Saturday, September 27, 2008

Security and the U.S. Embassy Attack

I'm actually taking this post from an e-mail that I sent out, but I thought it would be appropriate to include on my blog as well. I wrote this the day after the U.S. embassy was attacked here in Sana'a. I was nowhere near the embassy when it happened, and neither were any of the students or staff from the school I work at.

Here is part of an e-mail that we sent to students on September 18.

An update on yesterdays attack:

Yemeni authorities have arrested 19 people suspected of being connected to yesterdays attack at the U.S. embassy. The attack killed 16 people, including six attackers. There is no concrete evidence that the attack was the work of Al-Qaeda, and a group calling itself Islamic Jihad in Yemen (not related to the Palestinian group) has claimed responsibility for the attack, which they claimed was a result of their demands for the release of prisoners being unmet.

While the YCMES encourages extra caution and vigilance to be exercised, it does not believe that the welfare and the safety of the students have been compromised as a result of this attack. The administration of the YCMES is in contact with the U.S. embassy and various ministries in Yemen and is doing all it can to ensure the security and safety of students. For the time being, you may continue your daily routine, though we discourage visits to western, Saudi, and Emirati establishments and any visits to the embassy should be official in nature and visitors should use the utmost discretion.

After hearing about this (and partially witnessing it from our bathroom window - we could hear the explosion and see smoke rising in the distance), I really do not feel any less safe than I did before. I am mostly frustrated that something like this happened, and has affected the already negative view of Yemen that people may have. When I walked through the streets yesterday something was different. People here didn't seem to have the same liveliness as they did before. It was almost as if they were ashamed at what happened and realized how the actions of a few people can so quickly ruin their reputation, without having the ability to influence it themselves. It is unfortunate that a small group of people can do something like this and affect the reputation of an entire country, of which most people don't know much about in the first place. It was also very strange to everyone, Yemenis and foreigners alike, that it happened at this time, during the month of Ramadan. A month celebrating religion and emphasizing time with friends and family (think a month long Christmas celebration). Clearly, the attackers did not represent any kind of majority of the population. I heard from a friend here that the group claiming responsibility for the attack had given an ultimatum that demanded the release of select prisoners from U.S. prisons, and if their request was not met, they would attack in three days. There are also threats against the British, Saudi, and Emirati embassies here if the prisoners are still not released. However, it sounds like the Yemeni government has made quite a few arrests related to this incident, so hopefully that will help to prevent things like this in the near future (since I can't imagine that the U.S. will be releasing any prisoners).

Even despite this, I have felt nothing but welcomed by the people here since I arrived. They are some of the friendliest people I have met, out of all of the places I have been. People will nearly crash their cars or motorcycles just to say "welcome to my country!" or "hello!" as they pass by (usually the only words/phrases in english that they know). I don't know what you all have been reading, but try to keep in mind the things you hear from me about my experiences here when you think of Yemen. I say this because for some reason it was imperative for almost every article I read about the attack to include "Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden", or something else that seemed to only be included in the article to sensationalize the situation. In fact, the only person from his family that even had a connection to Yemen is his grandfather. Osama bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, not Yemen. And even if he did have more of a connection here, would this really be relevant to all of the people living here and their character? I think not.

Anyway, taking all of this into consideration. There isn't really a lot I can do other than to be more cautious and stay away from any sort of establishment that has Western connections for a while, and see what happens. I have no doubt that things here will quickly return to normal.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Day Trip to Dar al-Hajar

Dar al-Hajar

I recently went on a short day trip to Dar al-Hajar, or The Imam's Rock Palace, which is located about ten miles away from Sana'a. Before arriving at the palace we stopped at an overlook, looking down on Wadi Dhahr, the valley Dar al-Hajar is in ("wadi" means dry river valley). When it rains the bottom of the valley becomes a river, hence the green swathe in the valley surrounded by all of the yellow and white sand and rocks. Apparently this overlook is a popular place for wedding parties to come, and although guns are officially banned from this area, participants can still be seen dancing with their jambiyyas drawn. Unfortunately we didn't see this happening, although the view was still pretty great.

