Women Veiled to Western Eyes

One of the most common stereotypes associated with the Middle East is the oppression of women, and the requirement of veiling the women...especially the face. Many of my friends have asked me questions regarding the veil, and I feel it necessary to take the time to debunk some common misconceptions.

Misconception: Veiling of the Face is an Islamic Requirement

This is untrue. My evidence for this comes from having read the Qu'ran, spoken to Muslim women and from my very own personal experience. In the Qu'ran it states that women should wear a 'hijaab' literally a talisman to ward the unwanted attention and gazes of onlooking men. However, this is often a choice by the woman, and depending on which culture she comes from. For instance in Egypt, many Muslim women from upper-class society do not wear the headscarf as a status symbol, whereas the lower-classes often will have their girls wearing the headscarf at all times.
However, the veiling of the face (wearing naqqab) is an ancient tribal practice. During the Byzantine era this was done to show a sign of prestige. In Yemen and Saudia Arabia this is practiced because of century old tribal practices that have been in existance until today. Interestingly enough, in the southern port town of Aden, women often choose not to wear the face veil and this is fine. Up until the unification of north and south Yemen women were free in Aden to wear western dress. However, post-unification the influence of the north filtered into the south and more and more cultural practices were introduced including the full veiling of women.

Interestingly enough, a recent study done on the rate of lung cancer in Yemen found that the rate in women to be much lower than that of the men. This undoubtedly must be due to the covering of the nose and mouth, serving as a filter.

I myself wore naqqab in Yemen on several occasions, this being by choice. Often it was while traveling providing me much flexibility. Oddly enough, even with my face covered up, people still knew I was a foreigner, at least they did when my eyes where showing. The experience from behind the veil as interesting as attention was immediately taken off of me...I blended in and was able to stare at crazy tribesman without fear of being detected. It was kind of a power trip as I was able to peer out and stare at everyone, but no one was allowed to see me.

Granted I did this by choice...if I were to have to wear it by force I would not enjoy it.

Misconception: A Foreign Woman must always wear a headscarf and be covered in Arab Countries

Saudia Arabia is a country whose cultural rules and regulations are criticized not only by the west, but by the other Arab countries as well. Saudia women are required by law to be fully covered. While a western woman is not required to wear a face veil, she must by law have her hair covered along with everthing to her wrists and feet.

Fundamental Islamists will be seen wearing full covering, including gloves and socks...but mind you this is a cultural and personal choice. Not Islamic.
I wore abeya (big black choir dress) from the day I arrived in Yemen. This was by no means required of me...I chose to do it. As a result I found people to respect me more and in all honesty I feel it only to be polite to wear it. This was the Yemeni culture, I was a guest; therefore, I wore it. I sometimes wore the veil as shown in the picture below, this was done when I was in areas that no other foreigner normally ventured. Also, I took on an identity as a Palestinian when wearing the veil, not by choice, rather people just asked me if I was Palestinian...strange. It all proved to be interesting conversation in the end.

Misconception: Muslim Women have no Choice, only to cover
As I wrote before, Saudia Arabia is the only country that requires women to cover. Depending on the religion and culture of the society of which a woman lives is a determiner for whether or not she will cover.

I have been told by many women that they choose to cover because of the harrassment that receive from men. While Arab men can be very respectful towards foreigners, it can often be the complete opposite towards an Arab woman. However, this all depends of the country and culture. For example, I have friends who live in Yemen, who wear full headscarf, abeya and naqqab; however, when they travel abroad they often shed all of these coverings. One of my friends is Syrian-Yemeni, while in Yemen she wears abeya and headscarf. But, when she travels to Syria she wears no coverings and goes around in short skirts with her hair flying blowing in the wind.

Before passing judgments on a country...it's religion and culture...be wary that there is indeed a difference between religion and culture. Practices in the Middle East are not all from Islam, they are learned behaviors deep rooted in the regions culture and history.

The Quest for the Ark

Following my Ramadan term in Sana'a, Yemen, I chose to leave for a couple weeks and travel to Ethiopia with a fellow teacher at the MALI Institute.
Our mission was a mix of naivity and idealism spurned by our love of Indiana Jones's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our plan? To indeed find the Ark of the Covenant, that treasured relic which is now guarded by one elderly priest in a small church in northern Ethiopia called Axsum.
The quest began in Ethiopia's high-altitude capital of Addis Ababa. We were greeted by my friend and his Ethiopian girlfriend who put us up in a house while staying in the capital. Ethiopia is striking in its history. It is home to history's cradle of civilization with it having Lucy (Dikenish), the thought-to-be grandmother of us all.

Ethiopia was ruled by a king named Halle Salase, who after visiting Jamaica shortly after a drought was then regarded as being sent by God; hence, Rastafarian worshiping was born. The religion that uses marijuana smoking to bring one closer with God and has us all supporting 'one love' as Bob Marley so often did. Obviously the bus driver who took the time and effort to make this shrine to both the great BM and JC thought so...

The best part is the hay that is layed on the floor of the bus!
Following Addis, we traveled by bus to the north, stopping in Bahar Dar which sits on a Lake that is home to many hippos, and monastaries which one was rumored to have housed the the Ark in the past. Unfortunately many did not allow woman to enter.
African bus rides are quite the experience, having to wake in the early morning hours to fight your way on to a bus. We did just this, and for some unbeknownst reason to us, our driver decided not to go to the destination as he originally had said. But no worries...we found alternate modes of transportation.

For the next few days my friend and I found ourselves the target of load of unwanted attention from the rather friskey Bahar Dar men. One of which had learned English from the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in the area and referred to himself as 'punta'...which in Spanish translates into whore. This pretty much sums up what his personality was like.

One night we were in the culture house where we were entertained by loads of Ethiopians with beer, music and impromptu poetry...all in Amharic (language of Ethiopia) which made it quite difficult when they chose you to recite the poems about. Not sure what is worse, knowing the insults and jokes or being ignorant. I'm going with the latter.

One of the entertainers took a liking to me, despite our not speaking the same language and offered to ride with my friend an I to the next town up of Gondor--no, this is not the same as Lord of the Rings. While both of us were not a fan of Gondor and the number of totes, which humorously have names like Bob and Johnny, it was part of the quest for the Ark. Gondor is home to a church which had a room built for the Ark. Interestingly enough, it also has the only visual depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.

