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Published: April 22nd 2006
The Spirit of Yemen
This is my favorite picture (unfortunately not mine). Copyright: Lucia de los Cartones.
A police station in Zabid. Around 10am. The steady stream of people asking me where I'm from and why I'm here finally culminated in me sitting next to The Man Himself, patiently explaining myself. It's February, but I have a respectable tan from the past week or so spent in the lowlands here by the Red Sea, mostly outdoors and in the backs of pickup trucks. It's hot and humid, and I could use a hot shower. I'm 'going native', wearing a turban on my head (they're remarkably useful) and a sarung/skirt for pants. Compounded with a healthy beard, it normally earns me big points with people I meet, but this time it has bought me a free night's accommodation in a Zabid jail. A number of Al-Qaida boys have escaped from prison, digging a 70m tunnel to a nearby mosque to emerge during prayer-time, mingle with the congregation, and then simply walk out unnoticed. And now, the hunt is on while I -- with my surprisingly versatile hair and beard - who have been assumed Bedouin, American, devout Muslim, Jew, and godless hippie am now under suspicion of being a terrorist. The crowd stares on and The Man pretends to
View at Night
The colored mosaic windows of the old houses of Sana'a light up at night. This is a poor representation of something that's truly beautiful.
listen as he compares my face with images of certain other bearded, long-haired turban-wearing convicts, while I try to speak my best Arabic: it's unfortunate that my 3 months of studying Arabic didn't include any useful phrases for dealing with situations such as these. In fact, it's been singularly useless, as what they teach in school is about as useful as (mispronounced) King James English would be for asking directions. I'm continually trying to un-learn my Fusha
and speak in dialect, all the while making unpardonable grammar and pronunciation mistakes.
I explain how I've been in Yemen for 6 months, studying Arabic for 3 months and doing nothing (chewing qat) for the remainder. The mention of qat elicits nods of approval. I didn't think overstaying my visa would be a big deal. Honestly, a bunch of people I know have done that. Really? What are their names? Ooops. Never mind. Next comes the seemingly innocent (trick) question: Muslim? Aha! I won't fall for that one. My instinctive answer of "Alhamdulillah" would (with my beard, and under the current circumstances) mean "I blow up babies"; while "Christian" means "godless reprobate, potential crusader, cartoon-drawing blasphemer". I suppress a smile thinking of
Manhattan of the Desert
No description of Yemen is complete without pictures of Shibam-Hadramout, the "Manhattan of the Desert", 10+ storied mud apartments built hundreds of years ago. This picture is of the small settlement across the wadi from the city proper.
my two Turkish friends from Sana'a who speak perfect dialect and enjoy doing things like replying “I am not able to speak the language of the Arabs” in perfect Fusha when someone asks them if they speak Arabic. One of them has taken to claiming to be from Denmark (this is in the midst of all the anti-Danish sentiment people were freaking out about), and then interrupting his (embarrassed) interlocutor with “I didn't do it!” every time he tries to say something. I'm sure they'd think of something clever. I respond “Human”, while The Man blinks in confusion and tries again: “No, I mean what's your religion. Are you Muslim?” I am Human. I wonder if I shouldn't be antagonizing the person who has undisputed authority in this situation. Through the next 10 minutes I take revenge for last night's humiliation and stick to “Human” as a religion.
The Man decides it would be best for someone else to take the responsibility of deciding about me (quite predictable), and I am given an escort of 2 police to deliver me to the Immigration Office in Hudeida. I celebrate my partial victory by imbibing a double portion of “shamma baitha”,
Old Sana'a around sunset. Old Sana'a is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
commonly known as the “white sh*t”, pronounced “the worst drug” by a certain expert European who during his sole experience turned white, then green, then vomited. The correct and successful use of it naturally buys me major points. My escorts refuse to return my confiscated books to me, but are much more pleasant, especially now that I feel I will be in more competent hands. I do, however, kindly refuse their offer to come back to Zabid and chew qat with them “someday”. Enough Zabid for me, thank you.
