John and I met Abdul Aziz the day we arrived in the old city of Sana. We were lost.
Dust rises, coating the hem of my black jalabiya*. I follow Abdul Aziz through the narrow, stone alleyways of Sana’s salt market, the Suq al-Milh. Three women draped in blue and red dappled sheets chatter as they balance baskets of fresh-baked flatbread on their heads. Traders shout and gesture at us from behind rainbows of saffron, cumin and frankincense. Others scoop up dried grasshoppers and crickets, crispy skins shimmering like treasure. “Good price lady! Good price!” They nod toward me, smiling, revealing qat stained teeth. Their smiles seem knowing, as if they can see the salty drops of sweat slipping between my breasts, smell the musk rising from between my legs. “Le, shokran,” I say, tucking my bangs further beneath my headscarf so only the white skin of my hands and face betray me as ferengi. Foreigner.
Abdul’s thobe undulates like a peace flag, his thin leather sandals flapping against the ground. An embroidered belt, the colour of peacock feathers, cinches his waist so I can see the trim rise and fall of his buttocks. He walks with nonchalance, the freedom of the rich, his cock swinging free and loose. The market is rife with beggars. We walk past a man, legless and milky-eyed. He reaches out to touch Abdul’s hem. The cloth slides through his fingers and Abdul continues without looking down. I move on too, not wanting to lose Abdul in the crowd converging on the qat market. Even though I’ve been here almost a year and can get by in Arabic, it’s easy to get lost in the suqs’ warren of alleyways, its dark corners and dead ends.
I needed to escape Abdul’s tower house. The ceiling seemed to press down on me, made it hard to breathe. John was pestering me to transcribe interviews for the documentary faster, my eyes already red and raw from staring at the computer screen for too long.
The kitchen, usually a place of escape where I could count on the warmth of cooking and the camaraderie of Abdul’s two wives, Salah and Taggia, today resembled a combat zone, lids clashing against pots, the thick fiery lamb stew of salta burnt and stinking. Taggia blaming Salah for ruining the lunch, sister-wives transformed to vipers. Their littlest girl, Asha, sat on the stone floor screeching for attention, snot bubbling from her nostrils.
John and I met Abdul Aziz the day we arrived in the old city of Sana. We were lost. Dusty streets with no names confused us. Unsmiling boys as young as twelve hoisted Kalashnikovs over their shoulders. Men held hands, hissing at us for doing the same and women cloaked in black, even their faces covered in dark, sheer gauze, scurried by, avoiding our requests for directions. We smelled Abdul’s musky cologne before his chin popped between ours. He looked at us back and forth and said, “Where you going?” We pointed at the map in our guidebook and pushed out constipated Arabic. He gestured for us to follow him, but instead of the museum he led us to his four-storey limestone tower house. He laughed when we asked why we weren’t going to the museum. “Because it’s shit,” he said in perfect English. “Bukra.” Tomorrow.
Abdul led me into the steam-filled kitchen on the second floor. John was banned from entry. Only close male family or women and children may enter Yemeni kitchens. Taggia and Salah wore bright, rayon pink and yellow dresses, their smiles dessert blooms. Their jalabiyas, the long black robes favoured by Yemeni women, hung from a rack in the corner. They took turns taking my hands, kissing my fingers. They held out their hands to me and we passed them back and forth, each exchange launched with kisses. “Salam wa ali kum! Kayf halik? Al-humdullilah!” Welcome! How are you? Praise God!
… only the white skin of my hands and face betray me as ferengi. Foreigner.
It was easy to believe I was in love.
They stirred their fragrant stews, asked me to smell and taste from wooden spoons. They asked when I’ll have children and why don’t I have any wedding gold? Taggia tapped her hand low on her thigh. “Zowgi?” Husband? She imitates holding a cock and they both giggle. “Aywa.” Yes, very big I laugh and tap my leg almost to my knee. At twenty-four I am old not to have children. To them I am poor. Childless and without gold. At least they believe John and I are married.
