Thursday, December 16, 2010
The second step toward getting the iqama, or residency visa, was a trip to the U.S. Embassy. The Yemeni government needed a letter from my government permitting me to be here. Citizens of the United States, as stated in the letter I eventually received, do not need permission from their government to study or marry abroad. They are free to do so as they choose. In any case, this is the letter I needed for my visa.
I left work early once again to run an errand for my visa. I hailed a cab and asked for the American Embassy. We drove across town and, sooner than I expected, I was dropped off at a three way intersection on the top of a hill, standing in front of wide cluster of concrete blocks obstructing the driveway to the Embassy. On either side Yemeni military personnel staffed machine guns mounted in army vehicles.
Like everything else, I had no idea as to what to do beforehand. My only instructions were “Go to the Embassy and get your letter.” So I stood facing the driveway, unsure of where to go. Straight ahead as an Emyn Muil of concrete blocks obstructing entrance through the main roadway gate. To the right side was a contingent of Yemeni soldiers. To the left was a guard booth and a few all-business looking embassy officials. No path looked particularly inviting as an “entrance” and I was slightly nervous that if I approached the embassy from the wrong angle I might get shot. I took the path on the left.
I approached the nearest official, holding my passport visible at my side, and told him that I needed to get a letter for my residency visa. After flipping through my passport he let me through. I continued down the road and notice a building on the left with a bronze plaque in front. A semi-circular array of concrete pylons defended the front doors from anyone that managed to get a car through the previous wasteland of concrete blocks. The plaque read Embassy of the United States of America. Someone directed me speak to a lady manning a desk behind a thick glass window, as at a drive-through teller. I told her what I wanted and after reviewing my passport she pressed a button. The heavy metal and glass door beside the window clicked and I pulled it open and entered.
Two steps inside the door and I had to go through airport-type security. I emptied my pockets into the dogfood bow they send through the scanners. “Oh, you have a cell phone?” I checked it with a Yemeni at a counter just past security and received a claim check to pick it up on my way out. Twenty feet across the room was the back door. I was told to continue on to the Embassy and someone would call my name in the waiting room. The door clicked unlocked and I stepped through.
The sidewalk wound down a will. A large construction project was underway in a large pit off to the right. One hundred yards down the hill was the next building. Next to the large main doors was another bronze plaque that read “Consulate of the United States of America.” I was directed to walk in a side entrance. The waiting room was filled entirely with Yemenis. I grabbed an issue of the English-language magazine Yemen Today and sat down, wondering if my name would actually be called since I had not made an appointment and only briefly showed my passport to a handful of people since arriving.
I read an article on the current issues facing motorcycle taxis and overheard a diplomat discussing visa issues with a group of Yemenis in Arabic, his accent deliberate and strongly Texan. “I understand but I am responsible for any problems. Because of non lawful immigrants,” he explained in his Lone Star Arabic dialect. “Yani, exploiting the system,” he added in English. The waiting room was completely sealed from the rest of the Embassy. All conversations with Embassy officials were conducted via microphone, a thick pane of glass separating the participants and a small metal flap allowing the passage of documents.
Finally, my name was called. I stepped to the window for American citizens and explained what I needed to perhaps the first American I had seen thus far inside the Embassy. “You are here as a student?” he asked. I guess I am here as a student, technically. Each day I spend three times as many hours at my job as I do in class, and work is clearly the prime reason I’m here as far as the school president is concerned. Giving me Arabic lessons just means he doesn’t have to pay me real money. For visa purposes, I suppose I am still a student. “Yes” I answered. He disappeared. Two minutes later he returned with a piece of paper. To Whom It May Concern………..The United States government lets its citizens study and marry wherever they choose. They do not need permission from the United States government.
And that was it. I walked back up the will, claimed my cell phone via an outdoor window, and exited back into the main avenue without having to pass back through the interior of the security building. Back in the street, past the concrete blocks, I flagged down a cab and made my way back to work.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Riyadh determines the starting date for major Islamic holidays. The Islamic year is set by the lunar calendar, which can lead to confusion over when new months start. Islamic tradition holds that a new month starts with the sighting of the new moon. This seems simple enough on the surface, but any number of circumstances can stir up debate. What about when it’s overcast but we expected a full moon; do we wait? Today we can determine the precise times of the moon’s waxing and waning, so do you rely on these predictions or rely on the commandments of the past to literally “sight” the new moon before a new month can start? If you stand by the old proscriptions, what if it’s overcast in one area and not in another? Does the new month start a day later in one place than it does in another?
Bottom line, Yemen relies on the dates set by Riyadh, and one week before Eid al-Adha Riyadh decided that Eid would be starting one day earlier than expected. This sent the college scrambling since we would end up losing a couple more class days. We had an emergency meeting to figure out how to rearrange the schedule and we got it all settled after adding a few class days on some weekends.
