Yemen Through the Eyes of a Pakistani Expat

This article originally appeared in The Friday Times in 2015.

by Mahwash Ajaz.

They say love makes you do stupid things. It makes you spout sonnets and spend your entire life’s savings on chocolates and it makes you want to hug pink teddy bears and watch Karan Johar/Nora Ephron movies on repeat.

I’m the kind of person who loves routine. I love familiarity of things. The comfort of the similar and the known. That is why I was someone who had vowed that she would never leave the country – despite any or every offer that came to pass.

Like I said – love makes you do stupid things. Love makes you act out of character, it makes you wander out of your depth and sometimes you wander so far off that you end up straight into unchartered territory.

And I landed in Yemen.

My husband found a job in Yemen and because I was completely in love (and well, because patriarchy) I followed him to Sana’a, the capital. It was quite the adventure; there were no direct flights to Sana’a from Pakistan. We had to take stopovers in either Dubai/Doha/Riyadh to reach there. It made me wonder what kind of country was it to not even have direct flights from Pakistan. “Oh well,” I thought. “Adventure, adventure, adventure!”

Another big surprise was how people would tell you how ‘rich’ Gulf countries are and how ‘developed’ they have become and have left countries like Pakistan way behind in that department. Yemen was a different story altogether. It had no semblance to any of the Gulf nations that surrounded it, viz Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman etc. In fact, you’d be surprised to know, Yemen is even behind Pakistan in a lot of ways. Pakistan has better infrastructure when it comes to schools/colleges and it is also socially more liberal than Yemen. The cities are more developed in Pakistan and the people are richer. Even though according to the Human Development Index, Pakistan is placed at 142 and Yemen at 149, I can assure you the difference is much more complex and much more expansive than just seven levels.

Sana’a was bright and dry the day I landed. I note that the airport is small, kind of like Rawalpindi’s Daewoo bus terminal. Maybe even smaller. Everything seems at a stark contrast from Dubai International Airport from where we had found our connecting flight. Dubai’s airport was futuristic, cutting edge, thousands of people from all nationalities swiftly making their way from one departure gate to the other. Sana’a airport was one or two gates and was basically a small building that couldn’t occupy more than five hundred people at a time. Most people that I could see around me were Yemenis or Somalians/Ethiopians with an occasional Caucasian/European diplomat/tourist here and there.

It was the spring of 2009 and I was still reeling from the wedding festivities and the roller coaster trips from one city to the other. I was glad to finally gain a sense of home again in the small furnished apartment located on Shahrah e Sitteen. Sana’a had two major roads, Shahrah e Sitteen and Sharah e Saba’aeen, both based on their widths (Sitteen: 60 meter wide road, Saba’aeen: 70 meter wide road). The rest of the city was narrower, had a specific feel to it. Even more so if you stepped into Old Sana’a or the Old City.

The Old City or Baab al Yemen is a walled city in Sana’a which is over 2000 years old. UNESCO declared it as a World Heritage Site and for good reason. The architecture within the walled city is definitely worth preserving. I am told that the ancient buildings are made of stone and rock and have been built with techniques that are now non-existent.

Walking in those alleyways you half expect someone to sell you a magical lamp. The merchandise sold within the Walled City is not your regular merchandise either. Sure you’ll see signs of modern civilization when you see a car or two, or bottled juice being sold by a street peddler but the shops are mostly selling clay pots, animal skin water bags, traditional Yemeni stone-cast jewellery, and the like. Hardly any of this feels like you are living and breathing in the new millennium.

Another interesting little find was the Rock Palace near Sana’a, known as Dar ul Hajr. Now turned into a museum, this was once a vacation home for one of the Yemeni rulers back in the day. Filled with twists and turns and secret passageways, the palace was an ideal setting for a modern day murder mystery.

Sana’a also had a nearby vantage point known as Kawkaban which was used by tourists for barbecues and photography and even parasailing. The way to Kawkaban was fairly loopy and the way to the vantage point was even more so. You had to drive for about two to three hours from the city to reach a relatively secluded little area where you parked the car (and local children – or a random dog here or there – ran after your car, just like they do in the movies) and took all your bbq items in your hands and traipsed down a fairly risky little stairway to a clearing on the mountain. Yes, literally, on the mountain. The lack of oxygen and the oh-god-i’m-about-die-climb is worth it because the view from the vantage point is breathtaking.

