Friday, January 28, 2011

Bayt Baws

Two weekends ago I joined our second school trip. The first one was to Dar al Hajjar, which is the famous “Rock Palace” the Imam used to winter in. This most recent trip was to Bayt Baws. For being a well-known tourist sight around Sana’a, I find it strange that this is its entire Wikipedia entry: “Bayt Baws is a village in western central Yemen. It is located in the San‘a’ Governorate.” I’ve heard it said that not one book exists written on the place. A quick scan of Amazon confirms this.

Beit Baws is an old Jewish town perched on a rocky outcrop in the mountains that surround Sana’a. According one of my Arabic teachers (from whom all the following information came), the town was named after its founder, a prominent Jewish trader (beit means house). Like the rest of Yemen’s Jews, most of the inhabitants of Beit Baws had moved to Israel by 1950. The town now sits abandoned save for 14-22 inhabitants, likely unrelated to the original Jewish population.

According to my teacher, Yemen was a majority Jewish country prior to Islam. Jewish communities remained and lived integrated in Yemeni society up until the great majority immigrated to Israel after 1948. Today an extremely tiny co
mmunity remains. Estimates of Jews living in Sana’a range from 20 to 0. The total population remaining in all of Yemen is estimated between 350 and 370, most of whom live in Raydah where they have a rabbi and functioning synagogue.

Some pictures from Bayt Baws:

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cairo: Round 2

I went to bed at 10:00pm. I woke up at 1:00am. I had packed the night before so that all I would have to do was wake up, dress, grab my stuff and walk down the stairs. The cab was scheduled to pick me up at 1:30am. The only useful landmark near my apartment is the Majlis an-Nuwab, the Parliament Building. This is where I told the cab company to pick me up. Obviously, loitering near the parliament at this hour of the night, a bulging backpack strapped to by back, would look suspicious. I waited just around the corner, out of sight of the overnight guards. But as the minutes ticked past 1:30 I got nervous that the cab wouldn’t find me. I inched farther forward so I could look down the street and spot any approaching taxis. One of the guards started kicking a can at the brick wall across the street from his post. When he went to retrieve it I was spotted. After a few more minutes he realized that I was still standing there. He turned to one of the other guards and presumably discussed what to do about me. He eventually approached. “Hallo!”

I explained that I was waiting for a cab and that this was where I told him to pick me up. He didn’t seem to have a problem with this and offered to call another one for me, since this one was obviously late. At a quarter to two the taxi finally appeared and I sped off for the airport, my first time there since my arrival in Sana’a two months earlier.

The streets were empty as we sped along to Sana’a International Airport. With metal doors rolled down over all the closed shops and the streetlights casting an orange glow over the otherwise black cityscape, the city took on an industrial feel. Before long we arrived at the airport. For the first time I realized how small SAH truly is. A sign indicated the “Departure Halls” (plural) but there was only one. The flight information monitors were turned off. A man standing in the departure hall announced when it was time to line up for which flight. The duty free shop consisted of Toblerones and what appeared to be used suit coats. Oh, and don’t forget the Hannah Montana lunch boxes. Yemen seems to have escaped much of western (American) cultural influence, save Miley Cyrus. I’m sure Miley would be proud.

On the shuttle to board the plane I spotted what looked like your average American family going on vacation. The dad looked like he played football at one point in his life, and their young son, who appeared to be about 12, wore a camouflage baseball hat. After sleeping for the majority of a plane flight for the first time ever, I finally met them at Cairo International when purchasing my entry visa. They were from Wisconsin, he worked in Yemen. They were spending Christmas vacation in Egypt. They appeared a happy American nuclear family and I was glad to have met them. It made it seem a bit more like Christmas.

When I left Cairo in May 2009 at the end of my semester abroad, and the end of the first significant chunk of time I’d spent in a foreign country, I had no idea when I would ever be back. My experiences there and the friendships I developed made me positive that I would one day return, but in my head the most likely scenario was a family vacation, maybe once I was in my 30s. The best case scenario would have been some sort of Cairo 2009 reunion with the other Americans I had studied there with, perhaps five years down the road. Little did I expect to return only 19 months later.

The approach to the airport revived in me a feeling that was strangely familiar yet foreign. I’d done this before, landing in Cairo in the early morning and gazing over the endless dessert to West, pink in the light of the rising sun. I was on my way back from Easter break in Kenya. This time I didn’t feel like I was returning “home,” as I did then. But it was surreal to experience that moment of déjà vu.

I knew exactly what to do and where to go upon arrival, and I even got the exact price I wanted for the taxi ride into the city. 50 pounds ($8-9). I had him drop me off at Midan Tahrir, and I made the familiar walk north along the Nile to cross the 26th of July street bridge over to Zamalek. It was nine in the morning. I had fourteen hours to kill before my girlfriend and her family arrived to check into the hotel.

