Aden! Part Duex

•March 28, 2010 • 3 Comments

When one thinks of Yemen, three distinct thoughts come to mind, especially since December 25th, 2009: Hot, al-Qaeda and that one “Friends” episode where Chandler lies about moving to Yemen to escape a girl. One typically does not think of fun, surf, green mountains, ancient civilizations, warm people and hidden mysteries.

Without leaving the ideology infused capital of Sana’a, one may actually forget the rich heritage, cultural diversity and distinct progressions that have taken root throughout the country. Afrah, a wonderful Arab friend of mine,  recently wrote, “Visitors who only stay in the capital don’t get the full picture of the country’s diversity. Looking forward to read(ing) about the other cities you visited as well. I hope Aden and the other cities can maintain the diversity of our country and not “melt” in the northern tribal “pot” as has been the trend lately.”

I could post about this problem for hours, as I have spent countless hours reading about, speaking on and observing this very phenomenon. However, no one wants to be bored. So instead, I will continue with a photo journal, as it is always easier on the eyes to stare at pictures instead of words. Hopefully, some of that cultural diversity will shine through.

So what has this to do with the picture above? Pick your own metaphor. I am sure it will function. I can think of a few of my own, but none good enough to put into words. I just really like the picture.

Thus far in the journey into the heart of Aden, I have focused on the city and culture, avoiding the beach experience. Time to rectify this glaring omission.

The Beach.

The Palms.

The Coral.

The Burn.

But the beach was not all there was to see and do. The fish market and fisherman’s docks were fantastic as well.

However, the ancient cisterns truly caught my attention. While it is not accurately known when the cisterns were created, with some estimates placing their construction in the time of the Queen of Sheba, or during the Himyarite Kingdom, while others have proposed more conservative estimates of the Rassulid period. Regardless, they were rediscovered by the colonial British in 1890’s, and repaired for the irrigation and consumption of the area. Although no longer in use, they still present a stunning testament to the ingenuity of the ancients, and the Victorian desire to assist where damage was typically the result.

After following what can only be described as a ‘silly folly of youth mistake’ by climbing up the side of a cliff to get above the cisterns in 40 degree heat, I managed a half grin/half grimmiace as I looked over the crater which now serves as downtown Aden.

But it was not all hard work. After dishes of fresh Shark and Yemeni tea ice cream, we could always find a new vantage within the city to sit with locals and chat as the sun went down.

I think it is safe to say I was excited to put my feet in the Gulf of Aden.

However, eventually we had to begin the journey back to Sana’a. There was sadness.

Especially as we re-entered the desert.

And, as always, the song. It may not be new, but it makes me feel good. What more can one person ask for from life 🙂


The Yemeni Countryside

•March 27, 2010 • 1 Comment

I have received countless inquiries about the life of the Yemeni people. “How do they eat? What do they eat? Is there water in the country? Does anything grow?” And on and on and on.

These are all fair questions. Only 3% of Yemen’s entire landmass is arable. Of that, roughly a quarter of that arable land has been recovered from the sides of mountains in the form of terracing, the art of cutting farmland out of the mountains, giant steps working their way up the sides of majestic peaks.

But there are also valleys filled with cropland, from which the vast majority of Yemen’s food derives. In the fertile lands from Sana’a to Dhamar, and Ibb to Taiz, crops are cared for, mountains are vibrantly green and the population of this mystical land go about their business like any other.

Here are a few shots to give the general idea.

While it is true that an alarmingly high amount of useful land in Yemen has gone to the Qat farmers, there is still a wide variety of things grown in Yemen, from fruits such as Guava and Mangos, to crops such as wheat and rice, and even cabbage, lettuce and cucumbers.

And there you have it. It does get green in certain parts of Yemen. There are plants. There is life. Farmers farm, children play and students study. Indeed, it is an agrarian based culture, the same as countless across the world.

Such similarities make me happy. Like this song.

Aden! Aden! Aden! Part 1

•March 27, 2010 • 3 Comments

What could this post be about? Curious.

