Tom and I set out yesterday for Bayt Baws, a former village now swallowed by Sanaa’s urban sprawl. We descended in the bus into Hada and began walking on the road towards the village. A few minutes passed before a jeep crawled up to us. “Hello Sadeeq! Where you from?” Something about the situation made me uncomfortable, leading me to suddenly adopt a Dutch nationality. “You want car?” I’ve hitchhiked regularly in Yemen, and given his humorous insistence on speaking English, I looked over at Tom and we decided to go for it.
Apparently our new buddy had studied in Germany, posing a potential problem for our lacking knowledge on Holland, save of course tulips and marijuana. Luckily he was caught up talking about himself, asking after every sentence, “You know me?” “I know you.” “You KNOW me?” “I KNOW you.”
“Germany, Holaanda good people, wa Yemen, Yemen good people. But America – America ‘fuck people.’ British ‘fuck people.’ America and British ‘fuck people.’ But Germany, Holaanda, Yemen, good people. You know me?” “I know you, man. Americans are very dirty. Disgusting, really. You know me?”
As all this was going on, the jeep proceeded forward at all of 10 m.p.h. Various reasons are possible though I strongly suspect he was increasing his face-time with two English speakers. We arrived at the village, which, thankfully, was not too far away. Pulling up, we began to imply we’d like to get out and walk. “No sadeeq. Ol’ village. We go… uhh, we go… uhhhhh, namshee ma ba’dh (we’ll walk together).”
Driving up and resigned to our forced village tour, I continued with the chitchat. I asked our “sadeeq” about the army plates on his car. Caring less about the 20 foot cliff off to the left, he began a vigorous search for his wallet as the car began a slightly rightward pull, explaining he is an officer in the army. Tom and sighed with relief when his wallet finally appeared. It still took him awhile to flip to his ID card, but he at least tried to focus on the dirt road as he went page by page. His English was not enough to even attempt by this point, leading him to switch over to Arabic with “good” and “you know man” kept as retainers.
October 14, the day of all these events, is Revolution Day. It’s the second Revolution Day celebrated since I arrived in Yemen four and a half months ago. Fighter planes pass over Sanaa on a near daily basis, but as we exited the car two formations of six jets a piece roared overhead (MiG 21s I believe), echoing off the mountains immediately behind us. I wanted to take photos but our officer guide kept me from doing so. It’s a good thing as a Yemeni Brigadier from Political Security is developing my film today. Bayt Baws itself was fairly interesting. There’s a huge defensive ditch surrounding the old village with a scattering of houses occupying the ditch itself. The ditch is where the villages’ Jews lived until they all fled to Israel. The officer pointed and explained, “that for Jews. THAT for Muslimeen,” as his finger shifted over to the elevated, clearly more desirable village.
A local joined us and acted as a tour guide. The first stop was the village stable. That’s not typically the first destination of my tourist desires, but the light was interesting enough to photograph. Satisfied, Tom and the new guide exited. I began to follow when suddenly I was grabbed around the neck, pulled deep into the officer’s chest and given a sloppy, whisker-brush kiss on my cheek. “Is this cultural or just gay???” I didn’t quite know what to make of it so I stumbled off horribly disturbed. The tour continued, leading us over to the old market, or the “shopping centre” as the officer unnecessarily translated about six times. Tom and the guide somehow got ahead again, leading the officer to again grab me by the head and grab my chest like I had a pair of breasts. The thought that popped in my head: “this ain’t cultural.”
Tom and I finally escaped the village tour after about five minutes, politely but strongly stating that we are walking by ourselves from now on, thank you for the ride. Free from our unwanted companions, Tom and I walked just far enough to sit down and enjoy some food and drink without the obligation of offering it to anyone else. We started up the face of the nearest mountain around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., not reaching our intended destination until around 2:45 p.m., including a lunch break of bread, raisins, almonds and a lot of water.
The view over Sanaa’s sprawl was extremely impressive. The purpose of our trip, however, was to escape the city, inclining us to face the other direction. We walked hundreds of vertical meters, leading to a noticeable change in temperature and wind. I let the breeze pass over my sweat filled shirt, enjoying the time by writing in my journal and looking over the agricultural fields below and 180 degrees opposite Sanaa. My heart continued pounding for some time, unaccustomed to strenuous exercise from the inability to run in Sanaa’s Old City. I needed a break from Arabic and the accompanying stress. I just relaxed, focusing on the sound of the breeze passing over my body. We sat there mostly silent. Occasionally a yell off in the distance was heard and nothing more. We packed up and tried to head back down before dark.
