“Bring Your Own Fish” Restaurant

23 06 2008

Last night I went with Milushka and Lauren for dinner. We went to the fresh fish market and picked a fish and some shrimp. Then we took them next door to a restaurant that is “bring your own fish.” They sliced the fish in half and cooked it in a BBQ-like oven. The shrimp they pealed, cut up and cooked them in a tomato sauce with peppers and other vegetables. Both were really good! It’s an experience to bring you own raw ingredients to restaurant. We ate both the fish and shrimp with the big (like large pizza-size or slightly bigger) bread called rashoosh that we all really like. The restaurant also served the fish with two kinds of sauces: a green one that was spicier than I liked and a pink one that I really liked.

Fish Market

The Fish Market

Shrimp, etc.

Milushka is excited to eat shrimp!


Grilled fish.


Of Qat and being Mormon:

21 06 2008

Man with qat cheekOne of the first things you notice if you walk the streets of Sana’a in the afternoon is all the men with one cheek bulging. They are chewing qat, a drug described as a mild stimulant. In Arabic the verb they use is not ‘to chew’ but rather ‘to store’ because they chew the leaf and build up a large wad of leaves in their cheek that they suck on for hours. Even though I’d read a bit about qat before coming to Yemen and seen pictures of the full cheeks, I was not really prepared to see such a large number of men with such a huge cheek full of qat on a daily basis. It’s very common to see men with one cheek sticking out like they had something between the size of a golf ball to a squished soft ball in their cheek.

Qat is illegal is most the Arab and Western world, the exceptions being Yemen and the UK. The WHO classifies it as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychic dependence. Chewing qat is supposed to suppress the appetite, increase alertness and mental acuity and make one more talkative. Nasir and one of his friends have said to us that after we chewed qat we would see America, so it must have a definite psychotic effect.

Here in Yemen it seems like everyone chews qat every afternoon. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, around 80% of Yemeni men spend hours everyday chewing qat. About 40% of women also chew it but more discreetly and in smaller quantities. Of course, with the niqab covering their face on the street, you can’t see how big a cheek full they may or may not have, but I’ve never seen a niqab with a suspicious bulge, so this is probably true.

The feelings of Yemenis about qat are strong and deeply divided. I’ve talked to people who say it increases their mental acuity and helps them study. Others believe that it is bad for them. One of the young men I have met here said that his father disapproved of chewing qat so he has to do it in secret away from his father. I’ve also read that qat is eating up Yemen’s financial, water and land resources. According to the Bradt Yemen guidebook, some Yemeni’s spend up to 50% of their income on qat. Nearly 60% of arable land is devoted to qat rather than edible or exportable crops. Also, significant water resources are being used up to grow qat, which is a thirsty plant in this arid land. There is an interesting article in a Canadian newspaper about “The real costs of Yemen’s khat buzz.”

I was offered qat the first night I was here. Nasir was taking Lauren and I to get some more passport pictures and then we were going to go to a café. I knew that drinking coffee and tea was common in the Middle East so as we walked to get the pictures I was already practicing in my head how to say I don’t drink coffee or tea because if is forbidden in my religion. However, I unexpectedly began this discussion about qat instead.

Milushka with qatWhile we were waiting for the passport pictures to print, Nasir’s friend who worked at the photo studio offered Nasir some qat because he was chewing it himself. Nasir immediately took some and offered it to us. Lauren took a leaf and tasted it. Of course, as a Mormon, I would never even try such a drug, so I said no. This led to a discussion in mixed Arabic and English about why I was not willing to even try it and about what is allowed or forbidden in the Word of Wisdom. Nasir could not understand this idea at all. He kept saying that alcohol is also forbidden in Islam but people try it any way.

Since this experience, Nasir takes delight in offering me qat whenever I see him in the afternoon. He knows the answer won’t change but he thinks its funny to try anyway. I have been offered it many times, along with tea primarily (coffee is not as popular here), and gone through this same routine about it being forbidden in my religion. I’ve gotten very good at explaining the basics of this principle in Arabic. Many people accept it, some question why, but because most people here are religious, when I say that our prophet told us that it is forbidden they accept that.

Honestly, I am not even tempted to try qat. Those I know who have tasted say that it tastes very nasty. Lauren quickly spit out the first leaf she tried. Another time with Nasir, Deepak, another American staying here, only chewed a leaf or two before the taste overcame him and he spit it out. Milushka, another friend, tried it a few times before deciding there was no reason to subject herself to the horrible taste. Despite the taste, which has to be acquired, qat has become an inseparable part of Yemeni culture. Any changes to this national habit will come slowly and with great opposition.

