Louisa Glenn tells of traveling in Yemen and learning there was more to the country than just the setting of a “Friends” episode.
So! Midway through my junior year – my third year of studying Arabic – I found that I was awfully good at writing about fancy media topics like uranium enrichment or UN security summits, but I couldn’t really have a basic conversation with anyone. So several of my classmates and I decided to spend the coming summer in Yemen. It wasn’t the “sexiest” place to go by far – most everyone else chose to study in Egypt or Syria, but Yemen was for the intrepid and I was ready for an adventure. Some folks back home laughed and confessed they thought Yemen was made up for that Friends episode where Chandler is running away from something … yeah. I mean, I didn’t know much about Yemen either, but at least I knew it was a real place.
I’m pretty sure my parents only let me go there because my dad’s friend – a former navy seal – specializes in evacuations, and had apparently extracted some oil workers from a sticky situation in northern Yemen a few months earlier. So …. if the country dissolved overnight, i’d uhhhhh be fine. Right? My dad also told me once that he was a spy, and that he had a Leer jet waiting for him at the Smyrna airfield, and he was totally pulling my leg, so who knows.
During our first week in Yemen, our little gaggle of language students got to know our neighborhood block by block – using our spangly new conversation skills to introduce ourselves to shopkeepers, making some pretty positive first impressions by saying things like “Hello sir! Yes, I would like a half kilo of tomorrow if you please.” We really just wanted some plums – we were totally unprepared to barter over the cost of a tomorrow.
Our radius of discovery expanded rapidly. We tackled public transport, and visited old Sana’a where I made my grand debut in the main square by barfing my lunch all over myself. (And to those of you who have experienced the delights of using a squat toilet but have yet to throw up in one — boy, do you have a treat in store) On less gastronomically volatile days, we wandered through alleyways between ancient brown brick houses that looked like majestic gingerbread towers, complete with white icing filigree decoration and stained glass windows. We shopped for novelties like mosque-shaped alarm clocks and lighters that, when you pushed a button, projected a picture of the president. Passengers in public taxis wanted to know who we supported in that summer’s world cup, whether it snowed where we came from, and what we thought of Yemen so far.
We loved it! We gradually traveled beyond the capital. On the weekends we piled into our language institute director’s SUV for excursions. She dropped us not too far outside the city limit checkpoints at the liquor smuggler’s hut, telling us to practice our Arabic and to bring her a bottle of gin. And then we went even further afield – remote villages in the countryside where we hiked along livestock trails skirting bottomless chasms that taught me what vertigo means. Once we got lost in a thundercloud and some of us cried but we sang songs from the Sound of Music and made it back to our hotel safely, danced late into the evening, and watched tracer bullets arc into the night -someone had gotten married and everyone was celebrating. Another weekend we rode on the outside of a car – like, not in the back but hanging off the side which was SUPER COOL – on our way to drink coffee with a gun dealer where we discussed firearms and safety. And we scrambled across a stone bridge built between two mountaintop villages – legend has it – in penance for a murder. Yemen was fascinating, and I couldn’t get enough.
We soon engaged in an important daily ritual in Yemen – chewing qat. You may have heard of it – it’s this plant, and you inspect what’s on offer in the market for the most supple, tender leaves. And then you pluck the leaves off the branch, chew them, and store them in your cheek, swallowing the juices. Turns out that what’s in qat is essentially mild amphetamines, which give rise to mild euphoria. Especially when you feel like, all of a sudden, your Arabic is AMAZING and you just want to talk about EVERYTHING. Most people chew every day starting in the early afternoon, and there are rooms at the tops of houses built specifically for chewing with your pals. That’s where all the meaty conversations happen, and where our eyes were opened to the political undercurrents in the country.
For a while, we had a fairly innocent, touristic view of Yemen. The country was enchantingly stark and rugged, and we made lots of friends. But this was 2006 and the backdrop of the summer was a.) my 22nd birthday on July 4th – my friends sewed me an American flag and mixed up some Tang cocktails and b.) national elections scheduled for that fall. Political party symbols were spray painted on any available surface – a big strong horse! an alarm clock! A rising sun! a soccer ball! an airplane! An eagle!
Yemenis wouldn’t talk about it out in the open, but we began to understand that people were uneasy. I spent afternoons chewing qat with journalists who expressed great concern for the lack of press freedom, and how carefully couched any commentary had to be. And I chewed with fathers who worried for their children’s future. And I chewed with businessmen who bemoaned a recent Time Magazine article that ranked all the countries in the world – Yemen ranked sixth on their list … sixth worst, according to their algorithms. We understood that general safety and security was an issue – tribal skirmishes in the north, a heavily and publically armed population, soldiers everywhere. Army trucks with mounted eight-foot guns rumbled through the streets covered in flowers and the president’s portrait. Tourists were kidnapped and held for ransom – some really enjoyed their captors’ hospitality, but they were the lucky ones. Yemen was confronted by overwhelming, very visible poverty, and was predicted to be the first country to run out of water — helped in large part by thirsty qat plants. In the evenings, overcome by the heat and the dust, my friends and I sat on our rooftop relishing the languid sunsets, puffing on hookahs and talking about all these things like the armchair analysts that we were, not realizing that these tensions would soon become all too apparent to us.
One of my classmates who volunteered for an English language newspaper had been covering a week-long tourism festival. Tourists were pretty few and far between, so naturally I was curious to see who would be there. On that final night of the festival, the old square was the emptiest I had ever seen it – a grandstand with government officials and security forces and a handful of tourists, but no taxis, no one hawking bootleg cassette tapes out of their vans, no children running around, no real everyday people living their real everyday lives. Far out of my view, security barriers held the real people back, kept them away from the spectacle that unfolded before us – a strangely sterilized montage of traditional Yemeni dancers, camels and some terrifying giant clowns.
By the time the finale rolled around and the fireworks started, we had been moved up onto the grandstand. This wasn’t a fireworks display as I knew it – not one glittering puff, and then another. This was a barrage, and it went on and on and on. Loud, like gunfire. Like lots of gunfire. I turned to my classmate Liz only to see that she was not watching the fireworks – rather, she was scanning the surrounding rooftops where people were gathering, keeping an eye out for trouble.
The fireworks finally ended, and we all clustered together to figure out the best place to grab a taxi home. Five or six major thoroughfares led into the square, and they had all been cordoned off for the show, police hitting people to keep them back. From where I stood with my friends, I turned and looked down one of these roads, glowing hazy under yellow streetlamps. And that’s when I realized that haze was smoke in the air from the fireworks and dust kicked up by the wall of people charging toward the square, toward us.
I froze. And watched the crowd surge forward. I guessed that, after restraining them for over an hour, the police had moved aside and just let people go. And Liz, my savvy friend who was watching the rooftops said quickly, okay everyone, line up and grab the shirt of the person in front of you and follow me LET’S GOOOO and we did what she said as the yelling got louder and louder and all of a sudden we were in a first floor hotel lobby looking out over the balcony as floods and floods of people spilled into the square. Shouting. Waving knives and guns. I’d certainly never experienced a culmination of public anxiety and anger like that before – it immediately brought to the forefront everything we’d been discussing over the past two months. Once some of the crowds had begun to disperse we took a back staircase to a taxi that had been called for us and later, after expressing our disbelief at what had just happened, we ate dinner in silence.
I left not long after – my studies had come to an end. My love for Yemen has not waned, and my heart stopped last week as I watched a video of bombs being dropped on my old neighborhood. That’s where I learned what it means to become more than a tourist, to not skate through a country without understanding what it means to really live there – for better or for worse.