SANA’A, YEMEN – Jean is back in Hamilton to put final touches on McMaster University’s Nov. 8 symposium on international women’s health. My wife has left me to fend for myself. But rather than take on our kitchen stove, I’ve decided it’s better to get kidnapped.
Yemen is up there with Colombia and Russia among the best places on Earth to get snatched. The thing about kidnapping here, though, is that it’s a kind of cultural education. No, really. How often can you see a semi- automatic Kalashnikov so close?
Kidnappers here are usually tribal folk. They visit checkpoints on rural roads to get tourists eager to see Yemen’s ancient sites. Some roads in Mareb, where excavators are uncovering more ruins of the fabled Queen of Sheba, are kidnapping alleys.
In the past five years, 114 foreign tourists and 43 expatriate workers have been nabbed across Yemen. Italians go missing most often, followed by French and Germans.
Kidnapped Americans are down the list at just nine. Canadians are barely on the map. Of the 114, five died thanks to “rescue” operations of Yemen’s military. That included one British-Canadian, killed in an unusual 1998 incident, which led to the execution of one kidnapper.
But 109 hostages have walked free, most after just a few days. And in five years, some 350,000 tourists have visited Yemen.
So what’s the risk?
About 30,000 kidnappings now occur around the world annually. But the Yemeni, God bless them, really do have a liberating approach. Parliamentary speaker Abdullah Ahmman put it this way: “Kidnapping is part of Yemen tourism. It’s an adventure for tourists, because they’ll end up learning about customs of the tribes as well as their good hospitality.”
So while leaders of tribes — communities of hundreds or thousands — negotiate with Yemen’s government for half-decent roads, water and health centres, or maybe the release of a brother from jail, they’ll feed you well.
Italian tourist Giorgio Bonanomi couldn’t be happier. “Too bad it’s not possible to organize holidays like this. It was fantastic,” he said, after his kidnappers fed him lamb and exotic fruits.
One tourist company owner went so far as to set aside $11,000 monthly for customer ransoms. Hey, bring the wife and kids. Tourism here needs it. It’s lost about $1.5 billion since Sept. 11.
Funny thing, some Yemeni feel embarrassed by it all. They think their country’s image is being tarnished, and blame conspirators from “foreign lands.” That’s code for Saudi Arabia.
Then again, this culture doesn’t encourage one to accept blame for much. One doesn’t admit to burning dinner, if one can avoid it.
For example, some Yemeni still maintain the wind is behind the terror attack on the French supertanker Limburg. More on that later.
Chinese accountants, French honeymooners and Polish diplomats have all been snagged by hospitable tribesmen. For my money, though, I want to go with a bunch of Germans. Having a German passport with Berlin as my birthplace will help. So will the blond hair and blue eyes.
Indeed, Germans are big here. Yemen is Germany’s developing world pet project.
Ambassador Werner Zimprich just announced $55 million in German aid this year.
In addition to expatriate workers, Germans visit for festivals to share poetry, food and, naturally, beer, a rather uncommon commodity in the dry Muslim world.
I’m not a big drinker myself. But as Abdullah says, it’s about cultural exchange.
Peeking in at recent Oktoberfest celebrations at a swanky hotel here, I saw not only beer kegs and an oompahpah band from Bavaria, but bony-kneed Yemeni running around in green felt hats and Alpine leather shorts. I couldn’t wait for them to yodel. The point is, gangs of kidnapped Germans could spread good cheer across Yemen’s impoverished countryside.
I have only one fear. Iraq. U.S. President George W. Bush had already slapped around German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for not supporting U.S. plans for Saddam. They’ll get over it. But if the Germans spread beer through Yemen, some may eventually reach Baghdad. Oh, the consequences.
Anyway, wearing a ball cap and runners apparently boosts the odds of getting abducted. I’d better get ready.
Tell Jean not to worry. The stove is turned off.