About the Childish Joy of Destroying  Other People’s Gardens! [Archives:1999/52/Reportage]

December 28 1999

I am the foreign wife of a Yemeni, and have been living in this country for many years. We as foreigners being married to Yemenis see life here quite differently from foreigners like diplomats or development workers. They are always under the protection of their organizations or their employer, who provide them with nice houses and gardens. 
At the beginning of my life in Yemen, my husband and I lived in Rawdha, when it was still beautiful. It was a green village with gardens of grape-vines and pomegranate trees walled by handmade mud walls. There were cisterns with clear water, and many blooming mimosa trees. All the houses were made of mud. No ugly cement bricks or corrugated iron sheets destroyed the harmony of the landscape of green plantations, beige mud-brick architecture with simple white ornaments and the green of the distant mountains. 
Then we moved from Rawdha to Sanaa, from the cozy mud tower to a simple stone “villa” as they are called. It was a shock to be surrounded by a gray cement brick-wall and to have dry dirt instead of a garden. With a lot of effort, I turned the small area around the house into a blossoming oasis. From seeds, I grew a huge passion-fruit vine which covered the entrance and protected us from nosy people looking into our house from higher buildings. 
Yet one day without any warning the landlord sent workers to dig up my garden, because he wanted to put pillars around the house to support a second floor. This he decided to build without giving us notice, or without lowering the rent. 
From one day to another, my quiet life was over. I had to keep the curtains closed all day. Outside, workers dug ditches. I could reach my entrance only by balancing over wooden planks. I often had to carry heavy shopping bags, much to the enjoyment of gloating workmen, who just stood and watched me. 
Since my collection of plants slowly disappeared under the heels of the workers, I started to dig up some of them and give them to my friends. Immediately, the landlord showed up. His family was always watching me from behind the curtains of their house next door to report to my husband any “indecent behavior.” He claimed the plants to be his property and forbade me to dig them out. I exploded and screamed at him. As a response I only got laughter, being a foreigner and a woman, I was completely helpless. 
A Yemeni woman usually has some protection in her house. It is considered shameful that any male outside the close family sees her face, calls her by her name, etc. However, many people seem to think this does not apply to a foreign woman. She can be approached, seen, insulted and as in my case, accused. 
The above mentioned landlord accused me of having damaged a wall, of being an alcoholic, etc. On the other hand, it happened many times that the same landlord’s son rang our bell drunk, because his father (a qadhi) did not want to let him sleep in his house, so he wanted to sleep in our garden. 
After the roof was eventually opened to make way for the staircase to the next floor, we moved out of that house. This time we were lucky to find a nice mud-brick house, but it had no garden. It did not matter because I had sworn never to plant anything anymore in a landlord’s garden. Instead I enjoyed a nice view into the tops of pepper trees from our windows. I had saved some plants from my former garden and started with them a roof terrace. 
The landlord of this house posed a different problem. He was quite old, and while workers were fixing the outer faade of the house (no great disturbance), he demanded to come in to watch them. He pretended to be so feeble that he had to be helped up the staircase, just in order to be able to touch me. He also asked me to kiss his ring. I really wondered how strange Yemenis can be! 
Finally came the time to move into our own house. It was an old one, which we bought from a senior official. This was another disaster because the former owner regretted the sale afterwards. In his anger, he dismantled everything possible, including a water pump, faucets, electric sockets, even a big tree from the garden which for sure has not survived being transplanted. But I did not mind. 
Finally I had my own garden and started to work right away on the devastated piece of land. After a short time, the surrounding ugly walls were covered with shrubs and vines. The berries of a big lantana Camara bush attracted many small birds. A Yemeni lily, collected once from a wadi, finally blossomed, an apricot tree in the middle of the garden grew big enough to sit under its shade. 
I thought that now finally I could enjoy my own garden. However, it turned out that the neighbor next door claimed that part of our land was his, after we had already lived there for a few years! First he tried to destabilize our wall by digging halls underneath it. 
Finally when nobody was at home he tore down the whole wall which separates his land from ours, destroying all the plants growing alongside it. There ensued shooting in the air, screaming aggression. In our house slept soldiers. 
Over the broken down wall, one could see the relatives of the neighbor sitting in a car watching us all the time. Any attempt to rebuild it was hindered with metal bars. The timing was perfect, because my husband is out of the country. I am walking on top of rubble, a hardened heap of cement and rock-splinters to water the remains of my garden under the eyes of a guard with a machine gun and wait for this problem to be solved. 
I have the distinct feeling that some Yemenis love to destroy other people’s property – in my case my gardens. Behavior of this kind is rather childish. If this kind of attitude towards foreigners and their property continues, who will ever want to invest anything in this country. 
By: Mrs. Andrea Sabri, 
A German resident in Yemen.