“It’s a very strict, Islamic country,” John had said. “We won’t be able to check into hotels together unless we pretend we’re married.” Uncomfortable with a lie, I collect petals from a magnolia tree in his garden and make a circle of pink petals on the grass. I tell him to stand in the middle and I place a glow ring I bought at Camden Market on his finger. “You’re sweet,” he says, and we kiss. A week later he hands me the silver band. It’s a little big and spins around easily, but it looks convincing, and soon I forget that we are playing pretend.
We met while I sipped complimentary bubbles at a National Geographic charity event in London, a guest of a well-connected cousin. John stood in front of a wall-sized photo of a tribesman from New Guinea, a hollowed out gourd strapped to his penis. “That doesn’t look comfy,” I said. “It’s not,” he said. “I’ve tried. It’s actually quite painful.”
Bright blue eyes belied a mischief behind serious, boxy, black-rimmed glasses. His body curved over me as we sipped our drinks and relaxed into each other’s words. Back at his flat, the walls were a gallery of countries and people I’d never seen: women from Myanmar with brass rings stretching their necks, a smiling Tibetan woman dressed in a red cloak lined with matted sheep’s wool, a man from Borneo hunched over a river with a bow and arrow, a bone thread through his nose. John captured them all with shadows and light. Here, I thought, was a man who could show me the world.
Later that same night, he touched me as if he was taking my picture, found me with his fingertips. It was easy to believe I was in love.
Before we left, John taught me the importance of doing a white balance before a shoot, how to wrap the cord from a boom mic around my shoulder and elbow without tangling it, how to change lenses on the manual SLR. In bed, with our legs tangled together, we took turns reading out loud from The Lonely Planet and the Koran.
In Yemen, it’s too hot to tangle our legs, even at night. During the day, I follow two steps behind him, lugging the heavy equipment bags while he shoots the film. I swell with the heat and the silver band slices my skin. Like an ‘x’ seared into the side of a cow.
A week later he hands me the silver band. It’s a little big and spins around easily, but it looks convincing, and soon I forget that we are playing pretend.
I could float between the worlds of men and women, taste two lives. I could savour things that even John, with his photographer’s eye, would never get to see.
That first day in Sana, I ate lunch with Salah, Taggia and their five children. They laid large silver platters on sheets spread across the floor: rice, salad, chicken, thick lentil stew, pita and sponge cake drenched in honey. We squatted on our heels and ate with our right hands, licking our fingers clean. After, Abdul invited me to chew qat with the men while the women visited a neighbourhood friend to do the same. I realised then that a Western woman in Yemen gets certain dispensations. I could float between the worlds of men and women, taste two lives. I could savour things that even John, with his photographer’s eye, would never get to see.
We learned that each day after lunch, the entire country joins friends and family to chew the tender, narcotic qat leaves until sundown – from street sweepers to the President. Shopkeepers board their doors shut, farmers return from the fields. Students close their books and mothers distract their children with sweets and toys as they strip leaves from their pile of branches and suck out the tart green juice. If you didn’t chew you were a social outcast, distrusted. I only interviewed one girl my whole time in Yemen who didn’t chew. Her parents spent everything they earned on their daily habit. She grew up poor and wanting and bitter, like the taste of qat when your teeth first cut through its tender skin.
On the top floor of the house, I sat cross-legged beside John in the mafraj, the room for eating and socialising. Men in their white thobes sprawled on the floor across plush embroidered cushions lining the walls, sipping cardamom-flavoured water and sucking on mada’ah, tall glass and copper water pipes. We passed the long purple and red velvet hoses from guest to guest. John and I swallowed and choked on bits of leaf as we tried to master tucking the leaves into our cheek with our tongue. We chewed and sucked till our cheeks, like those of our hosts, swelled to the size of golf balls.
Mohammed, a friend of Abdul’s played the oud, a warm-toned instrument much like a guitar. He played for hours, fueled by the choice leaves thrown to him from the other guests. They launched branches across the room to each other, wanting to show off their wealth and generosity. The acrid juice from the qat scrubbed all the shadows and sleepiness from my brain, sent it sparking with ideas. “John, I think I’m high!” I said, smiling, chewing and more awake than I’d ever felt in my life.
