Ma’salaama, ila liqaa’

So obviously, I am no longer in Yemen, and it’s looking unlikely that I’ll be able to make it back there for a while. So here’s my final farewell, via Foreign Policy. When I met Saleh in Socotra, it wasn’t the last time. Take a gander at the man behind the curtain.

Posted in meeting important heads of state | 6 Comments

In which the author is evacuated from an unstable Arab country for the very first time!

Sudden evacuation is strange and traumatic, and also not nearly as exciting as you think. Due to rising instability, the organization I work for expedited an exit and reentry visa and put me on a flight to Doha. Much of Sanaa still seems very normal; the night before I left I went to have Thai food with friends. My one close Yemeni friend gave me a thin silver bracelet as a goodbye present. I’ve been wearing it like a talisman, hoping that it’s a see-you-later present.

At the airport I met four of my friends, 3 journalists and a writer, who had been arrested that morning and were being deported. The news reports haven’t really captured the human drama of that story, or the black comedy. Apparently a Yemeni colonel sat them all down, and one by one, read out their full names.

“You leave today,” he told each of them.

Yemen will miss those guys.

So I’ve flown from Yemen, which has the second-lowest per capita GDP in the Arab world (if you don’t count Comoros and Somalia; Mauritania has the lowest), to the country with the highest per capita GDP in the entire world. Of course, they do cheat by not allowing any of their slave labor to get citizenship.

Everything here is shiny. The streets are clean (curbs! I’d forgotten about real curbs!) and the medians are planted with grass and real flowers. They have nice things. Yesterday, I took a taxi to the Villaggio mall, passing a wasteland of faux-Andalusian block housing, surrounded by high and ugly stucco walls.

The mall itself was done up like somebody’s vision of what an Italian arcade might look like in Disneyland, the ceilings painted like a blue sky, with fluffy white clouds strewn across it. I read somewhere that different parts of the mall were supposed to represent dawn, day, dusk, and night, but I couldn’t really figure out which one was supposed to be which. Half the mall smelled of chlorine from an unimpressive gondola track running through the length of the building. I bought makeup, shoes, and Starbucks and watched an American movie. I miss Yemen already. On the way back to my hotel I heard a BBC blurb about the western journalists deported from Yemen.

“I know those guys,” I told my taxi driver. I don’t think he understood what I was saying.

So here’s wishing for safety for my friends in Sanaa and a swift return for anyone who wants it. Please don’t deport any more of the young people in Sanaa, Yemen.

The bright note to this whole story is that in a few hours I’m flying to Kathmandu, for a combination field visit (our flagship program is in Nepal) and recuperation. And it’s boating season. Life could be worse.

Posted in architecture, media, politics, that is whack, yemen protests | 1 Comment

A field trip to the revolution

First things first: I want you to stop trusting the news. And I definitely want you to stop trusting any article that doesn’t end with “Jane Q Awesomesauce reported from Sana’a (or, in rare cases, Taiz, Lahj, etc.).” Because I went to the protests. And I still don’t have a goddamn clue. Yemen is like an infinite onion; there’s always another layer. But at some point, it’s time to stop reading the news.

My Arabic teacher took me on a field trip to the anti-government sit-in/rally. He’s been an invaluable resource in understanding what’s going on in the country. And I’ve watched his perspective change over the last month: at first, he agreed with me when I suggested that the fall of the Yemeni government would benefit no one, including Yemenis. But gradually, I’ve seen his support for the popular protests grow. I’ve seen him speaking the language of change.

Our taxi drove us in circles; the government has blocked a lot of the roads, so we paid a little extra to get right near the protests. A few armed men looked us over as we approached the University, sauntering around near blue-and-white police cars, but they didn’t bother us. For which I was extremely grateful– I had a video camera with me, and a journalist friend told me that some reporters had had their equipment smashed. The student guards, however, asked us a few questions.

“Is this one with you?” One of the young man asked my teacher, nodding towards me. The student guards are anti-government protesters there to make sure that pro-Saleh supporters don’t enter the sit-ins. With big guns. And they look very serious. I read in the Yemeni press today that the student guards in Taiz had stopped a man with a silencer. “Is she a journalist?” the young man continued.

