The almost imperceptible smirk with which he said it, made me think it might have all been a joke. It was a single word, spoken in Arabic, and it did not explain what had just happened. My heart was still pounding…
Two days earlier I was on my way to visit the one place that had inspired me to come to Yemen. Months before, I had been leafing through a book on the Arabian peninsula and had come across a photo of a stone bridge in the mountains. It was a singularly compelling photo which had motivated me to come to a nation with a bad reputation. A nation that, only weeks before, had seen the kidnapping of several Land Cruisers full of Italian tourists. The fact that they had all been released and had attested to having been treated like honored guests, only slightly diminished the sense of danger.
So, I was heading to the mountain village of Shahara and the famous Bridge of Sighs. The Yemeni government does not allow tourists to go on their own into the tribal lands that make up a large portion of the country. They require you to join a tourist group, much like the one kidnapped earlier. As I sat in the Land Cruiser watching the landscape rush past, I did not feel any safer because of the police escort at the beginning and at the end of our caravan of six vehicles. In fact, I felt more like a target. We had all heard rumors that the police escort for the group that was kidnapped had conveniently disappeared upon the arrival of the tribal kidnappers.
We stopped for lunch at a small village a couple of hours north of Sana’a, the capital. Our driver, and makeshift guide, helped us order lunch. Salta. A soup of ground beef, tomatoes, potatoes and onions topped off with a bitter, frothy fenugreek sauce. It was served in a cast iron skillet, boiling hot, with freshly baked flat bread with which to scoop it up. I loved it. Most of the other travelers in my group did not and filled up on bread and tea instead. After lunch, I watched them making it over a propane stove. The propane was turned so high that it sounded like a blow torch. The cooking took about three minutes from start to finish. Yemeni fast food.
Some locals from the village were at the table next to ours. One end of their table was piled with AK-47’s. I had read that most of Yemen was tribal. The various tribes held grudges against each other which resulted in many skirmish- es which rarely involved the central government. This explained why most adult men were well armed. Outside of Sana’a, Yemen was a bit like the American Wild West. Strangely, I didn’t feel any fear. I guess since all the weapons were in full sight, it made them seem less threatening. That, and the fact that everyone I had met, armed or not, had been extremely welcoming.
At the other end of the table, they were eating steaming pasta with their bare hands. I marveled at how they didn’t burn themselves, but then recalled how calloused the many hands were that I had shaken in Sana’a. They looked out of place with western style sports jackets worn over flowing jelabiyas. Add to that red and white checkered keffiyahs on their heads and jambiyas, curved daggers, in their embroidered belts and you complete the picture.
We climbed back into the 4×4’s and continued. As we entered the more mountainous region to the north, the landscape became more dramatic. Little fort-like villages perched on the tops of hills or mountains. The terraces were draped over the contours of the land like a blanket. After another couple of hours, we stopped in a small village at the foot of a tall mountain. We all got out and stretched. A group of men was resting in the shade of a terrace wall. They were drinking tea and chewing qat. Their AK-47s were piled along with their sandals in front of them, all littered with bits of discarded qat stems. Our drivers joined them. No one seemed in any hurry. After about half an hour, everyone got up. Our drivers departed without a word. We had entered the tribal areas and been handed off.
We were directed toward a collection of beat up 4×4 pickups and we all climbed into the truck beds. As our truck started to climb the steep cobble-stone road, those who had decided to sit, quickly changed their minds and stood up, clinging to the bars and each other, as the vehicle rocked back and forth over the uneven road as it switched back and forth up the side of the mountain. It was late afternoon and the sun crept slowly toward the horizon. I was afraid we would not make it to the top before sunset.
The vehicle suddenly backfired and lurched as the driver applied the brakes. It sputtered a few times before the engine died. The driver got out and removed an ancient looking canvas bag of tools from under his seat and began tinkering under the hood. The sun sank lower toward the horizon. It was starting to get cold, so I put on a jacket and got down from the vehicle. I started walking up the road in order to take a shot of the dead vehicle with the mountains in the background. By the time I took the shot, the others had gotten down and were walking up the road as well. It turns out we were only a couple hundred meters from our destination.
