I stepped off the small Yemeni airplane, arriving from Jeddah; I was blinded by the bright sun. The black concrete radiating waves of heat, we were herded onto a small bus. When I glanced at the other passengers around me, I noticed that I was the only woman. These weren’t the same people that were on the plane. These men were darker and unkempt, and their long beige gowns, called thobes, were filthy and torn. Where had the two Swedish-looking reporters disappeared? The men from the bus were shuffled into a long crowded line, they looked nervous. I was left standing solo on the pavement of a Yemeni airstrip!
It had taken me months to get my visa to Yemen. Everyone had warned me of the dangers, random bombs, kidnapping of English teachers. I had been teaching English in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
All sane Westerners had evacuated Sana’a. The warning that sent chills through my body was the one by two sinister looking Yemeni Abaya sells men in Riyadh. When shopping for training abayas for 2 eight-year-olds, I told the sales men I was headed for their home country the next day. They looked at me wild eyed and one made a sign of having his throat slashed by taking his finger, staring directly at me and running it across his neck. They burst into laughter. I was mortified, the other sales clerk starting shooting his gun-like hands at me. The American embassy said:
Yemen, March 27, 2012, The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. The Department urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen. U.S. citizens currently in Yemen should depart. Effective September 1, 2011, the Department of State lifted the Ordered Departure status for U.S. government employees at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a. The embassy remains a restricted staffing post. As staff levels at the embassy are restricted, our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency remains limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation. This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning for Yemen issued on September 2, 2011 to provide updated information regarding the security situation in Yemen.
The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high. While political violence in Sana’a has calmed in recent months, violent clashes are still taking place in various parts of the country and may escalate without notice. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of a demonstration. Terrorist organizations continue to be active in Yemen, including al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A U.S. citizen was attacked and killed in Taiz on March 18 and the press reports that AQAP has claimed responsibility. The U.S. government remains highly concerned about possible attacks against U.S. citizens, facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests. Piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean is also a security threat to maritime activities in the region.
Needless to say I went anyway. As I walked forward, unsure of every step, a man grabbed my elbow and asked, “Julie?”
“Yes,” I said and looked to his left to see my dear friend Ali waving his hands. Relief flooded my body in the form of sweat dripping from my forehead. I flashed my US passport and was in! Another strange man, this one with a dagger stuck in his robe, asked me if I was Julie. He was my student’s Uncle who gave me a calling card to call my student in Saudi to say I had arrived safely. The scene was chaotic and Ali insisted I not look at anyone. Ali was uneasy and urged me to walk faster to get the hell out of the airport.
We walked through the parking lot to his beat up Mercedes; there are a lot of old Mercedes on the roads of Yemen. Ali was all business, no small talk, although I had not seen him in 10 years. We had known each other from Seattle. The seat did not have a seat-belt and the door did not lock. The window did not roll up, so I hung my arm out the window. Ali snapped, “Put your arm back inside the car.” This was not the fun, laid back Ali I had known.
I was waiting for his smile, which did not come for a while. It was 9:45am. When I looked out the window, I saw a man with a rifle running up a dirt hill in a hurry. I asked Ali about it and he said, “Everyone carries guns.” We drove toward the city; we went through 2 military checks. We were redirected twice. Ali assured me this was all normal. He had said his house was 20 minutes from the airport. As we were redirected again, I looked at my watch to discover we had been driving around for 2 hours. Finally, we stopped at a coffee shop, I was thankful they had espresso in Sana’a. Ali made a phone call, and we sat down. The reason for the traffic problems around the city was a bomb had exploded at 10am killing 100 people.
We finished our cups of espresso, got in the car, went through a couple more checkpoints, and arrived at his mansion. Again he said this is routine, we are safe. The house was dark and I dropped my bags in a small sunlit room. We both sat down on the bed and burst into loud nervous laughter.
I love Ali’s laughter. He looks at me intensely like he was about to tell a big secret, and starts to laugh.
We are giddy–comic relief. As three o’clock rolls around, we get ready to leave the house. This is a long process of getting the gatekeeper to open the gate. We stroll out into the streets of Sana’a. It is deadly quiet; we pull up on the curb, pass security and enter into a serene garden. What bomb? Life in the way that it does moves on. We sit around a low coffee table and start with tea. Before we know it two vibrant guests have arrived. A modern Yemeni woman, wearing a jeans jacket with bright neon pink hair, sits at the head of the table. She does not hesitate to open the bag of fresh green. Ali excitedly shares in the contents, and each of them breaks the leaves off the stem and happily inserts the stems into their mouths. Cotch, I am told is a wonderful stimulant. I must chew on one side of my mouth. Keep the chewed leaves inside my check, suck the juice out and add more leaves. The cotch is tough, I am thinking this is a lot of work to feel stimulated. It is bitter, so I should rinse my mouth with this sparkly, cherry red soda. The ritual of the chewing, talking with friends and relaxing are all part of the high. Three hours later, I am not feeling anything.
Sitting directly across from me is a woman of 19 years old in a short vibrant dress. Her legs are open, as if she is saying look at me, I am not ashamed. I can’t help but glance that way once in awhile during the course of the night. The pink haired woman holds my attention with her life story. The talk turns to the bomb of the day. Everyone expresses remorse, sadness, disgust and then anger.
These native Yemenis have interactions with the expats (what is left of them), in the city. Stories include interludes and departures. I was asked many times, what was I doing in Yemen. The answer was my friend Ali had been telling me of its wonders for 17 years. I was so close I had to visit. “Will you leave tomorrow, because of the bomb?” No, I will be staying a week. The woman with the pink hair was the most fascinating woman I had met in the Middle East, she did not wear an abaya. She said that she refuses to conform and it brings her unwanted attention. Mostly, she is offered money for sex. She knew it was risky, but that it was her choice. I was told never to go anywhere with her, we would attract unwanted attention. The group moved to another room with music and dancing ensued. It had been a long day. Finally I put my head to the pillow, in pitch dark, I heard gunfire. The khat finally took hold of me; I felt an electric buzz from head to toe that kept me vaguely alert until dawn.