Last night I had disembarked from the panoramic viewpoint at the back of a pickup, eaten my usual “beans with eggs” and asked the first person I met for directions to a cheap hotel. 10 minutes later he had caught up with me and ushered me to the police station - seems asking directions can be suspicious activity. “Zabid's Finest”, post-qat irritable, bored peons with an authority complex then took turns realizing their fantasies of questioning a “real suspect” and catching a spy/terrorist. My favorite questions are those that have obvious answers in my passport: Where are you from? When did you enter Yemen? What's your name? Then the obligatory
Yemeni houses in the highlands are such fortresses, built of mud or stone.
(and immensely entertaining) bag-search, attracting a vast audience. They nearly had a heart attack when they produced a pocket knife from my bag: “he's got knives!!” Oh no, not knives! Not in Yemen, the country with more guns than people, where every man carries an 8-inch dagger and the rebellious tribes have heavy artillery and tanks! Duly noted. Knives. Also one “multi-purpose electronic device” (iPod), and a book of spying (The Seven Pillars of Wisdom). In the absence of The Man, the peons try to outdo each other in suspiciousness. They find phone numbers: whose are these? My friends'. No, what are their names? I ask to make a phone call. Who will you be calling? What's their name? Where do they live? No phone calls. I am mortified to realize a guy I gave dirty looks during the bag-search turns out to be in charge; I am obliged to accept their hospitality for the night. It's reassuring that in the midst of all this paranoia they have searched my person twice, and failed to find my (quite bulky) money-belt. At least I won't have to worry about someone sneaking off with my money. I temporarily switch from subdued and
Built on the road from the Tihama (Red Sea area) to the Highlands, cities like Hajjara are perched on the tops of the highest mountains and rocks for protection. This close up doesn't do it justice.
friendly Turk to aggressive and demanding American when they try to lock me in a cell with 20 or so convicts. The sudden switch must have been so shocking that they let me sleep in an AC room with the officers instead. But they still insist on keeping my books from me as I slept, and they are kept under lock and key.
My escorts click their heels at the Hudeida Immigration office as they formally turn me over with a solemn warning: be careful, he's got books! Fortunately the guy in charge seems cool, so I breathe a sigh of relief. His assistant, however, has seen too many detective movies, and is determined to uncover a terrorist: So you went to Afghanistan? No. You went to Pakistan, and Afghanistan is just around the corner.. didn't you stop by? No. Do they stamp your passport if you go to Afghanistan? I don't know. How's the weather like in Afghanistan? I don't know. What year was 9/11? (as he checks the date on my Pakistani visa). Once again I find myself confronted with the irresistible rules of logic: So you studied Arabic for 3 months? Yes. But you speak very
Agriculture in the Highlands
As in Ethiopia, they build terraces in the hillsides for farming. Interestingly, coffee originated in Yemen (or Ethiopia), and "Mocca" comes from al-Mokha, a port in Yemen, but coffee is now being replaced by the more lucrative qat plant.
good Arabic. Thank you. No, it's not possible for you to have learned such good Arabic in 3 months. Where did you really
learn Arabic? .....!
We talk for maybe half an hour with the Guy in Charge (GIC), who seems pleased that I'm Turkish: he casually mentions that the Ottomans spent a lot of time in Yemen. I reply that we have songs about those who died in Yemen, particularly in the town of Shaharah where the rebellious forces of Imam Yahya repulsed and butchered the attacking Ottomans. I ask him where he's from. Shaharah; my grandfather may have killed your grandfather. I smile. As long as you don't screw me over now, I don't really care about our ancestral conflicts. He's convinced that I'm just a clueless Westerner who has let his visa expire, so the matter is reduced to paying a fine and leaving the country; I am sent back to Sana'a with another escort. Before sending me off he switches to English and tells me that he “used to be like me”, and had hitchhiked around Western Europe. I'm speechless.
