Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: Middle East

The People I've Met (1)

There was this family I met in Cairo. Mother and father and daughter, from Iraq. The daughter was in her early teens, if I remember correctly. She was in a wheelchair, could barely control the movement of her arms and legs, could utter sounds but no coherent sentences or even words. She was a delight, and so were her parents. Their love for her was so beautiful, it made me stop whatever I was doing to observe them. They cheered her on in the most loving way possible, every time she managed to master something new, a new word, a new sound, a new movement.
I asked if she was born this way. Her mother told me they had waited and hoped for and wanted a child for 12 years before she finally became pregnant. Their baby was born healthy and grew up to be this smart, cheerful girl, until one day when she was about four years old – a day when the Americans bombed their city. A huge blast close to their house blew out the windows, and the girl fell from her bed where she was sleeping. She wasn’t hurt, or so it seemed, but the next day she stopped talking, stopped moving, stopped reacting. It took two years before she slowly started moving, uncontrollably, and making sounds. “We’re still thankful every day that God has given her to us,” her mother said, “and we’re thankful for every day we get to spend with her.” There wasn’t a hint of anger in her voice.

Bas kidda*

Oh, Cairo.

People warned me about you. They said you are crazy - dirty, noisy, and overwhelming. That you are dangerous and crowded. That I wouldn’t be able to walk for 5 minutes without being verbally harassed and touched and bothered. That your polluted air makes it impossible to breathe.

Balcony in an alley in Downtown Cairo.

Maybe they are right, Cairo. After all, I’ve only been here for two weeks and a bit, so I don’t know you that well yet. And yes, you are loud and busy and dusty, so dusty I want to take a huge bucket and hose down the tree in front of the house (and while I’m at it, hose down the balcony as well. And the rest of the house.) Your air is brown, at times, and your drivers do like honking. And yes, sometimes I want to slap the next guy in the face before he even attempts to talk to me, because I don’t want to wonder if what he is going to say is yet another nasty proposal.

But you know what?

I like you. I really, really like you.

I like your wide avenues that create space in and between the neighborhoods. Your have trees everywhere, and parks, and boats that go up and down your river. Your people accuse each other of being liars, but I keep meeting people who are friendly and helpful and who follow up on their word. And they are quick to laugh and almost always return my smile. You have the easiest metro-system in the world, and it is so fast and reliable and cheap I still have trouble believing it. And you’re big, Cairo, so incredibly large – it makes you just the right mix of life and anonymity, with the people in my street knowing exactly what I’m up to but no one outside of that caring one single bit, all 18 million of them living their own life in their own way. And you function – your telephone system functions, your internet, your water supply, your electricity… maybe it offends you, umm el-dunya,** that I doubted any of that, but remember that I've come from Beirut, the shiniest city in the Middle East, where none of that works.

I also like your style. You pull off a combination of old-time European architecture with bustling alleys in a way that very few can. No one is tearing down your beautiful old buildings and replacing them with expensive luxury crap. Your stray cats want attention more than they want food, and your people give it to them. And your language, Cairo, your language… it is so soft and round and – dare I say it? – cute, I could listen the kida kida kida’s and ah’s that almost sound like oh the whole day.

So yes, Cairo, I like you a lot. Thank you for taking me in and making me feel right at home.

Sunset at Qasr el Nil - bridge.

* Kida can mean many things, but in this sentence it means 'just (like) this'.

**Cairo’s nickname, meaning Mother of the World.

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.

A most peculiar visit

...to the Military Museum of Sana'a


One day after class I decided to go explore the cultural life of Sana'a. I went to Midan al Tahrir looking for the National Museum, but ended up in the Military Museum. It must have been my lucky day.

Entrance: a steep 300 rials ($1,50). Click on the image to see a bigger version.

I almost (accidentally) sneaked in for free, until a grumpy officer barked 'must ticket! must ticket!' and sent me back outside. I'm glad he did, otherwise how would I have known that this museum falls under the Department of Moral Guidance, or that it is not allowed throwing the rubbish in?

