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.

The boy not much younger doesn’t smile, gives me a look of curiosity.


“Are you Muslim?” Look, I’m just trying to buy some smokes. He had answered that yes, he has them, but he made no move for them.


Why not? he asks.

أنا ولدت في أسرة مسيحية.

“I was born into a Christian family.”

Satisfied with my answer, he cracks a smile and notices the money I had laid on the counter. I was no longer to blame for my apparent ignorance. The passive word “I was born” relinquished me from all responsibility. I didn’t choose Christianity over Islam any more than I chose to be an American rather than a Yemeni. I decided I’ll give this answer from now on.

“Do you want to convert?”

“I study Arabic. I live in that house.” I point up the street.

“Do you want to convert to Islam?”

I reach for my change, but he wants an answer. “I hope after studying lots I can read the Qur’an in Arabic.” This seems good enough. I tell him thanks as I shove the bill into my pocket and pass the the mosque my district of the city is named after. There are hundreds in this city alone, and as Yemen’s population explodes, the growth of mosques is outpacing the growth of schools. The people are responsible for building mosques, the state responsible for schools. It’s no wonder the people don’t trust their state, but rely more on their families, their tribes, and their religion to provide for them.

This afternoon I’m treating myself. I’m getting sweet milk tea at the little shop at the end of my street. My brain’s aswirl and I want something nice and warm to cool it down.

The Old City of Sana’a, inhabited for thousands of years, its buildings and streets a testament to the perseverance of tradition, a strong identification with the legacy of the past, is almost neatly bordered by a modern gully avenue. At places, the boundary of the Old City slopes down at thirty degrees, the alleys and thoroughfares dumping its residents and their cars, wheelbarrows, and carts into this busier race track encircling the ancient. I’ve heard that during the rainy month, this street becomes a river, swelling to carry the torrents away from the aging mud brick stone center of town to the outskirts, sometimes taking unfortunate taxis or joy-riding children along with them.

My friend Jessica calls this tea place “Café Exquisite.” There’s no sign out front indicating this isn’t the case, but I’m pretty sure the old man inside doesn’t use this name to describe his hole in the wall from which he serves his tea. Usually this place is bustling, but today I’m the only one. As I enter, I notice the owner is wearing the same green army-issue sweater I’ve seen on him every time I’ve come for tea. The neck hem is unraveling and where loose sleeves once hung his wrists are exposed, the ends charred to a halt. His wrinkled brown skin hangs from his face as well as a cigarette from his lips, and ashes fall to the cracked cement floor as he mutters to himself. A cat yawns and arches its back on a smoothed-over oily bench to the right, and another sits atop a case of condensed unsweetened canned milk. I wonder if the owner is too old or to gone to care about these pests lazing about, or if he’s come to consider them friends.

I shout peace upon him. If his makeshift stove weren’t on, I wonder, with its butane tank at my feet and its foot-high flames warming my face, if he would have heard me anyway. He grunts a response back to me, his incomprehensible words whistling as they flow through the stubby remains of his teeth. One Tea Milk Please, I literally say, and he’s quick to work. Before him are three buckets and a dented metal tray holding exhausted clear glasses, the last centimeter of sludge still at the bottom, a mix of tea grounds and sugary white liquid. He grabs one, dunks it into the first bucket, swipes his hand through the interior, dunks it into the second, the third. From a crimped can with a happy cow printed on the front he fills half my glass with milk, stretching the stream with a bob of his hand like a bartender would with a shot of whiskey. He dips his hands into the bucket of water and grabs a metal pitcher from atop the flames, fills my glass with tea, grabs a different pitcher, and empties my glass into it.

A cat atop a wobbling bucket loses its balance and empties onto the floor. It crawls out of the bucket with a chicken head in tow, and happily gnaws on it right in the middle of the floor. The other cats are probably full, because they give no fuss.

My tea begins to bubble, and the man again sticks his hand into the bucket, uses his wet fingers to pour my tea from its flaming container. I step over the feasting cat as I walk out of the room to the edge of the dry riverbed of the stone road. I sit and sip my treat, daydreaming about what Thanksgiving would be like tomorrow, both for me in Yemen, and for my extending family back home, without me.


