Adjusting to life as a foreigner

February 15, 2002

SANA’A, YEMEN – Today is Day 8 of my life as a foreigner in Yemen. I’m in a dilapidated cargo office at the international airport in Sanaa, a capital city that sits on a mountain plateau 2,000 metres above sea level.

Almost one million souls live here in what is one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world.

I think I’m the only one wearing a Team Canada cap.

On a wall is a now-dated poster advertising a regional airline. Pictured, as if looking through an airliner cockpit, are popular global destinations, including New York’s Statue of Liberty with a prominent backdrop of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

“Fly with us and see the world,” says the ad, somewhat innocently.

A clerk is filling out papers so I can collect my cargo that’s arrived from Canada. Over his shoulder he wears a dirty mushadda, a red-and-white checkered shawl that many men also easily wrap around their heads. He is pleasant and proudly asks if I prefer my form to be filled out in English or Arabic.

“English,” I say.

“Are you American?” he then asks.

“Canadian,” I respond.

He smiles and nods, “Canadian okay. Better than American.”

I glance at the poster and recall a meaningful visit I once made to New York over an Easter weekend. A friend who grew up in Brooklyn showed me his home. It seems a lifetime away.

Back at Sanaa’s cargo office, amidst bustling activity and overwhelmingly loud interactions, a manager now informs me I need to return “tomorrow” because the office is closing. It’s 11:30 in the morning.

Then an insider comes to my aid, and after a couple of hours of paper shuffling, a dozen signatures, several payments and trips between office and shipping building, my bins of personal belongings are released to me.

With the help of a Korean doctor friend, I finally get my cargo onto a beaten Toyota 4×4. He’s still learning to navigate the English language, but skilfully drives the load through this city’s dusty, exhaust-fumed streets.

We’re in the midst of juxtaposed scenes not unlike those seen on Canada’s national news. There may be goats on a roadside alongside a Land Cruiser. Women are covered head-to-toe in shapeless black baltas. Men commonly have jambias, ceremonial daggers, around their waists.

I’m taken aback by the poverty and some faces look as worn as old maps. The average lifespan here is just 56 years.

With an assortment of jalopies, one also sees why Yemen’s rate of traffic deaths is among the world’s highest. I’m told there are 14 streetlights in Sanaa. Half don’t work. Hundreds of other intersections operate on a kind of first-honk, first-drive basis.

We reach home safely. My wife, Hamilton obstetrician Jean Chamberlain, and I live on a typical side street. It is paved, but like most roads, it has no name. It isn’t Westdale. But our ground- level house apartment has a western-style flush toilet. And we’re thankful.

So what can anyone make of this ancient place that, until recently, has existed in oblivion to most of us? Can it be understood?

With 20 million people and 60 million guns, even if most are for show, it seems like the Wild West. The government doesn’t have control of rural areas, which are run by tribal factions. So international terrorists can use isolated districts to plan mayhem such as the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. That Osama bin Laden has roots here doesn’t help Yemen’s image.

Still, there’s more to this country than accounts of inefficiency and violence. That’s what my New York City friend told me as he showed me the slums of his New York home on that weekend. “You have to look past what you see to know what it’s really like here,” he said.

After attending an Easter service with him, in the heart of what had once been the seediest strip of Times Square, I understood his point. People are people. And while cultural change can be painfully slow, history shows it does happen.

In Yemen’s case, consider the developing trust it has with the United States. It’s reported the U.S. is offering it up to $800 million, largely to bolster Yemen’s national security.

Consider also that Yemen is not only a fledgling democracy in a sea of theocratic Muslim states, but, for the past decade, its law has enshrined relative freedom of the press.

I’ve also discovered that the value of treating foreigners kindly is deeply engrained on the collective psyche here.

Is it reasonable to think, then, Yemen will ever again leave this type of sweetness for others to enjoy? The answer, I suspect, involves us.

How will we make the developed world feel and see the need of the spirits of the lowliest places, like Yemen?

Will we even try to tug on the trousers of our influential, or offer our own services when we have something of value? Or, will we allow petty fears to chase us away?

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February 15, 2002 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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