Friday, June 20, 2008

adventures, disasters, etc.

Asdiqati al-azizun,

All is well-ish in Yemen. I will preface further thoughts by noting that we had a giant bedbug problem in our house which is presently being rectified, but it appears that the poisons they used have made my roommate and I a little sick. So, in the spirit of making excuses for not-extremely-well-articulated thoughts, I offer that one up to you.

Last Wednesday (which is the start of the weekend here), I played soccer with some Yemeni women and some girls from our school. When we took off our baltos to reveal matching uniforms, the coach was initially quite impressed and assumed we must have played seriously before. That was....well, not the case - but I did score the only goal for my team when we scrimaged, a true highlight of my young I-really-want-to-play-team-sports life. I also met Altaf, a Yemeni woman who works at the Ministry of Public Health here in Sana'a doing HIV counseling for women. I went to her home yesterday so we could practice English and Arabic; I am delighted to be making many Yemeni friends.

Last Wednesday before the football, I found myself in an old Sana'ani home and, well....

This is one of my teachers, Sayeeda, and me on the roof of said house. Sayeeda is one of the most delightful people I know here. She doesn't speak English, which is great. After the football game, she and I and some others went to this women's qat chew party; everyone sat in a narrow comfortable room, and we were fed piles of cakes and sweets and juices, and then we'd get up 2 or 3 at a time and dance to the Yemeni music cassette tape playing.

The next day, I went on a picnic to Bayt Bauz, a really old village outside of Sana'a that predates Islam and that used to be filled with Yemeni Jews. There are only 13 families who live there now.

I wanted to climb this tree. I discovered that climbing trees in long pioneer skirts can be disastrous and ridiculous looking. I eventually made it up, though, and feel compelled to share the small triumph with you.
Yemen is in the middle of a 3-year drought. In Sana'a, all of the water in the city is brought in by truck and piped up into water tanks in the buildings. This is one water truck I noticed - not really sure if they're referring to that infamous Sadam or some other guy. Speaking of that Saddam, it's funny to see his picture up in random businesses (though pictures of Yemen's president far outnumber posters of S. Hussein). There was a picture of Saddam in the restaurant where I ate dinner tonight as well as a picture of him in the place where I bought fresh sweets. And the deaf guy outside the tunnel near the square where I live sells lighters that also have Saddam and Osama faces on them.

On Thursday, I went to Thula, Shebam, and Kowkaban with friends. You should know, as a side note, that donkeys are a common site here, as are herds of goats in my alley, and the occasional cow wandering unattended through the souk (okay, that only happened once, but still...).
This is a really old water cistern (WC, baby). These are what some of the people I'm friends with look like:
I bought a couple scarves, and a Yemeni woman working at this restaurant tied a black one on for me like a bedouin. This was a quick (and failed) attempt to recreate the look. I had the black scarf re-tied on later, and I wore it on the whole hike up the mountain (I felt like a ninja). Unfortunately, all awesome pictures of me in said bedouin headdress have been lost - I went to an Ethiopian wedding later that night (awesome. the only wedding I've ever crashed, and it was excellent - insane dancing to Ethiopian music for several hours, not to mention the most delicious cuisine). At said wedding, someone decided to crawl into my purse and take my camera. [exasperation, exasperation]
So, from friend Jake's camera, this is a view from the cliffs of Kowkaban:
and this is the entire valley.

More soon. Ma sala'ama, my friends.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

just another tuesday evening

As a demonstration of my good intentions with more frequent postings, here are a few more pictures tonight.

Another Old City picture, just because it's cool:

There's a little shop next door to where I'm staying. The shopkeeper, Abdul, apparently lives upstairs with his mom and her 4 other children. Last night as I was on my way into my building, my roommate stopped me to say that Abdul's sister was going to do henna that night, if we wanted. Homework or henna? I followed Chelsea upstairs above the shop, and for the next several hours hung out with all the young and old women and their friends while Rim basically gave us henna sleeves. Rim does henna sometimes in order to make extra money to buy food for her child; her husband is a bad man who takes all the money for cigarettes and qat and abuses her son.

Tonight, we ate at a different Palestinian restaurant.
You pick out the fish you want grilled up for you...
...and then you eat with gusto.

There seems to be a strange fascination with Jean Claude Van Damme here. He has been mentioned to me several times as an idol by young Yemenis when they find out I'm from LA, and his pictures has been posted or painted on a variety of shop walls. I particularly liked this sign:

Tomorrow, inshallah, I will be learning to play some soccer with Sana'a's first women's league. In preparation, some of us went to a sports store and bought Yemeni Adidas wear. My shorts cost a whopping $2.50.
More soon. Ma salaaama for now, asdiqati.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

how do you say in arabic, "do not worry, friends. wendy is alive!"?

Marhaba! I made it to Yemen last week. Nothing nefarious has befallen me, merely atrocious internet connections. Better articulated thoughts to come soon, but I figured I needed to post something up here 1. to replace Bernard Parks and 2. to assuage any fears that I might have been kidnapped.

