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.