The gardener of Aden

Nicolas Pelham in More Intelligent Life:

Topiary_Web_header_1It began two years ago with a few snips to a Damas bush. Before the week was out, Omar Slameh, who heads a provincial department of environmental management in eastern Yemen, had his 24 municipal gardeners clipping shrubs into pyramids, globes and hearts. Soon they were decorating ancient thoroughfares with six-foot-high teapots, incense burners and doves. By the year’s end they could produce entire Quranic verses in living greenery. Such feats of topiary would have dazzled any city. That they should bud in a war-stricken country facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and in an isolated corner regarded as al-Qaeda’s stronghold, beggars belief. But Slameh is convinced that horticulture is an effective method of peace-keeping. “They plant explosives. We plant trees,” he says, bristling with civic pride. Manicured foliage fosters a sense of normality and order, he argues.

Tucked in Wadi Hadramawt, a broad canyon that cuts 200km across the east of Yemen, Seiyun is half an hour’s drive from Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home. Seiyun itself has come under repeated attack from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadists’ most lethal affiliate. Over the past four years, it has raided the town’s central bank, stormed the airport, triggered car bombs outside its governorate and army bases, and driven 30-car convoys flying black ensigns through its streets. It has chased away foreign oil companies with a spate of kidnappings, assassinated several local officials and published manuals for lone wolves on how to sew suicide vests.

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