A Travellerspoint blog

Epilogue: The Incident of the Sheep and the Maribi's Revenge

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Well, I'm am now safely back at home after another 24 hour session of marathon plane flights. It's great to be back with the family and eating good American food. However, I definitely ended my blog a few days too soon. Because in the last 72 hours of our trip, Yemen unleashed the full wrath of it's craziness upon us. It started the morning of our last day of school, and consequently, our last day at the Yemen Language Center. When we walked in for breakfast that morning, we saw a sheep in our outside dining area, tied to a post near the garden. Turns out, one of the YLC students had bought a sheep to be killed for lunch. And no, they didn't have it killed at the market and then prepared and brought to the center. They bought the goat, and kept it tied up overnight so that we could all sit around with it. That morning, a Yemeni kid, who could NOT have been more than 12 years old, showed up to do the honors. This kid came with a set of knives that looked to be half as tall as he was. So, they brought out the sheep held it down, and... botched the first two cuts. The first two knives used were not sharp enough to cut the throat and get at the artery, which significanty upset a number of the Yemeni teachers, since it is supposed to be done in one cut. Finally, the kid pulled out another knife, sharpened it up, and nearly cut all the way through the throat in one motion. Of course, they did this right in the middle of the walkway leading to the kitchen in the center, so anyone who wanted breakfast would have to walk by the profuse amounts of blood coming out of the high pressure arterial spray, which consequently caused them to not want breakfast anymore. Once most of the blood was drained, they tied up one of the back legs, and the kid skinned the sheep in double time. Then, with very obviously practiced blows, he got through the leg cuts, ribs, and spine, and had all the edible meat seperated from the inedible. Luckily, our group was headed for a lunch at a nice restaurant to end our program, and we let the YLC kids have all the sheep for lunch.

At this point, we were all just hoping to get back home without further incident or excitement. We wanted to enjoy our last bit of time in Yemen, but evidently the tribes of the province of Marib (where the car bombing occured) had other ideas. On Thursday night, a few people from the group were smoking sheeshah at a hotel in the Old City. Two of the girls took off early, and were heading back to their hotel, which was on the same street in the Old City. As they rounded a bend in the street, a man bumped into one of the girls and grabbed at her purse. She held on and refused to let go, and then began to scream. The man broke one of the straps, but could not get the purse, and decided to cut his losses and ran off, after nearly 15 seconds of struggle. Somewhat in shock, the girls started to head back to there hotel, but were stopped by some Yemenis. Apparently, other Yemenis had seen what happened, chased the guy down, and proceeded to beat the guy. The local sheikh of that quarter (who somehow managed to get drawn to the scene) asked the girls to identify the guy, which they did. After the girls returned to their hotel, the hotel manager came to them later in the evening, and said that the police needed to talk with them. They went to the station and were asked to identify the would-be mugger again. They took them to a cell where about eight Yemenis were sitting around, chewing qat, acting as they would on any normal Yemeni evening, and the girls identified him once again. Turns out, the mugger was the brother of a very wanted terrorist associated with al Qaeda. Having his brother gives the government quite a bit of leverage over this fugitive. The idea of this type of low level street crime is very surprising in Yemen, where this is almost unheard of. Yemen is incredibly safe for a day-to-day tourist, there is almost no petty theft, or muggings, or crime typically associated with extreme poverty. This unusual incident was explained away by the Yemenis due to the mugger and his brother being from a "bad family and tribe" in Marib.
The day after all this excitement, we had another run-in with members of the trouble making province. Two other members of the group, Heather and Joe, were having lunch when they were approached by a Yemeni man, who sat down at their table and started talking with them. This happens fairly frequently for foreigners who travel outside the tourist areas and speak Arabic. He began to talk with them, telling them he was sheikh from Marib. He went on to talk about how everyone looks down on people from Marib, that they think they are all terrorists and kidnappers, and they all carry bombs in their belts, pointing down to his belt holding his jambia, they traditional Yemeni knife. After lunch, he bought cokes and water for them, and took them to a sweet shop, apparently attempting to continue engaging in a public diplomacy campaign for his province. As he was continuing his monologue in the sweet shop, he apparently emphasized his point about Maribis not being violent by... pulling out a bomb. He pulled at a couple blocks of C-4, which Heather promptly recognized, having formerly served a number of years in the Army. He even pulled it out from the part of his jambia belt that he had pointed to earlier, when despairing over the fact that Yemenis think that all Maribis carry bombs. But, evidently he was just showing off, because nothing actually happened. When he offered to buy Heather a dress and suggested they go get it fitted, Heather and Joe decided they had overstayed their hospitality and made a judicious retreat.