While it was nice to begin break early, the break wasn’t all I thought it would be. Vacation for Eid began ten days after I arrived in Yemen and I did not have time to make travel plans (traveling is more complicated here. You can’t just buy a bus ticket and go somewhere. Traveling anywhere a certain distance outside of the greater Sana’a area requires permits that take a couple of days to process). No big, I thought, I’ll just hang out in Sana’a and get to know my new city. Mistake. Sana’a shuts down for nearly all of the two weeks that people take off for Eid, and for the four days surrounding the focal point of the holiday, literally nothing is open. (aside: when describing Christmas to someone here, they asked me how many days it lasted. That should give you some insight into how holidays are treated in Yemen.)
The city was a ghost town. Yemen has a population today of about two million, up from just 50,000 in the 1970s. It’s estimated that nearly one million people leave the city during the holiday to visit their family homes in the other areas around Yemen. I walked around Old Sana’a for three days straight before finally boring of it. It was a stark contrast from my visit the night before Eid, when the markets were crawling with people and merchants. The market winds through a maze of alleys and the feeling was at times claustrophobic. Now all the shopping stalls were closed, metal doors rolled down over their fronts and no sign remained to indicate the presence of the market’s usually vibrancy. The plazas of Tahrir Square, normally used as parking lots, were empty of standard vehicles. Instead, men rented four wheeler and pony rides to children.
Eid al-Adha commemorates Abraham’s obedience to God in agreeing to sacrifice his own son (Ismail, in the Islamic tradition). If you know your Bible stories (or Qur’an, or Torah) you’ll recall that Abraham passed God’s test of obedience, so God sent an angel to stop Abraham’s hand and provided a goat for the sacrifice instead. To celebrate, Muslims sacrifice a goat on this holiday and share the extra meat with neighbors and the needy. In another major tradition for this holiday, parents present new clothes to their children (similar to Easter in this regard).
I discovered that in addition to clothes, toy plastic guns are a popular gift for Yemeni boys. The empty streets of Old Sana’a became a giant urban stage for whatever is the Yemeni version of Cowboys vs. Indians. Small boys constantly ran by me, firing imaginary bullets at the enemy factions of other small boys.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Although I should really be focusing on practicing my Arabic, sometimes you crave good old fashioned English entertainment. Thankfully, Google Books has complete versions of most older books available for free. Back when I had HBO in my college apartment I watched Apocalypse: Now one night, no doubt instead of working on my thesis. That same day my roommate was talking about Heart of Darkness by Josef Conrad and I noted the similarities between the movie and the book. I know the relationship between the two is well known but I knew nothing about either work at the time and it was exciting to make the connection on my own. Since then I've wanted to read Heart of Darkness. Now that I have the time to read, Google has come to my rescue and I can get the book for free online.
Google Books, one of the small things you appreciate when living abroad.
I’m planning to take some time off around the end of December to spend part of the holidays in Cairo. To leave the country you need and exit visa and then a new entry visa to return. Getting these will be much easier once I get my Residency Visa, which I have to do anyway now that I’ve been here for nearly a month. We have a guy at the office who arranges all this, but there are two things I need to furnish: proof from an in-country test that I do not have HIV and a letter from my embassy giving me permission to stay here.
Neither process was simple. I learned in Egypt that for things like this the only thing you can really plan ahead of time is how to get to wherever you need to go. Once there, well, no one tells you what to do. You just have to figure it out. Being prepared with all your documents makes things easier though. Thankfully I brought an extra bunch of passport photos to Yemen with me.
Saturday morning (the first day of the work week here) I decided to do the blood test. I walked out the front gate of the College and hopped a motorcycle taxi. Before I knew it I was standing at the gates of the Ministry for General and Residential Health – National Center for Public Health Laboratories. The whole block was lined with a high concrete wall on the left-hand side of the street, broken only by the entry gate. A small portion of the wide entrance was open, allowing only single-file traffic in and out. Armed guards stood next to the door (don’t make too much of the armed guards: in places like Yemen and Egypt just about any large public facility is guarded in this manner). Unsure of what else I was supposed to do, I gave the guard a glance and walked in.
The gates opened to a large, clean, and green courtyard. A sign to the right pointed to Coffee. I figured the front doors were my best bet. The entry hall was pretty much your standard waiting area. All white walls and tiles, people sitting in chairs and a number of lines formed at the clerk windows. I tried the line marked “Reception,” as this seemed to be the obvious choice for a first-time visitor. Everyone had receipt-like papers in their hands, and I wondered if I needed one too. Where do you get them? Then a man pointed me away from Reception. Apparently I was supposed to go straight to the Cashier window. Who knew?
I got in line and defended my spot, as is normal, and paid my 6,500 Riyals when I got to the front. The clerk flipped through my passport and eyed my extra passport-sized photos before filling out and handing me a slip of paper.
After asking around a bit I figured out which hall to go down for the blood test. Three twenty-somethings stood joking in Arabic at the doorway to the exam room, where a half-square of school desks was arranged behind a reception table. A nurse checked everyone’s forms and labeled their sample tubes. The kids at the doorway (I couldn’t accurately call them men) seemed a mischievous bunch, not in a Fred and George sort of way but in a d-bag sort of way. Anyway the moment passed and an official-looking figure at the doorway took my passport photos, not before guessing if I was Bosnian, and gave me a number.
