Saturday, November 19, 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

To Manakha, Hajjarah, and Hutayb

The weekend after my marathon trip south in the mountains through Taiz and back up the Tihama coastline, the school had planned a trip to Manakha. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but Manakha was the city perched on the edge of the mountainous escarpment that separates highland Yemen from the Red Sea coast near which we drove at the end of this trip.

I had heard the city mentioned a number of times, mostly because it is a prominent waypoint on the Chinese-built road between Sana’a and Houdaidah. We met early on Thursday morning for the hour and a half ride. Nearly all of the students turned up for the trip, which made us quite a large group. Over the previous month we had gained an American, a German, two Oklahomans, three Italians, an Australian, and a Canadian. The school was starting to feel wonderfully full and I enjoyed the diverse group of experience and personalities we were beginning to house.

The previous weekend Mubarak had stepped down and protests in Sana’a were starting to pick up again. As we drove up into the mountains above the capital plateau, one student looked back over the city lamenting that we would be away from the action on what could be an exciting day. “This could be the day that the revolution happens and we’ll miss it!” he joked.

At that time, the protests were still free of the government violence that trickled, and then flooded in, between the end of February and the end of March. That Sana’a could fall during our day trip was clearly a jest. The excitement no one wanted to miss was that of a people celebrating en masse an autocrat’s decision to step down or hand over power, not the sniping, spraying of sewage through water cannons, and shelling of residential areas that actually later came to pass.

After a pit stop somewhere in the brown gravely mountains south and west of the capital, we pulled off at our first stop: the school president’s mountainside real estate. I heard that he hoped to one day build a retreat center there. You had to admire his vision, even if you knew such a long-term investment would be unlikely for the foreseeable future. However, the school’s enrollment prior to AQAP’s international reemergence in 2009 was remarkable: at one point the school had to house students in a nearby hotel because the two dorm buildings and guest house were overflowing. I’m sure a retreat center near Manakha seemed a more reasonable use of resources in such prosperous times.

On the president’s hillside was a small house, and there lived a man who tended to the grounds and its fruit trees. He showed us where heavy rains had washed out some of the terracing and pointed out the farm’s cistern. The view was spectacular. A ribbon of black asphalt snaked along the hillside below. Beyond that were royal blue sky and a fall into another of Yemen’s unfathomable plunges in elevation. To the right was the city of Manakha, sprawled awkwardly along a ridgeline.

From the van parked on the roadside below a number of us carried up bags of roti scraps, food for the farmer’s goat. After hiking around the hillside for a while admiring the flora and the view, we hiked back down to the road and started up the hill before arriving at another lookout point. Shortly after, we piled back in the van and continued on.


The winding road leading back to Manakha


The ribbon of road leading through the mountains surrounding Manakha


Students admiring the view, standing on the farm's cistern


The hillside's hired guard and farmer


A group of houses down the road from the mountainside


The next stop was Hajjarah. The van stopped in the more modern part of town, behind which lay a peak shrouded in cloud, presenting the image of an active volcano. We made our way toward the older quarter along a shallow set of stairs just as noon prayers were finishing. Old Hajjarah sat packed onto a rocky peninsula overlooking a wide, shallow, terraced valley. Dead ahead and to the left one could see green just starting to sprout in the valley, and through it rolled a vaporous river of clouds. On the other side of the old section plunged an even deeper valley, on the opposite ridge of which was Manakha.

A mountain looming over Hajjarah


Hajjarah on a cliff


Valley below Hajjarah


Up the stairs to old Hajjarah

A young boy, I now forget his name so many months later, led me through alleys and up and down stairs in the old town. The buildings stretched into the sky, large stone stacked on stone. The boy showed me where Jews had once lived, pointing out a wooden mantel above one house on which was etched a coffee bean and a star of David. He then took me to another of the town’s highlights: a tower house hanging precariously over an edge, propped up by a curving stack of stones.

After the short tour I rendezvoused with the rest of the group and we stood around the vans chatting at various levels of Arabic with a number of the local kids before moving on once again.


My guide


Signs of those who came before


Being led through old Hajjarah

Our next stop was what seemed to be a relatively popular tourist hotel back in the city of Manakha itself. There we enjoyed a large lunch spread out before us feast-style on a long plastic sheet. We reclined on either side on low cushions. The real treat came after we ate. Our hosts brought out drums and an oud and began to play. After some frenetic snare-type drumming, two men entered the room and for the next half hour or so entertained us with Yemeni dance. They first danced alongside each other, spinning, rocking and stepping. They then brought out their jambiyyahs, which they skillfully twirled into the routine. Lastly they incorporated antique muskets.


Our hosts in Manakha entertain us with music


And with dancing

We had one more destination after finishing lunch: Hutayb. Ismaili pilgrims come from as far away as India and Singapore to visit this hamlet south of Manakha and pay their respects at the shining white mausoleum of Hatim al-Hamdi, a missionary prominent in a particular branch of the Ismaili denomination of Islam. They also come to visit the mosque he is said to have built, set on a cliff high above the mausoleum and standing sentinel over inspiring views of the Haraz Mountains.