So, having escaped unscathed from all this wackiness during our last 72 hours in Yemen, I've made it back all in one peice to the US. The flights back were totally uneventful, the Yemenia flight from Sana'a to Frankfurt even landed ahead of schedule, which is a minor miracle of God. So, my time in the Middle East has come to an end, for now. It has been a crazy ride, filled with a lot of good memories, and a few things I'll intentionally overlook. If I wind up overseas anytime soon, I'll probably try to use this blog again, but for now, I'm signing off. So long, it's been fun.

Posted by mc327503 12:47 Archived in USA Comments (0)

End of the line

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With five days left here in Sana'a, my crazy Middle Eastern adventures seem to be drawing to a close...for now. Exactly six months and twenty days ago, I walked into John Hopkins airport in Cleveland, bound for a flight to JFK in New York, which would connect to Heathrow in London, and then on to... well, that story has already been told. Now, in five days, I'll be chasing the sun westward once again, heading back to Hopkins. The mid-afternoon call to prayer is starting up off in the distance again, it has become so normal it almost takes effort to realize it's happening at this point. As I sit here, trying to fit this little narrative into something resembling a decent finish, little bits and peices of the last half year keep flashing back. Three seconds of free fall off a cliff in Wadi Beni Khalid... navigating the streets and the smells of the Old City in Sana'a... the waves and the lights on the beach in Qurm... Tuti, Abduallah, Said, and Fatima... the clouds rolling off the mountain in Manakha... stepping off the plane and breathing in the frankincense in Salalah... The list goes on and on, with many of the stories told here, and maybe a few that might not get written down. I could probably spend hours just recalling all the people that I've met, the friends from both programs, my second family in Muscat, everyone in all the countries that have facilitated helping me navigate two radically different, but now familiar, cultures. It's been a physically, mentally, and psychologically grinding time, and it certainly feels like it's been a lot longer than seven months. Even for the month in between the two programs, it was simply a matter of decompressing from one trip and gearing up for a second, and trying to graduate in between. So, on one hand, it's definitely nice to know that I don't have any traveling planned for the near future.

