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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Arabia Felix 02.IV.2009 10:07
I haven't updated in a while, I realise, but that's because I've been settling in - I've stopped travelling for a while and will be living in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, for the next few months, studying Arabic and (hopefully) making money at a job of some description. I fell in love with Sana'a the moment I saw it - it's probably the most beautiful city I've seen since Esfahan, with a gorgeous and distinctively styled old city almost entirely devoid of new buildings. Just strolling through its narrow streets is a joy, down every alleyway and around every corner an aesthetic pleasure - if there's nothing to do, it's perfectly pleasant to just go out and get lost. The minute I arrived, I hoped I'd be able to stay longer.

As an added bonus, this is one of the best places in the world to study Arabic, for a variety of reasons. For one, the dialect is closest to the standard Arabic used in the media - the dialects of Arabic being as far apart from on another as Harlem street slang is from Received Pronunciation. Moreover, not too many people speak English - and everyone's willing to patiently wait as you struggle your way through the most basic of sentences. The atmosphere here's wonderful too - the people have a dignity that I had sorely missed from Egypt onwards, and their willingness to help (and general lack of trying to cheat you) reminds me, more than anything else, of Iran. I haven't done much travelling yet, except for a weekend trip to some nearby cities, but that comes with the changeover from the constant-travelling lifestyle to a more stable one.

Things have really worked out pretty perfectly for me - I arrived here with nothing but the name of a single hotel and a vague hope that I could study Arabic despite the fact that I was completely out of money. I found a vague post on Lonely Planet about a language institute here that needed some website work and so here I am, doing a sort of work-study barter at the Saba Institute. The place is really great - it's new, the director, Dr.Hamoud, having started off on his own some one year ago - and it's got a really personal touch that schools in other places, from what I hear, lack, and since I rent a room from them as well my expenses are next to nil. Since they're completely flexible - and my courses are private - the first hour of each lesson consists of me ranting about my trip in semi-competent Arabic, but it actually really helps and is at least more interesting than the more typical la singe est sur la branche school of foreign language acquisition. It's a great place to study Arabic, and I'm really thrilled with the way things are going.

Yemen is a pretty distinct place from the rest of the Arab world. Every single BBC story about it concerns a terrorist attack on tourist, and contains the phrase, 'Yemen, one of the poorest countries outside Africa,' which I can't help but doubt is true. Here, conservative Islam is socially, rather than governmentally enforced - I'd say ninety percent of women here veil even their faces, which in a supposedly 'fundamentalist' country like Iran would have been seen as crazy, with even the most conservative women wearing the face-revealing chador. Women rarely walk with men here on the streets, and the division of the sexes is greater than I've seen in any other Islamic country - one man told me that even if he saw his wife on the street, he would pretend not to recognise here, for fear of gossip being spread on the street; any man coming into a building shouts his presence so that the woman can escape and not be seen. An interesting point however, is that one common perception - that such clothes rob women of their identity - is manifestly not true; any man can recognise his wife or sister a mile away.

It has to be admitted, though, that one of the things Yemen is famous for are terrorist attacks, of which there have been a spate in recent weeks. The majority of these are kidnappings which, unlike in places like Somalia or Iraq, are completely harmless - the captives are merely leverage in the tribes' battles against the central government, and are treated as guests afforded all the protection of tribal custom, and almost always released after a few days. There have been lethal terrorist attacks of late, targetting the Korean population, but these seem to relate to an oil contract recently signed by the government. All of this stirs into Western hysteria, though, because the president-for-life, Ali Abdullah Saleh, automatically labels any group as 'al-Qaida', because that's the surest way to keep American funds flowing in - and, conversely, any group would be happy for the label because of the prestige it gives, especially when recruiting. It's all ridiculous, but it also feeds a paranoia with the police - you need a permit to travel anywhere, because the tourist industry is one of the great hopes for this, the poorest of the peninsular states, but a major hassle for independent travellers like me, without the money to rent Land Rovers or fly. But such is life - in local parlance, hadhihi al-haya.

So, I'll be living here for the next few months - spending the next week or two looking for a job, insh'allah something in programming but, in a pinch, teaching English, the credit crunch and the burst of Bubble 2.0 having reduced the prospects of contracting over the net. This blog will probably become less of a travel blog and veer back into politics and philosophy, as I really miss writing about that - and there shouldn't be another break like the last month until I start travelling again. Meantime I hope all is well, and photos should keep coming up on facebook as time allows; life is pretty great for me here - I can't imagine a better lifestyle than travelling the world learning languages, which I'm genuinely passionate about in a way I wasn't about much of my life back in Canada.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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