Garden tools and qat leaves [Archives:2007/1028/Last Page]

February 26 2007

Craig Anderson
For Yemen Times

As I stood in the immigration line at Sana'a airport that clear January morning, fresh from the excesses of a British Christmas and New Year, I nervously fingered my visa. Considering it from all angles, I tried to ascertain the words which could have been in Swahili for all that I could make of them and I wondered just what it was that I had let myself in for. However, unintelligible visa happily stamped, I took my first excited steps out in to what was going to be, I felt, something of a challenge. In said challenge, the first casualty was my somewhat pasty British complexion, unaccustomed as it is to such rare pleasures as a blazing sun and cloudless blue sky. And then my eyes, squinting in this exotic sunlight, trying to make out what appeared to be a group of men brandishing gleaming daggers, dancing in a circle in front of the airport terminal, something which in hindsight I can only assume was a welcoming party of sorts to herald my arrival in Yemen (I never did go close enough to actually ascertain this, however. Not that I was scared you understand.)

Perhaps at this point I should clarify just what it is that brought me to this rocky corner of the Arabian Peninsular. Well, having completed a degree in Arabic-International Relations some two years previously, I had somehow managed to graduate with the Arabic-speaking ability of a pre-born Finnish baby (not meaning of course to question the linguistic abilities of the future Finns of this world So I came to Yemen with a mind to rectifying this and improving my Arabic. To at least the level of a Finn living outside the womb.

So, laden with camel-loads of misplaced preconceptions, I set off for the land from whence the illustrious Queen of Sheba hailed. The first of said camel-load of misconceptions to be disproved was, in fact, the noticeable lack of camels – instantly shattering my romanticized notion of camel taxiing to my abode in Hadda, backpack strapped and camera in hand (it was probably for the best though – the current construction work and detours would no doubt have totally confused them). My first glimpses of Yemen from that modern day air-conditioned camel that is the Toyota Landcruiser did, however, not disappoint – the multitude of minarets standing proud against the backdrop of a city as yet unknown to me, and craggy mountains in which I had yet to hike (no doubt red-faced and out of breath ; wholly shrouded women tracing their paths through the urban bustle to the sound of seemingly recreational car horn tooting; and proud-looking men, grinning as they squatted roadside, hamster-like cheeks bulging, plastic bag brimming with qat leaves slung over the ornately decorated handles of their jambiyyas.

It was these qat leaves that I was soon to discover played so central a role in the lives of so many Yemenis. Working, then, under the auspices of cultural investigation, I accepted a most kind invitation to join a Sana'ani wedding and chew qat the next day. Accordingly, as the sun cast its last rays over the city and the piercing cacophony of apparently competing muezzin urged the faithful to prayer, I arrived at a wedding party for two grooms that I had never met before. Strange, you might think. Well worry not, for I thought exactly the same thing, but had hoped that the language barrier (remember my foetal Finnish Arabic would render their cries of 'Who are you?! Get out?!' somewhat defunct, and that I would be able to enjoy the festivities unimpeded. As it happened, the grooms were most hospitable and treated me like a friend with whom they had previously spent many a happy hour. Having offered them a few congratulatory words (fed in to my ear by my friend!), space was duly made for me to sit down amongst the hundred or so guests reclined in this capacious wedding tent, everyone enjoying a fine display of music and dancing (again including the jambiyyas which I had most certainly not been afraid of the day before at the airport!). As I employed my rudimentary Arabic to converse with the people around me, I couldn't help but wonder if these men had picked the shortest straw in a draw completed just prior to my arrival, and were hence forced to sit next to me and reduce their register of Arabic to a level such as you might use with a toddler. That's a Finnish toddler too, not a Yemeni one.

Despite my best efforts at conversation, my mouth and mind were working subversively together to create something of a hybrid language – a hideous concoction of every language which has ever had the misfortune of counting me among its students. So, add a healthy measure of Japanese, a heaped tablespoon of French and a sprinkling of schoolboy Latin and you have all of the ingredients for an interesting conversation! One word which I did have confidence in pronouncing, however, was my name. I was, sadly, soon to discover that in Sana'ani my name sounds rather similar to a word meaning shovel. Accordingly, I went in search of something more befitting than your average gardening implement. So I thought big, and Nasser was born. Whether as the re-incarnation of an Egyptian reformist or the comic Nasreddin from my Arabic study books, I had been raised up from the depths of the garden shed, and was very glad for it too.

Overcoming my initial reservations at being the only slightly overwhelmed-looking foreigner in a space full of men, loading, hamster-like, leaves into their bulbous cheeks, my fears soon subsided, and, in no small measure thanks to the qat, I relaxed into a state in which I felt comfortable enough to spit out a few sentences of largely unintelligible Arabic. Alas, it wasn't only Arabic that appeared to be leaving my mouth, but also flecks of half-chewed qat leaves, as I fought conflicting urges to either spit out the growing mass, or swallow it. I can only imagine how I must have looked; a red face (something I possess whether hot, cold, embarrassed, not embarrassed, chewing qat, not chewing qat – quite a skill I think you'll find!) bearing a slightly pained expression as I tried to concentrate on the task in hand, while, of course, all the while trying to maintain the semblance of a conversation. I am, however, relatively confident that I am the only person possessing photo evidence of such a comical scenario, and implore any one else with photos of said red face to destroy them immediately. Add to all of this the self-imposed pressure of trying to enlarge my leafy bulge to the size of my Yemeni companions (please bear in mind also that these guys make the pet hamsters of my childhood look like amateurs) and you may begin to understand my predicament. It is this hamster-like quality of seemingly all qat chewers that highlights what, for me, is the frustrating irony of chewing qat – just as I begin to loosen up and want to fulfill that rising urge to engage in Arabic conversation, so everybody else, due to the veritable forest of greenery in their left cheek, becomes utterly unintelligible!

A few weeks have now passed since my enlightening first few days in Sana'a. However, while my foetal grasp of Arabic makes strides towards seeing the light of day outside its Scandinavian womb, and my qat-chewing face is gradually losing the initial pained expression in favour of something more like a smile, still Yemen presents me with new challenges each day of my life here. But neither Nasser, nor his garden shed alter ego, would have it any other way.