On the ground floor I was greeted by a couple of old English cars that weren't militarily connected, but didn't fit in the National Museum so they were (quite literally) parked here. Outside, in the sheltered yard, there was an Italian plane almost a century old which attracted a lot of little boys with cameras – although judging by the angle of their lenses this tall foreign woman was a more interesting object to photograph than the leftover pieces of the airplane.

Beautiful displays and beautiful explanations. Just not sure I'd trust that 'armoured' car... (click for bigger!)

Aside from that, this floor was room after room after room of weapons, wars, conquests and peace treaties, sometimes with descriptions googletranslated into English. Not all showcases were intact, tempting me to take out a 'gun captored from the Britain Army', which I decided against on account of the 'do not touch'-signs that were almost as numerous as the bullets lying around next to all the weaponry.

The second floor was even more exciting, because here the museum branched out into other tasks of the military, such as fighting fires in moonlanding gear and being entertained by singers to keep up morale. There were also some taxidermied birds and a mounted tiger that looked very unhappy. However, I was most intrigued by a room with the name 'Hall of the Seventy Days Epic.' I mean, seventy days of Epic, what more could I want, right?

Moonlanding-firefighting gear, fighters 'defencing the revolution' and boys wondering about Seventy Days of Epic. (click for bigger!)

Unfortunately, the Seventy Days Epic must have been a war like any other, because there were the same uniforms, the same medals, and the same overview of the battlefield with little red lights where explosions occurred as in the other rooms. Luckily, the room next to it held a pleasant surprise:  

Look who we have here... (click for bigger!)

Former US president George Bush Sr., smiling at the camera, and former Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Salih sporting a 70's suit and an afro! Maybe that's what they meant with EPIC…

All in all a very educational afternoon, brought to you by – let's not forget – the Moral Guidance Department of the government of Yemen. Shukran!

First steps

What I didn't expect to hear (but did hear) when I decided to go to Yemen: "Call me as soon as you get here. The weather is still sunny and we should take advantage of that."

What I did expect to hear (and did hear) when I decided to go to Yemen: "It's dangerous. Don't go. People get kidnapped there, you don't know what it's like…" 

Exactly. I didn't know what it's like, but I have wanted to see this place since I was 8 years old and saw a picture of the brown-and-white houses of Sana'a. Now I'm finally here. It's true, I don't know how dangerous it is, so I try to follow people's advice to avoid the biggest dangers and other than that, hope for the best.

The Old City of Sana'a, seen from our roof.

It's been good to be in an entirely new country, in which so many things are unknown and unexpected. There is so much pleasure in simply stepping out the old, heavy wooden door and wandering through the narrow streets of the old city, finding something new around every corner.

There are the men who look like half a chipmunk with one cheek full of qat and the men in wrap-around skirts and daggers in their belts on motorcycles. There are the women dressed head to toe in black with only their eyes visible, and women in more traditional dress which includes a colorful cloth that covers their entire face. There are the little kids coming back from school in their dark green uniforms who scream hello hello! and souwar souwar! (pictures pictures!). There are a surprising number of wild cats and dogs, there is a lot of garbage in the streets, there are small restaurants that serve the most amazing concoction of eggs and vegetables and herbs, and everywhere I look there are those brown-and-white-houses I came to see.

These little girls insisted on having their picture taken.

Of course there is also a whole new realm of culture and politics to explore. I've had friends and friends-of-friends who've done their best to explain the history and tribes of this complex country. I've participated in a 'chew' (sitting around on flat pillows on the floor with bags of qat and cans of sugary drinks against the bitter taste) and I've been invited to participate in the male section of a wedding when I passed the procession in the street – all men chanting songs, the groom carrying a golden sword and being videotaped – on their way to the big tent in the street where, once again, qat will be chewed.

A man on a motorcyle in the Old City of Sana'a, behind him the tent for the wedding (which took place at night).

In a way, it's like being a little kid again, exploring and poking around and asking everyone what's this and what's that and nobody minds answering because I'm so obviously foreign. I don't have a lot of time here, but like most kids I can't wait to 'grow up' and learn more…