On the road to Hutayb


On the road to Hutayb; cloud shrouds the city of Manakha

Mausoleum of Hatem al-Hamdi


Mausoleum detail


Pinnacle on which Hatem's mosque is located

When we arrived we were at first not allowed to ascend to the mosque, the keeper of the key to the path’s gate having gone missing. In the meantime I bought some genuine Yemeni coffee from a nearby vendor, which I later went on to enjoy as I learned how to brew Turkish coffee in our kitchen. It was wonderful.

Of course the key-keeper was eventually found and we ascended the rocky promontory on which the mosque was built. Yet again, the views were mind-boggling (you’ve probably begun to see a theme here). The same seemed to apply here as elsewhere in Yemen, but on a grander scale: deep valleys, terraced the whole way down like a real life topographical map, falling away from improbably inaccessible villages built like castles along high points in the surrounding ridge lines. We snapped pictures and admired the view before heading back down to turn back towards Sana’a.

And so concluded our trip to Manakha and the nearby villages of Hajjarah and Hutayb. By the time I got back in the van I was exhausted and napped most of the way home.

View from the mosque


Another view from the mosque; you can see the shadow of the pinnacle on the bottom left

Friday, November 11, 2011

Views from Taiz

I've gotten pretty busy these past few months with the job, Notre Dame football, and lots of different friends passing through D.C. I assure you, though, that I will still be posting new articles from time to time.

Hopefully these videos can make up for it for now (I don't think I've posted them before). They are both from Taiz during our visit to Jabal Sabr, the mountain which overlooks the city. I've tried pretty hard to describe the majestic views in mountainous Yemen, but hopefully these videos can give you a clearer picture than my words.

In case you're curious, these were taken on February 11th. We departed Taiz that evening, and the city would become vastly different after that fateful night on which Hosni Mubarak resigned.

View on the way up Jabar Sabr:

video


360 View from the top of the mountain:

video


Friday, September 30, 2011

A Yemeni Wedding

Sometime in late February or early March, one of our teachers invited us to his brother's wedding. I and one other student were the only ones to take him up on the offer.

I was curious to see what the weddings were like. Wedding dress stores line the streets, filled with fairy-tale dresses, icy blue and pink lights, and glitter like snow. I passed these stores every day, but I would witness no such glamour at a wedding. Yemeni weddings are divided by gender. The women gather in one place, and the men in another. The women's wedding party is a faraway land of makeup, sexy clothing, and loosened inhibitions. At least this is how the stories go. I've even heard of a women's party that hired a full band to play. The band was all male - they played from behind a curtain fro the duration of the celebration.

Our wedding would be more low key. I met up with the student, two of our teachers, and one of the school staff in the courtyard of the Markez. They picked us up in an SUV whose windows were blacked out with glitter and had a bow tied over the hood. Only small blank spaces shaped like hearts and doves were left on the front windshield and in the corners of the front windows by the side mirrors.

We arrived late at the wedding, held in a banquet hall somewhere north of Al Qaa district. In a long tiled dozens of men, perhaps one hundred, sat on low cushions chewing. The groom sat in a chair on a raised platform in the front of the room. It was clear we had arrived past the prime of the party. Everyone was involved in quiet conversation with their neighbors. A man across the room played the Oud for a while, and a fellow student and I tried to dance for a bit with our teacher.

video

A man plays the Oud at the wedding.

We went back to sitting and chatting, but then the call for the sunset prayer began and 70% of the room got up and left. We continued to chat with our teachers but decided the party was dying and it was time to go. We walked back to the school since the weather was nice and we wanted to allow the others to stay.

Overall, this wedding wasn't as exciting as some of the weddings I witnessed more tangentially. Prior to a wedding, some families will string lights across their street, casting a charming glow over the medieval city's alleys. A more modern practice involves camcorders and speeding Toyotas. On at least a third of my taxi rides down Sabaeen street I witnessed convoys of SUVs weaving among traffic, each car chasing the next with streamers and ribbons whipping in the wind, as one guy in the middle of it all hanged out of a side window of one of the cars holding on with one hand and videotaping the spectacle with a camera in the other.

For more on weddings in Yemen during this trying period, see this Reuters story: In Shell-Shocked Yemen, the Wedding Party Goes On.


Lace decorates the car for the wedding



Frosted windows decorate the car



"Alf Mabrouk" - "One Thousand Congratulations"

Monday, August 1, 2011

Motorcycle Taxis

"Let's take a motorcycle taxi." During my first month in Yemen our Program Coordinator, who in many ways was my mentor during those first weeks, decided it was time to show me the ropes of taking a motor. He let out a loud "Yahh!" at the sight of the next motorcycle taxi to pass by and instructed him to wait while he flagged down a second motor. I seated myself behind the driver on the second bike and held onto the underside of the metal seat frame.

This first ride was short -- we were only going to Sharia Mataam -- but it was enough to get me started. The motorbike weaved through traffic, went down one-way streets, sped around corners, and generally bent any traffic law that its small and agile frame allowed it to bend. "I wouldn't recommend doing this daily," my colleague warned, "but if you're running late and need to make it to a meeting it's a great way to make up time."

I caught on to how to flag down the motorcycle taxis, and although I didn't take them often I enjoyed it when I did. It was quite an enjoyable feeling to drive through the city, lots of noise and activity going on around you, with the sun shining and the wind flying through your hair. I must admit I felt proud of myself.

video

Sometimes when running late for lunch I would take a motor. I would often arrive before my friends, despite leaving five minutes later, and wave at their car taxi as I passed. I intended to film the ride between work and lunch at some point. Unfortunately I only caught a few seconds of it here. I found out the morning this video was taken that I would be leaving Yemen early the following day, and unfortunately my camera was barely charged.

