Friday, March 18, 2011

In other news...

So some of you were anticipating something a little different when you saw that I had a new post up today. Well this one is probably more in line with your expectations.

After noon prayers today, government supporters fired live rounds at anti-government protesters gathered at Sana'a University's new campus. Attendance at the sit-in, which has lasted for the better part of the past month, has numbered in the tens of thousands with some reports reaching 100 thousand. By the end of the afternoon upwards of 40 were left dead.

I first realized something was happening when I heard the helicopter flying overhead. I was sitting in the rooftop mafraj drinking tea when I went out on the patio to take pictures. The helicopter wasn't particularly concerning as it often flies around on Friday's to observe the protests. About an hour later two of the other students joined me. One of them pointed out a column of smoke rising in the distance from the direction of the university. An unconfirmed report said that tires were set fire to deter more protesters from joining the sit-in. We could hear the faint report of gunfire.

Later in the afternoon Saleh declared a state of emergency. This to me seems like another attempt to convince Yemenis and/or outsiders that his rule is needed to preserve the country's security. Today's violence seems calculated so that he could later declare a state of emergency (one that most believe he is responsible for creating) in the desperate hope that protester's would be scared off and those non-aligned Yemenis would come to see them as a threatening nuisance.

As for me, the pictures show that I am a long way from where all of this is happening, and in the pas,t weekend violence has been followed by a relative peaceful work week. The increased violence concerns me but as long as it remains localized to Sana'a University and targeted at protesters only, I feel safe. There have been no violent actions or words directed at foreigners or those not directly participating in the university protests.

A Saleh supporter: "Yes to Dialogue, No to Sedition

Column of smoke rising from the outer limit of the anti-government camp-in

Some context for how far away I am from the locus of the violence

Army chopper circles the city, observing the protests / showing power

Saleh strongly requested helicopters from General Petraeus during their meeting last January. Get in ze choppah!

The Soda vs. Pop Debate: Yemen Weighs in

If you've been to college or have relatives living in different parts of the country, you have no doubt participated in the "Great Soda vs. Pop Debate." This map, which I first saw a couple months ago, is an amazing visual representation of the regions in which "soda" and "pop" dominate.

(click here for an interactive version with breakdowns of state poll results by county)

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Yemen.

Notice the marketing genius that is the American South East. In the vast majority of states, Coke is simply used as the generic word for all versions of soda-pop. Pepsi has lost a major battle here, and there is no corresponding region in which Pepsi is used the way Coke is in the South.

Except Yemen that is. Pepsi (or bebs as it is shortened to here), like Coke in the South, is used as a generic term for all versions of soda-pop. "Do you have Pepsi?" "Yes we do." "Well I'll have a Ginger Ale then." No joke.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Outside Sana'a: Part II

After a winding night-time drive through, around, and down the mountain spine from Jiblah to Taizz, we finally arrived at our hotel in Yemen’s second city. Taizz is Yemen’s most populous city next to Sanaa, closely followed by Hudaydah, a seaside town on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and Sanaa’s main port. Many of the teachers at our school come from Taizz, which speaks to two important points about the city: one, that the population of Taizz is often better educated than in other cities, and two, that the “sons of Taizz” are often forced to find work elsewhere. The Saleh government’s Sanaa-centric policies have led to immense unemployment in Taizz, forcing those who are able to find work elsewhere.

Our hotel was actually quite nice, although it probably wouldn’t be considered so in the U.S. I did find one dead mosquito, but I wasn’t too worried since I had grabbed a motorcycle to the nearest pharmacy during my lunch break the day before and picked up some Malaria pills. After a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant we took a stroll through Taizz’s old market. I was excited to find stacks of Taizz’s famous cheese wheels, which taste similar to smoked gouda. It’s a refreshing change from the feta-dominated Sanaani diet. Unfortunately all the cheese vendors had their delicious products sitting out in the open among swarms of flies, so I wasn’t too inclined to purchase a wheel at the time.

