Chapter 1. Boys who know nothing about waves plan surf trip.
(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. Prologue here and I’m only including this next piece for background. Not for narcissistic thrill.)
Where else to start but at the beginning? The problem with beginnings is that true ones are not very impactful. Maybe a stray thought in the middle of the night. Or a half-baked conversation between friends. Or a flicker of an almost idea between bites of a grilled cheese sandwich. Beginnings only become “beginnings” after something has happened to make the “middle” and the “end” valuable. Beginnings are ephemeral at best, pure hagiography most of the time, completely forgotten at worst.
The beginning to this Yemen saga is somewhere between ephemeral and forgotten but I will strive to tell it as honestly as I can. It is one benefit that distance from events brings. The ability to be honest. To know, intimately, my shortcomings and to steer clear of them. To only strive for the truth as I remember it without being shrill or sensationalistic.
I had become fascinated by the middle east as a child and have always attributed it to my uncle who founded a Christian medical team that went to war stricken countries but, I’m convinced, was also/mostly in the CIA. His house was littered with pictures of him and Ollie North, Ronald Reagan, etc. and he once screened a slideshow for my family that featured many images of him posing proudly with bearded Mujahadin fighters and Stinger missiles tied to the backs of donkeys headed from Pakistan to Afghanistan to fight the commies. He had a scruffy beard like them.
But really, my fascination began more prosaically. My dad loved reading National Geographic and loved stories of Yemen most of all. He would point those out to me when I was even younger. The people, the history, the architecture, the flora and fauna and it must have stuck. The country had trees named Dragon’s Blood that actually bled when cut. My young mind couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. I also vaguely remember reading some missionary pamphlet thing at church that said Yemen was the only country in the world with no Christians. 0%. That fascinated me. A whole country without Christians. I wondered what they all did on Sunday?
Somewhere between uncle and father I ended up studying for a semester in Egypt. Returning the next year to travel from Cairo to Damascus to Cairo but getting waylaid by amoebic dysentery in Aqaba, Jordan for one whole week. Tied to an IV but oddly thrilled because I was in the town that Lawrence of Arabia took from the rear after crossing the sun’s anvil.
And then 9/11 happened. I had been espousing the beauty of the Arab for a few years already when those planes, piloted by Egyptians (proto-Arabs), slammed into America’s heart. My mother called me early in the morning hyperventilating and accusatory. “You said they were good.”
“You said they were good.”
And I felt disgusted but filled with a wicked desire. Disgusted because those bastards. Wickedly desirous because I knew everyone in the entire world was going to be staring at the middle east and I needed to take my one semester plus one hospital stay’s worth of Arabic and go back. Ugly narcissistic ambulance chasing but I promised honesty so there you have it. It also felt like a once-in-a-century opportunity to actually waltz where history was being written.
And Yemen. During those weeks after 9/11 I kept hearing it on the news and reading it in the newspapers. Osama Bin Laden and Yemen. He had apparently had masterminded the attack in Yemen’s hills and many Al-Qaeda were still there, the same who had blown a hole in the USS Cole a few years earlier.
No Christians. Bleeding trees. Osama bin Laden. I couldn’t get it out of my head and walked to my best friend’s house down the street. He had just begun his degree in Islamic Studies at UCLA. I opened his door and said, “Yemen?” He went right to a giant old British atlas, pulled it down, plopped it open on his dining room table and we spent the next hour gazing at its coastline.
We both only possessed the most basic knowledge of what made waves and this was long before Google Earth. The way the Horn of Africa jutted out seemed like it would island shadow Yemen’s whole coastline but…
“Isn’t that basically the Indian Ocean? Doesn’t the Indian Ocean have all kinds of sick waves?” I asked, ignoring both geography and science.
My friend looked at me and said, “Sure.”
“Yeah. Like Indo n stuff.” I nodded, continuing on, putting the full weight of my surf magazine education to work.
“What about that hook right there? Up near the border of Oman? It seems like its far enough away from Somalia and would pull swell from some direction…” he said tracing his finger along the shoreline.
“For sure.” I responded.
“And that’s where Osama Bin Laden’s family is from…” he continued, dragging his finger slightly inland to a place called Hadramawt.
It sounded straight out of Indiana Jones.