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Brave Eyes, Laughing Hearts

My First Encounter with Yemen

Man in Taxi in Yemen.
Man in taxi in Yemen.

After an hour or so of pure hassle on the border, we are in a cab, speeding away from a small port town on Yemen's coast. Al-Makha tapers out, and we enter the Tihama, a vast, uninhabited stretch of desert. It is dotted with dry shrubs and the occasional wide, flat tree with torn, tattered plastic bags blooming on its branches. Women walk along the road, covered in black, balancing yellow plastic jugs on their heads. The black looks pure against the dusty landscape; my eyes sink eagerly into its depth, searching for definition but getting nowhere. The women have a strong effect on me. They are there, but they are not there, seen but not seen. I am drawn to them but feel oddly intimidated at the same time.

Outside the cab window, men fly by on rustic motorcycles; most of them have unnaturally large bulges in their cheeks that look painful and tumorous to me at first. Six men are crammed into the back seats of the cab, and my boyfriend and I are upfront with the driver. He welcomes us to Yemen and hands us each little bundle of qat, an herb with mild amphetamine qualities chewed voraciously in Yemen, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. We grind the tender leaves and stems with our teeth, slowly building up large bulges in our cheeks. Its chemical properties flow directly into the blood vessels of our mouths' soft, absorbent lining.

Funny how I don't mind the taste of qat anymore. I developed a fondness for its effect during a month in Ethiopia. However, I needed to dilute its bitter taste with a constant flow of sweet apple soda. A good chew produces a gentle euphoria and heightened awareness and focus. Most people feel very talkative and social for the first three hours, then some get introspective for a bit, while still others get horny. People usually chew with their friends, sometimes once a week, and it is a daily habit for many. The only side effect is the occasional night of fitful sleep and stressful dreams.

After accepting his offer, I asked him if it was strange for me to be chewing in public. "No problem," he said. Women chew everywhere; you just cannot see under the veil." He paused for a moment, thinking. We have democracy in Yemen, no problem."


I arrived on a three-story cattle boat from Djibouti. I spent the night stretched out on the top deck floor under an ocean of stars. The following day, we sailed through the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden and squeezed through Bab Al-Mandab into the Red Sea.

My decision to come to Yemen followed months of deliberation. I wanted my introduction to the Middle East to be memorable. I was drawn to Yemen's traditional culture and geographical isolation. I was also fascinated and repelled by what little I knew about its gender dynamic. Of course, there were security concerns, westerners being kidnapped and sometimes even killed. Yet, I decided that it was more likely I would get hit by a car while riding my bicycle at home, and I bought my plane ticket. I wanted to check it out for myself.

The cab stops to take a break in a small town at a gas station that looks centuries old. I fiddle with my hijab or headscarf, tucking in wisps of hair that escape like small, slippery fish from a net. That morning, a middle-aged Somali woman on the cattle boat showed me how to tie my hijab. She said the one I used was too small and gave me a bright, gaudy red and black one to wear instead. When she was done, I found a salt-worn mirror in the crew's quarters and saw that my first attempt to conform to Yemeni dress left me looking like a carnival side-show, with three dissonant, clashing garments pieced together like an old quilt.

I can see packs of young boys hanging around next to colorfully painted buses from where we are parked. A group of men in wrap-a-round skirts are hacking at gnarled, old logs. To our right, we are flanked by a vast forest of palm trees; to our left, tall, stone houses with brightly painted doors and stained-glass windows shaped like half-moons are stacked up the side of the cliff. Apart from these splashes of color, the houses blend perfectly into their surroundings, which are made of the same earth and stone they stand on.


At sundown, we stop in Ta'izz, Yemen's 3rd largest city. We walk into a crowded restaurant, and I am instantly hit with cold stares from everywhere. From the taxi, I noticed people stopping to point at us as we drove by; now, the full force of this foreign place hit me for the first time, and my mind began to slowly fill with chatter. Why are they looking at me? Do they hate me because I am foreign? Why aren't there any women around? Am I allowed to be here? Is this a society of men?

Steam rose from the kitchen, and there was the smell of beans and garlic. The men are dressed traditionally, with most wearing sports coats over soft, silky dress-length shirts. They don't appear to have a shy bone on their bodies. They sit around small tables in groups of seven or eight, yelling, gesturing, and banging on their tables to get the point across. Phallic daggers protrude from their belts with large, ornate handles. The daggers could not slice a melon, but they cut a pretty intimidating picture.

The next taxi driver from Ta'izz to Sana'a is among the most fearless and reckless people I have ever met. He drives like he has faith in a higher power to protect us. The more people in the cab tell him to slow down, the faster he goes, barreling through mountainous terrain, passing trucks and lines of cars in the pitch-black for five relentless hours. When we arrive in Sana'a, all I can do is fall into bed in confusion and pure sensory overload. If there are no women tomorrow, I am heading back to Ethiopia.


Yemen is not for the weak-hearted. People take risks here, but they also have tremendous skill. We have been staying in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, for a few weeks, and I feel much more comfortable. I have begun appreciating aspects of this culture that initially baffled or frightened me. Much of life is unregulated; motorcycles whiz by with three passengers without helmets, kids crawl inside cars with no belts or car seats, and exhaust pours from pipes like smoke from a fire. People grow up strong and sturdy in this environment; they face danger early and come out carefree and capable.

Shortly after I arrived in Sana'a, I went to the market to pick out a long, black, dress-like abaya. Though plain and identical in every other regard, each abaya has an embroidered flower or pattern on the sleeve's cuff and at the headscarf's corner. I spend 20 minutes tearing through rack after rack for one that screams, "Take me!" I finally settle for one but have difficulty getting excited about it. I do not wear it daily and certainly do not have to — many foreign women choose not to. As a matter of fact, there are no laws in Yemen that pertain to gender segregation or dress of any kind. 