Dagger Riots in the Souq

20 06 2008

Twice this week, on Tues. and Wed., I have been party to a near-riot in the souq. On Tuesday, I went with Miloushka to buy a couple of jambiyas—the curved daggers that most Yemeni men wear (mainly as a status symbol). I helped her decided on two nice ones. When they began attaching all the leather bits to the belt, Milushka had to decide what size to make it so it would fit her friend. To help her, I put the belt with the jambiya attached around my own waist and asked her to estimate how much bigger her friend is than me. It didn’t help much because she still couldn’t guess. However, we attracted a lot of attention! All the Yemenis around stopped to look at me — a woman! — wearing a jambiya. They thought it was hilarious, probably not just because I was a woman, but especially because I was in a black abiya and veil, almost like a Yemeni woman. I think if I’d just been in pants and a shirt, unveiled, like a western tourist, I would have a attracted a bit less attention. A huge crowed actually gathered to look at me, and one Yemeni man pulled out his camera and asked if he could take my picture. He also tried to get his little daughter to stand by me for a picture. She was quite young and shy and wouldn’t do it. Realizing that I’d filled the street with spectators, hugely embarrassed by the attention, and seeing that it wasn’t doing any good anyway, I quickly removed the belt and gave it back to the workman to finish attaching the buckles. The crowd quickly dispersed once there was no longer a show.

The next day, Milouska and I were again passing through the souq together. I saw a man selling little daggers (which I later learned are actually Omani not Yemeni) and I wanted to find out how much they cost. It turns out they are about 2000 YR (~ $10, much cheaper than a jambiya) and they are really nice. I was debating about buying one but didn’t have enough cash on me. However, Milushka decided they were nice and bought one. Just as she was making the purchase, another old man and a boy who were also selling the same daggers came up to us as well. He tried to get Milushka to buy one from him. They were both yelling prices at her and trying to force daggers into her hands. It got totally out of control.

I asked Milushka if she wanted to buy another one, and she did not. So I forcefully handed back an additional dagger that one of the men was trying to get her to take, grabbed her hands so they couldn’t keep shoving things at her, and  moved her away from them and down the road back towards the school. I thought that would be the end of it, but both men were apparently desperate to make a sale. They followed us, walking on either side, still trying to convince her she should buy another one and trying to tell her how good a deal she could get. After a minute or so we lost one of them, but the second followed us several blocks, half way back to the school. I have never seen anyone from the souq be so aggressive! It was insane when they had us mostly surrounded, shouting and waving daggers. It was overwhelming and almost threatening (though we were in no danger except from being pressured into spending more money). It did give me an idea about how low I could try to barter to when I go back to buy one myself one day.

Fashion Show

15 06 2008

These are pictures that illustrate how I dress here.
Totally covered


These first three pictures are not how I dress every day. Rather they represent how the Yemeni women dress every day outside of their homes. The first item is the black abiya — the long black dress — that goes from the neck to the ankles with long sleeves that extend beyond the wrists. I too wear this every day outside of my housing area. Over their hair, Yemeni women wear a black hijab — head scarf. Neither the abiya or hijab have to be all black, in fact it’s hard to find one that is. Most have some sort of decoration on them. You can see in these pictures that the hijab has green and gold embroidery along the edges and the abiya has diamond-like jewels on the cuffs of the sleeves. The last accoutrement is the niqab — the face veil. It has a tie at the top so you can tie it around your head. There are two parts that hang down. The bottom layer is solid material that hangs down below the eyes (see picture at left). Women always have this down when in public. There is also a second sheer layer that can hang down to cover the eyes (demonstrated in the first two pictures). Many women wear this pulled back over their head leaving their eyes exposed. (The camera sees through the second layer better than I expected. When I looked at the pictures after I took them I was surprised at how much of my eyes I could see. Maybe it’s the flash that does that. Looking at the women on the street, you can’t really see their eyes through the veil. Looking out, I can see fine, though everything is a bit darkened. I think the practical use of the second layer is as sun glasses, to protect their eyes from the glare.)

