On Socotra, the trees bleed. Known as “Dragon’s Blood Trees,” Socotra’s outlandish Dracaena Cinnabari have seen the island painted by outsiders in fetish and fantasy since time immemorial.
For the uninitiated, Socotra is Africa’s second-largest island. It is also of the Arabian Peninsula, though firmly adjacent — Socotri is among the few remaining South Semitic languages not subsumed into the belly of Arabic. Today there are some fifty to sixty thousand native Socotris. It has often been compared to a land-before-time, a veritable Eden, and has been labeled among the last places on earth to be truly fully explored.
Socotra has often been compared to a land-before-time, a veritable Eden, and has been labeled among the last places on earth to be truly fully explored.
When I first heard of the island nearly a decade ago, it was the absence of information that lured me in. Normally I would forget such a late-night Wikipedia expedition by the following morning, but occasional obscure references served as a steady drip, continuously whetting my appetite. Socotra seemed to have an almost magical propensity to pop up in relation to other odd desiderata that have kept me awake late for no real explicable reason. There is a small often-submerged rock by the same name subject to a territorial dispute between South Korea and China that appeared in some book I was skimming in the SOAS Library when pursuing my Master’s. I stumbled on images of the Soviet-era T-34 tanks on its beaches when researching Russia’s military history in east Africa, ostensibly for a think tank project. I’ve long been fond of employing ambergris, the whale-vomit more valuable than gold, as cocktail party conversation starter — of course, $1.5 million worth of the stuff was extracted from a whale’s stomach on the island recently.
Socotra kept appearing, tantalizing close yet very far away.
Today, there is just one international flight a week, though it goes unlisted on the website of the airline that arranges it, a silent nod to the controversies that rage over Socotra’s administration. When the pandemic struck and borders shut in 2020, and two dear peripatetic friends found themselves trapped with me London, we vowed to go as soon as we could. So this is the story of my own Socotri fantasy — and the lessons about multinationalism, sovereignty, and the role of the state I learned in its telling.
HISTORY AND MYTH
My friends and I were, of course, not the first outsiders to discover Socotra, but I only recently realized how well-trodden the path is. Socotra is found throughout ancient myth and history. Yet the origins of its modern name remain disputed. In fact, cartographers and academics still don’t always agree on its name — other choices include Socotora, Suqutra, or my personal favorite, Zocotra.
Diodorus Siculus noted in the First Century BC that the island was the then-known world’s veritable garden of aromatic plants — in addition to its Dragon’s Blood Trees, Socotra was known for its stores of aloe, frankincense, and myrrh. Later travelers would take inspiration from the island in myriad ways — Gujarati sailors named a sea goddess after the island, where she is believed to live. Dragon’s Blood is found among the ingredients in the varnish responsible for the russet tint of Stradivarius’ world-famous violins.
Portuguese conquistadors who landed on the island in 1507 believed Socotra to be home to cannibals — a belief that remained until not long before the 1958 expedition led by Britain’s Douglas Botting if his entertaining though troublingly supercilious travelogue is to be believed. Britain held a protectorate over the island from the late 1886 century until 1967, after signing a treaty with the Mahra Sultan of Qishn and Socotra. But as Botting acknowledges, they almost entirely forgot about it — perhaps due to an old tradition: the 13th-century merchant chronicler Ibn al-Mujawir reported Socotra was home to sorcerers who could make the island disappear.
Socotra should not be understood as forever moored to the annals of obscurity. Located at the intersection of the earliest active ancient maritime trade routes, Socotra gave much to the world.
However, Socotra should not be understood as forever moored to the annals of obscurity. Located at the intersection of the earliest active ancient maritime trade routes, Socotra gave much to the world. And much that could not be found elsewhere; the level of endemism amongst its flora and fauna compare only to the Galapagos Islands. That Socotra was a thriving destination for trade from the Roman era until the early modern era, is preserved to this day in al-Hoq cave, which bears Indian, Arabian, Ethiopian, Greek and Bactrian inscriptions. A Palmyrene wooden tablet is also among the treasures found within.
So historically, Socotra has been defined not by seclusion but has been firmly rooted in a multinational order. Socotra’s present isolation seems to stand in stark contrast to its ancient position. While monsoon winds have long made Socotra nearly inaccessible from late May through September, in recent years, it has been entirely inaccessible more often than not.
Today, Socotra is part of Yemen, where a civil war exacerbated by foreign intervention rages. The very basic elements of the state are at best fractured, more often non-existent. The market values all of the aloes, frankincense, and Dragon’s Blood that Socotra could sustainably produce in one year less than it does a single oil well. Most of the results when searching Google Images for “Map of Yemen” even forget to include Socotra. It is peripheral even when considering a conflict whose position on the periphery has seen its tragedy all too often forgotten and ignored.
THE TEMPTATION AND THE JOURNEY
It was Socotra’s potential as an escape from the world — there are but two cell phone towers, installed by its most recent external benefactors — that lured me there. The first travel guide was published only in 2020, laughably cruel timing. My daily screen-time went from merely embarrassing to tragic. Images of Socotra shared on Instagram and Whatsapp invited me to a wilder world outside pandemic-induced confines. Dreaming of escaping to an other-worldly, almost preternatural, paradise was infectious.
Eight friends and I ultimately succumbed to the disease. And after enduring COVID-19 testing regimes and travel security regulations across at least seven countries, we arrived in Socotra two days after Christmas.