After spending time in a hotel which undoubtedly was in need of flea bombing, we literally ran to the bus station to get out of Gondor. Unfortunately we took a bus with a driving 'trainee', what should have been a 10 hour bus ride turned into a 13 hour drive, arriving in a transit point a half hour after the last mini-bus left for Axsum, our northern most destination and where the Ark is currently located...or at least rumored to be. Our transit was in place called Shire, which oddly enough was name from Lord of the Rings, however it is safe to say that any hobbit would be suicidal after any substanial time in this place. After the local mafia of the town tried to rob, an attempted escape on the top of freight truck and many other mishaps, I along with several other traveleres had to bite the bullet and spend the night in the dreaded Shire. Our thoughts through it all was that it would all be part of the quest.

The next morning we again faced the mafia, however were successful this time in having bypassed their futile attempts and finally arrive in Axsum. However, one very VERY important fact seemed to be overlooked through it all...

The St. Mary of Zion Church which is pictured here, the home and resting place for the Ark, is forbidden for women to enter. Apparently, centuries before a woman entered the church and tried to set fire to the place and they are still bitter. Also, the Ark is guarded by a 70 something year old priest. This man and the rumor that you'll burst into flames just by looking at the Ark is apparently enough to keep you from trying to see it. That, and the rumor that the Ark sits underneath the ground and the passageway is rigged with bombs should anyone but its guardian enter its territory...well, I guess it is meant to be kept hidden from public eye. There are annual parades where a replica is marched through the town, but not the actual relic.

We seemed to get over this shocking fact rather quickly. Following Axsum we flew to Lalibela, an isolated town in the mountains of Ethiopia and up until 1955 was undiscovered. It is home to 11 rock-hewn churches and has been said that it were not located in Ethiopia it would be considered one of the wonders of the world. Indeed it is. Legend goes that King Lalibela visited the Kingdom of Heavenin a dream, then built it on earth. It is also thought to be a replica of Jersalem and many pilgrims migrate towards Lalibela during the Christmas season each year. The churches are ENOURMOUS and it is rumored that no human could make them, therefore they must have been hewn by angels or God. A highlight of the visit including witnessing indeed a church servic in gees...an ancient language. With the chanting and swaying of the people in the dimly let incensed church...it could have been something from centuries ago.

Unfortunately, I poisoned both myself and poor Kuki with flea spray due to a flea scare in our hotel on our final day in Lalibela. But no worries, as we ended up waiting for endless hours in the airport. We then returned to Sana'a.

The quest for the Ark was a let down...however there is always hope for the Grail...

What am I doing here?

On the eve that marks my eight month mile marker here in Yemen, I find myself sitting here pondering the thought, 'what the hell are you doing in Yemen???'

For some reason, I thought of several fond memories of my family during the holidays...maybe it's due to Ramadan here. It's a southern Italian tradition to have 7 different types of fish for a large dinner on Christmas Eve...while we did this annually, no one was actually able to explain the reason why...we just did it. My father would fry fish in our home which would stink it up for days, and then we would all get into the car and drive to my grandparent's home. The air was filled with smoke, there was a load of food on the table and in the kitchen. Children ran around the house, people laughed, people fought...never saw anyone cry, but given the sarcasm my family has it's a definite possibility. I used to not like it so much. I remember my cousin once telling me it was times like those that I will miss the most when I get older. I told her I didn't agree with her...after months away from family along with several key members of my family passing away; I now understand what my cousin was talking about. I would give anything to go back to that time, just for a moment.

I have literally been adopted by a Yemeni family here. There is a mother and two sisters that are my age and we have become very close. I met one of the sisters and the mother in Aden, the first week I had arrived. The sister moved to Sana'a the same time I did and I was introduced to the rest of the family. I spend time with them on weekends...with all the aunts, cousins and granmother. While it is not the same as my true family, the feeling I have with them comes in as a close second. Without them, I believe I would go insane here.

I came here in order to continue my study in Arabic...and this purpose has, in fact, come to fruition. Al Jazeera Arabic is no longer cryptic messages--rather, it's my source for news. I understand conversations without struggling with the langugage, can flip in and out of Egyptian Colloquial, Yemeni and Fusha. Arabic speakers often switch the conversation into Arabic with me which used to never happen in the past.

So my goal of reaching a good proficiency has been achieved. However, I have NO IDEA why I want to continue studying...it's not as if I have some ultimate goal I'm striving for. I know this is a lifelong investment, but it's taking a toll on my psyche. I've been promoted to a position with the school I'm working with to director and am being sent to another city to supervise. Downside? I'm staying here for another 5 months. I'll be living in Tai'zz, a town south of Sana'a by 3 hours. I move there in January 08 and will be there until May 2008. No matter what, I will leave Yemen at the end of May 08. I'm trying to qualify for a program for advanced arabic that would place me in Damascus or Cairo for another year starting June 2008. We'll see what happens.

This study of Arabic has become similar to an odyssey for me. I departed the States in January 2006 for Cairo, Egypt with the idea I would be there for 6 months studying Arabic. 19 months later I find myself living in Arabia, Yemen of all places! I've made a point of immersing myself in the culture and have had some remarkable experiences as a result. I'm in a position right now where I'm able to spread a good image of my country in time where most of the world questions the logic behind America's foreign policies. Hell, I question them on a daily basis too.

This area has such stigma on its culture and people that many westerners are fearful of traveling here...I was afraid too. However, I decided to see what all the hype is about and I have found it to be such an amazing area to live in. The reality is, there needs to be more westerners in areas such as this to kill the stereotype that so many biased news agencies spread about Americans and Europeans.

Downside to this all is I miss my family, I miss my friends. Life continues back home as it did when I left. I know when I return home, I'll walk back into it and this time I've spent abroad will be like a dark void. It's like I have two lives and there's no way to bridge an understanding between the two.

I return to the States December 3rd for a month vacation. A much needed vacation.

!رمظان كريم

At 9pm this past Wednesday, a Sheikh looked at the moon and declared the 13th of September to begin the month of Ramadan, the holy month in Islam when the Holy Qu'ran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. The entire month is characteristically marked by strict fasting: no drinking, no eating, no smoking, no sex...basically nothing can enter your body from sun up to sun down. Almost all businesses are shut as well. The normal congestion and honking that fill the streets of Sana'a are empty and silent.

