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At first I thought it was a fireworks display. We’d just had one ourselves, a small event at the Swedish Cultural Centre, and although in Yemen two such celebrations in close succession would have been unlikely (even one must have been a rare affair), I had never heard such a frenzy of explosions anywhere else before.
It was November 1996 and I was working my first job as an English teacher in Yemen. The burning heat of August had given over to torrential afternoon downpours in September, but now, in early winter, the land was green and flowered; the bright blue skies breezy and cool.
The explosions bursting out into the night air were gunfire. British-born Prince Naseem was a national hero in Yemen, and had just won an important fight to retain his international featherweight title. The country had gone wild, young men shooting off rounds in wild jubilation. Later, at the hospital in Jibla, I would learn how damaging this tradition could be, but that night, as the city crackled and blazed outside my window, I was simply entranced.
Then, as indeed it is now, Yemen was an isolated, poor and largely forgotten place, abandoned by the international community after choosing to side with Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Water – be it for washing, cooking or drinking — was bought in jerry cans; electricity sputtered and died in sporadic bursts, and in the days before internet, communication with home was either along poorly connected telephone lines or by regular post.
I had just graduated from university, a degree in Arabic fresh in my hand. I’d studied and traveled in Egypt, Syria and the West Bank, but Yemen, even in those days, remained the holy grail of Middle Eastern travel. It was hard to get to. It was rough. And in my mind’s eye it captured the magic and mystery of the Arabian Nights. I wasn’t disappointed.
Once the nation’s capital, Taiz is a small town nestled among the hills of the Yemeni highlands, and as in much of the rest of the country, many of its older structures are built of mud, giving it an earthy, intrinsically desert feel. The streets are narrow and close; family life hidden behind firmly closed doors, the wanderer at times feeling like he’s just landed on the moon.
I recall my early days exploring the souq. Goods were laid out on the dirt floor, bright plastic washing tubs, pomegranates and custard apples, Bedouin trinkets in glittering silver and piles of bushy green leaves. For a plant of such considerable national importance, Qat has a surprisingly un-prepossessing appearance. It looks rather like privet or bay, and were it not for its reputation as a narcotic it would surely attract little attention. In Yemen though, Qat is big money, large quantities of land being devoted to its cultivation and as many man-hours lost to its consumption. It was certainly far easier to find than many other basic items we Westerners coveted.
The gunfire continued to crackle out across the town. Should I have been scared? Not really, the muzzles were after all being pointed at the stars, but it seems incredible to me now that I wasn’t more alarmed. It is part of Yemen’s mystique, the gun culture. As much a part of daily life as prayer. I remember a visit to my local bank to change a traveller’s cheque. Wads of cash in tiny denominations stood piled high on every available counter, every spare inch of floor space, whilst the customers — all armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing traditional daggers in their belts — carried out their transactions as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Locals offered to sell me arms in the market; and at the school where I taught, parents were asked to kindly leave their guns at the door, although few bothered to heed this request.
I travelled extensively, accompanied by a small group of British colleagues. We camped on the beach in Mocha, where coffee was famously traded before the town gave its name to that particular blend. We swam with lobster and sting-ray in the warm waters of the Red Sea, local fisherman cooking up their catch for our evening meal. I made friends with a band of young female teachers who initiated me in the secret ways of Yemeni women, sitting for hours whilst henna was applied painstakingly with a pin to my hands and feet; or having incense wafted in smoky curls through my clothes and hair. We brewed tin pots of hot sweet tea, cooked up with cardamom and condensed milk to make a far superior version of what we, in our Western Starbucks culture, like to term “chai”. And I was even taught to pray.
There is something deeply moving about active faith. About worshippers coming together as one, in shared communion. And in Yemen, belief is so universal, so absorbed into the routine of day-to-day life, that it is hard not to get swept up in the momentum, carried away as if on an enchanted carpet to some higher, spiritual plane.
I had spent a few days in the town of Ibb and was absolutely transported by the place. More than any other town I visited, Ibb moved me deeply. Perhaps it was the little boys, diving excitedly into the murky green depths of a stone pool outside the mosque, or the wizened old man leaning on a cane who, wrapped in a thin and dusty robe, eyes lined with kohl, appeared as an apparition, a ghostly form, materialising from among the dust and debris of the street vendors’ carts. And especially, I remember nightfall. The call to prayer soaring out above the town as the sky turned the darkest shade of indigo. The children pulling me literally by the cuffs to the ladies’ prayer room, converting me as we went. I was with one of my local teacher friends who, whispering, guided me through my ablutions. Despite her gentle assurance, I was nonetheless grateful for the power-cut that plunged the room into darkness almost exactly as we knelt ourselves down to the floor.
I am a little ashamed to admit that I was not then, nor am I now in fact, a Muslim; although as so often in Yemen, in that remote and ancient place, I was tempted to journey along that path. One is so easily caught up in the fervour there, so often incited to utter the articles of faith that it is hard to remain on the outside, impossible not to be drawn — if only out of curiosity — in. I was privileged to be granted a rare glimpse of this sacred world, and to this day feel blessed to know the gentle touch of its grace.