Ok, it is not JUST about Aden. But we spent the majority of our week-long fiesta in Aden, with stops in Taiz, Ibb, Little Aden and Dhamar. While the entire trip was breathtaking, Aden truly stood out as a place apart from the traditional impression of Yemen. For that reason, the majority of this photo journal post will be of Aden. A shot or two of little Aden will pop up. Sorry for that. The second part of the Aden series will deal with other aspects of Aden as well as Taiz, Ibb and Dhamar.

It would be ultimate pleasure to wax on and on about the pictures, with back stories and helpful hints. However, I feel that most people have enough trouble getting through the opening paragraph of my posts, and therefore do not need additional reflections slowing them down.

And off we go.

We (Samir, Ahmed and Elias) left Sana’a at 11 o’clock in the evening for our outing to the south, for three practical reasons; checkpoints would be less crowded, most drivers would have pulled off to the side for the night, and who wants to drive in the heat. Thus, with bags packed, we headed off for Aden, arriving at seven in the morning. While the rest promptly went to bed, I had slept the whole way down, including through the seven different armed checkpoints we had to drive through. I was later told that my scarf wrapped around my head and my nappy beard made me look like a Yemeni in the dark, and thus no need for lengthy interrogations about our destination.

I recognized three things while I undertook that first walk through Aden. It was hot. Not, “oh jezz its warm” hot, but hot hot. The temperature was roughly the same as what I have felt in the Summer in Las Vegas, but with the addition of major humidity.And we are not anywhere near summer yet. Second, the city was clean, organized and Green. We can thank the British for that one.

And finally, there were traces of recent conflict across the outer-poorer fringes of the city.

Such as fresh bullet holes.

We spent literally days exploring the beauty of Aden, but nothing could compare with the beaches of this extraordinary place.

Aden itself is a rich city, with historical (i.e., colonial) points of interest, sprawling beaches, fantastic fish markets and unparalleled hospitality.

Between the hours on the beach, the hiking and the delicious food, each day folded into the next, leaving us constantly breathless and happy.

As always, I like to leave the post with the song that made me happiest during the period of time that post covers. It may be a little bit of a silly tradition, but on it goes.

I was listening to a wonderful Canadian artist as I walked around Aden on my own, and found that her music enabled me to love every footstep in the hot dust, every bead of sweat that came as a result of the temperatures and every familiar Yemeni sight that I came across just as much as those experiences that were new.

So for that reason, Basia Bulat receives not one, but TWO songs on today’s blog. Enjoy!


•March 27, 2010 • 2 Comments

Ok, anyone who knows me, knows full well that I am not big on tooting my own horn. I don’t believe in it. Not classy. Nope.

HOWEVER, now I feel like I kind of have to. Not because I have done anything of remote importance. Not at all. But this blog space was designed to chronicle my experiences in Yemen. This falls under my experiences of Yemen. Is it therefore tooting? Perhaps, but no more than the rest of this blog…

Wait… does that mean that this whole blog is tooting? Crap.

Anyhow, back in November, once I had returned from India and was back in Yemen studying, I was contacted by the editor of the SAM publication for the UofL. They were interested in doing a brief interview with me about what I was doing in Yemen, why I had gone, and what I had hoped to get out of the experience. This sounded like a good opportunity to further my goals of helping others understand what it is like over here. So, without hesitation I said yes.

A month later, the Umar incident happened, as previously chronicled, that left me feeling somewhat frustrated and angry with publications. Therefor, when the writer from SAM wrote asking for a few additional pictures for the story, I was hesitant. However, remembering that the publication came from the University, and not a British Tabloid, I sent them some more information and pictures as they had requested.

Then I promptly forgot about the whole thing. Until yesterday. I had been in Aden for the week taking care of a few things, only to discover my inbox had exploded slightly while I was done. As it was late, and the drive had been exhausting, I only wanted to go through Facebook, the least intrusive of the emails that I would have received over the week-long vacation.