Easily one of the most photographed sites in Yemen, and also featured on the 500 Yemeni Rial note, Dar al-Hajar was built in the 1930s by the Imam Yahya as a summer residence. Today it is owned by the government, and has been transformed into a museum visited by tourists and Yemenis alike. The palace grounds consist of the main building and also a few others around the courtyard housing special sitting rooms and dining rooms. The main building has been constructed on top of a large boulder in the middle of the valley. The giant rock that serves as its foundation has served other purposes throughout history - there are prehistoric burial caves and deep wells that were present long before Imam Yahya built his summer home there, both of which were implemented into the new building. See my pictures below.

Dar al-Hajar (The Imam’s Rock Palace)

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Hilltop village not too far away from Sana'a

For our second weekend here in Yemen, we were invited by my boss, Sabri, to go with him to Manakha, a town just over two hours away by car. The purpose of the trip was for Sabri to check up on some land that he owns there, that he plans to make part of the college someday, and also to talk to the head of telecommunications in the area to discuss getting land line phones at the future building site. We left Sana'a at about 8:30 in the morning and didn't reach Manakha until around noon (we made a few stops on the way). Upon leaving Sana'a, we were afforded some of our first views outside of the city, which was nothing like either of us had expected. First of all, Sana'a is surrounded by mountains on almost all sides, so in order to get out we had to traverse up a hillside which gave us great views of the city below. Once we got further away from the city, we came to our first checkpoint. These checkpoints are utilized to keep tabs on who comes into, and leaves the capital, and also what they take with them. We drove Sabri's fairly new, Toyota Landcruiser, and we had a driver, Sabri, Kim, myself, and Omar (who works in IT at the college). As you might expect, an SUV with Yemenis in the front seats and white American kids in the back looked a little suspicious to the guards at the checkpoint. Luckily, I had my work ID which says that I work at the school and is also in Arabic, Kim however, had no identification that would mean anything to them, so Sabri just paid them and they let us through. It may have been a different story if she was male, but females in this country tend to get by largely without being questioned if there are men doing the inspections (out of respect for women).
The first checkpoint, with a picture of the Preside
nt on it

As we made our way through the countryside, we came to
a town about 30 minutes from Sana'a where it was decided by Sabri that we would eat breakfast, and wait to meet one of Sabri's friends who would be accompanying us on the rest of the trip. We stopped at a place which looked pretty questionable to us, as far as what it might do to our stomachs later, but there wasn't really anything else around, and Sabri informed us that this is where he always stops, so that helped with our confidence. The seating area was no more than a raised, open air platform attached to a building, which you can see in the picture. The yellowish, square platform is where a man sat and chopped pieces of raw meat, which you would then get from him, take to another person behind a large firey grill, and have him cook for you. Then you sit down at a table while your meat is cooked with spices and maybe a few vegetables, and wait for it to be delivered. When you get your food, you eat the meat with pieces of bread that you tear off from one large piece of bread that is shared by everyone you eat with.

Everyone eats from the
same pan and there are no personal plates to be had. Oh and you might have noticed the calves that were tied up in front of the restaurant...well, those are what the raw meat was. When they run out of meat, which they did towards the end of our meal, they take one over to to the side and kill it, right there by the road. Not for the faint of heart, but that is about as fresh as it gets (which apparently in countries like Yemen and other developing countries is a good thing). Once we got over the fact that what we were eating was standing in front of the restaurant only that morning, the food was delicious! In addition to the meat, we had "fuul" a typical Yemeni dish of kidney beans and spices that we used the bread to eat as well. All of this made for quite the interesting breakfast, but I would definitely do it again.

Kim and I at the restaurant, next to the raw meat...

