I remember my first sight of Yemen. Our plane arrived at 1:30 a.m. To say I was tired would be a huge understatement. I was exhausted, suffering from motion sickness (on top of being four months pregnant), and bedraggled after one nine hour flight, a layover of several hours in the dead of night in the Jordanian airport, and a last short hop to Sana’a- with five children in tow!! I was ready to pass out…I didn’t feel the least bit excited to have finally reached our destination. I just felt intense relief.
The first thing that greeted me when I stepped off the plane was the sight of men with guns- lots of men with guns. The airport was filled with soldiers, most of them sitting in a half crouch, smoking cigarettes, their machine guns on their backs. Not a comforting sight to a small town Wisconsin girl like myself. That is almost the only thing I remember about the airport itself. The process of getting the correct paperwork done, the extensive bag search, keeping the children together and on their feet- is all a blur to me. Finally a representative from the language institute showed up. He and my husband went out to get a van to take us to tour temporary house. I dropped, exhausted, into a chair and leaned over, huddling into myself for warmth in the cool, drafty airport. Suddenly a pair of army boots stepped into my line of sight- a soldier gestured with his gun for us to go out the doors. “My husband is gone- he told me to wait here.” I said, in my broken Arabic. He simply gestured at the doors again. Obviously, we went.
The ride through the late night streets of Sana’a was equally disturbing. The only people we saw were armed guards at the checkpoints- other than that the streets were ruled by packs of wild dogs. One friend of mine who came a few months after us said, “It was like Beirut during the war.” Through the haze of my exhaustion, it certainly looked barren and foreboding. Walls were edged in barbed wire and broken glass, storefronts covered with huge metal doors, and armed soldiers. I tried to decide how I would describe it if I ever got to talk to my family back home again.
We were shown to a comfortable three story tower house in the Old City. There was a stove and refrigerator and a set of low couches around the walls of one room. Paradise after the hours of travel. I shook out the blankets that were on the couches and got the children settled into bed, then lay in the curve of my husband’s arm trying to process all that I had seen and done in the past two days. Despite the comfort of having my family near, I still felt alone, alien, and unsure. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, the first call to prayer began, a lonely voice from a faraway masjid. Then, another voice joined the first, a soulful duet in the darkness of morning. Then another voice, and another…and that was when I realized that I was less alone now than perhaps I had ever been. This was what we had planned and striven for- the chance to live in the lands of Islaam. As the last of the muedhins’ calls faded away, I drifted off to sleep, sure that in the light of the approaching day I would see the city in a whole new way. I looked forward to the chance of starting over, and living a dream that I had cherished for many years. And that is exactly what I did!
Khadijah grew up in the Kickapoo Valley in Wisconsin and now lives in Yemin with her husband and eight children where she teaches Arabic and Islaamic studies to women and helps them recognize their importance and the need for their stories to be heard. Khadijah was the winner of the 2010 Story Circle Network Lifewriting Competition.