Friday, February 11, 2011

fishy, fishy, fishy fish

After a long hiatus, I’m back online. In part, the recent political protests and changes in Tunisia and Egypt – and their impact on Yemen – has contributed to the silence. For work reasons, I can’t give a detailed political analysis of what it’s like here, but things seem to have changed considerably in one week, and the opposition appears to have accepted the president’s recent concessions. All’s quiet on this (middle) eastern front.

In the meantime, I’ve begun settling in more and more to my apartment. And for me, settling in means cooking for friends. The fascinating thing about cooking here is the scavenger hunt you get to engage in to find the ingredients you need. This makes finding that special something (a wedge of grana padana or a bottle of balsamic vinegar) incredibly satisfying.

The other thing cooking here does is it gets me out and exploring different neighborhoods. Like the fish market (souk al samak), for example. These photos are from Thursday’s venture. The photos don’t capture the craziness of the shouting and jostling that occurs, or the intense smell generated by 20 stalls of fishmongers in one concentrated area.

For all of the chaos, though, the market has a great energy. And, although I haven’t been to it yet, there apparently is an outdoor restaurant adjacent to the market where you can take the fish you just bought and have them cook it for you in these gigantic clay ovens. I settled on this stall for my fish. The colors are amazing – especially on the blue crabs. Unfortunately, other than flounder and shark (both of which are hard not to recognize) I have no idea what kind of fish is lying before me. If anyone out there can help me out with some identifications, I’d really appreciate it!

I ended up choosing this pink mystery fish for our dinner. Paired it with two pounds of shrimp for a scampi appetizer.

On the way out of the marketplace, I stopped for some vegetables. I passed by this stand and landed up going to this guy. He sold me something in the squash family, but I ended up not using it. Just a little too mushy and weird when I got it home. I think there are a bunch of fruits and vegetables like this that I have never encountered before and for which I’m best off consulting my Yemeni friends. The funny thing about looking at the first photo of the stall I passed up is recalling my first blog post. I believe Damir responded that I would eventually stop seeing the ugliness and dirt. Looking at this photo I realize that ugliness and dirt are likely all any of you will see. But until I looked at the photo, I didn’t. Funny what a difference a couple of months can make and how quickly your eye adapts to the glare of the ugly and filters it out.

Anyway, I spent the rest of the day yesterday cooking. And all in all, the night was really nice – and the last guests didn’t leave until almost 2:00! The only thing that would have made it better was if there was a way to share it with all of you.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

15 Yemen Road, Yemen

I am preparing to move into my new apartment at the end of the month, and with the preparations comes attempts at organization that reveal the differences in cultural logics between a New Yorker and a person from Sana’a.

The first issue to navigate is the timing of the deliveries for the various pieces of furniture that I have purchased. I was initially told to expect the delivery at 11:00, and so arranged for a series of other people to also be at the apartment at 11:00 (including my colleague who will give me the keys, the landlord’s son who will supervise the movers to ensure they don’t break things, my driver, etc). It’s a little worrying that when I asked for confirmation from the store about the delivery time – given the likely domino effect of tardiness – the most concrete reply I was able to get was “Inshallah” (God willing).

The most befuddling thing about trying to arrange for the delivery, however, is the complete inability to give a street address and have it mean anything. And this isn’t a case of “Tammy, there’s a local system that makes sense that you’re not tuned into yet.” I drove around in circles for 30 minutes yesterday with my program assistant, as she tried to drop her daughter off at a friend’s house. And I watched in amazement at the furniture store as three Sana’a natives discussed for about 20 minutes the directions that would enable them to deliver the furniture to my new place, located less than 10 minutes by car from the store. Eventually, maps were drawn.