Black hijab

These next pictures represent my typical appearance when I leave the house. The black hijab in the first picture is one I bought here. You can see how thin it is. It’s nice because it’s cooler than the black hijab I already owned and brought with me, which is made of much thicker material. The white hijab is not something an adult Yemeni woman would ever wear–because it’s not black. (Only young girls — pre-teens — wear colored hijab and don’t wear the niqab.) However, it is appropriate for a foreign women to wear. I’m still considered modest and I look like I’m Muslim, just not from Yemen. (I received that hijab as a gift from another student here, Maloushka. She brought it with her but then decided she liked wearing the Kashmir scarfs she bought here instead.)

Blue Hijab

This is another typical look for me. One Yemeni said I look like I’m from Syria with this hijab. That’s possibly because I bought it in Jordan. It’s definitely the sort of modern hijab worn in less traditional societies. I like this one because it is thin material that is cooler. However, by itself, it kept slipping off because the material is too slick. I ended up buying the under piece (pictured separately below) that is a lot like a cloth swim cap. I feel a bit silly sometimes putting it on before going out, but it does the trick.

The question I’m sure most of you have now is “isn’t all that hot?” I’m sure that it is warmer than if I was in a white t-shirt and shorts, but its honestly not too bad. Thankfully the weather here in Sana’a is very mild. The highs while I’ve been here have been from the upper-70s to the low-80s. It doesn’t get much hotter than that all summer. The humidity is also low, which helps. The first few days I was here I had not yet bought an abiya so I only wore long loose black pants and long-sleeve shirts with the hijab that I’d brought with me. I was warm if I exerted myself, but otherwise fine. The first day I wore the abiya, when I put it on over my clothes I felt so hot before even leaving my room, that I immediate took off the shirt underneath. I did this for a couple of days, only wearing pants under the abiya, however, that gets the abiya sweaty too fast and I don’t want to buy a bunch of them. So I went back to putting the abiya over regular clothes. I didn’t notice much of a difference. I think my first reaction may have been more psychological than real. There are times I wish I’d brought some short-sleeve shirts to wear under the abiya, but generally I don’t feel too hot wearing everything. It does make a noticeable having a light weight material for the hijab, however.Blue cap

I wondered how much difference wearing the niqab would make. When I wore it yesterday to walk to the grocery store it didn’t seem to make a big difference. The breeze and walking kept is moving so my face didn’t get too hot. However, in the store, without the breeze, having my hot, humid breath bounce back onto my face as not very comfortable. I was glad to get back outside in the breeze. I bought the niqab, not because I need to wear it here, but because I wanted to wear it when I went anywhere alone so that I didn’t standout as a foreigner so much. Yesterday’s trip to the store was my first test of this idea. Unfortunately it did not make much difference. I still got people saying hello to me in English from a lot of the shops in the souq as I walked through it. I stand out as a foreigner no matter how I dress possibly because my exposed hands are too white, but also, I think, because the way I carry myself and walk gives me away. Oh well.

My Accommodations in Yemen

14 06 2008

Bathroom 1When I arrived at CALES, the school I am attending here in Yemen, I discovered that my stay here was going to be more of an adventure than I’d bargained on. When Mohammad first showed me up to my room (which is on the top floor), he showed me the bathroom on the fourth floor on the way up. I was a bit surprised to discover that it did not have a toilet, by Western standards, but only a porcelain hole in the ground like I’d seen and mostly managed to avoid in Greece and China. As Mohammad left me to settle in that first day, I realized that I had a lot to adjust to here.

You can see the toilet from the pictures. It weirded me out the first couple of time I used it, but now, after two weeks, I’m pretty much used to it. However, getting back to western toilets in another 10 weeks is something I look forward to. You can also see that there is no separate shower. The showerhead extends from the ceiling and gets nearly everything wet. This has made it tricky actually taking a shower. If I’m careful I can mostly keep my towel and robe dry that are hanging on a nail on the back of the door. However the nail is not high enough, so I have to tie the robe up with the belt to keep it off the floor, which is definitely getting wet. I’ve mostly gotten used to this, though I plan to buy some stick-on hooks that I can hang above the door so that I can hang up my robe and towel more easily.

My room is very nice. I like it. When I first entered it, several things surprised me. The first was its size. It is about twice the length of a regular bedroom, extending nearly the whole length of the front of the building. The next surprise was the bed, because all there is (as you can see) is a mattress on the floor. The pictures on the school’s website showed regular beds so this surprised me a lot. Apparently, most rooms do have regular beds, so I’m not sure why mine does not. However, it doesn’t bother me at all, so I haven’t asked.

