Some years ago, in a covered market in the north of Yemen near the Saudi border, I meandered down a smoky, teeming alley thick with the tintinnabulations and perfumes of Arabia. Something shiny caught my eye, and I turned down a narrow corridor, but then a bolt of blue silk carried on a shoulder slid past, and I decided to follow. The man turned again and again in a labyrinthine route until one turn too many and he was gone.
I tried to trace my steps back to where I had left my fellow Americans, adventure travelers on an exploration of "Arabia Felix," but I couldn't find them. I asked directions from shop owners and shoppers alike, but none understood English, and I knew little Arabic. At one point I realized I was lost, and a dizzying panic set in, but then something else washed over me. I felt unfettered, with no past, no loads, no directions or guides, just the woozy exotic moment. I chewed on it like a wad of qat, and felt as edged and alive as I could be.
In that Yemen bazaar so many years ago, after following the man with the blue silk, I came across a beautiful chess set with pieces carved from onyx. I sat with the owner and shared tea and talked in different languages about its loveliness and its cost. Finally, after sending back and forth folds of dinars, we agreed on a price, and he placed the set in camel bag. His smile, broader than a Jambiya, seemed a synecdoche for the whole of a culture, its people and a place apart. As I turned to leave I saw one of my fellow Americans step pass by, and, with some regret, I re-joined my clutch of compatriots, and headed for home.
Not long afterwards Yemen bowed into itself, and became a troubled state, off-limits for travelers and adventurers. But a friend and former colleague, Brid Beeler, who spent much of her career conducting tours throughout the Middle East, moved to Yemen with her husband Richard. As the country heated up and fell down, I stayed in touch with Brid, corresponding by email, and hearing, with comfort, that things were okay.
Last year she helped conduct a tour to Socotra for some friends of mine, and they reported all was well in her quarter. Then last fall things went quiet. As the weeks dragged on with no word, I became concerned. Emails were not answered. Nobody knew where Brid was, or how she was faring.
Then this week, to a font of release, I received this email:
How are you doing? You have been on my mind for some time, but I have not had an opportunity till now to connect.
I am stateside, now residing on the Eastern Shore in Maryland about five miles from Easton and eight from St. Michael's along the Miles River. It's a long story from Yemen to here, but we made it. I am actually just back from Ireland where I was for the last two months as my mother fell, and I had to help her as she still lives alone in rural Ireland at almost 82.
A synopsis of what has happened since we were last in touch. The Arab Spring began in Yemen. I knew that the bombing would sooner or later begin and sure enough it did. Fortunately, I decided to move house just in the nick of time. We were lucky to get out of the house on the hill with floor to ceiling glass.
We moved to a wonderful Yemeni home right opposite the entrance of the German Embassy inside all the security apparatus. But, with the attack on Saleh, the Lebanese International University where Richard was working closed and said all must take vacation. So, I said you go, I won't because I wouldn't leave the saluki dogs.
Our new house had a safe room, the bathroom, with steel door and a steel window in addition to a huge bathtub where I would sit through the bombing with the dogs on either side of me absolutely terrified out of their lives as I drank wine! What else to do in the midst of a battle for control of the city?
Anyway, I remained in Yemen for about six weeks on my own, and Richard returned and once more the university resumed. Then Ramadan arrived in a hushed silence and with calm in the air I flew to the U.S. with the sole purpose of purchasing property. I found a house on the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Three household shipments later, one from California, one from Ireland and one from Yemen finally arrived here. In between, several trips to Ireland, emergency gall bladder surgery in Virginia and then back to Yemen to pack out. I had 10 to 12 days on the ground in Yemen.
I always knew I would have to go by road to get the dogs out, as there had been an embargo on live animals by air to the U.S. ever since the time of the underpants bomber. So Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture exit papers for the dogs, entry papers for Oman, a visa for our Yemeni friend to Oman which is basically impossible for Yemenis to get -- even though they are neighboring countries, all had to be handled in the space of 10 to 12 days including a household shipment packed and shipped.
So, incognito, with no Yemeni permission to travel outside the capital of Sanaa, with no Yemeni friend or foreigner knowing of my plans, as I said no goodbyes to anyone pretending I would see everyone at the British Embassy Christmas party, I left with our longtime friend Hussein covered in black and even wearing gloves. We drove the most difficult route of all. He knew of a $2 million kidnapping attempt on my head that was to happen in and around Mukalla but he never told me at the time.
So, the original route was abandoned and we went via Wadi Abida and the Abida tribe who were giving all the trouble to the Yemeni government, the most dangerous route one could travel at that time. We came upon a battle with tanks overturned, tanks upright, military being pulled out of tanks, vehicles on fire in the desert and thank God we got through. In Ma'arib we were sold gasoline mixed with water and before we knew it we broke down. It became the trip from hell there on.
To make a long story short, we managed to cross the border and thanks to a wonderful Hadrami Yemeni who ensured we could spend the night there in a hotel. We were totally wiped out from trying to keep the car going. We had already spent two nights in Yemen crossing the country staying in hotels, and one where another attempted kidnapping almost materialized in a place called Rumah. It was tough crawling along at 25 km an hour and periodically breaking down, wondering if one would ever make it.
Once in Oman we traveled to Salallah where the third most powerful man in the country related to the Sultan put us up, a connection from my Omani days. Thankfully, he took the car and had it cleaned out and fixed. From there to Muscat and onto a farm in Barka belonging to an Omani friend who is the CEO of a company in Dubai where his Filipino farmer tends the animals and date palms, mangos, etc. There we stayed for a week, and Richard flew in and we all met up on Christmas Eve and went to the newly refurbished Al Bustan now managed by the Ritz Carlton for Christmas lunch.
I hardly knew it was Christmas, but it was a wonderful ending to a difficult trip. We then flew to D.C. via Schiphol and landed in time for New Year in the U.S.
I hope I may finally see you this year, after many years.
With very best wishes,
The large white building was my weekend home where I escaped the hustle and bustle of Sanaa. If Shangri La exists, it is here. Photo: Brid Beeler
Shibam, the Manhattan of Arabia in Hadhramawt. Photo: Brid Beeler
Wadi Abida: Sanaa to Ma'arib. Photo: Brid Beeler
Ma'arib road to Hadhramawt Photo: Brid Beeler
Myself, covered, but without the burqa which for security had to be worn for most of the journey. Photo: Brid Beeler
On the road from Ataq to Hadhramawt, two famous mountain peaks. Photo: Brid Beeler
Khataf and Antar in Ataq hotel on route to Hadhramawt. Photo: Brid Beeler
The road from Hadhramawt to Shahn, the inner border crossing with Oman. Photo: Brid Beeler
On route to the border, three women driving three camels. Photo: Brid Beeler
Khataf answering a call of nature. Photo: Brid Beeler
Broken down and trying to refuel with clean gasoline. Photo: Brid Beeler
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