Friday, January 21, 2011


I left Jordan January 10th and arrived in Yemen at 1 a.m. on the 11th.

Yemen hangs from the lower left corner of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. You’ve heard about Yemen before, either as the site of the USS Cole bombing, where the Christmas Day Bomber was indoctrinated; the recent target of U.S. bombs; or the distant land Chandler mentioned in an episode of Friends. The spontaneous violence has caused Yemen's tourism industry to plummet, and I’ve come here to study Arabic at the Yemeni Institute for the Arabic Language (YIAL) and to explore, while taking advantage of the low prices.

The institute is located in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The city sleeps on the Sarawat Mountain range and claims the privilege of being one of highest capitals in the world (2,300 meters or 7,500 feet above sea level). These mountains have protected Sana’a from the insatiable appetite of time, and, as a result, ancient traditions of dress and behavior have retained their influence on day-to-day life. Exiting the plane, any traveler will immediately notice two unique characteristics of Yemeni culture; the jambia and qat chewing. The jambia is a knife worn and displayed by most males over fourteen. Qat is a small green leaf that is considered a narcotic. Chewing qat, a pre-Islamic tradition, is an afternoon right, and four hours of a Yemeni’s day is allocated to obtaining the high it produces. Walking anywhere in the afternoon, one can see cheeks brimming with the drug. Locals also take pride in the fact that that their capital is one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Fittingly, in the opinion of some experts, Sana’a could be the first major modern-day city to run out of water, and some estimates put this as early as 2015.

After a minor delay at customs, I met with Assam (YIAL’s public relations guy) and I was escorted to my apartment. During the ride, I discovered that my “minor delay” at customs was Assam arguing on my behalf and preventing my deportation back to Jordan on the next flight. Since the Christmas Day Bomber, Yemeni customs have tightly regulated who comes into their country to study. Supposedly, YIAL had informed me that I was to tell customs I was traveling in Yemen as a tourist, not a student. Luckily, Assam knew a friend at the airport and after a financial gift was given to lull the agitation my arrival caused, I was allowed to proceed. In my first hour in Yemen, I unknowingly contributed to the rampant corruption plaguing the country. YES.

Assam also told me that some other students were going to travel during the approaching weekend (weekends here are Thursday and Friday), and that I was welcome to join. I did.

After my first two days of school I was eager to embark on the weekend trip. One student opted out of the adventure and our final number was three; Assam, Abdullah (a student from Thailand), and myself. The drive to Zabid would take 6 hours, so our journey began at dawn, and I dozed in and out of sleep for the first half of the trip. Military checkpoints were frequent, and I still can’t decide if the checkpoints are comforting or demand concern. About four hours into the trip, we began to feel the pangs of hunger and, democratically, decided to eat.

I’ll never forget the restaurant at which we choose to eat. There was no wall separating us from the nearby street, allowing the noise to carry into the restaurant and the fumes of passing trucks to float into my next bites of food. The restaurant workers added to the cacophony with relentless yelling and screaming, and being submerged in the new tongue, it sounded like no more than incoherent epithets. I'd sat next to the restaurant's sink, and when diners washed their hands and afterwards snapped them dry, drops of water would smack my face, hands and meal. There were two fans above us, each rattling violently but managing to do little to ease the oppressive heat. A large mud oven (which looked more like a big bee hive) was used for cooking the only item on the main course: lamb. Dozens of legs of lamb had been wrapped in aluminum foil and tossed into the hive containing heated charcoal, and, eventually, the lamb became edible. The three of us shared, along with a family of flies, two legs of lamb, fresh bread, rice and a hot salsa. The meal was excellent.

Energized, we continued to Zabid. Stomachs full, the remaining two hours cruised by and Zabid readily welcomed us.

