by Dr. Nabeel Khoury
The following are snapshots from interactions with ordinary Yemenis outside the capital city of Sanaa and its diplomatic circles.
Imagine an American diplomat, accompanied by a British diplomat, going hiking in the mountains and valleys of Yemen – that’s almost impossible to do these days, but even in the relative calm of the years 2004-2007, it was still bold. During those years, I was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, and not allowed by the Yemeni government to travel unescorted outside of the city. Being an Arab-American, and a native speaker of Arabic meant that I could talk my way past Yemeni security checkpoints and be invited to tea in homes located in the remote villages of Yemen.
You’re Not From Around Here!
My friend mentioned above, and I had walked a mile or so in a valley and sat down to rest in the shade of an olive tree. A woman walked by with a large bushel of twigs and grass carefully balanced on her head. A few yards behind her, a young man walked at a leisurely pace, twirling a bamboo stick as he went along. I saluted and walked up to him to chat and, after a few introductory and general remarks, we asked if the woman walking ahead with the big bushel on her head was his wife. He answered in the affirmative. I then asked provocatively, “that must be a heavy load on a hot day like this, and you’re not carrying anything, why aren’t you helping her?” He smiled, looked me at quizzingly and said, “You’re not from around here, are you?!”
We both chuckled, and I went on to ask what he did for a living and how he spent his time off work (as an occasional taxi driver, it turned out). It is not uncommon for women to do the hard chores in Yemen’s countryside, as I found out throughout my hikes and travels. They tended cattle, and they planted and harvested any fruit or vegetables owned by the family and little girls in particular carried water from nearby wells or streams up sometimes steep hills to drink or use for washing at home. The women went mostly unveiled as they worked in the field, but some did cover their faces if a stranger walked by.
I was invited to a family’s home in the village. I was surprised to meet the wife (only one) and his four young daughters, all unveiled, and the husband quite comfortable with us all sitting in their one Mafraj (living room). It is unheard of in most urban homes where the host would entertain male friends in the Mafraj, and if any women in the household came in to bring tea or food, they would be almost entirely veiled, with either the face or just the eyes showing. Food for thought, as one analyzes the story of the veil and the various conservative customs that have been woven around different interpretations of Islamic doctrine.
Howling at the Moon:
A group of us from the U.S. Embassy were out on an “office hike,” along with friends from other embassies and with a small contingent of Yemeni security. As we walked through the mountains around the city of Manakhah, tired and thirsty, we stopped on a narrow ledge to rest. An old man walking back with to his village from nearby fields with his laden donkey stopped, curious about all these foreigners tromping through the Yemeni countryside so far off the beaten track. “What are you all doing here,” the old man asked, “and where are you all from ?” I debated for only a moment and decided to go for a confession.
After all, there was a dozen of us, with security this time, and only one of him. “Some of us are American,” I ventured. The old man looked startled for only a second then let out a loud howl. Amused, I asked him why he howled. “I’ve never seen an American before,” he said, “but I have no use for them. They’re nothing but trouble.” I asked him if it was Iraq and he answered in the affirmative, adding, “it’s all of it, it’s all of it; there’s never any trouble, but you find that Americans are behind it.” “But what about when you and your country need help,” I said, “don’t the Americans bring in wheat and water and build bridges and so on?” The old man pointed to his donkey and said, “You see that donkey over there? That’s all the help I need!”
On the other hand:
A man in his fifties walked up to us, as we sat on a hill above the tiny village of Cahil, admiring the view from the gorgeous valley below and the distant mountains on the other side of the Sana’a-Aden road. He had a pronounced limp and leaned on a cane for support. He was apparently in pain but smiled as he welcomed us, two foreigners who spoke Arabic and were strangers in those parts. He did not probe or ask who or why, but just wanted to chat and make friends. Abu Bashir, it turns out, was a veteran of fighting the Houthis for two years in the north of Yemen and was sent back home to recuperate, having injured his leg at war, and after receiving - clearly unprofessional - treatment of his wound at the main public hospital in Sana’a. Living well to the south of Sana’a, Abu Bashir neither had strong feelings about that war nor a good understanding of it.
