09 February, 2014

Socotra: Sights and People

For, sailors, few places are as feared as the waters around the Socotra Archipelago: the waters around it are known for their dangerous shoals and ferocious storms. And, now, there are the terrifying pirates who have turned the horn of Africa in to one of the most dangerous places for sailors. Years back, sailors and those intending to go to the Island had another fear - they were terrified of the Island's residents who were believed to control winds and turn ships toward shore for capture and plunder. Some people, even believe to this day that the people of Socotra have magical powers. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all tapped the treasures of Socotra’s natural world: aromatic resins such as frankincense, medicinal aloe extract, and the dark red sap of the dragon’s blood tree, used for healing and as an artist’s color. Adventurers came to harvest the island’s wealth, despite stories that it was guarded by giant snakes living in its caves. The Queen of Sheba, Alexander the Great, and Marco Polo were among those who coveted Socotra’s riches. Today, the Archipelago has very much changed: it's very unique biodiversity attracts scientists from all over the world; and thousands of foreign tourists visit the Island. But its indigenous, original inhabitants have remained very much the same.

Soqotra (more than five times the size of Singapore) has very, very few people: about 80,00 people at most. Most live along the coast.
Although it was known since time immemorial and has been in ancient maps - the Archipelago, until recently, has been very isolated.
Due to this isolation, the ancient language of the Island - Soqotri ( a Semitic language with South Arabian influence)  - has survived to this day. Today, both Socotri and Arabic are spoken on the Island.
The Island's population is divided between the inhabitants of the mountainous interior and the islands’ coastal regions. Along the coast are mainly the fishermen. Many along the coast have Somali/African origins.
While, beyond, inland, in the mountains and in the valleys are herders of goats, sheep and cows. They also harvest date palms and some cultivated land.
For ages, the Archipelago has had very little outside interference. It is only in the last fifteen or so years, that the Island has seen a very increased influx of outsiders; mainly from mainland Yemen.
Most of these new inhabitants (like this seller) are concentrated in Hadibo, in the North - the main urban area and capital of the Archipelago. Qalansiya, in the North-West is the second main urban center. Almost all the populated areas are in the North, along the coast.
The indigenous people of Socotra are mainly of South Arabian descent; they are more closely related to the people of Mahra and to the people of Hadhramout. This closeness can easily be noticed on the Islanders culture and food (which is mainly bread, rice, dates, fish and lamb).
And love for henna. Like in Mahra and in Hadhramaut - henna is a very special part of the Socotri culture. Henna is used by women to decorate and beautify their feet.
And hands and lower parts of the arms. Like in Hadhramaut and Mahra, it is also used for dyeing hair.
Both young girls and grown women use it, especially during special occasions. And like the women of Mahra and Hadhramout, Socotri women love jewellery: bangles, bracelets, necklaces, earrings etc. -  especially those made of gold or silver.
Like in Southern Arabia - goats and camels are very important; inland in particular. They are raised fro their milk, meat and skins; and as a form of wealth. Camels are used for transportation, also.
Like every where else, children here love playing; the water pools (formed by rain water) provide excellent places for playing. With the many pools inland and the Island surrounded by sea, almost every Socotri young man knows how to swim.
Football, like in most places around the world - is the number one sports here. With very few schools around, most children spend most of their time playing.
Along the coast, fishing is the most important livelihood for the indigenous people of the Island.
Every day, many boats can be seen returning with fish or going out to fish. The waters around here are rich with fish.
Fish is not only important as food; but, fishing, too, provides a form of livelihood. Many on the coast earn their living from selling fish.
Few places on Earth have such pristine, breathtakingly beautiful waters as that found around the Socotra Archipelago.
Rivers, like the one above, and pools - are formed by light rain which falls all year round. Generally the higher inland areas receive more rain than the lower coastal areas.
With the influx of outsiders and investments, the Island's infrastructure has very much improved.
The Island now has a modern Airport and many tarmacked roads; making it much easier to move around. Thousands of indigenous islanders have migrated and work in the Arabian Gulf countries; they bring back home, not only money, but also new ideas and new ways of life.
Unfortunately for these new modern developments, some of the Islander's way of life and livelihoods are being disturbed. Destructive qat is now being chewed by many Islanders; and is becoming a parts of the Island's culture.

Only Hawaii, New Caledonia and the Galapagos islands have more endemic species as the Archipelago of Soqotra. Socotra's people are unique in many ways, too. Isolation and being remote has made it easy for the people of Socotra to maintain their unique culture and language. With the rapid changes the Island is going through - how long can they be able to do this?

+ More photos of Soqotra on Flickr: here and here  
+ More photos of Socotra on Flickriver: here and here 
+ National Geographic