What brings you back

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.


19 thoughts on “What brings you back

  1. This article made me tear up :”) I’m an American-Yemeni and I love the US, but Yemen is something else…This country is very unique and the people here are VERY kind
    Even though I miss my friends in the US, but my relatives and friends in Yemen filled my life with joy and happiness and they make me forget the nostalgia…I really hope things get better here because all Yemenis deserve to live with dignity and freedom and to live great lives..
    Thank you so much for writing this article and I hope you come visit Yemen after the revolution 🙂

  2. Hi Jeb,

    What you write describes perfectly why I prefer the hardships of living in Yemen, compared to my easy life in Singapore. Hope to see you back soon.

  3. Dear Jeb, you will be most missed in Sana’a (and it comes from an Italian!!!) but sure you will have a yemeni touch, always, in whatever you will do…

  4. Yes, I too find this article so very moving…I had some of the best years of my life in Yemen. Although I had to leave for financial reasons, I went back whenever I could. I’d always hoped to retire there, but illness intervened, and I couldn’t do that. And now, I’m watching the disintegration of their society, as their leaders squabble over issues of power and control; and the international community stands by, indifferent except to their own interests.
    It breaks my heart.

  5. It is so true! Even when they arrested me at the airport their hospitality remained the same… and of course I found myself chewing qat with the National Security!
    Yemen is Yemen… just impossible not to love it!
    Hope to be back there soon…
    As for the comment on Italy… well, that’s home for me 😉

  6. Now I know that my kindness isn’t because I’m weird but because it’s in my genes. For too long my innate generosity was regarded with suspicion and I found living in London soul destroying. Everyone is constantly second guessing others ulterior motives. I finally moved to Ireland where people are more generous in spirit and willing to give others the benefit of the doubt. Of course not all Yemenis are like this but bad behaviour is usually reserved for fellow countrymen.
    Thanks for writing about our national trait.
    Hope you enjoy your break.

  7. Moving words full of honest feelings.This person is living his (now) moment to fullest where ever he goes.Happy person.Thank you for complements.

  8. As long as you’re not trying to make any forward progress and you are just observing the way things are, the way a Journalist or student does, Yemen is great. Try to accomplish the former and you will never be so frustrated.

  9. I feel the same exact way toward another country. I simply replaced the word Yemen the United Arab Emirates, and I could relate %100. Nonetheless, an amazing read. Wish you the best and hope that you soon return to Yemen.

  10. You are right. I hope that all Yemenis will appreciate what we have and start to love our country more. Yemen deserves better and if we just love it more and put it first before everything else, all problems will disappear.

  11. I agree in general, but let’s not forget that some parts of Yemen are not particularly friendly to foreingers (Wadi Doan for example). The kindness may something to do with the author’s status as “Westerner ” and journalist.

  12. thank you for this nice post about Yemen. it’s a moving piece, and i’m glad i continued to read it, since i almost stopped after i read the first three sentences.

  13. Moved to tears! This is the very reason why I always feel separation anxiety when I leave Yemen. Leaving Yemen in July was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Deciding to put everything on pause here in NYC to go to Yemen is always the easiest though. And even while here in NYC, I think about Yemen EVERY DAY. Whether you like it or not, once you’ve experienced Yemen, there really isn’t anywhere that can really measure up. I’m sure we’ll bump into each other soon, maybe not at Change Square– but *inshallah* in post-regime Yemen.

  14. Hello Jeb, Just saw this on a Yemeni friend’s Facebook page and wanted to let you know I share your love for Yemen and Yemenis. Definitely the friendliest, warmest people I have ever met! And also to let you know that you are definitely not the first journalist to spend 10 consecutive months in the country! I lived there for four years. (And wrote a book about my first year there, when I was editor of the Yemen Observer). Anyway – it is an addictive country to be sure, and I wish I could be there now. Good luck in your future travels! Jennifer Steil

  15. It is a very touching post..You truely describe Yemen ..Thank you for your nice words ..I wish I were there In Sana`a that time to walk you all around.

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