The fifteen or so chairs arranged around the doorway hosted a variety of people. Pakistanis, East Asians, veiled Arab women, Indonesians. I wondered what had brought them all to Yemen and realized that I too would seem somewhat of an anomaly in their eyes. I made a game of trying to see which people filled out their forms in Arabic and which filled theirs out in English, and if possible, reading their nationalities.
Before too long my number was called. The nurse at the table filled out my forms and handed me a vile. I sat down in one of the desks and took off my pullover and rolled up my sleeves and waited. A man shortly came over and scrubbed the inside of my elbow. I looked to the side and waited. I barely felt anything before so many milliliters my own blood filled the vial and it was finished. The walk back to work helped me shake off the nerves and I was done. For the second time in a year and a half I voluntarily got stuck with a needle in an Arab country. The setting in Yemen though was much less sketchy than the vaccine clinic in Cairo. While that experience gave me the temporary adrenaline high of getting three vaccines for $28 in a make-shift clinic set up in an un-used hotel, most of my excitement from this Yemeni experience derived from the fact that I could now move on with the Residency Visa registration process and get that much closer to making my return to Cairo a reality.
Today I made the return trip to pick up the results. This time I knew the way to the Health Center and just walked. I entered the building once more and thought for sure that this was when I would present my receipt to the clerk at Reception. I was wrong. After asking where I go to get my results, I was pointed down a different hallway than the one before. Down there I asked someone use for further directions and they pointed me outside.
Surely this must be wrong. But sure enough there it was. A sign labeled Results hanged over a small window in a building on the perimeter, like the concession stand at a park. I handed in my receipt and after some rummaging had my results. Thankfully I am HIV negative and eligible for residency.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Up an outside staircase, through a door, past some English-speaking Arabs and down into the basement, we enter a confusing world of strobe lights and bad Euro-dance music (is that an oxymoron?).
You’ve been to Rugby House, you’ve been to Hockey House, you’ve even been to Lax House, but you truly have not lived until you’ve partied at MSF House. Mediciens Sans Frontiers House that is.
Ok I lied. It wasn’t that epic of a party. I gotta say though, living it up with a bunch of aid workers and expat diplomats inside their western is an experience not to be missed. Not because the party was particularly fun but because the experience was so surreal. There we were in the middle of one of the most traditional societies in the Arab world, buried inside a compound drinking and dancing and socializing. All kinds of normally ambitious and no-nonsense people were represented: people from Doctors without Borders (MSF), minor embassy workers, aid workers from the German equivalent of USAID, random businessmen just passing through Yemen. And then there were the Yemenis that like to hang around such people.
It was eerily reminiscent of a lame college party. Everything from the bare basement to the awkward/awesome dancing (depending on your point of view). The crowd was mostly young people in their twenties, while one or two old people, probably in their sixties, walked about dazed in the background.
I learned from one businessman that Yemen is screwing up big-time by not doing more to cultivate and market its coffee industry. Both Yemen and Ethiopia lay claim to the disputed title of “The World’s First Coffee Grower” (It’s been determined that the coffee plant likely originated in Ethiopia, while the oldest recorded mention of coffee comes from Yemen). But coffee is too expensive for the small-time Yemeni grower to get to the international market, so instead he grows qat, which is only marketable within Yemen.
I learned that Germany’s foreign policy towards Yemen is heavily focused on development, which is why just about every NGO worker here seems to be German. Is this strategy a product of free-thinking and determined focus on Yemen in the long run or does it result from Germany’s reluctance to be perceived as too strong militarily, even after all these years since World War II? I don’t know.
I also learned that the party doesn’t start until you kick the Yemeni trying to prove he knows what’s hot in the Euro techno scene off the DJ table and throw on some Kanye West and Lady Gaga.
It was quite a night. Maybe not the wildest party you’ve ever been to, but definitely an incredible and surreal experience in the context of normal life here in Sana’a. If you ever find yourself in a country with a strong foreign aid presence, definitely see if there’s anything going down at MSF House.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
My first trip to Old Sana’a came only a few nights after arriving. We were after some late-night (~10:00pm) tea and hoped to go to the café atop Burj as-Salaam Hotel (Peace Tower Hotel). It is the tallest building in Old Sana’a and famous for the view from its rooftop café. To get to the Old City from where I live you walk straight down 26th September St. and enter through Bab al-Sabah (Morning Gate. There is no longer a physical gate here, if there over was one). This late at night most shops were closed.
The Old City immediately distinguishes itself from the rest of Sana’a. Bab al-Sabah, more of a street than an actual gate, terminates at an intersection with the paved drainage canal that surrounds the Old City. The canal functions as a ring road around Old Sanaa during most of the year, but whenever it rains the canal fills with water and becomes a somewhat scenic moat guarding the tall brick buildings within. A bridge leads from Bab al-Sabah over the canal and into the Old City, and we were off to find Burj as-Salaam.