One point to add: generally speaking women do not use motorcycle taxis. It would be quite improper by Yemeni social standards for a woman to be seen straddling a bike, especially if seated behind an unrelated man. On the one occasion that I did see a girl riding a motorcycle it looked like she was being picked up from school, perhaps by a brother or uncle, and she was sitting side-saddle.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pesto

A couple of my student-worker colleagues were huge pesto enthusiasts. The only ingredient difficult to come by was basil. For a while, we were unsure whether it was available at all. I hadn't tasted it in any of the Yemeni food. Someone made pesto from parsley once, but the taste just wasn't the same.

Hannah did discover that you could buy basil in the produce market we passed every day on the walk home from our daily lunch restaurant. An old lady sold it, sitting on the corner of the market's entrance next to where the motorcycle taxis waited for fares.

Interestingly, Hannah told us that while basil was available it was not primarily used by Yemenis for cooking. Instead, it is used as a fragrant hair decoration.


The produce market we passed daily


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Food in Yemen

I'm trying to cover some more of the "every-day" aspects of living in Yemen. Here is a desciption of common Yemeni foods found in Sanaa.

Salta and Fasha

Salta is a sort of stew served boiling hot in a clay pot cooked over an open gas torch. Main ingredients are meat broth called (called marag, presumably made from lamb), potatoes, rice, onions, scrambled eggs, hot peppers, sometimes corn, other vegetables, and a green whipped topping called fenugreek (never figured out what that was). Fasha is much like Salta, but with meat added in addition to the broth. I often found this to be a bit more flavorful. When eating both it’s common to ask for extra broth to pour in as you get closer the bottom of the pot.

They’re best eaten by dipping in hunks of bread torn from rolls called kudem. They’re shaped like a country biscuit, but have a hard crust on the outside and a consistency much like an English muffin on the inside. The taste has slight overtones of sourdough. Instead of kudem, it’s also common to eat salta and fasha with pieces torn from large disks of flaky bread.

Kudem is considered army food, which builds into salta’s popular history as a food connected with the Turkish occupation of Yemen (and thus the Turkish army). Legend holds that Salta first appeared in Yemen as a poor-man’s dish. The Turks would cook their food, and then throw the scraps together to serve to poor Yemenis. This stew of scraps became what is now known as salta, an unofficial national dish of Yemen. This “anything goes” attitude lends a versatility to salta that makes it possible to cook up at any time. The ingredients are flexible, allowing one to turn whatever happens to be lying around the kitchen into a delicious meal.

My coworkers and I started a routine of going to my favorite salta restaurant for lunch after our half-day workdays on Thursday. Inside, the restaurant was claustrophobic and often smelled of leaking gas, which was at times disconcerting. But the food made up for it and I have many fond memories of lunching there, yelling over the whooshing hiss of the gas burners to converse with friends. Located in the al-Qaa district, the bright pink walls and blue shutters made the place easy to relocate for someone new to the city.

Fasha in my favorite salta/fasha restaurant

This is how salta (and many other things in Yemen) are cooked

Beidh Adeni

Beidh Adeni (Egg’s Aden-style) was a popular dish for students and staff at our school. A restaurant in Sharia Mataam (Restaurant Street, an alley just off Tahrir Square) served the best stuff around. Beidh Adeni is very similar to an omellette or stuffed scrambled eggs, that is eggs cooked over a stove (or more accurately, like salta, over a huge open gas flame) with tomatoes, hot peppers, and onions mixed in. What adds the special Adeni flair is the sauce. I was never quite sure what it was, but I always conceived of it as mild hot sauce. Like most food in Yemen, it’s eaten by grabbing bits from a communal plate using bread, torn either from flaky disks or rooti, which is sort of an over-processed roll with a hard outside and soft inside; kind of a massed-produced imitation of a baguette.

Eating beidh adeni in Shariaa Mataam

Cooking Beidh Adeni

Fool

Fool is the Arabic word for beans, and the food is ubiquitous in the Arab world. Eaten for breakfast and often dinner, fool to me has always been similar to refried beans although there are other ways of serving it. The best fool I had in Yemen was at a restaurant near the front of Sharia Mataam. This particular place served creamy fool in a steaming earthen pot and produced a special bread, one that I’m guessing is made with more egg and was similar to a tortilla.

Fasoulia

Fasoulia in Yemen, at least at the restaurant I frequented, is similar to foul in that the main ingredient is beans. However it has an added flavor which sets it apart, which I presume comes from the addition of tomato paste. Fasoulia beans are not mashed into a paste like fool, and they are often served garnished with hot peppers and onions and eaten with routi. I often ate this for dinner at the restaurant owned by the school’s accountant’s father, near the cabinet building, as it was only a two minute walk from work. Sometimes we’d stop there for tea to take a break on our half-day workdays on Thursday, the first day of Yemen’s weekend.

