Posted on August 26, 2011 - by Mira
“Where’s Michael? Are you Michael?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Michael said. He was the Sri Lankan owner of a restaurant in Yemen.
“If America attacks Iraq, you’ll be dead. I’ll kill you myself,” the stranger threatened him.
An American living in Taiz received threats of the same nature when he was stopped by a passing car. “I’ll cut your throat,” he was told.
The manager of a well-known hotel was warned: “Stop bringing tourists here.”
Several Iraqis who lived in Yemen received death threats and warnings as well. Iraqis who supported the toppling of Saddam Hussain had arguments with Yemenis who perceived them as traitors to the Arab Cause, which in their view Saddam upheld.
When the U.S. did attack Iraq, none of the threats were carried out, to my knowledge. But tensions were high throughout Yemen, and employees were told to prepare for the worst.
I prepared two emergency bags, and I put one next to the front door and the other next to back door in case my house was going to be overrun by angry Yemenis who wanted to kill all the infidels and I had to make a quick escape.
The spy who didn’t know it
I was with the head of the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites, who was giving us a tour of Old Sanaa. My camera hanging from my shoulder, and a small notebook and pen in hand, I was quickly jotting down notes when I heard: “See these people? They are spies!”
Spies ruined it for the rest of us when they went undercover as teachers or journalists, I thought. I could see how I could be mistaken for a spy, but what a great spy I made if I was so conspicuous! More like a spy from Hollywood.
I looked up and saw that the man was speaking to his two young children. What a thing to teach your young ones! Of course, I wasn’t going to let go of the matter.
“Why do you think I’m a spy?” I stopped him and asked in my Lebanese Arabic, with a bit of Yemeni accent mixed in and some standard Arabic – fus-ha – thrown in for effect. “Because you think I’m American?”
The look on his face changed when he heard me speak Arabic. Yemenis often mistook me to be American.
“Well, I’m not a spy,” I said. “I’m not even American.”
His eyes narrowed as he examined me more closely.
“British?” he asked.
“Nope.” I paused. He looked puzzled, and I was enjoying confusing him in this way. “I’m Arab,” I finally said. “I’m Lebanese, and I’m not a spy!”
Now he wanted to save face, so he replied, “Arab! Arabs are even worse!” and he turned around and left, his children in tow.
If I’d told my students about what happened, they would have consoled me with: “Don’t mind him, teacher, these people are ignorant.”
And it was true that these incidents were the exception. Unfortunately, a country’s reputation is sullied by individuals or groups who do act violently, and they must be prevented from doing so. Lebanon still carries the stigma of the civil war, which ended over 20 years ago, because much of the news on Lebanon is related to internal strife.
But the majority of Yemenis, whether they privately held the same intolerant views or not, did not act on them or show it. There were thousands of non-Muslims and non-Yemenis living in Yemen, but there weren’t any massacres or large-scale attacks against them following the U.S. attack on Iraq, and that said a lot about the people.
Yemen defied expectations.
My emergency bags sat untouched near the doors, and the daily fear of the backlash from the Iraq war did not materialize. It would be the last time I prepared any such emergency kits. I came to know that I had Yemeni friends that I could turn to.
Of course, there is danger in Yemen. It’s a lawless country where large areas are governed by tribes, not the rule of law. But what goes unnoticed in this country – what is not newsworthy in journalism – is the good will and generosity of the majority.
Like my student’s invitation to lunch.
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a new series on my life in Yemen, to be updated every Tuesday and Friday (unless I’m on the road and internet-less). Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them.
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