Facts, thoughts, pictures, other things:

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, maybe 12th poorest (dreadful internet connection = no fact checking). Definitely the poorest in the Middle East. Sana'a, the capital, has been continuously inhabited for at least 2500 years (there is a school of thought that Shem, the son of Noah - Noah as in Noah and the Ark, built this city. Also, this is where the Queen of Sheba hails from).

This is the alley outside of the place where I'm staying, right near the old city in an area called Bab As-Sabbah (Morning Gate):and this is my school (part of the outside of it, anyways), the Yemen Language Center (those are pictures of Yemen's president on the building):
I have 4 hours of Arabic lessons each day, in a class of 5 with 2 teachers who only speak Arabic. I am able to have small conversations with the many friendly Yemenis who talk to me in the city, which is really the best way to learn the language.

So, Yemen has remained surprisingly immune to western influence; traditional culture is absolutely abundant, and there are NO McDonalds here. Not one. Most men wear traditional dress consisting of a thaub (a long dress, basically) and a belt with a jambiya wrapped around their waist, plus a sport jacket. A jambiya is a special Yemeni dagger that functions to display one's manhood as well as one's tribe, social rank, and other info. Don't worry; people don't actually use them in fights or anything. Usually, that is. Which reminds me that Yemen does have the highest small arms per capita rate in the world (need to fact check this as well - something like 3 arms per capita. The AK-47 is the weapon of choice, but you're not allowed to carry them around Sana'a anymore.). This is a guy with a jambiya:

and these are some guys on a motorcycle, near a camel (not pictured). Both the motorcycles and the dashboards of cars, taxis, and dubabs (buses) are frequently covered in big shaggy goat skins. You better believe that I'm going to cover my own Mazdatron dashboard with the skin of a goat when I get back.

Yemeni food is delicious; we are fed breakfast and lunch every day in a garden with meals that usually include yogurt and honey, bread, pita, fruits, rice, meats in oily but delectable sauces - fairly standard Middle Eastern delights, I guess. I've had several kebabs for dinner, and I often dine in different Palestinian restaurant that are quite amazing - the pita bread with which we eat our bowls of meat is literally the size of the table. And it's all ridiculously cheap.

Qat chewing is ubiquitous here (at least amongst the men), and many fellow students have already taken up the habit (I will not be partaking!). Qat is a leaf of sorts that acts as a stimulant, so men buy up bags of it every day and start chewing in the afternoon. The wad of qat stays in one's cheek for hours in order to secure the full effect, so by late afternoon and evening when you walk around Sana'a, nearly everyone has one cheek full of the stuff, whether they're working or not. Kinda crazy, and also kinda sad - average per capita income for a family is around $860 US, and the average daily qat habit can easily cost $500 a year. It's a homewrecker, not to mention a tooth wrecker (nasty green unbrushed teeth...Yemen is not the model country for pearly whites). This is a qat seller that I see every day:

The old city in Sana'a boasts a great soukh. This is the spice market where I bought some anise:

The people here in Yemen are extremely friendly. I am not going to be kidnapped. Being a foreign woman in Yemen is...interesting, however; I still haven't figured out exactly what my role is, or should be. Most Yemeni women wear black baltos (long loose black dresses) and burkhas (not quite the Afghani version you're picturing - these include a black headscarf covering all the hair plus a black veil covering all the face except the eyes). People here are quite conservative, and the students at my school respect that by making sure their dress is conservative as well - arms and legs covered, nothing tight or translucent or revealing. I bought a balto and am wearing it as I write (I tried on the burkha but as of yet do not intend to purchase, let alone wear one). They are comfortable, particularly in the heat of the day. I've walked around a little by myself, but it's better to walk with a man. I've realized the gender divisions make it somewhat difficult to have easy Arabic conversation opportunities with people - when I'm with others, everyone in the street is extremely friendly and talkative (I've been welcomed to Yemen a ridiculous number of times now), but when I'm alone, people are generally silent.

This is Tahrir (Liberation) Square, with me (wearing the balto) on a horse and Marzouk from the language center on the right:

Weekends here are Thursday and Friday. This past weekend, I visited a hammam, went to a display for a street children's rehabilitation NGO, and wound up randomly at the home of the director of another NGO here where, inshallah, I will wind up doing a bit of work over the next few weeks. It was a classic Traditional Yemeni Cultural Experience (oud playing, sheesha, qat chewing, lounging around in the mufraj [those rooms with comfy cushions on the ground]), but it wasn't contrived at all - just a slice of normal life on a Thursday evening with some Yemeni folks. On Friday, I went hiking a few hours west of Sana'a with some colleagues in an area called Mahweet. People in this country like to find the highest point of land around, then build their houses right into it:

The descent of the mountain was a bit intense, as the guides didn't seem to remember where the trail was. We were in the company of goats and their goatherds who were better at descending than the Westerners:
This is me, on a cliff:
And these are our two guides, teachers at the center. In Yemen, it is very very common to see men holding hands, and it does NOT indicate anything more than warmth and friendliness.
That's the cliff we were exploring:
And these are some of the kids we ran into as we were hiking out:

I have many more tales to tell, and they will be better told when I'm more awake and have less baby powder in my eyes (explanation to come later). Until then, please enjoy toilet paper and shorts on my behalf. Sana'a is grrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat.