A short story”On my birthday” [Archives:2003/660/Culture]

August 18 2003

By Khalid Abdo Saleh Al-Razihi
For the Yemen Times

I was almost lost and handicapped by my background and hardship. My life was characterized by mystery and the fear of the unknown. I always had to look for an escape from the reality of who I was and search in a mirage for whatever possibility that may save my pride and dignity.
I met her when I was a small boy and was impressed by her appearance and kindness, which made me think that the world she came from was a beautiful one. Seeing her and listening to the language she spoke was of a great joy to me. I used to follow her when she walked around in the village, so did some other boys. This is how I was first motivated to learn English.
At school, English was my favorite subject which I exerted all efforts to learn. Before I finished my secondary education I sent her a letter in English. It was the first letter I ever sent to anyone in the world. In Yemen people rarely send post mails. If they want to send letters or parcels to anybody, say for instance, to a migrant in Saudi Arabia, they would wait until they find someone to carry and hand them in person. In my letter to her I wanted to say that I was inspired and motivated by her. I wanted, at the same time, to establish a bridge of friendship for her stay in Razih had its influence on me. I also wanted to learn more about the world she comes from. I made another attempt by sending a second letter. This time I wanted to introduce myself as someone who then was working for a British well-known institution. The third had it when a Scottish friend told me that she was in Sana'a on a visit to Yemen.
I called her at the French Institute for Yemeni studies:
– Hello, May I speak to Ms. Shelagh Weir?
– Speaking.
– I introduced myself and asked her if it was OK to meet her for a short conversation. Her answer was positive. I headed to her residency right after I finished the phone call with my Scottish friend. I had no confidence in myself. She noticed the state of nervousness I was in and started to ask me some casual interrogative questions so as to save me the embarrassment of providing lengthy answers. Most of the questions were about my upbringing and family status.
– “I'll be your aunt in London”. That was the last sentence she said while shaking hand to say bye.
What she said was like a torchlight that gave a hope to my broken soul and some strength to face frustration and the feeling of humiliation. She also gave me her book “Qat in Yemen” signed by her as a gift. I was extremely so happy that I started to tell the story of my meeting with her to all colleagues as the only source of pride I had and thus had succeeded in making many more friends (English friends). Whenever I get asked about how I learned English, I would say that I was inspired by Ms. Shelagh Weir, an English lady, who carried out a field anthropological research on the community in my village.
There was a swift change in my life. My colleagues and employer started to trust me. It was quite hard for English people to trust someone from Sa'ada having been misled about the killings and revenge problems attributed to some provinces in Yemen including Sa'ada. Trust and respect reached its peak when I received an invitation by her through the British museum. Only then, I felt that I was confident enough to face the world. She received me at the Gatwick and drove me with her to her cottage in E. Sussex. I was little worried and afraid of failure. The first few hours were congested with wonders on her part. Then all diminished as she gave me a bar of chocolate at my amazement of the over-green scenery of land and road and railway networks. The next day she took me for a walk with her stepson, Mike, which I considered one of the most fascinating days in my life.
The month went very fast and I felt really sad when she reminded me of reconfirming my reservation. She never stopped checking on me ever since. Her letters were always the way out for a lot of problems that faced me. She kept supporting me by money and books until I finished my college in Sana'a. In one year, I felt I had gained what would have taken me years to learn. She sent me another invitation in the summer of 1994 which I considered another training course for me. It was more like to learn the English Culture i.e. to be alert, understanding, obey positive imperatives listen and be submissive so as to achieve a success. This is how I interpreted the overall goal of my second trip to England.
I was embarrassed to learn that I only knew very little about the community I was born and grown up in, at the same time, was impressed to realize how much information she knew about it. Coming to her office on daily basis to help translating tapes and tribal documents made me only discover my ignorance about the tribal system. Her office was full of documents about tribal disputes and the way tribesmen resolved them. I found it really hard to help in doing this job especially when it came to translating from the unusual legal dialect of Razih into English. It could also be because her office used to remind me of that complicated tribal structure which I resented to accept as a reliable system for governing people. The resentment feeling would get worse when approaching the fact that while I long to enjoy the freedom in the reachable world I have arrived in; the culture still followed me and interrupted this enjoyment.
In the second trip things just went ok. After I returned to Yemen, I was not satisfied about my performance. However, she made me excuses due to her rich experience in this field. She never stopped checking on me or supporting although I was about to announce my bankruptcy with regard to my knowledge of the tribal law. She was and still is very persistent. She supported me until the British Council, Yemen, granted me a scholarship to study Translation for my MA in London.
There, I never felt lonely or stranger. I had a lot of fun during my stay in England. She was very supportive and kind.
In short, she was not just a friend, she was a miracle person:
– She brought me back to life.
– She gave me the necessary strength to face the world.
– She supported me to live with my full pride and dignity
– She worked hard to introduce me to important people whom I benefited from.
– She traveled to Razih despite all difficulties so as to introduce me to my own people, which was important for my stability and manly existence.
– She surprised me with “a handing- certificate party” which was attended by my friends and her friends as well as the director of the British council.
– She put me together and protected what I have been working on for years which are my refusal to be downgraded and to exist as a full dignified person.
Therefore and seriously speaking, I am fully indebted to her for my life, dignity, manly existence, education and understanding.
I do feel the burden of my debt and small for all that she did to me.