After breakfast we drove back to the edge of town to wait for Sabri's friend that we were meeting. While we waited, we ate some of the fresh grapes and pomegranates that Sabri had bought on the way from a roadside vendor. Toyota Landcruisers, of which we were driving, are affectionately known as "Monicas" in Yemen, and this is how Sabri described our car to his friend so that he would know where we were. I heard him say that we were driving a "Monica" on the phone and asked him why they were called this when he was done. Sabri explained to me that the name "Monica" became synonomyous with these vehicles during the Clinton administration, when the President was involved with another "Monica" who shared similar features as the Landcruiser, that being a wide rear end. I thought that was pretty humorous. And the story is true, because I had heard that they were called that even before my arrival from my travel book on Yemen (unfortunately the book didn't give the real reason they are nicknamed as such haha).
Our Monica haha =)

Sabri's friend finally arrived and we made our way to Manakha. The countryside from Sana'a to Manakha is utterly breathtaking and completely unlike what I expected. For the first hour or so you drive through flatter ground with smaller hills and mountains every now and then, and for the second part of the trip you spend the entire time traversing up and down mountains, overlooking terraced farmland like something you would expect to see in mountainous areas of China. While this was beautiful, there were a couple of times where I think we all feared for our lives, as the mountain roads are not the best kept, many times not having guardrails along the cliffs either, looking straight down to certain death. However, I figured that Yemenis are used to driving in these conditions, so that helped to ease my fears a little. I can imagine a similar reaction from a Yemeni riding in a car with me in the winter in Minnesota in a blizzard...nothing we aren't used to. By far my favorite part of getting to our destination was seeing the mountain villages and towns, strategically perched over expanses of land, some of these towns having existed for hundreds or even thousands of years, when they were influential in regulating caravan routes that brought frankincense and myrrh to distant places (goods that are featured in the story of the three wise men visiting Jesus, and also the main source of wealth for the ancient kingdoms of Yemen).

We came across another town that would serve as the location where we bought our qat (pronounced "gat" in Yemen) for the day. So as Sabri, his friend, and our driver walked the street that was lined with little shops selling qat, we sat in the car and received several confused looks (what are these white people doing in a car by themselves in our village?) While sitting in the car, we also had our first experience of seeing a random person walking around with an AK-47 on his back. Not that we hadn't seen this before, but in the previous times, they were in the hands of government guards or members of the military, so it was a little shocking...and its not like I felt unsafe either, just something you get used to I suppose. Actually this is another reason for the checkpoints that I mentioned earlier, as guns such as these have been banned altogether in the capital where I live.

Town of al-Hajjarah

An hour or so more of breathtaking views and nailbiting corners without railings, we finally arrived at our destination, Manakha. This city also happens to be the hometown of Sabri, so he is somewhat well known there. We went first to a city called al-Hajjarah, which is only about a 5 minute drive beyond Manakha. Al-Hajjarah is a city that is perched on a relatively small mountain top, whose houses and buildings teter on the very edge of cliffs. It is also popular with tourists, so we went there to take some pictures and look around, and then drove back to Manakha to begin our visit by climbing Sabri's "mountain" (he pretty much owns the land comprising an entire mountain that will someday be the location of another college building, "insha'allah" - common Arabic saying, meaning "if God wills it", which is really a universal response because it can mean: yes, it will happen tomorrow; yes, it will happen someday...; it might happen; or it will never happen). Climbing the mountain to see the future building site seemed like a good idea at the time...however we soon remembered that we weren't all that used to the altitude yet, and climbing a mountain when its hot outside could be quite the torture technique. It was nice being at the top, however, and it made for a pretty nice view of the surrounding mountains, terraced farms, and the city of Manakha, but it was still uncomfortable climbing up. After our descent, we made our way to the house where we were going to eat lunch, owned by the man in charge of all of the telecommunications for the area, apparently. When we arrived we were showed to the mafraj, which I have explained earlier, in which hung two large pictures of President Saleh (the President of Yemen, who has held office for 30 years) in one end of the room. Even though he has been in power for so long, apparently he remains quite popular, as he has announced his retirement from office multiple times only to the dissatisfaction of the people who entice him to run for office again. Pictures of the President are hanging everywhere, from small shops and food stalls, in private homes and on the outside of them, to the BMW dealership. On the other end of the mafraj hung pictures of family, along with a picture of Saddam Hussein. The people here and their reverence for Saddam Hussein is still somewhat of a mystery to me, although I can see how they might appreciate him for standing up for Arabs in the face of rich and powerful opponents (despite his horrible, to say the least, human rights record). And simply because they have pictures of him does not, at all, mean that they hate Americans or anything stupid like that, as some people may think. In my experience, the Yemenis have been some of the kindest, most genuinely welcoming people that I have met in all of my travels.

