March 05, 2012

Cairo, Egypt

Stirring up peaceful trouble in Tahrir Square yesterday.

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This was my last big dance event for the new video and a fitting way to wrap up.

It was clear many of the participants were nervous about things going smoothly, and it did get a bit heated once we started shouting and clapping.

Rumors spread quickly in Tahrir. First some of the onlookers decided I must be celebrating the release of the American aid workers who'd been held by the government. That soon evolved into a story that I was an Israeli spy gathering intelligence about the protestors. And within minutes someone decided I must be a Freemason -- which is, apparently, a really dangerous thing to get accused of in Egypt.

This is Alex.

Alex

Someone told Alex I'd be there filming, and since he lives a block away, he stopped by on his way home from work. When people started getting angry at us for dancing, Alex stepped in to calm things down. And when it got out of hand, he told me it was time to leave. I asked where we should go. He said, "Anywhere, just pick a direction and start walking."

I owe Alex, big.

We hung out the next day. I learned Alex is a doctor, and when the protests happened last year, he helped treat injured protestors in an ad hoc clinic set up behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I asked Alex for the strangest thing he ever saw while driving in Egypt. He sent me these four photos, three of which he took himself with one hand on the steering wheel.

Safety first

Two guys and goats

You're doing it wrong

Camels field trip

 

April 08, 2008

Sana'a, Yemen
"Don't Worry. You Are in Yemen."

The next time you've got a layover in Cairo airport, remember to go up. The gates are all on the first floor, which is smelly and ugly. The few available seats are occupied and everyone is yelling at each other.

One floor up, things are quieter. This is where all the VIP lounges are.

The top floor, inexplicably empty, features a sea of comfy couches courtesy of a 24 hour Starbucks and adjoining Cinnabon. It also has free wi-fi. The food options aren't particularly cheaper downstairs and there are no gatekeepers to this upper oasis, but there's a clear class distinction. My theory: a lot of folks just feel more comfortable down there.

It's interesting how the Starbucks aesthetic has a way of casually warding some people off; a way of saying "This is not for you. You don't belong here." I wonder if that's deliberate.

Got into Yemen at 3am. My first impression was that the people are very shovey. But perhaps the immigration line isn't the best place to draw conclusions.

When the doors opened up into passport control, everyone charged the counter like it was a wedding dress sale at Filene's Basement. One guy tried to push me out of the doorway and squeeze past. I elbowed him in the gut. Lovely!

By the will of Allah, my bag managed to catch all my flights and arrive concurrently. It is a loyal and durable sidekick.

The buildings of Old Sana'a would be considered modest skyscrapers if they were built out of concrete and steel. As it happens, they are built out of mud, which makes them tremendously immodest.

The city is thousands of years old. Its structures are packed tightly to maximize shade in the winding alleys and corridors. Few cars dare to risk scraping through the place, so the sounds that can be heard have little to compete with. They bounce great distances to haunting effect.

Driving into the city, hours before dawn, all you can hear are those few scattered voices. My driver had no idea where the hotel was, so he woke every urchin we passed to ask directions.

I saw a lot of dead cats. That's not particularly unusual, but the pools of fresh, trickling blood were unsettling.

Believe it or not, Sana'a is extremely high up; 2200 meters, well over a mile from sea level. I always had the sense that the Saudi peninsula was just endless, flat desert. Not so. The altitude keeps Sana'a relatively cool, but I lost my breath quickly on the stairs up to my room.

I slept miraculously well on the flights, so I was up and ready to go before lunch. I spent the rest of the day wandering through the city.

No street goes in the same direction for more than a few meters, so navigating was hopeless. I spent about an hour looking around, and four hours trying to find my way back.

At least half the people I passed said "hello" and "welcome." Lots of smiles. They'd ask me where I'm from and I'd tell them. Big thumbs up. "America! Very good!"

Motorcycle in sheep's clothing.

This is one of the gates of Old Sana'a. Beyond it is the far less interesting New Sana'a, which looks like every other impoverished city in the world.

This is a very bad picture of a shop wall that has a portrait of Saddam Hussein hanging on it. It's one of those things that, as an American, I really didn't want to get caught snapping a photo of, so I was sneaky about it.

Pictures of Saddam Hussein aren't at all unusual in Yemen. Lots of shops have them. I'm not sure what the significance is, but I imagine his image means something very different to Yemenis than it does to me. I'd speculate that he's seen as a sort of Teddy Roosevelt figure; strong, willful, defiant. From a certain point of view, Saddam was a real Can-Do guy.

What I didn't see was any photos of their hometown boy, the pride of Yemen, Osama "Sammy Bean" Bin Laden (his father was Yemeni). I'm guessing those are probably hanging under the counter.

Some guy stopped me and demanded I take a picture of this minaret.

He had a lot to say -- all of it in Arabic. I think he asked if I was Spanish. He kept going and going and I kept shrugging and trying to walk away. An English speaker finally passed by.

"He wants you to take a picture of him."

Ah. Easy enough.

This did not make him happy. He wanted it close up on his face. Sure. No problem.

Nope. Too squinty. He turned me away from the sun.