Fatta

Fatta is essentially pita torn into small bits served soaked in some other ingredient. It can be made as an entrée or dessert, depending on what’s added to the bread. I first encountered it as a dessert. This was fatta tamr, that is, date fatta. The result here was a sort of dry paste of bread and mashed up dates, complete with pits, served with honey drizzled on top. I however preferred fatta mouz, banana fatta. The bananas give a moister texture, like bread pudding, and sweeter taste. It too is served with honey.

Lastly there’s fatta the entrée. Rather than mashing the bread with fruit, it’s made by mixing the bread bits with either a milky yogurt and fresh vegetables, like cucumber, or by mixing in meat broth and cooked vegetables. I first tried the latter, but was hesitant as I was visually repulsed by the soggy, Gerber-esque mess. That made the taste all the more surprising, being vaguely reminiscent of a meat pie. I was shocked something so off-putting could taste so good. The yogurt version also surprised me by its edibility and actually proved to be a refreshing meal on a hot day.

With the bread already mixed in, how does one eat fatta?? With a spoon, actually. Except for the date fatta, which is dry enough to pinch off with your bare hands.

Grilled Chicken and Rice (spiced rice)

Far less exotic than the above mentioned dishes, grilled chicken and rice is the standard lunch for Sanaanis. I was surprised by how well Yemeni restaurants season and grill their chicken. The result was almost always a crispy seasoned skin holding backing juicy meat, good enough to rival any good home barbeque. The rice made the meal as well. It was served with spices and had a yellow to orange color, making it tasty enough to eat on its own.

Grilled chicken, in the restaurants that line Sharia Mataam at least, is prepared in tall, flat, multi-row metal rotisseries that often had four or five chickens going at a time on all four vertical rows. You could easily order chicken in the restaurant or take it to go. When ordering you can get either 1/4 chicken, 1/2 chicken, or whole chicken.

A less appealing lunch alternative for the masses was boiled chicken served in broth. The meat was tough and stringy. The broth bath turned the chicken skin a sickly green color. It’s not at all gross when you get into it, but faced with the alternative of grilled chicken the choice is a no-brainer.

Aseed

It’s hard to describe Aseed. It has a consistency and color similar to mashed potatoes, but I’m almost certain it’s not made from them. Aseed is served in a bowl or pot, sitting as a mound over a pool of gravy. An additional hole is dug in the center of the mound and filled with more gravy, volcano-style.

I first ate Aseed when lunching with Aiman’s family at their home in Jibla during my long weekend trip. At the time, Tom, the anthropologist, remarked that it was the Yemeni food he most missed. From that I got the impression that Aseed falls more in the category of home-cooking than restaurant food, although I did have it once at a restaurant in Sana’a. We chose this particular restaurant at the suggestion of one of our Arabic teachers after we discovered our regular lunch spot was unexpectedly closed (they had run out of cooking gas – Sana’a was just starting to feel the effects of the coming fuel shortage crisis). It was a good change of pace, but obviously the home cooked version was better!

(A quick internet search told me that Aseed is made from fish meal. I’m glad I only learned that just now).

Sahawik

Ahhh, sahawik, how I miss having you at every meal. Sawhawik is essentially salsa, like what you would get at a Mexican restaurant. It’s just cut up vegetables, with a tomato base usually including peppers, onions, and goat cheese. Consistency of the sauce runs from diced and chunky all the way to pureed, and even the style served at the same restaurant would change daily, sometimes red, sometime green with more emphasis on peppers, sometimes chunkier, sometimes smoother, sometimes with more cheese and sometimes with less. One time a teacher brought cheese back from his home town of Taiz, which is famous for the stuff, and specially asked the cook at our regular restaurant to make a batch of sahawik using that. Taizi cheese is similar to Gouda and it gave the salsa a rich, smoky taste quite unlike the sahawik we’d usually get.

Sahawik is generally served as a side or appetizer at just about any meal. If you’re eating salta or aseed or anything else served in a pot, you can dump it straight in and mix it with the food. Otherwise it’s used to flavor whatever else you’re eating and is also good to eat straight on the flat flaky bread served at many meals (quite like eating chips and salsa).


Sahawik in our regular lunch spot

Grilled Fish

Grilled fish is a treat we had every once in a while, cooked to perfection in our favorite restaurant. Planes fly from Aden daily carrying fresh fish to Sana’a, perched high in the mountains. We’d first walk to the back of the restaurant where the day’s catch would be spread on a table. We’d pick our fish and the cooks promptly got to work. Grilled fish is served split lengthwise down the middle and splayed open, with the now exposed inner meat, highly seasoned with orange spices, facing up with the scales still attached to the underside of the presentation. A veteran fish eater could use a spoon to skillfully pull away the spine and remove most bones. I was surprised the first time we ordered fish to discover the head is left attached. Despite the creepy appearance the fish itself tasted marvelous, especially when spritzed with the lime slices usually served on the side.

Jambouri

Jambouri is simply Arabic for shrimp. Shrimp served Sanaani style are cooked with vegetables, peppers, and spices in a clay pot with a reddish/orange sauce. The final product is somewhat similar to Cajun cooking. Like most other Yemeni dishes, they’re eaten out of a communal pot by scooping up bits with pieces of flat flaky bread.