Straight ahead a car begins rolling backwards, unable to make it up the ramp from the ساءلة, the name of the road, which I was taught also means ‘flood’ or ‘big water after a rain’. My teacher started with ocean, went to sea, to river, to lake, to stream, to creek, to well. I asked him, What’s it called after a rain, you know, the water on the ground? Children like to jump in these? This is the word he gave me, and I realized why he was confused. Rain is never a pleasant drizzle here, it comes down constantly in torrents for a month, to clear up for another eleven. Instead of puddles, it causes floods and rivers where for a year there is only dust.

The car disrupts the flow, and the cars behind him honk and honk. He backs up a little more, revs his engine, throws it into gear. With a lurch, it makes it two thirds the way up the hill, but again he begins the slow descent backwards, slamming his hand on the horn to the let the oncoming traffic know that he’s not going to stop. Again a traffic problem, he revs, the tires screech, and he attacks the base of the hill, but only inches over the top. The car was old, sure, but this road is pretty new. I bet this car hasn’t been out of Sana’a in years. Anywhere you look you see a mountain. I live in a valley of sprawling population at 7,000 feet.

Before me passes a man wearing his traditional gown, his waist bordered by a decorative knife, and his head covered in a red and black checkered shawl. He’s carrying two large containers you might buy at a gas station to bring to your stalled coach, but these are uncapped, and the liquid splashes out on to the ground as he hurries by. Either this is filtered water for drinking, or his house lacks its own tap.

Today I’m not paying attention and realize I’m done with my tea when I feel its grit between my teeth. I’m not here to study or meet with a new friend, so I just hold the glass in my lap, content to look out at the old buildings highlighted by the fading light of sunset. As the sun slips behind the mountain, night falls quickly, and I squeeze the glass for the last of its warmth. I think a little in Arabic, trying to practice even when not talking. Every day I learn some new words, or another way for saying something I thought I had down pat, and feel like a physicist: answering one question opens up five more. I’m learning two languages. The Arabic of the books and media and government, and the Arabic spoken here in the streets of Sana’a. This spoken Arabic comes in many colors and varieties, influenced by the tribes and regions of Yemen, each with their own identity, history, and traditions, blending together in a city that was a tenth of its size twenty years ago.

My daydream is broken by the grunts of the old man. He wants his glass back. I look around and notice that the place is filling up quickly. The men are pouring out of the mosque next to the shop, and and many stop in for some tea after the sunset prayer.

“Do you chew?” He points to his cheek, slightly sunken for the lack of teeth that give mine shape. “Sometimes!” I shout. His eyes close as he pulls his lips towards his ears, giving me a smile I appreciated all the more for the effort it must have taken. I say no more to discourage this man from talking any further. Everything he does must hurt, his body tattered from the years of military service, or the incessant qat, or just living in this city, and besides, I couldn’t understand him anyway. His dialect was beyond me.

I head back to my house to take a shower. No studying tonight because there’s no class tomorrow, not because of Thanksgiving, but because it’s Thursday, the same as any other Saturday back home.


Words in Arabic can be crazy.  In Standard Arabic, some mean dozens of things, depending on the emotion of a sentence and the words that come before and after.  And these meanings can shift dramatically when spoken by a person in his dialect.

Learning the spelling and usage of a word, and how it morphs, say, depending on its position in a sentence, the time, the gender, the case, the definiteness, and the like, are only half the battle.  There is a web of meaning that buttresses a word, and you need to figure out which intersection of the web vibrates at the given instance.  It’s beautiful and fluid, but ridiculously complicated.  I’m never sure what exactly they’re trying to say.

This dilemma is not unique to Arabic, but I’d argue more prevalent than in English.  “The car that is running in the drive is mine.” — Which car?  The one that is running.  Running to where?  No, the one that is turned on.  Is it excited and ready for action?  No, it’s gears are turning.  Is it deep in thought?  No, it’s right on top of the driveway.  Why do people drive on parkways and park on driveways? — Anything taken literally gets you confused, and words function beyond what’s given in the dictionary.