Aside from the canal separating it from the rest of Sanaa, the old city is also distinguished by its medieval urban planning. The city was obviously built before the existence of cars, as evidenced by the narrow streets paved in stone that can hardly support one-way traffic, and the even narrower alleys that are hardly wide enough for a motorcycle. Not much was open aside from a few small shops selling snacks and beverages and a handful of people selling jambiyahs and fabricated antiques. These last stores definitely fit the “old” theme, and their weathered wooden paneling reminded me of my grandparents’ basement.
We soon found our way to Burj as-Salaam but realized it was closed. It was then that a wiry young Yemeni found us and started tagging along with our group. He spoke English and German and offered us his not entirely needed help with finding a different café. A little sketchy at first in his forwardness, we grew to accept that his intentions were innocent and allowed him to lead the way.
He led us through streets and alleys, ourselves overshadowed by the tall square buildings as we wended our way between the light shadow of the narrower parts of Old Sanna. The maze of cobblestone alleys felt like a quaint European village. “This is where we kidnap the tourists” he joked in one particularly narrow alley that seemed to dead-end before revealing a small opening to the right.
Before long we arrived at the Malak Dawood (King David) Hotel, whose sign post was written in English, Arabic, and strangely, Japanese. This building really did look like a Hobbit hole. The doors were heavy, wooden, and rounded, and the jambs were so short that we all had to stoop to pass through them. There was zero activity inside the hotel, and Alex, our volunteer Yemeni guide, stirred the two workers lounging just to the left the reception desk to give us service. We walked up white asymmetrical stairs that seemed to be carved for people much taller than us, much less the statistically shorter Yemenis. Every so often a tiny set of smaller stair led halfway up the side of the wall to a tiny door, for what I do not know.
After several flights we reached the roof, where a number of plastic tables and chairs were set out surrounding the mafraj. I climbed to the roof of the mafraj and got my first look at the Old City skyline. It was dark for a city, but dark in way that was calm more so than eerie. To the west I could see the TeleYemen tower that stood above Midan Tahrir. To the south was President Salih’s mosque, one of the biggest in the world. To the east was a large black mass blotting out the stars, marking one of the large mountains that surround the city.
The Old City redeems the rest of Sana’a, which to me can seem rather devoid of character and charm. The new parts of the city have very few landmarks, and each district seems to bleed into the next with the same variety of stores selling the same varieties of things, seemingly regenerating as in a computer game until you reach the physical geographic boundaries that halt expansion. The streets are full of the blaring lawless traffic that I’ve come to associate with places like Cairo. The Old City, on the other hand, is mostly devoid of vehicle traffic and full of old, authentic architecture that owes no tribute to a colonial European tradition. A maze of charming alleys may open up to small city garden surrounded by “skyscrapers” hundreds of years old. Perhaps I am romanticizing the Old City a bit, but its hard not to. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen before, especially in comparison to the noisy bustle of the rest of Sana’a.
There are a few things I left out from my visit with Sam and her class to the school in Jordan. Part of the trip involved whitewashing a wall in the schoolyard. I made sure to take a turn at this since I’d spent so much of the fall painting my deck at home. I even got a complement from one of the teachers. It’s good to know that if this whole “learning Arabic / studying the Middle East” thing doesn’t work out I can always paint houses.
What I wanted to note though were the slogans that one of Sam’s teachers painted on the wall after we finished covering it in white. The first read “God, Country, the King” and the other “Jordan First.” Between them the teacher painted the rear silhouette of a transport plane flying over a stand of palm trees, dropping what looked like paratroopers. I don’t mean to analyze these slogans here; I simply want to share them as a look into what children in another country learn as they go through school, and to view how other countries express nationalism. I remember reciting the pledge of allegiance in Kindergarten and I’ve never really thought about kids in other countries doing similar things, reciting their own pledges and their own mottoes. The first slogan did remind of one that is popular my college: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”
Friday, November 12, 2010
I live in a castle. Or, if you prefer, an inverted Hobbit hole. My building is six or seven stories tall and covered entirely in brick, and is attached to a similar building by a narrow bridge on about the fourth floor. You enter through a wooden rectangular door set into a stone archway. In the middle is a large metal ring, like a door knocker. Large stone stairs carry you throughout.
My room is more than spacious for one person with nothing but a bed, desk and wardrobe, but I wouldn’t call it big. Wooden beams run the length of my ceiling, and above my main window is a stained glass pattern causing red, orange, green, and blue to play across my wall in early morning.
The roof is where everything happens. This is where the mafraj is located. It’s a long, narrow room with low cushions on three sides. Verses from the Qur’an are elaborately etched in plaster. The two outside facing walls are lined with clear-glass windows topped with more stained-glass geometric patterns. Through these windows we access the roof-top patio which offers a great view of the city and the surrounding mountains. We all remove our shoes before entering the room, in keeping with the permanent relaxed late-afternoon vibe.