Part of the problem is that most streets don’t have names. So instead of giving a house number and then a street name, you need to give directions according to landmarks. “Turn left at the Iranian carpet place,” or “We’re nearby the Sheba Hotel.” Once at these main landmarks, whomever is driving will generally call someone at the destination and get step-by-step instructions for how to reach the precise location. Makes you wonder what a GPS system for your car would sound like in Sana’a. In other instances where more prominent streets do have names, some of these have been changed in the past 5 years and nobody knows the new name. And finally, among the few streets that everyone knows, names are either location-based, like Haddah Road (the main road in the neighborhood of Haddah), or unimaginatively descriptive (like “70 Meter Road,” and “45 Meter Road”, streets named for their widths). Or, my personal favorite, Zero Street.

Since the current system doesn't seem functional for anybody, I keep asking myself why the post office or some other governmental authority hasn't named the streets. I can only hope that they will eventually, as more people get further and deeper confused.


Friday, November 19, 2010

on the rocks

No, it’s not what you think.

These rocks aren't ice cubes in my gin and tonic. They are mountain faces, and pretty high ones at that. I spent the day rock climbing with a very diverse crowd that ranged from others in the UN community, to those working for local NGOs, to a band of Yemeni youths who appear to be part mountain goat, judging from their climbing ability. The climbing is organized by Joshua, a Croatian-American (!) writer from Seattle who has been living in Yemen for a little over three years. He has made an agreement with a local landowner in the mountain village where we climbed – access to the mountain for free climbing lessons for the landowner’s sons. The relationship has given rise to something that is part adventure travel, part eco-tourism, with the goal of providing this mountain community with an income-generation project that also raises awareness of the environment and the very challenging trash problem in the countryside.

So, what’s it like to hang about 50 yards off the ground, gripping onto a sheer rock face with your toes and fingernails? Terrifying at first. My first time up the cliff I got about three-quarters of the way up and was suddenly over come with very inopportune case of vertigo. Joshua is a great coach, though, and calmly talked me through it, pushing me to finish, knowing that I needed to if I were to try again. I still don’t know how I made it past some of the more difficult rocky turns, but I eventually made it all the way up my first time. Apparently, one of the biggest challenges to doing this is to stop thinking too much and “trust your feet.” As with many things, success lies in overcoming the mental challenge, even more than the physical.

Even if I hadn’t managed to scale up to the top, the day spent outdoors with a bunch of people I hadn’t met before still would have been terrific. Work has been pretty intense, and I doubt it will let up before January. When I think of all that I need to do, and all that I need to know in order to be able to do it, I can almost feel a similar panic to being up on the rock face, unsure how to take the next step onto the tiniest of ledges.

I need to keep reminding myself to “trust my feet.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Scattered thoughts, random photos

Welcome to the weekend!

It’s Thursday, which is like Saturday in Sana’a. Confused? Apparentl
y, so were the guys who designed this sign for a very popular Yemeni restaurant in Sana’a. Hospitablness Salon seems to be a more likely name for a massage parlor that is just about to be shut down for prostitution. Instead, it’s a pretty great but simple restaurant that serves delicious food that you scoop up with enormous flat bread that they spread on the table in front of you. Cutlery optional. At the end of the meal, they bring sliced, tiny bananas that you dip in the local honey, a product for which Yemen is fairly famous. The flavor of the honey is intense: a little acidic and slightly smoky. It’s really good, but may take a little getting used to if you’re putting it in your tea or cooking with it.

The other food item that Yemen is famous for is its coffee. Ever since arriving, however, I have been served Nescafe; just one example among many of how ideas about modernity and status obliterate common sense notions of quality. So it was with tremendous anticipation that I brewed my first pot of true Yemeni coffee this morning. I bought the coffee at a local shop two nights ago and dug out of the shipping boxes my French press and “T” mug that Mom gave me as a stocking stuffer for Christmas last year. Minutes later, as I sat in the sun and opened up photos of Ian and Christian’s Halloween that Chip and Ivona sent earlier this week, I sipped my first drops of the local brew. And it was…horrendous! It may be the worst coffee I have ever tasted (yes, even worse than the chicory-infused brown chalk you get at Bosnian hotels!). I’m confident that it was merely the wrong brand, so stay tuned as I try to work my way through the various options.