I feel a more precise language, say with English versus Arabic in terms of the variety of meaning for a given word, puts your thoughts into neat, tightly packaged little boxes.  But I question whether or not this is a good thing.  The way we think, how we feel, our ideas, our emotions, hopes, and dreams swirl around, interconnected in a large pool of our brains.  Whenever we verbalize anything, we scoop up little cups from the larger mass, pulling pieces of the whole and sticking them into little words.  Can you really describe how you love somebody? These words are a distillation of something beyond what’s spoken.  We utter some words, and they float through the air until another brain receives them, and they are reprocessed and compared to one’s past experiences with language, and a meaning is derived.  I think we take for granted the consensus that is required for this miraculous process to occur, that we have some sort of shared experience that allows us to transmit meaning from one to another.  I’m also pretty sure that in this processing, transmission, and reprocessing, meaning is lost or changed or in discord.  I wonder how often we’re truly “understood” by others.  So while I’m frustrated in learning ten meanings for a given word in Arabic, I respect that this language is not “precise”.  It’s probably more reflective of the nature of our verbal capabilities.  It’s probably nearly impossible to fully master, but maybe having so many different ways to say something allows Arabic speakers to understand and be understood better.

One word in Arabic I really like is, غربة or roughly “ghurbah”.  Most every word in Arabic is derived from a three letter root.  Words are built by adding letters and vowels to the root, according to many patterns.  Some of the definitions for this one word are, “absence from the homeland; life or place away from home.”  I find to better understand a word, it can be helpful to look at the root and the other words formed from it.  The root غرب (gharaba) means “he went away, departed, is absent of something, is a stranger, is strange, odd, obscure.”  غرّب (gharrab) means more of the same, but also “to go westward, banish, exile, expatriate” with وشرق (wa-sharraqa) means “to get around the world, to see the world”.  اغرب (ah-gharaba) means “to say or do a strange or amazing thing; to exceed the proper bounds in, to overdo, to exaggerate something, to laugh heartily.”  تغرّب (tagharraba) means, “to go to a foreign country, emigrate, to be far away, become Westernized, be Europeanized, to assimilate.”  These are some of the verbs.  The nouns are great, too.  غرب (gharb) means, “West; occident; vehemence, violence, impetuosity,” where the definite, ال-غرب, means, “the West.”  You can head westerly, or something can be westerly, or of the West, from ‘not here’.  The word  غرباء و غريب (ghareeb, plural ghurba’a”) means, “foreign, strange, alien, extraneous,” or with the right preposition after it, “strange, queer, quaint, unusual, extraordinary, curious, remarkable peculiar; amazing, baffling, wondrous, marvelous, grotesque, difficult to understand, remote, rare.”  This is probably way more than you wanted to read, but I’m getting geeked up about this language, and I want to do it justice, somehow share it with you.  From this root you can get peculiarity, the sunset, the place or time of the sunset, and a time for prayer, among many other things.

Well, lately, and especially last week:

انا اشعر بالغربة كثير اليوم.    لا اريد ان اكو ن موجود في وطني — لكن اريد إصدقاءي و اسرتي الان، في اية مكان.

I’ve been longing for my homeland; I’ve been feeling very queer.  Moving from suburban Illinois to Bay Area Sprawl, California for school was even strange for me, but this move was huge.  I lack a shared experience with most here.  I did not grow up in a conservative Muslim country, one with very different values and worldviews, one providing a completely different material existence than what I’m used to.  One thing I’ve noticed is that I feel comfortable most of the time pretty much anywhere.   A small town in Illinois, a big city in California, in the middle of nowhere in Turkey, in my room, at a party, or writing in a garden in the Middle of the East.  Life here may seem strange to me, but life is good.  I like it.  I was socialized well by my family so I make friends easily.  I like my new friends.  What weighs so heavy on me today is leaving those I meet and those I love behind.  A new friend of mine is going back to Germany tomorrow, a coworker to Connecticut.  And I long for my homeland not for toilet paper or sidewalks or beaches where you can tan your bum, but for the people.  I am missing the hell out of my family and friends.  I feel ghurbah.

