The Lost World of Socotra: Yemen's Island of Bliss
by Richard Boggs, Stacey International, 2009. Pp. 172. 100 colour photographs. Map. Bibliog. Index. Pb. £16.95. ISBN: 978-1-905-299959.
'You come from a land where apples grow. What brings you to a land where all we have is a bit of bread and fish?' Richard Boggs is asked by an old lady at the beginning of his book. The next 150 pages clearly explain why. I had already visited Socotra once in September 2010, yet within the first ten pages of this book, I wanted to hop, two kilos of fresh tomatoes in my bag, on the first flight back.
I hadn't experienced the island at all! For one thing I hadn't met a poet. Nor had I come upon a beached whale being prised open for it sambergris.
I had been swept clean off my feet trying to take a photo in a strong wind, but I had never seen an air-conditioning unit blown right out of its hole in the wall! Forget about the dragon blood trees! I had poetry matches at weddings to attend, magicians to hear about, and sea cucumbers to watch being boiled on the beach. Where was the number for the Felix Airways office?
Boggs' lost world of Socotra is a magical land that has long resisted outside influences, but also one on the verge of destruction by consumerism and tourism. As such, his book reads as an urgent compilation of fun facts about the island, backed up by research and peppered with short anecdotes from his personal experience as an English teacher and eco-guide trainer there for two years. There are lessons in Socotri, stories of butter-smothered church altars, and, courtesy of scholar Miranda Morris, extracts from Socotri poems. All are illustrated by his own photographs of plants, landscapes, and, most sensationally, the Socotri people "men, women, children, African and Arab Socotris, as well as Yemeni settlers. The reader follows the author up the mountains to a wedding where the women have covered their faces in turmeric, and laughs when his determination to dine on a can of tuna in order not to be a burden on his bedouin hosts fails miserably, and, after he has eaten, he is made to dig in to a second, much more elaborate meal with them all over again.
Anecdotes are told with colour and humour, but tangible throughout, especially in the last chapter, is a sense of despair that all that the author describes might soon truly be lost: Socotri susceptibility to the newly imported qat leaf, the pristine beaches to non-biodegradable plastic, the poetry of Socotri language to Arabic public life and education. In a particularly poignant plea to the reader in the book's last pages, Boggs describes the cultural impact of long-bare-legged tourists on the island, and cautions against Socotra's rugged beauty being sanitised, glossed over to fit the ideals of a five star holiday brochure in which his friends would become guides in flood-lit caves and caddies on a golf course.
Back to the island then, but on an eco-tourism tour that seeks to benefit the Socotri community long-term. With two kilos of tomatoes and Boggs' book to read by the camp fire. Oh, and a scarf to wrap around my face.
Alice Hackman is a freelance journalist who blogs on aliceauyemen.blogspot.com