I confess: I’m a Yemen-obsessive.
By all logic, I shouldn’t be. Just like almost everything about Yemen should have made me uncomfortable, but didn’t.
My first trip, in 2002 for Nightline, was to assess what America got, when Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh responded to President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 challenge to every nation on earth: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” by switching sides. In 1991 Saleh had stayed allied to Saddam Hussein even after his defeat, but now he pledged, “Yemen is with you, America.”
There were several reasons for changing sides, but the one most Yemenis instantly grasped was probably #1 for President Saleh: there was money in it.
Most of Yemen is desert and most Yemenis are dirt poor and have to scratch hard to earn a living. But everyone in Yemen knows that everyone knows this is the case and so there is no pretending.
So it was, that when a generic American, which is all I could claim to be, was put before them, the Yemenis all could riff through sympathy for 9/11, and envy for being from the luckiest and richest country on earth, straight to the bottom line: wanna buy something? Normally I hate the tourist shakedown, but in Yemen I found its directness disarming.
Speaking of disarming, I think the 2 life-changers of our times have been the global distribution of the internet and of guns. The internet has many good points, weapons, for me, do not. I don’t like being around them, but one of the first things I noticed in Yemen is that all men are armed. They wear, close to their belly button, a kris, a kind of dagger that is as much a part of everyday Yemeni dress as an American man’s belt.
I saw it. I knew what it was. But I never once felt menaced. It reminded me of the Western cowboy’s oversized belt buckle, artistic ostentation in service to traditional culture.
The truest expression of Yemeni culture was Old Sana’a, the thousand-year-old heart of the capital city.
The land of Yemen produces little and enriches few, but its location made possible an economy based on moving products – mostly other people’s – from place to place or owner to owner. For 1000 years, Sana’a has been the hub of a culture built on transport and trade, all of which you could see, smell and feel in its souk, the basket-weave of alleys and squares filled with stalls selling something.
Rising above the retail were block after block of 6-story mud-brick residential towers. Sana’a was a kind of Eleventh Century prototype of Manhattan, the densely-packed, vertical city. That in itself was enough to make it unique, and to an old New Yorker like me, endearing, but there was more.
All of these towers expressed a single architectural style, strictly rectilinear buildings, whose squared edges were decorated at the roof-line with a row of alternating squares and spaces. But above every squared off window or door-frame there was a gently curved downward crescent. This shape not only defeated the sameness of nothing-but-90-degree junctions, but added color, tinted glass chunks set inside the crescent.
There was an irrepressible humor, a public celebration in those glittery moon-slivers that I saw nowhere else in the Islamic world. For me, it was love at first sight.
True, it was shallow, touristic love, but it stuck with me through my second and last visit in 2007 for the Committee to Protect Journalists. Saleh and his Yemen were still “with us,” but that made them “against the terrorists,” and by 2007 Al Qaeda had set up its most dangerous terrorist branch in Yemen. And Saleh, beset by revelations of his grand-scale corruption, was throwing journalists in jail. Trying to lobby them back to freedom was why I was there.
Even in the glorious souk, the atmosphere was grim. Trips to the countryside outside Sana’a were “impossible,” and even within the capital and the port city of Aden there were checkpoints everywhere.
An artist I much admired on my first trip had stopped painting. There were hints he’d become politically suspect and was laying low. He was, being a good Yemeni, still selling his work, but furtively.
I hope he successfully liquidated his stock before the Saudis and Emeratis started bombing Yemen, including Sana’a and its Old City. Destruction in an official World Heritage Site is reported to be widespread and irreparable. No one will get to see the Sana’a I saw.
Of course, tourist romance should be but a footnote to human decency which is appalled not by ruined architecture, but ruined lives. When the death toll in Yemen got to 10,000, about 2 years ago, the UN and the world stopped counting. When the number of Yemeni people infected with cholera passed a million, America’s news media moved on, simply adding the words “more than” to the body count in the few stories they still devote to disease and destruction in Yemen.
Once in a while we do look up, when a Saudi-Emerati air force bomber hits a school bus and kills at least 44 children.
We acknowledge the bomb was very likely American-made, the bombing mission was very likely informed by American-supplied intelligence, and the bomber itself was almost certainly refueled during its mission by an American Air Force tanker.
And then Donald Trump revokes the bathroom pass to some White House staffer with a kidney condition.
And we forget about the Old Sana’a souk and those dozens of kids who didn’t survive their school trip. Even self-proclaimed “obsessives.”