It was a slight mistake, since the article had since been published, and posted on the University’s main home page. I had more than a few emails reminding me of what a dork I was, especially in the accompanying picture. It is to be expected. I have tried for years to hide my inner dork, refusing to let it run free, only to be outed by a magazine.

That said, the article was a good piece of writing, better than I can do to be sure.

Check it out here.

As always, I end with the music that is making me happy this very moment. While this song by Laura Marling is a darling song, full of pep, slightly depressing lyrics and a joyful melody, it is the music video that really captured my attention. It is fun. Fun fun fun. Especially the end.

So here it is – Laura Marling – Ghosts

“Its written in Squiggly!”

•March 9, 2010 • 3 Comments

I distinctly recall my first impressions as my taxi hurtled through masses of people, along filthy streets, from the airport to my first home in Yemen. Traveling at unnecessary and uncalled for speeds, we weaved through throngs of pedestrians. I recall reaching for a seatbelt in an act of futility.

While many emotions struck me at that moment, one dominated the rest; nothing was written in English characters. Obviously. Yet, casting aside my total lack of surprise at the Arabic, for the first time since I had begun planning to travel in the Middle East, I came to the stark realization that I would indeed, as one past roommate had been fond of reminding me, have to “learn to read squiggly.”

The months passed, and with many hours of practice (alone – always alone – I hate people hearing me practice reading; I always feel like I am mentally challenged), I picked up on the reading. However, whenever I came across a sign, on buses, on billboards, on street corners or in textbooks and in newspapers, I found that I was still sounding out words.

Today in class, the subconscious took over. While reading aloud to my teacher, something clicked, and the words came without the brief mental exercise. I was reading squiggly! I didn’t say understanding… just reading.

That is all.

Oh, that and I love this song right now. It is happy. Like me. Now.

The end.

What do you do on a lazy Sunday?

•March 7, 2010 • 3 Comments

The preceding title  accompanies a certain tune in my head. First one to correctly identify the tune wins a prize.

Sunday afternoon in Yemen. Allow me to explain. Yemen does not follow the Gregorian Calender or adhere to a Solar Year. It is a rebel that way. Actually, it is due to the Islamic Lunar calendar, which is eleven days shorter than the Solar, leading people to age quicker in the Middle East. It’s similar to when Superman flew around the earth counter clock (?) wise in his first movie in order to reverse time to save Lois Lane, only different.

Back on topic. Not due to the Lunar Year, but due to the day of religious worship, which lands on the Judeo-Christian day of Friday, the weekend in Yemen wind up being Thursday and Friday, leading to complications doing business with the vast majority of the world, and making it a major headache to contact banks back in Canada. Between the two and a half days I have to work with banks in both Yemen and Canada, divided by the 12 hour time difference, business moves slow. But this post isn’t about that, as wonderfully frustrating as that can at times be. It is about what I do when Sunday rolls around, I am half way through my school week and am getting ready for work on Monday.

What I am saying is I get tired.

I can hear it already. “Boo-hoo. You live in Yemen. You eat fun food, meet interesting people, miss the snow and avoid the real world.” Fair enough.

However, I can not recant that which I know to be true… I do get tired. Accept it.

I realized today that I would have a full day on Monday, with some group study at eight, a visit to the National Museum in support of the Artwork of Yemeni Women, work at eleven, then night class at six followed by study till the typical hour of eleven. Somewhere in there, I plan on perhaps eating. Perhaps. Therefore, I decided I should enjoy this lazy lazy Sunday. Having finished class at noon, and postponing the homework, I choose to eat some expensive food.

That there is some Moroccan spicy chicken with buttered rice. And unlike Yemeni rice and chicken, which cost roughly $2 CND, this little beast cost me $15. Was it $13 dollars better? (Actually, it almost was. ) It was not for the food, though, as much as it was for a quick taste of the “traditional” Yemeni experience. You see, the restaurant is on the roof of a famous hotel here in Sana’a called Burj al-S’alam, an eleven story “traditionally” built Yemeni home in the Old City.

