turned into free lunch as well). Like in Homhil, the campground was an extension of internationally funded conservation projects aimed at promoting ecotourism.
After tea, I walked down to the beach to swim. Just offshore was a coral reef rich in color and sea life. As I swam, I spotted soda cans wedged between the coral, plastic bags bobbing on the waves like jellyfish. I thought of Abdullah’s efforts to clean the trash from Detwah Lagoon. What else could be expected in a country mired by war? When the flags that fly on everything from the airport to military camps to crumbling local council buildings belong to a country that doesn’t exist? If Socotra were to ever be developed for the next stage of tourism—more hotels, fewer campsites—there might be more corporate incentive to clean this water. Even with all the flights arriving from Abu Dhabi, it seemed like a distant proposition. But life in Yemen, as slowly as it moves sometimes, can also change radically from one day to the next. And Socotra was, after all, still part of Yemen. Its uncertain future and political mayhem were proof of that.
During one of my last days on Socotra, I was traveling back from the high mountains with another man named Ali. This Ali was a Bedouin with an infectious laugh and pickup truck that handled mountain roads better than Abu Isa’s. We were on Diksam plateau, and the clouds hung low, wrapping the crowns of dragon’s blood trees in a cocoon of gray. We bounced along the road, with the oud-filled sounds of Yemeni music playing on the stereo. It began to rain—a little at first, then quite hard, the first rain for months.
The summer’s drought had finally ended. The flight from Abu Dhabi would soon increase from once to twice a week. Socotrans would scramble to keep up with the influx of foreigners—more tours, more campsite stays, more visits to Abdullah in his cave, and more researchers studying Socotra’s endemic life. And the Khalifah Foundation would continue its projects around the island, leaving its imprint on Socotra just like British occupiers had done a century prior. This time, however, it wouldn’t be just a handful of soldiers at an isolated colonial outpost. The Emirati infrastructure development, and the foreign power’s grip on the island, felt like something more.
None of that mattered at present. All that mattered was that it had finally begun to rain. After a half hour of switchbacks that led down to the coast and the Hadibu road, Ali and I passed by small shacks that sold Yemeni cigarettes and Saudi juice, and a few hitchhikers walking along the road, holding whatever they could over their heads to stay dry.
“Maysa! Maysa!” Ali shouted in Socotri at everyone we passed. “It’s raining!”