The military offered him a job and a salary, though meager, that helped him make ends meet in supporting his family, which consisted of his wife, four daughters and two sons. After a half hour of conversation, Abu Bashir insisted on inviting us to tea at his home, a mud and gravel construction, consisting of one floor with a Mafraj that doubled as the living room and sleeping space, shared by this family of eight. The only other small room in the house was for the cow they owned. The girls, ranging in age from three to sixteen, shared the chores of bringing water, milking the cow, making bread, butter and cheese, while the mother, pregnant with yet another child, planted and harvested the vegetables, grown on a plateau a few terraces up the hill from where they lived.
Since my friend and I often returned to Cahil, we befriended Abu Bashir and his family and saw them frequently. Troubled by the inadequate care he was receiving, we introduced him to two Russian doctors working in the city nearby, a man and his wife we had given a ride to one day and mentioned Abu Bashir’s case to them. It took a few months, but Abu Bashir, receiving good advice and some care from the two Russians, made his way back to the hospital in Sana’a and, with recommendations and medical suggestions in hand, finally received the surgery he
needed. Abu Bashir’s leg mended, thanks to the collaboration of Russian doctors and two western diplomats. I only hope that the mending of his leg did not mean his return to the war, which goes on to this day in one configuration or another.
On my last visit to Cahil, before leaving Yemen at the end of my Foreign Service tour of duty, I finally told Abu Bashir that, though of Lebanese origin, I was an American citizen, worked for the U.S. embassy and would be returning to the United States. Unphased by my announcement, Abu Bashir wished me well and said that, though he had never been, he would love to one day see what America was all about. He asked me to stay in touch by phone if I could. As an itinerant diplomat, I had often felt some sadness on leaving friends and places that had grown familiar. When I departed from Yemen, I found that this family and village had both touched and
stayed with me. Something very peaceful and tranquil about the family, and the remote village in the mountains, belied the political turmoil, the bustle of diplomatic life in Sana’a and the trouble that lay ahead.
A goat snuck into our midst almost unnoticed, as we sat chatting around a campfire. I eyed it amusedly as it ignored the scraps of food leftover from dinner on the table in the center of our circle and went up to a folded chair on the side, snatched a single tissue from a Kleenex box and ran off with it. A few minutes later, the goat came back and stealthily snatched another tissue. I mentioned it to our gathering, wondering why the goat was so interested in tissues. The goat, noticing all the attention her third raid was getting, trotted over quickly to the chair, grabbed the whole box in its mouth and ran off into the darkness to a burst of laughter from the group. Someone ventured that goats on the island ate newspapers and even stones sometimes just to fill their bellies.
Socotra, a jewel of nature luckily still off the radar screen of most travel agencies, has so far kept its 700 endemic species of flora and fauna - found nowhere else on earth - safe from potential hordes of tromping tourists. The flip side of that success, however, is the extreme poverty that affects both human and animal life on the island. On the flight back to the mainland, I was seated next to a young Socotran, heading back to Aden where he went to university, after a summer vacation at home. Picking up a conversation with him about life on the island and at the University of Aden, he suddenly took a closer look at me and said, “You are the Charge at the American Embassy, aren’t you?” Admitting to the fact, I then listened as the young man marveled how an American diplomat was sitting next to him just like “a normal passenger” and chatting as if no barriers existed. He said he had seen my photo in a southern daily newspaper, “al-Ayam,” and had marveled at how candid an American diplomat could be in critiquing the problems of corruption and “authoritarianism” in Yemen. “We in the south say these things among one another, but if by some miracle President Saleh, or even a minister in his government were sitting next to me on the plane I certainly wouldn’t dare discuss such matters.” We joked and bantered the rest of the way to Aden and I gave the young man my email address and encouraged him to stay in touch.
Of the many conversations I had with ordinary citizens in Yemen, this one stayed with me as among the most pleasant. A young man, a university student, expressed himself freely to me on the challenges of life on the island and campus and had no reservations stating what political views he had – my being American and an embassy official notwithstanding. Socotra has mostly escaped the political turmoil and violence of recent years but was affected by severe hurricanes and flooding. The island’s political future is yet to be determined as the regional and local political and tribal leaders try to agree on the national division of Yemen.
 Dr. Nabeel Khoury is non-resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and a board member at the YCIHA. He spent twenty-five years as a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service, serving in various posts including: deputy chief of mission in Yemen; consul general in Casablanca; deputy director of the State Department Media Outreach Center in London; and director of the Near East South Asia Office of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In 2003, during the Iraq war he served as State Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad.