Stories from Afar & Up Close

Do I feel safe?

Yesterday night, walking home from a friend's place, I was waiting behind two motorcycles trying to pass each other when a woman grabbed my arm and pulled me to the side. I didn't really realize what was happening until we were a few meters further down the dark but still busy market, and she said to me "we walk together, it's ok." She asked me the usual questions – what's your name, where are you from, what are you doing here – before dropping me off at my front door and disappearing down the side-street. Not even 30 minutes later I got a text message: "Reports of kidnapping of a foreigner on Al Zubayri Street at 8pm this evening. ID as yet unknown. Are you guys at CALES ok and accounted for?"

It's a strange thing, this whole threat of being kidnapped for the simple fact that you are foreigner. It's a danger you can't feel, it has no presence, and because there is no real discernible pattern (in terms of location, timing, number of people around) it is not really something you can estimate and avoid (other than by not going to Yemen of course. To which I say: pah!).

Houthi banner in the Old City of Sana'a. (Click for bigger!)

In the first few days, I hardly dared to interact with people (mostly men) in the street, because I wanted to avoid the question "where are you from?" Then I realized that a) potential kidnappers will probably draw their own conclusions from my height and the color of my hair and not wait until they confirm my nationality, and b) being in Yemen was going to be very boring this way. So I've been answering most "helloooo, welcome to Yemen"-s with at least a smile, and the follow-up question (indeed: where are you from) with the half-truth "Lebanon and the Netherlands". This usually confuses people because they unanimously think I look French, but that aside it's been nice to actually talk to people. Although it's often limited to "hi! My name is [Ahmad/Mohamad/Hassan/…], where am I from?* Thank you!!!" it takes away the feeling that everything and everyone is scary and out to do me harm. Especially when a wrinkly, almost toothless old man screams "I love you!" just as he passes me.  

Houthi posters in the Old City of Sana'a. (Click for bigger!) 

However, I've also had little kids throw stones at my back a few times, and the guy from the small bakery around the corner starts screaming the political slogan of the Houthis – "death to America, death to Israel" every time I pass by. The kids stop throwing as soon as I give them an angry look, though, and the baker smilingly sells me his bread, so it seems more show than serious. It's also easy to forget that almost half the population always carries a weapon – the jambiyah looks like a pretty decorative item on every man's belt, until you see a guy pull it out and threaten someone else with it in a heated discussion.  So in the end: do I feel safe? Yes, more or less. Do I feel welcome? Also yes – more or less, but friendliness somehow doesn't seem to come easy in Yemen.


*I always want to answer "from Yemen, probably!" but I guess the irony would be lost on them. Oh well.