The third surprise was all the windows. I have eight large windows in my room, taking up most of the wall space with the exception of where the door is. I soon learned that traditional Yemeni tower houses (called this because they are all 5 – 8 stories tall) are always toped by a room called the mafraj, literally meaning “room with a view.” The mafraj was reserved for use as a sitting room for when guests come over and is designed to provide the best views of the city. It’s something of a privilege that I was assigned the mafraj. I suspect that a possible reason why the beds in the room are only mattresses is because if the school is not full, they may leave the room open to be used as a mafraj by the students.

Bedroom 2However, this room does have its disadvantages. First, it’s at the top of 73 steps, and not just regular American standard steps. Some risers are a normal height, but most are higher and some are as high as two feet tall. The first few times I climbed to the top I felt like I might faint from the exertion by the time I got to the top. While not in athletic shape, I think I am in decent shape, but the stairs are really killer. I could feel my leg muscles complaining the first few days. My legs are certainly going to be very strong by the time my three months are up. Having to climb so many steps is a great deterrent to coming and going. Once I’m in my room, I don’t want to leave again for a while to make the trip worthwhile. Likewise, once I leave I don’t want to have to go back for anything.

Another disadvantage is the windows. While they afford a great view and I can get good cross ventilation no matter which way the wind blows, I am awake at the crack of dawn every morning because as soon as the sun clears the tops of the buildings I am blasted with the light through four large east-facing windows despite the thin curtains that cover all the windows. Maybe I will adjust to so much light in the morning, but so far two weeks have not been enough.  On the plus side, the stained-glass windows at the top of each window are pretty, though I kept wondering about all the stains on the carpet until I realized they were actually just the colored light shining in.

Kitchen 1The kitchen is also an adventure here. Like most shared kitchens in dorms, the dishes are an odd assortment of this and that. All the pans are warped and bent and wobble when you try to cook in them. I made my first attempt at real cooking yesterday (since it was Friday—the Sabbath—so I didn’t eat out.) I discovered there are no measuring cups or spoons. I made my best guesses with a tea cup that I guessed was equivalent to half a cup and with a soup spoon that I tried to use to guess amounts of the spices. (This can be difficult when trying to measure ¼ tsp.)  Besides the fact that you can eat out just as cheaply, the state of the kitchen has definitely convinced me to avoid cooking on a regular basis.

Kitchen 2

There is a laundry room about half way down the building with a washing machine. It is very similar to the ones I used in Greece and has the advantage of being in Arabic and English (unlike some in Greece that had pictures and German, for example). There is a clothesline on the 4th floor balcony/patio area to dry your clothes. I, however, bought some rope and hung it up in my room to dry my clothes there (avoiding possible rain storms and having to dry my clothes in public).

About being in Sana’a

11 06 2008

View from my window

Sana’a is, at least at times and in places, straight out of the Arabian Nights. I love the souq that sprawls through the narrow winding streets all around the school. It’s been there for thousands of years and is more for the locals than a tourist attractions–though there’s a fair number of tourist shops–so every kind of household goods–shoes, tools, rope, everything has a group of specialized shops. The spice section is 100% how you imagine the Middle East. It hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. This is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the city didn’t expand beyond the original “old city” until the 1960s. Living in the old city as I do feels like I’ve gone back in time a few hundred years sometime, with all the modern amenities of electricity and laptop computers with wireless internet.

View of the old city from my window

Old Sana’a as seen from one of my bedroom windows.

Day 2 in Sana’a: Saturday, May 31, 2008

11 06 2008

This was my first day of classes. No one told when or where to go this morning, so I went to the other building, that I knew held the classrooms, and wandered around until someone directed me to the director’s office. There I took care of paying my tuition and worked out what curriculum I wanted to use. I also told Jameel, the director, about the problem with my baggage, that I’d given the airline his phone numbers, and that I expected a call anytime that morning telling me that my bags had arrive in Sana’a. He told me that such a problem was very common, and that I should come back to his office after my class to call the airline again.

I have two hours of private class five days a week from 10 am to noon. After leaving Jameel’s office, I had nearly two hours before my class. I set off walking down a main road that led away from the school. It was part of the large souq that the school is located on the edge of. Small shops lined the street I went down, primarily selling clothes and abiyas (the black over-dress that all the women here wear). There were also street vendors with carts or tarps on the ground, selling clothes, food, toys, etc. I went down the road until I came out of the souq and the old city into an area of more modern buildings.

Along the way, I found an ATM, which I was looking for because I only had about $10 worth of Yemeni money and needed to get more. However, it was for local bankcards only. Even though it said Visa on the side of it, it said it could not recognize the number on my card, and it did not display any of the typical affiliation symbols such as Plus, I would expect to see. Disappointed I turned back toward the school. Along the way I found another ATM with the same result. At this point I began to worry how I could get more money.

