In the Sanaa suq; photograph by Charles and Patricia Aithie

[This is the third part of a reflective essay on the author’s upbringing. For part two, click here.]

by Samira Ali BinDaair

A change of scenes

After the skyscrapers of the Gulf, to me, Yemen with its rugged mountains and varied topography was a refreshing change. As I wandered through the old city, I felt I had come home at last, as I sniffed the different aromas of spices, and feasted my eyes on the different colors. Here I thought was where the dreams of centuries had been weaved and many hearts broken which needed mending with new dreams. Maybe my work in development programmes helped me to feel the kind of fulfillment I had never felt in all my years in the Gulf. The early days of settling in a new environment was challenging, but we eventually managed to find our place under the sun. Whatever we missed in the Gulf was made up by our trips to the mountains, where my children roamed freely in the wadis collecting fossils instead of the trips to Burger King and the imaginary teddy bears and clowns who no longer made them laugh.

Our trips to Wadi Shaab to my husband’s village also made them see a different reality from the fairy tale world of the Emirates. There was no electricity there and to date it has none, but we enjoyed seeing the stars which seemed to shine brighter as my father-in-law, a retired building contractor, taught them the names of the different stars. As I watch my son spending hours on his computer on his favorite hobby, Astronomy, I remember those simple beginnings. I remember spending sleepless nights when my husband went to the village alone wondering whether he had reached safely or not, since there was no means of communication in those days. Today I call my sister-in-law regularly on her cell phone, which she charges on a car battery; necessity is the mother of invention. The first time I went to the village I was surprised to find a stack of English books stored in my father-in-law’s house. My husband then told me of his early struggle with the English language since he was at school.

He had gone to school in different places, including Aden where his father worked and from where he had collected all those books. To him it was the gateway to the outside world and the mysterious West that he had only read about and longed to visit. Ironically the grass is always greener on the other side. His mother had laughingly told me how she had often threatened to burn his books in the mofa and how lazy my husband had been, always escaping from chores. The story was corroborated by my husband who told me how he had often escaped his mother’s nagging by piling his books on his donkey and going to sit under the tree to read in the distant wadi until dusk.

A different Yemen

I remember the old days in Sanaa where friends used to meet more often and life was more enjoyable and yet simpler and we used to enjoy more barbecues and family picnics with relatives. But now some of the warmth is lost with the expanding infrastructure and crowded streets. I still take comfort in shopping at the corner vegetable stall, and calling out to my little friend, “ya jinni” and he smilingly comes to the car and brings me the freshest of produce. With people like him I feel the human personal touch that is constantly being threatened with extinction in the modern world. Supermarkets are slowly becoming a nightmare where the cashier takes forever to calculate at the tolling machine as he puts in endless numbers (ironically technology is supposed to make things move faster). I stand there frustrated and despite myself telling the cashier that in my grandmother’s time, people calculated faster on their fingers.

I saw a different Yemen when I used to go to villages for project visits, where children are men and women before adolescence and all preconceptions of childhood held within development agencies become irrelevant. I saw images of aborted childhood in the fishing villages of Fukum, Bureika, Hodeida, which broke my heart and made me feel like a fool preaching armchair philosophy about going back to school within the backdrop of grinding poverty and the struggle for survival. I saw a different face of Yemen when I attended a workshop at the Sheba hotel and while eating cookies talking about the dynamics of community mobilization and empowerment, feeling like the Pied Piper of Hamlin leading them to fish in the Dead Sea. I see poor folks in the villages offering their best to visitors in unrivaled hospitality while they have so little themselves, and yet others better off squandering money on a superficial form of hospitality within the ever expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots.

It’s a jungle out there

I see Yemen slowly becoming a jungle of contradictions where people step on each others’ toes to compete for scarce means and the irony is that civil servants are asking for tips for moving paper work while my little jinni refuses tips and with a great sense of pride says “ Alhamdulillah I have enough.” I see drivers going mad, who fight to get in first with their flashy cars withno thought of right of way or right of others, whereas in the old days drivers were more courteous on the narrow streets before the advent of flyovers.

After all these years I am still trying to figure out which is the real Yemen, the Yemen which had captured the heart of travelers and Orientalists and what was known as “Arabia Felix” in history books. Or the Yemen of the hikma (wisdom) and iman (faith) or the Quanic version of the Sabean kingdom of a prosperous land and an all forgiving Creator or the Holy Prophet’s version of people with tender hearts and deep faith. There is an ancient saying: “He who rules Yemen rides on the back of the Lion.” Yemen is one of the most complex countries in the region despite the simplicity of its people and the authenticity of its surroundings.

My children have grown up each following their different paths, alas!, and living and reliving my own childhood dream of and for Yemen. However, they see better, than I ever did at their age, the gaping holes in their dreams despite their great love for Yemen. As I sit here writing and remembering the old days with the eyes of a woman who has seen life on both sides of the fence, full of nostalgia for the lost dreams of youth, I comfort myself with the thought that the present generation will make the changes. Society must move forward and progress, but perhaps we need to revise our criteria for measuring progress. Then I ask myself have we given them the tools for creating structural changes in Yemen? I sincerely hope I will not be left wondering until I go to my grave.