Janet's Yemen Blog

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Location: Kansas, United States

Monday, December 26, 2005

More about 'Qat'

Yemen is said to be the most traditional country in the Middle East. It is not the most conservative although it may come close. The culture is very, very interesting. I can not describe it simply. The visible culture is for men. In the bazaar, there are lots of women shopping, but there are more men shopping. There are men everywhere; hanging out in the tea houses, on the street, lounging here and there. The strangest sight is to see men lounging on the median on the major roads. Many, many men chew qat - a leaf that is a mild stimulant. Every afternoon there are hundreds, thousands of men chewing qat. They make themselves comfortable on the sidewalks, at the bus stops anywhere and everywhere. It is just plain strange. They stuff the leaves into one side of their mouths and by the end of the afternoon, their cheeks are huge. Some men look as though they have a tennis ball in their mouths. There are men who have a more moderate approach - like the men in the small grocery store where I shop. Leah and I always tease them about the qat. Qat chewing is a Yemen phenomenon; it is not a habit in the rest of the Middle East.

Buses and AK47s

At first glance, a visitor may not perceive Aden as a safe place because there are men walking around with AK47s. Try to imagine that you are on a bus whizzing through town, the bus stops and a man with an AK47 gets on. It means nothing. He is a soldier or a policeman going to work. This has happened several times. I can walk four blocks from my apartment and see probably six or eight men with these guns. I am not exaggerating. The first sign you see at the Sheraton when you walk in is: NO GUNS OR JAMBIYAS ALLOWED. AK47s aren’t the only guns around either. Leah and I were at a Yemeni restaurant in the bazaar one day when a man and his wife walked in. The man had a cell phone, a jambiya (the curved knife) AND a pistol in his belt. I laughed and told Leah I hoped he didn’t confuse the cell phone and the pistol and accidentally shoot himself in the ear while we were eating our chicken and rice.

Some of you may recall my bus adventures from last year. To think that was just a taste of what was to come. Mini busses are everywhere here. During the week, I never have to wait more than a minute for a bus. On Friday, the holy day, I might have to wait several minutes or even take a taxi but otherwise, there are hundred of busses. The busses aren’t marked with their destinations. There are no signs posted that display bus routes. What you do is, you go to the roadside and point to the district where you want to go. Clever, really. The bus is barreling down the road, you point to Crater, or Maala, or Tawahi, or Seera, the bus jerks to the side, brakes screeching, you hop on and off you go. The longest bus ride costs 30 riyals, about 17 cents. If you can avoid it, a woman does not sit beside a man and vice versa. Sometimes a driver will make a man move so the woman can sit alone. When the bus is almost full, the rules no longer hold.Those are the local busses.

I have ridden the large bus twice to the capital, Sana’a, and that bus trip is quite a different experience. Sana’a is about 6 or 7 hours away and the bus is inadequately air conditioned and jam packed. The road winds through hills and over bad roads and through inconvenient villages. There are hairpin curves and the descent from the plateau down onto the plains of Aden is very long and twisting. Men smoke and chew qat, throwing the stems and bad leaves onto the floor. I took this bus about a month ago from Sana’a to Aden.

The attendant came down the aisle passing out small black plastic bags. Ah, I thought, litter bags - good, because so much trash accumulates fruit peel, gum wrappers, Kleenex. Wrong! Very wrong. These were barf bags. I figured that out after I noticed the woman across the aisle using hers for that purpose. THAT almost made me sick but I focused on positive thoughts and averted the disaster. The boy in front of me needed his black bag. The woman across from me used about four but she had extra because when the daughter got sick, she didn’t get to the black bag in time.

Maybe I should describe that experience more fully but I really don’t want to. I was miserable, but I was saved from abject self pity by that same poor woman across the aisle. She was totally veiled, in black polyester of course. I could see the heat radiating through her window. She and her THREE children shared two seats. One child was perhaps not quite a year old and the woman had to hold that baby the entire trip. Not only hold the baby, but nurse her as well. I looked over once and the baby was nursing and the poor woman was leaning over the baby being sick again. Oh, golly. What a trip.

Teaching in Yemen

Tonight I felt goose bumps for the first time this fall and that made me happy. I have to say though that it is almost midnight and I was in the shower with cool water. From what I have been told, I will not have to worry about goose bumps outdoors, ever, though according to the director, I may want a jacket in January but maybe not.I like my work, but I can not be enthusiastic right now because it is our "Friday" - Wednesday, actually, because our work week is Saturday to Wednesday.

I work for two schools: AMIDEAST a non governmental organization that has been in the Middle East for over 50 years, and Aden University. At Aden University, I am teaching writing to second year students who are in the English language degree program. I have students who are relatively fluent and students who really struggle, all in the same class. I have 4 classes, each with about 30 students and I am teaching writing, so don’t think I am having an easy time. Teaching English as a second language (ESL) is complex, and teaching writing to ESL students is even more complex. Fortunately, I love it. Actually, the work gives me terrible headaches and produces an inner tension that is quite overwhelming, but I like the work because when class is over, it feels sooooo good.

Most of the young women in my classes are veiled all I see is their eyes. I like to know my students by name but the classes are large and I don’t think I will be able to learn to identify the women. I do recognize some of my veiled students here at AMIDEAST but there are only a few in each class.

I also like my neighborhood. Khormaksar is one of the more stable districts in the city. A few blocks away is one of the president’s houses that he may, or may not, use when he is in town. That makes the district even safer because there is a large police presence all the time. Not that I ever feel in danger. I feel quite safe here and have never felt even a little nervous or fearful, except when I am in a vehicle. The people in the neighborhood are very gracious to us.

We have a strip of shops nearby where we buy most of our groceries. The clerks are still trying to teach us Arabic numbers. Tonight my bill was 465 and the clerk wouldn’t give me my change until I pronounced the amount correctly. I was having a little trouble (make that a LOT of trouble) and he handed me a piece of paper and a pen and made me write the words. Four or five people were standing line and it made not the least difference to him. I got the words out for the amount due then had to say the amount of my change. Ahhh. This is the kindness we deal with wherever we go. There are two neighborhood restaurants where we usually eat and the waiters are similarly kind.