Just before 10 am, I went back to Jameel’s office where he introduced me to my teacher, Altaf. I was a bit shocked to find her completely veiled with only her eyes showing. (I probably should not have been because every Yemeni woman I have seen here is dressed the same way in public.) My first thought when I saw she was entirely veiled was that I wasn’t sure I could learn from a teacher whose face I couldn’t see. Fortunately, once in the classroom, away from male eyes, she did unveil so I could see her face. (However, it has taken me most of a week to learn to tell her apart from the other female teachers when they are all veiled.)

Class was good. It is a new experience having a private tutor in this way. It is good. My instruction is about 95% in Arabic, which is a challenge because I never learned all the Arabic grammar vocabulary very well in the past. Altaf does speak pretty good English though, so she can explain things I don’t understand in English. There is also a good Arabic-English/English-Arabic dictionary program on the computer that has been very helpful. During my classes, I came to the realization that there a lot of words I recognize when I see or hear them that I can’t remember what they mean. It’s very frustrating.

Around 11:30 am, Jameel came to the classroom to with a call for me on his cell phone. It was from the airline, which said they had one of my two bags and did I want it delivered or would I rather pick it up. I asked for it to be delivered and Jameel gave them directions. I was glad at least one bag had made it, but I was very worried about what had happened to the other one. I was also torn between wanting it to be my bag with all my clothes and wanting it to be my bag with my Arabic books (which I needed for my class) and all my electronic equipment, which would be much harder to replace.

In the afternoon, I went with Lauren (one of my fellow students who arrived at the same time I did) and Jerri (another female student who has been here a week or two) to the grocery store. Before going to the grocery store, we tried to find a gym that someone had told Lauren about that was for women only. Eventually we found the right address (this was a bit of an adventure asking people who tried to be helpful, but didn’t actually know the answer to our questions), but it was closed for the mid-afternoon until 3 pm. (There is the equivalent of mesimeri (Greek) or siesta here as well.) We had about 20 minutes to kill, so we found a little café nearby and ate hommus. After looking at the gym with Lauren, we went to the grocery store.

It is fairly similar to an American grocery store, but a lot smaller (though for Yemen it’s big), and with a fairly different selection. I was able to buy milk and cereal, peanut butter and jam, and also a can of an Arab bean dish. After looking over the selection a bit, I decided I’d probably be doing a lot less cooking for myself than I’d planned because couldn’t find a lot of familiar, quick-and-easy foods, and because it is as cheap to eat out (as long as you avoid the fancy places) as it is to buy food at the grocery store.

When we got back from the grocery store in the late afternoon, I went over to the main school building expecting to get whichever of my bags had been delivered. My bag was not there and neither was the director of the school to ask what was going on. Another man who works for the school was very helpful, and he tried to call the airline and the director but we couldn’t get a hold of anyone. I was very frustrated that I still didn’t have any clean clothes or a towel to take a shower with, etc. Fortunately, I had bought laundry detergent at the store so I put on my PJs (which I’d had in my carry-on for the overnight in Dubai) and washed the two sets of clothes I had, and hung them to dry in my room over night.

Day 3: Sunday, June 1, 2008

The next morning my shirts were dry but my pants were still damp. I put them on any way because I didn’t have a choice. On my way over to the school to try calling the airline again, I met Mohammad (who had picked me up at the airport) and he said my bag was at a nearby hotel and he took me to get it. I was so happy when we got there to see that both my bags were there. (I suspect they were both delivered to the hotel the day before but I had not seen the right people who knew they were there to be able to get them. Jameel probably told the airline to deliver them to the hotel because in the old city (especially, though it’s true for most of Sana’a) there are no street addresses. Things are near or next to other things and if you don’t know the landmarks you can’t find a new location. Thus, the hotel was a known location, while giving directions to the school would have been nearly impossible.) I was overjoyed to have all my stuff and to be able to finally take a shower.

My last problem was money since I couldn’t find an ATM that would take my card. Before my class, I used my online Money Gram account (that I had set up to send my deposit to the school here) to wire myself money. In the afternoon, I found a Money Gram location (though I had to go a lot farther then I’d planned to find one that was open in the afternoon) and got some money. Once these two stresses—missing bags and lack of money—were resolved, I was finally able to relax and start to enjoy being in Sana’a.