We walked into the village, past tall stone tower-like buildings with white painted brick decorations around the windows and doors. Heads peered down at us from open windows, silently. No one spoke as we were directed to our guest house, another tower, its small sign in English the only clue it was any different from all the others. We dropped our bags near the entrance and the owner introduced himself to us. He quickly arranged a guide to take us to the famous bridge.
The village was already in complete shadow and I thought the sun had already set. As we walked through the village and out along a terraced ridge, however, we came back into the sunlight. It looked like we had about ten minutes before the sun would set completely. We quickly followed our guide toward the bridge, descended and rounded a corner of the mountain and there it was before us. Only about fifteen meters long, it spanned a chasm between this mountain and another. It was in shadow, but the long valley behind it was bathed in glorious sunlight. The trail to the bridge snaked along the contours of the mountain, its sides propped up with neat stonework. It looked like something from a fairy tale. Everyone gathered to take photos of the bridge from this vantage point and then the guide continued on.
I decided to stay behind to take some more photos. After a few minutes, a woman covered completely in a black burqa crossed the bridge carrying a bucket on her head. She silently passed me on the trail like a shadow. I was too enthralled to take a photo. I just sat and watched as she continued around the bend and out of sight. The sun was setting behind the mountain and it was rapidly getting cold and dark. I waited for the group to return which didn’t take long. I rejoined them and we wended our way back to the village.
Back at the guest house, we had a meal and retired to our rooms. There were four of us in my room, with thin mattresses on the stone floor. It was surprisingly comfortable and I slept soundly. The next morning we were to wake early to go back to the bridge before breakfast. We were to leave shortly afterwards to return to Sana’a. I had already decided I would like to stay another day, so I’d had the owner of the guest house arrange it for me. He had called the tourist agency and told me there would be no problem finding space in one of the vehicles that would be here the following day.
I went with the group back to the bridge, returned and had breakfast with them. As they got organized to leave, I said my goodbyes and then wandered out into the village. It was nice to be there by myself. I watched as women washed their clothes in small basins near the large rain-water cistern and as others came to fill buckets with water. I scrambled down steep trails and out onto lonely terraces. Most of the villagers I encountered kept their distance. I suppose it was unusual for them to see a foreigner during the day. I was pleased to witness their daily routine, even from a distance.
At lunch time, I returned to the guest house for another meal of salta. Afterwards, the owner invited me to have tea with him in the mafraj, the top floor of each tower-house which is reserved for socializing. This is where, in the early afternoon, the men retreat from the heat of the day to relax, drinking tea, chewing qat or smoking. Around the perimeter of the room were thick carpets on which to sit and large round cushions on which to lean or rest an arm. I was invited to sit down and was poured a glass of sweet mint tea. The owner poured himself a glass and we started talking. He spoke very good English and we discussed Yemeni culture.
He began a long treatise on the benefits of chewing qat – what vitamins it contained, how it suppressed the appetite, aided digestion, and kept you alert and clear thinking. I thought back to what I had read about it – how its cultivation consumed over a third of the country’s water supply, how farmers earned four times as much money for it versus other crops and how it is illegal in most Western countries. He asked if I ever chewed it, and when he discovered I had not, summoned a boy of about 12 years and sent him to the market to get some. The boy made a sort of salute before running out of the room to do his bidding.
While we were waiting for him to return, another man entered and began the elaborate greetings which started with the familiar Asalamaleikum ‘peace be upon you’ followed by a long string of Arabic back and forth, punctuated by many Alhamdulillah’s ‘praise be to God’ on both sides. Afterwards, he greeted me, shook my hand and then took off his AK-47, rested it against the wall near the doorway and sat down. The owner poured him a glass of tea. They began chatting in Arabic when another man entered and followed the same example of the first. After 15 minutes, five more men had entered in ones and twos and joined the group, leaving a sizable stack of automatic rifles by the door. By now, I had gotten used to seeing so many weapons.