On the Peugeot ride back to Sana'a, winding up the mountain passes as the
Yet more mud houses, this time in Wadi Dhahr, the lush valley near Sana'a that used to house Imam Yahya.
sun slowly sets over the Red Sea and Africa, I am overwhelmed by a strange melancholy at the thought of leaving. This is Yemen! This is where it all began, where all Arabs originated from. A country of savage beauty and all kinds of extremes: uninhabited desert in the Empty Quarter, lush greenery in the highlands, three different dialects, 4 distinct languages, blue eyed fair skinned and black alike calling themselves Yemenis... it is a fascinating place. The men here wear skirts, leave beards and (the Bedouin) long hair, all carry daggers and chew cheekfulls of qat on a daily basis. A fantasy-land where however strange you may look you are considered “normal”, and people will turn to you and speak in Arabic as if it would be inconceivable for you to not speak it, even the hardest tribesman is eager to return your salute and curly-bearded religious fanatics would insist you partake of their meal. It may have something to do with the imaginative effect of the donated pile of qat I've been chewing (drugs are best when shared), but the notion “the land where men are Men” has occurred to me, and I believe it to be true
The mosque nearest to our house. Another view from our rooftop.
as I look around me. What more could a boy want to grow up to be than a Yemeni man? You get to play with knives, explosives, drive cars, consume drugs and tobacco for hours on end. As for women... well, lets just say I haven't spoken to any Yemeni women in the 6 months I've been here. They seem to have their own world. I guess I've been in Yemen too long, though... it's affecting my thinking. The other day someone was talking about 'loose women' in Yemen, and how their distinctive feature was not covering their face with the veil: I found myself agreeing that yes, revealing the face (although wearing a black chadoor and covering the hair) is certainly loose behavior. I think the relative freedom of Iran will be a welcome change. But now I'm on my way to get deported (at best), and every memory of this country is sweet.
In Sana'a my escort trails me as I proudly prove my local-hood by taking shortcuts through the winding streets of the old city to “my house”. Pete would give me a dirty look if he heard me say that. I first met him in
One last time with Janvier...
a hotel in Addis Ababa, and took pity on him since he looked so hopeless: dress-up pants, shoes, shirt, and jacket, and an enormous shock of (thinning) hair. Someone in Yemen once remarked that he looked Yemeni - apart from his face and clothes. We went out for beers a couple of times. He later came to Sana'a, found gainful employment as a proof-reader in the (since shut-down) Yemen Observer, and I have been abusing his hospitality by camping out in his living room for the past 2 months (the invitation was extended for a single night). Our landlord is a crazy house-burning viagra-downing door-padlocking sheikh
who thinks I'm his tenant, doesn't even know who Pete is, and is being nice to me these days since he thinks I'll help him (old sick pervert that he is) marry a young Tanzanian fellow-student friend. Pete has most likely not spoken to a single soul since I left a week ago; he's probably talking to or being eaten by The Black Cat. He lost his job when the newspaper he works for got shut down (and the editor arrested) for - unwittingly - blaspheming by re-publishing the infamous Danish Cartoons in order to demonstrate their evil. Pete had nothing to do with the incident but is still worried that “they” will come for him - the only infidel in the newspaper - and the most logical target. He spends a considerable amount of time plotting potential escapes from our top-floor “mud tower” in case the sheikh sets fire to the stairwell or padlocks him in, or angry mobs surround the building: he reckons he can survive a jump to a nearby rooftop, only breaking both legs.
We used to have a thriving group of friends: many were the all-night qat sessions (particularly in Ramadan) when we discussed politics and any other excuse to argue all night. Then Janvier (known as X in former days, my trusted travel companion) fell in love with Polish beauty Joanna and married her in a labyrinth in downtown Sana'a, while English witches beckoned spirits, public schoolboys recited 3rd rate poetry, bearded Pashtun warriors kept watch, and night guards presented flowers. Then they all left. The unlikely community of linguist, Islamic scholar, historian, business major, traveler, journalist, spy, brought together by nothing more than spatial proximity and human need for communion -- disbanded. It's strange how you may never again speak to someone you spent all your time with at a certain point in your life - they go back to reality (and are no longer desperate), while you spend more time reading or playing backgammon by yourself. It was an extraordinary experience.
It's unfortunate that after 6 months I have nothing better to write about than my run-in with the authorities. But drama seems to sell, and who wants to hear about everything going well anyhow? Although it didn't seem like much at the time, considering the amount of sticky situations I've gotten through, I guess I did learn some Arabic after all... I've since taken to claiming to be from Yemen - I can probably speak better Arabic than most ajnabis
- and no-one really knows where Yemen is, so the ambition to sell a carpet is somewhat dampened.
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