I first grabbed a cup of coffee at Maison Thomas, not hungry enough to eat the entire brunch spread by myself. Then to Diwan bookstore to get a map of Cairo. As it turned out I didn’t need it, something I hoped for but wasn’t quite confident of before finally setting foot in Cairo once again. It is now a nice poster on my wall. I continued down 26th July Street, past the currency exchange offices and fruit stores, right down Brazil Street and a left down Muhamed Ismail. I walked past the Algerian embassy, past the Seti II security company Hummers still parked on the side of the street, and took another left at the building with the brass façade and oval windows. I then stopped in at St. Joseph’s church to check out mass times. Today wasn’t Sunday but it was my first opportunity to go to church since I left the United States at the end of October. There was a 6:00pm mass in French. Good, I though. I only have to kill time until six, then I can go to mass, go to dinner, and before I know it Sam and her family will be here and I can check into the hotel.

I next went to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, thinking that they had free internet. They didn’t. Perhaps that’s why we used to go there in the first place, to avoid the distraction. After one cup of coffee and a ten minute nap I headed just up the street to Pottery Café. They did have free internet. Even though I was on vacation, the internet is everywhere and my job is primarily to conduct email correspondence with students. I could leave the country, but I could not leave work. I handled the day’s emails and caught up on the latest sports news on ESPN. I facebooked and ordered lunch and shisha, hoping to kill some more time via the magic of the internet. Google gave me about four different locations when I searched for the hotel I would be staying at, and combining pictures from the hotel website and Google Earth I managed to find the real location. It was perhaps a 20 minute walk off Zamalek, North along the East side of the river. All told, I somehow managed to stay at Pottery Cafe until 3:00pm. I was dead tired.

My flight out of Yemen left at 4:30am. I had only slept three hours the night before, and aside from the 2.5 hours I slept on the plane I had been awake since 1:00am. I remembered that there was a park in Gazira, the southern half of the island of Zamalek, and decided to find a park bench. A $4 entrance fee got me into the park, and I wondered why I had never gone to it before in my 4 months living in Cairo. It was one of the only green spaces in the city, and tall trees shaded paved walkways as young couples strolled underneath. I found a nice bench and took a nap. Unfortunately, the park closed at five and they kicked us all out at a quarter til. I only managed to get in a 45 minute nap. Then it was off to the Marriott to see if I could just sit down and watch TV. The sports bar was closed, and so instead I sat in their courtyard garden and drank a Pepsi.

Finally it was six o’clock and time for mass. Although it was in French and I didn’t understand a thing, I found it to be the most moving mass I’ve been to in a long, long time. Mass can seem routine when it is easily available every week, with six times to choose from to suit your convenience. But now the opportunity to go to church was precious and rare, and getting the chance to go felt exciting and spiritual, something lacking in many masses I attend at home.

This brought me to 7:00pm. Only four more hours! I spent the next two in the now-open sports bar at the Marriott, enjoying my first Egyptian Stella in many, many months (nothing tops off a spiritual experience like going to a bar, right? Jews are encouraged to drink to celebrate the Sabbath, and Christianity came from Judaism, so I say it’s all good). I only intended to stay for one, but a Kuwaiti of South African decent decided to buy me another since I humored his attempts to talk to me. He was in Egypt doing training/getting trained, and I think he worked as a crew member in international shipping. He told me about the party scene in Kuwait City and Brazilian hospitality, where a boat of girls will meet your ship before you even dock.

I got out of that conversation after the second Stella and set off for the Fairmont Nile City Hotel. It was 9:00pm. Sam’s flight was delayed leaving Jordan since they had to wait for the delayed flight coming out of New York (snow), many of whose passengers were connecting on her flight through to Cairo. They finally arrived at midnight and I got to see Sam for the first time in two months. I was happy to meet her family as well, and after spending 24 hours a day with them over the next four days, any initial awkwardness quickly melted away (for me at least).

The rest of the trip was a blast, but I won’t belabor the details since I’ve written about most of the sights before. I will say that I really enjoyed meeting Sam and her family, and that the hotel we stayed at was the classiest place I’ve ever been. One funny moment though was that when midnight hit on New Year’s Eve at the hotel’s party, the band immediately launched into “Jingle Bells.” It was a very “Egypt” thing to have happen (attempting to replicate Western culture but not quite getting it right). Another memorable moment was the visit to the tombs of the last king of Egypt and the last Shah of Iran, both housed in the same mosque. A pseudo-guide unhinged the velvet rope around the Shah’s tomb and allowed us all to get pictures up close with Mohammed Reza Shah. It was one of the few times I was happy to give one of these guys baqshish.

