La-Boda-Min Sana'a (Sana’a, a Must!)[1]

Author: Jeb Boone[2] 

At the age of twenty-one, I had never left the United States and as a Middle Eastern Studies major, the study abroad suggestions were always the same: “The Hashemite Kingdom of BOREDOM” or “EGYPT! AUC parties are INSANE,” and the usual “Go to Morocco. It was cool. Their Arabic is weird and French.” In an attempt to eke out some chance to learning an Arabic word or two, I ended up choosing Jordan. It might have been boring, but I suspected that Amman could provide a better learning environment than the perpetually drunk offspring of Cairo’s elite. 

My plans to travel to Jordan were shattered by my close friend Chris when he returned to Atlanta from Sana’a where he had spent the summer researching his master’s thesis.  

“JEB!” Chris screamed over our drinks and into my face, “GO TO YEMEN!”

“I don’t know. Jordan seems easier and safer.”

“@H*RA!” he screamed, showcasing some of his newly acquired Arabic dialects.

“You’ll go to Yemen. You’ll chew qat[3]. You’ll eat Saltah[4]. Khalas.”

I was incredulous. In my ignorance, Yemen seemed distant, strange, and dangerous. I had never left home before, and it felt unwise to dive into a place that seemed so foreign immediately.

“Why?” I asked. 

“They’re like us,” he said. 

I didn’t understand. 

“Yemenis work hard. They don’t have shit except the shirt on their back and the people they love. They care about others. They’re like southerners.” 

I remained apprehensive, but Chris was relentless. He badgered me for weeks.

“WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO YEMEN?!” he’d scream over the phone and our beers for weeks on end until I finally cracked. My friends thought I was crazy. My family was worried. My teachers were slow to sign my approval forms. At every snag, Chris kept badgering me. On my way to the airport, I still couldn’t believe what I was doing. I had no idea how deeply I would fall in love with Yemen or that its people would become such an invaluable part of my life.

I arrived in Sana’a in June 2008 for a two-months intensive Arabic instruction. At first, I was slow to branch out into the city of Sana’a and meet her people. I rarely left the company of my western classmates. 

A month after my arrival I was beginning to feel confident speaking Arabic. On a cool summer night at a school qat chew, I was discussing in Arabic (or trying to) a few political issues with some of our Yemeni teachers. In the middle of happily chewing and arguing (a time-honored tradition) another student asked me in English, “Hey Jeb, where are you from?”

“Uh, Georgia,” I responded in a muffled, qat affected tone.

“Wow. And you came to Yemen? I wouldn’t expect someone from your part of the world to be so…cosmopolitan.”

I didn’t know what to make of the statement.

“You mean from the US?”

“No, from the South.”

I responded with a polite smile and a nod and went back to the conversation. Was it so obvious? Was my southern accent that distinct? Was it out of the ordinary for someone from a mid-sized Georgia town to feel so comfortable in a place like Yemen - in a culture so foreign from my own? 

It would be out of the ordinary. 

But was Yemeni culture so foreign?

Yemen’s distinct and ancient history makes it one of the wealthiest and unique cultural traditions in the world - but are Yemeni values so different from ones found in the southern United States?

As I continued the conversation, I thought about the men with whom I was speaking. What had they done that day? They worked for about 11 hours for a meager of salaries, and now they were sitting with friends, chewing qat and arguing about politics. Most importantly, they were happy. Not happy with their station in life, they were fully aware of the struggles and challenges they met and bested on a daily basis, but they were content at the moment. I couldn’t help but think of how many times, after a day’s work, I sat at a bar with my friends, argued about politics, and was happy for a few hours.

At that moment, I’d realized why I felt so comfortable in Yemen. People with similar values surrounded me. Yemenis were people who toiled endlessly against so many disadvantages - disadvantages that affected people of the American south as well; like poverty and lack of access to education. Both our peoples delighted in the joys of a having a job, a family and good friends. 

Such delight was not derived from an ignorance of a better life but the contrary - the joy is derived in spite of these disadvantages making it all the more important. Yemenis and the people of the American south are indeed kindred spirits in that respect. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would be forever tied to Yemen and its people.

At that moment, an affirmation of my epiphany, one of my teachers called out to me.

“What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“Great! Come to my house for dinner, and you can meet my family.”

Robust, selfless generosity in Yemen is legendary. To say that Yemenis are merely kind and hospitable is an insult to their great generosity and indomitable spirit. Impoverished Yemeni families have hosted me for some of the grandest meals I’ve ever eaten. Those experiences were some of the most humbling of my life, and I am grateful for it.

I experienced similar hospitality in my own home when families and friends would gather together for holiday meals when the cost of food would nearly bankrupt the host. To many westerners, such a gesture, while incredibly kind, may seem like a poor financial decision. What Yemenis and many American southerners understand is that family and friends to come together, eat and be happy for a moment is more important.