We turned back to the hotel where we hung out in the lobby with the staff, huddled around the TV watching the latest from Egypt. This was February 10, and Mubarak had not yet resigned. Anticipation ran high, and Aljazeera announced that Mubarak would be making a speech later that night. I was glad I didn’t stay up to hear it since it ended up being just as much a let down as his other over-hyped statements over the previous days.

As we watched the crowds swarm in Egypt’s streets, defying a curfew that from the beginning had never existed except on paper, the talk eventually turned to Yemen. Yemen’s protest movement would fizzle out, the staffers said. We like qat too much and since it’s chewed in the afternoons we could never sustain a protests movement over weeks. Everyone will eventually go home to chew, he said, munching on his own bag of leaves. We fear the violence that could follow upheaval.

Mubarak fled to Sharm al-Sheikh the following night, bringing Yemen’s dying opposition protests back to life. In the early days of the revitalization, Taizz would become the center of the strongest protests and one of the first cities beside Aden to witness lethal violence against demonstrators. Back in Sana’a, both pro- and anti-government demonstrators eventually got around the qat problem by simply camping out in their chosen protest locations and finding sponsors to distribute the leaf to the protestors. The GPC first pioneered this strategy in order to attract supporters to its rally in Tahrir Square.

In the morning we headed straight to Qalaat al-Qahira (Castle of Victory or Fortress of Impregnability, whichever you prefer). This was another castle perched atop a rocky hill overlooking a city, much like Husn Hubb. Qahira, however, seemed a bit more practical. Husn Hubb was so far above, so far removed from life in the city it protected that I can’t imagine any garrison making it down to the city in time to fend off attackers.

Qahira was a little more accessible and much more complete as far as ruins go. Built in the Rusulid period (13th – 15th century), the castle now sports conspicuous “restored” areas built with modern materials based on someone’s guess of what the castle might have once looked liked. Our archaeologist and anthropologist debated whether this was a good thing. On the one hand the rebuilt castle made a nice picnic spot, which could attract tourists, and on the other hand it compromised the building’s historical integrity.

In any case, the views from the top of the castle were incredible. The city shone white in the intense morning sun, the valley filled with houses as far as the eye could see. The terraced mountain sides behind the castle were just starting to turn green. Mounted on the upper parts of the castle were anti-aircraft guns covered with tarps. I presume these were built for defense against dragons.

We left the castle in late morning, grabbed some juice and water, and drove straight up Jabal Sabr (mountain of forbearance), the tallest mountain of the range that forms the valley enclosing Taizz. A long winding drive through the switchbacks leading up the mountain, and one or two spectacular overlooks, finally brought us to the even more spectacular summit.

Atop Jabal Sabr I first truly witnessed the incomprehensible natural beauty of Yemen. I simply could not process the changes in elevation confronting my vision, the immense range of vertical view from mountain top to valley floor and again horizontally from our mountain top to the ridge on the opposite side of the valley, dozens of kilometers away. The mountains themselves looked fertile yet stubborn, only giving up growth to those who take the time to coax vegetation from their rocky terraces. Somehow, I hear the view is even more spectacular in the early summer when the dun mountains explode in green.

We descended Jabal Sabr around midday and ate salta for lunch in the old market area. From there we visited the al-Ashrafiya Mosque, also built during the Rasulid period. It too is currently being restored, but this time attention is being paid to detail. A team of Italians and Yemenis are currently undertaking the project, taking special care that the final product reflects the mosque’s original state. Like many of the mosques I’ve seen in Yemen, I was taken aback by the beauty of its white-washed walls and the intricacy of its interior carvings. We even got the chance to see its catacombs, which house both graves and former classrooms from the mosque’s days as a religious school.

Before we entered, we had to sit around and wait for someone to deliver the mosque’s key. It was locked but we had run into the key-holder before lunch and he promised to open it up for us after noon prayer. A bunch of adorable kids kept us company while waiting, all very enthusiastic to have their picture’s taken.

