Zócalo Public Square is a magazine of ideas from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.
I miss Yemen.
That may come as a surprise since whenever the country makes headlines — as it has over the past few weeks — the overwhelming themes are war, violent radicalism, the impending doom of failed statehood and whatever other ominous sounding crisis (water shortages, national drug addiction) can be thrown into the mix.
I find that most Americans assume that the country is seething with anti-American sentiment. Yet, that is far from the truth, and I miss Yemen, my home from 2009 to early 2012. I’m not alone. Most foreigners who have been fortunate enough to experience the warmth, humor and kindness of Yemeni people miss it too.
I miss waking up in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen’s 3,000 year old capital. I would slowly make my way across uneven stone floors that cooled the soles of my feet and into my mafraj, a square room with blue-patterned low cushions lining its perimeter. I would take a moment to stare out into the narrow alleyway below through a green, blue, and red stained glass window, the kind that decorate nearly every building in Sanaa.
I lived on the top floor of a skinny, four-story, brown brick abode with white gypsum outlining its edges. Many have likened these structures in the old city to gingerbread houses. Out the window, I saw men walking to work, elbows linked, donned in long white robes that hung to their ankles, suit jackets, and a curved dagger secured right at their waistline. There were also the elderly women draped in red and blue intricately patterned blankets overtop their black abayas and carrying puffy loaves of bread in clear plastic bags. They’d chat so quickly in clipped sharp Arabic that I could never understand them—even though I’m comfortable in the language. My ears would then catch the sound of the gas merchant who strolled the neighborhood banging with a wrench on a large cooking gas canister. The harsh dinging warmed me in the same way the sounds of Manhattan must warm someone who’s happy to call that city home.
At about 8 am, I would make my way down the incongruent steps of the house and past the doors of apartments where other foreigners lived, and then I’d pull a small metal lever that opened the heavy wooden slab on the ground floor to the outside world. The sun would be strong and the air bone dry at 7,500 feet. I would walk the 10 steps or so to a hole-in-the-wall canteen, a Yemeni bodega, known here as a bagala, and buy a tub of plain yogurt for about 50 American cents that I would mix with Yemeni honey (some of the best in the world!) for breakfast. This was in lieu of the typical Yemeni breakfast of lamb kabob sandwiches or stewed fava beans. The two young guys at the bagala would light up upon our daily meetings.
“Good morning, Laura!” they’d say.
“Good morning! How’s it going?”
“Praise be to God! Did you watch the president’s speech?” Mohamed, the older, would ask, or otherwise comment on the political happenings du jour, which were many since part of my time living in Sanaa covered the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
“I did. What do you think?” I would ask.
“Everything will be fine, God willing. We want stability for Yemen,” he’d answer. Then another friend whose face I recognized from the neighborhood would rush up, give me a nod, and shove approximately 10 cents at Mohamed so he could bring back piles of pita bread for his family.
I would head back home, comforted to know that if anything ill ever befell me, these friends would have my back, as happened when they cornered a cab driver who was requesting $200 to give me back the phone that I had left in his taxi (I got it back free, thanks to my neighbors). You give Yemenis a smile, and they give you so much more in return, always bending over backwards for guests of their country. It was an unfair transaction that benefited me most of all.
I miss walking through the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city and seeing faces I recognized. We waved hello along the way, and perhaps shared a sentence or two about the day. My mood always brightened when I passed the old men who sipped creamy tea sitting outside one tiny cafe, who wore thick glasses that magnified their eyes, turbans round their heads, and held canes in their hands. They laughed and told jokes to pass their days. They’d seen it all—including war worse than the current one. They knew the ebbs and flows of time.
Despite that one greedy cabbie who tried to keep my phone, one of the things I miss most of all are the discussions with taxi drivers, waiting stalled in traffic due to the post-lunch market rush. Yemenis love to talk—and so do I. They often gave me a handful of soft green qat leaves, the mild narcotic widely consumed in the country. I remember when one driver explained that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was like Marie Antoinette. “Let them eat cake!” the driver exclaimed.
A different cab driver once told me he had worked at the Yemeni embassy in Cuba as a driver and missed the rum like you wouldn’t believe. Alcohol is available in Yemen, at Chinese restaurants that double as brothels, or from Ethiopian smugglers who get their bottles on boats from Djibouti. Of course, getting it involves risks—the social shame of being caught with alcohol for an average Yemeni would be damning not only of his reputation, but of his family and his tribe. I took that taxi driver’s number and the next time I left a diplomat’s party in the fancy part of town where sheikhs and foreigners live behind tall walls, I called him to pick me up. I snuck him a beer, which he uncapped with his teeth and drank during our drive back to the old city.
There are things I don’t miss, like the lack of electricity. Or wading through a foot high of muddy, trash-strewn water because the drainage system wasn’t working fast enough for the rainstorm. I certainly don’t miss needing to flee my home in the old city because the war came too close in September 2011, when Yemen’s divided armed forces began to fight one another. I didn’t want to live alone when random artillery fire had fallen nearby. And then there was the gnawing guilt that came with remembering that my suffering was nothing compared to Yemenis who couldn’t afford a generator or the rising prices for basic goods, and who didn’t have another home to which they could flee. But the good always outweighed the bad for me in Yemen, and that’s why I stayed for nearly three years. I left when I realized that reporting during wartime, being so close to explosions, death and violence, had clouded my thoughts so that I was incapable of making safe decisions.
As the country, now leaderless, fractures with little hope of reconciliation, I watch with a breaking heart. Yet, I am confident in this: if the Yemeni government fails to restructure itself into a sustainable organization, and rather continues to mirror a scenario from an apocalyptic future, Yemen will not be a land where every man is for himself. There is a social contract in Yemen more ancient than the one that exists in the United States, and the ties that bind people to one another can step in when the government fails. As an outsider who was fortunate enough to have called Yemen home, I put my hope in that.
Laura Kasinof is an author and freelance journalist. Her book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: an Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, is about her time reporting for The New York Times during Yemen’s Arab Spring. She wrote this article for Zocalo Public Square.