They say the devil’s in the details. And this project haunted me like a demon. (Who is “they” anyway, and why are people always quoting ‘em?)

I had planned to do some marathon editing and be done with this video project by Christmas. Of 2007.

When I think about it, plans are pretty versatile things. You can make or break a plan, and sometimes plans disintegrate, take a back seat, or change course. And plans are never lonely; Plan A is closely backed by Plan B, who are often accompanied by many others, those who are ready to jump in and try their hand, undeterred by their predecessors’ failures, determined that their one unique characteristic might pull them through.

“Man makes a plan, and God laughs.” – I forget. (Was it They?)

“Life is what happens while you’re making plans.” – J. Lennon

Anywho, enough on that. Here is where I want to blame my software’s failures for taking so long to get out this video. I want to blame being too busy studying Arabic or practicing with my Arab friends or working or reintegrating back into America or _______, but the truth is, it’s not really any of these things, and it’s all of them.

I couldn’t add subtitles without first extracting the sound, separating it from its video components, and then adding them back to the right spot later. I couldn’t help it – a lot of the audio is botched during transitions. There are shaky zooms, clips that are just a bit too short or a bit too long, and a ton of things you probably wouldn’t notice unless I pointed them out. These are the details that drove me nuts, causing me to spend unwarranted minutes or even hours on split seconds of this clip only 7 minutes long. I eventually threw up my arms and said enough. Sometimes there’s this perfectionist inside me that screams, but I shut that dude up. This time. Next time I will not use iMovie, and I will do a little more research on file conversions before asking the guys in the dusty video hut to make me a DVD of my content. Lessons learned.

I also had planned on writing in this blog much more. It was to be a connection to those who cared to read, a digital scrapbook for future times, and just plain, good-old practice writing. So remember that screaming perfectionist inside me? He was kicking my kidneys, and I couldn’t get him to shut up until just now. I have many stories I would have liked to share on this blog. I was really busy after a really good adventure I wanted to write about, then once I had some time to write, I had had another adventure, and I sat down to write about the first one (because the perfectionist wouldn’t shut up and this blog needs to be chronological and comprehensive), didn’t finish that post (has to be just right before posting), and then the tasks seemed too daunting and so I just gave up. I couldn’t do it perfectly, so I wouldn’t do it at all, and every time I thought about this blog, my stomach would turn a little bit. So instead I’ll head out for some tea and hookah with my friends, or I’ll read a book, or go for a walk, take some pictures, do anything but type up just a few words.

So I’ve left Yemen, and this incomplete blog is now closed.

I have adventures ahead. First and foremost is to finish my degree. I am excited to be done with school. I have loved my time at Stanford and feel so privileged to have been able to take a part, but now it’s time to buckle down, do my best, get a job and pay off my loans.

I am applying for some scholarships to pay me to return to the Middle East and cement my skills in Arabic. The current hope is to work as a journalist or in some other capacity that allows me to be creative and make a positive impact on the relations between my homeland and this misunderstood region of the world. I love traveling and hope that it will be a part of my future career.

I’m young and appreciative of the opportunities for growth that have come my way. My time in Yemen bolstered my confidence in my ability to do whatever it is I set my mind to, to live as a minority, an Other, one who needed to struggle daily to express himself and get his needs met. My last year in college will challenge me further, and I am optimistic for the doors my degree will open. I’m only 22 but often feel both much older and much younger than this. I do now know that if I keep an open mind and an open heart that the divine answers in ways that I need, ways that I wasn’t expecting.

I’m currently working as a wrangler in Yellowstone National Park, taking tourists on horse rides while I talk with them about the history of the park and environmental stewardship. This job is fun. I get to go on horseback rides after hours through God’s country with like-minded folk, and I’m living in a college-style dorm with many international students. Another example of a situation I never expected myself to be in, but am grateful to find myself here.

Closure’s a funny thing, so I’ll just end here. Onward. Let me know what you think of my little Yemen video.

Over and out.

 I can’t.  This news story has been bocked.

If anyone’s still checking this blog, will you copy me the story and email it to me?

This is a great article on Yemen.  Each paragraph touches upon a part of Yemeni history you could talk about for hours – social classes, political revolutions, prospects for development, etc.