I live near Midan Tahrir, the center of the city for Yemenis. Most of Yemen outside of the Old City reminds me of the character-less Cairo sprawls, with many shops and small restaurants and few identifying architectural features. Like other places I’ve been in Arab world, a dusty, well-worn concrete façade usually leads to clean, and well-kept modern interior. This is the case at least for those homes of businessman and intellectuals that I’ve been to. The poverty in Yemen is obvious, and I’m sure that those who fall into this class do not live so well.
Yemen has been defined by its iconic architecture, the most striking examples of which are found in the Old City. The buildings are tall and rectangular with heavy wooden doors opened in the center with huge metal keys. Stained-glass windows line the building, on the outside of which plaster decoration is laid. The mafraj is another distinctive feature, and is the scene of afternoon gatherings for the discussion of politics, religion, and any other topics you’ve been told never to talk about with strangers.
My first week in Yemen has been a long one. I slept in late after my first full day here, mostly because I had not idea what I would do after I woke up. Despite the quick tour I got on my first day here, I had no idea where anything was. Where do I buy food and notebooks? What would I do after that? Just walk and try to get a feel for the area? That would entail getting lost, and while that is normally a fun thing to do and a city that needs exploring, I had no clue as the names of the landmarks I would need to reference to find my way back.
After a few days I learned where the closest restaurants were, where to buy food and water and clothes and office supplies and just about anything else one might want. I got a feel for the area and learned my way around my little section of 26th of September Street. On that second day here I woke up in time to get lunch with some of the students here and their Yemeni acquaintances from the Business English program. It was strange and disorienting to go racing through the more far-flung (from my house at least) parts of Sana’a having not yet had the chance to even learn my way around my own neighborhood. Despite the nerves, lunch was excellent and Ahmed and Ali from the English program invited us back to their house for coffee, tea, and shisha.
The people in Sana’a have thus far been friendly and welcoming. I have already been shown unearned hospitality on a number of occasions. They are also in appearance more traditional than those I’ve met elsewhere. Many men opt to wear what I can only describe as a gallabiyah, although I’m sure it is distinctive from and has a different name than that traditional Egyptian cotton dress. Another option for lower body wear is a checkered wrap. In addition to this, most wear a sport coat style jacket and a large belt, with an even larger dagger prominently held in place by an absurdly curved scabbard. Perhaps this style of dress is not as ubiquitous as I think, for it quite sticks out to the Western eye, but it is fairly common. Almost all women wear a black niqab in public, which covers everything but their mysteriously enchanting eyes. I have though been to a Turkish café, where one flight up a set of stairs a couple of women sat with their men, faces uncovered and talking freely. A quick trip to the bathroom after their drinks and they emerged once again, faces covered and ready to step out into the night.
I hope to give more than a superficial description of appearances, but this is the best I can provide for now as I have only been here for a week. I would assume that Yemenis are like most other people, focusing their lives on providing for their families and trying to create a better future for their kids. This is an obvious observation but one that I think often gets lost during the exploration of a new culture made up of new and different traditions and customs. Social and political issues are different, and the style of human expression is unfamiliar and the holidays are strange, but the aim of life is the same.
I am working here in exchange for Arabic lesson. I must learn two jobs on the fly while becoming familiar with countless filing systems and procedures and learning the locations of an endless number of spreadsheets and databases. I help students through the application process and reach out to universities from around the world. “Please send students to our school. I’m begging you.” Attracting well-to-do American university students to come to Yemen to study Arabic is a hard sell these days, especially now that public universities can no longer legally officially endorse sending their kids to Yemen. These students must decide to apply independently.
“‘Yemen? Why do you want to go there?’ His mouth puckered around the word as if it were some disagreeably bitter fruit. Lemon. ‘Why don’t you go somewhere more respectable…Cairo, Amman, Tunis?’” p. 4, Yemen: The Unknown Arabia
This is where I will be living for the next eleven and a half months. Life will be interesting, strange, at times difficult but more often pleasantly unpredictable. I hope to share as much as I can with you and to perhaps give a small glimpse at life in a country that is increasingly making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Monday, November 8, 2010
I left quietly at nine in the morning. The night before I enjoyed only my third shower and first change of clothes in five days. After gathering my bags together (finally in my hands!) I checked out, paid for the water and juice and internet I’d used, and left Farah Hotel. A cab was waiting just down the sidewalk and together we made the one hour drive to Queen Alia International Airport.
I thought it would be smart to arrive at the airport 3 hours before an international flight to Yemen. I was mistaken. Like in Cairo, you must go through security before you even get to the check-in area. Unfortunately, I had arrived too early to check in. I had forgotten that there are no lines in the Middle East, and so to keep everyone from rushing into the check-in area all at once, each flight is allotted a specific time only after which can its passengers check in. And so I sat alone awkwardly for over an hour, trying to kill time by reading but too nervous to focus.
As always, I had to fight my way through security, advancing my place in line when able but mostly defending the ground I had already gained. Once my bags were searched, I realized that I hard forgotten to leave Sam’s gift at my hotel so she could come pick it up later. She was already on the retreat before I saw my bags for the first time since St. Louis.