Effusive with history and, like Sana’a, inhabited for countless centuries, Zabid is currently a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sadly, the town has been in a continued state of decay, and without local initiatives the city will lose the UNESCO World Heritage privilege. The decay is more evident than the history. Litter decorates the alleyways and streams of indiscernible fluid create miniature rivers and pool in the tiny roads. Scrawny cats rummage through carelessly scattered trash bags. Most of the roads are too small for a car, so noisy motorcycles are the chief means of transport. I hadn’t done adequate reading about Zabid before our trip, so the whole time I was wondering what we were doing there. The heat was relentless. Usually, wind offers refuge from heat, but here, the wind was hot and only picked up sand and maliciously threw it in my face. No matter how tightly I squinted, sand stealthily made its way into my eyes and left me perpetually blinking. After we visited the town’s meager museum, I convinced the group to head to the beach that was 45 minutes away.

At the beach, the wind and sand, again and in tandem, made efforts to ruin the afternoon. But as we approached the shore and left the reaches of the wind, the view was worth any annoyance or pain. Opening our eyes, we saw colorful wooden ships beached in columns facing the sea. Huts made of driftwood and leaves were scattered along the beach. We took a stroll and after walking for 10 minutes or so we noticed a man tracing our steps. He was far away, but quickly gained ground. As the gap between us shrank, I wondered if we were trespassing and he was coming to reprimand us. His face came into view and I saw that he was an older man, possibly 60 or 70. He came closer still and, almost comically, I saw that his body was that of 30 year old who had completed the grueling p90x workout program. On the contrary, it was merely a simple diet of seafood that had blessed this man with unbreakable health, and without doubt, he still has many years ahead. When we met, he was holding a staff, and muttered a few syllables--most likely some profound pearl of wisdom, given from the ocean, that he had gleaned over the course of his life; I suspect that even if I spoke his language I wouldn’t have understood what he said. As quickly as he came, he left. At once we realized how exhausted we were and decided to head back to our hotel in Zabid. We all slept well.

We woke up and headed to Beit Al-Faqih. All you need to know about Beit Al-Faqih is that it is the biggest market in Yemen. The market is filled with thousands of hustlers, scammers, entrepreneurs and unsupervised kids. At this market, one could buy anything--from a goat to a motorcycle. The smells span a similarly odd range; your nose can enjoy the odor of putrefying flesh or frankincense. Before I had time to consider buying a cow and a few goats, it was time to go.


We were on the highway back to Sana’a. On the way we passed Somalians and Ethiopians who had braved the Red Sea and were marching with their small rations of water to Saudi Arabia, hoping to find employment. The road we traveled followed a river that for millennia had been cutting through the Sarawat mountains. The landscape was savannah plains and, incrementally, the geography became rocky. We stopped while the hills were still scalable and climbed down to the river. The hills provide fertile homes to date trees, banana trees, lush bushes and an assortment of grasses. Assam and Abdullah performed the afternoon prayer on a rock that sat on the side of the river. The rock was massive and created small eddies in the river, creating a pool in which minnows flitted lazily. Again, our scheduled forced us to leave earlier than I would have liked.


Before I knew it, days had passed and I was sitting at my desk in the midst of a strenuous study session. After 5 days of 4 hours a day lessons in my new school, I had encountered some discouraging facts: it can take years to learn Arabic, and it takes at least 1000 hours of study before one can become functional in the language. Discouraged, I asked myself, “Why the hell did I choose this language?” When others ask me this question, I usually respond, “I wanted to challenge myself,” or “I didn’t want to be the stereotypical American who doesn’t know another language or another people.” Those answers are partially true. The reality is that if I'd never joined the military and subsequently deployed, there’s no way I’d be studying the language right now. So, did my deployment plant a seed of curiosity? Am I anxious to understand the rising tensions between the West and certain Islamic movements? Maybe.

Those who have been in the military will be shadowed by the experience for the rest of their lives, and those who know what to look for can spot a veteran a mile away. Whether it is in the way they walk, enter a room, the seat they choose in the room, how they talk, the way they look someone in the eye or don’t look someone in the eye: their mannerisms betray them. Sometimes, identifying veterans is easy because they maintain the military dress code as civilians and still keep the high-and-tight haircut. But, one can also spot a veteran by his feral beard or other absent facial maintenances (this is the path some veterans choose after being emancipated after four years of strict grooming laws). IF SOMEONE WRITES IN ALL CAPS, THEY MAY BE A VETERAN. Honestly though, I thought I was an exception to these tells, and that my veteran status was invisible to even the trained eye.