I first had jambouri in the al-Shaybani restaurant, famous in Sana’a for serving classic Yemeni cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. However I most enjoyed jambouri when getting it with one of our Yemeni Arabic teachers and one of my British colleagues. As a special treat after work on payday, the three of us would catch a minibus to the fish markets in al-Qaa district to purchase the shrimp fresh (more or less). Our teacher would haggle over the price for 10-15 minutes, with occasional input from my colleague (she is an extremely accomplished Arabic speaker). Meanwhile I followed along as close as possible. Once we settled on a price we’d take our shrimp down the block to one of the many seafood restaurants surrounding the markets where we’d hand the bag of shrimp over the cook he could cook up a batch for us fresh. After sipping Cokes (or Fanta or Bebsi or ginger beer) and chowing down some bread and sawhawik, the shrimp would finally arrive steaming hot simmering in a glorious stew of spices and vegetables. These were meals I greatly enjoyed, not only on account of the great food but also because of the intimate company. Sharing a quiet meal in a small restaurant with two of my favorite people was a nice change of pace from the more common large excursions to upscale restaurants in the Hadda district.

Mashakl

Mashakl means something like “all mixed up.” When ordering mashakl for lunch, this meant chicken or lamb mixed with vegetables. There were two options at Mataam Al-Qadhi: maskhakl abiad (white) and maskhakl ahmar (red). White is drier with an emphasis on potatoes and a texture similar to hash browns. Red is a moister mix including your standard array of veggies. A regular lunch as this favorite restaurant of ours included sahawik and a few plates of mashakl. It’s eaten with bread from communal dishes.


Mashakl Abiad

A common lunch spread

Kebda

Kebda is chopped up strips of meat cooked in a skillet and mixed with peppers and onions. Visually it resembles fajita meat, and since it tasted good I never gave its “meat identity” any thought beyond that. I was shocked later to learn that it was made from liver, something I never would have voluntarily considered eating before. This is another dish I often got at the restaurant around the corner run by our accountant’s father.

Shewarma

Lastly we arrive at shewarma. You might otherwise recognize this as kebob, the kind popular at street stands in Europe and Australia. Shewarma is a lamb or chicken sandwich popular across the Arab world. The meat is cooked on a large upright skewer rotisserie and shaved off as needed to make sandwiches. This leaves the meat on the rotisserie in an upside-down cone shape. I found Shewarma in Yemen markedly different from Shewarma in Cairo or Lebanon. In those countries, one sandwich is enough for a full meal. In Yemen, a single sandwich’s “filling-you-up” capacity is more akin to a McDonald’s snack wrap. This Yemeni version was often topped with a dash of hot sauce. When eating shewarma for dinner, I’d often get three.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trip Outside Sana'a: Part 4 - the Text

The following morning I woke early to take a swim in the Red Sea. I had been there before during my semester in Egypt, but that was hundreds of miles north and on the Sinai side of the Gulf of Aqaba. During that first trip I could look across the Gulf and see the mountains of Saudi Arabia. I never thought that one day I would be on that same shoreline, albeit much further south. This time I imagined myself sailing straight across to the Eastern shore of Africa. I would most likely land in Djibouti.

Getting up was hard considering the long day before, but I wouldn’t have too many chances to swim in Yemen and I looked forward to the opportunity. We saw a Yemeni family out swimming as well. Two young women waded out into the shallow sea, black gowns swirling in the lazy tide, and tossed a ball with their younger brother or son.

Having another long day ahead of us, we wrapped up the swim before 9am, checked out, and hit the road. We would drive north along the flat coastal plain to Zabid, a town that once ranked with Cairo’s al-Azhar as a premier center of religious learning, then continue on through Beit al-Faqih, and take a right on the Houdaidah road to climb back up the mountains and return to the Sana’a Plateau.

We bumped along the long coastal highway, sharing the road with plain-dwelling motorcyclists zipping back and forth, scarves wrapped tighter around their faces and kilts flying in the wind. Scrub brush lined either side of the road. To the left along the shore thatched-roof huts clustered in tiny villages, reminding me of the ancient ties between Ethiopia and Yemen’s coast. We sped happily along before suddenly slowing to a crawl. The road was clogged with Land Cruises and Hilux pickups, with sheep, goats, and cows. We’d past through a handful of small towns already. Why was this one so busy, choked with people beyond the capacity of the surrounding town?

“Souq al-Sabt, the Saturday market,” our Yemeni archaeologist companion said. He went on to explain that towns all up and down the Tihama plain hosted weekly markets, one on each day. Merchants traveled from town to town, following the market rotation. One of our fellow travelers, my coworker, was in need of a specific antibiotic. We decided to stop and see what we could find.

The market had the medicine and more. Wending through livestock, clothes, baskets, produce, cheap goods imported from Asia, men leading baby goats by their front legs, men straddling their motorbikes, we found our way to the pharmacy in the back of the open-air market. Located in a block concrete building, we found inside the exact antibiotic we were looking for. Walking out of the pharmacy I bought a pack of playing cards with $100 bills printed on the backs. The souq had a whole different atmosphere than highland Yemen. It felt more relaxed. Women wore more colors. The infusion of African influences contrasted with Sanaa’s references of ancient Arabia.

After perhaps 15 minutes we had drawn quite a crowd and the Toyota Land Cruiser was surrounded by curious onlookers playfully passing around a cheap fez. Having found what we came for, we waved goodbye and drove on. On the road again we got a good look at how livestock was transported to market: by motorcycle. A motorbike in front of us had two small goats peaking like baby kangaroos out of a satchel draped across the back seat.

