Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The worst taxi conversation yet

Actual conversation with cab driver yesterday.

Us: Hello. Hadda Street Please. Do you know it?
Him: Um...sure!
Us: (unsure) Ok. Yalla.


Us, to each other: Well, that's just unnecessary.
Him: HONKhonkhonkhonk. HONK.
Liza: Seriously, this guy...


Me: So excessive with the honking!

HONK HONK honk honk honk honnnnnnk honk
He slides through an intersection, gesturing to the traffic guard that he has TWO WHITE GIRLS in the back of his taxi, which in his world, gives him right of way.
Honkhonkhonkhonk HONK HONK HONK honnnnnnk honk

Liza: Excuse me, I have a headache, could you please stop honking?!"
Him: Of course, I am just trying to drive through all this crazy traffic! It's so crazy! Look, crazy!
Us: *nod*
Him: How many years have you been in Yemen?
Us: A month and a half.
Him: ...You mean, a year?
Us: A MONTH and a HALF.
Him: Like, ten years?
Him: Are you Lebanese?
Us: Americans.
Him: You mean, you are from America?
Him: Not Arabs?!
Him: But you speak Arabic!
Us: *silence*

15 minutes later

Him: How many years have you been in Yemen?
Him: How many years?
Him: And you're Arab?
Him: Your nationality is American?
Him: Drivers here are crazy!
Us: *silence*

We arrive at our destination

Us: This is the place.
Him: Is this the place?
Us: Yes, just turn here and we'll get out
Him: Straight, or turn?
Him: Left or right?
Him: Turn?
Him: You can call me anytime, I can give you a ride anywhere, anytime, just call me! Here, let me give you my number!
Us: Bye!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Yemen, Week One

While I was making my summer plans, I heard many conflicting reports about Yemen. Some said it was very, very dangerous. Some said it was very, very boring. Some guaranteed that I'd get kidnapped. Some said I would have to wear the niqaab. Some said I wouldn't have to wear the niqaab. Some said that Yemeni schools were inaccessible and my efforts would be wasted; some said the program looked great, and what better place to get experience with development. As week #1 draws to a close, I thought I'd share some of my first impressions. These are subject to change as my experience here develops, but I thought I'd address first the major pre-trip concerns expressed by friends, family, and mostly, me. Arranged in order of frequency.

It is indicative of the people with whom I associate that we talked more often about the food than the real possibility of kidnapping...

1. Isn't Yemen Really Really Dangerous? Don't Terrorists Hang Out There? They Totally Do! OMG!

I guess they do. On a daily basis, though, we don't encounter them. Nor do, I imagine, most of the Yemeni population. Everywhere in the world is dangerous these days, and maybe there are more al-Qaeda members per capita than some other places, and there might be more firearms per capita than most places (except the US) but daily life is just normal. Boring, even. People take taxis and call their friends and go to the supermarket and buy mangos. At night, the streets get quiet at around 9. If you are picturing Sana'a as a hotbed for political activity, or similar to Beirut circa 1985, or with a City of God style gun battles, then I'm afraid you've been misled. The streets look like this:

All the time. Is it more dangerous than, say, Des Moines? Maybe. So is Washington, DC, though.

On a similar note, we live and work within about a five block circumference. We take reliable taxis and have everyone's phone numbers in our mobiles, which are always charged. We're not chewing qat in the mountains with al-Qaeda.

2. Dude, You Will Have to Wear the Niqaab.

This is a picture of me in Yemen.

Most women do wear the niqaab here, and if they don't, they wear the hijab, and I've seen a handful (exactly three) without a veil at all. I dress modestly in long shirts and loose pants and I don't feel uncomfortable in Sana'a without a scarf. I keep a scarf in my purse just in case. We work with clever and responsible Yemenis who advise us on our dress code, and I imagine some of our travels will take us to less liberal towns in the Yemeni countryside where the niqaab will be mandatory.