After class, I went down to the break room, where students and teachers seek asylum after the stresses induced by learning and teaching alike. I casually put my elbow on the entertainment set and glanced coolly at the TV to see what was on the news.

A voice from the back of the room inquired, “Where you in the service?”

I hoped I would never face this question during my stay in Yemen. I hesitated as I carefully tried to figure out my response...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hitch Hiking Part 1

Once I established Aqaba as my home base I decided to check out Wadi Rumi and Petra. While traveling to these places I experimented with an alternative means of travel; Hitch-hiking.

The day before leaving for Wadi Rumi I thumbed 10 km to a beach south of Aqaba and after this rewarding test I was comfortable with bumming 70km to Wadi Rumi.

A cab took me to the edge of town, away from the labyrinth of the city, and left me on the road to Wadi Rumi. I started walking. It may appear counter intuitive to walk when hitch-hiking, because standing still would get you to point B quicker, but, walking is part of the experience. After 15 minutes, I was picked up by a forgettable character and we navigated the bulk of the road until we separated at the fork where he continued to Amman and I began thumbing again. Sometimes the drivers expect payment for the added weight and sometimes the drivers feel benevolent and the trip is free. I brought extra oranges and offered them to my drivers, and if they accepted, the trip usually became cheaper.

After walking for eternity (20 minutes) under an omnipotent sun, I began to doubt my new travel methods. There was a camel-crossing sign hugging the road. I telescoped the desert floor to see if the sign was valid. And, sure enough, 400m to my right three camels were sun-bathing.

Finally, a dying Toyota that was sympathetic to my situation pulled over and offered me a ride. The two men in the car were brothers. The passenger had prominent cheekbones because of his skinny, almost emaciated, construction. His stoic face was dark and his skin, leathery. I imagined him slitting a throat and serving tea with the same frozen glare. I thought about jumping out of the car.

His brother, the driver, was lighter in color and spirits. They informed me that they were guides to the approaching Wadi Rumi, where they were born and raised. The stoic brother would occasionally turn around and dictate the course of my day. "You come to our house, drink tea." I made a decision here not to succumb to the paranoia I experienced with the coffee vendor. Pragmatically I combated my irrational imagination and soon embraced the experience with deserving excitement. The driver, Odah Hamd, was to be my guide and as the day progressed I found he frequently forgot his stern Bedouin guise and became a cheerful comedian.

After tea and crackers Odah and I jumped into the family heirloom, another ancient Toyota, and drove into the heart of Wadi Rumi. T E Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, writes this of the wadi:
The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather gray and shallow. They gave finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place: this processional way greater than imagination…Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.
Lawrence wrote correctly, and the combination of his words and the pictures I took leave little for me to say.

The brothers own a campsite 3km into the Wadi, and, after the day was spent touring the wadi, Odah left me to enjoy the wadi in solitude there. Using random wood Odah collected for me, I pathetically started a fire, after exhausting half a box of matches and a box of tissues. The fire was too weak to provide reading light, so I was forced to mull over life. As the night aged, a cold calm covered the wadi. I pulled the blanket closer to my head. It smelled like urine. I was too tired to care.

In the morning I ate a pita lined with a can of tuna and, feeling replenished, began the hour trek back to the road to Aqaba.

I reached the Wadi Rumi Visitors Center and from there began walking down the road to Aqaba. Twenty minutes into the thumbing game I was frustrated with constant rejections. Most of the people passing by were in the ubiquitous rent-a-car, and, being vacationers, not likely to pick up a hitch-hiker. Another rent-a-car drove by and I, sarcastically, tossed up my thumb. To my surprise, 50m later, and probably after a brief conversation, the brake lights flashed and the car pulled over. I jogged to the car and opened the door. I was greeted by Marco, Enriquiz, and Franco, three Italians on vacation.

I had trouble believing they just ruffed the night in the same place I had, since it looked like they were returning from a night club, not a desert.