“I’m not a journalist,” I told him (in Arabic). “I live in Sana’a. I wanted to see the protests. But I have a camera.” They waved us through without patting me down. They must not have had any lady patter-downers working that day.

The sit-in was a bit reminiscent of a street fair. Tents took up at least a 4-block square radius, plastered with slogans and signs advertising just who the tents were for. University professors and tribes were both represented, among others. An earnest, thin young man with a long face and a long white thoub came over several times throughout the evening, encouraging me to visit the protestors’ media center. Apparently, they have many resources, including information and translators. That was one of the things that impressed me. Later, I saw a journalist’s center, where young Arab men were sitting around with computers. They looked like they had internet access, though later in the evening, I heard that the government had cut off internet to parts of the city. My internet was out in Haddah (where the oil workers and diplomats live) when I went home that evening.

The protestors have achieved basic organization. In addition to the media center, they’ve got food, water, electricity, and, for better or worse, qat (the ubiquitous national stimulant). You can buy roast corn, shwarma, a Yemeni flag, or an umbrella hat. I’ve always wanted an umbrella hat, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one. But I never did see a toilet, which made me seriously regret the tea and two cups of lemonade I’d drank before going. Before the revolution, always remember to pee.

A wall on one of the streets was plastered with anti-Salih political cartoons. I tried to read a few, but I needed a little more time to digest the arabic. The surrounding tents were plastered with signs in Arabic and English: “We are not sectarian and have no parties: this movement is a youth movement” (in Arabic, that one rhymes, and sounds much nicer.) An older man in traditional dress waved around a wooden cut-out that just said “get out.” And of course, the gem (in English): “Go to the hell, Ali Salih.”

At the center of the protests (honestly, I have no idea where: there’s a big obelisk looking thing that says “Yemen” on it, but I’m a little geographically clueless) there’s a raised platform, where people can make speeches. Young people calling for an end to corruption and tyranny; tribesmen chanting traditional complaint poetry (not totally sure what that is, but I think it’s the traditional poetry used by a tribe to bring it’s grievances to the government– but don’t quote me on that one. Remember the infinite onion).

There were women out too– sitting in a special roped-off section, the vast majority wearing the niqab. But I could see more women’s faces than usual. And kids. Cute kids with facepaint waving tiny Yemeni flags. The protest organizers on the platform had roped in a little boy to give a speech and lead a chant. “Get out, get out. The end of the regime!” One father told me to film his daughter. I told him the light was terrible, so he popped out a cell phone and shined it in her face. She looked terrified. As I was filming a little girl holding a sign above her head (the angle was terrible, and I never did figure out what it said, except for something about the BBC) a little boy strutted up and asked me to film him. “Okay,” I said, and did. He stared unsmiling into the camera.

The protest had a distinct energy, an electricity far removed from the government-issued sticks and free lunches in Tahrir square. And it’s growing. “When I came last week,” my Arabic teacher said, “the tents were over there,” he motioned toward the square. “Now they’re all the way out here.” At one point in the evening, I asked how many protestors (or sit-in-ers) he thought had come. He said he had no idea. He chatted with a young man sitting next to us and they came up with a figure of 30,000. Which might be totally wrong– but remember: it’s just as good as any other number you’re getting.

Yesterday the American government told its citizens to consider leaving Yemen. And honestly, I don’t blame them. We’re not there yet; it’s not time to evacuate. But after visiting the protests, I have a growing sense that things are not dying down. They’re not violent (in Sanaa), but the growing mass of humanity at the University shouldn’t be taken lightly. I get the sense they’re there to stay.

Hopefully, sometime soon, I will post some video. If I can find the stupid cable I need. Stay tuned, and please feel free to comment or ask questions.

Posted in media, politics, qat, yemen protests | Leave a comment

Speak softly and carry a government-issued stick

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Tahrir square were the sticks. Cut into two foot lengths, about an inch-wide, and stripped of bark, they were suspiciously uniform. These were not sticks that people had just happened to pick up on their way to the protest. These were sticks that someone had taken the care to manufacture and distribute.