Better, but he still seemed displeased.

Some other guy passed by and wanted in on the next one.

Praise be to Allah that pictures don't cost anything these days.

The guy still wanted something more. I couldn't figure out what. Probably money. This is where the language barrier comes in handy.

He reached out to shake my hand, and as I shook it I realized he was missing a couple fingers. That's always fun.

I later learned that Arab handshakes are a little different than ours. It's not just shake-and-be-done-with-it. You shake, you greet, you smile, you shake some more, more greetings, still shaking, rinse, repeat. It got to the point where we were actually walking down the street together, hand in hand, still shaking, still feeling fleshy stumps where fingers should be, still talking without either party having a clue what the other was saying.

This girl made me sad. When she saw me coming, she lit up and said "Sura!" I had no idea what that meant, assumed she wanted money, so I kept walking.

"Sura! Sura!"

She stood, somber and alone in the alley as I walked away.

"Sura?..."

I waved goodbye and turned the corner.

"...sura."

Sura means picture. That's all she wanted.

I don't know why there isn't more talk about how much digital cameras have changed and enhanced international travel. Suddenly I have an infinite supply of something that's easy to give and as fun for me as it is for those who request it. Images are disposable to us, but they really are profound things.

I don't take my portable printer around much anymore. Small as it was, it still filled a good chunk of my luggage space. I often wish I had it.

Anyway, once I found out what it meant, I never missed another sura.

This is the main road through the old city. I'm fuzzy on this, but I think it actually used to be a river, and then when it dried up they just started letting cars through.

Water is a big problem in Yemen. The air is bone-dry and they're having to dig further and further down to get it. Of the water they do have, a crazy amount of it goes into growing Qat. Qat is a chewable leaf that acts as a stimulant, like tobacco. It's sold at a premium, so farmers abandon other crops in favor of it, but it also requires a whole lot of water to grow, hence the problem. They're chewing themselves into a famine.

At least a few people are still growing real food, but it doesn't taste as good as it looks. One of those apples in there is the second-worst I've ever tasted. The worst was in a decorative bowl at a fancy hotel, and that one was fake, so I don't think it counts.

Yemen is predominantly Sunni. It isn't the most radical Islamic country, but their spring breaks aren't very impressive either. Full burkes are the norm, and for the most part women don't speak to men outside the family. It feels very much like a world without women.

I was skittish about photographing people without their consent, but those usually make the best pictures, so I snuck a lot of quick shots that didn't turn out. I also took a lot of pictures of people from the back.

At least with the women, you can't really tell the difference between front and back. They're all just kinda shadowy blobs.

In my last post I mentioned reading that it's common to carry around assault rifles. Well, I didn't see a single one on a civilian. Instead, the men in Yemen all wear ornate, jeweled daggers in their belts. These are called jambia (not sure of the spelling, but that's how it sounds).

They're part of the formal dress -- kind of like neckties, except easier to kill people with.

Jambia are passed down through generations. Older ones, I'm told, are worth thousands.

I fumbled through some crude attempts at communicating with these kids. Dig the ammo belt with the live rounds.

The picture-taking attracted attention and soon I had a small crowd.

I pulled out the video camera and started shooting. The kids were hamming it up, and it was a smooth transition into setting up the tripod and getting them to dance with me.

I showed them the first take and they sort of got what I was doing. We moved back in position to shoot it again. This time, just as I started dancing, they all pulled out their daggers and waved them in my face. Everyone was still smiling and laughing, so I took it for granted that I wasn't being robbed. I eventually cottoned on that it's how they dance.

Okay, then.

They circled around me, thrusting and twirling their not-at-all-unsharp blades. One dagger slipped out of a kid's hand and landed at my feet. I pretended not to be terrified and kept on dancing.

This batch of kids really wanted me to eat their cookies. I politely declined. That was deemed unacceptable.

I ate a cookie. It was fine. They immediately produced another one. Fine. Okay. I ate that too.

Out came a third cookie. What the hell kind of game is this? I let them know I was done eating cookies. So they took my backpack, opened the main pouch, and stuffed the entire bag of cookies inside.

I still don't know what was going on there. I guess they just really wanted to get rid of those cookies.

I pulled out the video camera again. The second it went on, the kid in the hummer T-shirt broke into some crazed comedy routine. I think he was pretending to be a sportscaster or reporter. I took a step back to open up the frame a bit. He stepped forward right along with me. I kept moving back down the alley, and he and his friends stayed right in step. We ended up shooting a sort of impromptu Beastie Boys video. Does anyone have any idea what these kids are saying?

Anyone who's ever spent the night in a Muslim country knows what I woke up to the next morning. At 4:30am, the city shakes to the sound of pre-recorded prayer sputtering out atop the minarets from old, scratchy bullhorns; a call to all good Muslims to get up, scoop water over their private parts and mask their odors so they are fit to praise Allah at sunrise.

A few minutes later, Melissa called from Seattle to make sure I was still alive with all my parts (private and public) attached. Turns out three mortars had just been fired at a compound in the city that houses US oil workers. Al-Qaeda took credit.