The boy returned with the qat which the owner examined closely. He was displeased with the quality and berated the boy who stood there looking terrified. He made as if to strike the boy and then said something which made him run out of the room. The men were all highly amused at this scene, but I was a little relieved that nothing more had happened. The owner carefully sorted through the small bundle of qat sprigs and pulled off a handful of the most tender sprigs and leaf clusters and handed them to me. Another man also gave me some choice bits of his own bundle of qat. I observed how the individual leaves were inspected, rubbed and pulled off the branch and carefully tucked into a cheek. The owner informed me not to swallow the leaves, but to chew slowly. It was apparently OK to swallow the juice, as no one there was spitting. Soon, I had a sizable wad in my cheek like the others. It was not as unpleasant as I had imagined. The leaves had a slightly sweet taste that was complemented by the mint tea.
I spent the next several hours there, observing the men in their social ritual. I was pretty much ignored, except for a handful of questions directed at me periodically. I watched the landscape outside through the low glassless windows as the afternoon progressed. I didn’t notice any real effect from the qat. The owner had told me that it might take several times chewing it before I would get any effect, but he had assured me it was worth the effort. About an hour before sunset, I excused myself to go out and take some more photos. The new group of foreigners would be arriving soon.
I went off in the direction of the sunset, opposite of where the bridge was, and soon discovered a wonderful landscape of terraces castings long shadows. Distant mountain-top villages glistened in the sunlight overlooking dark valleys. I sat down and watched the sun set. It started getting cold and I was getting hungry, so I returned to the guest house. The newly arrived travelers were still out visiting the bridge. They returned shortly and we all sat down to dinner. They were surprised to see someone still there from the day before.
We talked for an hour and then went to bed. Although I was physically tired, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing with thoughts. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. I lay awake for hours, listening to the heavy breathing of the others in my room and berating myself for chewing the qat. I don’t remember ever falling asleep, but I must have since I was sleeping when we were awoken in the early morning.
I didn’t join the others who went to the bridge again, but rather meandered slowly through the village, enjoying the clear morning air and watching the village wake up. I returned in time for breakfast. Afterwards, I said my goodbyes to the owner of the guest house. We all packed our things and walked out to the vehicles. As we clung to the bars in the back of the open pickup truck, the trip down the mountain seemed much more disconcerting than it had on the way up – all the hairpin turns seemed more precarious and the road seemed much steeper than I remembered.
We came to the village at the bottom of the mountain where there was a string of Land Cruisers waiting for us. When it came time to find a place for me, no one knew what to do. I ended up convincing a driver that I could sit in the back of his vehicle with the luggage. As we were about to leave, there was some confusion. It appeared that our mandatory police escort had only one vehicle. Whether due to a break down or poor planning, I didn’t know. The end result was that a police officer was sitting in the back of my vehicle, directly across from me. We were the trailing vehicle.
We drove for about half an hour when the vehicle in front of ours came to an abrupt halt. Our driver slammed on the brakes and we could see two armed men standing in the road about 100 meters ahead of the vehicle in front of ours. All the apprehension I had about kidnappings, which had disappeared in the last two days, re-emerged. “We are about to experience the real Yemen,” I thought to myself.
The driver began shouting in Arabic to the police officer who proceeded to open his side of the folding doors on the back of the vehicle. I watched him as he checked his weapon for ammunition.
The vehicle ahead of ours accelerated and our vehicle followed suit. We could see the armed men gesticulating with their weapons, only jumping out of the way at the last minute. As we sped past them, I could clearly see the one man’s angry face only a few feet on the other side of the glass window. He wasn’t very old, maybe thirty-five; for some reason I expected him to be older. He and his companion came back onto the road after we passed, and pointed their weapons at us. The police officer, also with raised weapon, began yelling at them in Arabic through the open door as we sped away.
As the armed men slowly shrank into the distance, we all started to breathe again. One of the travelers in the vehicle, a girl who was studying Arabic in Sana’a, asked what had happened. The police officer casually said a single word in Arabic with an almost imperceptible smirk, “hajez.” The girl translated for us: “checkpoint.”