I started laughing when I went to the supermarket the night before Ramadan began because it reminded me of people in Pittsburgh stocking up on food before a winter storm. The place was packed full of people, children were nearly hit by women in burka swiftly moving with their shopping carts stuffing as much food as possible into their carts. However, I was confused because they bought all this food yet could not eat it...at least during the day.

Muslims will eat an early morning pre-fasting meal call (sohoor) which is followed by the morning call for prayer. With the sunset (maghrib) prayer they eat a date and then have their breakfast (futoor) to break their fast. Contrary to belief that everyone is nasty during their fast, it's actually the opposite. Most are relatively pleasant.

While some bypass the true meaning of the fast by chewing qat all night only to sleep the entire next day, waking to the sunset prayer to instantly light a smoke and start eating; most do adhere to carrying out their normal routines minus their normal drinking and eating.

I see a marked difference between Ramadan in Yemen compared to Egypt. Egyptians, who are known for their nightlife, celebrate Ramadan much like the West celebrates Christmas...buildings are decorated with lights, people sing 'Ramadan carols', everyone parties at night. Yemen seems to be a lot more religous in that instead of stuffing themselves with food while lighting up a sheesha, they break fast and then immediately pray. The lightheartedness of Cairo ceases to exist here.

And if you may be wondering if I fast here, the answer is no....I fast during Lent. There is a deep rooted religous meaning to the fast, it's not cultural. The fasting is one of the pillars of Islam and I feel it unnecessary to do this unless I have been invited to a breakfast, I do fast in this case because of all the delicious food they make. I need to fast for a few days in order to try it all! That being said, I am respectful of those who are fasting, no eating or drinking in public.

Ramadan Kareem is the saying that goes with this month...much like a Merry Christmas in the States.

I have to work a a night shift because everything shuts during the day and comes alive at night. My schedule is from 8:30-12:30 night...should be interesting. Just hope they have coffee readily available for me.

Following Ramadan I'm travelling to Socotra Island...called the Galapogos Islands of Arabia. These islands have been called the land which time forgot, pristine scenery and gorgeous beaches. There wasn't even an airport on the island until 1999 and there are only 2 flights a week to reach them. Should make for quite the experience and photos ops. Until then, Ramdan Kareem!

Locust, It's What's for Dinner

For the past month I have been dodging locusts divebombing my head in the street and locking my windows at night from fear that a few of these critters may enter my room while I sleep. In my opinion a locust looks similar to a praying mantis, however unlike the latter they appear in mass quanitities. I was ignorant of the fact that swarm of these things attack deserts and their crops...Al Jazeera has been dedicating a special segment on their destructive path in Yemen.

After being attacked in my kitchen the other night from the supposedly harmless creature, my roommate and I decided we were living in some type of Biblical myth. I remember in my Catholic upbringing stories of the plague of locusts...I can only wonder if one of the other plagues may hit Yemen too.

The Yemeni solution for it all? Eat them. For weeks the newspapers here have been printing recipes on how to prepare scruptuous locusts. Cultural differences aside, the locusts are reportedly high in protein and some reciptes appear fine cuisine. Some articles even go as far to descibe where the meatiest part of the locust is, apparently it's in the breast. I was horrified to find the legs of locusts covering my desk when I entered my classroom to teach, remnants of someone's late afternoon snack.

While so many of my students generously ripped the wings off the insect and extended it to me saying, 'teacher, teacher, try the yummy locust'...well I kindly refused. Something about a locust au natural makes me uneasy. I would pay a Yemeni to bite into one, smile at me while saying in Arabic, "tastes like chicken".


What a lot of women wear under all that black.

It has taken me until now to write anything substantial about the magical green leaf that nearly the entire population, both male and female, chew.

Qat is a considered to be a 'mild narcotic'. The most powerful variety comes from Ethiopia. Other countries where it is chewed include Djbouti and Kenya. It is found in other places, but it is considered to be illegal.
There are dozens of varieties and the best are found in the north where qat is produced. The most expensive, with the longest stems is called 'baladee', other good kinds include 'sameen' in the south and 'gatal'. To get the qat you go to one of the various qat 'sooqs' to buy your bag for the day. The taste varies, the best kind has small sweet leaves and stems that make your mouth go slightly numb. The cheaper kinds have more of a bitter taste and you are not able to eat their stems.

A typical qat chew can last from anywhere between 1 to 8 hours. A group of people will get together, sit on cushions which are on the floor; they chew, talk, relax and often smoke sheesha while chewing. Water is a necessity because you will become dehyrdated while drinking it. Some people choose to drink some kind of soda or energy drink with it. The most common question someone will ask you is 'Tishtee ihmaar u iswid?' 'Do you want red or black?' Referring to Candada Dry Red or Black.
To really get a good affect you need to chew for at least two to three. You take the leaves, break off the smaller ones and then pop them in your mouth, storing them in your cheek. If you chew long enough then you form an enormous ball that resemble something of Popeye the Sailor Man. An Iraqi woman, who happens to be a political refugee due to the war, told me when she first arrived in Yemen she saw all these men with bulging cheeks and became horrified for she thought they all suffered from some sort of disease. She soon understood following her arrival that they were in fact only stoned on qat.

Now, you ask if I have chewed qat? Of course I have. People offer it to you everywhere. The longest chew I ever did lasted seven hours. It amazed me how fast time goes when chewing. I remember looking at my watch at 2 pm, then looking back at 7 pm to find that five hours had virtually disappeared. However, compared to alcohol or any other types of drugs, you are completely coherent on qat...you don't act high. Just very mellow and talkative. And of course you have a certain glaze to your eyes.

The problems with qat are many. Yemen is a poor country and loads of people dump money into their daily chewing habit instead of into the maintenance of their families. Just as with every over type of drug, several people become addicted to it. Also, the lucrative qat fields have replaced what used to be coffee. While domestically qat is sold for a good profit, it is illegal to export it; therefore, limiting the amount of exports to enhance Yemen's economy. To grow qat, the crop needs a lot of water. Yemen, similar to so many Arab countries, has a limited water supply; the water going to producing a crop of qat reduces the amount for human consumption or for another cash crop.

This is only a few of the major problems qat produces in the country. This is not to mention the multiple health problems that arise due to its use. Similar to other drugs, it helps people to escape the reality of their lives. I believe that if it were made illegal in Yemen all the people currently suppressed on qat would start some type of revolution. That, or they would turn to some other type of drug.

