There’s a War, There’s Bombardier, Grasshoppers with Mayonnaise are Subversive, and Other Things You May Not Have Known about Yemen

After jet setting around the world on the hunt for edifying conversations, I turned out to be sitting in my room in Montreal when I met Hussein. I’d come back to Montreal hoping to finish my degree, read a bit more about the places I’d explored, bash out some more articles for my blog and for posterity, and work. I need a break from a constant barrage of new cultures and new history, just to process what I’d already learned. Or so I thought.

Hussein and I met online soon after I came back to Canada. He messaged me one day on a website I spend time on to see if I was willing to help him practice his English. His website profile told me he was from “Yeman” and living in “Yeman.” I’d never met anybody from Yemen before, so I agreed to add him on Skype and see how it went.

I’ve met a lot of people online this way, but Hussein was different. Our first meeting, he introduced me to his two toddlers, who waved through the camera at me and serenaded me with an enthused chorus of “habibi, habibi!” Hussein also introduced me to his wife, who waved politely and left quickly. After she was gone, he said, “My wife was not very friendly to you because she is jealous and doesn’t want me to learn English from a woman who is not veiled. I told her it was not a problem and that you love your boyfriend.”

I started to feel uncomfortable. Not – of course – that I’d had any intention of homewrecking the marriage of some guy in Yemen. But you know, I didn’t want to be that girl.

Hussein continued, “My wife, she is very conservative. Too conservative. Her father is a religious figure in Yemen, and she is always always praying. 5 times a day, can you believe it?! I mean, yes yes, God is One and you are supposed to pray, but one or two times is enough. No problem!”

“Hmm,” I said, non-committally, mentally weighing whether it was appropriate for me to keep talking to this guy if his wife wasn’t okay with it.

“Well, yes, she is very conservative. But actually, she is a good wife and I love her and my kids.”

I decided that if he was unequivocal about loving her, I could continue. Already, he’d piqued my interest with a sort of guilelessness and candor rare among the people I meet online and, for that matter, among the people I meet in real life.

I wasn’t wrong. Hussein seemed to have little understanding of how different my life was from his and did little to filter what he told me. Sometimes his stories were intriguing and different, sometimes shocking. I tried to always react like he was talking about something that seemed normal even though this was often not the case.

Take, for example, the story of Hussein. Hussein was a Bedouin boy from the desert. He lived in a nomadic tent encampment with his father, his father’s several wives, and his siblings. At some point, Hussein found himself needing an education, so he went to Lebanon. There, at the academy, he was treated with contempt. “All those people were telling me, you are just a stupid Bedouin boy, how are you going to do well in school?” he told me. “So I got the highest grade in the class, even in English class. No problem!”

After working in Lebanon for a while, Hussein eventually moved back to Yemen and got a good job in the city, far away from the desert life he had grown up with. When he came back to Yemen, his mother called him. “I think it’s time you get married,” she said, or something to that effect. Hussein agreed, and his mother said, “I’ve found a very nice girl for you. She is beautiful and she is from a good tribe. You can marry her.” Hussein’s sisters corroborated his mother’s story, so Hussein agreed to the marriage.

“In Yemen,” he said, “among the Bedouin, you don’t meet before the wedding. Then there are two marriage parties. One for the women and one for the men. So we had these parties, and then my wife’s tribe veiled her completely and put her on a camel. Then they brought the camel to our tribe, and while they were coming they were shooting their guns to say, “We are coming, we are coming!” Then we were also shooting our guns to say, “you are welcome! You are welcome!” Then my wife arrived on the camel. She got off the camel and I had to unveil her face. Then I wasn’t allowed to touch her for a few days, and then we were married and I could touch her.

Hussein’s stories often follow a few common themes. Contrasts and tensions between his upbringing in the desert and his current life in a city in Yemen and his life in Lebanon, or between conservative Islam and his more liberal belief. Camels. Technological innovation. The war in Yemen. And food. One day, I asked him to tell me about Yemeni food.

