“How many camels have you seen?”
After I moved to Yemen, this is a question I heard from friends and family at home. In the U.S., most of us have a fairly static idea of what the Middle East looks like. Huge sand dunes. Camels. Hot sun.
Though Yemen does have a large desert in the eastern half of the country, most people inhabit the western half, along the coast and mountains (yes, there are mountains in the Middle East!).
Still, I was thrilled the first time I went to the downtown market in Aden and there, hooked to an old cart, sat a camel chewing its cud and shaking a fly from its ear. A real, live camel.
I also saw camels anytime I took the Aden-Taiz road. I’m sure they belonged to someone, but they grazed alone in this wild looking land, and when I gazed at them, I felt like I was hundreds of years in the past. Then a plastic bag would float by on the breeze and pull me back into the present. (Yemen was covered with used plastic bags. The waste system hadn’t caught up enough to deal with this modern environmental hazard.)
On the way to the Little Aden, where my roommates and I liked to go when we wanted a private beach, the sea crept up on both sides of the road. In its shallow depths, flamingos grazed and stood on one leg. They weren’t the bright pink flamingoes I saw in zoos, but paler shades of orange and peach fading to ivory. The organisms these flamingos ate didn’t contain the amount of pigment needed to brighten their feathers. Still, they were wild flamingos and I eagerly looked for them each time we drove to Little Aden.
Chameleons were an unexpected discovery. Yemen has its own type of chameleon, the veiled chameleon, so called because of the cone around its head. I often saw these creatures in back gardens, but occasionally one would climb up to an open window and peek inside. In Taiz, a chameleon lived in our backyard. I often went outside to search the yard for him, looking for the green and gold bands on his body that blended in with the leaves of the bush he loved to sit in. Then we’d have a staring contest. Fortunately for him, my attention span is far shorter than a chameleon’s.
Lions were once indigenous to Yemen, but now they only reside in zoos. I visited Taiz Zoo once on a class field trip. Unlike the lions in American zoos which are separated from visitors by large pits and tall fences, these lions were kept in small pens so close to visitors you could stick your hands through the bars if you wanted to. In fact, I watched a zookeeper hand feed a lion. The lions looked sleepy and bored in their tiny enclosures. I couldn’t blame them. I felt sorry for these once wild and noble creatures that once roamed all over Yemen.
The bigger attraction at Taiz Zoo was God’s goat. His fur was a patterned in such a way that it appeared like الله, Allah, was written on his side. Upon inspection, I had to agree that it did look like Allah on his coat, lucky for that goat, as goat is often a main course in Yemen, especially around the Eids, or holidays.
Goats roamed the streets in Yemen, often helping out with the trash problem by climbing in the dumpsters to graze. More than once, I tossed our garbage bag into the dumpster, only to have a goat pop its head up and baa at me for interrupting its lunch. My husband and I had a short stint as goat owners. That’s another story.
Yemenis don’t keep pets, for the most part, and animal control was non-existent. This meant the cats procreated like, well, cats and hovered near the dumpsters to scavenge what they could. I have no doubt those cats kept vermin under control, but it was still hard for this cat lover to see so many unkempt animals roaming the streets. The dogs kept out of sight during the day, risking thrown rocks or kicks if they were seen. At night, they roamed in packs, and several times I had the unnerving experience of being followed by these large groups of dogs through the streets.
This week, I’ve given away three kittens a stray cat had in our tool shed and called the local animal shelter about a stray dog running through the park and neighborhood. I’m working with a local non-profit to help me place any kittens I can’t find homes for and ensure the mother cat will be spayed and not contribute to the animal problem here. When I called the local shelter, an officer responded immediately and the dog was picked up and taken to the shelter. After my experiences in Yemen, I’ve come to appreciate living in a culture where systems are in place to control the animal population and give homes to as many animals as possible.
I loved the camels, the flamingos, the chameleons, and I didn’t mind the goats, but the stray dogs and cats in Yemen were one of the most difficult parts of my stay in that country. Things turned out well for one animal, though. I found a kitten behind my apartment, abandoned by her mother. Silly Cat quickly became mine and when my husband and I left Yemen, she made the long journey home with us.
“She’s living the Yemeni dream,” our neighbors joked, “going to America.” I always tell friends Silly is the best souvenir I’ve found. She’s a reminder of all the animals I saw in Yemen, and helps me remember I can make a difference, even if it’s in the life of one cat.