A Travellerspoint blog

Darker days in Yemen


Many of you who might be following Yemen because of my current presence here no doubt have heard about the latest unrest in Yemen. Those of you who haven't, better that you hear it from me rather than the sensationalist Western media. Yesterday, there was a car bomb in Marib, about 100 miles to the west of Yemen. It killed 7 spanish tourists and their Yemeni guides. Of course, this throws a wrench in any number of plans, but it really isn't as bad as the combined phrases of "car bomb," "Yemen," and "seven people dead" might sound. For one thing, all the tourists have pretty much evac'd, which was pretty funny because they all fled to the airport in convoys guarded by the local cops. Of course, since they have no ties to the community like we do, this was big news for them. So, now we have the city to ourselves, which is awesome, since I've never really liked seeing other foreigners outside of "my" program when studying abroad. Plus, the cost of souveniers is going to plummet, since the people in the suqs were already starting to raise prices in anticipation of the onset of the tourist season. In practical terms, this means next to nothing for us, aside from a lot of logistical headaches. Our planned trip to Marib is off, and the trip to Hawdramaut is also, since we'd have to go through Marib. This sucks since the Hawdramaut is the center of the Yemeni honey, frankincense, and silver trade. The amusing/disturbing part of all this is the recent security briefing from the embassy security officer. When asked about the security viability of housing 40 to 80 Americans in one hotel, and the possibility for a car bomb he replied with this gem: "There is no history of car bombs in Yemen, although, I guess there isn't a history of car bombs until there is a history of car bombs." That was eight days ago. So, now they're splitting all of us into groups of 6 to 8 and disburses us around the old city hotels, where car bombs can't operate because of the crazy alley ways. This should be interesting, since we can now be right in the heart of Sana'a and go into the suqs every day. Of course, getting to the YLC will be much more complicated, and it takes me away from all the cafes where a group of us has been regularly ensconsced recently, so much so that the Yemenis are calling us regulars. On the whole, the Yemenis are probably getting the worst of all of it. All the locals I usually talk to are horrified. Not the least of which is because Yemen was undergoing a nascent tourist revival, which is why Europeans were in Marib in the first place, touring one of the lost palaces of Queen Sheba. It's already being blamed on al Qaeda, and if they catch anybody, it'll probably turn out to be foreign Arabs, or extremist from the Zaydi rebellion up north that aren't satisfied with the recent cease fire. So, in the mean time, we'll all disembark to the Old City, the government is putting more guns on the street (which I didn't think was possible) as a show of force, and life goes on. I'm probably safer now, since Yemen had gone two years without a terrorist attack or kidnapping, this was just the Yemeni law of averages coming back to earth. Aside from the deaths, the worst part of all of this is that the embassy cancelled the Fourth of July party, since they didn't want that many Americans together. Just another day in the Middle East, so it goes.

Posted by mc327503 07:36 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Comments (0)

The perils of going to Yemen

no, not terrorism


From one of the other guys on the trip: "I've never a group of people outside of a nursing home discuss their bowel movements so oftern."

Welcome to the Third World

Needless to say, we've all been eating a lot of yogurt.

Posted by mc327503 06:47 Archived in Yemen Arab Republic Comments (0)


Every developing country that has security problems always has one of THOSE hotels. The hotel where everyone always knows what going on all over the city, with the really odd mix of foreiginers and locals, with everyone on some seemingly shady business. Well, it would appear that the Hilltown Hotel is THAT hotel here in Sana'a. It has a very Casablanca in WWII feel. One day, the lobby will be filled with tribesmen in from the Hawdramaut, meeting to discuss their plans for the next session of parliament, dressed in sports coats over top of their dishdashas, with jambiyas shover in the belt. The next day, the elevator will open on the way down to the lobby and a Yemeni officer in full dress uniform, toting an AK-47 (which apparently do not need to be checked at the hotel desk), will get in. Or two Yemeni businessmen will be chain smoking in the lobby, while chewing qat, discussing the latest in Sana'ani real estate. And of course, the erstwhile hotel managers at the desk will always be smiling, and can hook you up with qat, and probably some substances or services otherwise illegal in this strict Muslim state. Then, not to mention, there is the two floors of Americans, not just us State Department kids, but assorted American scholars researching 10th century Zaydi munscripts and Arabian oud music. All of the Americans are suspect, because they think we are either CIA spies, or all the blond haired, blue eyed girls that are running around without covering are, umm, available, so to speak. The only thing really missing is a couple of crazy journalists trying to get to Sada to interview the leaders of the Zaydi rebellion and find out if they are, in fact, being supported by the Iranians like everyone here thinks. With it's slightly ramshackle appearance, and location right near the parliament, defense ministry compound, and Tahrir Square, the Hilltown is definitely the place to be. All the tourists and governmental delegations might crowd (well not really crowd since this IS Yemen after all), but the Hilltown has the real pulse of Sana'a

