A view of Yemen from an English home [Archives:2002/50/Focus]

December 9 2002

As a child, I used to watch a television series called Dr Who. Dr Who had a tardis – a large box which resembled a police telephone box from the outside, but which from the inside was the size of a spaceship. This machine took him across dimensions of time and space instantly.
Now, as I sit in my English kitchen, looking at my postcards from Yemen, I long for a tardis. To be able to get up and walk into Sug al-Bagar or Bab al-Yaman or Bab Shu’ub. Maybe for a weekend, or maybe just for an afternoon’s qat chew, or an evening with my Yemeni women friends watching the Syrian sahrah. The cards on the wall make San’a seem so close, so real. A telephone call so clear, I could be calling my neighbor.
I left Yemen some time ago after spending almost two years in the country. The ease with which I stepped on to the plane to London belied the vast difference between my life in Yemen and my life in England. In England I ride a bicycle; my clothes are different; the weather is colder; I work in an office; I teach Arabic to undergraduate students; I shop in supermarkets; the bread, a symbol of life, is wrapped in plastic.
In Yemen I walk almost everywhere; I climb hundreds of stairs a week to visit friends; I do not have to answer e-mails; I rarely sit on my own; the bread, a symbol of life, is fresh.
Above all, in England, it is the fresh spontaneity of Yemen that I miss. I miss the daily contact with my women friends. I miss the control I have over my life. People often speak about how difficult and frustrating life can be in the Middle East. I think I know what they mean, but it is not my experience. It is in England where time is master that time is wasted, through the very routine of the country, the strict office hours, the timetables, the meetings, the energy-sapping appointments, the plastic wrappings.
In Yemen, the day stretches miraculously from the fresh, sharp light of early morning to the comforting warmth of late evening. I need no means to count the time in Yemen. Time is not my master here. The bread, reflecting life, is fresh.