The people highlighted in the article live just down the street from me.  Apparently we live in very similar houses, me in the “frat house” of the college I work for, ten of us enjoying private bathrooms and a big kitchen, they, hundreds in the same space, sleeping head to toe.

My friend Matt called their job a Sisyphean task; the Greek king was punished to push a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down again, and repeat this task for all of eternity.  He was punished for violating the laws of hospitality when he killed travelers and quests.

I see these men and veiled women every day, standing out like sore thumbs in their orange jump suits, pushing dirt and dust into little piles before using their hands to throw it into huge re-used rice bags.  Trucks come by periodically, the men in jumpsuits dump the rubbish into the trucks.  Instead of the usual horns I hear, these trucks emit what sounds like the ice-cream trucks back home, a carefree and silly melody sped up 4x the speed and blaring across the streets.  Maybe for this ignored class, the blaring alarm different from the rest is a tool to get just a little bit of notice.

Without garbage cans or any other garbage pickup service, these men in jumpsuits are caught in a never-ending system.  They pick up trash off the street.  Everyone else just drops their trash wherever they want.  Sometimes I hold on to my trash, but then realize there’s no other place to put it but the street.  If I brought it home, it would go into a bag that would then be thrown onto the street.

When students leave our institute, they inevitably leave behind some of the things they brought from home. We donate these goods to the cleaning ladies of our center or we leave a box at the home of these “servants”.

I’m thinking of what else we could do for them.  If the majority of Yemen is content to keep them marginalized and stuck in a lower class, what can I, an impermanent resident of this country, do to alleviate what I see as an injustice?

Right now I can’t think of anything except for saying hello.  Maybe if I stop and converse with them for five minutes, I can make them feel less shitty, less forgotten, less invisible.  I once read from the source that one of the worst parts of being homeless in the States is that everyone pretends they cannot see you.  Confronted with those less fortuante, people feel guilty for what they have, and even guiltier that they just keep walking. I can’t really give these ‘servants’ any money, but I can give them a smile and a little of my time, and maybe that’ll be worth something.

See the articleSee the pictures 

February 27, 2008

Languishing at the Bottom of Yemen’s Ladder

SANA, Yemen —

By day, they sweep the streets of the Old City, ragged, dark-skinned men in orange jump suits. By night, they retreat to fetid slums on the edge of town.

They are known as “Al Akhdam” — the servants. Set apart by their African features, they form a kind of hereditary caste at the very bottom of Yemen’

s social ladder.



I got another article published in the Yemen Observer.

For a little back story, the Yemeni government recently closed some online news agencies, claiming they were “jeopardizing the country’s national interest.”

I got all self-righteous and wrote an op-ed, which you can read below.

Closing the free press is closing democracy

As I learn of its fascinating history, I believe in Yemen’s ability to serve as an example to the world. Balancing the demands of reunification, an elected government, strong Islamic values, allegiances to tribal governance systems, as well as other challenges, has required a flexible and just political system responsive to the will of its diverse population. But as the actions of today become tomorrow’s history, I question the Yemeni government’s belief in itself.

The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology’s recent blocking of numerous online news agencies will only hurt Yemen. In addition to an open, multiparty parliamentary electorate, any viable democratic society necessitates a free and open press.

The closures represent a political maneuver by the powers that be to stifle criticism and dissent of the current regime’s policies, a hallmark of a government on the verge of sliding into autocratic rule. An uncriticized and unchecked government is one that can do as it pleases for its own benefit.

In theory, a democratic society derives its power and legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The social contract, in which citizens give up some liberties to trust the state to maintain relative social order, is fundamentally broken when those who govern unilaterally decide what information is worthy of being published. When a citizenry loses its voice, they by default rescind their consent, the elected representatives lose credibility, and social order could begin to crumble.

Restrictions on the freedom of press tarnish a nation’s reputation with the rest of the world. In deciding where to allocate capital, investors prefer open and competitive societies, and a government that controls its media is a government likely to control its economy. With a lack of homegrown national capital, a development-oriented Yemen cannot afford to govern its society like its wealthy Gulf state neighbors.