Posted by mc327503 00:29 Comments (0)

Guns, gat, and gangster wads

Yemen really is beginning to resemble the American Wild West in my mind. Just as the Wild West was not nearly as violent as people think, so too is Yemen. This probably has a good deal to do with the fact that Yemen is the perfect example of how an armed society is a polite society. Guns are everywhere, espcially with the armed forces and police, which seems to make up about 20% of the working population. Most store owners have one also. We went to Dar al Hajar yesterday, which is in Wadi al-Dur, and there is a place over looking the wadi where you can take pictures with Yemeni falcons and shoot off guns. Unfortunately, we arrived during lunchtime, and only the falcon people and beggars were there, which made me sorely disappointed.
The other overwhelming difference between Yemen and the other Gulf countries I've been to is the prevalence of qat. With the Yemeni accent, the qaf in qat becames a 'g' sound, like the way the Egyptians pronounce the jeem. Thus, qat becomes gat in the local dialect. The reason for this local adaptation of modern standard arabic is because it is almost impossible to pronounce the qaf properly with a tennis ball sized wad of gat in your mouth. Gat leaves litter the streets, and some Yemeni men have wads so large that the cheek is stretched to the point that you can practically see through it. Of course, a lifetime of chewing gat has destroyed the dental hygiene of most Yemenis, and it's pretty nasty to see bits of leaves stuck in teeth and dribbling down the beards of the men.
The last part of Yemeni society that I've been having quite a bit of fun with is the currency. The exchange rate is $1 US for 199 Yemeni rials. Consequently, we've gotten very good at dividing by 200 to get an approxiamate price in US dollars. The advantage of the exchange is that when you exchange money, you get a huge stack of rials. I exchanged a couple hundred dollars at the airport, and got back a two inch thick stack of rials. It looked like a Tony Soprano-style gangster wad. Most of that is locked in the safe at the AIYS now. While the likelihood of getting robbed is next to zero, its just physically impossible to carry around a stack of bills that sized. Between the money I've exchanged, plus the stipend we're getting from the program, I've suddenly realized that I actually have more money than I can spend, for the first time in life. It seems like the only way to spend it all will be to take a trip down to Aden, the Dubai of Yemeni society. Even then, the $700 combined between the stipend is a pretty incredible sum of money. I think I could get used to life in Yemen.

Posted by mc327503 23:59 Comments (0)

Life in Yemen

Human beings are wonderfully adaptive when faced with changing circumstances. Or at least so it would seem after one full week here al'Yemen. It seems hard to believe that getting up at 6 AM is now what passes for sleeping in, and going to bed at 10 PM is a really late night. Nor does it seem unusual for random people speaking another language invite me into their home to chew qat. The fact that chewing qat seems normal now also reflects how quickly a person can adapt. Of course, the change in sleeping schedules has become an absolute necessary, since the call to prayer here, for some unknown reason, goes off a little before 4 AM, unlike dawn like most civilized Islamic countries. Thus, it becomes impossible to sleep past 4 AM due to the speaker from the mosque next door is pointed pretty much right at my window. Our hotel is listed in the ´top end´section of my Lonely Planet guide, which really makes me wonder what passes as ´budget.´ My roommate and I finally got a fan, so we can close the unscreened windows and stop getting chewed alive by the bugs. That we are living in a hotel shows how much of a presence American students are beginning to have in Yemen. I would normally be staying at the Yemen Language Center, but with the State Department program, the YLC is hosting over 120 American students and scholars. Consequently, the dorms at the YLC, the YLC guest house, and the Bab al'Sabah house which the YLC owns are all full, which is why the YLC has now more or less taken over the Hilltown Hotel(yes, the Yemenis are very creative at naming stuff, there is also a Starbunny´s, which rips off Starbucks and Bugs Bunny symbols). The YLC is more or less taking over the neighborhood, and looking to expand, since it will soon become the College of Yemeni Middle Eastern studies, which will offer full year programs, and content courses. To a certain degree, this is very disappointing. As anyone who has studied in a place off the beaten path knows, it´s always a little bit disappointing running into other people with white skin while studying in an exotic locale. It´s almost as if they´re ruining your unique experience. On top of that, a rivalry has emerged between the regular YLC kids and us Critical Language Scholarship types. The CLS people are here on scholarship, having everything paid for us, taking the best teachers, and pretty much having the YLC bent to our will, even though we represent only 28 of the 120 odd people at the YLC. Furthermore, most of us have had prior MidEast experience and obviously prior Arabic experience, while most of the YLC´ers are just getting their feet wet. Consequently, we can go wherever we want, when we want, and interact with a much larger segment of Yemeni society. In response, the YLC kids have decided to give us the cold shoulder. To those of us with the CLS program, we couldn´t care less, since the YLC kids mostly speak English, which does us no good, and don´t get out into the street much. And mostly we don´t have time to deal with it, since the program is running us ragged.

Posted by mc327503 03:46 Comments (0)

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