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Yemeni Plaster Workers are High on Khat

The Yemeni plaster workers tasked with preserving Sanaa's architectural history are high on khat.

The World Heritage Site sprawls out beneath the sundeck of the Old City’s tallest building.

Troubled by its country’s notorious reputation for civil unrest and terrorism, Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been fighting a losing battle to preserve its architectural history. With over 6,500 inhabited buildings more than three times the age of the United States, Sanaa’s Old City district is among UNESCO’s most remarkable World Heritage Sites. This labyrinth of mud-brick markets, gardens and homes is elaborately adorned with distinctive, white-plaster designs that wrap and decorate its exterior. However, while tourism has plummeted in recent years, the job of maintaining Sanaa’s heritage continues in the same surprisingly perilous manner as it has since the Middle Ages.


Each year Arabian dust storms erode the Old City’s plasterwork, and painters go to work restoring its artistic charm. Across the skyline painters descend from the rooftops, balancing themselves on narrow wooden platforms that are suspended only by a single rope. Unlike modern window washers, the painters’ work is characterised by centuries of tradition. That means labouring without harnesses or safety equipment on buildings reaching ten stories high.

A building that recently collapsed because of leaky plumbing and poor maintenance

Their pulley system, which is powered sustainably by manual labour, can have its drawbacks. And so painters often find themselves hanging halfway down a building’s exterior when the time comes for Islamic prayer. Because of the team’s limited lifting abilities, the painters can only be lowered downward, not hoisted up. This leaves the painters with only one way of getting back to the top: Relying solely on their sheer strength, they climb the rope hand over hand, walking up the side of the building.

And the whole time, they’re high on khat – a slightly euphoric leafy green plant that is ingested like chewing tobacco. “When you’re painting you have to be strong, and when I chew I can do the work perfectly,” said Mohammed al Seeani. At the age of 65, Mohammed has 40 years of painting under his belt, making him one of the most experienced and respected painters in Yemen.


“I used to carry water from the well when I was young, and I noticed a painting crew mixing water and gypsum nearby,” Mohammed remembered. Curious about their work, he approached the men who began to teach him about their craft. “Then one day there was a well that was very deep, 65 meters (about 200 feet). It had been clogged by dirt, and they needed to remove it in order to get the water underneath.”

Mohammed making his way from the stable rooftop to his wobbly platform

Rappelling into these dim and claustrophobic well shafts is a right of passage for aspiring painters and considered a test of a candidate’s mental readiness. “They took the rope, and if it's your first time, they put it around your stomach,” Mohammed said. He had once known a man that was well diving when the rope snapped, plunging the man into the darkness below. Fortunately, Mohammed resurfaced unscathed and self-assured. “After the well incident I knew I wanted to paint the houses,” he said.

Nowadays the painters’ work has become increasingly hazardous due to the rapid deterioration of the Old City’s buildings. In fact, more than 400 homes throughout the Heritage Site have collapsed due to new construction and the installation of water piping in these 11th century dwellings. Over the years, leaky plumbing has gradually eroded the buildings from the inside out while poor drainage has softened the roofs the painters work on. “One time in my work, there were three ceiling beams that fell from above and hit my son, but he was OK and was working a month and a half later,” Mohammed recalled.

A Yemeni teen is charged with the responsibility of belaying the rope that supports both Mohammed and his platform.

The neglected state of the Old City prompted UNESCO to consider revoking Sanaa’s World Heritage Site status last spring. According to Mohammed, financial support from UNESCO spurred the government to call up painters from around the country in an effort to maintain its UN designation. A mobilisation of this scale had only happened once previously in 2004, when the government (again with UNESCO funding) employed 140 painters to repaint all of the Old City.

“All of us painters are friends,” said Mohammed. “When the government rehires them all, all of them will come. Just one phone call, and all of them will be in Sanaa.” Until then, Mohammed continues to train his teenage son, passing the age-old techniques on to the next generation.