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Yemen: Forget that you’re young!

Chas Smith

by Chas Smith

Chapter 6: Boys find surf and race Al-Qaeda.

(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 right here… Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5)

The city of Aden is almost 9 hours directly south from Sana’a though it is an entire world away. We drove past qat plantations, old rock towers, goats being tended by boys and the first of many government checkpoints as we dropped from the genteel temperate highland into the sweltering humid cacophony. Horns blared, traffic backed up, sweat dripped from my forehead down underneath my Spy wrap-arounds like a waterfall.

Hillside homes on the drive from Sana'a to Aden.

Hillside homes on the drive from Sana’a to Aden.

There is something comforting about humidity, though, even at its most oppressive. Dream surf doesn’t break in temperate zones. It breaks in Indonesia and southern Mexico and Fiji and Tahiti. And even though we didn’t figure Aden would have any waves due Somalia’s jutting presence it officially felt like we were on a surf trip.

Our bodyguards, too, seemed thrilled to be out of the house. They were brothers from Marib, that wild city up near Sana’a, and sang its praises but being in Aden meant vacation. They were mostly business during the drive, shuffling through our various government permissions, arguing with the military men who questioned the validity of our trip, flashing just the right amount of anger. But Major Ghamdan al-Shoefy, the elder, got a sly smile when we stopped for an overpriced lunch just outside the city. He went behind the restaurant dressed in his dinner jacket/curved knife and came back in a thin button-up/futa. The futa is what Yemenis call the sarong which is what Balinese ex-pat hippies call the full length skirt. It is worn by He then busily started making arrangements on a beat up Nokia phone with prayer beads attached.

Hunein, the younger, had eyes as big as ours.

Where Sana’a is delicate, Aden is bawdy. It has the perfect decrepit British outpost feeling like Bombay and parts of Hong Kong. Governmental buildings, train stations and schools echo the glory of empire past mixed in with the taste that something could go very wrong at any second. Humanity piled on top of humanity in a tinderbox. We drove though the city in entirety out to an older hotel on Elephant Bay and there, in front of us, were waves. Real waves. Waist high peelers running off a sandbar.

We couldn’t believe it. We were in a bay in a sea so shadowed by Africa that it seemed… impossible. Now I know that waves are never quite where you expect them to be but back then I thought it was a miracle. We pulled the board coffins off the Landrover as quickly as we could, stripped down into below the knee Op and ran straight into the warm bath.

I was higher than I had ever been in my entire life. It was like a bad day at Huntington but, as far as I was concerned, the trip was a massive success. We were surfing.

In Yemen.

And we stayed surfing in Yemen until the sun slid into the bay before driving into town for a celebratory fish dinner all salt crusted and sore, toasting cold Canada Drys and laughing. Our bodyguards seemed pleased too. Ghamdan kept up some banter about ladeez and booze. We told him we didn’t come to Yemen for that but it didn’t dim his passion as he kept working on his Nokia.

When we were finished we got back in the Landcruiser to head to the hotel for sleep and then another surf in the morning before pressing on and finding… who knew? Barrels? The next G-Land?

The streets were crowded with city dwellers who had spent the heat of the day crouching in whatever shade they could find and were now alive once again. Futas, small pistols, stares, the call to prayer.

We pulled onto a small side road then onto a bigger one then a pick-up up filled with men pulled up alongside us and they all started barking through heavy beards while waving Kalashnikovs. Ghamdan barked back for a minute before punching it through a crowded intersection with the truck close on our tail.

“What’s going on?” we asked.

“Al-Qaeda” he responded.

His face was neither fearful nor taut but rather pulled into the universal smirk of oh-dang-those-rascal-water-balloon-kids-from-down-the-street-are-after-us. It was a game and he was going to win.

He drove like a bat out of hell, burning around corners, missing fruit carts, racing past angry shouts, looking over his shoulder almost gleeful. Eventually we lost them but then a new game began. He was going to find them and sped around the streets in wild circles looking this way and that but they had disappeared into the heat.

Ghamdan was disappointed and, frankly, so were we. I don’t know what would have happened had we met up again but it all felt like a movie and this is the thing. Terms “Al-Qaeda” and “radical Islamist” and “jihadis” etc. all mean something so specific here. They are cemented. Locked down. Very naughty and purely causative.

A + B = C.

Islam + Radicalization = Terrorist.

There everything seemed as fluid as Canada Dry. I have no idea if the men in the pick-up were actually Al-Qaeda. Maybe they were just religious. I have no idea what they were barking about. Maybe we stole their parking spot. Later we would meet all sorts of men who identified with Al-Qaeda, who believed 9/11 was a good thing, who were excited about the coming destruction of the Great Satan. We would drink coffee and discuss and then discuss other things, like cars or fishing or music videos, before parting with firm handshakes.

Belief in something, in anything, bonds.

But I didn’t know any of this yet. All I knew was the ten minutes spent racing through Aden felt as joyous as finding surf.

Fun with Ghamdan just outside of Aden.

Fun with Ghamdan just outside of Aden.