Since we’re on the topic of food, I’m attaching a photo from my birthday dinner with several friends/colleagues. We went to the best pizzeria in town and had a really nice time. Not sure if you can tell from the photos, but Blerta – a friend and team member from my former position – tried to get the restaurant to do an antipasti plate. Despite her best efforts, it was only marginally successful… and I think the restaurant staff is still twittering about the crazy European woman who wanted only olives, cheese and artichokes on a plate.

I have also been meaning to send a photo of my office. It’s pretty big, and, as you can see, very very blue. It now look more “lived in”, since I have managed to put up

some photos of my family and hang a couple of hand-written cards my nephews gave me just before leaving. Ian’s card reads:

“Dear Ciocia Tammy – I hope you have a good time in Yemen. I will miss you and I love you. I would go with you, but I have school.”

No matter how irritated or rushed colleagues who walk into my office are, this makes them smile every time. And how great is that?

Monday, November 1, 2010

desert rose

Last night I dreamed it was raining in Sana’a. Big, heavy, round drops of rain that came in sideways through an open window. And until I remembered this dream on my way back to my apartment tonight, I hadn’t realized just how much I miss rain and changes in weather more generally. Every day since arriving in Sana’a the weather has been clear and in the upper 70s or low 80s in the day, dropping down to the 50s and now increasingly the 40s at night. It’s nearly perfect weather. And it's driving me a little crazy. Perfection becomes boring after a while. Perhaps, perversely, we only come to appreciate and savor perfection or beauty or peace when we are deprived of it. Or maybe there is beauty and perfection in rain that I never appreciated before and am only realizing now in its absence.

I suspect most people are expecting me to comment on the recent events that have once again connected Yemen and the United States (and London and Dubai) in troubling ways. This might be hard to believe if you are sitting in New York (or Cittanova!) but honestly, not a lot has changed in Sana’a. There were increased police checkpoints stopping people in cars yesterday, but for the most part those were gone by today. People at work are mainly concerned about whether the embargo of shipments in and out of Yemen will affect our ability to deliver humanitarian relief (since you can’t deliver supplies that you don’t have). I keep thinking of the great guys at UPS up on 116th Street in Harlem who were so wonderful to work with when I was shipping my things to Sana’a…impressively, my boxes arrived in 4 days. They didn’t bat an eye when I handed them the Yemeni address, since that part of Harlem is home to a growing Yemeni community of shopkeepers who regularly send much-needed remittances and goods home via UPS. I wonder how the families they left behind in Aden, Sana’a and Saada will cope with their double loss of an absent male head of household AND no remittances. In a country where a large percentage of the population lives on less than $2 a day, most cannot adjust to shocks like this, and so get pushed into relying more and more on the kind of humanitarian support that organizations like mine struggle to give as our supplies dwindle.

That’s what the current crisis looks like from here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

driving as a (barely) organized form of chaos

As I begin to settle in, different people have been asking me for details about what it’s like living in Sana’a – requests to describe my living conditions, to the clothes I wear, to the food. I will post soon about the temporary apartment in which I am living, and about the food (which is delicious). This post, however, is devoted to the experience of being a passenger in a Yemeni car. “But Tammy, you are a New Yorker,” you might say. “How different can driving in Yemen be from getting into a taxi that is careening down Broadway in Midtown rush hour?” Good question. And part of my answer is to ask if you followed the link on qat chewing in my previous post. Qat is king in Yemen. In fact, the photo I most regret NOT taking recently was of a Yemeni taxi driver, pulled over in a way that blocked 2 lanes of traffic, with an enormous wad of qat bulging out of his cheek and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He had pulled over to ask if I needed a ride.