We stopped for breakfast just south of the city of Zabid proper. It was a small restaurant on the roadside, a squat concrete building with a tin roof. We sat at picnic tables on a covered porch in the front the restaurant. Part of a cow hung on a hook at the entrance to the building. After taking our order, the waiter approached the carcass, held it steady at the rope, and sawed off a hunk of meat. This was diced and mixed with vegetables, spices and wonderful sauce and cooked over a blue butane flame. We ate the final mixture with large flaky disks of bread. It was the tenderest meat I ate in Yemen.

We finally arrived in the old city of Zabid, squeezing the Toyota through winding alleys of whitewashed brick buildings. Zabid is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, but is in danger of losing funding due to lack of commitment to proper upkeep programs. After finding a place to park where we wouldn’t block the entire alley road, we piled out to explore this ancient city. First stop was the Mosque of Zabid, in front of which we had parked. I now forget its significance. Perhaps it was the largest mosque in Zabid, or the most renowned for religious studies. However, I do remember the next mosque’s significance: this was the Great Mosque, and it is the oldest in Yemen. Both mosques were beautiful and similar in style, at least to my untrained architectural eye. A surprising feature of both was the preponderance of Stars of David. The symbol is found throughout Yemen, and mosques are no exception.

Inside the Great Mosque some religious attempted to proselytize to us. They were polite but insistent. I explained I was Christian and so knew God already; they explained that this was good but insufficient. Monotheism followed a historical progression, they said. First was Judaism, introducing Man to the One God. Then came Christianity, which improved upon and displaced Judaism. Then came Islam, the final and complete revelation of God and his message to Man. Like a baby develops into a youth and then a man, they illustrated. I said Christianity suited me just fine, but to keep things cordial mentioned I’d think about this metaphor. But tension grew when they asked our Yemeni archaeologist why he had not already proselytized to us. They questioned the quality of his faith. We left.

The old souq of Zabid was empty. Either it was a bad time of day or the local economy was getting hit hard. I did see one concrete stall selling baby chicks vibrantly dyed. We then moved on to try and see some old manuscripts in an archive the archaeologist knew of. By archive I mean a second storey room in an ordinary unmarked house with locked glass cases. There was a long delay while someone from the building sent for the key. Seeing the manuscripts piqued my interest as a history major, but there wasn’t much to see inside. We were supposed to receive a presentation on something but this didn’t happen. I don’t remember why, but I do remember being hot, humid, tired, and fatigued. We all were. We were happy to pile back in the car and move on. We drove out of the city under a recently restored medieval gate.

After a much needed nap in the back of the car I woke up in time for lunch. All I can remember was fried chicken and defending my food from relentless flies. I couldn’t believe it was only lunchtime; it felt like it had already been a full day. After finishing lunch we had to wait a while before getting back on the road. Aiman the driver was searching for some Dew, which people drink with qat, which he had already bought so he could stay awake for the long drive through the mountain pass back home to Sana’a.

Another nap bridged the gap to our next stop: a bathroom break somewhere north of Bait al-Faqih and south of Houdaidah. While waiting for the girls to finish their business, I got out of the car to stretch my legs. A group of boys, from middle school to high school age, were playing foosball in a small outbuilding a couple yards away. They invited me in to play with them, where I enjoyed a five-minute game of footer (as our German students at the school used to call it). This is one of my favorite snapshot memories. Foosball is everywhere in Yemen; from street corners to cafes to clubs in remote villages boys can be found playing the game. This was the first and only time I got to play the game on a whim.

Traffic was clogged on the way out of town from our pit stop. Some of our crew bought necklaces of jasmine from the vendors on the road, taking advantage of the long line of stopped cars. Finally moving again, I settled back into my backseat perch, buried in Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen. I found the book so confusing the first time through, a deluge of brand new names, places, geographical features and formations. I had no foundation in this. Our Middle Eastern studies classes had no place for Yemen deferring to the important examples of Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Any mention of Yemen was merely a footnote to Nasser’s attempts to spread Pan-Arabism there in the 1960s in war known as “Nasser’s Vietnam.” The book made so much more sense now after having been in Yemen for two and a half months and absorbing from popular culture who the important historical figures were and where the major geographical features and regions are.

I could not keep my head buried in the book for long, however. Yemen’s geographic diversity was about to surprise me again. We began the trip three days prior by driving along the north-south mountain range which spans the entire western portion of Yemen. We followed the range south through Ibb, Jibla, and Taiz, gradually lowering in elevation. We crossed to Mokha, on the southwestern tip of Yemen on the Red Sea shore. From here we drove back north along the coastal plain known as the Tihama, through Khokha and Zabid. We were now parallel to Sanaa again, but on the wrong side of the Haraz mountains. We were at sea level. The capital was on a plateau atop the mountains, near the highest peak in the Arabian Peninsula. We had reached the road that connects Sana’a to Houdaidah, the Red Sea port city. It was time to turn east and climb.

The lush verdant valleys were the first to catch my eye. Bubbling brooks, running water! cut fertile valleys through the barren rocky mountains. I was awestruck to see such green, such life, in a country that for me had so long been defined by the dusty city of Sana’a. Shortly after entering the mountains we pulled to the side of the road, deep in one of these valleys, to let the engine cool before beginning the long, hard climb up the Chinese-built highway. A red rock face met the left side of the road. The right side dropped off into a cultivated farm sprinkled with banana trees before abruptly ending again at the mountain side shortly across the narrow valley. After ten minute or so we piled back into the car and started off. Hidden green valleys watched over by stone tower houses passed by the window.