I stared blankly at my sandal and the clumps of human feces it had tracked onto the water taxi. The taxi walla was speaking rapid-fire Bengali at me, obviously displeased. I looked around for something with which to clean this mess. The boat was immaculately clean, a woven reed mat, on which I was to sit, was in the center of the boat, but there was nothing else aside from the walla himself and his oar. I looked back to the shore and the wooden plank I had used to board the boat, one end perched up by a cinder block, the other half-disappearing into the moist black sand. I followed the trail of feces back down the plank to the shore and saw the pile I had stepped in. I assumed it was human based on how many people I had seen squatting near the shore.
I looked back to the walla; he just stared at me waiting for me to do something. I scooped some water from the river and splashed it onto the wooden planks of the boat, trying to dislodge the mess without touching it. This removed some of the larger bits, but I could see most of it had stuck into the grain of the heavily weathered planks. With a grimace, I used my left hand to wipe away what I could, using as much water as possible. I cleaned the boards and the guilty sandal. The walla appeared satisfied, so I took off my sandals and sat on the reed mat.
It was my third day in Dhaka. The constant greetings and invitations to tea I had gotten from every man I encountered as I had wandered the streets of the Chowkbazar, had been wearing on me. Invariably, everyone had been friendly; I just wasn’t used to this much attention. At one point, I had stopped to reload some film and after a few moments absorbed in that process, had looked up to find myself surrounded by two dozen people all staring at me. Apparently, Bangladeshis are not used to seeing many foreigners. As a diversion, I had decided to cross the Buriganga river by one of the many bridges to the opposite, southern shore.
The south shore had seemed a real contrast to the northern one which was adjacent to the city. While the north side was crowded with shops, shopkeepers and rickshaws, the south side appeared to be where the people lived. It was packed with makeshift houses with corrugated steel roofs and people washing clothing in the river. I had taken a few photos of some children and a man repairing a boat before I had decided to take the water taxi back to the north shore.
I payed the taxi walla and stepped onto the shore and into the frenetic chaos of the market. It was Friday and I was heading to the Lalbagh Fort which contained the Quilla Mosque. I wanted to be there in time for the midday prayers. I was in a hurry, dodging numerous rickshaws, and trying to avoid as many conversations as possible – most Bangladeshis are very well-spoken and love to show off their English skills to their friends. Before long, I found myself at the gates of the fort, the grounds filled with locals all enjoying their day off, some walking in the sunshine, others resting in the shade of trees. Half-empty fountains became playgrounds for children. The women wore brightly colored saris, with the occasional woman in an all black burqa. Most of the men wore very sombre western shirts and pants, but some wore the lungi, a traditional skirt.
It was still half an hour before prayer time, so I wandered the grounds, looking at the various buildings of the fort. As usual I attracted more attention than I really wanted, but everyone was very kind. I made my way toward the mosque and stepped under the awning which provided shade for the worshippers in the courtyard. Already, the faithful were gathered in large numbers. Several people greeted me. I enquired if it was OK for me to be there and they indicated that it was. I sat down next to a middle-aged man with a grayish white beard, who quickly introduced himself to me, Mr. Habibur Rahman. He was the custodian for the fort and mosque and it would later seem to me rather providential to have met him. He encouraged me to stay for the prayers, and assuaged my con- cerns about my not being “clean,” that is not having performed wudhu, or ablutions, which are required of all Muslims prior to prayer. Thinking back to the incident on the boat, I felt particularly bad since I had not had a chance to wash my left hand properly. He led me through the mechanics of the prayers, the standing and prostrating, the repeating of Allahu Akbar. ‘God is great.’
Afterwards, I had some time to explain my project to him. He was rather excited and insisted on introducing me to the Imam, Mr. Anisur Rahman along with several others. A lively discussion in Bengali ensued, presumably about me. The result of this conversation was Mr. Habibur inviting me to lunch. He led me to his office which was attached to his residence on the grounds. I asked to use his bathroom. I have never been happier to see a bar of soap. His wife, dressed in a colorful sari, proceeded to serve us tea followed by rice and several vegetable and fish dishes. We ate with our hands, right hands only, since the left hand is always considered unclean. I smiled as I realized that I had never completely understood the concept before. He showed me how it is acceptable to drink with the left hand (since the right hand is covered with food while eating) by awkwardly touching the glass to the right hand as you drink. He also indicated how to wipe the plate clean using your fingers in the manner of Muhammad. He was very kind and seemed to enjoy educating me in the ways of his culture.
