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".