On the other hand, I am not looking forward to coming down off of what I've come to think of as the study abroad addiction. Scientists have theorized that anything that elevates the body's stress levels for a long enough period of time, and the corresponding spike in adrenaline, endorphins, and neurotransmitters that go with it, can lead to a physical addiction in the body. Chemical dependency is simply a synthetic way of over-riding the usual bio-mechanical failsafe features. Over the course of these months, based on my previous experience in China and many discussions with fellow study abroad types, both at home and abroad, it definitely seems feasible that someone can get hooked on studying abroad. While overseas, from the moment I wake up, almost everything is stressful ; traveling, eating, trying to think in another language, even going to the bathroom (actually its definitely stressful going to the bathroom here). As soon as you roll out of bed, the body goes into overdrive, far above the normal rate back in the States, to compensate for everything; the new bacteria in the food and the unusual levels of pollution, dodging traffic and dealing with the stress of almost always having to think about what you're saying before you say it. By the time you return to the States, these stressors have almost become the baseline. The corresponding "crash" that comes with going back to a familiar setting, speaking your native tongue, and living in a completely sanitized Western world can almost be painful. Everything slows down exponentially. After returning, you forget all the bad things, and only remember the exciting, pulse-pouding, adrenaline-pumping parts of being overseas, and start plotting crazy schemes about how to get back overseas. Wilfred Thesiger, one of the last great British explorers, had an interesting view of this dilemma in his classic 'Arabian Sands.' As he attempts to cross the Wahiba Sands, one of the most unforgiving parts of the entire world, his group begins to run out of water. Camels soon begin to drop dead, and they can only travel for a few hours each night. As he lay on the scorching sand underneath the broiling Arabian sun, nearly delirious and on the verge of death, all he can think about is how, if he was in London, he would be going mad trying to get to Arabia. He's on the verge of death, and he STILL knows that he would rather travel through Wahiba than be stuck back in the 'civilized' world. That, to me, sounds like a pretty powerful addiction. In my opinion, it is this physical reaction to coming back to America that creates a lot of 'reverse culture shock,' and it's never fun. Consequently, while I can't wait to see Lindy and Carly and everyone else back home, I can already feel the tension building, deep down inside, like a smoker who knows he's going to have to quit soon. Hopefully, going cold turkey (to keep up the metaphor) will cure me of this for a while, that and maybe re-reading some of these blog posts where I irrationally vent my frustration at some part of overseas life.

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Lunch in Mughsail... the suq in Mutrah... surviving Nizwa... the hours spent in shops in the Old City... Stephanie's conversation with the cab driver in Doha... sitting on the roof of the Sana'a Nights hotel watching the twinkling of lights shining from the colored glass windows of all the old homes... salta, chipati, biryani, shark, and all the other food I've eaten... the memories keep coming. Time plays funny tricks over here, it seems more fluid, less definite. It feels like the two programs have blended into one another, I can't tell where Muscat stops anymore, and Sana'a begins. There are times here in Sana'a when I catch myself thinking that Sana'a is just another side trip from Muscat, and that I'll be heading back to Zainab's house soon. I swear I've known the people from both these trips my entire life, since we've spent so much time together; traveling in crowded buses, studying, eating, suffering through threats and challenges together. We've spent innumerable hours telling all our life stories, and when we've run out, re-telling the old ones and laughing in all the same places. Seven months... it's hard to imagine all the things you can do in seven simple months.

Posted by mc327503 04:50 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Jaded in Sana'a

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It's interesting to reflect back and think about how my perceptions have changed over the course of this program. While this has certainly been the opportunity of a lifetime, despite my complaining, I think it has also definitely made me a little bit more jaded. This realization came to me in light of another round of fresh terrorism warnings. Upon our return from Ta'izz, we found out that there was another round of attacks in the Marib governate. Fortunately, these were against government buildings, checkpoints, and the electrical generating station in Marib. I think the idea that I would find these attacks "fortunate," because they didn't involve Westerners, should have been an early indication of my jaded-ness. Of course, since the electrical generating station linked Sana'a with the hydroelectric power of the Marib dam, rolling blackouts became much more frequent. This was certainly a bad sign, if the area around the tourist centers and the Parliament (aka our center) were losing power and not just the usual poor outskirts of town. Usually they keep the power flowing here as much as possible.