As the conflict heated up in Egypt, a motley crew of Yemeni protesters (a mix of the organized opposition moment and a smattering of angry youth) called for a “day of rage” in Sanaa’s own Tahrir square. Wary of the opposition establishing a symbolic kinship with Cairo, Saleh decided to set up camp in Tahrir himself. Tents went up overnight, and the government bussed in pro-Saleh tribesmen to stay in them.

And there they remain. Say what you want about Ali Abdullah Saleh, but the man appears to know what he’s doing. Yemen’s Tahrir square has remained calm. I was having dinner nearby, and so, for once, (not hearing gunshots, explosions, or really much noise at all) I decided to go check things out for myself.

An armed guard at the entrance to the square looked half-heartedly through my purse, squished it between his hands (presumably checking for any gun- or grenade-shaped objects), and then waved me through. They spent a little more time with the Yemeni friend who was with me, patting him down and checking his I.D., and let him in too. He was wearing a tight t-shirt and slacks. I was in a Moroccan djellaba. In a crowd of Yemeni men wearing traditional robes, keffiyas, and wrap-around skirts, we both stood out.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I asked my friend.

“With what? With people thinking I’m a translator for an American spy?” I was thinking journalist. Which in the minds of certain people is probably more or less the same thing. But yes. That’s what I was worried about. “It’s okay,” said my friend.
The atmosphere in the square felt less like a “protest” than a rally. As a friend of mine rightly noted, “how can you have a pro-government protest?” There were several large tents around the square. One was set up as a mafraj (a sort of Arab living room, with ground-level sofas around the walls of a big open space). In another, men were sitting on rows of folding chairs, looking out at the square. Someone was selling ears of corn off of a wheeled cart. Most of the activity was focused around a central stage, where a man with a megaphone was making a speech for the benefit of the protestors and a single video camera (my guess would be official Yemeni TV, though I don’t really know). I couldn’t really catch what he was saying, but I don’t think it was particularly interesting. One of the young men onstage was wearing a large afro/clown wig painted the red, black, and white of the Yemeni flag. A nearby truck was handing out bread and water (though to whom I have no idea).

Word on the street has it that the government gives its protestors a daily qat ration. It seems certain that some money has changed hands. There was a man nearby selling small Yemeni flags and (unautographed) pictures of Saleh. Two young men (maybe 13 or 14) came by and gave us tiny pins that say “unity,” and have pictures of Saleh and some other guy on them. The type is so small that I can’t figure out who it is.

Nowhere, however, could I locate the source of the sticks. A Western friend who was with me said that the day before someone had seen children with wheelbarrows full of the things handing them out. We had a discussion about why the government would pass out sticks. What we came up with was that government had asked the protestors to leave their guns at home, and so they were handing out sticks as a kind of compensation. My Yemeni friend thought that a lot of the stick-wielders were probably plainclothes policeman.

Of course, Tahrir isn’t really where the action is. Which, I suppose, is kind of the point. The government is keeping a symbolically powerful location on lockdown. The anti-government protests (which, increasingly, are much more like protests and much less like rallies), are tending to cluster around the old Sanaa university. In the next few days, we’ll see how and if those sticks get used.

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The view from the rabbit-hole

Let me share two stories about Yemen.

1. Most internet service in Yemen has a data limit. Once you use your X gigs, it’s done. Some friends of mine had an open wireless connection. Their neighbor used up their monthly limit in a week downloading movies to his cell phone. My friends had to wait until the end of Ramadan to get their connection going again (three weeks without internet, yikes!), at which point they quickly password-protected it. A week later, the neighbor asked for the password.

2. At one of my organization’s journalist trainings, we brought in a bigwig from Yemen’s mass communications training institute to lead a session on journalistic ethics. The guy makes a presentation on how publishing information about a public official’s wrongdoing is libelous and biased. At the very least, this argument sparked a heated conversation. Sigh.

Posted in development work, media, that is whack | Tagged | Leave a comment

They’re always shorter than you expect (Socotra part III)

I don’t want to bury the lede, so let’s start with this: I met the president.

Q: The president of what?

A: No, the president.

Q: The PRESIDENT president? Of YEMEN?

A: Yep.


Yeah way. There’s a popular Yemeni saying: “Life is like a carrot. One day, it’s in your hand, the next . . .” Well . . . you know. Let me say that on this particular day, the carrot was in my hand.

