Coming in from Djibouti to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, I’m sure you can imagine just many other white folk I shared that flight with. As I see it, being the sole representative of all white people on an international flight devoid of an English safety spiel, chances are that you are doing something either really cool, or really stupid. In my case, it was probably a bit of both.
Yemen as many know is not a country lauded for rule of law, and my go-to travel website flashed the following message every time I loaded the page. ”WARNING: Travel to Yemen is strongly discouraged due to a state of severe political crisis, as well as a very high threat of terrorist attacks, abductions, tribal violence and general lawlessness”. This is the part that some would have called ‘really stupid’ but I would argue that seeing Yemen’s splendor despite these risks would be cool. Let’s see how we it went…
In line for immigration, it was blatantly obvious that I was a pilgrim from another world. At the window, they gave my passport a good look and reluctantly let me pass after a confirmation from the superior. I was sweating just a bit, but having gotten my stamp that meant I made it in, right? Nope. Just after reaching the other side, the guy checking passports at the customs check had to do a double take at mine, and then take me to an office for interrogation. While this was a ‘ good cop bad cop’ situation, they were rather confused as to why I was there. I knew that at the Yemeni Embassy in America, they will not issue tourist visas. But my having residence in Japan allows me to apply in Tokyo which was on problem. I specifically asked them if my being an American would be problematic, to which they assured me no. So there I was. I guess this sort of thing doesn’t happen so often in this country.
After a bit, I am asked to wait outside the office while about 10 suited men discussed in outdoor voices about what to do with me. I of course had no idea what they were talking about and only one of the individuals spoke any English. With no idea where things stood, and no one making any effort to inform me as to what was going on, my singular option to sit quietly was frustrating indeed. After about a half hour, I am brought to the transit lounge where I am to wait with my passport confiscated by the immigration authorities until they figure out what’s next. This is at their convenience though, since the Ramadan schedule allows all but the minimum labor force to go home at 3:00pm. As no one with any decision making authority (or English ability for that matter) was still in the airport, I could only sit and do nothing.
My first course of action was to call the American Embassy’s emergency line where I informed them of my situation in hopes they could spring me from limbo. They guy said he would make some calls and see what he could do for me. More waiting. After a bit, I received word that there was nothing they could do help me. Despite calling the immigration authority and requesting that they release me to my Yemeni guarantor, they conceded that Yemen as a sovereign country had final say. If they were so intent on my well being and safety that my airport imprisonment was the best course of action, then so be it. To be fair though, this attack by an al-Qaida group which took place on the day I was trying to arrive, in the city I was trying to enter, did left 20 dead…
With no one to talk to and no available flights to consider, my only option was to stay in the transfer lounge overnight and wait until important people came back to the airport in the morning. On the positive side, I was being fed decent meals that the airlines distributed to those in transit. These were only airplane-tier meals, but at least they were free. My iftar meal given at sundown was a highlight though, it included the traditional foods like bread and dates.
By the grace of Allah, there was free wifi and outlets available in that dump of an airport, so at least I would have some entertainment and connection to the world. I took the time to update my blog, watch Peep Show, and just stare off into space. One of the more charming features of this terminal was the presence of stray cats and insect species I’d never seen in my life. Also, the casual disregard of the ‘no smoking’ signs held by most of the people there. It was seeing all this that really had me thinking about just what kind of place this was. Yemen after all hasn’t shared in the oil fueled influx of economic growth and foreign investment, so life in this country is more traditional than that of their neighboring gulf states and the bar for cleanliness is clearly much lower. After a chat with some othopena, it was time to bed, so I crammed all my possessions into my bag, and curled up with it on the couch.
The next morning, I went back down to immigration about noon to see if I could get anything sorted. After being told to sit and wait, and then ignored for about a half hour I got a bit frustrated and insisted on someone at least tell me what was going on. ”Go wait in transit lounge”. Back to prison it was then, still without my passport or any inkling of what was actually happening. After a little bit, a colleague of Johnny’s dad named Solomon, who worked in Yemen called the airport on my behalf. It seemed that he knew someone at the top of Yemenia Airlines that eventually came to talk to me. After I caught the guy up to speed, he said there was no problem and after talking to my Yemeni host, told him to come get pick me up at the airport. I figured that that was it, my patience paid off. What I didn’t know was that he had no immigration related authority, so his assurances actually meant nothing. Shortly thereafter, the same hoard of suited officials that were arguing over me the day before came to ask me more questions about my employment and intentions, before leaving me there again.
By this time my host Majed had arrived to collect me, so I had him do all the talking and confirm my lodging. I felt really bad since he had to leave his work to get me, but he said he was more than happy to. He went back and forth talking with the officials and also keeping me up to speed on the operations. Whenever I asked whether something was going to be OK, he always replied with inshallah, which is basically the same as saying ‘lord willing’.
In the end, I had to accept that Yemen wouldn’t be any substantial portion of my trip after all. I believe the largest roadblock to entry was my nationality. There was a Spanish guy in Djibouti who went to Yemen about the same time as I and had no problem getting in on tourist visa. He had a different port of entry, but I don’t see how that could have been a deciding factor. As much as I did want to get in there and poke around a little bit, it just means that I’ll have to figure out for my next run through the Middle East. That evening I had to buy a new ticket to Dubai and after dinner I departed. I’ll be back Yemen, I will be back…
Observations – Having had a bit of time in the airport to study the world around me, I noticed a number of things:
– As a more traditional culture, there were a lot more women in the full coverings, and I even chatted with a few (don’t worry, they initiated it). Nice people though the were, having no option but to stare into their eyes while holding a conversation takes a little getting used to.
– I could also see a few noticeably polygamous marriages, which is legal within Muslim religion and recognized by the governments so long as all wives are treated fairly and don’t exceed 4. About 5-10% of marriages in this part of the world are polygamous.
– Yemen like the rest of the countries in the area have a lot of men wearing their white robes. Here though, the men still have an actual dagger called a Janbiya affixed to their belts, even walking around the airport. The other thing I liked that was in order to look classier, they just slipped on a suit jacked above the robes. Not a bad look though.