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 My image of hatred has been replaced by experiences of relentless hospitality and curiosity of who I am and where I am from.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?