Anyway, so back to the story at hand. Shortly after sitting in the mafraj for a little while we were summoned to start eating. As we walked through the hallway into the dining room, we were intercepted by a boy holding a large bowl of water that everyone dipped their hands into, to wash them (not the most sanitary of ways to wash hands...but living here, you kind of adopt a new idea of cleanliness). At this point, the group of people eating there at the house with us had grown to at least 12 people, all friends or relatives of our host. Kim was the only girl in the group, as the wives of the men ate separately. In family settings, the men and women eat together, of course, but when there are larger gatherings, they usually separate into two groups. Kim however, since she is Western, is a bit like an honorary man, and is allowed to eat and hang out with the men. The food was all brought into the room by a younger boy who relayed between us and the kitchen, presumably where the women were cooking. We ate on the floor, as is customary, and the food was placed on a large woven mat. Everyone shares dishes of food, and eats with their hands with the help of bread of course, for the food with liquid. It was a feast, to say the least! We had bread, rice, "shafoot" (made with injeera soaked with yogurt, and some kind of spice, and topped with cucumbers and tomatoes), goat meat, salteh (a traditional Yemeni stew - its the green stuff), potatoes, salad, and bint as-sahan (a delicious bread drizzled with honey dessert, which we ate before most of the other food, as our host said in Arabic, "we here like to eat dessert first!"). All of this, we ate with our hands, or using bread to pick things up. Even the bint as-sahan, which our host made a point of drowning in honey, we ate with our bare hands. Quite a mess, but absolutely delicious. After we had stuffed ourselves, we went back to the mafraj to chew qat for the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening. This is a very popular Yemeni past time, with some men doing it every day. Sabri and his friends talked business on one end of the room, which a group of friends of our host talked about everyday things at the other end. After a couple hours or so, the younger men invited me to come sit by them and practice my Arabic, which I did. Sadly I left Kim to herself where I was sitting before, but then she was offered to go meet the women who were socializing in a different part of the house, which she did. It was fun to talk to the guys and work on my Arabic, which I found needed a lot of work, but we were able to communicate on a basic level anyway. We talked about the weather in Yemen, the weather at home in the States, their jobs, sports, and a few other things. After nearly 4 hours of chewing qat, it was time to go back home to Sana'a. I made a couple friends during the qat chew so we exchanged numbers for them to call me when they are in Sana'a (a couple of them work in Sana'a and make the drive every day), so maybe I will see them again sometime. Unfortunately it was dark for our drive home, so we weren't able to enjoy the scenery again. Although I was feeling pretty good with the qat still in my mouth, and Sabri and I talked about work and things in Yemen in general. One interesting thing we came across on our way home was a large group of men, all holding automatic weapons (once again, the ever popular AK-47), who had made their own checkpoint and were stopping all cars going through town. The sight of this made my stomach flip-flop at first, but we got to the front of the line of cars where the men were interrogating the drivers to be quickly waved through after a simple "mesa'a al-kheir" (good evening) from our driver to one of the men. We were certainly not what these guys were looking for. I asked Sabri what that was all about and he said that family or tribal groups sometimes do that after they have had something stolen, a car for example, and it is faster to take matters into their own hands than to tell the goverment, in which case nothing will probably ever come of it. Even seeing this, I can't say I have really ever felt scared, but more surprised. I think it is good, and puts things into perspective when you see things like this, because every day occurances to some people (like this incident) I would never expect to see at home. And even things like eating on the floor with your hands, or chewing qat, which is illegal in the States, or using toilets that are no more than holes in the ground...all just open your mind to different ways of life, which aren't bad simply because they are different from what you are used to. Experiencing these things, is what I love =) Manakha was definitely full of surprises and things I have never done or seen before.