I took pictures of Abdul, the oud and the colourful takrim windows in my mind. I imagined them under glass on my wall, my own private gallery. With the men, I was an observer, set apart – careful not to meet any man’s gaze, for fear of impropriety. John did all the talking, describing the film he wanted to make on Yemeni culture. The qat. The music. The architecture. Unveiling Arabian mysteries to the west. Everyone was eager to be part of it. Plans were made. Ideas floated through the smoke until the sun set and the low notes of the oud lulled the men’s voices. We were experiencing mirqana, the state of quiet contemplation one reaches at the end of the day following qat. We sat still, in silence, sucking the last of the leaves’ bitter juice till the haunting song of the muezzin called from every mosque speaker: “Allah akbar! Allaaaaah akbar!”
The acrid juice from the qat scrubbed all the shadows and sleepiness from my brain, sent it sparking with ideas.“
We sat still, in silence, sucking the last of the leaves’ bitter juice till the haunting song of the muezzin called from every mosque speaker: ‘Allah akbar! Allaaaaah akbar!’
That night, Abdul invited us to stay in one of his many rooms. Almost a year later we are still there. Abdul says we are now Al-Maklafi’s too, part of his family, part of his tribe. He promised the tribe would always protect us. Akhti. Ukhti. My brother, my sister. I take Arabic lessons and get fitted for my own jalabiya. Occasionally, I join Taggia and Salah at their own qat chews. The women include me in their henna ceremonies, drawing elaborate patterns on hands and feet to ward off the evil eye. We teach each other words from our own language, laughing at our pronunciations. We look at one another square in the eye without fear of judgement or misconstrued intent. With the Yemeni women, I shift from observer to participant, become part of the picture.
We cry together too; once consoling Aisha, Mohammed the oud player’s third wife, when she reveals he divorced her for not getting pregnant. ‘I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you,’ he said.
We rub her back, shake our heads and click our tongues. None of Mohammed’s previous wives were able to get pregnant either. No one suggests Mohammed is the one shooting blanks. Aisha cries with the shame of being sent back to the countryside to live with her parents. Taggia whispers to me that Mohammed has already arranged his next marriage to a fifteen year old girl.
That night, a scythe moon rose beyond the turret of the Great Mosque. It shone through our bedroom window, illuminating John as he slept. I studied his profile, thinking how easily a wife can be discarded – especially one with no children or gold, whose link to her man was no more than a flower petal floating in the wind.
John prefers that I chew qat with him. I record his thoughts and ideas for the documentaries – the best ideas being born during the afternoon chews. If I don’t write them down they’d likely evaporate along with the smoke from the mada’ah. We film and take photos at the pace which the desert wears away rock. Everything is bukra. I grow thin as the qat sucks the hunger from me. The sun tames the glare of my white face, sucks the English damp from my skin as I begin to crack and peel.
Abdul finds me outside the house watching a goat gnaw on a newspaper, the bored movement of its jaw hypnotic and calming compared to the chaos of the house.
“Yallah!” he says, “Time to get the qat.”
I shadow Abdul as I’d been shadowing John for the past year, keeping a few steps behind. In London, I walked along the high street with John, chin up, side by side, sure of myself. Here, I follow, letting John or Abdul speak for me, direct me. I feel myself fading like the image in an overexposed photograph.
The alleyway opens up to the large cobbled square at Bab al-Yemen, the largest of the ancient stone gates of the city wall. Years ago, the head of the rebel who assassinated Imam Yahya hung from a spike at the top of that gate. Now, peeling posters bearing the head of President Saleh plaster the walls. Mini bikes cough smoke, dodging in and out of the crowds of shoppers, who shout and bargain, trying to be heard above tinny Arabic music playing from cassette players across the square. Towering rows of mud brick houses encircle us, their alabaster-lined windows observant, like eyes rimmed with kohl.
The English words surprise me. I look to see where they come from.
Not from the woman squatting in front of an upturned crate lined with hotel sized bars of soaps. She points at their pink creamy wrappers. Mimes rubbing it on her hands and points at me.
“Fuckey, fuck me.”
With the men, I was an observer, set apart – careful not to meet any man’s gaze, for fear of impropriety.
No one reacts to his English words except me.
I spin around, searching for the hiss of a male voice. All the other Yemeni’s continue shopping, buying, spitting, haggling, squatting. Only I am waiting for the words to scurry across my back and into my ear. They are meant for me. I feel it.