None of this really would have been a problem, since aside from the travel and power issues, what happens in Marib might as well occur in Mongolia for all that it affects us on a day-to-day basis. But, then we got another visit from the embassy folks. The last time we had a visit from the embassy, we were told that Yemen had no history of car bombs... which was eight days before the Marib car bomb attack on the Spanish tourists. This time, we were told that there was no threat of attack on soft targets (aka civilians and tourists rather than "hard" targets like military and government). The Marib attacks were explained away as an anomaly, and besides, it could never happen in Sana'a. So, of course, what happens? Three days later, the US embassy goes on severe lockdown, and sends out a warden message saying that somebody had "specific" intelligence that there might be an attack on soft targets in Sana'a. Of course, I found out about all this today when I finally managed to get on the Internet again and read my email, at Coffee Trader, the Sana'ani version of Starbucks run by an American expat couple. And of course, since it was run by Americans and often attracts an expat crowd, what was one of the places rumored to be on the target list? You got it, the very building I was sitting in. And what was my response to this email? Well, since the warden message was already a week old by the time I read it, I smiled and went on reading my email, I wasn't about to give up a perfectly fine Internet connection because of the threat of a car bomb. That's when it hit me that maybe Yemen has changed my outlook on what constitutes "safe." In America, we obsess over details of security, ranging from our homes up to the national threat index (still at yellow and holding). But, in the past two and a half months, the following things have become normal, and/or just background to the everyday noise of life:
- Fighter-bomber jets flying low over the city (Su-22's from the look of it)
- Sustained gunfire (the summer months, espcially August, are popular for weddings), even when its nearby and about sounds like it's going overhead
- News and rumors of terrorist attacks
- Prolonged power outages due to said terrorist attacks (and simple decay of the Yemeni infrastructure)
- The sight of AK-47's on the shoulder of most adult males
- Being "protected" by an escort when traveling, including a truck mounted heavy machine gun

When all of this becomes a simple, matter of fact part of life, I think that I am definitely going to come back to America with a significantly changed outlook on what constitutes "normal."

Posted by mc327503 04:18 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Comments (0)

Class

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I've been a bit negligent on posting recently, largely because class has been kicking into high gear recently, and we've all been grinding out the classwork. So, I figured I might as well put up at least one post on classes since it is the reason for me being here and is consuming a good sized majority of my time. When the State Department said that the program was going to be intensive Arabic, they sure weren't joking. We are using the Al-Kitaab series books, which are one of the most popular Arabic language series in America, and used in most major Arabic programs in American universities. Over the course of this summer, we will be going through an entire book, in the course of eight week. To put this in perspective, each book in the series is meant to be completed in one year. This is in comparison to OU's quarter system, of three quarters of roughly ten weeks each. So, I will be covering the same quantity of material that I would have over the course of 30 weeks at OU in eight weeks here, plus supplementary materials, including a seperate book on political vocabulary, and speaking out on the streets. Consequently, I've become quite a bit more familiar with the Arabic language.

The classes consist of four hours of instruction divided into one hour blocks. The first two periods are focused on speaking proficiency and listening comprehension. The second two periods focus on grammar. I really enjoy this arrangement. All my previous Arabic classes have focused on speaking, but I am still in serious need of building up my vocabulary. We also can focus on everyday stuff that helps us get around Yemeni society easier. Because my previous classes have focused on speaking, I've had very little formal grammar practice. So, the second half of the classes are incredibly useful. Many Arabic words are derived from roots consisting of three letters. Hebrew, another Semitic language, also has a similar trisyllabic system. The three letters of the root form a myriad combination of verbs, nouns, adjectives and all sorts of other parts of speech. I've known this from the beginning, but this is the first time I've formally studied all the structures, and Arabic becomes significantly easier when you can derive the root and compare to similar words. My class started with four people back in June, but one of my classmates Paul (who was also my former roommate at the Hilltown) went back to the States after the Marib stuff. So, now we are down to myself and two others in class. When there are only three people in class, you can't get out of asking questions, you can't avoid doing homework, and you have to stay on the ball when it comes to studying. So, even though this won't be for any formal grade, that doesn't mean I'm working any less. Given that there are only three people in class to begin with, and that my classmates keep coming down "sick" or showing up during the second and third hours, it's practically one on one tutoring.

