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...


  1. I apologize about the length, future blogs will be kept shorter...and there will be a hitch-hiking part II

  2. I love your blogs, man. Also I love however well written they have become, that you still cannot get "where/were" correct.

  3. Dude, long posts are just fine. Don't give today's ADD culture a pat on the back, keep em comin long!

  4. haha, was wondering how long it would take lilly to criticize your grammar. once again, great stuff.

  5. i dont know were hes reading these grammar errors.

  6. I enjoyed reading that, hope your having a good time over there man.


  7. Enjoyed your blog please send more. I'm envious that you have so much curiosty about life. Wish I was 20 again. Hope my kids look at life this way. Have a great time Mrs. Junga

  8. Great stuff man.
    Not to steal your spotlight, but I think it's fair that we pay a little attention to our friend Chris Lilly's blog as well. Check it out here:

  9. thankyou junga, lets bring tht blog to life