After visiting the mosque it was time to leave Taizz and drive to Mokha. Taizz opened my eyes to the rest of Yemen; the city definitely had a much different vibe than Sanaa. It was hard to put my finger on just what that was, but it seemed in some ways more laid back and didn’t take itself too seriously. Taizz has its disappointing aspects as well. The narrow market streets were clogged with motorcycles, making any sort of conversation nearly impossible. There was more trash in the streets and more visible poverty. That the educated are forced to leave and find work elsewhere doesn’t help. Despite this, Taizz left a positive impression on me as we pulled away in the Toyota. The next stop was Mokha. I closed my eyes and drifted into sleep.

Portico of the Al-Ashrafiya Mosque

Refurbished interior of Al-Ashrafiya

These kids are hard.

In the Taizz market

Overlook on the way up Jabal Sabr

View of Qalat al-Qahira from the road up Jabal Sabr

Terraced mountain sides on Jabal sabr

View of Taizz from Qalat al-Qahira

Water reservoir at Qalat al-Qahira

View from Qalat al-Qahira

Add ImageMore photos: Qalat al-Qahira and Jabal Sabr | Al-Ashrafiya Mosque

Monday, March 7, 2011

Outside Sana'a: Part 1

A couple weekends ago I had my first chance to travel outside of the Sana’a area. We’ve been hosting an Anthropology class taught by an American professor, and I got to tag along with the class field trip to a number of cities in the regions south and west of the capital. Accompanying us was a Yemeni archaeologist, Mohammad. This is the first in a series of posts on this trip.

Our itinerary included Ibb, Taizz, Mocha, Khokha, and Zabid. I rose early on Thursday morning to meet the group at the college’s front gates before heading south from Sana’a. After an hour and a half we made our way out of the Sana’a plateau and began winding through the mountain roads that would take us to Taizz.

I woke up from my nap in the trunk of our Toyota SUV only to have my breath taken away by the view spilling beneath me only feet from the edge of road. Before me were valleys of incomprehensible depth, fertile valleys, guarded by terraced mountains. This was only the first taste of the spectacular views that were to come.

We first arrived at the old city of Ibb, nestled in the fertile green mountains south of Sana’a. Its architecture immediately distinguished itself from that of Sana’a, though in a subtle way. The buildings were still built tall and rectangular, but the bricks were smaller and had a yellow tint to them. With its cobble-stone streets and light-colored buildings, the old city had a European feel. I felt like this is what a town in the hills of southern Europe would look like. On our way out we ran into two tribesmen from Mareb, one of those places it’s nearly impossible to get permission to travel to. The two had hard faces, long, curly, greasy black hair and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

After that we left Ibb for Jiblah, where we ate lunch at Aiman’s family’s house (he is our driver at the school and on this trip). We only got to meet the men of the family whereas a female student in our group had the chance to meet the women after lunch. Back in the mafraj, we men non-verbally decided to take an unscheduled hour long nap. A young girl periodically peeked in to check up on us. After finally saying goodbye to Aiman’s family we headed to the old city of Jiblah. Perched on the side of a green hill with the late afternoon sun reflecting off its medieval white mosque, Old Jiblah looked like a fictional city you might happen upon somewhere in Middle Earth

The next stop was Husn Hubb, or, depending on how you want to translate it, Castle of Love. It’s built atop the highest mountain in the Ibb-Jiblah area. I forget who built it, but I remember hearing that one of its residents was able to survive a 14-month siege in it. The views from here were incredible. The white city of Ibb filled the valley and hills below. We explored the remains of the castle and took in the sunset over the crumbling perimeter walls. The medieval ruins of Husn Hubb, set high upon a rocky hill, immediately brought Scotland to mind. After leaving Husn Hubb we took off for Taizz.