I checked in for my flight and had only just made it through customs before I realized I was missing my jacket and belt. In the rush to get through security I had left them back at the x-ray machine. Thankfully I was allowed to exit and reenter customs to retrieve them. Technically, that makes two trips to Jordan. After a nervous wait to board, I was off again once more into the Unknown.
My flight went to Sanaa via Beirut. I never thought I would be returning to Lebanon so soon, but I suppose one could hardly count sitting on the tarmac waiting for the new passengers to board as a return visit. The flight to Lebanon was sober. There was little talking and a lot of stern faces. The plane creaked on take-off like an old wooden ship. My glass of water vibrated so that there were permanent stationary rings, as if frozen in a pond. I thought of the t-rex in Jurassic Park. To calm my nerves I looked out the window, east into the infinite land mass of Asia. Beyond Jordan and Syria would be Iraq and the Caucuses, Iran, the ‘stans of Central Asia, and finally China. Those merchants who traveled the Silk Road must have spent very little time at home.
The flight to Yemen, however, was much livelier. The atmosphere was that of a public bus. People laughing and carrying on. Perhaps Yemen will not be so bad. Perhaps I should not let the news get to me.
The only Americans on the flight were a pair of fair-skinned blonde-haired youthful men that reminded me of the Winklevoss twins from The Social Network. I wondered what business they had in Yemen, and noticed upon landing that they were the only two standing in the Diplomatic line at customs.
Once through Yemeni customs I was quickly found by my program’s driver. In less than twenty minutes we had both my bags and were off. Sanaa at night looked more lived-in than Amman during the night drive from the airport through that city. Stores were open, people were out, the streets were dim and dusty. My driver and the baggage handler with him were friendly and we arrived at the house sooner than I thought we would. Traffic was not bad at this hour.
The building is tall and made of brick, and we ascended what seemed like seven floors along large stone steps. They set down my bags and opened the door to my room, leaving the key in the hole. I heard no one else and saw no one else. I arrived quietly in the night.
After unpacking, only a chance run-in with who turned out to be the Student Affairs coordinator allowed me to set up a time to meet the following morning for an informal orientation.
Finally, I had arrived in Yemen.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Amman is a city in the hills, which lends a feeling of claustrophobia to those used to grand boulevards and spacious midans (plazas). I felt it would be easy to get lost as a newcomer, with all the roads winding up and down hill and very little constancy of direction.
Upon leaving the city for the Dead Sea, I soon understood why Amman seemed so jagged. We wound down hillsides, and as soon as we were out of the city we found ourselves on a mountain road paralleling a drop-off, with nothing but and endless topographical orgy beyond it. High hills, deep valleys, and endless plains all merged to form what instantly reminded me of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, outside of Nairobi. Then I remembered that this was the Great Rift Valley.
The Great Rift Valley, depending on how geologically specific you want to be, starts in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon and descends through the Holy Land, separating Galilee from the Golan Heights. The Jordan River runs through it and the valley continues through the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley, the Gulf of Aqaba on the eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula, then southward through the Red Sea. The valley meets Africa somewhere near Somalia and continues southward, to where I first saw it in Kenya, before terminating in Mozambique.
Sunset over the Dead Sea was beautiful. The previously sandy, dun colored hills on the opposite bank came alive at dusk with the twinkling lights of hamlets and traffic. The sky above became a watercolor of pastel blues, pinks, and purples intersected by fingers of stringy white cloud before finally giving way to night.
We took a different route on a different day to reach the Karama region near the Dead Sea. The road followed a number of switchbacks which reminded me of West Virginia, without the trees. The landscape in Western Jordan was quite stunning and not one easily forgotten. I had not at all expected to see such beautiful country; I had always been told that Jordan was an artificial kingdom made of lines draw in blank, uninhabited dessert, filling the political void described as somewhere south of Syria, north of Arabia, west of Iraq, and east of Palestine.
We raced through seemingly empty streets, barely lit, and every shuttered metal roll door was a potential shop but one couldn’t tell. The effect was of a ghost-town composed only of abandoned service stations.
The next morning the city was much livelier. The metal doors were rolled away to reveal stands selling shwarma and kunafa, sun glasses blue jeans, rifles and women’s clothing. Sam and I grabbed a bus to the Dead Sea, which would only take us to Raba. From there we shared a taxi another young American on break from work in Liberia. He was a graduate of Georgetown’s law school and had just come from five days in Lebanon.
I had forgotten what it was like to dive into a foreign culture, and the sinking feeling in my stomach from having my bags lost in the time warp generated by life lived only between international airport terminals didn’t help much. Fortunately at this point my greatest concern regarding my bags was that I didn’t put my swim suit in the carry-on and would have to buy an overpriced one in the Dead Sea Resort Spa gift shop. But floating effortlessly is worth it. Unable to check in so early, we killed time in the salt-free pool complex and walked to the ATM in the Marriott a few resorts over.