The view is breathtaking. It is high above all other structures, allowing for a sweeping panoramic view of the entire city, old and new, while reducing the constant noise of below to that of a soft whisper.

Now, I said I wanted a quick taste of the “traditional” Yemeni experience. I say “traditional” as this hotel caters to those fancy Europeans who want to “see” Yemen, but never have to actually see Yemen. It is a luxurious hotel, with every convenience you could hope for. It is quiet, well-run, clean and best of all, basically European. It’s the best way to step out of Yemen in order to catch your breath for a few moments.

It was refreshing, if only to witness the beauty of Yemen that I oh so often take for granted.

Now back to work.

Hockey fever, wild dogs and local police: Yemeni Nights

•March 5, 2010 • 6 Comments

The Gold was ours! The euphoria of an overtime goal inspired Olympic gold medal was fantastic. It was a feeling that would last throughout the night.

I had forced two Americans and one Singaporean to sit through four hours of hockey, explaining the rules as the game progressed; all the while forgetting that the houses in Old Sana’a are built practically on top of each other, that it was a chipper four in the morning and that I was the only one who would shed tears of joy in the event of a win or tears of sorrow with a loss.

Perhaps it was the hour of the morning or the lingering flu that had me on the edge of my seat. Perhaps it was my deep and residing longing to watch the most beautiful game in the world on the largest stage in the world. Or perhaps I was just tired of Yemen for an evening and desperately wanted to feel Canadian, if only for a few hours. With only minutes left in the game, Canada ahead of U.S.A. by a goal, the victory dance began, a sort of truffle shuffle around the Yemeni living room. As my American friends congratulated me (us?), the unthinkable happened. At 2:49 a.m. Monday morning, Sana’a time, Zach Parise, the American left-winger from Minneapolis scored with seconds left on the clock.

Deflaition filled my heart, or is it more accurate to say that my heart was deflated? Either way, I was shattered. The American’s smirks began to crawl across their faces as they realized the meaning of sudden death overtime.

Knees were clutched, eyes were closed, breath was held, and in the end, the sweet sweet end, Canada scored. There would be dancing in the streets! In the delicious streets of Sana’a.

With victory fresh on my tongue, Ahmed, my Singaporean make believe Canadian for the night, skipped along the coble stones of Sana’a in hopes of finding a cab in the wee hours of the morning. As I rambled on about the completely irrational and inconsequential joy this moment brought me, Ahmed stopped dead in his tracks.

Ahmed has a fear of dogs. This partly stems from the religious recognition of dogs within Islam. It also has roots in the cultural perception of dogs within Middle Eastern society. Finally, Ahmed’s childhood run in with dogs never helped the situation either.

There we stood. Face to face with a pack of wild dogs. Now on the off chance that I have not posted on the street animal phenomenon found in Yemen, now is the time.

Yemen is much like India, in that animals are not seen as pets. Rather they are viewed as either food, such as the delicious chicken or lamb, or scavenger, as in the malnourished dog or cat. You can find each on the streets, although typically you do not see the squished remains of chickens or goats on the roads, so I must assume cars are willing to at least swerve, as no one slows down ever, for the edible animals. Therefore, the cats fight, while the dogs cower until evening. However, once men, women and children have closed their eyes for the evening, the packs of dogs emerge, hungry and seemingly very angry.

I have come across packs in the early morning hours before and therefore know that with a swift kick or a handily placed rock, the pack will retreat as quickly as they advanced. However, Ahmed’s fear overtook the situation, as he cowered behind a parked car. I struggled to decide which action to undertake; should I have chased the dogs away or encouraged them to explore my friend a little more. In the end I chose to be kind. I chased them away. Only to realize that the dogs were not running away as quickly this particular evening. In fact, the dogs began to circle, slowly tightening the gap between us.

