Commuting in Yemen urvival of the maddest [Archives:2008/1123/Community]

January 24 2008

By: Najwan Al-Junaid
[email protected]

A day after my plane landed in Sana'a, a traffic sign caught my eye, “slow down, a school ahead.” I was pleasantly surprised by this sign, but my joyful moments evaporated as a taxi driver sped and bypassed us in the school zone. Few minutes later, an unannounced dabbab (small shuttle bus) driver decided to jump from his lane to our lane without signaling and without checking his blind spot.

Out of no where, a number of loud and obnoxious motorbikes took off, suffocating us with dust and engine waste and stirring streams from nearby sewage slough. The abundant amount of fumes produced from ill-maintained vehicles blurs any driver's vision and suffocates any pedestrian's nostrils. Honking, of course, is a continuous melody throughout any ride.

Moreover, most motorbikes' drivers take a “noise-inhibiting” piece out of their exhaust to produce a deafening noise. Unfortunately, these drivers are usually teenagers who should be in school. Instead, they are enjoying undeserved freedoms and projecting a wrong perception of manhood by speeding or showing off their zigzag driving.

Besides hasty and irresponsible drivers, pedestrians are the most pitiful and at the same time, the most entertaining sides of daily traffic. I am always surprised by dressed-up women, showing off slender bodies in exceptionally tight abayas and taking their time crossing a crowded street. I am equally surprised by an oblivious man hurdling cars and forcing himself through a red light to catch a bus or chitchat with a driver he knows.

My entertainment ends when I see young kids wandering alone in busy streets, as if they're hanging out in their living room. I cannot stop myself from occasional frantic leaps when little boys and girls cross roads without a warning and without guardians – almost crushed by reckless drivers. Pedestrians are certainly an interesting case in daily commute.

My favourite part is the symbol of justice and discipline: policemen, who are – most of the time – the real cause behind traffic jams. Usually, they are either pathetically chitchatting or gruesomely chewing Qat or hideously practicing bogus authority on poor crowds. Most Yemeni policemen do not understand their duty. When they decide to understand, they hurdle traffic to investigate drivers for wrong and lame reasons, banking on people's willful ignorance.

The most intriguing part of a policeman's life is his ability to stand for endless hours under unbearable sun, staring at hundreds of dabbabs and taxis, inhaling carbon by-products, deafening his ears by motorbikes' noise, and clutching to fancy cars for a “private toll” – a disgraceful 100 or 200 rials. I end up not knowing whether to despise or pity policemen for having such a job.

Despite all traffic madness, I should take off my hat to all Yemeni drivers for managing driving on narrow and wrecked streets. Most, if not all, roads lack proper signage and clear marking. A two-lane street amazingly becomes a four-lane street. I could see an expansion to a fifth lane, if there is a way to drive on pedestrians' pathways and if such pathways existed to begin with. A good driver in Yemen is obviously equipped with different skills than those known internationally.

By the end of any commute, my head is spinning and my mood is ruined. Commuting in Yemeni cities is an irritating and frustrating experience. As a driver or a passenger, I always opt to shut my windows, suffocate and roast in the car's heat rather than expose myself to all the smoke, dust, and noise.

To survive driving in Yemen, you must be bold with a strong instinct guiding you and you must have an incredible patience to put up with unpredictable pedestrians' wanders. I am not sure if Darwin would agree with me, but commuting in Yemen, whether on foot or by car, is beyond doubt survival of the maddest.