The last leg of the trip was spectacular. The road began switchbacks once we got higher into the mountains and the sun began to set. I cannot even describe the view. All I can say is that you have not seen naturally beauty until you’ve driven the Houdaidah-Sana’a road, starting at the bottom in early afternoon and arriving in Manakha at the peak of sunset, when the sun finally falls behind the previous row of mountains and the sky turns pastel purples and oranges.

Well, I’ll try to describe the views anyway. You can just see more and farther than anywhere else I’ve been. After reaching a ridge after a long set of switchbacks, you can turn around and see the entire valley spill out before you. You can spot the bend in the asphalt, thousands of feet below, thick as a shoestring, and think “oh, I remember being there a couple hours ago.” To your right you see another ridge peak, a couple miles away and at the same altitude, but with a valley that seemingly drops down do sea level in between. To your left is the same. Atop every ridge is a quaint stone house, built in the unmistakable Yemeni style. The house sits at the highest point possible, both for defense and to conserve space on the mountain side, which is carved into terraces. Much of Yemen looks like a brought-to-life topographical map. You look to that distant peak, with the bottomless valley in between, and the isolated house on top. You look closer, squint, and spot another peak perched by another impossibly remote house.

I remember finally reaching Manakha, the halfway point where the climb ends and the trip through the high mountain passes that take you to the Sana’a plateau begins. I turned to look back across the valley. The surrounding mountains had turned an icy blue and purple, the sky shown a soft orange, every crag and jagged peak, every silhouette of a mountaintop house, thrown into colored relief by the sunset. An immense valley between us and them. By this point my camera had died, but I don’t think pictures could have done it justice.

The drive had its fair share less transcendent moments. I already mentioned the switchbacks. These usually involved blind hairpin turns, with a rock face on side of the road and a thousand foot drop off on the other. Aiman’s qat had kept him awake, but it also seemed to make him a little more aggressive in navigating the road. I was more worried about the other drivers, however, many of whom seemed to enjoy taking these blind death-traps at great speed. Who cares if someone’s coming in the other direction? This road, as I’ve mentioned, connects Sana’a to the port city of Houdaidah, the main point of entry for imports making their way to the capital. Accordingly, large trucks filled the road. Before every turn I imagined one of these trucks rounding the corner just as we did and the carnage that would ensue. I got over it eventually.

Darkness fell and we continued through the mountains to Sana’a. We arrived at the final checkpoint before the city and handed the guards the last copy of our travel permits (in Yemen a permit is required to move from governorate to governorate, for foreigners at least). A half hour later we crested a ridge and below us spilled an immense bowl filled with orange lights. We were back in Sana’a.

***

Epilogue:

The students back at the school were abuzz. Mubarak’s fall the previous night sparked spontaneous celebrations in the streets, which then turned into demonstrations. Up to that point all protests had been organized in advance with set times and dates. They usually began around 9:00am and ended in the early afternoon, when most people left to lunch and join qat chews. These organized protests were foundering; people were losing interest. Only two days before clerks at our hotel in Taiz seemed convinced that Yemenis were more interested in going home to chew qat to sustain a protest like those in Cairo.

These new protests, fired by the enthusiasm of Egypt’s success, were the first to arise unplanned. A handful of inspired students began a sit-in at Sana’a University.

This was February 12th. Over time the sit in grew. Activists set up a permanent stage for speakers. The mu’atasimeen, literally the “sitters-in,” set up tents to emphasize their commitment to maintain the sit in until Saleh abdicated power. In early March a protester was shot trying to bring his tent into the camp. The tent-city later expanded beyond the university square, now dubbed “Change Square,” and stretched into the surrounding streets. More protests were shot on March 12th, and then 52 were massacred on March 18. This led Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen to defect from the army on March 21, sparking fears of civil war. I was told by my boss to leave the country on March 23. I boarded a plane early the next morning.

Trip Outside Sana'a: Part 4 - the Pictures

Driving up the mountains to Sana'a

Verdant valley and running water in the mountains

Inside the Mosque of Zabid

Mosque of Zabid

Selling jasmine necklaces

The Great Mosque

The Great Mosque

Dyed chicks for sale

Mosque of Zabid

Mosque of Zabid

Outside of the Mosque of Zabid

Transporting livestock - the Tihami way

Souq al-Sabt, outside Zabid

Aiman posing with the gathering crowd in Souq al-Sabt



Thursday, June 9, 2011

Al Qaeda in Yemen after Saleh

An article posted on Foreign Affairs today made an argument very similar to the one I made on PolicyMic last month about how Saleh's departure, and even the weakening of Yemeni state government, would affect Al Qaeda in Yemen. Of course, the Foreign Affairs article is much more nuanced, brings more information to bear, fleshes out some arguments, and gives a more thorough treatment of the tribes' role in fighting/sheltering Al Qaeda (AQ). All the same, I was excited to see an actual Yemen expert take a stance similar to mine.Link
Basically, I made the point that we should not get nervous about losing Saleh as a counter terrorism (CT) partner. It appears that, by his permission to let the US use missile and drone strikes to target AQ, he was a good partner. He was not.