He was busy after lunch, so he had one of his staff show me around the fort grounds. This man had keys to all the locked areas and showed me inside tombs and underground vaults. After a few minutes, we had a procession of curious locals following behind us. One particularly forward young man wordlessly took me by the hand, interlocked his fingers with mine, and followed my escort. He didn’t say a word, but was beaming a perfectly white smile. I was thankful when, half an hour later, I saw Mr. Habibur waiting for me ahead. I managed to take my hand back and said my goodbyes to everyone who had gathered.
It was getting close to time for the sunset prayers and Mr. Habibur led me back to the mosque and had another member of his staff lead me through the ablutions. I had done them before, but had forgotten the details, so I was grateful to have someone to guide me. We washed our hands three times, rinsed our mouths three times, cleaned our nostrils three times, washed our faces three times, washed our arms up to the elbow three times. Then we passed our hands over our hair and neck, but only once. Then we washed our feet three times. I wondered at the significance of the number three. We entered the mosque and I was joined by Mr. Habibur who, again, led me through the prayers. As I was going through the motions, I reflected on what he had told me earlier during one of our conversations. “Every time I pray, it is like my last prayer. Azrael, the Angel of Death is behind me. Heaven is above and Hell below. I have a good angel on my right and a bad one on my left. I am naked before my Creator.” I wondered how it would feel to have such convictions.
After the prayers, most of the people left. Some remained and gathered around the Imam near the front of the mosque. I was led to the very front and told to sit down inside the mirhab (the niche in the wall facing Mecca) and was sitting behind the Imam as he proceeded to give a sermon in Bengali. I didn’t know what he said, but it seemed that it must have been pretty light-hearted as it was punctuated by occasional laughter from the small audience. I sat listening to the sing-song sound of the language and staring out the arched doorways at all the brightly dressed people outside in the last rays of the sun. What a contrast between this quiet, peaceful place and the bustling bazaar just outside the gates.
Periodically, men would enter the mosque and silently pray by themselves before joining the group to listen to the Imam. One man entered, talking on a cell-phone, wearing jeans and an AC-DC T-shirt. When his call ended, he too prayed and then joined the group. The sermon lasted about 45 minutes until the sun had completely set. The Imam then led everyone through another prayer followed by another five minute sermon.
Afterwards, he introduced me in English to the group and asked me to explain my project to them. I explained how I had saved money for many years and then set out traveling through the Muslim world, how I had decided to write a book about my experiences in an effort to promote peace through understanding. A man in the audience translated my words into Bengali for those who didn’t speak English well enough to understand. There were many questions at the end: “How is Islam represent- ed in your country?” “Have you considered converting to Islam?” “What do you think of George W. Bush?” I answered them as best I could. Everyone was very friendly and appreciated my answers, but I still felt a bit of guilt by association, like I was a representative of the West who understood very little about their culture or religion and yet seemed to judge them in one way or another.
When I was finished, the Imam spoke to the group in Bengali for another five minutes. I am not sure what he said, but I guess that he wished me good luck. There were several Alhamdulillah’s (praise be to God) from the group. One man approached me with tears in his eyes and wordlessly hugged me. Another man told me that he thought what I was doing was even more important since I wasn’t a Muslim.
I said my goodbyes to everyone and walked with the Imam and Mr. Habibur to the gate. There, they arranged a rickshaw for me back to my hotel. I climbed onto the seat and waved goodbye to them. It was dark as my rickshaw driver pedaled through the crowded streets, ringing his bell and dodging nearly unseen pedestrians. My mind was a swirl of emotions. I felt very inspired by the enthusiasm of all the people I met, but at the same time, I did not feel worthy of their respect. I mulled my thoughts as my driver sweated in the cool evening air.
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