A man once handed me a bundle of qat saying, "In Yemen we are poor and don't have any flowers. Instead will you please accept my bouquet of qat leaves?". Qat is a controversial part of Yemen as deeply rooted as any other tradition found in the region.

الأمريكية استعربت

This verb (ista3rb) literally means to become Arab, to adopt the customs and beliefs of the people. I have been told by several people that I am no longer American, I am Arab now.
However, I beg to differ. As close as I become with the people, and as accepting as I am of their thoughts and beliefs, I am still very much a westerner and always will be. However, I am at the present moment having difficulty trying to balance the mindset here with everything I have ever known.
I feel so incredibly comforatable here, and have formed a bond with a Yemeni family that I can only compare with the feeling I have when I'm with my parents and brother. I realized the other day how difficult it's going to be for me to leave this place. But in reality, I could not live here forever.
Sometimes what at first seems so strange and icky can become second nature. Living with the poverty, dirt and Islamic virtures can be tiring at times, but then they are accepted...not even thought of until someone new to the environment points them out. Nonetheless, things still can shock me.
Such as seeing a boy who appeared to be the age of 12 driving a car with a mouth full of qat and his fully burkaed mother sitting in the passenger seat next to him. This was strange and it happened yesterday which is why I feel like writing of it now.
I came to this region to learn Arabic. I have learned the language and no longer struggle with speaking. Arabic script comes automatically now, instant recognition of the letters. Many foreigners come to the Arab world expecting to learn the language in a matter of months. In reality, it, long with so many other things in this region, is a slow process that takes time and a knowledge that كلّ شي يعني إن شا الله

Top 3 countries with the most guns per person:
1. Yemen
2. United States
3. Finland

Maybe I should start a gun blog???

Welcome to the North my Friend...

My departure from Aden involved fighting yet again with Yemenia airways...I really do hate them. However, this time I had my Yemeni friend Aziza who has friends at the airport along with my Sudanese friend Magdy. Magdy is amazing in that he is probably the most generous person I have met in my life. After the woman bitched about how I was way over my weight limit, Magdy took one of my bags saying he would bring it to me in Sana'a next week.

My flight from Aden to Sana'a should have been 45 minutes. However, I had the grand opportunity to fly from Aden to Mukalla, Mukalla Sana'a, thereby making the flight 2 hours travel time. It was a strange flight...they were transporting all these patients from hospitals in Sana'a, so a lot of the seats were folded down to allow the patients to lie in them...a makeshift hospital. I really can't describe it, but it was odd.

After realizing I was surrounded by invalids, I chose to change my seat and found myself next to a student of mine from MALI Aden. He insisited that his family escort me to my new home in Sana'a...considering my boss was not able to send me anyone to greet me at the airport, I accepted.

The student, named Ala'a, and his family then began to give me juice and food...anything they had on them. When we landed, Ala'a told me to sit while he collected my bags, not allowing me to help in any way. The mother discovered I had not eaten lunch and became very upset, telling me that it was necessary to feed me. We met Ala'a's uncle, a man named Waleed wearing the traditional Yemeni white dress and sporting an impressive dagger, complete with a red head scarf. Waleed runs a tourist agency here in Sana'a, and I must say he is gorgeous.

They took me to their car, told me I had to sit in the passenger seat so I would be comforatable, and then they proceeded to load my luggage into the car. I laughed when I got into the car, because there was a huge stack of qat leaves wrapped and waiting to be chewed...actually Waleed had already begun to chew. This was a preview of what my night would be like.

After taking me to my new home and carrying all my things, Waleed and and Ala'a took me for dinner and then bought my favorite kind of sheesha and we went to a place chosen by Waleed to sit and chew qat and smoke sheesha.

Waleed had his laptop with him and he proceeded to show me loads of photos from all over Yemen and then his machine gun collection. I complimented him on his choice for a screen saver which is a semi-automatic rifle. I am living in the north now where it's more of a 'Wild West' kind of feeling. Everyone is tribal and packing heat.

We sat for hours, smoking, chewing, talking and then we watched Pirates of the Carribean. Somehow watching Johnny Depp playing a pirate while sitting in a tent full of men with daggers smoking sheesha and chewing qat seemed quite surreal, yet completely ordinary at the same time.

Oh and most importantly...the weather is amazing. This is the first time in four months I have not been hot. I think I will like it here.

From North to South...Sana'a or Bust

Until 1994, Yemen was a divided country, North and South Yemen. The Yemen of the North is traditionally more conservative, whereas the South is known as 'Liberal' (remember this is in Yemeni terms) and was communist for several years. The port of Aden, where I live, was a former British colony. In the past, the South was much more lax...women did not wear abeya and the thought of veiling oneself did not cross anyone's minds. People of the north still think of Adeni women as being 'loose' because some refuse to veil their faces.

Following a civil war and the unification of the countryin 1994, the south has dramatically changed and Yemen as we know it is now united as the Arab Republic of Yemen. Influence from the North has brought with it cultural traditions unfamiliar to the South. And like so many other countries in the world, the South hates the North...the North hates the South. Southerners refer to the traditional northern men from the villages wearing long white dresses, large belts and jambeyaas (the daggers) as being Dahabashee (Dahbasha for plural)--a term coming from some TV show in the past that made fun of the northerners. The main character was called Dahabashee.

As a result, when I informed my friends and students of Aden that I would be moving north to Sana'a they were upset with my decision...telling me how much better Aden is. I told them that unless they could supply me with an air conditioned abeya I will most likely become a big black puddle.

Yesterday was my last day of teaching at MALI Aden. To my surprise, the majority of my students came bearing gifts and letters telling me how much they would miss me. Some even asked if I would have an online course so that I could teach them from Sana'a. It was really cute, especially when I was trying to escape the school and even more students came running after me to say goodbye...apparently they had waited for a few hours until I finished my last class so that they could say their farewells and give me more gifts.

Really nice...I just hope the students are the same in Sana'a! I've been told that they have a check-in desk where students carrying guns and qat have to leave them on hold until they finish their class. Should make for an interesting experience.

Sweat Insomnia

As if I thought sweating in the shower was bad enough, I have found something worse. Sweating at night while trying to sleep.