Less than two minutes after starting, a Yemeni man appeared about 30 feet above us with a Kalshnikov ordering us to throw our bags on the ground. I complied immediately, but Tom, having only started Arabic six weeks ago, looked a bit hesitant. The man repeated his order and swept the Kalshnikov across to express his insistence. Tom looked over and saw me throwing off my stuff and began imitating. Normally it takes me about five seconds to stop, unbuckle each strap and manoeuvre the bag off my body. In this instance the buckles came off a split second before the bag was on the ground. I also threw down my hat and kafiyyeh, motivated by a sudden spirit of cooperation. I then threw my hands up, palms out, around head height.
A few tense seconds passed. Uncomfortable with the new stalemate, I uttered the staple “Peace be upon you.” He tersely returned the greeting, hurriedly ordering me to put my hat and kafiyyeh back on my head. We marched forward, as instructed; he swapped positions with us down to the bags. Picking them up awkwardly while trying to point the rifle, he urged us forward as he trailed behind. We walked a quarter kilometre over to a small building located at the base of the largest nearby mountain. On top of that mountain was an obvious military communications base. I knew from previous experience that the highest mountain peaks are out of bounds. That’s the reason we satisfied ourselves with our earlier, lower location. Yet, now, as we sat in the freezing shade, we got the first of innumerable lectures on how we trespassed onto military land. Arabs in general have an obscene obsession with conspiracy theories, suspicious of anything new. They certainly don’t understand the idea of walking simply for pleasure – we, of course, were spies.
I had a few almonds and raisins left over from lunch. We didn’t have any options short of a heroic escape, so instead I grabbed trail mix from my shirt pocket and offered it up. He politely declined it though I succeeded in reducing his stress. He asked me with great perplexion why I had food in my pocket. When I responded in proficient Arabic his surprise exploded to astonishment. We began conversing, me receiving the usual array of Arab introductory questions. Are you married? Why not? What’s your job? After ten minutes our captor wasn’t even holding the gun. After twenty he stood multiple feet away from it. Tom later suggested he was trying to ease our stress. It’s the only logical conclusion I can draw excluding sheer incompetence or idiocy.
Soon enough some of his buddies turned up, one of them holding a walkie-talkie. We explained the purpose of our presence, we study Arabic in Sanaa, yes I think qat is God’s greatest gift to mankind, I don’t know if Yemeni women are more beautiful than American women. I cannot see past the black veil over their faces. The humour succeeded in warming everyone up. One of the new arrivals even started insisting we were obviously tourists. How come they can’t just let us go? Qat was offered. I hadn’t chewed for quite some time and was in no mood to chew. But qat affords cheap respect so I shoved the dirty leaves in my mouth. Tom too accepted. Cleaning the leaves, stuffing them in our mouth and repeating at least offered a way to pass the time.
Two more people joined the group. It was then we learned that everyone there, including the original captor, were all policemen covering for the army on Revolution Day. They also informed us a police truck was coming to take us back home. I remarked to Tom “there’s a good chance we’ll be interrogated before they let us go.” The truck arrived though nobody seemed in any hurry. We sat back down, chewed more qat and chatted idly with a sergeant taking great pains to befriend us. The whole ordeal began around 3:15 and we were stuck in the same place watching the sunset. The policeman, now 15 in number, sat around talking, doing what they could to entertain themselves.
As the sun dipped below the horizon Tom spotted a second truck, this one speeding like a bat of out of hell. It pulled up to our location and hit the brakes. A squad of pissed off soldiers disembarked. Their sergeant made a dash at our bags, unleashing a furious argument between the police and the army. My Arabic held up remarkably well throughout the day, but with twenty-five people screaming, each one lunging at our possessions, I was fully incapable of following the events. Tom and I sat on the sidelines chewing, wondering what in the hell sparked the controversy. I felt half tempted to bet on which one of our bags would rip first. They settled the argument and ordered us up into the Yemeni version of an armoured personnel carrier, a Toyota pickup with two jerry-rigged benches the length of the bed and a canvas covering. Nothing but the latest for Yemen’s finest. A further issue arose regarding the amount of money in our bags, which was minimal.
