Destination, Sana’a.

This article was originally published in Yemen Today in 2009.

by: Mahwash Ajaz.

We’ve all seen and fallen in love with Friends’ reruns. We all knew Chandler Bing’s habit to fall in and out of relationships and I’m sure we all remember the one time when he wanted to escape his irritatingly nasal girlfriend that he couldn’t see her. “I can’t see you anymore. I’m going to Yemen.”

So when I told my friends that I would be moving from my home country to Yemen, most of them said,

“The same country Chandler said he’d go to hide from Janice?”

Well, yeah.

I really didn’t know much about what life would be like here, I didn’t even google it. I didn’t know many people (wait, make that zero people) who had been here before me so I couldn’t talk about it to anyone the way you talk about … I don’t know. New York? Zurich? Even Milan. Had anyone in my friends’ list been to Yemen? Nope. Unless you counted an ex-colleague of mine who spent a few days in Aden on a business trip. But that was it.

You tell people you’re going to Yemen – and the first question they ask you is … why?

Why would anyone come to Yemen, I’d muse later myself.

I came here because the firm my husband worked with provided consultancy to a company here. He had been here for over two years but I couldn’t really make out from our conversations before marriage what to expect from a country I know so little about. I figured the best possible way was to take it as an adventure and discover it the way you try a new food. Eyes tightly shut and expecting the worst.

So ask I walked towards gate 263 at the Dubai airport I saw the waiting lounge to be considerably small. Two kids were snoozing on their father’s lap and a couple of white men and women seemed in a hurry to board the plane. They kept checking their watches every two seconds.

Business trip, I told myself.

I wished I was in their place. A quick seven day tour of Sana’a and that was it. But I knew that until my husband’s job location shifted, we were here for good.

The plane boarded. My husband went to sleep and I turned around here and there to see if I could talk to someone about the city. Get a little heads up. Unfortunately it was six in the morning and most people preferred snoozing rather than delivering lectures on Life in Sana’a.

During our bus commute to the Sana’a airport, I sat next to a French woman who befriended me out of mutual love for a toddler sitting between us. “First time here?” she asked. Maybe she read the curiosity in my expression as I kept looking out the window.

“Yeah. What’s the city like? What’s Yemen like?”

“Oh it’s beautiful.”

I raised my eyebrows. “No kidding?”

“Oh yeah.” Then she began narrating tales of the many historical sites Sana’a offered. The tomb of the Queen of Sheba. Cities thousands of years old. Valleys thousands of years old.

“Oh.” Was all I said. Did all that mean I was going to live in a city where nothing new existed?

That day we were too tired to go sightseeing and even shopping for that matter. But the one thing I noticed on my ride home from the airport and on the way to lunch at a local restaurant … Yemenis had a distinct culture. In a world were mass homogenization was creating cultural duplicates everywhere, where all girls wanted to speak and look like Angelina Jolie and all boys wanted to be head bangers and star rappers like Kanye West, Yemenis stood amidst the giant wave of cultural globalization and stood unique. Everything from their clothes to their food to their taste in chewing Qat. They stood out because they didn’t give in – as much as other countries in the Arab world have – to the modern uniformity. They kept up to the times in their own way. They built big shopping malls and value chain stores – but they wore the same clothes and ate food the same way they did a hundred years ago. For them, cultural change meant only a limited degree.

Hmm. I thought as I stood at the gates of Bab ul Yemen the next week after I came here.

What a quaint, interesting old city, I said to myself, as I walked past shouting street vendors selling coats and perfumes and what curiously looked like digital cameras.

The peddlars and oil mills inside? The antique-styled jewelry, the three old women selling apricots, raspberries and tomatoes respectively? The Star of David and the old mosque? The view of the old city on the right and the parallel civilization of Land Cruisers and Prados on the left?

Well. There’s plenty more where that came from.

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