Instantaneous floating is indescribable. But since this is a blog and you weren’t there I will attempt a description anyway. You don’t experience the sudden buoyancy one might expect when entering a sea that requires zero effort to float. Should you choose, you can walk along the sea bed as in any sea, without being popped up into the air like a mischievous ticket-holder touring Willy Wonka’s soda room. But lift your feet and they stay exactly where they are, weightless, the sea floor declining to reclaim them. Once airborne, you can barrel roll on the water’s surface and, if you’re flexible, lie on your back and raise all four limbs high into the air without sinking.
The Dead Sea’s mud is said to have a uniquely powerful exfoliating effect when lathered on the skin, and we tried this as well. This valued mud led to funny signs that read “free mud,” as if it were a rare commodity being handed to us out of generosity by the hotel. I didn’t go overboard with it, however, as tourist beaches contain many more unsavory things the same color was viscous mud.
The night ended with dinner and the disappointment that arighilleh (shisha) stopped being served only half an hour prior to our arrival on the patio, out of consideration for the western tourists of course. Oh, and reports that tampered toner cartridges had been mailed to Chicago synagogues. They originated in Yemen. After first reporting that they did not contain explosives, the story changed the next day to reveal a narrowly averted disaster. Awesome. A bad omen. I couldn’t wait to get my luggage back from the airport so I could go to Yemen.
The next day we spent in Amman. Sam took me to a Yemeni restaurant and showed me the University of Jordan. In between we called the Royal Jordanian bag service people who knows how many times, and failed to receive a straight answer. That night we spent over tea and arghilleh on the balcony of a wonderful café decorated in worn style with wood paneling and wrought-iron lamps. This was something I knew how to do: I gazed over the city at night, sipping on shisha and tea, and in that moment I felt, for the first time in a long time, content. We meant to visit Petra the next day, but I had begun to feel sick and decided to sleep in and spend another day in Amman. Sam took me to Al-Quds restaurant and in the evening took me to beautiful panorama overlook of the city. We walked further down the street and got some of the best ice cream in the city and got tea at Books@Cafe. Again we spent the time in between throughout the day calling the luggage service at Royal Jordanian. Your bags will be in on the next flight from London. Your bags are in New York, they never made the flight to London. We assure you that your bags were loaded in New York; who is telling you that they didn’t make it to London? I fired off two harshly-worded emails to Delta and Royal Jordanian.
The following day I was allowed to attend the beginning of Sam’s school retreat at a lodge in the Karama region, near the Dead Sea. I had the opportunity to meet her incredible Arabic teacher, Dr. Najeh (Dr. Successful) along with her other teachers and the students in her program. Dr. Najeh was welcoming, playful, and funny, and it was he who insisted that I come visit the lodge when Sam realized that my visit to Jordan would coincide with her retreat. I sat through Sam’s Fusha class before we all headed to a local school for some service-learning. We got the opportunity to visit a number of classes, from Physics to Religion to English, and hold question and answer sessions with the students in both Arabic and English language. The final visit ended with a heated interrogation (of us) by a teacher who demanded our political opinions and an explanation of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Why are we in Iraq and Afghanistan? (This tirade followed from two innocent-looking but very leading questions: “Do you like Arabs?” “Yes, of course we do!” “Do you like Muslims? “Yes, of course we do!” We were trapped. “If you like Arabs and Muslims then why…”). Sam stepped to the plate and began to offer as diplomatic (no pun intended) an answer as possible before Dr. Najeh quickly decided that Question and Answer Time was up and that we needed to get out of there. It got me thinking about how to explain to someone that our government’s foreign policy decisions do not always reflect the will of the people. This explanation seems obvious enough, but we are a democracy, one of the best functioning democracies in the world. People hold us up as an example. But doesn’t democracy mean that the government expresses the will of the people? How then does one explain to a foreigner the difference between the American government’s policies and the will of its people? It was a difficult answer to craft, especially in Arabic. Thank you, Dr. Successful.
Lunch back at the complex was delicious. Matlouba, a mix of rice, vegetables, and chicken jumbled into a casserole. I felt better that day and finally was able to eat after spending much of the past day and a half unable to eat much at all from a combination of nerves and sickness. Two hours of research for Sam and her classmates, reading for me, followed lunch, and then it was time for Sam and here friends to head for dinner. A car would pick me up and return me to Amman; Sam would be staying the night here to finish out the retreat with her class. It was a sad good-bye and I felt instantly lonely, by myself in a city I was only beginning to get acquainted with. The driver had his wife with him and she complimented me on my Arabic, which made me feel better. I was slowly re-acclimating to life in Arabic. Back at the hotel, I found that my luggage had been safely delivered. We were told earlier that morning that the bags would arrive by midday, but we’d been given so many false leads that I didn’t allow myself to get too excited about it. The night before I leave for a year in Yemen, my luggage-in-limbo materializes at the hotel. A good omen.