3. I am Warning You. Yemen is Really Boring.

I think the key to avoiding boredom is appropriate expectations. Sana'a is not Cairo, and it's not Paris, and it's not DC. There aren't crazy nightclubs. There's not a lot of alcohol. Women don't go out so much after 9 pm. There's no metro. It's hard to walk to the happening Sharia3 Hadda from where we live. It's quite provincial.

But the pace of life is nice and easy, and once you're friends with someone, you've a 100% chance of being invited over for the weekend, for the parties, for some qat, for some sheisha, to meet their sisters and friends and plan future parties. And at night, there's always Al-Jazeera, or your ab workout DVDs, or Arabic verb conjugations. In fact, one night I taught myself how to type in Arabic. So, yeah, it can be a little boring when it's Sunday night at 8 pm and sheisha is too far away and you can't occupy yourself by cooking because you don't have any ingredients, and you can't go shopping for ingredients because it's late for women to go out, and you can't understand what the heck they're talking about on Al Jazeera. But it's not like we're living on the dark side of the moon. There's always something to do if you adjust your expectations.

And if all else fails, spend all your money on international texts from your Yemeni phone. This can be endlessly entertaining.

4. The Food Is Great, Though!

The food is great. So far, we've enjoyed salta, fish, bint al-sa7n, Ethiopian food, kabab balady, tea with milk, sheisha (ok, it's not a food, but it might as well be, for as much as we smoke it), a homemade Yemeni feast, various assortments of salads, and of course, qat. Every meal has been delicious (although I am still out on the qat issue.) Maybe we got lucky and got all the best food in one week, but I think this is just a sample of pretty great, and distinctive, cuisine. I have started taking my camera to restaurants.

5. You Will Probably Get Kidnapped.

I want to get kidnapped. For the story and for the inevitable immersion Arabic lesson. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like that happens so much anymore, at least not around where we live. I'll keep trying, though, guys, don't worry.

6. No One There Speaks English.

This is sort of true. Arabic is by far the preferred language. But if all you want to do is buy your mangos, you'll get by with English.

7. It's Hard To be a Foreigner There, but I Guess Yemenis Are Supposed to be Very Nice?

If you've never been to the Middle East before, Yemen is maybe not the best place to dive in. It's relatively inaccessible, its closest neighbor is Saudi Arabia, and it just helps to already know your way around the culture and language a bit. In a more Westernized country (Egypt, Jordan...) you will probably find someone to explain the nuances to you in fine English, or you will be forgiven because they have experienced Foreigners Like You before. In Yemen, I'm not sure you would, unless you were living with a sympathetic Yemeni who understood where you are (literally) coming from and could guide you through social situations.

While Yemenis themselves are wonderful, warm, generous people, the city and infrastructure is not particularly tourist-friendly. A first-timer asking for help and/or explanations in English might find only confusion. Moreover, there are not a lot of good tourbooks about Yemen; I found one in Borders and the same one in Barnes and Noble and didn't buy it. It's really just better to get there and ask around when you arrive. This is, of course, intimidating and requires stamina, conversational Arabic, and lots (and lots) of patience.

But let me reiterate how wonderful Yemenis are. They're kind and generous and gentle. Once you're in, once you make friends, they'll take care of you and show you around and feed you and you'll never have to worry about anything. It's just a little harder than most places to get in. Unless you have a built in social structure, like work or school, it's hard to meet people randomly, particularly if you're a woman.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Stealth Moving

I bought my ticket for Thursday, May 28th, Dulles to Doha to Sana'a. I had a week to prepare, which i thought would take approximately one hour. How hard is it to pack for a summer in Yemen? A few loose shirts, some sunscreen, some deodorant. One afternoon, max.

But then I heard that my landlord's "mutually beneficial" summer arrangement was not going to be so mutually beneficial. I thought he meant that his kitchen repairs, during which I would not be charged rent, would take 2 - 3 months. He thought that they would take 2 - 3 weeks and I would pay for the remainder of the summer. This is not mutually beneficial. There are many, many other things I can do with $2500.

