Marhaba from Yemen!

I’ve been in Yemen for two weeks now and I’m nicely settled into my new digs in Sana’a, the capital city. I’m still taking everything in, but I think it’s fair to say there will be no shortage of blog material in this new and foreign (to me) land. Practically everything I see and do I want to write about, but the painfully slow Internet in the hotel where we live has been a barrier to getting this blog up sooner.  (And it’s also been a barrier to streaming Netflix, which is killing me).

Mr. YemenEm and I left Washington DC on Thursday Aug. 8, just a few days after our beautiful wedding (so yes, it’s safe to say we are honeymooning in Yemen). He was kind enough to indulge me and we spent my last day in DC being nostalgic — walking to the Washington Monument and then up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial (made less impressive by the fact that the reflecting pool has been bone dry and under repair for the past year).

I moved to DC in the first few weeks of 2006 for a four-month internship, having just graduated from college in the Midwest and not really expecting to so fall in love with DC that I’d make it my home. But a few weeks into my internship — and with plenty of happy hours, fascinating conversations, and already a few good friends under my belt — I called my dad and told him I’d be moving to Washington. “For good?” he asked. “You’re not coming back here?” “Nope,” I said. “I want to live in DC.” I’ve certainly never regretted that decision.

I told Mr. YemenEm that little tale as we strolled down the national mall on that last day in DC and he asked what it is about DC that drew me to it. I said it was the people (obvi, because it’s always the people, am I right?) In college I felt a little bit out of place but in DC I just felt I fit in. Like right away. An entire town of people who like the same things I do, I thought when I arrived. Mr. YemenEm pointed out that I’d probably have thought the same thing about any bigger city I’d moved to right after living in a not-so-big town. He’s probably right, but I like to think there’s something about the people in DC — a great mix of motivation, enthusiasm, and just pure interestingness — that sets it apart from other cities. But then again, I’ve never lived in any other big city, so I guess only time will tell.

And alas, this blog isn’t about being sappy for DC – it’s about my new life in Yemen.

So back to that. We left Dulles airport and 14 hours later arrived Doha, Qatar, where we had a 15-hour layover, so we checked in to a hotel in the business district and the drive there afforded me my first view of the Middle East. Rather sterile, not as old as I expected, I commented to Mr.YemenEm who said it’s because Qatar is an rich oil country and it’s pretty new, and not to expect Yemen to look anything like Qatar. Later, we took a taxi to a souk in the downtown area. We had looked up a Yelp review to try and find a good restaurant and a Yelper had described the souk as “Disneyland meets Arab market.” Pretty spot on. I was a little disappointed with it not feeling old or charming. I’m a sucker for charming. We sweated our butts off in the 115 degree heat and at at a Lebanese restaurant and smoked apple mint shisha. There were lots of men sitting around and a few mixed groups of foreigners, but no Arab women at any of the restaurants. Most women I saw were wearing the full black abaya (kind of like the robe a judge wears) the hijab (headscarf) and face cover called a niqab.

After an awesome night’s sleep (seriously, every really long flight should be broken up by a stay in a comfy hotel) we went to the airport and took a short plane ride to Sana’a. There was a women sitting near us on the flight whom I noticed in the gate. She was totally covered except for her eyes but she had on sparkly hot pink shoes an a bright pink leather bag. She was sitting in a window seat on the plane, next to a man, and asked Mr.YemenEm and I to switch seats with the guy so I could be sitting next to her instead. Right when I settled in, I could see her get comfortable and much more relaxed.

We were traveling during Ramadan when Muslims are supposed to not eat or even drink water during daylight hours. So when the flight attendant passed out meals and no one else on the flight was eating besides kids, I felt a little guilty. I declined the food, but drank the water. Mr. YemenEm assured me that Westerners aren’t expected to abide by Ramadan rules.

When we started descending into Sana’a, I was surprised at how much bigger the city looked than I had expected.  The airport in Sana’a felt very foreign — lots of women totally covered and lots of men wearing the long white skirt-looking thobe with their jambiyas (curved daggers) hanging from their belts. Mr. YemenEm changed some U.S. dollars into riyals and I had to chuckle when I saw his shoulders tense when a Yemeni man stood literally six inches away from him while his money was counted out. “They do not have the same ideas about personal space here,” he said to me.

My impressions of Sana’a as we drove to the hotel where we’ll be living for nine months is that there is a lot of poverty, but still a lot of smiles on peoples’ faces. And a lot, a lot, a lot of trash. Trash is strewn everywhere here. There are no garbage cans, so people just throw things on the roads. “You should see what it looked like when the garbage collectors went on strike here,” someone said to me a few days ago. I didn’t realize there were garbage collectors. Also, all of the putty-colored houses appeared to be only partially finished. Someone later explained to me that it’s for tax purposes — if you don’t have a finished home, you don’t have to pay as many taxes. Also, it’s not like in the U.S. where you’d take out a loan to build a home basement to roof. People here will build what they can afford, save some money, and then build some more.

We arrived to our hotel, which has clearly not been updated since probably 1970. It’s pretty much the hotel from The Shining. Long hallways with flickering florescent lights, too few people, and threadbare carpet. I’m really expecting to see those twin girls on tricycles appear at the end of our hallway at any minute. If Mr. YemenEm ever sneaks a peak at what I’m writing and sees the pages are entirely “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” he should know that the hotel has possessed me. But, on the bright side, there’s a nice big pool here, so assuming it isn’t all Lady in the Water, (to mix horror movies here) I should have some pretty awesome shoulders in no time.

And actually our room has a little bit of charm to it. I’m trying to think of it as retro rather than outdated. Like it’s retro how I have to piece together five different adapters to get my straightening iron powered up, right? And our tiny little torn-up brown couch – totes vintage.

The first night of sleep here we were woken up at 4:30am by the calls to prayer echoing throughout the city from the loudspeakers of every mosque. I was aware that each day in a Muslim country is punctuated by calls to prayer, and I imagined it would sound like an automated recording of a stern prison guard ordering inmates to the yard for an hour of forced calisthenics. It wasn’t like that at all. I could most clearly hear the voice closest to our hotel and as the imam’s sad singsongy voice faded, the other more distant voiced melded together to almost resemble an a capella group singing low notes and harmonizing in a tribal and very beautiful way.

Well, this is probs long enough for the first post. Next post: The terrible virus I got practically the next day and how I thought I was going to die in Yemen, even before I turned in my life insurance forms to HR. Stay tuned.

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