Being in Cairo again for the first time since study abroad, especially on that first day, was certainly strange. I hesitate to say surreal, because that seems too positive, while eerie is too negative. I felt as though I was walking lucidly through a dream. I knew the streets and places by heart, and nothing had changed. I went to the same cafes and restaurants that I had been to so many times before, but they felt somehow cold. The city was indifferent to me and my return. I truly realized how much people make the place. I may have known Cairo, but Cairo did not know me. All those who did were either gone for vacation or permanently living back in the States. Having Sam and her family there made the rest of the trip extremely fun and the strangeness of my reintroduction to Cairo eventually faded away. It was a good experience overall, and I’m glad I went back. I feel as though I gained some closure with my study abroad experience, whose ending felt sudden and abrupt. I no longer have the longing to go back, although I would certainly enjoy another vacation there. I feel now that my book on Cairo is finally closed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Qatar 2022: Arabs Honored or Skeptical?

I honestly can’t remember if I’ve posted about this yet, so if this is a repeat bear with me.

This was announced a while ago of course, but as far as I can remember this is the first time I’ve gotten around to writing about it. This past November FIFA announced that Qatar had been selected as the host of the 2022 World Cup. TV news has played up the excitement in Qatar and the success of their underdog bid, but attitudes from some of the Yemeni teachers at the College have been cynical.

While my friends and I interpreted the pick as representing FIFA’s commitment to bringing the World Cup to the developing world, one of our teacher’s was skeptical that FIFA would ever select Qatar as a host when nations like the United States and Australia were bidding as well. “There must have been some corruption or pay-offs,” he said. “This is just my opinion, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t have given it to the U.S. or Australia over Qatar. There must have been corruption involved to convince them to give it to such a small country.”

I had expected excitement and elation, and instead I got skepticism. Why would the Western-centered international community bestow such an honor on the Arab world? Surely there were shady forces at work, ran the reaction. It's hard not to think that this reaction is symptomatic of the larger sense of distrust and pessimism of authority institutions that seems to permeate society, the same distrust and pessimism that leads many to believe that their government fabricates al-Qaeda attacks to serve its own interests.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Holidays in Yemen

So I haven't updated in a while, but honestly not much happened between the last post and my short vacation to Cairo at the end of December. The school term ended on December 16th and most of the teachers left for the holidays (which is why I had time to blog so much!). Since the majority of my compensation comes in the form of complimentary Arabic lessons, I wasn't too keen on the idea of not having Arabic class again until January 2nd. I brought this up and managed to get a one-hour class every other day to fill in the time before the start of the next academic session.

Christmas turned out to be a much greater success than Thanksgiving. We Americans didn't really get our act together for Thanksgiving and it ended up coming and going without any form of celebration. Christmas Eve, however, fell on a Friday, which gave us the whole weekend to prepare. I spent the morning making omelettes and blasting Handel's Messiah in the kitchen to put myself in the mood. All the while I had a Charlie Brown Christmas loading on my laptop.

I and one of my American friends at the school decided to cook our favorite dishes and invite a bunch of our expat friends to come over and bring sides of their own. I went down to a local restaurant and picked up a roasted chicken to give us some form of a main course, and my side of choice was roasted cheddar mashed potatoes. It was the first time I had attempted to make mashed potatoes of any kind, and like any time cooking in Yemen I had to make a few substitutions (labnah for sour cream), but the end result was pretty tasty if maybe a little chunkier than I would have liked.

Fifteen people ended up coming and we had quite a feast on our hands. We spread a plastic table cloth across the floor of the mafraj and all sat on the floor. We even had sparkling grape juice, a couple bottles of whine, and a bottle of port for dessert. Everyone was in good spirits and it really did feel like a holiday celebration, if maybe not an explicitly Christmas celebration since most of our guests either weren't religious or weren't Christian. To cap off the night my family video chatted me from my grandparent's house in Indiana. They passed the laptop around the house and I got to say hi to everyone. I almost felt like I was there with them. Unfortunately, real Christmas was on a Saturday, which is the start of the workweek here. Hopefully it was the last time in my life I will have worked on Christmas day.

After Christmas I whiled away the days until it was time to leave for Cairo. The main upscale street in Sana'a in Sharia Hadda, which is where you will find many of the expensive hotels, western-style cafes, and nice restaurants. One of these cafes, Coffee Trader,had Christmas decorations out, complete with lights and a tree. They even sold iced sugar cookies. This stands out to me as one of the few times in Yemen, next to the Christmas Eve dinner, that I felt like I was in the Christmas spirit.

Soon enough though it was time to leave for Egypt. I was going there for vacation from the 28th to January 1st, and it would be my first time back since studying abroad there in 2009. I would also me meeting my girlfriend's family for the first time. (More on this to follow)