Nobody understands you better than those who raised you, those who grew up with you, shared your life when you emerged from that period we no longer have memories of, when became social beings.  This shared history of your family members is an embrace whose nature makes you feel close and warm, assured and definite.  We /are/ our families.  They provide us with love and support, values and education, and not the least, DNA, and these all assemble themselves into a unique creation: you.  The good and the bad come together to make who you are.  You could never be you, as you are today, had each element not been in place at its precise time.  A butterfly flapping its wings in Lemont could contribute to the soft breeze in Sana’a.  There are people around me who now share where I am and where I am going, but nobody will ever know me like my family, those who know where I’ve been and from where I came, the foundation of who I am.  It’s strange and scary to have this foundation no longer directly under me, but the sensation is more of flying than that of falling.

None of the people here knew me before Yemen.  I feel an airplane gave birth to me almost two months ago.  Upon descending the stairs of the jet onto the runway, I took my first steps in a new and very foreign life.  Sure, I brought the old me with me.  I believe there’s an essence to people’s personalities, immutable aspects of their lives, but when you take a fish out of water it sure does flop around a lot.  Living without my family and my friends, with a whole lot of people who don’t speak my first language, in a place where men wear skirts and gowns and the women walk under a pile of black laundry, it’s impossible to live like you used to.  What’s been interesting is to see what it is within me that lives on, and what is that has changed in my new environment.

There are innumerable books over the ages written about how the displacement of self breeds great growth by providing a new space for self-reflection, one unavailable in our everyday lives.  The comfortable patterns of old, those formed in the midst of those people and places who know you, give way to something completely alien.  Sometimes you’re a kid in a candy store, sampling from the colorful variety before you, and sometimes you’re a kid wandering the department store.  You stepped out from under the clothes rack giggling a “peek-a-boo”, and are terrified to realize your mom isn’t looking at blouses anymore.  My separation from what I know and what I took for granted sometimes makes me feel like I’m in an isolation chamber of my own construction.  There are two of me.  I sit in this chamber, and I sit behind those one-way mirrors, observing myself.  I’m wearing a clinical white jacket with my name on the chest, I’m holding a clipboard and taking notes.  Sometimes I nod my head, sometimes I scratch my chin.  The charts before me have jagged lines jumping up and down, but thankfully, they indicate growth.

I didn’t decide to come to Yemen thinking it would be easy. Most of the time I’m comfortable and happy, but ghurba has been with me these past few days.  I think about my family and my friends a lot, and I try not to get stuck future tripping, trying to live here and now and do what it is I came to do.  I remember when I was little waking up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in my leg.  I’d crawl crying into my mom’s bed, and she’d rub my leg to make it feel better, telling me not to worry.  “It doesn’t feel so great when you’re growing an inch over night, does it?”

I write this blog for the people I’m close to. Living thousands of miles away from my tribe in America, this is a portal for them to see my life here in Yemen. I realize this is a public blog. It is as such so if a friend of a friend thinks something I’ve written is interesting, they can pass it along. I never imagined I’d gain any readership from the vast world I’ve never met.

I write to describe my life in Yemen. How I react to new experiences with these new people in this new culture. I write to try and show what I see, so that they can see it too. I try to include some day to day events, the struggles and the joys of full immersion. But I also aim at communicating the intangibles of this new life, the emotional reactions, those things that seem planted in your heart, or your stomach, which don’t have a name or a shape, but grow and poke you and make you feel all funny.

To express the abstracts, the intangibles, language only gets me so far. I cannot say, “I feel this way, because..”. I don’t know if this is because I’m not that great of a writer, or if these things are pretty much verbally inexpressible. However, I still try. I say what I can with the words I know, and I try to use all other conventions to bring them closer to what I really mean, to what I really feel. I hold the approach to my version of truth that lives in my gut above all else.

I play with words that bite, with words that hug, with words I only vaguely understand the meaning of. Sometimes I like to drop grammatical conventions, stringing together words that seemingly don’t relate, because the mess of the words relates to the mess of the feelings I’m trying to sort out. Sometimes a phrase feels absolutely perfect at the time I write it, and then I go back later and wonder what the hell I meant. Sometimes I use a dictionary to look up words I have published.