When Marcella and I rolled into the rocky, rust-red Dihamri beach, it was buzzing with a flurry of activity. Men were slaughtering goats. Armed guards were sauntering around, trying to look busy. A few different people had told us that the president was coming. So we did what any normal person would do, and went snorkeling.

The snipers were on that little outcrop to the right!

Q: But I wanna hear more about the president.

A: Tough cookies. You get to know more about the beautiful coral reefs in the marine protected area.

The reef was amazing. The most memorable coral looked like a humongous purple brain (remember A Wrinkle in Time? It was like that, but purple. And underwater.) There were angelfish and little neon indigo guys and huge snub-nosed turquoise fish and lot of others. The seafloor was jam packed with basketball-sized eggplant-colord urchins. Marcella saw an octopus and a moray eel. And the sea was a little rough, so you’d be swimming along, and all of a sudden you’d be zooming in towards the coral and flying back out again.

After enjoying these underwater marvels, we hopped out and shivered on the beach for a while, until soldiers with large guns came to guns the beach, pointing their weapons outward, toward the ocean (presumably to guard the president from pirates and overambitious sharks). There were snipers on the high outcrop of rock to the East.

We were joking with Dar about meeting the president, and word must have traveled up the food chain, because at some point, a young man in a sharp futa (bro skirt) and suit jacket meandered over. He turned out to be a member of the Assembly.

“Okay,” he said, “Come meet the president.” As we walked over, I demanded that Marcella smell me from hand-shaking distance. I hadn’t showered in a couple days.

“Is it bad?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “You’re okay.”

My ponytail was a knotted Rastafarian catastrophe and I hadn’t shaved my legs. Had I known that I would be lunching with important heads of state, I might have worn deoderant.

And then there I was, shaking hands. The president waved us into the shelter to sit next to him. We told him where we were from. He asked us what we liked about Socotra. And he touched my knee (which is DEFINITELY taking liberties). Following is a more-or-less complete transcript of our conversation:

SALEH: Where do you study?

ME: I’m not a student. I work in media.

SALEH: Are you here with your family?

ME: Nope. I’m by myself.

I spoke Arabic with the president! Who speaks neither English, nor “real” (formal) Arabic. A few times one of the prez’s lackeys translated my Arabic into Arabic for him.

Now, as an (unnamed) Yemeni friend of mine said about my conversation with Saleh: “he asked very stupid questions.” And I’m inclined to agree. Following our conversation, the president talked about Socotra with the large crowd of local leaders/minor poohbahs/general mucky mucks gathered around us. He spoke about how much better Socotra was after the 1994 unification; malaria had been wiped out, people had food and shelter, there were lots of cows and goats (although the population of goats was significantly diminished by the president’s visit—150 delicious, delicious kids were slaughtered for our lunch).

In any case, this was not a particularly sophisticated narrative of unification. The president, who never finished high school, is not a particularly sophisticated guy. Of course, stupid is an inappropriate word for a man who assumed the presidency at 32 and has hung onto it, tooth and nail, for another 32 years. He must be doing something right, because every time my friend and I talk about Saleh, my friend looks at the door to see who’s listening.

If Saleh’s crazy, he’s crazy like a fox. He has said that “ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes.” His statecraft involves generous doses of carrot-waving and stick-menacing. Though considering new information, I’m not sure which one is the threat.

Posted in livestock, meeting important heads of state, politics, socotra | 3 Comments

Swimming near dolphins (Socotra part II)

Waking up after a wind-battered night in our eco-camp, we drank some mate (courtesy of Marcella) and hopped in the jeep, heading North to the beach at Qalansiyya. Dar dropped us off on a rocky hill overlooking the lagoon, pointed out the route to our camp for the night, and said that he would meet us there. The overcast and windy weather, combined with a fair quantity of rusty and abandoned Russian military equipment, gave the whole scene a post-apocalyptic feel. The only color in the whole landscape came from the turquoise seawater.

