Sana’a, Yemen – Crossing into Syrian airspace this evening, my flight found itself buffeted by powerful crosswinds. Barometric pressure dropped swiftly, triggering the storm alarm feature on my mountaineering watch and giving me about fifteen seconds to grip the armrest and brace for the next bout of turbulence. Looking back, the circumstances seemed a fitting (albeit unnerving) metaphor for the political turmoil taking place thousands of feet below. But at the time all I could do was set my jaw, brace for impact, and wonder how how the Yemeni grandmother sprawled across the two seats next to me managed to sleep through the chaos.
Stranded at the baggage claim waiting for my pack, I found myself chatting with a diplomat from the German Embassy. In the past, she noted, foreigners kidnapped in Yemen were ransomed by tribal leaders. The experience was a form of economic extortion. During the past several months, however, some tribal grouping have started to turn turning their foreign captives captives over to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its affiliate, Ansar al-Shari’ah. It is still not clear whether this new trend is driven by loyalty, fear, avarice, or some combination thereof. But the net effect for this diplomat is the same: no travel outside the capital, no contact with rural Yemenis, and no clear way to monitor the progress of her government’s water reclamation projects. Security has deteriorated to the point where donor governments cannot safely address the contributing causes.
I met my driver in the parking lot and drove down the long airport access road. At two in the morning, the streets of Sana’a were silent and still. Dust rose in soft white columns of light cast by the occasional street lamp, creating an effect similar to fog. We navigated through a maze of concrete barricades and abandoned warehouses, making U-turns each time we found ourselves in another dead-end. It soon became clear how easily an unsuspecting foreigner might disappear. The diplomat’s word began to echo in my mind, creating the sort of nagging apprehension that demands acknowledgement but should never be indulged.
At first glance, Yemen reminds me more of Afghanistan than any place I’ve been. The climate is temperate and dry with a gentle yet persistent wind. Houses are fashioned from brick and concrete, sheltered from the street by creaking steel doors and, in wealthier areas, high gates. Packs of stray dogs patrol the trash-strewn streets, pausing briefly in our headlights before jogging away. And then there is the dust. Fine, abrasive, pervasive, it seeps from the stones of the Old City and washes silently across every surface. With rocky hills surrounding the city and an ancient riverbed running through it, I feel as though I am in Kabul once more. The architecture tells a different story, though. Passing through the gates into the Old City, we are soon lost within an ancient warren of cobblestone passages and brick layer-cake buildings that seem to cling precariously to time itself.
Local legend says that Sana’a was settled by Noah and his sons following the Great Flood. Apocraphal or not, this city is one of the three oldest continuously inhabited places on earth–older than than the Arab world, older than the three Abrahamic faiths, even older than the dust. Compared with the arc of human history, the country’s current troubles seem almost inconsequential. There has always been a Yemen, the Yemenis tell me. But the real question is what kind of Yemen. With the state challenged by Shi’a rebels in the north and Socialist secessionists in the south, the way forward is far from clear. The same is true for traditional society’s encounter with radical Islam. Despite deeply-rooted social and religious differences, a combination of local desperation and foreign infiltration has given al-Qaeda a foothold in one of the most unstable societies in the Muslim world.
Emerging from a quick shower, I hear the first call to prayer echo across the city. A second, third, fourth, fifth call piece the night in staggered succession, each lawyered on top of the other. When I was in Afghanistan, I would rise each morning to the single sonorous call from the neighboring mosque. It was simple, clearly, and orderly, creating a comforting rhythm in an otherwise uncompromising land. In Sana’a, however, the calls clash, each with its own competing tone and tempo. The effect is not beauty or order, but discord and fragmentation As the electricity fails, the Old City is engulfed by darkness, dust, and the mosques’ collective howl.