What to do, then, if individuals or agencies publish blatant lies? The answer is not to close the news. With freedom comes responsibility and liability. Fabricated information that serves to discredit organizations’ or others’ reputations should be dealt with in the court of law, and just punishments administered to deter libel in the future. Government-controlled press, however, implies lies on its own behalf.

Yemen has come very far in building its nation. The world is watching, and supporters hope anxiously for a progressive, successful Yemen to prove to the world that freedom and democracy are not incompatible with the Islamic Middle East, as many in the West claim to be the case. Maintaining an open press is critical for the success of Yemen’s future, and any government that fails to recognize this is a government working for themselves, not for their people.

*Student of Arabic, Editor Yemen Observer

 road to ma’rib

(click to make big – taken by me)

I wrote an article for the Yemen Observer.

Find it here:

Yemenis exchange clips of poetry on their cell phones like we send forward messages in email.

I received one the other day, and didn’t really know what it meant.. but I looked up the words and then responded with my own few stanzas..

The poem I received was from a famous poet; the one I sent probably didn’t make much sense.

Upon moving abroad, some adjustments you look forward to.  For language students like myself, one of them is replacing your English usage with another language.  Some adjustments you expect, some you fear, and some you don’t even see coming.  One of the biggest adjustments for me has been setting and living a new timeframe.  Seeing how regularly I post to this page reminds me that I have a lot of work to do on this whole ‘schedule’ thing.

Some adjustments are really fun.
I love eating with my hands.  Waiters assume that since we’re white, we need plates and spoons and forks.  They’re amused when they see us scooping up rice with our fingers and ripping meat right off the bone.

I’ve also come to enjoy ‘dressing the part’.  Yemeni men wear wrap-around skirts that are sort of like towels.  They really give you your freedom, just make sure they’re secure and draped well below your knee.  The fact that I’m trying to fit in invites great conversation starters like, “Oh! You’re dressing like a Yemeni!  You’re Yemeni now!”  No, actually I’m American, and I like it that way, but thank you.  Now let’s chat about chewing qat.

Some adjustments, for better or worse, you appreciate.
Take qat for example.  You sit down, stuff some leaves into your mouth until your cheek hurts, and do nothing but talk for hours and hours.  It’s not that productive.  I mean, nobody’s writing or painting or feeding hungry children or trying to find a vaccine for AIDS.  They’re just sitting to satisfy a drug dependency, but one of qat’s symptoms is camaraderie, and one very valued in Yemeni culture at that.  I think qat’s actually a big social problem for this country, but isn’t television in the States?  People waste time all over the world, but at least qat provides you with discussion and jokes, and for the foreigner, great Arabic practice.

Even if they’re not chewing, you often find groups of Yemenis just sitting and chatting.  Many don’t have solid jobs, and this country doesn’t offer much in entertainment or other services.  I think many would like to work like Americans to have what we have.  In the back of my head, though, I can’t help but think of the amount of time and hard work we exchange just for maintaining our levels of material comfort. What if we were able to place friendship and community above that next dollar, living sort of like the Yemenis?

Upon being greeted by a friend, you get hand your hand shook and your face kissed.  They ask how you are, how your family is, and if everything is okay.  I don’t know if this shows more affection and concern than the simple, “What’s up?” I’m used to, or if they’re more nosy, or if these are only superficial differences between my two worlds.  Men walk the streets holding hands.  People try to give me things for free all the time: a bus ride, putting a new screw in my glasses, an extra bag of fries with my dinner.  “Welcome to Yemen!”

Some adjustments are irritating.
Take the toilet.  Thankfully my house and my school are outfitted with throne toilets, and since I’ve been eating so much meat lately, I don’t have to sit very often.  But the few times I’ve had to squat, you really have to balance yourself.  And no matter how you deliver your goods, there’s the question of no paper.  Yemen’s plumbing doesn’t really support it, and the notion of using paper to clean yourself instead of water strikes Yemenis as very dirty.  You need to aim a hose to blast cold water to just the right spot, or  you’ll soak your pants or parts of your body that weren’t even dirty.  Then you need to squeegee so you don’t end up with wet underwear.  Make sure you wash your hands when you’re done, especially that left one.

