We are driving a new 1979 Toyota Land Cruiser today instead of my office car, a beat-up Volkswagen bug, and when Steve suggests we drive up to the Chinese monument, that is a lucky decision. It’s Friday, our lone weekend day in Sana’a, the capital of the Yemen Arab Republic. Like many other young Americans here, idealistic and adventuresome, Steve and I are helping the country develop. I work for Catholic Relief Services and my friend, Steve, is a Peace Corps volunteer.
Up we motor, around lean, brown foothills until the bowl of the entire city is below us. We park the Land Cruiser next to three or four other vehicles and get out. Far beneath us, Sana’a floats in a haze of pink, sun-tinted dust, its white minarets sticking up like Tinker Toys. We gaze down at the city from the tile roofs and lacquered pillars of the monument.
The Chinese monument, a series of small shiny pavilions with curling eaves, painted in bright reds and yellows, was built to commemorate that nation’s development work in Yemen. This includes the construction of one of Yemen’s most important roads, winding from Sana’a through the Al-Surat mountains down to the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Along that route I have been startled by the sight of Chinese workers in drab blue Mao jackets and cone-shaped straw hats, working to maintain the road.
I am glad Steve stopped by my house this afternoon. We have no phones to contact friends spread around the city, and on Fridays, I often feel homesick. Steve and I hit it off at a Peace Corps party early in my tour of duty. His job is to help maintain vehicles used in a nationwide vaccination program, and he often tunes up my Volkswagen for free. Out of gratitude, I invite him over for dinner when he is in town. Some Fridays, he and I and others drive to mountain villages or down to the seacoast. There isn’t much to do in Sana’a—no movie theatres, no libraries or bookstores, no parks, and no sporting events.
Standing next to the monument, Steve and I joke as we often do, contrasting life in Yemen with life elsewhere. I comment on how out of place the whimsical pavilions are in this dry, ascetic land, how they would fit better in a moist, verdant landscape, but instead here they are, scoured by wind and dust. We feel the gritty breeze on our faces and smudge powdery dirt around with the toes of our sandals. Dust is forever irritating my contact lenses and I push my sunglasses closer to my eyes.
Steve has chosen, like a few other male volunteers, to dress in Yemeni garb: a cotton shift that resembles a dress shirt that just kept going, and a patterned Yemeni mashedda over his hair. His full beard makes him a Sunday School Jesus. With Sana’a water supplies unreliable, Steve finds it easier not to shave, but this has led to misunderstandings.
“You might have noticed,” he tells me one day, “that only old men have beards here, not younger ones. Since some of us Peace Corps guys have beards, Yemenis think we must be old, and when they find out we’re not married, uh, they assume we’re gay. I’ve been hit on more than once by Yemeni guys.” I gasp and then laugh. In 1979, discussing homosexuality is risqué. Steve is not gay. I am engaged to a guy back home, and I tend not to think of Steve in terms of gender.
Like other young expatriate women here, I strive to avoid giving offense. I am making good progress with Arabic, I live in a Yemeni neighborhood, and I wear layers of baggy clothing—today wide khaki slacks and a long tunic over a T shirt—to avoid drawing attention to my body. When visiting Yemeni villages, or Bab-el-Yemen, the old city of Sana’a, I tie a scarf over my hair.
Yemen tends to cast our Western beliefs into high relief. Although we have no problem sitting on cushions instead of chairs, eating with our hands, and adapting the way we dress and speak, we believe with all our hearts that men and women are equal and should associate freely with each other. That, unfortunately, runs counter to the basic rule here that, after puberty, girls have no unauthorized contact with males outside their family. If this rule is breached, the girl’s family will be seen as weak and dishonorable, its status lowered. We have yet to learn that rules are part of entire systems, and can’t be easily discarded.
We foreigners operate outside family structures here and thus our behavior will dishonor nobody. Still, while we don’t want to offend our hosts, how do we stay true to our beliefs? Deceit provides an answer—and the appearance of honor. To ease Yemeni discomfort, we single women claim we are engaged, maktouba, back home. In my case this is true, but most often it is not. To avoid our neighbors’ disapproval over opposite sex visitors, we introduce our male friends as our cousins. I have told my neighbors that Steve is the ibn akhi, the son of my uncle. We assume that Yemenis, products of an ancient civilization, take us at our word, but I am not so sure. When Peace Corps volunteers Arlene and Mike suddenly move in together, do the Yemenis believe their cousin story? When Richard and Olivia fall in love and say they are married, are their neighbors really convinced that American marriages occur without any kind of ceremony?
One of the Arabic words that has worked its way into our speech is ma’alish, it doesn’t matter. We use it all the time as a badge of our adaptability—ma’alish, there is a shortage of milk right now; ma’alish, my letters home aren’t getting there—and in many ways we are admirably flexible. But underneath our veneer of insouciance, we are idealistic crusaders, more rigid than the middle–aged embassy and USAID officials who are happy to sit at desk jobs and then retire to their walled compounds with imported liquor and dinners prepared by their wives. In my case, I believe interacting freely with each other sets a good example, particularly for Yemeni women. I would cringe if I knew that this is typical expatriate behavior, characteristic of all the missionaries and conquerors that have gone before us.
When Steve and I turn to go back to the Toyota, we see that all the other cars have left, except one, a dusty, olive drab pickup truck. We climb back into the Cruiser and Steve reaches for the keys to start it. Then a shadow falls across his door and we both turn. It is a Yemeni man, bare-headed and wearing a faded military uniform. Well, this is a military government, and we are quite used to opening our car windows at various checkpoints around the city.