They were in awe. I was their image of the rugged wanderer: A nomad, who threw away all possessions except what he could carry, searching for the deeper truths in life. They began firing questions. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!" "Is this how you travel?"(Italian accents). The amazement increased when they found out I was heading to Yemen.

Feeling the traveler status divide growing, I informed them that, honestly, I had pack luxuriously and had a wardrobe and small library waiting for me in Amman. I also informed them that, despite the illusion caused by hitch-hiking, I had a rigid itinerary. Equilibrium was restored and they were a little letdown. The conversation turned into recommendations and a comparison between Lonely Planet and Ruff Guides.

Franco, the driver, sneezed. They all said "Ewww" and giggled.

When I first stationed at Aqaba, I thought the most memorable experiences would be visting Wadi Rumi and Petra. Both places were great, but, after hitch-hiking, I remembered (cliche coming) that the journey and the people we meet on it are just important and memorable as the destination.

                                                                   Odah, my guide.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

new years in jordan

Around 2 p.m., I jumped into a bus and left rainy Amman for Aqaba. I spent the duration of the four hour trip staring into the desert while seated in the second level of a double-decker bus. I haven’t gotten bored of the desert yet, in fact, I find the vast, dry landscape humbling and conducive to personal reflection.
Aqaba is located in southern Jordan and rests on the Gulf of Aqaba, a conduit to the Red Sea. The city is commonly known as the port T. E. Lawrence and his entourage captured from the Turks in 1917 and, as result, increased momentum for the Arab Revolt. Despite the town's rich history, I'm traveled here because I heard the snorkeling is decent.
Entering Aqaba the energy was palpable due to the approaching New Year. I checked out a few hotels and, probably because of the holiday, the prices were a bit higher than Lonely Planet predicted. I finally found a decent place, dropped off my luggage and went exploring around town. On the Gulf of Aqaba beach, families were picnicking and gangs of bachelors were strutting along the boardwalk. I quickly found honest company with a man selling coffee. His operation was simple: a small butane burner, water, Nestle coffee and sugar. We talked smoothly in Arabic for minutes, then the language barrier obliged us to enjoy each others company in silence. In an extension of hospitality, he offered a cigarette and I, a non-smoker, sharply refused. But, he persisted, and I, not wanting to be rude, folded and smoked my first sober cigarette. Despite being disgusted with smoking, I wanted to appear seasoned at the trade. I tried the scissors grip with two erect fingers clamping the cigarette awkwardly. Feeling foolish, I switched to the limp grip. In this style, the smoker’s hand assumes a natural shape that makes no concession to the existence of the cigarette. If done correctly, the cigarette loosely balancing between relaxed pointer and middle fingers conveys the cool symbiotic relationship between smoker and cigarette. Haha.
In the midst of our cordial conversation, I was suddenly overcome by a moment of racial prejudice. I suspect I was infected with this prejudice during my time in the military, where insidious racism was necessary for diligent work. Ultimately, this racism may have received its cachet from a suicide bomber that hit a platoon in our company four days before the otherwise smooth deployment ended. Sitting next to this vendor in Aqaba, I couldn’t help imagining he was a covert operative in a terrorist cell, eliciting information from me in hopes of brutally murdering me in my hotel room later that night. When he finished smoking, I was relieved; I didn’t have to worry about him thrusting the ember of his cigarette into my eye. This attitude is a shame because all evidence points to this man as genuine and, actually, very intelligent.
Being New Years, there were fireworks, but not in Aqaba. From Aqaba, one can scan the gulf and see the lights of Eilat, Israel and Taba, Egypt. There was a chilling irony watching the fireworks of the neighboring countries--who miraculously manufactured a cold peace in 1978--share the sky in a celebratory display of beauty and light. In summary, it was deeply humanizing. The fireworks were so far off they could only be seen, not heard. Taking in the scene as one year retired and another awakened, I noticed that the gatherings on the Aqaba beach were more about family and friends, and less about being entertained by the colors of exploding copper sulfite and magnesium miles away.