Chapter 4: Boys arrive in the land of knives and dinner jackets.
(I am writing a series about Yemen because what is currently happening there is terrible beyond. My inaction disgusts me and so I am going to introduce you to to the country because… the place, people, culture all deserve to be saved. Catch up, if you wish, on the links below…)
At this moment in history Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, is a prototypical den of human despair. Skeletal children peer through photojournalist lenses. Fathers weep over dead daughters surrounded by dust and rubble. Mothers die of cholera hooked up to saggy IV bags. Saudi bombs, sold to them by the United States, explode hospitals, orphanages, schools. 125 today. 276 dead tomorrow. We, all of us, too busy, too inundated, to care. Last year Venezuela, the year before that Sudan, perpetually Haiti.
Misery is numbing.
But as my British Airways flight began to descend from Los Angeles to Sana’a International via London almost 15 years ago I was glued to the window.
I had no idea what we would find. Had no idea if there was surf or if we’d be able to get to it. No idea if we actually had visas to enter the country. But it was an adventure and adventure for its own sake is valuable enough. If we succeeded then great. If we failed then we would do so spectacularly. Or at least that’s what I would tell Sam George if Yemen’s security services allowed phone calls from immigration jail.
And then we broke through the clouds and the city sprayed before us in its earthen glory. And then the pilot barked something in English about preparing to land and then Arabic.
And then the wheels skidded onto the tarmac.
J., N. and I gathered our surplus military backbacks and headed out into the… relatively cool? It was to be the first surprise of ten thousand. The expectation when landing in the middle east during the month of June is blazing heat. Cairo in June is unbearable. Dubai in June is a few degrees cooler than the sun. Satan himself vacates Djibouti from June through November.
But Sana’a was cool. Pleasant. And I had not taken into account its elevation. The city rests at a comfortable 7000 feet above sea level and boasts summer highs of 78 and lows of 63. I adjusted the collar on my Op Classics button-up, winked at J. though my wrap-around Spy shades and felt ready for whatever fate would bring.
I don’t recall any other foreigners on that flight and we shuffled behind the locals toward the single story terminal. Inside men wearing floor length dresses, thick woolen dinner jackets giant belts with even bigger curved knives attached jostled up against the immigration desk. J., N. and I stood off to the side. There was not a woman to be seen. We decided to jostle too even though woefully underdressed.
And then we were at the front, pushing our dark blue American passports at a man with a giant wad of tobacco* in his cheek. He stared at them, thumbed their pages, looked back at us with a blank look, thumbed their pages again, looked up and said, “Where’s your visa?” in Arabic. J. muttered that ours were being taken care of by someone important in his formal UCLA Arabic. I probably added something in my laughably broken Egyptian Arabic. The man was not amused.
We retreated while he gestured angrily toward his boss and the two of them incredulously flipped though our passports together. We looked at each other and felt the sort of comedic helplessness that strikes any traveler who dares venture outside a packaged tour.
Suddenly, a very handsome military man pushed through a door and marched straight up to us. In perfect English he said his name was Khaled, he was there on behalf of H., and apologized for being late. His uniform was immaculate. So was his Don Johnston stubble/moustache combination. Arab military men love the Don Johnston stubble/moustache combination.
He strode over to the immigration officers, grabbed our passports, gesticulated wildly then walked back over to us.
“Do you have any bags?”
We told him we did and he pushed us through a side door and into the baggage claim area/entrance hall. I looked back at the immigration officers. One was slightly incredulous. The other seemed indifferent.
Khaled stood next to us while our two giant surfboard coffins and cooler filled with film were pushed out. We gathered them, he escorted us to a newer Toyota Landcruiser and had a taxi put our coffins one-third in the trunk, two-thirds hanging into the exotic wilds.
And then we were speeding down a wide boulevard with many pictures of the president waving and many military trucks and some donkeys. Khaled explained that H. had been delayed in Dubai for a few days but that he wanted to see us before we left Sana’a and so was taking us to an apartment.
I was glued to the window, taking it all in, the gingerbread houses, the men in dresses with dinner jackets and curved knives, the no women, the mosques, the mosques, the mosques. Taking everything in until we screeched to a halt in front of a modest three story building two miles outside the old town. Khaled escorted up to a three room apartment that felt like the lap of luxury to boys that thought $5,000.00 was a fortune. He said he would be seeing us soon and left.
And we were in Yemen.
*I would learn later that it was not tobacco but qat. An almost perfect drug.
A Saudi bomb explodes in Sana’a. Of all the cities I’ve ever been to in this world, Sana’a is one of the most magical. See the image below for its pre-war glory. It was like a storybook. And it is disappearing, brick by brick, every day.
Sana’a’s old city pre-war.