“The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) financed the reconstruction of the Aqaba Surrah Mukayris, a notorious mountain road in the Republic of Yemen. For over 140 years, this road restricted the lives of people living in 300 villages in the southern and northern governorates of Yemen. At a height of 7,900 feet above sea level, the road was only 20 km long but was the only one that linked the Lauder district to the Mukayris directorate, forcing travelers to cover 680 km if they wished to cross to avoid the dangers that it posed. The reconstruction has enabled villagers across the region to move safely and freely to access education, healthcare and better employment opportunities.”
“One, two, three! The mountains are free. When will we be as tall as the mountains that are free?” I remember chanting this rhyme as I stumbled along the rocky roads, strewn with sharp rubble in the mountainous region of Al Bayda, south-east of Yemen. My yellow school bag sat uncomfortably on my back as I set off early in the mornings to make the strenuous three-hour journey to school, with a makeshift staff in one hand to assist me. Only singing and keeping company with friends could make such a difficult trek bearable.
My friends and I would playfully poke at each other with our staffs, which we nicknamed “Musa’s staff”, after the Prophet Musa who was able to perform miracles using his. We prayed that one day our journey to school would be made easier, and that Allah would pave for us a successful life ahead. After all, mountains can be moved, and we believed in the impossible. We were young boys determined to reach heights unknown to others living in our small, remote village.
When we finally reached the notorious Aqabah, a dangerous mountain road, our chanting would stop. We would curiously peer down at the brittle path, tempted to shorten our journey, and lessen the painful cuts and grazes that our feet endured along our typical route. The only road that connected our district to the Mukayris district was a mere 20 km long but it was a plague that we all avoided. Instead those who were able to would cover the 680 km of rough terrain in order to escape the deadly perils of Aqabah.
Many people avoided the damaged road altogether. In my village, there were children who suffered from ophthalmia, an inflammation of the eyes, but since it was too dangerous to get to the hospital by the Aqabah road, many ended up losing their eyesight instead.
I wondered every day how one road could impact the lives of thousands scattered over 300 villages in the region. How one road could destroy the chances of so many. We prayed for those before us who, for over 140 years, were unable to access schools, hospitals and markets. Those who were physically impaired, those who were living in dire poverty, and those who had lost loved ones to the deadly Aqabah. We also prayed desperately for a solution.
Our prayers were finally answered years later, when news reached the region that IsDB would help to rebuild the road. Everyone was skeptical at first; indeed, the Bank was setting out to do the impossible. If the British and others were unable to repair the damaged Aqabah, how could a project funded by IsDB repair the irreparable?
But we were told that IsDB had already successfully built eight roads: Aden Bab Al-Mandab Road, Al-Makha Road, Hajjah Al-Khashm Road, Al-Sharq Al-Daleel Road, Atmah Road and Al-Thuluth Souq Road. Upon learning this, hope returned to people’s hearts and we waited eagerly to see if the road would finally be fixed. This was perhaps the Bank’s most ambitious project yet.
IsDB proved to be the cure for a people who had been suffering for many years. Upon completion of the project, villagers flocked from every region to witness the miraculously repaired Aqabah. By that time, I was no longer living in the region, but encouraged by family and friends, I too attended the celebration. Neighbors rejoiced, and slaughtered sheep in joy and gratitude.
Colorful laughter painted the gathering and it felt as though Eid had arrived early. The lifeblood of the region had been restored. Instead of cracked potholes and broken rubble, the Aqabah wore a new costume: a line of asphalt had appeared, its edges decorated with yellow lines and a white line running down the middle. I stood among the raucous crowd, with a smile plastered on my face, and thanked Allah for paving the way ahead; indeed, only he was capable of moving mountains.
The deadly Aqabah became known as the ”Aqabah of Unity” a functioning road that now allowed the smooth and safe movement of residents. It enabled students to continue their education, farmers to market their crops, and villagers to access healthcare services. This is what made people raise their voices in praise and offer prayers to Allah to reward all those who had contributed to the transformation of the Aqabah.
Years later, as fate would have it, I was employed by IsDB as an engineer. One day shortly after I joined, I came across a model of the Aqabah project on the first floor of the IsDB building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. As I looked at the map of familiar regions, tracing my memory, a colleague nearby asked if I was from Yemen.
“Yes,” I replied, “From Al Bayda in fact.” He smiled and introduced himself as Mahmoud Khaled. While we stood before the model, Mahmoud told me that he had been involved with repairing the Aqabah road, which he considered to be one of the Bank’s most important development projects. As he shared the difficulties he had personally encountered during the work, I was reminded of my own first-hand experience.
During my time at IsDB, I have witnessed the execution of many successful projects that aim to benefit our member countries around the world. But the project I will always be most proud of is the reconstruction of the Aqabah, a deadly mountain road near my small hometown of Al Bayda, south-east of Yemen. Walking past the Aqabah project model every day is not only a reminder that I belong to such a prestigious institution, but of how far I’ve come and the heights that I’ve climbed.