Finally, as darkness was setting in, everyone packed into the trucks and we began the long road down the mountain. The qat made me feel sick. I didn’t exactly eat a hardy lunch, a requirement before chewing, and my stomach roared with hunger from the earlier exercise. The road slowly extends down the face of the mountains, winding and twisting its way towards Sanaa. Tom commented on how much he enjoyed the ride. “I didn’t realize how high we climbed.” Ya, neat, but we sat between a group of 15-18 year old kids, angry for whatever reason, all of them with AK-47s, and me not trusting them in the slightest.
A flat tire on the way down helped prolong up our ordeal. Two of the group hurried around and changed the flat as the sergeant and his men talked away. Tom and I tired of meeting new people and stood off to the side. I overheard the word “bribe” come from the sergeant and thanked myself for only carrying $7. Once on Hadda Street, the main road from the area into the main city, the driver flipped on the horn and siren as we blazed towards what I sincerely hoped was Bab al-Yemen. I stared out the truck as we passed the motorists, smiling broadly when they noticed and reacted to a white westerner in a Yemeni military vehicle. That abruptly ended when we turned off Hadda Street and I heard a tire flay dragged out of the street.
After a few extra gates we finally stopped. We waited for at least twenty minutes as the soldiers took our possessions, one by one, into the building. One walked up with my medicines asking who owns this. Then they came out with my camera – me again. A notebook and pen – that one is Tom’s. I failed to understand the whole confusion. The black bag held my possessions, the blue one Tom’s. I chalked it up to Yemeni organizational skills. They led us into the building after sifting through our things. The room was less than plush, but I’ve slept in worse. Water knobs filled the room though no showerheads or faucets or anything related to water was obvious. A set of thick, stained cardboard covered the dingy tile.
We stood for the first ten minutes until I finally said fuck it and sat down. This point onward took me on a trip to third grade. Knock knock. “Excuse me man with the assault rifle ordered to shoot me if I cause any problems, may I please urinate in your nearest restroom?” The holding room, which, by the way, was lacking a door with the ability to close, offered a five star level of cleanliness in comparison. I emptied as quickly as possible and returned to my cardboard palace. Tom met the interrogator first. Given that the interrogation room was two chairs outside our room, I’m inclined to believe they didn’t want us seeing their usual cells. I heard everything I wanted from Tom’s interrogation,” but soon grew disinterested as the interrogator asked such cutting questions as where do you work, what does your father do, how old are you, are you married. I see you have qat in your mouth, how often do you chew?
Half an hour later and I got my turn. Mine was only a touch more serious though he asked me to explain in detail what happened. He reiterated the story to ensure he understood, asking me to write down what I just said. I repeated about five times in my account that I had no idea the area was forbidden, there were no warning signs, I didn’t photograph anything military, etc. I hoped my words wouldn’t turn into a twisted confession or my immediate expulsion from Yemen. I signed the document after searching carefully for any inserted language. My interrogator inquired whether we were hungry or not. I eagerly replied yes, we were starving. A soldier brought the food, Tom was summoned from the room two feet away, and we sat Indian style to eat with a guard watching over us. Someone told us it was military food though it honestly tasted good. It was little cold but not having eaten since noon, we found it delicious.
After dinner, Tom told me he gave them the phone number of Jameel, our study centre’s director. The interrogator came in and told us he got hold of Jameel and that he should be here in ten minutes. Assuming he came in and vouched for our stories, we were free to go. Everything worked out from that point, except that someone stole Tom’s Swiss Army knife and my pen. Tom was visibly annoyed but Jameel suggested he let it go and be happy we were leaving. Tom and I endured the necessary blame assignment from Jameel before our interrogator, who we learned was a brigadier general. The general walked us off the premises and warned me for the third time if he saw us again we’d be going straight to the airport. We got in the car and Jameel, now free from wondering if they’d also give him problems, began laughing about how funny it all was it. He only regretted that the intelligence services hold the centre available in an effort to take the blame off their shoulders. Jameel’s only responsibility to the general, aside from taking the blame for whatever any of his students do, is to photocopy our passports (we didn’t have them on us) and bring money to develop the film. I never photographed anything sensitive, but I destroyed all the film anyway by opening up the camera before the film rewound. Assuming the general finds no further problems, Tom and I are clear of trouble. We were released about 10:30; six hours after it all began.
Photography – Jim Whyte