Chewing qat with new friends

Saturday, August 30, 2008

My first week in Yemen

I arrived here in Sana'a, Yemen on the 21st of August, 2008 after more than 20 hours of travel from Minnesota. I traveled here to take a job at the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies (YCMES), where I am the Program Officer for the Arabic Language Department, also known as the Yemen Language Center (YLC). My girlfriend Kim has come with me, and will be teaching English here, so in the future if I refer to "we", odds are that I'm talking about her and I. So anyway, back to our arrival here. When we finally reached our destination we were greeted by a single crowded room that served as customs, and bathrooms adjoining this room with squat toilets. For those of you who are unfamilar, a squat toilet is exactly that, a roughly 2 foot by 1 and a half foot porcelain rectangle with ridges on the sides for your feet, and a hole in the ground for you to do your business into. Of course, I for some reason decided to wait until we landed to use the bathroom, despite previous warning of the bathroom facilities at the airport, and had to use one immediately upon arrival. Considering the gymnastics-routine-like balance these "toilets" require of the person using them, I'm glad that I was forced to use one when I first got here, because it took an absolute emergency to force me to muster up the courage to do it. Oh and also, no toilet paper. You are supplied with a simple hose that you can turn on to wash yourself with, and a bucket of water to wash your hand in. Thank God I went prepared and brought some toilet paper with me. Aside from that small hurdle, the rest of the airport experience went rather smoothly, once we finally got our bags from another, not so large room that served as the baggage claim for the entire airport, we went with our driver from the YCMES to our new home. The drive from the airport was pretty much what we had expected, and I would say similar to what we experienced when we visited Cairo last year. People everywhere, cars driving with almost a complete lack of traffic laws, and an eclectic mix of shops, run down and not, with everything you could ever want to buy.

View of the neighborhood from our roof

Our first night was non-eventful. We arrived at our building where both students and staff live, to find out we live on the fifth floor. With the elevation, (Sana'a is at 7,500 feet) climbing to our room every day is quite the workout. The first few days I would even get a headache after going all the way up. Even today, we still are nearly breathless after climbing the stairs, although I'm sure we'll get used to it. We have our own room (with 5 beds and 5 desks - we might be getting rid of some of these...), and we have our own bathroom (with a western toilet! yes!) that is right across the hall. Each floor has only one room and a bathroom across the way. The room is nice, and spacious enough for us to live comfortably. We have stained glass windows called "qamarias" that are typical of Yemeni architecture, along with a series of small, regular windows that we can open that have screens on them. We went to sleep at a decent time, but unfortunately were awakened by the first call to prayer of the day which takes place at around 4:30-5am each morning. Yemen is comprised of mostly Muslims, with very small, to almost non-existent minorities of Christians, Jews, and other religions. Because of this, mosques are prevalent throughout the city and as a result, the call to prayer is difficult to escape. The call to prayer is done five times throughout the day and functions as a reminder that it is time to pray. In Muslim majority countries, the call to prayer is broadcast on loudspeakers that are located in the towers (minarets) of the mosque. The call to prayer itself is mostly the same coming from every mosque, with small variations for different sects of Islam, and is recited by the "mu'ezzin", or the person who recites the call to prayer. If you are curious as to what this sounds like, you can do a google search for "call to prayer". The second one down has a wave file you can listen to. This is more or less what it sounds like, with different versions echoing all around throughout the city. Unfortunately however, Yemen is known for its less appealing call to prayer. In that I just mean that it is less sung and more screamed...this seems especially true for the 4:30am one. So we were awakened by that and, our bodies not really knowing what time it was supposed to be, wanted to stay up. So we put our earplugs in that we brought specifically for this purpose, and tried to sleep for the rest of the morning.