Yemen is a poor country. More than half the population lives off of $2 a day. As a result they have a series of financial issues, one being not a large enough power grid to supply people with the electricity they need to run their air conditioning in the steamed air they live in. The result? Power cuts.

I have been used to having my water cut, I even have a routine worked out so that I can always shower while there being enough pressure. However, there is no routine revolving around power cuts...they come on the whim and strike when you least expect it. While working, while eating, and the worst is while you are sleeping.

It is not humanly possible to sleep in 90+(37)degree heat and over 90% humidity. For the last few nights I have woken drenched in sweat because my power has been cut, the result is a very unrested English teacher who lashes out at her students.

For all of you living in hot places complaining of the heat...if you can read this and have the luxury of full access to air conditioning I suggest you think twice before complaining. I watch the Yemeni people suffer from the corruption and lack of education of their government...joking about how the new Minister of Power had promised no more power cuts only to find themselves with no electricity for over a week's time. And they laugh, shrug it off and say it's God's Will. I used to be amazed at the faith and devotion that people have towards their faith...and I'm starting to see that when you have a load of crap dumped on you on a daily basis, this can sometimes be the only escape and explanation as to why their life is so unfair. And for many, it does not seem fair.

However, I have the luxury and ability to change my current situation and will be transferred to Sana'a which boasts year round moderate weather with no humidity.

Al hum d'allah!

Sweating in the Shower

When I lived in Washington, DC, I used to complain of the heat and humidity. I said it was soooo bad. I obviously had never experienced an Aden summer before.

I am currently seeking refuge under a semi-functioning air conditioner. It is 40 degrees (over 100 degrees farenheit) and the air is heavy with humidity. I can not move or do anything without sweating. Even at night I walk through an outdoor sauna. I sweat while I walk, I sweat while I teach, I sweat while I speak, hell--I sweat while doing nothing! I never thought it was a possible, but I actually sweat while showering here.

I had mentioned the lack of hot water here in a previous blog. Let me rephrase this. There is now a lack of cold water. Everything here is HOT. I really would like a cold shower, but alas it's not possible. Usually my water is cut at night...and if there is some it is super low pressure, but hey it's something to wash the massive amount of sweat this environment creates.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel as I will be moving to the capital of Sana'a in two weeks time to escape this heat of the southern Aden. Sana'a is located in the mountains and has a year round mild climate...can't wait.

Until then, I will remain locked in the air conditioned fortress of my apartment.

Once Upon a Time...

I dreamt of home, it’s becoming a memory for me. There was a time when I lived a ‘normal’ life. Things were clean, things were organized; and I did not have to worry about explaining my past, nationality or reasons for doing things to others. There was an unspoken history between myself and my family and friends. There were no culture clashes, homesickness or thoughts of when I would return ‘home’.

Once upon a time I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Friday nights involved making plans for a Southside Crawl and wondering if I could hold strong and make it to Bar 11 for the obligatory Long Island Iced Tea. Even a weathered Irish man would be astonished by the amount of alcohol I consumed. O Fries and Primanti Brothers sandwiches were a treat. Visiting my grandmother was a weekly tradition and fighting with my mother seemed to be a mandatory daily occurrence. Having to drive a car to work from 9-5 was the norm; paying $20 for a good meal was not such a bad deal. I supported the goal of my best friend getting married and promised I would be there for the wedding day. I spoke with a Pittsburgh accent and dreamed of the day I would finally leave the ‘City of Bridges’. The Middle East was a location on the map, a place of violence, wars and hatred towards the West.

I now live in the Middle East, and know that it’s not just a location on a map; rather it’s an intricate mix of people, cultures and languages brought together in the same geographic location. I see the violence and wars just I saw them in the United States, on television. My image of hatred has been replaced by experiences of relentless hospitality and curiosity of who I am and where I am from. Being American is identified by a passport, and explaining why I think a certain way is lost in translation.

I have left the City of Bridges; I now live in the ‘Pearl of Arabia’…otherwise known as Yemen. Fridays involve hearing the local Imam at the mosque with the call for prayer and there is no Southside, let alone alcohol. Beer drinking and Long Island Iced Teas have been replaced with sheesha smoking and qat. Friday has become the Sunday in that the work week begins the next day on Saturday.
Visits with my grandmother live now only in my memory along the rosary beads I took from here funeral. If I have the chance to fight with my mother it happens at the most once a week and involves dialing international. Planning for my best friend’s wedding is done through emails and phone calls with bad connections and cut short by too little phone credit. I have no car, and I would have a suicide wish or masochistic desire if I were to drive here. I would seriously flip if I were to pay more than $5 for a decent meal. I have some crazy pseudo-British accent from time spent with foreigners and not speaking English.

I used to worry about my clothes, what I looked like in public. Now, I wake in the morning and conceal my pajamas with my abeya when I leave the comfort of my air conditioned home. It doesn’t matter if my hair is clean or dirty; styled or unbrushed; long or short; because it is wrapped in a headscarf, hiding it from the public eye. Women’s legs, arms and faces are concealed in sheer flowing cloth, even on the most blistering of heat days. Men wear skirts and no one blinks an eye, nevertheless if one were to wear shorts a line of curious spectators would form wondering why they would choose to wear that.

CNN has been replaced by Al Jazeera. Fruits and vegetables are bought by the kilo at a corner produce stand, sometimes at 2 am; no more Farmer’s Market waxed apples bought with a two for one special at Giant Eagle. A caffeine fix is a complimentary Turkish coffee served in a porcelain cup, so much richer, yet so much more basic than the double soy grande skim latte that cost $5 and is served ‘to go’ in a foam cup. Regardless of fixed price tags, the price can always be negotiated.

Church bells do not ring, even if they did they would be drowned out by the five daily calls to prayer reminding everyone that Allah is greatest and the Prophet Mohammed, his messenger, has written this for us in a sacred book. Praying does not occur privately or just on Saturdays or Sundays, praying here happens everywhere whether it be in a mosque, in a home or on a prayer rug in the corner of a grocery store.

So I ask myself, when does all this become normal? When do I stop comparing myself to others and realize that I am one of them? When does a language so unfamiliar and cryptic become easy to understand? I love it. I’ve changed. If I compared myself to myself ten years ago, I would not know her. I have come a long way since that time not so long ago when I was a curious teenager living in the Northeastern United States. The experiences, people and places I have had the opportunity to encounter can not be expressed in words nor replicated on film. They exist only in a continuous movie played only in my memory.