In addition to the Arabic classwork, we have stuff that is required for the CLS program. I attend a weekly two hour discussion with a Yemeni NGO called the Democracy School. There are about eight of us, broken into two groups of four, paired up with about ten Yemenis per group. We have been discussing, in Arabic, American foriegn policy, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, human rights, and assorted other fun topics. Last week, we had a comparative discussion about the structure of the US government versus the Yemeni government. It's hard enough explaining concepts like the Electoral College or federalismin English, it gets significantly harder trying to explain it in rough Arabic. During the recent trip to Ta'izz, we saw a sign in poorly translated English in our hotel rooms discussing the hours for the "purgation of the ladling." Translating the original Arabic, we came to realize that this somehow meant room cleaning. I can only hope that when I'm having these discussions with Yemenis that I'm not somehow butchering Arabic as badly as the "purgation of the ladling." At times, I'm not always optimistic. Anyways, this is the sort of stuff that keeps me busy most days, so please forgive any prolonged absences on the blog.

Posted by mc327503 05:44 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Comments (0)

Ta'izz and Jiblah

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This weekend brought about another trip outside of Sana'a. We headed down south to the town of Jiblah, and the city of Ta'izz, Yemen's second largest city. As we sat on the bus for the five to six hour bus ride, it occured to me that Yemen has two elevations; above the clouds and below the clouds. The drive down to Jiblah (our first stop) had us zooming in and out of valleys. The Jiblah-Ta'izz-Ibb route is pretty good farm country by Yemeni standards, and the mountains were surprisingly green. It looked more like pictures I've seen of Ireland and north Italy then the rest of Yemen. Many of the mountain terrace farms were growing corn, which was interesting, and also explained where all the roasted corn on the streets of Sana'a comes from.

We made our first stop in the small town of Jiblah, which is noteworthy because of the Queen Arwa Mosque. The mosque is home to the shrine of Queen Arwa, and has some very interesting architectural details drawn from many different areas. Oddly enough, we were told that Shias were not allowed to pray at the mosque. This came about because one my classmates is a Shia and another is an Ismaili, which is a similar sect traditionally lumped in with the Shias. Both of them prayed at the mosque, but we were told after that they made an exception on account of our guest status. The oddest part of all this was that Queen Arwa, whose remains lay in the mosque, was a Shia herself. The Middle East can be a funny place.

We reached Ta'izz later that day and began exploring the city. Ta'izz was the former home of the Rashulid dynasty between the 11th and 15th centuries. The city has the feel of an unkempt European principality. The streets are narrow and built at crazy angles running up and down the hills. With its location at the bottom of a ring of mountains, and the unusually green scenery, it could almost be Andorra, nestled in between Spain and France. For dinner, we ascended (via bus) to Jabel Sabr. This mountain ridge climbs 1500 meters above the valley floor, almost straight up. So, needless to say, the drive up was pretty intense. We ate at the Jabel Sabr hotel, which overlooks the valley, and was apparently built by Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, who was apparently fond of Ta'izz. The hotel was sufficiently posh for a the former leader of the UAE. The view at night was awesome, not the least because we were at least 2000 feet above the city. Since it was a Thursday night (the weekend is Thurs-Fri, so equivalent to Saturday in the States), you could look down on the city and see all the fireworks going off to celebrate the traditional Thursday night wedding ceremonies. And the people shooting off AK's, of course. The next day we visited Qalhat al-Qahara, an old fortress being steadily restored. It was actually quite a bit beneath the Jabel Sabr Hotel, but back in the day of the Rashulids, its perch on the mountains dominated the city. The casualty rate for the this program continued to mount on this trip also. My roommate Pat managed to step into a drain and sprain his ankle fairly badly. The bars had been pried apart in order to allow trash to be better forced down into the drain. Hopefully, the swelling will continue to go down and Pat can hobble around on crutches from the Saudi-German hospital. With the exception of Pat's injury, it was a great trip. We continued our practice of going to various places in Yemen and climbing to the highest point available, which seems to be a hallmark of all our trips given Yemen's topography. But, we also got to go visit a city with a fairly long history, and see some more of the real Yemen that we cannot usually get on our single-day trips.

Posted by mc327503 05:20 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Comments (0)

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