A Canadian in Yemen: Where the streets have no name [Archives:2002/10/Culture]

March 4 2002

It was Day 8 of my life as a foreigner in Yemen as I sat in a dilapidated cargo office at the international airport in Sanaa. Here I am, one more person living in this place of one million souls.
Yemen is among the oldest inhabited regions of the world. And Im likely the only one with a Canada hockey cap.
On a wall in the airport office is a dated poster advertising a regional airline. Pictured, as if looking through an airliner cockpit, are popular global destinations, including New Yorks Statue of Liberty with a prominent backdrop of the World Trade Centers Twin Towers.
Fly with us
Fly with us and see the world, says the ad, somewhat innocently.
A clerk is filling out papers so I can collect my cargo thats arrived from Canada. He pleasantly 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, one of New Yorks districts, had showed me his hometown. It was a lifetime away.
Back at the cargo office, amidst bustling activity and overwhelmingly loud interactions, a manager informs me I need to return tomorrow because the office is about to close for the day. It was just 11:30 in the morning.
Thankfully an insider arrives 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.
Why the delay?
I am the computer, is the comment from a clerk at my last stop, while he printed my file in a large ledger.
Another local puts it this way, We have a very good administrative system, but a very stupid management system.
In shaa llah
It was a good introduction to the concept of in shaa llah, an expression Im discovering means, definitely yes, definitely no, or any shade in between. Yemen runs on its own clock.
With the help of a Korean doctor friend, I finally get my cargo onto a beaten Toyota 4×4 and we make our way through this citys dusty streets. As a Westerner, its a discovery to see women covered head-to-toe in their black baltas, and men with their jambias.
As a Canadian, Im also taken aback by the poverty. Considering life is harder outside the capital, I see why Yemen ranks 150th on the UNs human development scale. Im saddened to learn the average lifespan here is just 56 years.
I also see why Yemens rate of traffic deaths is among the worlds highest. Im told there are 14 streetlights in Sanaa and it seems half dont work. Im not familiar with the many intersections that run on a first-honk, first-drive basis.
My doctor friend and I reach home safely. My wife Jean Chamberlain-Froese, is also a doctor, a Canadian obstetrician who is here to help save the lives of the many Yemeni women who are dying during childbirth. She and I live on a typical Sanaa side street. Like many roads, it has no name.
So what is a Canadian to make of this ancient place that, until recently, has existed in oblivion to many Westerners?
With 20 million people and 60 million guns, even if most are for show, it seems like Americas old Wild West. In places like Canada, Yemen is known for incidents such as the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. That Osama bin Laden has roots here doesnt help Yemens image.
Still, I believe theres more to this country than accounts of inefficiency and violence. Thats what my New York City friend told me as he showed me the slums of his New York home on that Easter weekend. You have to look past what you see to know what its really like here, he said.
After attending an Easter church service with him, in the heart of what had previously been the most foul part of New Yorks Times Square, I understood his point. People are people. And while cultural change can be painfully slow, history shows it does happen.
In Yemens case, while its clear America is not loved here, I think of the trust that is developing. Its reported the U.S. is offering it up to $800 million, largely to bolster Yemens national security, and that is nothing to turn away from.
Im impressed also that Yemen is a fledgling democracy. Its government is not perfect, and needs to held to high standards. But Yemen has, at least on paper, rights such as freedom of the press, something unheard of in neighboring countries.
Happy Arabia
Ive also discovered the value of treating foreigners kindly is deeply engrained here. In fact, this region has been known for centuries as Happy Arabia. It reminds me of Newfoundland, an east-coast province in Canada that is poor economically, but rich in spirit. It has among Canadas friendliest people.
Interestingly, Yemen is from where the Queen of Sheba came, seeking Solomons wisdom. And 2000 years ago, the mrryh and frankincense given to the Christ Child by wise men from the East, in all likelihood, originated here. These commodities from southern Arabia were highly valued throughout the ancient civilized world for their pleasing aroma.
Is it reasonable to think, then, Yemen will ever again leave this type of sweetness for others to enjoy? The answer, I suspect, will be determined by how much the West and East can co-operate for the good of both.
American human rights activist Booker T. Washington says it well in his biography Up from Slavery, that one of the most vital questions that touch our American life is how to bring the strong, wealthy and learned into helpful touch with the poorest, most ignorant and humblest, and at the same time make one appreciate the vitalizing, strengthening influence of the other.
He asks, How shall we make the mansion on Beacon Street feel and see the need of the spirits in the lowliest cabin in Alabama cotton fields or Louisiana sugar-bottoms?
For the West, this same question remains: How will we make todays mansions of the developed world feel the need of the spirits of the lowliest places, in the proverbial cabins and cotton fields of places like Yemen? Will Westerners even try to tug on the trousers of our influential, or offer our own services when we have something of value?
Likewise, will Yemen be receptive to help when it is offered? Or will they allow their own fears and stereotypes of the West to close the door on people who can help them have a unique position in the Arab world?
Thomas Froese, ([email protected]) is a YemenTimes editor.