Yemen changed my life! For the better!
There´s no doubt at all. Siberia ruined it. The 2004 Expedition was so overwhelming, that I didn´t want to return home. It is never easy coming back, no matter how many times you have done it, but this time, it has been easier than ever. (In fact, this is a seldom discussed topic, returning home after a long adventure and the difficulties involved, so I have asked my good friend Captain Fogel to write an article about it, so stayed tuned on Monday the 5th!) Having a family you love makes a difference. And our little family started in Yemen!
The reason I went to Yemen was most of all due to the fact that I was planning another Expedition, travelling by camel from Oman to Mauritania during 2 years, but also due to that I was tired of life. So when looking around for a good place to study Arabic, I wanted to go to a place which could offer all the dramas of life including being dangerous, I was that fed up, and after checking the Internet I found three places which appealed. Egypt, Syria and Yemen. I had never been to Yemen and when reading up on it, Yemen was even at this time, considered one of the most volatile and dangerous places on earth. And photos of the Old Sanaa triggerd my exploration lust, so I signed up for a 10 week course at the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies.
This visit changed my life for the better. Not that I learned that much Arabic, but I met Pamela, my extremely loved wife and mother of our daughter Eva Belquis who got her name after the Yemeni Queen we in the West call Sheba. Pamela was the real Yemen expert and decided later to join me on the upcoming expedition, but instead we got pregnant in Oman and we ended up in Sweden, trying to figure out life. But none of us forgot Yemen. It wasn´t only the fact that we had met here, but it was an enthralling country with some of the most generous, hospitable and colorful people we had ever met. And I didn´t even leave Sanaa more than once during this visit!
So, when things started going really bad in Yemen at the beginning of 2011 and the global media began reporting in what we saw as a very unfair picture of this country and its people, we decided we had to do something to make a difference. At the end of September, after months of trying to get permits and visas, we got on a plane, the whole family and flew to Sanaa, a city at that time divided into three and where road blocks, heavy mortar fire and all bad things that comes with a war was prevalent. It was the best desicion we have ever taken! It was a great 3 months among these brave and patient people, where so many has become our friends and who supported what we did. I wanted to make a documentary and a trip with a camel somewhere in the country to show how wrong the world media was, saying Yemen was the most dangerous country on earth. And I did.
Expedition Yemen, english subtitles from Explorer Mikael Strandberg on Vimeo.
This first Expedition took place from Zabid to Sanaa, 350 km:s accomplished in December 2011 during the war, a time when loud and scary mortars hit our neighbourhood near Tahrir Square the day I left the capital together with a friend, Amin Gazzim. Even though it was virtually impossible to get out of the capital due to all armed road blocks belonging to three different fighting fractions, we did just that and took all the back roads through the mountains that existed to avoid detection before ending up in Zabid not far off the Red Sea Coast. I immediately bought a camel called Antar and with him came the handler who sold him to me, Ali Hassan Hussein from Tihama. (He would later buy it back from me in Sanaa) Together we walked through deep valleys, wadis, over 2500 meter high mountain passes in baking heat, we passed many tribal communities, had a kidnapping threat over us from the Bani Salaam (Anis) and arrived to a mighty crowd in the Old City of Sanaa and its famous gate, Bab Al Yemen.
We went back to Sweden and I knew I had to come back to do a longer trip by camel, for Yemen, myself and the documentary, but this time without the family, since Pamela was pregnant again. Once again, Yemen was on our side! We were both sure it would be easier to get in this upcoming time, because Abdullah Ali Saleh was more or less gone and things looked a tiny bit brighter of he had signed the Gulf agreement. But, in reality, it got worse. I wanted to return early April, but the one´s who earlier said they could help me get in, all said it was impossible. The reason was that Al Qaeda was spreading like a wildfire all over the country and kidnappings were rampant it seemed all over the country. Luckily one of Sweden´s foremost journalist as regards to Yemen, Tanya Holm, worked all her contacts for over a month, day and night, and after all had failed an old mate from the first visit, Mohammed Almarwany, managed to get a tourist visa for me. But only for a month. But I just had to take the chance at least to try to get in and I left the family in the beginning of May after having missed the first plane. I was really worried if I would get through with all the technical gadgets like a satellite phone or if I would get in at all. But during the flight Tanya found a solution, an old friend of hers, Assaf Makaroun, a Lebanese gentleman and business man. He was on the same flight from Dubai to Sanaa and he got me and the equipment in with not one single problem. I just walked straight through!
Nobody could, or wanted, to help me this time. Except Tanya Holm, who also risked everything by saying yes to my offer to join me on the upcoming expedition to somewhere. My first choice had withdrawn. Together Tanya and me met with media companies, old friends with power, the biggest sheikhs for the biggest tribes, but they all said at this time, it was impossible. We would get kidnapped or even killed within days. However, there was a glimmer of hope. At least until the moment the suicide bomber who killed more than 100 people and injured the double amount struck, not far from where I was having lunch. After this, Al Qaeda became a major worry for everyone I knew. Just like that.
But our hard work and positive attitude eventually gave us an opening, three friends helped us, Khaled Fattah, Assaf and Jamal Omar Yaqoub. So, we flew to Al Mahra, a very unknown part of Yemen for most of us who were involved. The second Expedition was initiated in a desert area which was made famous by the British explorers Wilfried Thesiger and Betram Thomas back in the years of 1946-47, The Sands of Al Mahra. Once in Al Mahra on a permit which only allowed us to fly, we did a summer crossing of this amazing desert, which basically meant 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) heat during the hottest hours between 11-15.00 hours every day. But it should be noted that even the nights where extremely hot at ground level. Maybe the temperature was 30 (86 Fahrenheit) standing up, but lying down, the hot sand added it up to 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) at mid night. It made it difficult to sleep. But, the heat problem taken into account, by crossing this desert we came across a Bedu culture which was relatively unknown today, but fascinating!
For me, this was one of the best and most important Expeditions I have done!
I am back home now, trying to write articles, summarize the trip and go though 200 hours of film, and I have to say, I just feel extremely confused. Yemen is really the country of giant contrasts and anything one says, contradicts itself. But that is what makes it one of the most interesting places to visit on earth. If I would make one quote that would summarize Yemen it would be:
“Never a boring moment!”
Read this Interview in Yemen Times!