The camp was nice, with neat rows of tents and a couple of three-walled shelters that opened out to the lagoon. I decided I was ready for another swim and headed out into the clear shallow water. I slogged through the thigh-deep water until boredom took me back to the beach, where Marcella informed me that swimming and wading in the lagoon was strongly discouraged. The lagoon, apparently, was inhabited by a large population of stingrays, which had, apparently, “killed a national Geographic photographer.” I felt very impressed until I realized that she meant Steve Irwin.

Forgoing the lagoon, Marcella and I walked out to the ocean. Along the way we met a friendly Yemeni man who had graduated from college in the U.S. He regaled us with tales of his international adventures (the French Riviera! Amsterdam! Arizona!), punctuating every other sentence with a hearty “oh my god.” The hotel was soooooo beautiful oh my god. I considered letting him know that only 15-year-girls do this, but decided against it. Following a raucous swim in the sea, our new friend invited us to lunch, where we met the Shaykh of Dhamar and dined on baby goat. Kid—it’s what’s for dinner (and it’s a nice break from canned tuna).

The following day Marcella and I bid Dar farewell for the afternoon and loaded onto a mid-size motorboat for the boat ride out to Shouab (# of life preservers: 0; proximity to waves smashing against unforgiving rocky shore: very close). Eventually the rough seas spit us out into calmer bluish-emerald waters, where we weaved in and out of black rock towers and looked at ocean birds—Gulls! Boobies (hehehe)! Eventually we anchored at a stunning white sand beach. I had about 15 seconds to bask in the sun on my towel before Marcella shouted at me and pointed into the ocean at a sizable collection of dark dorsal fins. Spinner dolphins!

I threw on my snorkel mask and made a vain effort to follow the school, but dolphins are (shockingly!) speedy little buggers, and we soon quickly lost them. But our competent and obliging boatman pulled the boat up alongside us, and after we hauled ourselves in we spent the next 45 minutes or so trailing along after the dolphins in what must for them have been an extremely annoying fashion. And we saw a BABY DOLPHIN! SO CUTE OH MY GOD!

Heading back to shore, chilly from multiple valiant efforts to swim with dolphins, I lay out on the beach while Marcella went to take a walk. A few minutes later, three older women and a little boy appeared on the beach and sauntered over to check me out.

Just sand & water. And maybe pirates in the distance!

Now, the ninjas in Socotra are a bit more colorful than the ones in Sanaa, with lovely multicolored robes and shawls and things. But it is very uncomfortable to be wearing a swimsuit (modest one-piece though it may be) and to be suddenly blocked in by fully-covered women. You know that dream you have when you’re in public, and all of a sudden you realize you’re naked . . . ? In any case things passed with out incident, the women wandering off shortly after I told their little boy that no, he could not have my snorkel or my water bottle. Later on, Marcella and I buried our legs in the sand, but quickly emerged after some particularly aggressive lemon-yellow crabs started nibbling on Marcella’s toes.

The waves had picked up during the afternoon, and our boat bobbed up and down through what felt to me like pretty sizable troughs. Gripping the edge of the boat, I wondered how many Socotran fisherman died at sea each year.

Exhausted by the perilous sea voyage, I dozed on the drive to the beach at Umag (or Amak, or Amaok, depending on how the writer feels that day) for the evening, arriving just after dark. The sand was shining brightly under the full moon and I decided to go for a barefoot run on the beach. Dad and I recently started a tradition of going out for a run on Christmas eve to look at all the neighborhood lights. I decided that running along the beach, watching my moonshadow and the reflection of the night sky on the wet sand, would have to do this year.

After a lazy morning swimming on the beach, Dar told us that we were going to a local wadi for lunch (wadi is the Arabic word for a valley or canyon). Wadi Dirho had been a delight; this place was not. We set up our camp stove on the windy banks of an-algae choked stream, enjoying the decorative bits and pieces of goat carcass that the locals had strewn carefully across the landscape. Marcella and I shrugged and I asked her to boil the mate water for a few extra minutes. Picking pieces of algae from my ramen & tuna, I reminded myself that at least I was getting my daily dose of green vegetables.

We spent the night in a camp near the capital, drinking tea, eating a real meal—rice, yay! Potatoes and peas, yay! Pan-fried . . . tuna . . . Well, at least it was hot!


Posted in boats, nature, socotra, tourism, women | 1 Comment