Chapter 5: Boys acquire Landcruisers and watch Sean Paul.
(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…)
One of Yemen’s most celebrated pastime, prior to getting bombed, was kidnapping foreigners and ransoming them back to family/business/country or origin. It was a pure financial play, not religious or political, and the kidnapers seemed to know the market value well, never going bananas and, say, asking for millions of dollars for a teacher or hundreds of thousands for a journalist.
A new road was needed through town so a person would be borrowed and the road would get built. A new well? Borrow and build. It was part of the ebb and flow of daily life with Yemenis even kidnapping other Yemenis, and generally fun for all. Foreigners who were kidnapped discussed the hospitality of their hosts, marveling about the one-of-a-kind experience they were afforded.
And it was with this in the back of our minds that we spent those first few days wandering the streets of Sana’a with neither passport nor any real way to leave town. Yemen was as tribal then as it is now with the central government maintaining only the loosest control outside of the capital. Still, Yemeni troops were spread from one edge of the country to the other and in order to travel one had to have permission slips for each region from the government.
But Sana’a was fantastically magical enough to hold our attention. The old city was an almost untouched medieval throwback. Donkeys navigated the maze-like pathways between ancient towers. Men sat in the shade chewing qat. Women didn’t exist. I had been to the Middle East twice before. I had climbed the great pyramids in Egypt (totally illegally and a wonderful story). I had climbed Mt. Sinai before dawn and watched the sun come up. I had hospitaled in Aqaba for an entire week. I thought I was an Orientalist expert but Sana’a forever altered what I deemed “exotic.”
We found the Arabic school J. was “attending” in order to fill out the rest of our travel budget via UCLA scholarship. It was the same that Johnny Walker Lindh attended for a year before running off to Afghanistan in order to fight the infidel invaders in 2002. Do you remember him? The “American Taliban?” He was grabbed by the Afghan Northern Forces in the city of Kuduz, tried by military tribunal, convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, providing material support for terrorist organizations, etc. and currently serving his sentence in Terre Haute, Indiana until 2020 or such.
One of J.’s Islamic Studies classmates was also attending. A wonderfully eclectic boy who wore Blue Blockers and vintage Jean-Paul Gaultier sandals and was dating a Japanese diplomat who worked in Yemen’s Japanese embassy. He had a camera and so we gang-pressed him into service as a “surf photographer.” Who needs academia when you’ve got surf?
We found the Iraqi embassy, around the corner from the apartment we were staying, and wondered if Saddam Hussein might be hiding out. He had just been deposed and it would have made perfect sense for him to end run to Yemen and wait for George W. Bush not to find his weapons of mass and then apologize. I knocked on its door and the guard angrily shoed us away.
We sat in our mafraj and chewed qat ourselves. The leaf is such a staple of Yemeni lives that even the smallest home is outfitted with a room dedicated to its enjoyment. The mafraj is an open space with cushions pushed against each wall for lounging. The leaf is grown in Yemen’s highlands at the same elevations as coffee. The supple shoots are harvested, wrapped in plastic and sold in qat souqs. The growers and sellers are as dedicated to their craft as viticulturists and sommeliers are theirs. Good qat is expensive even by American standards and our new photographer insisted that we bought good qat since he had developed a full on addiction.
We waited for H.
And then after five days he arrived, calling in the afternoon and apologizing for being held up in Dubai. He said would pick us up for dinner that evening and before we finished our daily music video binge (music video channels are the best in the Middle East. Between Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar there is a steady diet of European club hits, forgotten American gems, Bollywood bangers and flabby Lebanese weirdness) he was there in a cloud of brand new black Mercedes G-Wagon smoke. He told us in his odd Rhode Island meets Dubai accent that we were going to sushi and sped though the streets while showing us a brand new black Uzi he kept under his seat in a neat briefcase.
“Sushi?” I thought.
But it was good and maybe had something to do with the Japanese Embassy. H. was maybe 40, tall, thin, paired awkwardly brand new designer jeans with crisp button-ups and seemed neither surprised nor dismayed by our plan to surf his country’s coast. He told us some of the provinces were basically lawless and that the government wasn’t issuing permission for foreigners to travel them but… “no problem. I’ll get permission for you. And I’ll send my two best bodyguards along. How many Landcruisers will you need?” We told him one and that we didn’t need any bodyguards. He insisted on two bodyguards and two Landcruisers. We told him our whopping budget was something like $3,000 for three months.
“Guuuuuys…you’re guests. It’s no problem…” he said and then ate a bite of delicately seasoned cat tongue. “…Come to my house tomorrow and you can get on the road.”