A chuckle, the same mocking pitch – I turn and see him. Skinny, his white thobe crusted at the hem with dirt. His eyes are dark and deep-set, the left side of his face droops. He greets me with a slanted smile. We might as well be alone, in a bare room with one fluorescent light hanging above us. The sounds and smells of the market drop away and all I can see is his laughing face. The man thrusts his hips toward me. His djambia, the long curved dagger sheathed to his embroidered belt, swings back and forth toward me. “Fuckey fuckey.”
No one reacts to his English words except me. I look for Abdul but he is too far ahead in the crowd.
“Aib!” I shout.
I point my finger at his face. “Aib! Aib!” Shame! Shame!
Anger sluffs away at my sadness. A Yemeni man would never publically say anything so sexually suggestive to a Yemeni woman. I came here months ago pale as porridge, Arabic nothing but a tangle of unfamiliar sounds. But now, I feel if not quite Yemeni, at least deserving of respect. I’ve fed on qat and desert sand, my painted hands empowered to ward off evil. But all this man knows of ferengi women is what he sees on re-runs of American soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty. He mistakes me for one of them: shoulder pads, cleavage, hopping from bed to bed. He spits at the dust. “You fuck me.”
My body makes the decision before my mind has a chance to mull it over. I stride toward him and slap his face.
Anger pinches him, narrows his good eye to a slit. He reaches out and slaps me back, a sharp sting across my cheek, so hard I stagger. The feel of his skin on mine replaces anger with fear.
A voice in my ear, “What happened?” Abdul stands by my side, I guess not as far away as I’d thought. He looks from the man then back to me holding the side of my face.
“He hit me.”
Abdul looks confused. I explain. The explanation is brief, true to the exact physical and verbal exchange between me and the man. What I don’t describe is the fury that has been gurgling up inside me until this moment; the man’s words triggering an eruption from my faded self which needed to be seen and heard and respected.
A tirade of Arabic flies from Abdul at the stranger, too fast for me to understand. Their faces are inches apart, spittle flies and wets the dust.
I’ve swallowed so many words since I’ve lived here that my throat’s clogged with them. I can’t speak. Although I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I recognise, to my own shame, the brazen, pulsing rage hiding beneath the fear that wants revenge.
Their argument catches the attention of the other shoppers and they form a circle around the two men – arms folded in front of their chests, watching. The men place their hands on the carved rhino horn hilts of their djambias, turning in circles, a slow waltz in preparation to fight. It is tradition that if a man pulls the djambia from his belt, it can’t be returned until it has stained the sand with blood.
The crowd continues to grow, a babbling mass of excitement and fear.
A group of five black cloaked women push through the barrier of people and surround Abdul, dropping their shopping at his feet. I hear ‘Kayf?’ They look at me, up and down, take in my headscarf and dress, my ferengi hands and face. A fierce jumble of words flies at Abdul and they all lean inward as one, listening for his explanation.
Abdul points at me then juts his chin toward the man and his voice sparks, all heat and fire. I look up to meet the women’s eyes. I try to communicate without words the fear and the hurt. The oldest woman of the group narrows her kohl-lined eyes. She looks at me – really looks. I hope she can see the truth of me, not the weak shadow I have become.
The women begin to gabble, conferring, their voices high like the cawing of birds. I hear a word I recognise, “Aib! Aib!”
Each woman reaches down to the ground and removes one of her flat, worn slippers – they launch at the fuckey man who holds his hands up across his face. They slap him again and again across his back, arms and chest. The crowd breaks into laughter, the pressure released like the hiss of air from a balloon. My heart rises with the women’s sandals, the sleeves of their jalabiyas flapping like dark angels descending.
Abdul has stepped back, his djambia forgotten. He looks at me and mouths, “You should go.”
I nod, say nothing, pulling my headscarf tighter to hide my smile. I will go back to John, but I will hang onto the wholeness I feel right now. I will increase my stride and step out of the shadows. But for now, my feet refuse to leave. I am taking a photo with my mind. It is the favourite in my gallery. Ukhti. Sisters.
The crowd continues to grow, a babbling mass of excitement and fear.
*Yemeni words have been unitalicized by preference of the author.