Where to begin? First, while there are lines on most roads that ostensibly demarcate lanes of traffic, they don’t bear much weight or significance. So driving in any given lane has the appearance of a manic game of bumper cars…only – and I’m still not certain how – accidents don’t happen as frequently as you might think they should. Passing occurs on either the right or the left. Signaling is for wimps. If you are feeling a lack of confidence in the car you are overtaking, you may honk your horn. Given what I have just described, it goes without saying that the result is a maddening cacophony, as nobody trusts anybody. Coming into an intersection involves a pretty big leap of faith, as drivers may turn ahead of you, alongside to the right or left of you, or in back of you. Basically, a driver will make a turn wherever there is space to squeeze in his (and much less frequently her) car.

No wonder the taxi drivers are all stoned on qat.

Given all of this, you may wonder how I am getting around. I’ve hired a driver to take me to and from work. For the rest, I take either a taxi or friends/colleagues pick me up. The hired driver is the friend of a colleague’s driver. He is very nice, but has very, very limited English. His solution to this problem is to teach me Arabic on the drive to and from the office. And he’s a pretty tough taskmaster. So far my vocabulary consists of things we see or experience along the way…good morning, thank you, tree, dog, cat, house, flower, cold, and directions for left and right.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Friday, October 22, 2010

venturing out of the cage

Finally, I've had a burst of interaction and exploration. Part of what has helped me to get out more is that I'm now working with my office assistant, who is equal parts sweetness and steel, to find an apartment. I am getting the feeling that she always gets her way, and so she's a fantastic person to have negotiating for you when it comes to things like real estate. And while we are looking for apartments, we are hanging out, eating lunch, and seeing a lot of different neighborhoods around the city.

So, the apartment search. I've seen a range of places -- and have found one possibility -- but am waiting to see a few more. I don't need to rush into this, and I definitely want to feel comfortable with wherever I land. In the meantime, it's been fascinating seeing what the interiors of some of these places are like. Some of the houses I have seen have been positively palatial -- one place had 8 bedrooms, 5 baths, and 2 full kitchens! Others just simply aren't "me," like the house that is in the middle of being renovated in a way that divides the house into a men's section and a women's section. Guess whose is nicer? Then there was the place that was beautiful, even if a little over done (do I need a series of carved marble pillars in my living room?), but had essentially no kitchen. I'm also struggling to get used to the idea that the nicest room in the house, typically, is a room reserved for men chewing qat, a semi-narcotic leaf that is a national obsession. More on qat another day, as this definitely merits its own post. In the meantime, to hold you over, here's a link to a National Geographic video on qat via a travel website:

Among my travels in the past several days, we were looking at apartments in Old Sana'a, where I finally, unmistakably, found beauty. The photos in this post were all taken in Old Sana'a. Walking amid the narrow, ancient streets with no names or addresses, and houses that reach up instead of spreading out reminded me very much of Venice. The organization of the place is like Venice too -- you give directions to your place according to landmarks in certain neighborhoods. I may not end up living there, since the places I saw were almost uninhabitable on the inside...Dad, it reminded me of the interiors of some of the worst places that we saw in Rovinj, where we noticed that things were beautiful on the outside but rotten to the core on the inside. I am still waiting to see a bunch of other places, though, so if I find something that is a little more modern on the inside, who knows?

As far as the atmosphere of the neighborhood is concerned, it gave by far the best feeling: it was nice and cozy, very much in a neighborhood kind of way. Above all else, the greatest factor in the welcoming feeling of Old Sana'a was its children: school girls practicing their English and saying "hello" in shy but excited voices as they pass by; boys playing soccer in little courtyards looking after younger ones; and the little boy in this photo, who ran up to me and mimed the gesture for camera. He was adorable and it will be a small miracle if I make it through my time here without adopting one of these children. I know from my work that they are confronted with huge challenges that children should never face -- as many as 800,000 children in Yemen are acutely malnourished, and nearly 40% of Yemenis don't have access to sufficient clean water or sanitation. I may never encounter this child again, but I will likely always wonder about his welfare.

So, I am on the path to adjusting to being here and -- finally -- seeing the beauty of the place. I have broken out of the cage, even if just a little bit. And it feels wonderful.