His commitment to CT was nominal, as much as was necessary to convince us he was worth working with, but not so much as to eradicate the AQ threat that brought with it US military aid.

We turned to missile strikes likely because Saleh didn't put in the on-the-ground the commitment required to root out AQ. Missile strikes are short term solutions. You can kill a leader or two, but he will be replaced. It would take sustained on-the-ground operations to grind down the terror group. We weren't getting that from Saleh, at least not after 2006. Saleh's permission to drop missiles on Yemeni territory should not be seen as a positive sign in the relationship but rather as a symptom of what's wrong with it.

It won't matter that whatever government comes next likely won't give us such aerial latitude because we'd ideally like the Yemeni government to bear more responsibility. Perhaps the next government will actually commit to eradicating AQ, and there will be no need for the US to strike on its own.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thoughts and Prayers with Those in Yemen

When I visited Beit Baws, the mostly deserted village in the hills surrounding Sana'a, a friend remarked that Beit Baws is notable because all other mountains overlooking Yemen are restricted military zones. The government wanted to own all strategic overlooks of the capital. I thought it strange that a nation would install artillery peering down into its own capital city. I never thought that only four months later those mountaintop batteries would be shelling districts of Sana'a.

Beginning with Ali Abdullah Saleh's third refusal to sign the GCC power transition initiative, the government has bombarded the Sanaani homes of its political rivals. Street battles have erupted, especially in the Hassabah district, a neighborhood in northern Sana'a home to the compound of a leading sheikh and rival of president Saleh.

Saleh has left Yemen for Saudia Arabia, where he received treatment for wounds sustained during an attack on his compound on Friday. Despite his departure and multiple attempts by the Saudis to broker a ceasefire, fighting seems to continue. I have a PolicyMic article coming up which examines the immediate outlook for post-Saleh Yemen and what it means for the peaceful protesters who have maintained their dedication to nonviolence despite the increase in fighting around them.

For the latest on Yemen, I highly recommend following the news dispatches of Iona Craig and Jeb Boone. Both are freelance journalists based in Sana'a. They are the journalists who produce the latest stories for the Washington Post, LA Times, Time Magazine, and the Times of London. Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist who has recently contributed to a few New York Times pieces, is also worth following. He keeps a blog where he posts his own work and articles by others on Yemen.

Life is pretty busy now with work, keeping track of Yemen, and trying to find permanent employment, but I hope to (finally) post the last installment of my travels outside of Sana'a and to write a post on Women in Yemen, a topic I know at least two of you are curious about.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saleh Pushing for Civil War

The GCC initiative is dead. I assumed it was dead the first time Saleh failed to sign it in early May. Apparently it had enough life to get rejected at the eleventh hour Wednesday of last week and then again this past Sunday.

The “negotiating a peaceful transition” phase is now passed. For months, Saleh’s plan has been to distract the Yemeni political opposition and the international community with false starts on talks of reform and power transfer. No one can take his flirtations with peace seriously now, and it appears he know this. Following his failure to sign the GCC accord on Sunday, Saleh warned of civil war. Circumstantial evidence indicates he may be trying to fulfill his own prophecy.

An excellent, clear overview of events in Yemen since Sunday can be found here. In short, an armed conflict between the State and the most prominent family in Yemen’s largest tribal confederation, the al-Ahmar family, threatens to quickly escalate the situation in Yemen. The thousands of demonstrators camping out in “Change Square,” unconnected with this outbreak of armed conflict, fear that their efforts towards peaceful revolution will be drowned as factions in the country move toward open conflict.

Who shot first between the State and the al-Ahmar family is unclear, but Saleh has made it hard to resist placing the blame on him. His political endurance rests on the narrative that Yemen is a fractured state prone to armed conflict and that he is the only man capable of holding it together. Months of peaceful protest against his rule have no doubt frustrated him and his narrative. Since the beginning of these protests, tribesmen and generals have withdrawn their support for the government and announced their support for the protest movement. More importantly, they have resisted violent provocations to respond in kind and in so doing confounded Saleh. Tribesmen checked their guns at the door to "Change Square;" defected generals vowed only to protect protesters and have had only limited engagements with government forces.

Now it seems Saleh is set on initiating the civil war he has all along predicted. A representative from the mediation council that sought to smooth tensions between the state and the al-Ahmar family on Tuesday night said that Saleh did not take the discussed cease-fire seriously and declared that complete responsibility for the conflict rests on the president. Other reports indicated that government forces also bombarded the defected general's army division. Saleh no doubt hopes to drag him into the conflict as well.

In a sad attempt at pandering to the United States, Saleh again suggested Yemen would turn into an al-Qaeda refuge if he left. The truth is that it's the instability caused by Saleh's staying that will enable al-Qaeda.

It’s hard to see what Saleh is hoping to gain from this. The deal brokered by the GCC contained immunity for the president, his family, and close aids. He stands to face a much worse fate now. Perhaps it is the arrogance that comes from decades of survival that makes him defiant. All of his predecessors were assassinated or ousted through coups. Saleh has convinced himself that he can "dance on the heads of snakes," and perhaps he views this situation no differently than other challenges his faced. I'm no expert, but I believe he is gravely mistaken.