Life in Yemen

People ask me whats it like living in Yemen?

To begin with, its different to anything I’ve experienced before.

Today I woke up to power cuts and water shortage.  The uncertainty that comes with not knowing how to plan the day is something the yemenis have been coping with for a long time. To people in the west, this will seem unimaginable. Yemenis who dreamed of a positive future after ousting President Saleh in 2011 find themselves in a rather peculiar situation with the economy disintegrating.

Internet is sporadic, and as I’m writing my post , chances are I will be in the dark again. Fuel subsidies were recently slashed. A once predictable life, makes you appreciate the regularity of basic water and electricity. Yet, when I speak to fellow yemenis, I am reminded how patient and resourceful they are in seeking alternative solutions to fight their energy or transport problems – whether it’s turning to solar energy or riding the bicycle.

The political and security situation is volatile with Houthis ( shiite rebel group) usurping the capital by setting up their encampments. I seem to have arrived in the nick of time, when the mass demonstrations took off. For work its exciting times, but my family is inevitably fraught with worry.

That said, despite the volatile situation, we went to the Sana’a Tourism Summer Festival last week. The idea of “tourism” is  a political irony. Fuad, a tour guide I met at a friend’s home Old city told me tourism was flourishing until 2006, infact it wasn’t too bad until the political uprising in 2011. Now, the only people that come here are the Russians, he quipped, adding, “Not like it’s any better for them back home.”

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Pottery and artefacts at Sana’a Tourism Summer Festival

The first few days are hard, and harder if you have to cope with a rather unusual, unpredictable, unpopular  way of life – political strife, long hours at work, language barriers, a semi-automatic washing machine and little knowledge of grocery shopping to buy fresh food. But mostly, language hinders the process in trying to move anything quickly. And if you are impatient like me, everything seems indefinitely frustrating.

But I’d like to think I’m making a headway in my arabic. Most of my learning comes from the ‘dukan’ (little shops),  I frequent for food and basic supplies.

At first, I would point to things I want to buy. There’s a man of small stature sat at the helm with bulging cheeks ( chewing “Qat”). He’s quite empathetic to my inability to converse or at least he appears so.  With his mouth stuffed with Qat, one would think he is incomprehensible, but he successfully teaches me a new word for the items I buy. They usually range from tuna, pasta, milk, eggs and peanuts. Sounds a bit painful and time-consuming. Nevertheless, its what I call a fast-learning experience.

On other days a tomato-based pasta is a luxury and days where I can’t be bothered to cook, we get away with takeaway local food that is under a $1 – a dhakka sandwich, (what I refer to as a Yemeni hotdog) or foul (spicy vegetarian dish made of beans). Brett loves his hasbrowns, hotdogs and salads and Judit seems to have the stomach of an iron woman.

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Dhakka sandwich, what I call ‘Yemeni hotdog’ and Foul

Other than that, I have developed a fondness for peanuts, milk, eggs and cereal – recipe for survival.

I’ve run out of money a couple of times, or unable to exchange a few dollars for fear of walking the streets on my own at night. But there isn’t a day gone by where I’ve not been invited to a breakfast in the office, or had an unexpected request to dinner at someone’s home. To say Yemenis are friendly and hospitable is an understatement. My five years in London, reminded me how little I knew of the people around me. The relationships and conversations with locals are profound.

Despite the tough living conditions, I am moved  by their resilience, compassion, hopes and dreams for a brighter future. For me, this experience is an invaluable eyeopener – the obstacles of political strife, and instabiity that seemed insurmountable in London suddenly seem insignificant after witnessing the bigger battles (hunger, illiteracy, drone strikes, poor governance) the locals fight, and continue to do so everyday.

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