The recent news of unrest in Yemen dismays me. I have amazing memories of my time spent in this beautiful, but often maligned, land. As the news continues to darken, I wanted to share some of my favorite stories of a place that forever changed me.
My first day in Yemen, I arrived at the airport in Sanaa exhausted but excited to finally be in the country I’d call home for the next year. (It turned into three. That’s another story.) I was supposed to catch a connecting to flight south to the port city of Aden, where I would teach English, but that flight was canceled. The next flight wouldn’t leave until that evening. I stood in the airport a moment, trying to collect my thoughts, while around me people shouted and spoke Arabic, a language I had yet to learn. Why didn’t I try to learn a few phrases before I left?
I found an office and someone who spoke English and managed to call the friend picking me up in Aden. After I explained my flight was delayed, he said he’d call a friend in Sanaa and assured me everything would be find. “This happens all the time,” he added.
I stood outside the airport, fending off local taxi drivers with a shake of my head, until a tall, older man, obviously foreign, walked up and asked if I was Kimberly. Relieved, I nodded and he loaded my two overweight bags into the van and we took off.
While he navigated the streets of Sanaa, I got my first impression of Yemen. Everywhere I looked, people crowded the streets – men in long white thobes and checkered headscarves, women in flowing black abayas, some in colorful headscarves, but many more in full veils. Their eyes peered at me curiously as I peered back at them from the van window.
I traveled extensively before heading to the Middle East, but I’d never seen a place like this before. Tall, bare mountain peaks rose around this cramped city and mud brick streets wound away into dark alleys only wide enough for one person. Part of me wanted to go home. The other part wanted to explore those winding streets.
My host stopped and grabbed lunch for his family before we went back to his apartment. Chicken and rice and a wonderful, oversized flat bread baked on an outdoor oven. I didn’t know it yet, but this was the staple meal in Yemen. Nearly every restaurant sold the same, all of it delicious.
My host’s apartment was large and airy, painted white with gorgeous half-moon stained glass windows. The windows, called qamarias, are a form of architecture predating Islam. Sunlight poured through the stained glass and cast rainbows across the white walls and floor. I watched the rainbows dance around the room as the afternoon lengthened into early evening and multiple prayer calls were broadcast through speakers from mosques around the city.
I stood at the window and listened to rise and fall of the evening prayer call as the imams sang over the city. The prayer call undulated, swelled, then died down and the evening grew quiet. The rainbows shifted across the room and disappeared as a red sun sank behind the mountains. Goose bumps rose on my arms and I took a deep breath and gazed out across a city of flat rooftops to the mountains beyond until my host said it was time to head to the airport.
As I left that room, the light from the qamarias spent, I knew I was in for the greatest adventure of my life in this strange land.