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.