Armed with Saplings and Clippers, Artisans Turn a Desert City Green

Zain Alaabdain Ben Ali
Thanks to a creative collaboration with members of a typically marginalised community in Yemen, a tree-planting initiative that grew out of an urban hygiene scheme has lent a touch of beauty to the streets of Marib. The measure is also helping the city stave off desertification.
Mohammed Abdallah Saad prunes trees on Marib’s streets. © Abdullah al-Garadi / Arabia Felix Magazine

It doesn’t take long to notice something has changed on Marib’s streets. They look like they’ve had a green-themed facelift.

On al-Hob, or Love Street, trees have been sculpted into heart shapes. On University Street, they’ve been trimmed to resemble open books. Elsewhere, trees take the contour of camels, Bedouin coffee pots, and other imaginative forms. 

Salah Ali, 35, who travelled here from Ibb to apply for a passport, was surprised by the city’s new look.

“We hope people will be more aware of the importance of cleanliness and realise it’s a collective responsibility.”

“Before, it was like a village of sand and dust storms,” he said. “I did not expect Marib to become so glamorous. It’s a green oasis now.”

Yemen Cleanliness and Improvement Fund (CIF), a government agency established in 1999, started as a street-cleaning outfit with offices in each governorate. It later branched out with tree planting to develop green spaces. Adding a creative touch, artisans trained by the CIF have been pruning the foliage into shapes that match the names of streets where it’s been planted. 

Despite the war, the project has continued without interruption. Over the past four years, the CIF planted nearly 70,000 different ornamental trees in Marib, including more than 21,000 palm trees in 2021 alone. 

On a sidewalk under bright sunshine one recent afternoon, Mohammed Abdallah Saad bent over a shrub with pruning shears to apply his artistic skills.

The 25-year-old has been working as a topiary artisan with the CIF for three years. His efforts contribute to the gradual transformation of this desert city, whose initiative helps protect this urban landscape from desertification at the same time. 

“At first, the CIF’s work was limited to street cleaning and waste removal,” said Saad. “Today, we have scores of people from different backgrounds with experience in pruning trees, and they’re doing a wonderful job.” 

Saad is a member of the Muhamasheen, a marginalised community in Yemen that represents over 20% of the CIF’s staff, which includes more than 400 migrants from Africa. Together they make up more than two-thirds of CIF workers in Marib. Residents and displaced Yemenis are also part of the group that thrives on cooperation and mutual respect. 

شارع الحبّ في مأرب الذي زيّنت أشجاره على شكل قلوب دافئة من طرف محمد عبد الله سعد وزملائه. © عبد الله الجرادي | مجلّة العربيّة السّعيدة

Heart-shaped trees on al-Hob Street, Marib.
© Abdullah al-Garadi / Arabia Felix Magazine

Younas Tamro, 23, an Ethiopian who’s been with CIF for a year, spoke of a team spirit free of discrimination. 

“We eat and drink together,” he said, “and working hours are the same for all of us.”

The CIF has held numerous workshops to train technical staff in clipping, shaping, and pruning different types of ornamental trees. 

“We brought in experts and work teams from the city of Seiyun, whose streets we admired,” said Marib CIF director Mohammed Attia, 50.

The efforts of Tamro, Saad and his fellow workers have been warmly received by Marib’s residents, according to Abdullah Tarboush, 28, a local environmental journalist. 

“We are grateful to those who put time and effort into making our city green and beautiful,” he said. 

With community participation of local entrepreneurs, Marib Governorate honours CIF workers with certificates of recognition and monetary rewards every year on 12 December, Yemen’s National Cleanliness Day. 

“We feel proud to know our efforts are appreciated,” said Abdullah Saad. “We hope people will be more aware of the importance of cleanliness and realise it’s a collective responsibility.”


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