Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Expedition Yemen By Camel, part 2; The first week

“Two Yemeni friends of mine travelled back to Sanaa from Al Hudaydah the other day. One of them was really ill. He had serious liver pains” , Tarim told me immediately when we met upon the third day of my arrival to the capital, whilst we were sitting outside the Great Mosque and had a very sweet cup of milky tea; “About halfway, in the middle of the night, the car broke down right in a tribal area. It didn´t take long until a bunch of very aggressive tribal men showed up, pointed their Kalashnikovs at them in the dark, yelled and asked them what they were doing there!” 

Everyone at the café was listening to Tarim´s story, whether they understood English or not. Tarim is only 17 years of age, but wise like a man double his age. He was supposed to be my partner on this second phase, but basically due to demanding final studies and some worries about the possible obstacles along the road for the Expedition, he pulled out a month back. He continued his tale:

“My friend pointed at his friend in pain and explained how important it was the he made it as fast as possible to a doctor in Sanaa. The men completely turned from aggressive to extremely helpful. First of all, they blocked the road. Secondly, they stopped the first car passing with the help of aiming their Kalashnikovs at it, than persuaded the driver to bring the guy with the pain immediately to Sanaa, which he agreed to do. They sat off immediately. Once they were gone, the men helped my friend to fix his car. They worked on it throughout the night. Next day, he left them with a full stomach.”


We all laughed with joy. In my book that story showed that Yemen was on the right track again and that, as usual, things were not as bad as everyone, including most Yemeni friends, experts and a sensationalist media, was making it out. That story lifted my spirits! I needed it, because all the others had warned me as below: 

”Impossible! You will either be killed or kidnapped.”


“The idea is really good. This is what Yemen needs. This is what the Arab world needs. But I think it is impossible at this time.” 

Well, as you understand, I am back in Sanaa. I am staying with friends in one of these fairy tales tower homes in Old Sanaa and every time you step out of its ancient doors, one gets a feeling of being part of a saga. My favourite time is stepping out at the time of the late afternoon prayer, when old women covered in their black abayyas sit in the shadow and rest against the cold stone walls, whilst the beautiful melodious voice of the muezzin calls his believers  to face Mecca. The old ladies always stare deeply at me and greet me with:

“Assalam aleikum.” 

They probably wonder who I am. My host Tanya has said I am her brother, even though she is a head taller than me, but she can´t tell them I am a cousin of her´s, since we kind of look very different. Because here of course, you can marry a cousin and many do. And Tanya is already married by word to her charismatic Spaniard, Salvador. Oh, what a neighbourhood gossip drama that would be! A woman with two husbands!

Hold on! I just got this message from an American friend:

“Americans working at the Embassy cannot go to either Hadda or the Old City right now.”

Amazing I think, well, to a certain degree (I guess the American drones are not helping this issue) because compared to the last time I was here; it feels almost like I am in another place! Back than in October, November and December last year 2011, the tension was enormous in the city. Everyone felt it. Mortars hit the walls on and off, hunger pains where very visible, there were check posts everywhere belonging either to government troops under the former president Abdullah Ali Saleh, the renegade general Ali Mohsen or the Al Ahmar Tribal Federation. At times I was really scared! Those terrible feelings are all gone now.

At this moment, everything is much more relaxed. Once again Yemenis smile, joke and laugh, traffic is much more reasonable and life in the Old City is like I remember it back in 2008. It is slow, relaxed, not so many people shouting and screaming, pushing and demanding and it is relatively quiet. But youngsters still drive their motor bikes like they’re competing, Bab Al Yemen is still extremely busy and the price of a kuddam (wholesome bread of Ottoman origin) is the same. 15 riyals a piece. And the local media is the same. All misery and no hope at all!

