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?
Q: NO WAY.
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.
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.