Somewhere between Hamilton and Sana’a

October 4, 2003

Today, Jean and I, with our bright-eyed bambino, Elizabeth, are on a jet plane flying back to Yemen. Our condo in Ancaster is again a speck that has disappeared over the horizon.

Jean will continue to share her medical expertise, bringing hope to some of the world’s neediest women. And I return to my Middle East perch in the southern Arabian peninsula to look, think, and write.

Admittedly, I find this can be a blast. Politics, religion and culture intersect in the Middle East to form a volatile mix, one that continues to impact our changing world. I’m cognizant of the unique opportunity I have to correspond from such a critical, if not exotic place.

But Sana’a is not Hamilton. Sure, it’s a capital city with electricity and running water, at least most of the time. Our flat even has a flush john. Talk about the Hilton in the desert. But Yemen, a country of 20 million souls, is on the lower rung of the developing world ladder. And whoever first said “less is more” has obviously never lived there. Besides loved ones, here’s 10 things that I’ll personally miss.

10. Colour. Sana’a has various hues of grays and browns. How stimulating. It really does need a splash of paint. And trees. Maples.

9. The phone book. That’s right, Sana’a, a town of one million, has no directory. But then, our street is one of many with no name. It’s all not very conducive to investigative journalism.

8. Good music. Suffice to say, Yemen is not on Shania Twain’s world tour. Guess she doesn’t have a burqa.

7. Quality movies. Hollywood flicks can be rented. But they’re bootlegged, shot in theatres from who knows where. That’s why you see shadowy heads bobbing up and down at the end. If you get to the end. Movies are on two 45-minute discs. If the story is longer, guess what?

6. Canadian sports. We do have satellite TV. Unfortunately ESPN runs virtually wallto- wall soccer. The week’s highlight is our date- night, which often includes pizza and American Monday Night Football. That actually airs Tuesday nights. Incredibly, Canada’s big 2002 Olympic hockey gold wasn’t on the map in Yemen. Trauma.

5. The YMCA. There is a squash court in the country, but since it’s on private property, we are often left to salivate over it. Sana’a has a few pools, though, and one, outdoors at a western hotel, even has water most of the time. I swim lanes, often under the stars. In January, when it’s about 15C outside, the Arabs, bundled in winter coats, think I’m crazy.

4. Familiar food. Roasted chicken is everywhere, even on street corners. It’s quite OK. Milk, however, is long-life stuff I wouldn’t give the cat. Wash your veggies with bleach solution. And Sana’a has no Burger King, which is exactly where I ran, at 1 a.m., when returning to Canada after our last tour.

3. Safe driving. Get out the binder twine and coat hangers to keep these cars — old, wobbly, Toyotas, usually white — together. Intact windshields are rare. Functioning lights are optional. Just like the rules. Lots of people die. And auto insurance? What’s that?

2. The English language. I give the Yemeni room here, considering my Arabic stinks. But, as an editor at the Yemen Times, an English paper, imagine my frustration. Here’s a letter-to-the-editor excerpt. “You, European people, have striven to separate from women at liberty of a women is not to lose her hands of unscrupulous persons who abet and function them in the way they just like.” Did you get that?

1. Clean public washrooms. Sorry to end this way, but if you travel to parts of the developing world, avoid public washrooms like the plague. Also, make sure you always have certain accessories handy. And I don’t mean the newspaper. But, while we’re on the topic, if you have a good newspaper in your hands, give thanks. A diligent press helps build great countries. Like the one I’ve just left.

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October 4, 2003 • Posted in ,
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