Love for God keeps people in line in an intensely religious society like this. In a short time, I have observed that people are informed by a moral compass that I cannot help but respect and admire. A sign on the wall at an Internet cafe meant to deter people from watching porn reads, "Before you know that we are watching you, know that God is watching you." Once, while bargaining over the price of a DVD, my friend challenged the shop owner and said, "Swear to God that's an honest price." The guy looked at him, took a deep breath, and lowered the price.

The areas where men and women mix outside of marriage are kept to a minimum, and 99% of women never leave the house unveiled. The separation of the sexes is widely understood as an attempt to protect women, and I have to admit, the streets do feel safe. Men leave you alone as long as you are covered; in a bizarre way, it is less of a hassle being a woman here than anywhere I've ever been. 

Some women I talk to object to the way their society is segregated along gender lines. In contrast, others are avid supporters of this system. A nurse in a hospital told me she did not want to wear the veil; it interfered with her work, but she would have "problems" if she took it off. My teacher would put her veil back in place every time there was a knock at our classroom door, just in case it was a man. Once, I motioned to a middle-aged woman to sit beside me on a mini-bus. She instantly threw her arms around me and kissed my face and shoulders, "We women need to stay together!" she said enthusiastically, "It is forbidden to mix with men!"


A month later, I am in a jeep speeding away from one of South Yemen's white, sandy beaches, and two trucks following us are mounted with anti-aircraft guns. It is not as bad as it sounds. We've been camping at Bir Ali for the last few days with military escorts staked out nearby in the shade of palm-frond woven bungalows.

You could say the Yemeni government is protective of its tourists. For decades, the situation was somewhat predictable. A few foreigners would get kidnapped. The group or individuals who did it would make their demands to the government — usually for an improvement they would like to see in their community, like a road or a new school — sometimes the release of their fellow tribesmen from prison. The victims were usually treated well and rarely harmed. When the government agreed to the demands, they would be released. Unfortunately, a new criminal element with entirely different motivations has been at play over the last few years. In a few tragic incidents, tourists were killed straight out.

We had no problem getting the official permit to travel outside the capital city. Nevertheless, we argued with the man selling bus tickets for twenty minutes when he said, "You are Americans? It is forbidden." He would not sell us tickets even when we waved our official papers under his nose. When we arrived at Bir Ali, the bus driver did not let us get off until he was sure we were safely under military supervision. After that, the soldiers did not do much; they just sat around and watched from a respectful distance while we snorkeled, chased crabs, and dozed in the afternoon sun.

When we decided to leave, they helped us take a ride on the main highway, and then they drove behind us for the two hours it took to get to the next checkpoint. The next destination on our itinerary was Hadramout, in Eastern Yemen, and we still had to cross 200 miles of burnt, dry, rocky desert to get there.


I am standing on the balcony of my hotel room in Seyuun, Hadramout's capital when the phone rings. It is a man whom we met last night inviting us to break the Ramadan fast with his family. We only have a few minutes, so I throw on my long, black abaya, wrap a scarf around my head, and slip into my sandals. When we get to the house, I am ushered into a room upstairs crowded with women, and my companion vanishes down one of three flights of stairs, branching off in different directions. The women sit around platters of snacks in loose, colorful dresses.

I suddenly find myself on the inside of the world of Yemeni women. They look up at me with bare, smiling faces, and I realize how far I have come since I stepped off the boat in Al-Makha, full of apprehension. We exchange names and greetings, and after a few minutes, the plates are whisked away and mats spread out for prayer. I watch as each woman takes a large, dark bundle of cloth out of her bag, puts it on over her head, and emerges a shapeless form. This garment, worn only for prayer, is even more modest than the abaya. The only opening is a small, round window at the top where their faces peek out.  

The prayer leader instructs them to bend, press their foreheads into the mats, and stand again. They have done this every day since they were children, yet I can find nothing equivalent to it. After a while, people begin quietly reciting the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Koran, individually and at their own pace. Then, they sit in silence.

The first woman who finishes removes her robe and immediately gets to work. Peering into her small, hand-held compact, she applies lipstick, face powder, and thick eyeliner. She runs a brush through her hair and drapes a glimmering shawl around her shoulders. When more women enter the room, they greet each other with a few brief words. Instead of a kiss or a handshake, they take a deep whiff of the scent on the back of their hands.

Now, the authentic meal is brought in, platters heaped with rice and meat and little porcelain bowls filled with green and red spicy sauces that they call "bisbas." I am a lone, black-clad figure in a spectacular garden. A few of the younger women take an interest in me. They motion for me to take off my abaya and laugh when they see I'm wearing pants and a tank top. Feeling shy and ill-prepared, I explained that I didn't know I should dress up. One woman speaks English better than the rest, and she takes mascara and powder out of her bag. "Americans no make-up?" she asks.

As she powders my skin and outlines my eyes, I reflect on how, in a short time, Yemen has stretched my mind in ways that it's never been before. I've taken risks in Yemen, but everyone takes risks in this bold, tumultuous corner of our world. The Yemen I encountered when I first got off the boat is gone. This one contains real, dangerous elements but is dominated by simple, generous people marked by tremendous kindness.

Sarah Shourd is a teacher, activist, and writer from California who is currently based in the Middle East. She has previously been published in Bay View and Slingshot Newspapers. She has covered various topics, from the Zapatista water struggles in Chiapas, Mexico, to gentrification and displacement in Oakland, California.

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