Steve rolls down his window and the man greets us cheerfully, his hand up in a short salute, then walks back to his truck. Yemenis are always saying hello to us foreigners, each seeming to want to convey his own welcome. After a few moments however, the man returns, now looking gruffer, and beckoning to Steve, saying t’all, come. Assuming the man is acting in some sort of official capacity, Steve shrugs, opens his door and gets out. Perhaps there is a problem that he can solve, something mechanical with the guy’s car.
Now Steve is getting into the man’s truck and I see that there is another person in the truck as well, a guy in Yemeni dress, mashedda on his head. I see Steve listening, his face impassive, and then watch as he calmly replies. I am not concerned; we face so many new situations each day, and the Yemenis are always kind. After a moment Steve opens the truck door and slides out, still talking. He shrugs his shoulders again, the palms of his hands up, and turns toward our car. I have seen him shrug like that before, when he wants to ward something off, and now an electric current goes down the inside of my arm and settles in my stomach.
Perhaps the men are confused by Steve's appearance. From a distance they might have taken him for a Yemeni, alone with a foreign woman. Up close, however, Steve’s halting Arabic would have given him away.
Steve opens the Toyota’s door, gets in and locks the doors. The man in Yemeni dress has also emerged from his truck. Later Steve tells me the men asked if he had any whiskey, and he replied no. The men then gestured that they wanted to "sit beside" me, something completely unacceptable in their culture. Noticing that neither man had a firearm, Steve put up his hands in resignation, acting the dumb foreigner, pretending he didn't understand what they want.
As Steve fumbles for the ignition, the man bends down and picks up a rock. As Steve backs up, he takes aim. We start down the hill, and the rock comes, bouncing off our roof. We look behind us a moment later and the men's truck is coming after us. Steve speeds up, driving as fast as he can on the curving road. Dust whirls through the twilight air and I grimace and hold on tight.
When the road begins to straighten, the truck comes up alongside us on the left. It moves over into our lane and brushes Steve's side as if to push us off the road. There is a sickening screech. Then the men pass us and pull over on the right shoulder, probably expecting us to stop.
We keep going, trying to reach town. The men again try to sideswipe us, but turning backward, I am able to tell Steve what side they are on and he blocks them from passing us. My focus is narrowed to the road and the back window, my concentration so intense that my head will ache for the rest of the day. We are going fast, but a military checkpoint lies ahead. El Hamdu-li-Allah, Thanks be to God. I have never been so relieved to see a checkpoint.
In a burst of dust and gravel we stop alongside the kiosk. The two men roar past it and turn right, heading away from the city. We leap out of the vehicle and, in breathless, broken Arabic, tell three uniformed men what has happened. "Mushkila, problem with that car," we say, pointing off into the distance and showing them our dented vehicle. "They make problem with us." A mustachioed lieutenant who knows some English is quickly on his military radio.
Two other officers jump into a jeep. While we wait, they speed off in the direction of the dust cloud. My heart is beating fast as I try to explain the finer points of the situation in my broken Arabic. As I put my hand up to adjust my sunglasses, it is shaking so badly I nearly knock them off.
In just a few minutes the uniformed men are back. The two offenders now sit in the back of the jeep, their heads down. The officers open the door and pull them out of the vehicle, shove them in our direction and ask us if these are the men. Our hearts haven’t even had a chance to slow down: how can the situation be resolved so quickly? "I-wah," we nod. The pair are rough-looking and unshaven, their clothes faded and grimy. Both stare at the ground, ashamed. I have never seen Yemenis like this.
"Tammam," great, the officer replies. He walks over to the man in civilian dress and shouts something at him. The man reaches into his back pocket and produces a battered wallet, which the officer grabs from his hands. He opens it up, pulls all the cash out—a thick wad—and offers it to Steve, who first puts up his hands in refusal, and then realizes he should take it. The soldiers push the men back into the jeep and then, to our astonishment, one of the officers turns to us and with his right hand, makes a cutting-off motion over his left wrist, jerking his head toward the miscreants.
No statement has been taken from us; the men have had no chance to explain. Our words are simply believed, probably due to our status as foreigners.
We nod and smile thankfully at our protectors and shake their hands. After the car containing the criminals takes off, Steve and I get into the Land Cruiser and head back toward Sana'a. We try to retrieve our ma’alish nonchalance. I pick up the cash and count it, over two hundred dollars in Yemeni rials. Then I ask Steve, “Do you think they’re going to get their hands cut off?”
“I hope not,” he grimaces.
What really happened? Steve and I soon learned that Yemenis considered the hilltop monument a romantic spot. We judged it as a local lookout. Wearing local dress, Steve looked like a Yemeni consorting with a foreigner. The men had quickly learned he wasn’t a compatriot, but when they asked who I was, Steve had used the word sadeeq, friend. But there are several words for “friend” in Arabic. Sadeeq indicates close, romantic friendship. Zameel means “associate.” Using zameel would probably have de-scandalized our presence together.
We had not only mis-communicated, but had misjudged the impression we were making. And later, when Steve told me he wanted more from our friendship, I realized that even my own assumption about male-female friendships was faulty. One can only be naïve, one can only ignore the status quo for so long. After that, luck begins to run out.
The incident at the Chinese monument was my only negative experience in a year and a half of profound Yemeni hospitality. I never visited the Chinese Monument again—it was a reminder of my foolish dismissal of Yemeni rules—but in my remaining months I often looked up and glimpsed its shiny pavilions. Their bright curves and bold presumption made me wince.
Susan Narayan is a Minneapolis writer and ESL teacher with an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University. She has lived and worked in three countries: Costa Rica, The Yemen Arab Republic, and most recently, Turkey. Her essays have appeared in The Levantine Review; REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters; Bayou Magazine; Minnesota Medicine; The Star Tribune; Colere; and The Timberline Review. A recent essay of hers was a finalist in New Millennium’s 2015 Nonfiction Contest.