Posted on July 8, 2011 - by mira
I remember the first time.
Traveling in Yemen was a special affair. With the permission of the tourist police, I was on a road trip, leaving the Yemeni capital for the first time a few months after I’d moved there from Lebanon. The road out of Sanaa snaked through the belt of mountains that guard the city and cut through the early morning souqs of towns and villages along the way. The souqs bustled with the noise and chaos of shoppers rushing about like bees looking for bargains and sellers hawking their goods: live chickens, calves, vegetables and various wares displayed in shops and on stalls on both sides of the road.
By midday, these same places looked like they had been hit by a tornado. The shops were closed and every place looked eerily abandoned except for restaurants and qat markets. The driver stopped in front of a restaurant.
When a woman is among restaurant customers, her party is quickly ushered away from the busy main food area full of men and to a side entrance. We went in and were led down a narrow hallway with private rooms on either side. This was the family area.
We were given our own little room. When I looked inside, my heart sank. It was a small space of four bland walls and a rug on the floor. That was it. No table and chairs. No nice little menu with enticing smoothies or desserts. As I was clueless, the driver went ahead and placed the order – a whole chicken with rice and local side dishes I’d never heard of, and, of course, bread.
“Which kind of bread?” the driver asked. Pause. Um, just, regular, bread. I would later learn of all the different kinds of Yemeni bread. The driver ordered.
I sat on the rug with legs bent on one side beneath me, but kept shifting them from side to side. I couldn’t sit more comfortably cross-legged so as not to be offensive. The young male waiter served reusable, glass soda bottles that looked like they were made in the 1970s. There was Pepsi, Fanta, Canada Dry. The food arrived fast. We shared all of it. I ate a few bites with bread that I made into small triangular scoops and guzzled the Pepsi, but mostly I pondered my present situation.
Why do I put myself through these things?
I think I may have been near tears. This was definitely not Beirut. If my dad could see me, I thought, he’d say in his fatherly Lebanese way, Shoo sayer alaykee? To the effect of: What tragedy has befallen you and forced this upon you?
There I was, a woman of the luxuriously inclined Lebanese culture and all its superfluity, sitting awkwardly on the floor, hidden away in a barren room like a secret, picking at the food. I wanted to rush back to Beirut.
But I didn’t. It was humbling. It brought me down to earth. For there I was, along with millions of Yemenis, gathered together around a simple meal on the floor. A whole new world lay open before me.
Should I venture forth?
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
This is a new series on my life in Yemen. Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them. Have you had a similar perspective-changing experience? Were you in a situation outside your comfort zone that you were later thankful for?
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