Let me tell you readers in short what has happened since I last was here, on the political stage, just to give you an idea. Abdullah Ali Saleh ended his over 33 year long rule when I was here in November 2011, and in February 2012 there was an election, where the only candidate, Abdrabuh Mansoor Hadi, amazingly enough won. The GCC (Cooperation Council for Arab States) power brokered idea is that he will lead a transitional government for two years, get everyone from all opinions and political directions to pull together to discuss the future, and this aim will be followed by multiparty elections. Implementing this hasn´t been all easy, as you well understand, and in the meantime, outside Sanaa, life appears to have hardened dramatically. We are talking emerging sectarian and extreme political divisions, which has led to grave economic and most of all, major security problems. It seems worse than when I was here at the end of last year. In the north, the Zaidi Houthis are now battling the salafis and they have totally rejected the GCC deal. In the south secessionist groups wants to form their own country. But, according to the global media, worst of all is that groups who are either affiliated or is Al Qaeda, have jumped at the power vacuum and gained control over areas in the provinces of Abyan, Shabwa and Al Bayda. Provinces, together with Marib, a province which has always been hard to control, is of course all part of my route. This problem is blocking my intentions to cross this country from the west to the east.

“This is nothing but a war adventure!” said one of my friends before I went to Yemen, “You are putting the future if your family in danger!”

Another one attacked me for being blind and naïve, not knowing anything about culture, hiding the worst aspects of human kind and that I am nothing but an adventurous tourist. This is two extremely alarmist opinions, of course. The last one, an editorial at ExWeb, made me realize more than ever the need of a trip like this, because this is what most Western notions and articles coming out of this world looks like. They’re full of sensationalist contempt, bitterness, ignorance and they just add on the Western fears of the Arab World. They don´t help anyone. Least of all the Arab women. One of them, a famous Yemeni feminist, said after reading the editorial:

“Articles and opinions like these are so damaging to the feminist movement we have here in Yemen. It is not big, but growing by the day and articles like these, almost makes it impossible for us to get our voices heard. Why not instead try to highlight what we have done, achieved and what we are doing, instead of painting an image that we are nothing but victims. Of course there are aspects of our culture I don´t like, but there are many I agree with. This is really an unjust picture of our lives in Yemen.”


There’s no doubt there’s many obstacles in realizing a venture like the one I have set up. And the last month back in Sweden waiting to return to Yemen was very difficult. There was absolutely no good news, no hope at all, with almost 99% of the people I was communicating with telling me, stay at home. And than I am talking about people living in Yemen, who all had supported me in the past. This time, most of them said, it is too dangerous, it is impossible and if we help you, and things go wrong, we will get the blame from the government. I can fully understand this point of view. But I also now, which is also fully understandable, that all my Yemeni friends are worn out by these hard times and they are really more negative than ever. By default, Yemenis are not the most positively thinking humans on earth. And, I have learned, they are scared of taking any responsibility, if the top person doesn´t say yes.

Therefore I have known all the time that I have to make my way to Yemen, meet all of them and persuade them to see all the possibilities with a trip like this. In my mind, even though there are plenty of obstacles, if handled the right way, it will be a success. Because, the reality is, and no matter what happens, I will naively always believe this:

The Yemenis are amongst the most welcoming, generous and kind human beings on earth. And I see Yemen as the cradle of Arabia and I believe the developments in Yemen will in the future serve as a positive role model for the rest of the Arab World. Yemen is also, in my mind, the Arab country where most people in general have a very healthy attitude towards religion and life, far from any extreme notions. And that is why I am here. Because, the problem we are facing today is that the relations between the West and the Islamic World are worsening, the wall of misunderstanding is just getting higher each day, and this is really dangerous.

So, right now, I am trying to meet all the right people who might be able to help me. And all of them is in Sanaa right now, which is a sign that they have been called by the president to come, something big is going on, maybe a military attack against Al Qaeda in the south, which has been in the air since my arrival. But I would get very little done, if I didn´t have this amazing friend, Tanya Holm and her feminist network to help me!

So, the big waiting game is on again, this time in Sanaa!

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