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 =)