The Road Ahead: thoughts on a trip to Yemen before September 11th

Thirteen years ago this week, I was preparing to leave Washington after a reporting assignment which had taken me there, via New York, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. The month before, I had been in Yemen: my first and only trip to the Arabian peninsula. This entry is a more personal reflection than usual here, something I wrote over the summer while thinking about the way the Middle East has developed since September the 11th, and the wars which followed.

THE KALASHNIKOV WAS HALF-HIDDEN. The barrel stuck out from behind the leg of the figure at the roadside. The strap stretched across his chest. The car slowed. My heart sped up.

There was no one else anywhere near. Ahead and behind, the road looked lonely: a single man-made strip in a desert of sand and rock stretching away to mountains. It was near noon. The temperature was well into the 40s. Many outsiders had been kidnapped here. In other places, western targets had been attacked. Less than a year before, a U.S. Navy warship, in port, had been bombed. The Foreign Office advised then against all travel to the county. I wondered if I was to be the next hostage.

On the road in Yemen, summer 2001 ©James Rodgers

On the road in Yemen, summer 2001 ©James Rodgers

I had not planned to come to Yemen. I was restless that summer. I was looking for a challenge. I had considered learning to sail in Maryland; walking in the wilderness of Northern Norway. Then I had heard from a friend whom I had not seen for several years. He was working in Sana’a. Did I want to go? The fjords and the Eastern Seaboard could wait for more tranquil times.

When I landed, the sun was already past its hottest, yet still shone blindingly brightly where it found breaks in the grey cloud above the rocky skyline. Soon I was in my friend’s car and heading into town. People were stirring once more into outdoor life after a thunderstorm. The ground floors of the shops were open to the dusty roadside, now wet with recent rain. They sold plastic furniture; sweets; fizzy drinks; and lots of tyres. Given the state of the roads, motorists must often have needed the tyre repair man. Soon night was falling. As we took my luggage from the car, the city sky was filled with competing calls to prayer.

My friend had to work that week, so I had to decide whether I wanted to travel out to the desert alone to see wonders such as the mud-brick skyscrapers of Shibam. I did. I found a travel agent who booked me a flight to Hadramawt, and promised me a guide to meet me at the other end. We would return to the capital by road.

I had never experienced heat like that which hit me as I got off the plane. The guide easily found me. I was the only lone European on the flight. He seemed keen to set off straight away. I explained as best I could that it was too hot. At the hotel, I pointed at my watch to ask him to come back when I hoped it would be cool enough.

The mud towers of Shibam, summer 2001 ©James Rodgers

The mud towers of Shibam, summer 2001
©James Rodgers

Shibam was stunning when we arrived in the gentler light of late afternoon. It was hard to imagine that mud could be solid enough to build multiple stories; that it could be painted in colours both soft and striking. I was so glad I had come. I could not know then that what lay ahead meant it might be my only chance.

There was a warning the next night. Staying in a hotel, I wanted to go for a walk after dinner. The armed guard at the gate stopped me. A German diplomat in Sana’a had been seized the week before. The guard evidently did not want to lose a hotel guest the same way. Part of me did not care — at least, not then. I had come to Yemen to see something new, and perhaps dangerous. I was testing myself.

That boldness melted the next day as the car slowed. Surely a kidnapper would not act alone? Perhaps his fellows were hidden, part of a well-practised ambush. The guide had no choice but to stop.

I should not have worried. Not fully understanding my circumstances, I had not realized this was a guard who was to accompany us through an especially dangerous stretch of the road. He jumped in; smiled; shook hands – repeating the process in reverse when he left us an hour or so down the road. We drove on. Where there were villages, their mud bricks blended in with shades of brown in sand and rock. They seemed hidden until you were almost upon them. People were poor. When there were kidnappings, ransom demands often included water pipes or schools.

I got back to Sana’a safely. That summer, I met my challenge: that of picking myself up. I had seen another challenge too: poverty, frustration, and the anti-government, anti-western rage they engendered. The next month, two planes struck the towers of the World Trade Center.


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