As I gain more of these experiences I am beginning to realize that life is a series of events meshed together in a bittersweet symphony that no one will ever be able to capture in shape or form.

And so I continue to live and absorb these experiences, for what purpose I am still attempting, if ever, to comprehend…

Back to Life, Back to Reality...

My return to Yemen was marked by a series of uninviting events including an Egyptian girl puking next to me on the plane when landing in Sana'a (so not fun) and being scammed out of money by the airline Yemenia. I had a horrid six hour layover connection in Sana'a en route to Aden and the Yemenia manager at Sana'a International Airport swore I had no ticket continuing on to Aden, despite the fact that all the information was in the computer system and my bags were checked all the way through from Cairo to Aden.
The Sana'a International Airport is small, and for six hours I as harassed by various Yemenia officials demanding I buy another ticket in order to fly to Aden. At some points, I wondered if the man was trying to rob me or if he was just plain stupid. My conclusion was a combination of the two.
I staunchly refused to pay, at times screaming they were dirty thieves and liars, however after they threatened to throw my bags off the plane I finally caved and paid for another ticket telling them all they would rue the day they met me…I really don’t think they cared. One of the other passengers who witnessed my harassment felt so bad for me that he insisted I meet his family and have them ride me from the airport home, his little cousins even carried all my luggage for me. It somewhat made up for the sorry excuse for night manager running the Yemenia office in Sana'a. But no worries, I will be getting a refund as I went to another office and pleaded my case with one of my former students who happens to be a general manager for Yemenia. It helps being a teacher here, everyone loves you.

I spent an amazing ten days in Egypt. The work week in Yemen ends on Wednesday. I spent extra time at MALI that evening preparing the final grades. I handed them in a manila envelope to the man who manages the café to give to Abeer in the morning. I ran home to get my things in order for my departure from Yemen. I first stopped at a phone booth to phone the Arabia Felix hotel in Sana’a to ask if there was space available. I had difficulty because I didn’t know the code for Sana’a and in the process ran into Salam, my Arabic teacher. He told me that I need to dial a zero and finally I reached the hotel by phone, confirmed space and then waited for Khaled to pick me up for a ride to the airport.

My relationship with Khaled is and was an odd one. He was my ‘boyfriend’ or so he says, to me it was just a bizarre relationship. I have no emotional attachment to the boy and he is completely self absorbed with his image and detached from reality and to what it is to have a girlfriend. He also was in love with the fact he was with an American. He did not like me, he liked my foreign identity.

He came wearing his Raja Taxi suit, driving his Yellow Mini van. We had an awkward parting. It was as if he were a taxi driver and we had never known each other. He asked when I would return and I told him maybe I wouldn’t. I had the thought many times while packing that maybe I should take everything with me. But I didn’t and as I write this I am in Aden, so it never happened.

My flight to Sana’a was uneventful. When I deboarded the plane I had my first feeling of being cool and dry since arriving in Aden. I look forward to when I move to Sana’a at the end of June to escape the steamy heat of Aden. Once arriving I had the experience of trying to get my bag. Apparently it causes confusion when you have a 10 hour layover and want to get your luggage. After changing various offices and clarifying that I just needed my small grey bag it was delivered and I found a taxi to take me to the Arabia Felix.

My cab driver at first was distant but after realizing I spoke Arabic he never shut up. He asked if I chewed qat, I said no, but that didn’t stop him from grabbing a bag of balaadi qat from under his visor and dumping a large amount into my reluctant hands. We chewed, we talked, he drove. He also helped me carry my bags into the hotel. The men at the reception found it funny the ijanaab checking in at two in the morning had a mouth full of qat. They told me I would not sleep. I smiled, saying ‘mafeesh mushkeela’ and they laughed.

When I woke I felt I had entered a new world, even though it was the same country I had been living in since February. My view of the Old City in Sana’a was outstanding, the ginger bread houses, children playing and tribes men meandering through the stone alley ways with the back drop of the mountains in the distance. I look forward to moving there in a month's time.

My taxi driver from the night before returned to pick me up in the morning at 8:30 am. I was enjoying the complimentary breakfast when he arrived and told him to wait. And so he did. He had brought me a juice and told me he had stayed awake all night chewing qat I front of Bab al Yemen.

When I boarded the plane I first thought I would have trouble with a Yemeni man sitting next to me. His wife was sitting in my bulkhead seat next to the window and I had the flight attendant move her. My seat was broken and kept reclining, making for an interesting take off. To my surprise the man sitting next to me turned out to be a highlight of the trip, chatting me up in Arabic, introducing me to his family and giving me Arabic lessons. He volunteered to change seats with me so he would be in the broken one and when I left, he gave me his contact info in Sana’a, telling me I must come to several weddings.

Once clearing customs and gathering my bags I had a gracious de-veiling in front of duty free in the airport. My headscarf was the first to fall and a a child was in shock as I ripped the black dress off throwing it into my bag all in one motion. I immediately wheeled myself into duty free where I bought my full allowance of alcohol and cigarettes. Several Yemeni men followed doing the same.

My cab ride to Garden City was an intense flashback to my past Egyptian life. From bartering with the driver, to him telling me repeatedly how ‘helwaa’ I was also included my hanging me head out the window screaming in joy everytime I saw a familiar landmark.

It was a return to the past, it was a return to a place familiar, to a place I now to refer to as home. Will returning to the United States ever feel so good?

Wearing burka

For a foreigner traveling in Yemen, they must be granted a permit by police and the army has security checks on the highways. If a foreigner is found to be in the car, there can me serious delays as they have to radio in to the next check point that a foreigner is on the road...this is all for security reasons because of the kidnappings that used to happen here. The Yemeni government has become very strict with the issue of kidnapping because the problem was really bad. The death penalty is now enforced for anyone involved with a kidnapping. The combination of a potential delay along with fear of a something happening and being held at fault makes a lot of bus and taxi drivers afraid to drive a foreigner somewhere...especially a British or American citizen. They often says it's forbidden.

The solution? Wear burka, this could apply for men in extreme cases.

If a woman is in burka, no one is not allowed to speak to her...it's forbidden to talk to her if she does not talk to you. So when I put burka on, I'm allowed to go anywhere do anything, see everyone...but at the same time they have no idea who I am.