“Oh it is so delicious!” he said. “We are having lots of delicious food in Yemen, especially the food that is being cooked in the desert. We actually bury it and roast it underground. Actually, the women do it. Men hunt in Yemen. They don’t cook.”

“Oh?” I said. “So what kinds of things do you eat?”

“Oh, you know, lambs, camels. Also the milk of the camel. It is so delicious. Inshallah, when you and your boyfriend come to visit Yemen, I will introduce you to camel milk. Mmmm.” He smacked his lips. “Also, we don’t eat any cows or pigs. There are no cows in the desert, so I have never eaten cow meat. Do you eat camel meat in Canada?”

I told him we didn’t.

“Oh, that is very sad,” he said, “When you come to visit Yemen inshallah you will eat the meat of the camel. We are also eating grasshoppers. They are very delicious.”

“How do you eat them?” I asked, mentally wondering if Yemenites were in the habit of eating grasshopper soup or grasshopper salad or something.

“Ohhhh,” Hussein paused, “well, here in the city with just my wife and my kids we are eating them with mayonnaise and ketchup, no problem! But when my father is coming to visit, we eat them by themselves because, you know Kate, if we are eating them with mayonnaise and ketchup my father will be telling me that I’m not a real man.”

Another time, Hussein told me about the delectable desert gerbil. “In the desert, we are eating gerbils,” he said.

“Gerbils?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, gerbils. They are very delicious. The women, they make them like roasting. Here, I will send you a picture of a gerbil from the desert.”

This is a desert gerbil.

This is a desert gerbil.

And this is a desert gerbil kebab.

And this is a desert gerbil kebab.

Camels are another common theme in conversations with Hussein.

“My son,” he told me one day, “my son he is so like camels. Especially small camels because my son is very small. Sometimes he is like, you know, riding the small camels in the city.”

“Do you guys use camels for long distances?” I asked.

“No no!” he said. “We are using cars for this. Camels would take soooo long. But in the city, we are often using camels to go places.”

Another time, he told me about a traditional Bedouin sport.

“You know Kate, in the desert,” he said, “We are doing some sports with jumping and camels.”

“Jumping camels?”

“Yes, yes, we are running, and we are jumping.”

“Can you send me a picture?”

Hussein sent me a picture of a boy in midair, jumping over a camel.

I stared at it dumbly. “Oh,” I said, “You mean you jump over camels.”

“Yes yes!” he said enthusiastically. “We are jumping over camels.”

“Can you jump over camels?” I asked. Hussein isn’t a small guy like the boys in the picture.

“Oh,” he said, “when I was younger I was jumping over camels. But now I am, you know, I am married and my wife cooks very good food. So I have gotten some extra weight. Maybe now I could jump over only one camel. One small camel.”

(Video of camel jumping below. There is also lots of great photography of it at this site: http://www.adamreynoldsphotography.com/camel-jumpers-of-the-al-zaraneeq. Go and have a look!)

Hussein’s wife would come up from time to time. Eventually, it would appear that she got used to me, even waving and smiling at me occasionally from the other side of the camera. Although Hussein is still unequivocal about loving her, her lifestyle occasionally grates on his nerves. Hussein pines for his life in Lebanon, where he could go to a bar and enjoy a beer. Hussein’s wife, on the other hand, has no desire to engage in this kind of lifestyle.

“Oh Kate!” Hussein said one day, “I had a very nice day. I went to the market today and I bought some nice clothes for my kids, a Spiderman t-shirt for my son and a dress for my daughter. But my wife – every time I give her money to buy something nice for herself, she is giving it to, you know, the poor people. She is just very religious. And she won’t buy any nice clothes. I tell her she shouldn’t wear an abaya, but she is always saying, ‘No, I want to wear my abaya.'”

“But…” he said again, “I do love my wife. She’s a good wife. But also Kate, you know, I told her that she should learn English. Maybe, you know, she can also practice her English with you. But she told me that she didn’t want to learn English. But then I had a very good idea and I told her that if she learned English she could tell people who spoke English about Islam. Then she said that maybe it was a good idea for her to learn English too. Inshallah I will teach her the alphabet and the she can also start talking to you.”

