20050618-spec-yemen-memories

A humourous story:

I wasn’t much past kindergarten when my chum Paul and I were adventuring like boys do. Looking through a hole in a board in the back of a neighbourhood corner store, we saw the “big eye”. The really BIG eye.

“Tommy, Tommy!” Paul screamed. “There’s a big eye in there and it’s looking right at me!”

“Yeah!” I said, taking his place and looking through the hole. “Now it’s looking at ME!”

It was a monster eye. Ugly and hairy. Probably a killer, I thought.

Yeah,” said Paul, looking again. “It’s a big brown eye!”

I looked. Brown? Afriad to blink lest the murderous eye change colour, I said “It’s blue!”

“No!” Paul said. “It’s brown.”

“Blue!” I argued.

“Brown!”

Back and forth we went until we courageously walked into the store to tell about the the monster and ask if we could go see it. So we were led into a storage room where there was… a mirror facing that hole in the store’s ouside wall.

A mirror reflecting our own eyeballs.

Most things in life are never as scary as we think, even in a boogeyman place like Yemen.

Some years ago, talking about my upcoming new life in this mysterious Arab country, I would joke to former colleagues that I was “going to the desert to live in a tent.” In fact, the tent turned out to be a nice apartment in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Middle East weather, I learned, could actually be cool and Yemenis, despite global politics, very warm.

With such things in mind, while my young family now moves it overseas base to Africa, here are some quotes that reflect my time as a Canadian in Yemen – and an editor at the Yemen Times – for most of the past 40 months.

Are you American?” What a customs official asked after I first landed in Yemen in 2002. After I said I was Canadian, he smiled and nodded, “Canadian OK. Better than American.”

“If women don’t cover, we’re always gazing at their lovliness. When they’re covered, we don’t even notice them.” Ramzy, an office colleague, telling me why women should be covered head to toe.

It’s like a bad dream.” A friend commenting on Christian aid workers Dr. Martha Myers, Kathy Gariety and Bill Koehn. The Americans were killed by an Islamic extremist at a hospital in the Yemeni town of Jibla in 2002. Incredibly, my wife jean, who with Martha was one of just two Western obstetricians in Yemen, was originally scheduled to be there when the killings occurred.

“We like your new name.” What Yemen Times colleagues told me after I took Jamil Abdul Karim as my pen name for my column, East and West. It means “beautiful servant of the Most Gracious One”. I adopted it in tribute to Bill, Martha and Kathy and the legacy of their decades of service to Yemenis.

“Can’t I buy one that’s pre-tied?” My question about the Arab head wrap that I attempted, too many times, to tie and wear in public for security when the Iraq War broke out.

“Like at the end of any good story, the hero should die.” What my always quotable landlord said after Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq.

“Thomas, you’re not eating enough.” What the landlord would say before stacking my plate, again, whenever Jean and I joined his family for meals.

“What we’re giving them are tools so they can help others.” Jean commenting on a 2003 donation of hospital equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars to Yemen from Outreach International, a program of Hamilton’s Sisters of St. Joseph.

“The U.S. news media won’t tell the truth. The only way to get the truth to the American people is through the mail.” One of the many wild items that crossed my desk while editing the Yemen Times.

“Assalaam alaykum achree.” A common Arabic greeting meaning, ‘Peace be upon your brother.’ I didn’t learn much Arabic, but I liked to use this often.

“Sweetie, do you have any TP?” An all too common question I’d ask Jean before visiting any public washroom, which usually diodn’t have such essentials.

“You want to travel?” Yemen Times editor-in-chief Walid al-Saqqaf asked this before referring me to the Salzburg Seminar, a forum for dialogue on global issues. I was later awarded a $5,000 US scholarship to attend a 2004 Salzburg session in Austria.

“Dear Thom: I read your article online and it was truly touching. Be assured that the Yemen Times and its staff will always remember you, regardless of where you are and what you do.” Responding to a column I wrote about him (headlined “Saying Hello, Saying Goodbye”) Walid e-mailed me this from Washington, where he is working through the prestigious Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellowship.

Saying hello. Saying goodbye.

It’s what life is all about and the phrase reflects my memories from a place that also won’t ever be forgotten.

My hope is that my correspondence has shed at least some light on its mysteries.”