This past week I traveled to Mukalla, a ten hour bus or taxi ride from Aden. I had told my friends I would wear burka to prevent any problems, and they all told me it was not necessary. However, when I showed up at the taxi the driver took one look at me and asked me where my veil was. So I had the pleasure of being incognito in a car full of Yemeni men chewing qat. It is pretty freaky when going thru some security checks...the guards with automatics slung over their shoulders shine flashlights in the car barking out questions of where you are from and sometimes checking the cargo. However when the light would shine on my black face they virtually ignored me. Not even a question was asked about the lady in black.

As intimidating as they can be, some of them can be humorous. A friend of mine once told me, how can I take a man seriously when he tries to look official and intimidating asking me where I'm from and what I'm doing...while at the same time he's looking at my passport upside-down.

Yemen. A diamond in the ruff.

Big Brother is Watching Lauren

The rival school of MALI is Amideast here in Yemen. There was a problem awhile back when some American teachers from Amideast went boozing in some nightclubs here. The police became involved and there was a big debacle.

This is the background information...

So one day I meet a friend of my manager's named Mostafa, one of the most closed minded Yemeni men I have encountered thus far, and comes from a tribe notorious for illegal weapons smuggling. He tells me he would like to chew qat with me and another foreign teacher from Finland, named Maria. Before I could politely refuse, Maria accepted the invitation...I felt obligated to go because the man is pretty crazy and I didn't want Maria to be with him alone.

We all went to Maria's apartment and he was there along with a man from Qatar and the administrative assistant of MALI, who had taken off his professional clothes and was wearing his traditional Yemeni dress; a skirt, loose shirt and turban. His name is Mohamed Hassand and looks like Popeye when he chews qat.

As we sat and chewed Maria told us she was being sent to Mukalla, a town about 10 hours from Aden. Mostafa became upset, but then turned to me and smiled saying well at least I have you now. Thereby telling me that I was his new interest...oh yes how I was flattered. As the evening progressed Maria said she wanted to go to a nightclub with me, and Mostafa flipped out saying that I was forbidden to go because I was a woman, an American woman no less and I was not allowed to go. Mind you, I just met this man.

Mostafa later left and within a half hour I receive a phone call from my manager telling me the police called him advising him to tell his teachers to not go to nightclubs. This no doubt was the doing of Mostafa because he is friends with the police here. In addition, my manager told me to be at home by 11pm. This is my MANAGER.

Blah. So the next night a man who I am friends with came to pick me up. Within a minute of meeting him on the street, he received a phone call from a man saying to drop the foreigner and immediately go to the police. Then we kept seeing a car drive by us. In addition I received phone calls from my manager again at 1 am asking why I was not at home.

A few days later we found this to be the car of Mohamad Hasan--the administrative assistant from MALI. He was instructed by my manager to watch me...basically spy on me. And this all began because of Mostafa.

I flipped out on my manager, told him he was out of line and if this continued I would immediately report him to the American Embassy. Since then, the problem has stopped.

But this is the world I live in. A dumb Yemeni man with machine guns gets the hots for me and next thing I know I have a qat stoned man with a turban spying on me.

When does this all become normal?

Countdown to Egypt

I leave for Egypt in one week!

Yemen has taken its toll on me. All of my friends are Yemeni, Syrian or Egyptian. I have become drawn into a close knit circle and am learning more and more of how Yemenis think, and what have I decided? This is truly a bizarre culture for me.

It is now normal for a man wearing a bleached white galibeya and large dagger to pick me up in his car to go smoke sheesha while he tells me about the machine guns he has at home.
It is normal for a man to be your friend for two months before even learning he has a wife and two children at home.
I now feel naked if I leave my home without my black abeya dress and hair covered.
People stoned on qat are the norm.
Calls for prayer and waiting for hours for someone to finish their praying is expected.

You have a country that preaches Islam and looks down on loose 'western' values such as dating. But in reality the same exact things are happening in this country, just under the surface. Yemen has nightclubs where prostitutes work, some veiling their faces but showing everything else. Very bizarre to see a woman shaking her hips to Egyptian dance in an Arabian nights spangled bikini top and sheer skirt on top of a table while at the same time wearing a black veil to hide her face. Oh! and they have this dance, which is no doubt the 'electric slide' from the U.S., but all the girls in a nightclubs will get up on stage and dance to it. They call it 'Samba'. I can declare it is nothing like what they have in Brazil.

So which is better? Saying that people have no sex or relationships before marriage and then hide behind curtains and locked doors gossiping and looking down on stories that surface--or just being honest about it all??? I am currently dating a Yemeni man here (named Khaled), and it is proving to be as bizarre as the culture itself. For instance, he has told me that his best friend swears he can steal me away from him. And they are still friends. Who says that to a friend???

So many Yemenis tell me they like to be with me because I'm foreign. Because I'm different. They think that being a westerner means I'm more trustworthy. The Yemeni feels they can not trust another Yemeni with secrets, and for good reason. People here love to gossip about everything.

Strange, yes?

Teacher Lauren

All of my students refer to me only as 'Teacher'.

Teaching here is more difficult than I had originally thought. I have three upper level courses so I have to do a lot of outside reading and writing with them...which means lots of work for me. I do enjoy it and my students are amazing. All of my classes have 8 students maximum and the majority are female. Not all are Yemeni, I also have students from Syria, Saudia Arabia and France. They are very attentive and are a pleasure to teach. No exteme problems yet.

I love working as a teacher in the fact that I get a look into the culture on a daily basis. Classes are based a lot on conversation so we are constantly discussing cultural ideas and topics. However, the first lesson I had to teach to one of my classes had the subject of dating and romance...try teaching that to a class where the dating culture is completely hidden and not discussed openly. Not a good topic to start with when you do not fully understand the culture.

Some other things I deal with that I would not have to face should I have chosen another country for teaching:

1. Memorizing female students names who are fully veiled. I have become quite good on identifying students by their eyes.

2. Call for Prayer. Our class schedule changes depending on when the call for prayer is so that men have enough time to pray at the mosque and then return for classes.

3. Students Praying Between classes. It has become normal for me to be reviewing a listening activity while three female students begin to pray in the classroom...using their books to kneel on.

4. Students Stoned on Qat. Yemen has a narcotic leaf that is chewed by nearly everyone. I strictly enforce the rule of no chewing, however some of my students have come to class after chewing and have a glazed look in their eye. Their contribution to discussions are hilarious.