Toward the end of my study in Yemen, I noticed how many western students were conducting themselves. While many of them were very polite and spoke near perfect Arabic (light years ahead of my own), they looked at many Yemenis through a disconnected and anthropological stare. A sort of stare that signifies that while they were carrying on a polite conversation, they were scribbling ethnographies in their head as fast as their memory allowed. 

Many of the students viewed Yemenis as objects full of quaint folk tales and antiquated turns of phrases that would end up in their dissertations. I had felt similarly when I traveled to other parts of the US. There is a facial expression, a sort of cue, that lets one know when an individual has stopped interacting and started observing. A “yes ma’am” or a “'appreciate it” is met with a sort of condescending amusement as if each colloquialism was a comical linguistic artifact from an inferior culture. 

Yemenis and American southerners are similar in how they are often misunderstood by their peers as well as cultural outsiders. When I left Yemen later that year and traveled to Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, I was often met with laughter when I told other Arabs that I was studying in Yemen. 

Qabili” was the term they used to refer to Yemenis, “tribesmen” in English. The term carries with it a derogatory inflection as if to say Yemenis were ignorant and stubborn cultural relics. The term “Redneck” carries the same weight, implying that the person referred to is ignorant and brutish, forced to live off of the sweat of his brow. 

Towards the end of my Study in 2009, my friends held a send-off chew for me in the old city. One of them brought an ‘Oud and played a song I didn’t quite recognize. I was only just able to understand some of the lyrics of lost loves, missed opportunities and friends long gone. The mournful timbre and character of his voice was something that was unmistakable for me – high and lonesome. It was then that I realized that while American southerners and Yemenis share similar joys, we also share similar sorrows. 

Two years later, I’d learn new depths of that sorrow. 

I lasted 18 months at home before I succumbed to the urge to go back. After graduating from college, I wanted to start a career in journalism, and I was accepted for an editorial position at an English Language newspaper in Sana’a. It was October of 2010 and the youth revolution that overthrew Ali Abdullah Saleh was about to begin. 

In my coverage of their revolution, I witnessed Yemen’s youth defy the extreme violence and brutality of a machine that sought to kill them and stamp out their voices. During my first visit, I thought I had learned the depth’s Yemenis’ great selflessness. In their revolution, I watched the youth put their bodies between Ali Saleh’s bullets and their friends in the ‘Change Square’ – a sacrifice they made fearlessly and without hesitation throughout the entire uprising. 

That was when I learned that the power and bravery of the Yemeni people are beyond measure. I left Yemen after covering the revolution for just over a year. It was ongoing, and I wasn’t as strong as the youth. I needed to go home.

A few months after my return to Atlanta I took a bus trip to North Carolina to cover an event – I didn’t trust my truck to make it. The bus stopped somewhere in South Carolina, and one of the new bus passengers took the seat next to me. 

I nodded toward him and returned to whatever I was doing to pass the time. A few minutes later, his phone rang. 

Allo? Aiwa[5] dilheen fee al-baas (Hello? Now in the Bus),” he said, using an accent and dialect that is unmistakably Yemeni. 

I smiled. 

When he finished his conversation, I turned to him and asked, “Ya akhi min wayn ant? (Brother, where are you from?) Yemen?”

Aiwa…,” he responded apprehensively.

“I used to live in Sana’a! I love Yemen!”

We spent the rest of the trip trading stories and arguing over which one of us missed Yemen the most. He wanted to hear about the revolution, and I was able to show him some photos. We exchanged numbers after the trip, and he made me promise to come and have dinner with his family sometime.

I’ve enjoyed countless experiences like this one since returning home. The people that have spent time in Yemen cherish every moment that we get to share with our Yemeni-American friends while we’re away.  We know that wherever we are in the world if we run into someone from Yemen, we’ll find a friend. 

That will have to do until we can go back. No one can stay away for long.

 

[1] Quote from a famous Saying about Yemen that is attributed to Yemeni poet Abdulaziz al-Maqalih and al-Imam al-Shafi’i: “la bod min Sana’a walau taal al-Safar” (Sana’a is a must, even if the journey is long). 

[2] Jeb Boone is a former managing editor of the Yemen Times and the Yemen Observer. He covered Yemen's uprising from February to September 2011 as a freelance journalist who contributed to the Guardian. He is from Augusta, Georgia. 

[3] Sometimes spelled Khat, the name of the leaves of an Arabian shrub, which are chewed in Yemen as a stimulant.

[4] Saltah is often described as the national dish of Yemen. It comes in many variants but it always contains a broth base and a beaten fenugreek foam that is eaten with bread. 

[5] Colloquial way of saying “Yes”. Side note: an all female Israeli girl group with Yemeni origins called itself “Aiwa” after the word, “Yes”.