A selective gaze.
Often I’d like you to know what a place looks like. A picture can do that, and sometimes I post pictures. Usually, though, I try to explain it. I can give colors and shapes and sounds and tastes and smells and textures, but these relate only the sensory input data, and sometimes I hope to relate a place based on what happens after these senses are processed, my impressions given to me by my swirling brain. I’ll leave out the smog for a day that feels beautiful to me. I might focus on dirt or dust when I’m feeling out of place. So things are brighter or dirtier or better or worse or this or that based the tone or flow or emotion I’m hoping to achieve, on what I hope to evoke in my readers back home.

I can’t help but be the main character in a narrative about my life and my experiences, but I try to back up from everything as much as I can. I don’t want to say too many, “I thinks” or “I feels.” I do what I can to express what’s inside, and language helps: certain words, sentences, paragraphs, keeping some details, tossing others out, embellishing these but not those. Projecting your feelings into the landscapes, or reshaping characters into your thoughts. These conventions become the vessels that fail at delivering that which I can’t even pin down myself. The heart of my experiences here are thus approached from many different angles, giving different perspectives and different impressions, using the world around me to describe what’s inside me. Thus a landscape is not just a landscape, someone I’ve met is not who they are. I can’t give a perfect description, but I can manipulate my writing to reflect how I feel.


In short, this blog is a collaborative writing project in which I take the world I see, process it, imagine how I can convey my feelings to my readers, invent and toy with new ways to do so, try to do it, and then hear back from them to see how I did.

The people and places in this blog are creations of my mind.
They are based on the reality I live, but I do not aim to objectively represent this reality.
I aim to convey subjective reactions of not even the people, not even the place, but my processing of these things based on what I feel.

I’m not a journalist reporting facts.

Upon finding out that the people who inspired the characters I’ve invented for my expository purposes have found my blog and have read what I’ve written makes me sick to my stomach. I cast such an ugly light on these characters not to disparage real people, but to use them, these invented characters, as a medium to describe my distaste for American diplomacy, for the Western prejudice against Islam, and for everything else I feel.

For disliking some American policies, I cannot apologize. Criticizing government is one of the best ways to change minds so that government changes. I feel dissent is patriotic. If you don’t agree with something, speak out! This freedom of speech is a freedom to criticize, and it’s one of my most coveted aspects of our democratic nation. I love my country, but I’d like to see a lot of changes. To explain my feelings on government policy in Yemen, I equated the government (the policies, the state of the nation, etc.) with two people I met who work for the government. That these characters are so close to those I’ve met makes the sting all the more real when they stumbled upon what I’ve read, and for that I apologize sincerely.

It is my hope that this entry places what I write into context, that it expresses my intentions, and now, my apologies. But as I’ve said, I know that words fail.

One of my good friends wrote some very insightful reactions to some of my concerns, and I want to reprint them here:

I also thought that the tone of the entry betrayed certain aspects of your own thinking. Although I thought that your reasoning was astute and the tone of bruised naivete was effective, it’s really strange that you did not cut those two people more slack. You write about Yemenis with such compassion, even the ones who harass you for money for hours. And I know that you’d never publicly post about one of your classmates that way, even someone that you hated.

I think that the reason you felt justified in making these comments was because these were two people in a position of power. But, honestly, these are not public figures. And it might have been better to think of them less as “diplomats” than as “social acquaintances who happen to work at the Embassy.” And see how, if you had thought of them more in the same way as you’d think of your classmates, whether how you wrote and talked about them might have changed.

So, to summarize. It was a fun, well-written post that had one or two genuine insights. But, real bloggers and columnist alienate and bash people because they know that someone is going to read what they write and that it’s somehow going to matter. Since your blog is small, the the net good is so much lower than it would be for them. Finally, it might be worth thinking about whether you actually did these people something of an injustice in ignoring their own feelings.

My blog is indeed small, and I never thought what I wrote would make it back to the source. I feel like a gossiping schoolchild, whose friend has found out I’d been bashing them to get ahead myself. I still believe words are weak to convey truth. But I’ve been reminded how incredibly powerful writing can be.