5. Cultural Differences. The text book I use was printed in the United States and I have to read all the lessons ahead of time to explain cultural differences...which there are a lot. Yesterday I was explaining what a 'typical suit' is for business. A lot of the students thought it was wearing a skirt (as the men do here).

6. Business is Personal. Arab culture makes everything personal. My students act as if I am a family to them. From time to time, I am having trouble trying to separate myself as a teacher.

7. Power Outages. It is not uncommon to be teaching when there is a black out. It has only happened a couple of times, but that was more than enough! Especially considering how it is so hot here...without AC it can be unbearable.

These are just a few differences I have come across with my teaching.

I teach one morning class and two night classes, all two hours in length. I am also studying Arabic in the afternoons. I am BUSY. But enjoying it all.


I felt comforatable in Sana'a, enjoyed the weather and felt I had become oriented to Yemen in the mere three days I was there being introduced to my school and surroundings. On the 22nd I took a Yemenia flight to Aden, a short 45 minute plane ride south.

Yemenia is a decent airline despite what everyone told me prior to my flight, saying it was a no hold bar kind of airline where anything goes. Except for the annoying three year old French girl who kept kicking my seat, I found it to be enjoyable. They even played music all during the flight, my favorite was the Godfather theme song playing prior to landing.

My first impression of Aden? HOT. And humid. Mind you a week ago I was in subzero weather of the United States under a blanket of snow. Aden is a city built into the crater of an extinct volcano. Mountains surround the city which has beaches lying on the sea. The people are very laid back here which is nice. I have shed the abeya (big black dress) and veil I wore in Sana'a...you need to pay me to wear that in this heat. I have no idea how the women here do it.

The director of the school, Shukri, was the man who greeted me at the airport, wearing his skirt and with the biggest wad of qat (I'll write more about this stuff later) I have ever seen stuffed into his right cheek. He along with a random guy in the passenger seat drove me to my apartment, which to my surprise is private. I thought I would be sharing housing, but I have my own place here. It's nice...two bedrooms one sitting room, kitchen and bathroom with a 'throne' toilet. Not the normal hole in the floor so traditional of Yemen. I still have no idea how to get the hot water working properly.

At first Shukri took me to the wrong apartment, one floor up where a man named Abdullah lives. Shukri knocked ont he door, Abdullah emerged and greeted me as if I were going to be living there. I had joked to my friends and family about how I was being sold into white slavery and it was at that moment that I actually thought I might be! However, it was an honest mistake, and Abdullah is a sweetheart. He came down the following day to introduce himself properly, gave me his number and told me if I needed anything I could contact him.
I only had one day before my classes began and I spent it getting oriented, cleaning, unpacking and lesson planning. This was also the day I experienced my first real bit of culture shock. I don't know if it was from the jet lag or the fact that this place truly foreign to me...but I did feel quite uneasy. My mom called me which seemed to make the feelings subside and today I'm better. But it really did blow there for a while.

I also feel homesick not for the United States, but for Egypt. Strange.

Welcome Home?

I have finally arrived in Sana'a, Yemen to begin working as an English teacher after signing my contract with MALI (click on one of the links to learn more about it) nearly four months ago. I will be living in the coastal town of Aden until summer time when it becomes unbearably hot and humid, I will then be living in the Capital city of Sana'a which has a year round mild climate.

I am not experiencing any culture shock. Rather, I am feeling strange about not feeling like this is a foreign country to me any more. Several people have emailed me, writing 'welcome home'. In a way it feels that way.

So you may find yourself asking, 'Where the heck is Yemen?'. It's simple. Start in Egypt and go east until you get to Saudia Arabia, then make a sharp 90 degree turn right and head south. You will find yourself crashing into an enormous mountain range and ir's around this point that you have arrived in a part of Yemen. However, it is not only mountains, Yemen is split into thirds: desert, beach, mountains.
It cannot be compared to any other place in the world. Yemen is a place with a unique culture and history that I am only beginning to understand. It was not until the fall of the Imam in 1962 that the Yemeni started opening up to the rest of the world and it was not until the 1980s's that foreigners began traveling to the country.

So now you ask, 'Why the heck are you in Yemen?'. Again, it's simple. I like teaching English, I receive a decent salary, have my airfare paid for, cost of living is cheap, I do not pay for an apartment and I receive private Arabic instruction for free. These are just the logistics.
As a friend of mine once said, Yemen gets into your blood and you keep going back for more. I do not believe a country hosts a more hospitable people combined with a culture and history that includes the Queen of Sheeba along with where Noah allegedly set sail in his Arc. Walking around in Yemen is like walking back in time.

More questions you may ask...

Is it required to wear burqua or veil for women? NO

Can women drive? YES, the only place they can not is in Saudia Arabia because that country is crazy.

Don't men harrass you? NOPE. If a man were to touch or say anything to me it would be shameful. I once saw a man beaten by a baker with his shoe because he had followed a woman home. I'm not exaggerating.

Is it safe? YES

Aren't you scared? NO

Don't they hate Americans? No, they just don't understand America's foreign policies. Come to think of it...neither do I.

Will you be kidnapped? I don't think I will be. You are more likely to be kidnapped in Mexico City. Even if I were I would be treated as a 'guest'. Lots of food, lots of tea and lots of gold given to me upon my release. Foreigners were kidnapped in the past by tribes because they needed money to build infrastructure in their town or wanted to get the government's attention. Now the death penalty is enforced for any involvement in kidnapping and it is virtually non-existant.

Isn't the country full of terrorists? NO...the terrorists who have operated here were not Yemeni. Psychos from other countires using Yemen as a base.

Is the food good? Hell YES!

Are the people friendly? The nicest and most hospitable people I have ever encountered in my life.

So now you wonder why the heck is there so much bad press about Yemen? And the Middle East for that matter. Very simple. Over sensitive governments (not mentioning names here but I'm sure you can figure that one out on your own) irritated that foreign governments will not follow on a leash with policies instilled by the West. And blowing a few events up so that they characterize the country. Imagine America portrayed by Oklahoma City bombings or 9/11 or the bombings in London's Tube.

The other reason is ignorance. For anyone who has traveled to this land knows the treasure it holds.

Still don't believe me? No worries, I'll just sit back and enjoy it all myself.