Janet's Yemen Blog

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Location: Kansas, United States

Thursday, March 09, 2006


I want talk about another issue in the Islamic world that some of you have commented upon and that is the violence that has shaken other Islamic countries over the Danish cartoons. Yemen has not suffered any violence because of this. All the stores across the street have stopped selling Danish products—most of the cheese and all of the butter was Danish. There is a sign in the window of my primary shop that announces, in Arabic and English, that they are boycotting Danish products. I do not anticipate any trouble. Aden has a very, very small foreign population and the Yemenis here are very kind and gracious. The only troubles foreigners have here are getting kidnapped and those are usually a few people who are part of a large tour group visiting some of the archaeological sites in central Yemen.

I have not had a single moment here when I felt in any danger—except in
the taxi ride from Sana’a to Aden last month. That was a harrowing experience—the driver and his friend were chewing qat, smoking, drinking water (necessary when one chews qat), changing the cassettes and talking…and driving very fast. I sincerely had to give my life up to God because it was not safe in the hands of those guys.

Qat Again

Recently, Leah’s dad came for a visit. Seeing Aden through the eyes of
a visitor—as though for the first time—was interesting. Why, he wanted
to know, don’t they finish the buildings? Well, it is true that there are a lot of buildings that are unfinished. Previous regimes began and did not finish, or the civil war or the revolution got in the way, or the money ran out or…who knows. Other building were finished but were damaged in the civil war or the revolution or…who knows…and they sit in their concrete majesty with gaping windows and doors while the ever present crows chatter on window sills and rooftops. One problem is that everything is concrete and stone. If a building is demolished, there remains a mountain of concrete to haul away. Once you notice how many chunks of concrete, from small to gigantic, decorate the city, you see that it is everywhere. It would take a lot of cleaning to clean it all up. So, there is an air of abandonment that permeates the city.

The second feature that disturbed her father was the men who lie around
chewing qat, or lie around doing nothing. I don’t know if I have commented on this before. Qat is a leaf that is a mild stimulant and many Yemeni men chew it every afternoon. Most men meet inside homes or inside odd makeshift spaces that have been constructed from abandoned metal containers. I think I can attach a picture of such a place though it isn’t clear because I was trying to surreptitiously take the photo from inside the taxi. I was waiting on the driver and his friend to come back from buying qat. These ‘containers’ are at the qat markets and the men buy the qat and, I suppose, rent a space…I don’t know. But those men who do not go to homes or containers just lie around on the sidewalks, propped up on a concrete block or a bedroll or cast off trash that is the right size for leaning against. To me the absolute strangest place that they congregate is on the median between the lanes of the highways. The median is about 4 feet wide and five or six men are propped up on whatever, chewing qat.


Being away from my kids sometimes makes me melancholy, and when I am
feeling melancholy, I torment myself by looking at the large world map
on my living room wall and imagine that I see myself standing on the desert coast of Yemen. I am looking westward across the Red Sea and Central Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean and the East Coast of America, and finally I see Kansas—my children and my green home. At some point in this vain imagining, I must tilt my eyes northward because here in Aden, I am at 13 degrees north latitude. That is why when many of you are digging out the wool sweaters, I am still sweating in the almost 90 degree heat…and sunbathing and swimming in the Indian Ocean. Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea are just a few millimeters away on the map.

Each time I sit down to write, I think of the athan—the eerie call to
prayer that I hear five times a day here in Yemen. In Azerbaijan I often wrote about the call to prayer, azan as it is called there, and the other worldliness of the recorded voice echoing through the alleyways of Lenkoran. There were two mosques there; here, there are at least four mosques in my neighborhood alone—probably twenty or more in Aden. The muezzin here are real people and four loud speakers on the corners of the minarets magnify their call. Again I am in a city where the buildings are low, and the calls to prayer drift and collide and slowly rebound from the stone and concrete of the shops and houses. The athan sounds five times each day. On Fridays, the Sabbath day in Islam, the evening athan is followed by about a half hour of prayer, exhortation and praise—all over the loud speakers of the mosques. I irreverently call them dueling mosques.

The truth is I love the call to prayer. I love the sound of the throaty Al….lah—the word that begins the call and winds in and out of the prayers. I wish I could recreate the sounds of four muezzins calling the faithful. The locations are not synchronized. Each has its own muezzin and I suppose the prayers are varied. I don’t know. I just know that the words move slowly through the humid air and they bound from the rocky landscape. They rumble, and roll and blend. One fades, another takes prominence. Al……lah……..

“It is all Inshallah.” God willing—a familiar and comfortable rejoinder from my past but an expression seldom heard in our modern world. Not here. It is all Inshallah. I say to someone, “I will phone you tomorrow.” She says, “Inshallah.” I say, “See you next week.” And she says, “Inshallah.” I want to say, “What do you mean!? Do you know something I don’t know?! What’s going to happen??” Then I remember again, it is all just “Inshallah.” I was visiting my friend Lynne and telling her how much I love Yemen and she said, “I can imagine that you do because it is so openly spiritual.” And it is true, that is one of the reasons I love Yemen.

It is also true that Muslims and Christians are alike in that only a few are devout and regularly answer the call to prayer—at least here in Yemen. All are supposed to answer the call to prayer and to reach my 4 o’clock class, I have to tiptoe around the back of the group of students who pray in a small space in the school. Our school also has prayers rooms outside for both the men and the women.