What I Think of Yemen

“So, what do you think of Yemen?” is a question I’m commonly asked by Yemenis. My usual response is that I haven’t seen enough of the country to form a strong opinion. I live in a hotel, and I work at the embassy, and I see very little in between (not to mention, I pretty much haven’t left the confines of Sana’a.)  I haven’t dined in a single Yemeni restaurant. I have only been in one Yemeni home. And I haven’t even seen the nearest UNESCO World Heritage site — the beautiful and ancient Old City Sana’a. I tell Yemenis that I hope to come back some day and see other regions of this extremely varied county. (There are deserts, valleys, sub tropical forests, rivers, and then there’s Socotra island, which is home to more native plants and animals than any where else on Earth, after the Galapagos and Hawaii).

But that’s not really the whole truth. Let’s be honest: We all develop opinions on the places to which we travel. I’ve been here nine months. So while I may not be qualified to write an assessment of Yemen that touches on all the nuances of this country, I can certainly rattle off a few opinions.

I was thinking about this lately – how we often travel places and are so compelled by politeness that we might not give an honest assessment of our time in a place (especially if we’re writing about it. Telling our friends is probably another story). I just read this Q&A with Anthony Bourdain and found myself loving him even more. I’ve wanted to dislike Bourdain since college, since he loathes vegetarians, but I just can’t do it. First, he is — by a landslide — the best travel show host. He is so honest, insightful, hilarious and such a great storyteller, unlike the bumbling “Wow, this is beautiful! This is delicious!” happy-go-lucky hosts on our second-tier travel shows that are constantly on in Yemen. Let’s be real, some parts of traveling are frustrating and exhausting and unintentionally just plain funny and I want to see some of that. I have no interest in watching a grinning Samantha Brown eat a giant pretzel in Bavaria and whilst she bobs her head to accordion music. But I do have an interest in hearing Bourdain’s always informed and nuanced assessment of a place he has traveled to. He always manages to craft a rich story around each place and every episode of his show No Reservations has its own feel. Which is how it should be since every city in this world has its own feel.

So, what do I really think of Yemen?

First of all, nine months of living here was more than enough for me. Although, I think if Mr.YemenEm and I had lived in an apartment and been able to walk to stores, drive ourselves, and have rooftop parties overlooking the city…then maybe nine months wouldn’t have felt so long.

Being in Yemen feels like going back in time. At times the tradition clings on your skin like humidity. Sometimes that feels good. Other times, it’s apparent that things that belong to modern world just don’t exist in Yemen. I wonder where all the restaurants, cafes, and parks with benches are and I think it’s sad that there is no public space. Even though I’ve tried to resist seeing everything through the Western Lens, I can’t help compare Sana’a it to a place like Washington DC or Plymouth, Michigan, where I’m from – both of which are full of sidewalks and walking trails and fountain-filled parks which serve both as a wonderful location for solitude and a place for community interactions.

The segregation between men and women in social settings, while deeply rooted in tradition and religion, also leaves me feeling that both genders are missing out. (And indicates to me that in this culture, women are to be protected from men at all costs, which implies that men are to be feared. More about that in a future post). In Yemen, women have female friends and men have male friends. Men can hang out in public – chewing qat in large groups on the side of the road or walking hand-in-hand with a guy friend on their way to buy qat or shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of other men in the qat market (yeah, qat is BIG here). Women must socialize in the safety of their own homes and can only show their hair, their faces, their jeans, their figures, to other women (and their husbands, of course). Also, many women I’ve talked to say they don’t go most places without men. For instance, a colleague said his wife is bored with the kids all day because she can’t take them on walks without her husband, and she can’t run errands like grocery shopping because she needs to wait to do that on the weekend with her husband. (Grocery stores are filled with women assertively pushing a cart through the aisles while their husbands walk quickly to catch up). And there are other much more troubling issues related to gender here that I did not witness firsthand– such as Yemen having one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world and females completing school at much lower rates than men.

Now, the food. I love variety in food. Not only do I appreciate eating Mexican one night, making eggplant parm and pesto pasta the next, and then grabbing a falafel the following day, but I love having like five different things on my plate at once. I was shocked upon coming to Yemen at the lack of variety in the food. It’s essentially meat and rice and some beans, all with similar (fairly mild) spices, and always lots of bread. Desserts are bready and often dripping with honey. (As Mr.YemenEm points out, I’m not exactly in a position to really judge the quality and taste of Yemeni food, being a vegetarian and all. Mr.YemenEm thinks the meat stews common here – called salta – and the whole roasted fish are quite tasty.) But from what I’ve seen and tasted, the local cuisine is very simple and doesn’t contain a ton of fresh veggies, so basically it’s not a cuisine I’m going to miss when I leave here. With the exception of this delicious breakfast dish I get sometimes dubbed “Taizzy” after the region of Yemen called Taizz. The dish consists of spicy, fragrant beans scrambled with eggs and cilantro, and I could eat it every morning.

Also, I won’t missed being stared at everywhere I go. But I can’t blame Yemenis for this, actually. They don’t see blond women walking around often, or any woman not covered head-to-toe in black. When men here look at me, it’s not like the overt sexual ogling that women are subjected to on every city street in the U.S. It’s more a look of curiosity. I consistently make the mistake of smiling at men who look at me because that feels like the natural thing to do when I make eye contact with a stranger. My friendly smile is always, always, met with the man looking down. However, when I smile at a women with whom I made eye contact, I can always see the crinkle around her eyes that indicates she’s smiling back. And, I’m not going to missed being followed around in groceries stores by little boys and not-so-little teenage boys who want to get a closer look at the white woman walking around with in high heels with a bare face and swinging hair. I can’t wait to grocery shop in near anonymity!

There are plenty of positives that will stick with me about my nine months in Yemen. Yemen is the most exotic place I’ve ever been, and, as I said, everything feels steeped in history. The daily calls to prayer from the many mosques always transport me back in time. There might not have been loudspeakers at mosques hundreds of years ago, but the Imams’ tonal, often eerie, and sometimes singsongy sermons seem untouched by time.

Every new Yemeni I meet wants me to come to their home for lunch or dinner or to chew qat, and that kind of friendly hospitality touches me deeply.

I have had the pleasure of meeting more than a few women and young people here who have more intelligence, enthusiasm, and perseverance than anyone I’ve ever met.

So, what do I think of Yemen? This complex, unique, sometimes dangerous place is truly a beautiful country. It’s people are by far its greatest resource; its food is one-note; its gender dynamics are troubling. It’s dynamic: Even though cultural and religious tradition cling tightly to nearly all facets of society, things are changing and have even changed in the short time I’ve been here with the country embarking in a national dialogue process that will lead to Yemen having a new constitution.

I think everyone can take a cue from Anthony Bourdain that no place, no trip, no people, no story is as simple as “great!” or “bad.” Everything is more nuanced than a one-word descriptor.

To telling an honest travel story,

YemenEm

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