Last month I was set to leave for a vacation to SE Asia after 10 consecutive months living in Sana’a (the longest uninterrupted stay of any journalist ever as far as I know). Two days before I was supposed to leave, the Arhab tribe began making threats against the Sana’a airport after weeks of constant aerial bombardment. The robust Yemen news rumor mill set to work soon thereafter. Twitter was “tracking” how many kilometers Arhabis were away from the airport and off and on reports of an airport closure popped up periodically.
Not being able to bear the uncertainty, I threw my things together in two bags and rushed to the airport 36 hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. I wanted to be there and listen to the fighting so I knew first hand just how close it was getting. I simply sat on the curb with my bags and listened.
But no matter the level of violence, fear, or uncertainty plaguing Yemen, Yemenis are still Yemenis. If one thing could be said about the people of this country it is that, they are unceasingly Yemeni. What that means is that I only managed to sit on that curb for about an hour before airport employees came up to me and started chatting. A half hour later I was having dinner with them. Immediately after that I walked with them to the nearest qat market and soon enough we were sitting in their office and chewing, trying to ease my anxiety as the artillery boomed in the distance.
“This is nothing,” they said. “Tonight is quiet, don’t worry,” they insisted.
A few more hours passed before we were having our post-chew tea and they were getting ready to go back home. They insisted that I spend the night on their office sofa and they would be back the next morning to make sure that I was up for my flight the next afternoon.
Of course, they’re Yemenis, so they did just that. My flight left the next day as scheduled.
That’s what makes Yemen such a hard place to leave and even harder to stay away from. In spite of the violence, the street battles, the uncertainty, the electricity cuts, and the fuel shortages, Yemenis will always be some of the kindest people on the entire planet.
I’ve visited most of the Middle East, Europe, and SE Asia and in almost all of those places you have to remain guarded as a foreigner. You have to be aggressive with people and always be wary of what anyone says or does, but not in Yemen. One simply eases into Yemen.
In spite of all this, I’ve decided its time for me to go home. Its been a year and the day to day grind is getting to be too much. Being on constant alert for seemingly random bouts of violence to break out for months and months has really become too much to bear. I don’t think I’ve let my guard down since February.
I miss my friends and family, I miss warm Georgia nights, and I miss blasting Outkast in my truck.
I’m fairly certain I’ll be back at some point. Yemen isn’t a place you can just leave and forget about (like Italy). The people will always draw you back.
The first time I’d ever left the States was when I came to Yemen five years ago. Back then in Sana’a, Steve Caton told me that that was pretty bad. I would be forever spoiled because no matter where I went nothing would ever measure up to Yemen. He was right.