But it was not all beauty and charm. There was the theft of money from my colleague’s flat; the disappearance of the accessories for his treasured mountain bike. There was the gun fight in the valley below the school – a tribal affair that had me fearing for the children’s lives. The rats nesting in the decrepit washing-machine, bouts of dysentery and the constant guarding against Malaria. There were the cruel penalties meted out to law-breakers by a justice system still functioning on the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ model. On the day of the crash, the police in Jibla told me they’d arrested the dead driver’s brother. They wanted to know how I wanted him punished.
But I have got ahead myself. Before the accident, I had only visited Jibla once, on a weekend jolly. It is a pretty place, a cluster of simple houses surrounded by hilly fields and farmland. I have pictures of us exploring the wadi, strolling down the dry rocks of the riverbed, enjoying a picnic of grapes and bread in the shade of a tree. A donkey, so laden with grass that only four hoven feet can be seen, feeling its way hesitantly down the path. We were tourists that time. Faces smiling for the camera. It was one of the last weekends we spent away as a group.
A few days after the fireworks, we headed off to Hammam Damt. The attraction there is the thermal spring, whose warm and reputedly therapeutic waters feed directly into the nearby bath-house. We were curious about the neighbouring volcanoes, for although extinct their colossal forms begged to be explored. They rose up in a rocky moonscape from the rugged scrub, their jagged walls inviting a climb. I remember the day well, scrambling over the pinky-red rock, perching hot and breathless on the crater’s rim. I recall gazing down into the turquoise green pond of its pit as the sun dropped gently in the sky, bathing the scene in a rich, golden hue. We ate in a tiny café, at a scrubbed wooden table, our hands the only available tools with which to shovel beans and egg into our hungry mouths. We borrowed a candle from the hotel owner so we could read after dark, our shadows creeping tall and watchful up the bare and whitewashed wall.
Should we have guessed then that this was the end? Should we have taken it as a sign? Looking back it is easy to attribute some sort of spiritual symbolism to the scene: the coming together of friends, the communal meal, an evening spent solemn and quiet in the elemental simplicity of a flame-lit room. But despite the way Yemen sometimes made you feel, this was 1994 and not the Middles Ages. We were a group of recent university graduates, all born and raised in the UK. We teased one another. We laughed. We moaned about our employer and plotted a way to negotiate time off for Christmas. We mooned, missing our partners back home, salivating about bacon and other foods we craved. Our thoughts were anything but prophetic or philosophical. That would all come later.
Public transport in Yemen is a tricky business. There is the obligatory seat swapping as you get into a mixed-sex cab. There is the shove and the squeeze as bags of groceries, children and sometimes even chickens or goats are crammed in too. There is the music, the cigarette smoke, the blast of hot air wafting in through the open windows, and there is of course the Qat. On that particular trip it was sat in an open plastic bag between the driver and the other travellers up front, all of them chewing, glassy-eyed as we sped along. The taxi was a Peugeot 504 estate, its three rows of seats filled by a total of 11 adults, whilst a man and his two children squatted uncomfortably in the trunk. We bumped and clattered down the mountain road, the views breathtaking as the cliffs dropped suddenly and sharply to the valley below.
And that was how I returned to Jibla. To the cool and quiet of its Baptist Hospital. Our car hit a truck head on, killing eight people outright and injuring many more. I awoke in a sunlit room, an elderly Yemeni tribeswoman in the bed next door, quietly invoking Allah.
There are times in life when you feel like an observer, like you are floating somewhere outside yourself, no longer really in control. Heavily medicated, those weeks in hospital passed in a weightless fog. The staff were Baptist missionaries, kindly people working long hours far from home. They helped with childbirth, with disease, and of course with the injuries caused by stray bullets. One senior nurse told me that a large part of their time was taken up with accidental gunshot wounds — the type a win by Prince Naseem could so easily induce. In the light of all that was to happen, this knowledge carries a particularly bitter sting. For in December 2002, six years after my own treatment there, an Islamist gunman burst into the Jibla clinic, his weapon disguised as a baby under his coat. He killed a number of senior staff, including Dr Martha Myers, who had stitched a wound to my head with such expert care that now, twenty years later, it sketches a barely visible shadow across my brow.
There had been fireworks and there had been prayer. Science as there was God. For over a year now, Yemen has been pounded by Saudi-led airstrikes, its people – already so desperately poor — subjected to the hardship and deprivation of war. The region has descended into sectarian and ideological conflict. In Europe and America too, indeed across the globe, we have had to adapt to new forms of violence, as attacks like those that occurred all those years ago in that tiny mountain clinic have become increasingly common. It is as though we have forgotten how to co-exist. As though we are being asked to choose. And although it certainly wasn’t perfect, I long for that more innocent time. A time of greater openness and trust. A time when wads of cash could sit idle on the floor of a bank, and a child could take a stranger by the hand and lead her simply to a small room to pray.