I let him know on Thursday that I'd be out in a week. We planned a Big Packing and Moving Day on Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday we rented a studio-sized UHaul and drove it up to the back of my first-floor apartment. My strong father began loading the biggest boxes into the UHaul using a very big, very practical dolly while my mother and I continued to pack or discard those random things that you tend to accumulate no matter how long you've lived in a place: random coasters, shoes that don't really fit, papers from five years ago that have somehow survived two previous moves.

Then there was a knock on the door. We opened it to find the very nice Sunday desk clerk with an apologetic smile. There's a policy against moving out on the weekends.

Us: What?
Her: Yes, there's a policy against moving on Sundays. I'm so sorry.
Us: Well...ok, we can just move tomorrow.
Her: ...but it's Memorial day which means that there won't be anyone at the desk, so you can't move out then, either.
Us: But we rented this truck and if we don't turn it in Monday by 3 PM, we'll get charged for an extra day.
Her: Well, um...did you schedule the move out with the front desk?
Us: Were we supposed to?
Her: Your landlord didn't tell you that?
Us: No...
Her: Oh, dear. Yes, you're supposed to schedule it so that they can put the padding up in the elevator.
Us: Oh! Well we're not using the elevator!
Her: Hmm, well, I'm not looking, but some people here care a lot about the rules, so ... just be careful. There's a fine if you move out on weekends or when there's no one at the desk.
Us: So we should move the truck?
Her: Well, I don't think the truck matters, but you shouldn't use the dolly. So, don't move boxes or furniture.
Us: What about suitcases and bags?
Her: That's ok, just no boxes or furniture.

Se we walked down to Astor Mediterranean and got some kebab. It was unacceptable to keep the truck longer than a day. And it was a stupid rule that we didn't mind breaking, but for the fine. We'd have to wait at least until the front desk lady left that night since she'd already warned us. What time during Memorial Day weekend was the quietest? Sunday night? Monday morning? So we came up with a plan: early morning, Memorial Day, we'd drive the truck up, pack it up as quickly as possible, and take off before anyone was awake. Meanwhile, on Sunday night we nonchalantly took out some pieces of furniture and bags of pillows, 30 minutes apart, just as casually as you'd please so no one would suspect, but this eventually seemed fruitless, painfully slow, and ultimately silly.

At 7 am the next day, four of us arrived with two thermoses of coffee, a little orange juice, a baguette, some butter and jam. The boys tackled the heaviest things first and wheeled them down the hall, down the stairs, through two heavy doors, up the stairs, across the parking lot, and into the UHaul. One of these doors sets off an alarm if it's open longer than 15 seconds. The other is at the bottom of a u-shaped staircase. They did it in absolute silence...well, practically. It wasn't until about 8:45 that we saw someone else up and around, packing their kids into the SUV for a beach trip. By then, we'd loaded up the vital things, the things for which we really needed the truck, so if anyone caught us we could feign ignorance, drive off, and come back later with the Corolla.

We finished just as the morning started to get going, around 9:45. As the garbage truck backed into the alley, we pulled out of it. The holiday morning crowds were just getting out of bed and out to Starbucks. Victory!

Unloading was not nearly so hard. We were done by noon, returned the truck, and never really told the superintendent that we were, or had, moved out. I'll leave that to my landlord, who should have told me about the no moving policy in the first place.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A poem dedicated to the Midnight Mug

I am angry
about the latte
that I ordered
twenty minutes ago

and which
you have probably
forgotten about
in your lengthy discussion of Gossip Girl

Forgive me
but your coffee is expensive
so bitter
and so slow.

Inspired by William Carlos Williams

A Poem for my statistics professor

I have not done
the regression
that was on
the syllabus

and which
you are probably
to receive next Thursday.

Forgive me
it was frustrating
so opaque
and so long.

Inspired by William Carlos Williams