Monday, February 27, 2017

Yemeni Memory

As a younger man I lived in Yemen for two years. It was from September of 1987 to September of 1989. I lived and worked in the Red Sea port town of Hodeidah. The city had roughly 250,000 people, approximately 4 of whom were Americans. I was there by way of the United States Peace Corps and I taught English in a school originally set up to teach Yemeni civil servants English so that Yemen could begin to have more interaction with the rest of the world.

Not enough civil servants took advantage of the opportunity, so the school opened its doors to anyone who wanted to learn English. In this way, the school where I taught became one of the few places in the traditionally gender- and class-segregated country where people could mix with other people they would not normally interact with. I loved that aspect of my job—it gave me a chance to meet taxi drivers, soldiers, government workers, middle-aged women who otherwise didn’t get out of the house much, male and female high school students, and old men just looking for something new to do.

Many of the people I taught had never met an American before. They knew who our President was (George HW Bush) and they knew when our Congressional elections were, since the outcome often had a direct impact on their country. In contrast, most of the people I knew in America had no idea there even was such a country as Yemen when I told them where I was headed.

When I got back people would ask “So how was it?”

How do you sum up two years in a sentence or two? It is impossible, and I quickly learned that most people really did not want to know how Yemen was. I developed a rote reply I gave to everyone who asked. If people then came back with specific questions or showed that they really were curious, then I would engage in some actual conversation. The rote answer was something like: “It changed my life—it is so different from life here.” 99 times out of 100, people were satisfied to move onto the next topic. Occasionally, someone would want to know more. I really enjoyed those conversations.

One of the best things about my job in Hodeidah was that my school was closed as often as it was open. A term would last ten weeks, and then there would be a five- to ten-week break before the next term began.

Hodeidah is on the flat Red Sea coastal plain called the Tihama. At 15 degrees North latitude, it gets hot there in the summer. Rather than overload you with weather data, let me tell you three things:

1)     on average, the coldest day of the year in Hodeidah is December 31, when the average high temperature is 84,
2)     It twice hit 50 degrees C while I lived in Hodeidah. This is 122 F, with 90+% humidity,
3)     In my two years in Hodeidah, it rained fewer than 10 times.

Simply put, summers were brutal. I would often throw some clothes in a backpack with my toothbrush and passport and head out to the edge of town. On the main road heading east toward the mountains and the capital, (Sana’a), there was a military checkpoint where 19-year old conscripts would check travel papers for anyone coming or going. I would walk over to their checkpoint, introduce myself, and explain that I wanted to hitch a ride out of town. They would check my passport and travel papers and then often they would help me flag down a ride.

To them, I was a real oddity—a white guy who spoke Yemeni Arabic and actually wanted to travel to out-of-the-way mountaintop villages in the back of goat-laden Toyota Hilux pickups.
In this way, I got to see a fair portion of what was then called North Yemen. (In the intervening years, North and South Yemen have reunited to form one war-scarred country.) Speed limits, seat belts, car inspections, load limits, no-passing zones, or really just about any other rules of the road were non-existent. Most males over the age of 13 had either a sharpened dagger called a jambiya in a sheath at their waist or they had an AK-47 slung over their shoulders. From the perspective of 27 years, this description sounds fairly dangerous. In the moment, it felt absolutely liberating.

My life has been good, with many highlights. It is hard to pick one, point at it, and say “There—right there—THAT is the most elated I have ever felt.” I can say without hesitation that on the short list of most-elated moments in my life are a few rides in the backs of overloaded pickup trucks, climbing out of the Tihama heat and humidity and up into the blessedly cooler and drier air in Yemen’s mountains.  The combination of physical relief at escaping the heat, excitement at being in the mountains, and the freedom of no responsibilities was a heady mix that left me giddy sometimes. The feeling was far stronger than I am able to describe.

Sometimes I was heading to Hajjah to visit my friend Amy. Sometimes I was going to Ibb to see Mary and Chris. A few times I went to Taiz to visit other Peace Corps volunteers. There was Lynn in Amran, Toby in Manakhah, and a whole slew of people in Sana’a. And those trips were fun because I got to spend time with friends.

But the trips that left me feeling most elated were the ones without a specific destination, other than a place I had not yet been. A driver would pull over at the checkpoint and ask where I was headed. I would turn the question right back around on them—“Where are YOU headed?” If the answer was a mountain village I had never been to, I would ask to come along. In this way I got to some incredible places.

The landscape of Yemen is hard to describe well. The words I use are all words everyone knows—mountains, valleys, rocks, terraces, stark, colorful, steep---but the reality is like nowhere else I have ever seen. It’s almost like cooking. I can describe for you all the ingredients in a dish, but if it is something you have not tasted, your imagination can only give you an approximation of what the final dish would taste like. The landscape of Yemen is like that.

On one trip, I can remember sitting open-mouthed among goats, sorghum, and two old men in the back of a pickup as we climbed up a switchbacky dirt road that gained at least 3000 feet of altitude from the valley floor to a stone village that was almost invisible at the top of the mountain. The village was made of local rocks, chipped into building blocks and placed on top of each other without mortar. The buildings looked entirely organic—like they had simply grown up out of the rocks and the people had moved in. Some of these mountaintop villages had been there since before Islam came to Yemen in the 600s. Many of the people in these villages did not think of themselves primarily as Arabs or Yemenis or Muslims. They thought of themselves primarily as inhabitants of their specific village.

When the pickup made it to the top of the mountain, the air was a good 30 or 40 degrees cooler. A crowd gathered before the driver had even turned the truck off--mostly kids, smiling and yelling “Soora. Soora!” “Mumkin a ben?” “Wherrrrre arrrrre you frrrom?” (Many village schools had Egyptian teachers who taught English. For some reason, Egyptian English involved much rolling of Rs.) “Soora” was Yemeni Arabic for “picture.” The kids wanted me to take a picture of them and give them a few rials for their trouble. They were also asking for a pen. For some reason I have yet to figure out, kids all over Yemen would ask foreigners for a pen…

Anyway, I was drawn to the edge of the 1000-meter drop-off where I took a seat, got out my aim-and-shoot camera and a Tom Robbins book I was reading, and settled in to soak up the view. I should have known the book was not going to happen. I was soon surrounded by a crowd of boys and men who had a million questions. Once they found that I could speak a little Arabic, the crowd grew. They asked about my family, my hometown, my country. They asked about Israel and Russia and how I could stand living in the heat of the Tihama.

And as the sun started to get lower in the western sky, they asked if I had a place to stay.
When I said no, I was overwhelmed with offers. People were eager to open their homes and let me in. They could not even imagine turning away a stranger in need. I had not left America because there was a brutal civil war and my town no longer existed. I had not left America because violent extremist nihilists were killing anyone who thought differently than they did. I had not left America because my own country’s armed forces had gassed my village. I had not left America because staying meant being forced to join one armed faction or another.

I had left simply because I could. And I knew that when I decided to go back, America, my state, my city, my house, and my family would all still be there. And still these people called me “Miskeen” and argued over who would have the honor of calling me a guest. “Miskeen” translates as something like “poor one.” Most Yemenis could not imagine being far from home and family with just a backpack and no place to stay. To them, it would be shameful to turn me away.

I stayed for a few days in that town and was treated like an honored guest.

I have been thinking a lot about this particular memory lately. These days, it makes me sad.


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