Monday, November 1, 2010
Arrive at Lambert airport. Check in at desk. Lady at the counter asks me where my visa is. I tell her that according to the State Department website, I can buy one at the airport upon arrival. I get nervous. I’m sure I can buy one in Jordan, but her second-guessing me doesn’t help. It sets of a chain of causal what-ifs in my mind that ends with me wholly missing my trip to Jordan to visit Sam before heading to Yemen. After asking two co-workers to make sure she read the English sentence correctly, Lady at the counter confirms that I can indeed buy a visa upon arrival. But by that time I have already received a text from Sam confirming the same. Hear reports of bad weather in New York. Maybe this will mean that all flights are delayed and that I won’t miss my connecting flight. It doesn’t. Arrive in Detroit from St. Louis to the news that my flight to New York is delayed two hours, but that the only people who will miss connecting flight are those flying to Amman. I am flying to Amman. Walk the length of the A Terminal. The full length. Re-book my flights to re-route from Detroit to Amsterdam to Amman, arriving only eight hours later than anticipated (continuing on to New York would put me in Jordan a full day late). Receive assurances that my bags will be checked all the way through to my final destination. Pass the six-hour layover before the flight to Amsterdam by catching up with an old friend who coincidentally lives in Michigan. Get dinner in the airport. Board a plane for Amsterdam.
Arrive in Amsterdam. Delta could not give a boarding pass for my next flight since they do not work with Royal Jordanian. The Royal Jordanian transfer desk is closed. Get water and a snack. Pay 10 euros for wifi to update my family and Sam as to where I stand. Pass the layover by pacing between G 42 and the RJ transfer desk, where no one is working. Ask KLM reps about when someone will be at the desk. They do not know since KLM does not work with RJ, but it will likely open two hours before the flight. One hour before the flight and no one is at the desk. Five minutes before boarding and no one is at the desk. Go through gate security at G 42 once boarding starts and finally get my boarding pass once inside the gate. I check in half an hour before take-off. I am told my bags should be transferred to the plane.
Arrive in Amman. I can in fact purchase a visa at the border. Are you from Amsterdam? Yes. Amsterdam finished. No more bags. Talk to the man at the luggage counter. I talk to the man at the luggage counter. Your bags will be delivered to your hotel on the 30th. Finally make it through customs and see Sam. Smile and hug Sam. I am whisked through Amman as the old feelings associated with life in Cairo flood back. But of course this is not Cairo. I do not know this city. This late at night everything is shuttered. The city is dead and dark.
More to come on the rest of my stay in Jordan. I am going to relax tonight however, since I leave for Yemen tomorrow.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
I must let Sanaa stand on its own. Inevitably I will compare my experiences there to my experiences in Cairo, the only other Arab city with a majority Muslim population that I have lived in for a significant amount of time. But Egypt and Yemen are very different countries, and I suppose that using Egypt to prepare for life in Yemen would be akin to thinking that having lived in London would prepare me for life in Berlin.
The difference lies not only in the location, but also in my role. In Egypt, although I was nominally a student, I saw myself more as a clandestine tourist. In Yemen I will be working, and traveling the countryside will not be as easy/desirable a task. I hesitate to speculate too much about Yemen, as it is a place I have never visited before, and because Egypt pretty much blew away all of my preconceived notions.
I have, however, decided to prep myself a little by reading a few books on Yemeni history. I’ve already read one and, as it turns out, there is more to Yemen than Zaydis and British Protectorates. It was Victoria Clark’s Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes. I judged this book by its cover, and thought it would be all extremists and terror plots. It turned out to be a fascinating and fast moving narrative of Yemen’s modern history, which, while explaining the reasons behind Yemen’s special place in the minds of Western security strategists, demonstrated an appreciation of Yemeni society’s complexities and layers and showed a love of Yemeni culture. I am half way through Paul Dresch’s A Modern History of Yemen, which is written in a more traditional academic style, meaning that it is high on details and low on narrative. While as a History major I appreciate Dresch’s hesitance to impose a clean narrative where none exists, it seems that in his enthusiasm to unleash a deluge of information-packed (and fully diacritic-ed) paragraphs, he inadvertently washed away the topic sentences. Lastly, I am waiting to read Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Yemen: The Unknown Arabia. I enjoyed the first two chapters so much that I decided to set it aside to read on the plane and on the banks of the Dead Sea. It’s dripping with wit and observation, and not a few inside jokes shared by all those who have struggled to study Arabic
I suppose that I can take one lesson away from Cairo. Cairo taught me to be assertive. For if you did not demand your rightful place there, the entire city would cut in front of you as you waited in your own personal single-file line. Perhaps Sanaa, being a much smaller city, will not be so in-your-face. In any case, being able to assert myself in situations that demand such should be a valuable skill as I dive forward. I will let Sanaa stand on its own, see the city for itself and try as best I can not to view always in comparison to Cairo. My adrenaline has been pumping since a found out three weeks ago that I would be spending the next year of my life in Yemen. I’m revved up and can hardly sit still any longer. I need to hop a plane to Yemen.