Saturday, September 6, 2008
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 President 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.
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.
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.