Posted on May 14, 2010 - by mira
First appeared in The Daily Star
SANAA: After the first few steps through the gate, I hesitate and stop to take it all in. It’s chilling to think of the significance of this place. The path leading to the entrance winds then disappears behind the neat shrubbery on either side, and the grass turf is a pleasant walled patch of green in Old Sanaa. A sign indicates this is the Arabic-language institute I am looking for. Not a conventional apartment building at all, the school is located in one of the Old City’s renovated mudbrick tower houses.
This is where Omar Farouq Abdel-Muttaleb studied Arabic, apparently before he later received training in a remote camp for his failed mission to blow up a US airplane last December. It’s not a minor thing, psychologically, to find yourself in the same physical path a would-be terrorist took every day last fall. In a way it’s similar to being on the London tour of Jack the Ripper’s murder sites, as if trying to see through a terror bomber’s eyes might give us some insight into his mind.
But I’m here on a different task: to interview the director for a story. At the reception I’m asked politely for a copy of my identification card.
The institute is nervous about who visits it, considering how Abdel-Muttaleb tarnished its reputation. I’m told I’m welcome to take photos of the (small) campus and talk to the students before an escort takes me to the director’s residence, where the interview will take place.
Photos on the notice board showcase the institute’s busier, better days. Only two Western women wearing a hijab study their notes in the peaceful garden. Are they Muslim or just being sensitive to the local culture?
The escort takes me down an alley through the Old City. He points out the building that is the student housing and tells me this is where Abdel-Muttaleb stayed. He was a good Muslim, he says. He went from the house to the mosque and from the mosque to the house. If he saw poor people here on the corner (he points to the corner), he always gave them money. He was polite and friendly, he says.
My escort speaks with the fewest amount of words possible. Perhaps he has that Yemeni shyness in the presence of a woman, or maybe he is just tired of answering questions about Omar.
Abdel-Muttaleb probably believed he was trying to be a “good Muslim” by waging this violent modern form of jihad that extremists are perpetrating. But that’s not the evaluation my escort gives him.
“How did you feel when you heard the news?”
“Shocked,” my escort says. “It was a shock. We never would have expected it of him.”
He stops a taxi and I find myself on a 30-minute ride to a rundown suburb of Sanaa near the airport road. Every day is an adventure in Yemen, I think to myself. On the way, the taxi driver and my escort, both young men, talk about Toyota Corollas. Then we reach our destination. The recent attempt on the UK ambassador was not far from here. The neighborhood hasn’t seen any Western-looking women before, the director amiably explains, referring to my appearance. I had noticed it. A woman without a hijab attracts much attention in less central areas, but rarely any hostility.
The director’s residence is a modern white-stone house. The second floor is still under construction. He is turning it into an institute, he says, and wanted me to see the new classrooms, because if things continue this way, he may have to close down the one in the Old City to save on rent.
It’s a shame. The students would have to miss out on experiencing living in the historic city and practicing their Arabic in its ancient alleys and spice-scented souqs.
Since December, Western tourists and students have mostly stayed away. Yemen is perceived as a dangerous place and a hotbed for terrorism. That, coupled with the state’s decision to stop issuing student visas, has affected the institutes that teach Arabic. This particular institute is downsizing while also trying to rid itself of the bad reputation brought upon it by Abdel-Muttaleb.
I leave and my escort, both in the way of courtesy and not taking any chances with my safety, negotiates the taxi fare for me. The first taxi driver asks for the exorbitant sum of $4. A passerby overhears us and stops to chat. He tells me, “Don’t mind that driver. He just woke up from sleep.” Another driver accepts the offer, and my escort and the passerby see me off. Just as the car takes off to the tune of a Yemeni love song, I hear a bus driver shout: “Don’t think we’re terrorists.”
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