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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "Arriving in Yemen"


from Marcela Gaviria

click here for a larger map It is 5:30 a.m. when my Airbus lands on the dark airstrip of Sana'a International Airport. It is too dark to see what this country looks like, and I sleepwalk off the plane with hundreds of other weary passengers toward customs. There are five lines at passport control, two for "Non-Yemenis" and three for "Arabs." (Martin and Scott are not with me. They are in Saudi Arabia, and I have arrived in Yemen to set up the next phase of the shoot.)

By 6:45, I have made little progress. In front of me are two men who look like they are crop dusters from the Mississippi Delta. They smoke half a pack of cigarettes while we wait. Behind me is an American family, mother and daughter are fully covered and speak in whispers. I am tempted to ask why they are coming to Yemen, Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland. I soon find out they have been living in this country since long before there was any talk of Al Qaeda.

At 7:15 I am fifteen people away from getting my passport stamped. I am half asleep when all hell breaks loose. Without warning, a rowdy crowd of 200 barefoot men, wearing what look like kilts and swords wrapped around their waists, pile in behind me.

They appear to have just gotten off a Yemenia Airlines flight coming from some town in Yemen like Mukhalla or Sa'dah or Al Hudaydah. And they are in no mood to wait in line. It's mob mentality. If 200 men push forward, somehow they will all be exempt then from going through document control. Armed guards try to disrupt the crowd and push some men to the ground. Fists fly about. Men shout strange words in Arabic. I feel incredibly scrawny.

So much for first impressions.

Sunset over the old city of Sana'a. (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)
By 8:30 a.m. I've finally collected my luggage and made my way along newly paved roads toward the center of Sana'a. The streets are lined with posters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has managed to plaster the city with his out-of-focus image. In the posters Saleh is invariably wearing a suit. There are two versions, one in which Saleh jets out from a crowd of tribesmen waving the red-white-and-black flag of Yemen, and another where he simply waves. My driver tells me that I have arrived just in time to celebrate the "40th Anniversary of the 26th of September Revolution," the day when Yemen became a republic.

"Is that why there are so many posters of Saleh?" I ask. "No. That is why this street has just been paved. The posters of Saleh are always there."

At 6:00 a.m. the next day, my phone rings. "Ms. Marcela, this is your wakeup call."

"But I have not asked to be woken up at this hour," I protest.

"Mr. Faris, President Saleh's personal advisor, has asked that you be woken."

I start to understand what a tight grip this man Saleh has on the country.

Soon I am sitting next to a couple of hundred guests of honor, in an open-air auditorium that overlooks the newly paved road. It reminds me of a race track. I am seated with the women, all clad in their black abayas and gotras. We are perhaps a couple dozen next to the hundreds of men who have been invited to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution.

A few rows down, where the men are sitting, there is a woman wearing a modern turban and makeup. When she spots my blond bangs poking through my gotra she turns to me and says, "You aren't going to sit with them, are you? It's segregation." A woman next to me, speaking in near-perfect English, says to me, "Don't listen to her. She is a feminist. One of the first women to have gotten a divorce in Yemen." Husnia al Kadri, the woman who tells me to stay put, turns out to be a professor at Sana'a University specializing, in her words, "in mainstreaming gender in health, especially in health reform programs."

Posters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh line the streets of Sana'a.
Husnia and her niece are eager to chat with me about being women in Yemen. They tell me there are problems, but it's easier being a woman in Yemen than in Pakistan. "Here we at least are treated like human beings."

Second impressions.

Our talk about being women in Islamic countries is interrupted by a beautiful voice singing passages from the Quran. All conversation stops when an impressive motorcade of gleaming silver Mercedes and roaring motorcycles heads toward our stand. President Saleh gets out of one car, and the crowd roars and cheers. Husnia tells me that they are chanting, "With blood, and honor, we pay tribute to our president."

After two hours of fiery speeches, bands, flag waving, and crowds of marching young Yemenis dressed in colorful suits of purple, green, red, and blue, the "40th Anniversary of the 26th of September" comes to an end.

As we head out of the bleachers, a throng of barefoot kids breaks the human barrier set up by crowd control. It's chaos again.


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

+ Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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