No one was hurt. That's because al-Qaeda are a bunch of bozos. I think I can safely say that without offending anyone. Al-Qaeda and the Amish are pretty much my only risk-free punching bags, as they will never read this. Anyway, they are bumbling ignoramuses. Two weeks ago they tried the same thing on the US Embassy in Sana'a. Wanna know what happened? They missed and hit a girls' school across the street.

But I suppose that doesn't matter, right? They were, after all, only girls.

Bozos!

I'd planned to hire a driver and visit some nearby villages, but that plan seemed ambitious considering the circumstances. I spoke to Abdul, the hotel manager who'd arranged things for me, anticipating that he would dismiss my concerns.

"It is not for you that they are angry, Mr. Matt. You must not be afraid. These men, they are not from Yemen. They come from Egypt and other places and they make trouble, but Yemeni people will not harm you."

I stewed for a bit. I agreed with his point about not being afraid. You know, "the terrorists win" and all that.

Also, what had really changed? I already knew those guys were lurking. Like most humans, my caveman brain responds enthusiastically to sudden, visceral events like explosions (and is listless about gradual crises like climate change). That's why terrorism works. But was the actual risk any greater than it was the day before?

There was no one around to discourage me, so I decided to go ahead with the plan. I met my driver, Mujahad, which, I must admit, sounded a bit more like mujahadeen than I would have liked it to.

Mujahad has been driving tourists around Yemen for 20 years. Mostly Europeans, he says. But, of course, "Americans are the best!"

He was curious about prices in America. He wanted a sense of the relative cost of goods, so he chose the most universal of purchases.

"How much for a chicken?"
"...Uh, cooked?"
"Yes."
"I don't know. Maybe $20?"
"$20! Amazing. And how much without cook."
"Sorry?"
"How much for the whole chicken. Still alive."

I couldn't think of ever having seen a live chicken for sale. You want the price on a can of Coke, a loaf of bread? No problem. But we don't really do the live chicken thing. I'm not sure how I should feel about that. Embarassed? Ashamed? Relieved?

This guy accidentally drove his truck over a cliff when his brakes stopped working. He'd been waiting beside it all day. I suppose help is coming at some point.

We visited the villages of Thille, Kawkaban, Shibam, and Habebah (palindrome, yay!). It was all a big mish-mash and I came to the conclusion that Yemen is mostly rocks.

There's no oil in Yemen. There's hardly any mining. Just rocks.

...and people.

Some goats too.

Kids in Yemen spend a lot of time peering out of windows. I suppose I would've too if I hadn't had a TV growing up. They would yell to me from way up high and I'd have to spend a minute or two tracking the echoes to pinpoint their location.

Look close. They're in there.

This kid in the dark blazer is highly photogenic.

Take a couple hundred pictures and eventually you will accidentally snap a really really good one.

I hope, hope, hope these kids aren't gathering drinking water. Mujahad insisted they weren't. I think he said it's for washing.

These kids were ferocious. They wanted money, pens, paper -- anything I had on me.

Their mothers hid in a corner, watching me closely. I smiled and waved, then realized I had no idea what their expressions were. The veiled look comes across as just sort of superior and maybe a little bit sinister -- an effect that definitely has its uses.

About25thcobracommande

I pulled out the video camera to shoot some dancing clips with the kids. At this, the moms were very excited, although I had to take care not to include any of them in the shot, lest their vanity should piss off God.

Once I finished, I felt obliged to give the kids something for participating. There were loads of them, so the coins ran out fast and only led to pushing and hitting. I realized I needed a whole lot of something.

Aha!

There are those that assume part of my job is to wander the planet handing out Stride.

I don't.

But I do keep some in my bag all the time and it definitely helped out in this situation. Once the wrapper came off, though, the grabbing hands were all over me, going into my bag, in my pockets. It was a bad scene. I handed the gum off to one of the moms, figuring she'd do a better job of keeping them at bay.

She did not. And I felt really bad for redirecting the frenzy upon her. She resorted to breaking sticks into smaller and smaller pieces to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, I made my escape.

Mujahad and I stopped for lunch in Shibam. I attribute the sanitation woes of our dining establishment to chronic, acute maleness syndrome. It was like eating in a bathroom. Seriously guys, think about getting some women involved in this operation. They've really kinda got their heads on straighter than us in a lot of key ways. At the very least, your restaurant will smell way better.

Those issues aside, the arrangement was fun. It was in the traditional Arabic style. We got a couple huge pieces of khobz, which is a round flat bread kinda like a pizza but without anything on it, and then we had a couple plates of meat and vegetables. No utensils involved, just rip off some bread and use it to pick up clumps of the messy stuff.

The meat was pretty rough. You can kinda tell when the animal you're eating lived on garbage scraps.

All the other men in the restaurant were pretty amused to see me in there. Lots of questions, all very friendly. What part of America am I from? How much does it cost to get there? How long does it take?

I was made to try the dishes at the surrounding tables, which was a bit dicey, but I got through it.

Today was my last day in Yemen. I was going to spend it wandering around Sana'a a bit more. Instead, I organized my mp3s. Not because of terrorists, mind you, but because I am very lazy.