One of the issues I have had with Yemen since coming here first time back in 2008, is the amazingly one sided and negative media. From both the international and national level. The more I have gotten involved in this profoundly life changing country, I have realized some amazing facts as regards to the journalists who write about Yemen, especially in these days of instability and great concern. Most of these journalists (and documentary film makers, see here !) come here for a short time, most don´t speak Arabic, they´re young and ambitious, not that well researched on all not that easily understood sides of this diverse country, they often stay at the best hotels, socialising with their collegues, which are often the sources used for their overwhelmingly negative and their sensationalizing stories. Many just come to make their own fame on writing on misery alone. BUT, they´re quite a few extremely good exceptions! And I am happy to introduce one of them, who I met the other day at a coffee shop frequented by Westerners, Judith Spiegel, who is everything but the above!
The land of the kind and the messy
It takes the guy behind the counter half a minute of brain searching, then he remembers: ‘Thank you for visiting the post office’. His smile is wide and genuine. He makes me laugh.Yemenalways makes me laugh, for its sweetness and absurdness.
I am not an explorer, I am just a journalist. I have been here since September 2009 and have laughed a lot. Even during the tough year of 2011 I did. Sometimes out of despair, sometimes because despite the shit they were in, Yemenis could still make jokes. And most of the times because guys like the post officer simply put that smile on your face.
I have met wonderful people. Like the boys inYemen’s national football team under 17, who still cannot get really used to this strange woman showing up during their training. Like the bunch of employees of the Hayel Saeed Anam group on their yearly outings in Khawkha. They gave me soap and beans, straight from the factory.
Like rebel leader Shalal Ali Shaia Hadi who was hidden in the mountains of Al Dali’. To get to him, I had to travel strange roads and wear the niqab. He offered me 15 bottles of Dilsi-coke. Like Vadim from the Russian Club, who couldn’t stop talking about my swimming skills, combined with my smoking and vodka-consuming ones. He thought I would be good at using guns too and put one in front of me.
There are assholes too. Like the guy who still owes me quite some money for some permits he never managed to arrange. For months he keeps on telling me that a) he will call me back and b) that the money will come this week. Both never happen. He belongs to an army of permit-crooks.
Or like the guy at immigration. One day I decided to kick out the permit-crook and go to immigration myself. Bad idea. Everybody was called Al Kibsi there, and non of them were nice. I made a joke in the general’s room, moments later I was surrounded by soldiers. The general ordered them to kick me out.
But there was also the officer during the uprising. He ordered me to go away, I was entering an area were heavy shooting took place. I lingered around a bit, thinking of another way to get in, then walked off. The officer yelled at me and ran after me. Now what? ‘Wait, wait, I want to give you this,’ he said. ‘This’ was a guirlande of jasmine.
I ruined my eyes inYemen, that’s true. A year reading books by candlelight and typing articles at the white light of the laptop only, is no good. I can no longer read how many calories a spoonful of chunky peanut butter contains. Which is not very important really, but I needed a bridge to peanut butter.
I love a sandwich ‘fool sudani’ from Shaibani V.I.P. Superdeluxe. I love it how they shout to the guy responsible for the sandwiches: ‘wahed fool sudani lisafari!!!’ There is nothing superdeluxe about the small cafetaria, but it is the ultra warm reception that makes me go back to this ultra super deluxe very important persons place.
You may have had it by now, with my O how I loveYemenstory. Trust me, I hate it too sometimes. I hate the talk talk talk, not do do do, the Yemenis are so good at. I hate qat, period. I hate it when we take a bus to Taiz at 1, it leaves at 2.30 and stops at 2.40 for lunch, because the passengers refuse to change their habits even for a day.
I hate the smell of fried chicken livers early in the morning at the bus station at Bab al Yemen, mixed with the smell of old piss. I actually hate that smell in the afternoon too. I can smell it while typing. I also kind of dislike the dead cats and dogs in my street. I especially dislike the first stage, the one of the maggots. Later, when they are all dried out and flattened by the cars it is ok.
I love, I hate, I laugh, but I do not really know. I do not really know whereYemenis heading to, I do not really know how believing in djinns really works, I do not really know when girls can finally marry the guy they love. I do know thatYemenwill never be theSwitzerlandof the Arabian Pensinula and I am happy about that.
Shouldn’t I say something about Al Qaeda? Don’t think so. Shouldn’t I say something about the Houthis in the north? Nope. Or the Southern Movement in the south? La. And what aboutYemen’s near dead economy. Nah, boring, just read the papers.
Judith Spiegel is a Dutch journalist working for NRC Handelsblad, De Standaard, Elsevier, One World, Radio 1, VRT, Ikon, VPRO. Judith holds a PhD in law and practiced as a lawyer for years. One day, she decided to follow her dream: being a journalist in theMiddle East. After a post-doctorate in journalism at theuniversityofRotterdam, she left forYemenin 2009.
Read more at www.judithspiegel.com