Looking down the street we live on

The next day we met my friend Matthew who had been working at the college that I now work at for the past 2 years. He was my Arabic tutor sophomore year of college and is the one who I heard about my job from. We went with him and another friend to eat at a Lebanese restaurant. The food was good, but I couldn't eat very much as my body was still confused as to what time it was. Greg, who also met us at the restaurant for lunch, is the director of YALI, a school for Yemenis wishing to learn English that Kim plans to teach at. He turned out to be a Macalester (at which I took a few classes) graduate, and native of Northern Wisconsin...small world huh? Oh, and my friend Matthew is originally from St. James, Minnesota, another small-town, Midwestern boy. We were invited to Greg's house for coffee, turkish coffee to be exact, after lunch, which was within walking distance of the restaurant we ate at. Greg then drove us back to the neighborhood that the college is in to meet my new boss, Sabri. Sabri lives on the top floor of one of the college residence buildings. Out of breath again after walking up all, I don't even know how many, flights of stairs, we were invited by Sabri to sit down in his "mafraj", a sitting room usually on the top floor of the house, surrounded by windows, and decorated with colorful rugs on the floor and cushions around the perimeter of the room to sit on. The mafraj is an integral part of all Yemeni homes, and is used for socializing and entertaining (usually incorporating chewing qat or smoking shisha - or hookah depending on which country you are in - which is flavored tobacco). Qat is a green, leafy plant that is grown in Yemen, in other places in the Middle East, and in Africa. It is a mild stimulant, and is illegal in the U.S., however, is a large part of Yemeni culture. People in Yemen, mostly men, will chew qat at all times of the day, to help keep them focused or energized while working, walking, relaxing, or doing pretty much anything. The best place, obviously, is to chew it while sitting and relaxing in a mafraj overlooking all of Sana'a (like Sabri's). Upon sitting down, Sabri offered some qat to us, just to get the taste of it, which we obliged. (Chewing qat on the first day?!?) It wasn't bad, but I definitely didn't love it. I would guess it is kind of an acquired it is quite bitter to start out with and gets increasingly more tolerable as it sits in your cheek. But then again, I only had a little bit, nothing compared to the softball sized wads most Yemenis walk around with in their maybe that had something to do with it too. After meeting Sabri, we walked with Matthew through the Old City, which is about a 5-10 minute walk from our home. The Old City is probably what you have seen pictures of, if you have ever seen any of Sana'a. The entire Old City is a UNESCO world heritage site, and has been inhabited for over 2,500 years. The buildings here are all hundreds of years old, made of mud bricks, wood, and gypsum. The buildings of the YCMES are built in this same traditional manner, although not near as old, still look like the buildings of the Old City. The Old City is also the location of the various "souks" or markets in Sana'a, with each area specializing in something (the gold market, jambiyya market, salt market, etc). The rest of the night we spent going around with Matthew, meeting some of his friends and my new coworkers, at their houses throughout the city.

The next day I started my new job at YCMES, and started training with Jessica, the former Program Officer. I am responsible for all of the incoming students taking Arabic classes at the Yemen Language Center, a part of the YCMES. I answer prospective students' questions about our programs, pricing, and any other questions they may have, and then handle their registration and act as the main contact between them and our other departments before their arrival. I work in the newest building of the 3 main locations of the college in our neighborhood. From my place, its about a 3 minute walk. In my walk to work, and in the surrounding area, I pass various shops selling cell phones, mafraj furniture, small restaurants, and countless small stores called "buqallah"s that sell small food items, water, candy, and pop. The past few days have been extremely busy and filled with work, grocery and other necessities shopping, and settling into our new home (I still haven't fully unpacked my suitcases).

Bab al-Yemen, leading into the Old City

I will be uploading most of my pictures onto webshots, but will include some of them on here as well. My first album can be viewed here: SANA'A PICTURES

And also below, but it looks better if you go to the link =)