Meet Sarah. She used to live in New York and cover fashion for women's magazines. Then she moved to Yemen. What's Yemen? Just a little country where prisoners go to when they get released from Guantanamo, where Al Qaeda is like the Beatles, where eight-year-olds have to go to court to get their own divorces and where women aren't allowed to laugh in public. They've been trying to blow up foreigners lately in Yemen, and the Embassy and its stash of liquor is gone for the moment, but Sarah is sticking around because the food is cheap and she never really liked showing her hair or speaking in public that much to begin with. Herewith, an IM interview with Yemenista, the only Jezebel reader with ready access to qat. It's nature's adderall.
So. First things first! How the hell did you wind up in Yemen? And are you scared of Al Qaeda?
I am trying to think of how to best sum it up... I worked as a fashion editor in NYC for about 6 years and when 9/11 happened, I started wondering about Islam and why people hated the U.S. so much — I was not into interna'tl politics at ALL at that time — so I started studying Arabic and eventually left my job at the magazine I was working for (Good Housekeeping) and went to Cairo for 3 months. When I came back, I entered a grad program for journalism and tried to keep up with my Arabic study. So last summer I came to Yemen to do some intensive language courses and loved it before I finished my masters in Dec, I heard about an opportunity with the Yemen Times and I decided to take the job so I moved here for one year, beginning in January.
Ok, as for the evacuations: There have been a number of attacks on foreigners here starting last summer in July. Things were calm for a while but then recently there was a mortar attack on the US Embassy in the capital (Sana'a), and then about a week or so later, there was an attack on a residential facility that mainly housed oil workers and supposedly some diplomatic staff. After the residence attack, the US Embassy ordered all non-emergency staff to leave Yemen. Actually, many MANY people think that there will be a civil war here soon. It is kind of terrorism's last frontier- the gov't has a very shaky hold on power and there is now fighting going on in the North, the South and some central areas. Also, our gov't and the Yemeni gov't are having lots of problems right now since all the people that have been released from Guantanamo have been asked to sign papers saying that they will not carry out terrorist activities anymore. Obviously this ain't going over so well with in the States and now with the recent two attacks, the US is even more angry. So the rest of us Americans here are kind of waiting for our government to evacuate US any day now.
So does the United States think the ex-Guantanamo guys somehow spearheaded the recent attacks? Because Yemen has always been 1. somewhat out of control and 2. Al Qaeda friendly right? (I know 2 hijackers were apparently Yemeni, though they may have been Saudi born.) And...fuck. Tell me about where you worked in New York, and whether you miss it, and now that you're being evacuated and dodging mortarfire etc. etc. would you still tell anyone bored and unfulfilled at a fashion magazine to get the fuck out of New York and learn about the real world while they can?
Ha! Well, I still have lots of friends in that fashion-y/beauty world. But I find this a million times more fulfilling for sure. I think my daily life is a lot less 'sexy' than you might think, seriously! As for Al-Q, they have taken credit for all the attacks. And they are not only active but VERY popular here.
Really? But Yemen always seemed SO GLAMOROUS.
SUPER glam, let me tell you!
Do you chew qat? I've always wanted to chew that.
I am so impressed you know about it! I have, but I hate. And I hate what it does to this country.
Well it is really poor, right? Has the media interviewed a lot of the Guantanamo guys or are they allowed to talk?
Well, the ones that were released have kind of disappeared. but I think a few of them have spoke to media. Mostly Arabic-language sources though. The ones still at Gitmo are completely sealed off, cant even talk to their families. I talk to their lawyers pretty often though, since that's one of my beats
Is there oil there? Why is it so undeveloped? I have no concept of Yemen's history. But their oppression of women kind of makes you question all those theories about how rich natural resources are bad for economic diversification/women. Maybe just, women are screwed no matter what the natural resource situation?
Nutshell: it was a divided country until 1990 with a socialist-USSR-aligned south. and a religious, super poor north. Almost none of the country has oil but that hasn't stopped people from trying to dig. It is still REALLY divided in spirit. The British ruled the south until 1962 but mainly their economy is their paltry oil supply and qat which is sad.
Well I would buy some qat. is it legal here?
It is in fact not legal in the US and there was a big QAT ring (who knew?) that was busted last year in Dec! But that doesn't mean you can't try it anyway. It is also chewed in Ethiopia and Somalia and I think a few other countries as well. But it seriously is gross and tastes like hell, plus the high is not good. It's like being on a super-coffee high, and lots of people feel crazy/depressed afterwards. it makes you talk a lot (what I hear cocaine is like)
Ah, that's what I "hear" cocaine is like. So.... one thing I have been fascinated by is why Yemen doesn't seem to be in the news here more often. You have TERROR, after all.
Well, it's kind of a black hole. People don't know a lot about it and it's poor as all hell. It's like how our media covers Africa in a way. And things have been active lately but they were quiet for some years. I think it has to do with the government and Al-Qaeda trying to show people that the government is weak. There are always protests going on here and I thought I was going to be ambushed at one of the for the Gitmo (current) detainees. Some of the guys there were like, "You are Satan."
How are your living conditions? Do you live with other foreigners or in a university dorm or something? How much do you get paid and what is there to spend money on? What's it like to be a woman?
I get paid less than $500/month, but my rent in Yemen is SUPER low. There are a couple nice things to buy here, but not many. Yemen is great in lots of ways and that is def one of them. Some of the not so great ways include the BEYOND-limited rights of women here. I am talking about no cell phone talking in the street, okay, no TALKING in the street period for women...no laughing for women. No laughing! Yo have to wear full-body coverage at all times, but foreigners don't need to cover their hair.
No talking in the street, no laughing...what if you just went into the middle of the street and laid a really loud fart? Do you get caned for laughing, like in Singapore for graffiti?
Well, if you were Yemeni, your whole family would probably disown you because you disgraced them or some like bullshit. I have to go though, I'm meeting a friend for dinner and women aren't supposed to be out after sunset. But it will cost less than two dollars!