It is hard to believe now, but Yemen was once called Felix Arabia, Happy Arabia. The Romans gave it that name because it was more fertile than the rest of the Arabian peninsula.
Reading about war and famine in today’s Yemen, I recall my time in Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a, as a Catholic Relief Services health educator. It was 1979, and my first sight of women covered completely in black, and men with curved daggers jammed into their waistbands, gave me a jolt. I feared sudden, unpredictable violence, but what I got instead was sudden, unpredictable warmth and acceptance.
Under a brilliant blue sky, this city of rammed earth buildings trimmed in white gypsum had endured for more than a thousand years. Water was scarce, electricity was unreliable and phones were antiquated. There were no libraries or movie theaters, and I couldn’t go jogging without wild dogs giving chase.
But faithful to ancient traditions of hospitality, Yemeni neighbors pulled me into their homes daily, offering super-sweet tea, savory salta, a meaty stew and choice TV-watching seats. Upon meeting me, our nursing trainees, young and veiled, proclaimed me “very good” and vied to sit as close as possible to me when we drove to clinic visits. Other expatriates experienced similar hospitality.
The country was governed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, a young army colonel who had recently seized power. As weekends approached, the rumor mill started up. “I hear there’s going to be another coup this weekend” was a popular refrain.
One early December evening my electricity went out. At first it appeared normal; the city experienced blackouts most nights. When it was still off the next day, I discovered that my landlady was illegally tapping into a neighbor’s line. In retaliation, the utility had cut her — cut our — cables. And, despite her promises of restoration bokra, tomorrow, the outage dragged on.
The lack of a companionable refrigerator hum silenced my house and heightened my sense of strangeness and distance from home. But I made do, cooking breakfast oatmeal on my gas stove and sipping room-temperature Tang, the only “citrus” available. Thankfully, my neighbors welcomed me for dinner.
Christmas was approaching, and I wanted to decorate my little house. Sana’a was now mostly devoid of greenery, so I decided to approximate a tree by draping material over the base of a lamp.
At the fabric shop a bolt of sparkly green polyester material (Yemeni women favored synthetics when dressing up for women’s parties) offered possibilities. Something similar in red could be a source of “ornaments.” The proprietor measured, cut and wrote up a receipt, but then waved off any payment, declaring, “I know it is for your holiday.”
Christmas week arrived. I attended an International School holiday program, and went to the makeshift expatriate church on Sunday. My boss planned an after-work curry dinner on Tuesday, Christmas Day.
I woke that morning to a knock on my door. Unusual; visitors usually came later in the day — neighborhood kids hoping for an imported Danish cookie handout or, several times, male Yemeni neighbors, admonishing me for being out late the night before. These elders felt responsible for my safety, and my solo comings and goings made them anxious. Later I learned of their puzzlement that I was in Yemen at all, exiled from my family. Peace Corps volunteers were widely rumored to be convicts.
No, the knock was a man from the electrical company, come to install a meter for my house and restore power. The guy had no idea it was Christmas, so his gift was even sweeter.
Yemen’s new president would not be taken out in a coup that weekend or the next — or at any time during my year and a half there. In fact, he wouldn’t be removed from power until 2012, his 34-year dictatorship laying the ground for the civil war that followed.
It has been many years since my light-filled Yemeni Christmas, a long time since the good people of that country took me in. Now their children are starving. We should rush to their aid.
Susan Narayan, of Minneapolis, is a writer and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.