With Canadian courage in hand, I grabbed four of the largest rocks I could find at my feet and choose to take to offensive. I took one step forward. The pack’s leader did the same. I took another step. The dog bent low, a soft growl escaping its throat. I raised my arm, with no real intent to throw a rock, as I tend to feel bad for even causing an animal to have to find a new sunbeam to lay in when I need the particular chair they have curled up on.

The dog began to come closer once again. The rock was thrown. It hit the side of the dog with no effect. Now, I am aware that I am not what is typically referred to as “strong” or even “in shape” for that matter, but I threw that dang rock hard. It continued to come closer, close enough that I no longer felt any hesitation in my next move.

Grasping the largest rock I had, I chucked it at its rear, catching it between the belly and the hind legs. Cruelty to animals? Perhaps. Not getting bitten with the possibility of contracting rabies, one of the many shots I forgot to get before coming to Yemen, from a nasty dog? Oh yeah, you can rest assured I threw that rock. Matt – 1, Yemeni Rabies – 0.

We finally reached Tahryir Square, where we found a taxi driver happily chewing away on his Qat. Jumping in the cab, we took off for home, only to be stopped exactly 50 meters down the road by an army/police roadblock. Such barricades are common, requiring only some basic verbal skills and a good old-fashioned smile to pass through quickly.

This particular evening, easy was not to be the case. The questions began. Why am I in Yemen? Why would I want to study here? Am I Muslim? Am I a terrorist? Why would I be out at four in the morning on a Sunday evening? Did I not have school in the morning? Why did I not have my passport? Why was I causing the army a headache when they really just wanted to sit down and chew Qat until their shifts were over? What the hell is wrong with Canada?

We were told to get out of the vehicle, and stand near the rear while the army sorted out what to do with us. Eventually, perhaps a good 15 minutes later, they decided to allow one of us to return to our home to return with our papers, while one would stay as collateral.

Ahmed jumped in the cab, racing off for home, while I attempted to make nice with the officer. As has often been the case with the military and myself over the last several weeks, he was none to impressed with me. Eventually he grew bored of my questions and Western sense of entitlement, and sent me with some soldiers, to be kept in the back of the police truck. Knowing I did not really feel like sitting in the back of a truck with ten other tired and bored soldiers, I decided to once again stand my ground.

“No thanks! I want to sit here,” I said as I pointed at the passenger side seat of the truck. “Impossible,” came the reply from the solider. “I swear to God,” I replied, “I will sit there.” And off I went. With a grin and a dismissive shake of his head, the officer turned to deal with other matters or much more importance then myself.

A small group of soldiers and locals gathered around the truck, curiosity in their eyes. Although each made a point of not speaking to me, each felt free to stair as inconspicuously as he felt necessary at the time. I figured it was a good night, although I was getting sleepy as five a.m. approached, and seeing that staring seemed like such good fun, I decided to stare right on back.

At that moment Ahmed returned with documents in had. After a few more phone calls, lasing well over another 20 minutes, we were freed to leave, an hour and a half after we first pulled up, under condition of our understanding that if we came across the same officer again without our papers, we would be thrown into jail immediately. Good times.

Our taxi driver pulled up to our house as the mosques began their calls. In an effort to be kind a generously overpaid the man, only to have my money thrown back in my face. He wanted much more. Bad time to pick being a prick buddy.

With all of the drama I could muster, in choppy but broken Arabic, I carefully explained the logistics of the drive, the daytime fares for such a distance, my intentions of attempting to be kind and the dishonor he did to God as he tried to cheat and lie in order to gain more money. I, I explained, was a Christian, but my friend, he was a Muslim. And a Muslim should NEVER cheat another Muslim, regardless of nationality.

I don’t think I realized it at the time, but the volume began to creep well above a five in the a.m. voice. At the end, I reverted back to English in frustration. He slowly smiled, and accepted my original money.

I crawled into bed that night for an hour and a half sleep before work with a slight grin, realizing I had just had another ordinary day in Yemen.

I pushed play on the iPod and drifted off to sleep. This is what came on. Totally unrelated, but I love Stars more then life itself, so who is complaining. Enjoy Ageless Beauty 🙂