Mukalla, a coastal city in Yemen, was even quieter and more basic than Sana’a. It had no franchises, except for the local three star hotel. It surprised me immensely because Mukalla was beautiful. The roads were well made but it seemed that there was little development for the tourist industry. Near Mukalla was a beautiful beach called Bir Ali. The sand was white, the sea was blue and giant dark coloured crabs in shallow water. However, like the rest of the country, there was little to no development around the beach. There were no shacks where you could get water or supplies, there were no seats, no huts, nothing that could help the beach be a great and convenient tourist destination.

Mahweet, a hill station, three or four hours from Sana’a, was quaint as well. The trip to Mahweet from Sana’a was picturesque and I remember our super excited tour guide who insisted that every rock and every mountain that we saw was over thousands of years old. I must say we didn’t have a hard time believing him. It all did seem quite ancient.

Back in semi-modern Sana’a, we often ventured into Shahrah e Jamal, a street that was filled with shops for clothes and jewelry as well, though not as ancient as those in Baab al Yemen. Shah rah e Jamal was two narrow lanes, almost always congested with traffic and pedestrians. Yemeni jewellery, however, was worth the hassle and the pain you took to actually go there. Some of the styles were rustic and classically Arab but some of them were quite contemporary and the quality of the gems was excellent as well.

Food options in Sana’a varied from classic local cuisine to some fast food options (fried chicken, pizza franchises). The local cuisine was mostly meat-based, offering you different variations of meat. Marinated, barbecued, fried, sauteed, with vegetables, without vegetables etc. Meat was eaten with rashoosh or khobz (both were kinds of bread) and was also accompanied with classic Yemeni chutneys.

I missed Pakistani food a lot; the closest thing to biryani was what you could get at nearby Indian restaurants. Pakistani merchandise was also rarely found – I remember yelling gleefully in the middle of a crowded grocery store when I suddenly stumbled upon a whole shelf full of Pakistani masalas for biryani, kadhai and qurma. And as expat life has it, you also miss your community, your friends and family a lot as well. There were a handful of Pakistanis in Yemen that we met and socialised with but not as many in numbers as there are in other Gulf countries. We met a bunch of them on the Independence Day festivities at the Pakistani Embassy. A lot of kids sang patriotic songs and there was food and cake – and for a moment, it felt like Independence Day in Pakistan. But just for a moment. As an expatriate, even these few, barely legitimate nostalgia moments are important.

The Pakistani community in Yemen was full of professionals such as engineers and doctors and teachers. Pakistani professionals, especially doctors, were preferred by the locals as well. They were well-paid and well respected, I was pleased to find out. The overall state of healthcare in Sana’a, however, was fairly bleak. There was one major hospital in Sana’a that was also a teaching hospital. During one of my visits there for my son’s vaccinations, I realised just how basic the facilities were in the city. Some of the essential vaccinations were simply not present in the country (pneumococcal conjugate also known as Prevnar in Pakistan), not to be found for love or money. The ones that were generally provided were the cheap ones that private clinics bought on their own money or the ones that were supplied by World Health Organisation for free (polio etc).

Looking back there are many things that are worth exploring in Yemen. There are many areas that I never visited such as Tai’z and Aden which are said to be equally fascinating and beautiful – but given how things have taken a turn at the moment, Yemen has officially turned into a warzone.

Many Pakistanis left the country when the Arab Spring made its way to Yemen. There were massive rallies that were taking all over the place. There was a movement to oust Ali Abdullah Saleh and he was successfully dethroned but the country descended into chaos right after. Many of our friends refused to leave Yemen even when there was no power or water or the guarantee of some mode of stability. Some of them were hoping against hope that things would become better with the passage of time (and that was five years ago). Some of them really didn’t have any options in Pakistan so they preferred to stay in Yemen, war or no war. Some of them waited it out until they could procure better options (and eventually left the country once they found those better options).

Perhaps someday Yemen can step out of its own self-destructive fate. Perhaps the tribals there can understand the power of peace and coexistence and stop their quest for power that is bleeding their country and their people dry. Not only is Yemen running low on water resources, it also faces an energy crisis. It also has a grave child marriage epidemic which, understandably, stems from poverty and lack of resources available to the locals. They often marry their little girls to rich lords for the tiniest amounts.

Perhaps one day, I can only hope, there will be peace in the country and someday I can return to it, revisit the old haunts where I spent days roaming around with my husband and son. Maybe someday I can see it develop even more. Maybe the day that I return, I will see no more poverty or disease rather more schools, hospitals, doctors, engineers, more food and more developed tourist spots. And I hope someday Yemen can rise from throes of violence and war and live up to its full potential.

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