Where the Weird Things Are

Isolated Socotra, 220 miles from mainland Yemen, is home to a panoply of strange plants and animals uniquely adapted to the hot, harsh, windswept island.

It’s nearly midnight on the broad hill called Firmihin, where a dragon’s blood forest grows. The moon, a night past full, floods the jagged landscape with cool silver. Inside the rock wall of a shepherd’s compound, flames light the faces of four people sitting barefoot around a fire, sharing a pot of hot tea mixed with fresh goat’s milk.

Neehah Maalha wears a saronglike garment called a fouta; his wife, Metagal, wears a long dress and matching head scarf in rich purple. They talk about their lives on the island of Socotra, in a language whose origins are lost in time—unchanged for centuries and understood today by fewer people than live in Ames, Iowa.

Although the couple can’t read, they know that the new sign down the hill says that Firmihin has been declared a protected nature reserve. Foreigners come to their village, they say, to photograph the dragon’s blood trees and the desert rose plants and the mishhahir flowers. Scientists come and turn over rocks, claiming to be collecting insects and lizards. What are they really looking for?

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