Thursday, April 28, 2011

I still have more stories though

I'm not done blogging on Yemen, although its harder to find time to do so now. I still have untold stories from my time there and I may continue writing on current events as well.

First, an addition to Part I of my first travels outside Sana’a.

* Somewhere between departing Jiblah and driving up the mountain to Husn Hubb we picked up an armed escort. This seemed completely useless to me, this part of the country was not known for kidnappings. That, and we were driving a car that was otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of the cars on the road. No one would have known that there foreigners inside if it weren’t for the oversize truck with six soldiers and a .50 cal mounted in the back.

We drove the road connecting Ibb and Taiz in the dark, armed truck in tow, having a good laugh together as we drove through the town of Al Qaeda and passed a Falujah gas station. We wondered aloud whether our escort would stay with us once we made it to downtown Taiz, noting how ridiculous it would look to have this oversized weaponsized pickup follow us through packed city streets. They stayed with us and we got to the front door of out hotel. *

My Apologies

I sincerely apologize to all of you for my sudden absence. As you may have deduced, I have left Yemen. I more or less regret having done so but circumstances at the time demanded it.

Let's go back to March 18. This is the day that I posted on Yemen's contribution to the pop versus soda debate. It was a post I'd been meaning to write for a long time and finally got around to it that afternoon. But it was also a bit of a misdirection post. With mounting uncertainty in Sana'a over the direction of and potential of violence for the protests, I didn't much at first feel like writing about the more infamous events of that day. I knew that writing about spending the afternoon on our rooftop patio, staring over the city towards Sana'a University and the Ring Road where the camp had spread, where we saw a column of smoke rising up over the protest site as we heard the pop-pop-pop of gunfire echo in the distance, I knew that writing about these things would only strengthen the calls of concerned loved ones for me to leave Yemen. At the end of the day, 52 Yemeni civilians had been killed.

I knew that I was safe, that the protests were contained to one are of the city and I lived and worked in another, that if they did spread to other areas it would be to well-known public squares and monuments, easily avoided if I felt things could go bad that day. I firmly intended to stay in Yemen to finish the one year I had committed to living there, to continue learning Arabic in the most immersive native environment you could possibly think of, and to continue exploring the natural beauty and hospitality of Yemen. Only the threat of closure at the airport would make me consider leaving. In the end, my concerns about avoiding the topic were futile.

Western English teachers at my school began to contemplate leaving. A staff meeting about safety and evacuation plans, should the worst happen, did little to ease their concerns. Three of a staff of five decided to leave the country by the end of the week. Then on Monday, March 21, Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, one of the most powerful men in Yemen, decided to defect and back the protesters. The potential for armed conflict increased. If the previous Friday had brought the deaths of 52, what would this next Friday bring now that there as an army standing to confront government forces?

By this time we were down to three paying students. The rest had quit early and all the new students we had expected for March and April canceled. There were now only six people living in my building, including employees. Our building was built to house 68. We were all asked to merge with the school's other residential building down the street to save money on utilities. I greatly missed my old room in the old building. I had settled in quite nicely and enjoyed the top floor kitchen with rooftop mafraj and outdoor patio. I found hanging my laundry on the roof while gazing over the city relaxing and peaceful.

I was upset about moving but thought that over time I would get used to my new room. I was wrong. I only spent three nights there. I was facing mounting pressure from home to consider leaving, and as the English teachers left one by one, I started to consider doing so myself. I sat and made a pros and cons list. They came out about even. I clearly wanted to stay, but the case for leaving could easily be made as well. On Wednesday morning, my decision was made for me. I was sitting at the table eating breakfast and preparing for Arabic class when I was told by the school president that we all had to leave before Friday; he was getting our exit visits this afternoon. The school would close for two months and I could come back if things settled down.

I was taken aback at the suddenness of the news. Only a week before people were of course concerned about the situation but no one had ever suggested closing the school. At first I thought he was asking if I planned to leave, not ordering me to do so. But with almost no Arabic students left, the number of local English students fast declining, and the increasing threat of violence, his decision made sense. That afternoon I purchased my ticket home.

I think I mostly welcomed the decision because it saved me from having to make the increasingly difficult case to my parents that remaining in Yemen was safe. I certainly felt safe. I'd never encountered a Yemeni who was offended by my being American or Christian. I'm sure they exist somewhere, but those sentiments certainly are not the norm. In my five months in Yemen I never faced any difficulty moving about the city, walking two miles to lunch, buying produce from the corner stand, taking taxis, conversing with strangers, going to "restaurants frequented by Westerners" as the Department of State warns against. This was normal life in Yemen, at the time barely disrupted in areas not affected by the protests. But it was hard to convey this feeling to those outside Yemen, especially as the number of those killed each weekend increased. I was waiting for one more major incident to push me in favor of leaving, instead the decision was made for me.

The school president later came back with our visas and told us that he would not make us leave after all. It was now just an option. But my ticket was already bought and I'd already informed my family that I was coming home. I would leave at 4am.

That night Nabil, Hannah, Danielle and I went for one last dinner together at our favorite Indian restaurant. On the way back, we passed crowds of people gathered at street corners. They were waiting for gas delivery. The pipeline from Mareb had been blocked and cooking gas was now only available in canisters trucked in from that region. We first encountered the gas shortage the previous day, when we discovered our regular lunch restaurant was closed because they had run out of gas. Seeing the lines for gas so late at night seemed an ominous sign.

I finished packing around midnight, I arrived at the airport at 1:30am. Eighteen hours later I was back in the United States.