Dressing the part is fun sometimes, sure, I get to wear a manskirt, but there are many things I don’t get to wear.  Shorts are unthinkable – showing your knee is disgraceful.  T-shirts are okay on guys, but that’s sort of for kids.  To keep modest, I’m wearing pants and a sweater on a mountaintop desert.  I’m red-faced and wet by the time I walk anywhere during the day (at night it gets really cold), but thankfully since this place is so arid, I dry out within minutes and never smell.  At least not that I know of.

Wearing less comfortable clothes isn’t that big of a deal.  In isolation, it’s not a big gripe of mine at all, but this frustration is wrapped up into this larger notion of social customs I’m really not used to.  So you need to dress in a certain way, lest you look poor or run the risk of offending someone or worse, someone’s wife or daughter.  I’m still trying to remember not to rest one foot on top of my leg; you end up pointing your foot at someone, and that’s a pretty big insult.
My biggest gripes, however, don’t even affect me.  The status of women in this country drives me nuts.  Most Yemeni women walk around exposing nothing than their eyes – this stems from a wide-held belief not that women should be shielded from the world because of their inferiority, but quite the opposite.  The belief is that men are pigs and unable to contain themselves, and so there’s no telling if there’s a man on the street today who might offend (or do worse) your wife or your daughter, so it’s best to keep them protected behind an armor of black obscurity.  A disgrace that befalls a woman is a disgrace to your entire family.

So once in a while the girls I study and work with face some verbal harassment in the street – cat calls from Yemenis who believe we’re tourists and don’t understand a lick of Arabic.  If a woman is walking around with some of her hair exposed, she’s obviously a whore and needs to be told that.  If she’s walking the street with men, same idea.  If she’s walking the street alone at night, she’s obviously just returning from a “business meeting.”  The judgments and constraints placed on all women, be they Yemeni or foreign, in small part leaves me in awe and appreciation that the peoples of the world are very different and have yet to be lumped into a globalized populace, but for the most part leave me with a sense that there’s a huge injustice going on here.  I try not to get angry or upset, but there are certain times when I can’t help it.  In the middle of a delicious holiday dinner at a Yemeni household, I remark to an American friend of mine that wow, there’s going to be a lot of food left over, I feel bad that it might go to waste.  She replies, no, it won’t go to waste, the women and children eat what we leave behind.  Sure, there would be enough food to feed the whole family, but this recognition of the second-class citizenry of women, even within one’s own family, made me lose my appetite.  I always assumed the women remained together, out of sight of the foreign men, eating a dinner that was separate but equal.

These are but a few of the adjustments I’ve faced in my little over three months in Yemen.  The most striking so far hit me during the holidays: the complete reorientation of space and time I’ve had to undertake.

The reorientation of the day is easy enough to deal with.  Many businesses are open from eight until twelve, close for four hours for a lunch and a nap, and are open again from four until eight or later.  Whereas back home dinner was the most important meal, a time when everybody got together after work and school to sit together for a big meal, lunch is most important meal in Yemen.  It’s the biggest and longest meal by far; dinner is some bread and beans or bread and eggs, something small and quick, well after sunset.  It’s also interesting to experience the segmentation of every day according to Islamic traditions.  Five times a day the passing of time is announced to you.  Imams from the hundreds of mosques in the city blast the announcement that it’s time to pray.  Sometimes the one just after 4am wakes me up, the one at 3pm reminds me that my afternoon is half over, and the one at sunset is a symphony bidding farewell to the day.

Days of the week have taken on a new meaning, too.  Saturday is no longer a day of relaxation followed by a night out with friends, but is instead the first day of the work week.  Because the holy day in Islam is on Friday, for me Friday is the new Sunday.  Wednesdays are the nights to look forward to, and the drudgery of Monday has been lost on me.  Monday is the new hump day.  Coming from a liberal California university to a very strict Islamic city means ‘normal’ weekend activities have really shifted, too.  This is obviously due to what’s available to us youngin’s, and maybe just a little bit it means we’re growing up.  More likely, the latter ‘growth’ is due to the constraints of our place.

