Friday, December 17, 2010

Pictures Round 2

the view from my desk

the College

a garden in the middle of the Old City; an ancient Central Park

Bab al-Yemen (Gate of Yemen)

Me and a kid who followed us around the Old City one day

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hunting the Iqama part II: The American Embassy

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

Eid al-Adha

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.

I quickly tired of walking around a ghost town and not even half way through the break I ran out of things to do. I was almost relieved once work started again. So far the biggest experiential difference between life in Yemen and life in Egypt has been the inability to travel with ease. Egypt had a solid train system that ran everywhere. I can only dream about where I could go given a free week in Egypt. A train ride to Aswan perhaps? Three days in Alexandria? Maybe I would camp in the desert. Instead I was stuck in Sana’a. While I got to see some of its quiet charms, I wondered when my next opportunity to travel would be. I don’t get many weeks off work for free. I have eleven months remaining though, and there will be plenty of opportunities to see more of the country.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Small Joys

One of the little joys I've come to appreciate is Google Books. I've already finished both of the English-language books I brought here with me and a good bookstore is hard to find. I should have listened to my mom when she offered to buy me Kindle or a Nook. I saw little value in them when living in the States, being a very tactile person and oddly old-fashioned about certain things. But now I clearly see the benefit of downloading any book you want anywhere you can find an internet connection.

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.

Hunting the Iqama Part 1: Blood Test

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.