“Also Kate,” he said. “My father is always telling me that I should get some more wives. He has four wives and lots of children. But he doesn’t understand that I love having only one wife. My wife is enough for me.”

Over all of Hussein’s everyday concerns arches the war in Yemen, a war I didn’t know about until I met him. Hussein mentioned it for the first time in his characteristic offhand way, like it’s something I should have already known about and normalized.

“You know Kate,” he said, “last night there was a lot of bombing here. And my kids were very scared, they were crying.”

“Who is fighting?” I asked.

“Well,” Hussein responded, “nobody exactly knows all the details, but I think Saudi Arabia is wanting control of some of Yemen’s oil and so they invaded. And they are bombing military things. You know, it is very bad. That’s why I am hoping to get a job outside of Yemen with a different company and learn to speak good English so that people can understand me. Inshallah.”

A few weeks later, he sent me a picture of some bombed out passenger planes. “Hey Kate,” he said, “here are some pictures of some planes that were damaged by shrapnel last night when Saudi Arabia was bombing military runways at the airport. Also, you know, these are Bombardier aircraft! They are from Canada.”

damaged bombardier plan aircraft yemen 2 damaged bombardier plane aircraft yemen 3 damaged plane yemen 4 damaged plane yemen

“Is this on the news?” I asked. “When did this happen?”

“Yesterday,” (February 9th for the first three pictures, a week later for the fourth) he said. “I don’t know if it’s on the news.”

I googled. It wasn’t.

“You are welcome to write about it on your blog if you want, just don’t say who sent you the photographs. You are not allowed to take photographs in this airport. (Hussein, by the way, is not his real name, and I have changed some other identifying details.)” I agreed.

The conversation turned back to more quotidian concerns. “You know Kate,” he said, “I want to show you something.” He brought his computer over to the corner of his living room. “This is my electricity generator. I am hooking up some solar panels and generating electricity through this. This is my converter and this is my router. It is working very well! We are even giving some electricity to our neighbour for her lights because she is poor and she is a widow. I bought this when I was in Lebanon. You know Kate, before the war this was not so expensive. But now because of the war it is becoming very expensive. So I am lucky.”

“Aren’t you afraid that somebody will steal it when you aren’t home?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said. “When I am home, no problem! And when I am not home, my wife she is able to use our Kalashnikov if there are thieves.”

Hussein is also a big fan of the movie Avatar. “Oh, I am loving this movie Avatar,” he told me once. “It is like living in the desert, with the wars between the tribes and stuff, you know Kate. I am, you know, like I am understanding this movie.”

Most recently, Hussein told me about chewing khat. “This weekend, my father is coming, so we are going to chew some khat,” he told me. “I really should quit, but if my father comes he will say, ‘why are you not chewing the khat’ with me. So I will get pretty high.”

He paused and reflected.

“But you know Kate,” he said. “Chewing the khat can be kind of dangerous because they are putting pesticides on it. So sometimes it makes the insides of your cheek hurt. But it is okay because my father has a friend who knows how to identify when the khat has pesticides on it. Yes, it is okay.”

“Well, good luck,” I said. Later, he sent me a photo of chewing khat captioned, “Now I am going to get high.” I didn’t know if I should be proud of teaching him that word, or worried. The constant background of the war and public-health dangers seems to be perceived by Hussein as relative normalcy.

During our last conversation, he said, “There was bombing again last night, and my kids were scared. But, you know, me and my wife are okay. There have been four wars in Yemen. We are used to it. Inshallah, it will end soon but you know, we are used to it.”

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  1. Paul says:

    One of your best pieces so far. That video was captivating, thank you for that!

    Reply
  2. Kate says:

    Oh, you’re welcome. You know, after I heard about it, I was telling everybody within earshot about it. I really wish there weren’t a war in Yemen and I could go watch it myself!

    Reply
  3. Paul says:

    Finding out sport customs is turning into a new hobby for me, starting with Kib-ball during our Quebec adventure and recently rekindling with discovering caneball, the non-competitive national sport of Myanmar. Keep this good stuff coming!

    Reply

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