Due to the need of an international standard and the history of the colonization of most the world, the Gregorian calendar is used here and everywhere I know of.  Despite it being almost the year 2008 After the Death of Christ, the passing of a year as I’m used to it is not experienced here.  Some Yemenis aren’t sure how old they are because birthdays aren’t really celebrated.  I don’t know what the New Year will bring.  Calendars here will change to 2008 with the rest of the world, but another calendar is still respected.  Newspapers print the day I’m used to, but also the Islamic date as well.  Today is the nineteenth day of the twelfth month of the year 1428.

In my last post I wondered what Thanksgiving would be like at home.  The passing of the holiday celebrating the bounty of the life that resulted from the founding of the United States of America was obviously not noted here.  After spending that weekend Thursday of mine sleeping in and reading and watching movies, I met up with some fellow students and workers at my school.  My Aussie housemate had a group of Italians and Germans and Yemenis heading out to dinner with him, and at the last minute a few of us Americans decided to join up.  The friendship and the thanks given for it was not lost as we shared our meal together, but something definitely did not feel right.  Sitting on the curb of a street outside the busy “Baghdad Restaurant” in Yemen’s capitol, eating the Iraqi interpretation of the American hamburger (they put french fries on top of the beef patty), was not only strange but in many ways felt very wrong.  If we Americans had known where we were headed before boarding the bus, we probably would have decided to eat somewhere else to escape the irony.  The freedom we celebrate on Thanksgiving in America is nothing but a future hope for the Iraqis trapped in the violent mistakes of our administration.

Wrapped up in working and studying and enjoying getting to know my new friends here, my life became more or less routine, and I lost some motivation to write home about it.  The calendar year and work week of busy changes back home has been replaced by a peaceful simplicity, a breath of pause not often afforded to me in my Stanford life.  They say no news is good news, but I’ve realized no news is bad news for me when it comes to diligent writing practice.

But my weekly routine was interrupted again last week, at the start of eid al-adha, the Islamic holiday celebrating when Abraham showed great faith when he was about to slaughter his son, and then instead slaughtered a lamb, both according to the word of God.  Taking advantage of the lack of work and class, a group of us headed on an adventure to the southeast coast for some much needed beach time.  I’ll tell you about it soon.

The holiday ended and work resumed.  My start date?  Christmas eve.  In my last few years, Christmas time represented a homecoming, a time to leave my academics and all its stresses to rejoin with my family and friends.  My childhood excitement for the surprises of gifts left under the tree long gone, Christmas became a welcomed interruption to the linear inevitability of growing older and growing apart, a time when all pause to reflect on true gifts of living we often take for granted during the rest of the year.  The lights sights sounds smells and flavors, appreciated but distant from the true meaning of the holiday were always secondary to me in the states, but I really felt their absence this year.  These simple changes in my daily life served as a constant background reminder that this time of year was special.  In the office on Christmas day, my friend Soo-Rae had some holiday jingles in her collection, and we sung along to make our work go faster, but the demands of work don’t pause for Santa in Yemen, and we ended up working a little extra that day.  Heading out later to meet with another Stanfordian, it took us half an hour to remember to wish one another a Merry day.

Time here just passes differently in general.  A few weeks ago I started a project to present to my family on Christmas.  Working with advanced technology in a country where many don’t even have electricity or running water means you have to be patient, and so as not to give away the surprise, suffice it to say I’m still working on it.  My reorientation of space time could be to blame for it being late.

Recognizing the different experience felt during the ‘holiday’ season, I was determined not to let the same happen with my birthday.  I decided we would party.  My housemates really pulled through for me.  With music setting the pace, we prepared some homemade pizzas together.  We were lucky to have the bakery across the street make up for our lack of a working oven.  I invited every student left at our center, and asked my coworkers to invite all the friends they had.  The result: about twenty of us sharing pizza and cupcakes in our mafraj, surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights and about three different languages.  I whispered to a few of my friends, “This is definitely the weirdest birthday I’ve ever had, and that’s in no way to say the worst.”  We later headed to the Russian Club in Tourist City for some brews and dancing.  Time flew, and before I knew it, it was after four in the morning and I was eating some broast in a tiny restaurant with two new friends.

I can’t believe I’ve already been here for over three months.  Spending the holidays away from home is a challenge for everyone here, but I think we’re all grateful we didn’t have to go at it alone.