Pictures from these cities: Ibb | Jiblah and Husn Hubb

View from Husn Hubb

Inside Husn Hubb

Outer walls of Husn Hubb

Old Jiblah

A mosque on the way to Jiblah

Architecture in Ibb - Old City

Ibb - Old City

Ibb - Old City

Market in Ibb

On the road from Sana'a to Ibb, just as we started to descend from the Sana'a plateau

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Statement from the U.S. Embassy

Some of you may have heard that U.S citizens were told to leave Yemen. Here is the actual email from the American Embassy in Sana'a:

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. The Department urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen. U.S. citizens currently in Yemen should consider departing Yemen. The Department of State has authorized the voluntary departure from Yemen of the family members of U.S. Embassy staff and non-essential personnel. This replaces the Travel Warning for Yemen issued October 15, 2010.

Should a crisis occur, evacuation options from Yemen would be extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and other security concerns outlined below. The U.S. Embassy?s ability to assist U.S. citizens in the event of a crisis in Yemen is very limited. In the event of an evacuation, U.S. law requires the Department of State to bill evacuees for U.S.-government arranged transportation. U.S. citizens remaining in Yemen despite this Travel Warning should make their own contingency emergency plans, enroll their presence in Yemen through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at, and provide their current contact information and next-of-kin or emergency contact information.

The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. Piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean is also a security threat to maritime activities in the region. Terrorist organizations continue to be active in Yemen, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S. government remains concerned about possible attacks against U.S. citizens, facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests. There is ongoing civil unrest throughout the country and large-scale protests in major cities. See our International Maritime Piracy Fact Sheet at

The U.S. Embassy, Sana?a is located at Dhahr Himyar Zone, Sheraton Hotel District, P.O. Box 22347. The telephone number of the Consular Section is (967) (1) 755-2000, extension 2153 or 2266. For after-hours emergencies, please call (967) (1) 755-2000 (press zero for extension) or (967) 733-213-509. From time to time the Embassy may temporarily close or suspend public services for security reasons. Emergency assistance to U.S. citizens during non-business hours (or when public access is restricted) is available through Embassy duty personnel.

For the latest security information, U.S. citizens living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at, where the current Worldwide Caution, Travel Alerts, Travel Warnings, and Country Specific Information can be found. Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the United States and Canada or, for callers in other countries by calling a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).
I enrolled in STEP before leaving the States, and since I live in Sana'a but fifteen minutes from the Embassy and 25 from the airport, I don't see poor infrastructure or geographical constraints hindering my ability to evacuate. Perhaps if I lived in Shebwa.

I'm not sure what changed between today and yesterday to make them issue this. The terrorist threat was present when I traveled here in November, so that's nothing new. I doubt the pirates will sail up the mountains and into Sana'a, so cross them off. I guess the protests are the last remaining threat. Those in Sana'a have been peaceful over the past few days, and anti-American or anti-Western rhetoric has played absolutely ZERO role in the chants and slogans of the anti-government protests.

While I cannot say what would happen if Saleh decided to leave, I would bet that the strongest of any resulting violence would be in the south, around Aden. Possibly in Lahj and Abyan. Some Yemenis I work with have told me that if any violence occurred around here, it would be between state security and tribes, leaving the city untouched.

The Yemenis don't much want violence. Latest I've heard is that an organized transition is being discussed, the details being whether Saleh leaves sooner rather than later. The opposition continues to lack unity, as the organized political opposition parties (JMP) are seen by the student protesters as hijacking their movement for their own political gain. This could delay his departure.

It still can't be said what kind of decision this will come to and how well that decision will be accepted by all parties, but I sense that most Yemenis want to avoid the chance of violence.

I have "considered" the situation and decided it is not time to leave. However, I am not an adrenaline junkie and will not stay if a real threat presents itself. The truth is that very little seems to have changed between today and two weeks ago. If the situation worsens and produces a real threat, then it will be time to go.