Y is for Yemen

There is only one rule when driving in Yemen–basic rule #1–whoever is in front has the right-of-way. Rear-view and side-view mirrors are optional. Most Western men just can’t give up the driving habits of home, choosing instead to be driven crazy by the behavior of every Yemeni driver.

I, on the other hand, adjusted my driving habits, abandoning the need for my car to march within the lane markings. I rejoiced over the resulting un-choreographed dance other drivers and I performed on the streets of Sana’a. I have always preferred dancing over marching.

I drove every day during my year at the US embassy in Sana’a. All American staff except the ambassador lived a 20- to 45-minute drive from work.

Those who chose the direct route could usually make the trip in 20 minutes. But I enjoyed extending my trips by taking very seriously the suggestions from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. I varied both my departure time and my route.

I made a game of it. No one could predict my route to work because I didn’t decide which way to go until I turned out of my driveway in the morning.

Here were the rules of my game. At each intersection,

  • If the first car I saw was black, I turned left;
  • If the first car I saw was white, I turned right;
  • If the first car I saw was any other color, I went straight ahead;
  • If the intersection was a T-junction, I made a turn in the same direction as my last turn.

Because Sana’a’s road system consists of concentric ring roads, it didn’t matter how I started out each morning; eventually I would end up on one of the ring roads and that meant that eventually I would end up at the embassy.Once I reached a ring road, I made my way to the embassy directly. Sometimes it took 20 minutes; sometimes it took an hour.

My two-door, Toyota RAV-4 had the tightest turning radius of any car I have ever driven. I never worried about getting stuck when my game took me down a sand and rock track at the end of a paved road. If continuing straight ahead didn’t look feasible, I turned around and headed back.

The RAV-4 was so small I could even take it down streets in the Old City, streets so narrow traffic could only go one way at a time. Of course, cars were not expected on them so no signs indicating the preferred direction could be found.

Late afternoon one day in Ramadan, when everyone in the Old City marketplace was doing last-minute shopping before sunset marked the time for breaking the day-long fast, I ended up on such a road, facing another car. A Yemeni man gently pressed in the side view mirrors of my car to narrow its silhouette slightly and then directed both me and the other driver to move inch by inch, sometimes backing up, sometimes moving forward, until we passed one another with only millimeters separating us. His directing task complete, the Yemeni man turned away from me and continued down the street on foot.

One morning I noticed a black car behind me. I was half way to the office, still following my rules, when I realized the car behind me had made each turn after me. I picked up my radio and called into the embassy to report that I thought someone was following me. After a delay of about a minute, the Defense Attache came on the radio to assure me that the car was from the Yemeni Interior Ministry and was there for my protection.

Apparently the Ministry of Interior had been following each of us to work for months, but that was the only time I noticed. I never decided whether that was reassuring.

Since I never left the embassy for home at the same time any two days in a row, I was already unpredictable. I chose one of three routes home and usually stayed on that path until I got home.

But one evening I was distracted–I had to attend a representational event later but didn’t want to. As I made my way into a traffic circle, a truck on my left brushed up against my car. I pulled over and parked right away, but the truck driver kept going. I must have been quite a sight as I got out of my car and ran down the street in my stylish, but oh so short, dress and high heels yelling at the driver and slapping the side of his trust to get him to stop. I considered him to have been driving recklessly and wanted to be sure there was a report of the accident.

Once he stopped, I called the embassy’s roving security patrol on the radio. They called the police. Within a few minutes both the embassy guards and the two policemen arrived.

If I ever had doubts about basic rule #1, that accident banished them. The first question the policeman asked was whether I was in front of the truck or the truck was in front of me.

U is for United Arab Emirates

We moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1996. Abu Dhabi was my second Foreign Service assignment in the Middle East, and my third living experience in the region.

When Ramadan came around our first year in Abu Dhabi, I thought I knew what it was all about, having lived more than two years in Iran and then two in Qatar. I already knew that I hadn’t learned much about the month in Iran, however, because not all restaurants closed during the day; they just pulled down the shades so that those fasting wouldn’t have to see those who weren’t. But in Qatar, all restaurants, except those in the big hotels, closed until sundown, which was announced by a canon being shot off along the corniche. Ramadan, therefore, was a dreary place for most of us in Doha. We all looked forward to its end.

The restaurants in Abu Dhabi remained closed during the day during Ramadan, but it didn’t seem like the dismal month I recalled in Doha. The local employees talked about Ramadan with joy. Instead of focusing on all those hours when they couldn’t eat, they celebrated the dishes that were most often served only during Ramadan and being together with family and friends each evening. I began to think of Ramadan more as a month-long Thanksgiving celebration than a burden and inconvenience to have to get through.

Our first Abu Dhabi Ramadan, we were invited to many evening iftar, or breaking of the fast, meals hosted by my contacts at the embassy. This was no different from my experiences in Qatar. But perhaps because the traditions were more familiar I learned more of what I hadn’t known before. One example: the food that was prepared for these large fast-breaking meals was also distributed to those in the city who didn’t have the means to provide such lavish meals for their families. With the wealth of the country being so well-known, it was a surprise for me to learn that not every Emirati was so self-sufficient. But everyone in the country had the opportunity to join in the evening meals of Ramadan.

But the main reason for the shift in my thinking came during our second Ramadan in Abu Dhabi. One afternoon, Huda, the wife of one of the local employees who worked for me, Mackawee, called me at work to tell me not to cook anything that evening because she planned to bring a typical Yemeni Ramadan meal for Alex and me. I was surprised and pleased, especially because I couldn’t think of anything that I had done to deserve such treatment. I appreciated Mackawee, but I don’t think that I treated him with any more respect or regard than my predecessors. But Huda decided to share the joy of the holiday with us. She brought a number of typical Yemeni foods, explained what each was, and then left us to enjoy the meal so that she could spend the evening with her husband.

The following year, our last in Abu Dhabi, I brought up the idea of hosting an iftar at the embassy to a number of the women who worked there. We agreed it would be an excellent way to encourage more of a community feeling among the employees and their families, so we started by making a list of the foods we each thought of as typical Ramadan food.

I was surprised to learn that what was typical on the Arabian peninsula wasn’t necessarily typical in Jordan or Egypt or Lebanon, countries represented by some of the women who organized the meal. So coming up with the menu was not so simple. We agreed that the meal must begin with fruit juice and dates, the items the most devout ate first to regain their strength after which they would pray and return for the rest of the meal. For the meal, we had lamb and rice and stuffed vegetables and salads and many other items I can no longer remember. For dessert, I contributed the other item I always thought of as typical of Ramadan, Oum Ali–an Egyptian dessert, the richest bread pudding in the world.

Most of us had to prepare the food at home and bring it back to the embassy to assemble the table. Just before sundown, the local employees began to return, with their families. As we saw the gathering numbers, we had a moment of panic that we wouldn’t have enough food. But we had more than enough.

Once everyone who had returned to the embassy compound had eaten, we brought plates of food to those who never seemed to get away from their desks. And we brought plates to the Marine on duty as well as the Marines whose home was one of the adjacent buildings. And still there was food left over, so we brought plates to the police guards who were on duty outside the embassy compound walls.

As we cleaned up after the meal, I learned that several of the women who had helped with the meal had never before participated in hosting an iftar meal because while they were Arabs from Jordan, Lebanon, or Egypt, they were Christians. The entire event was more of an adventure than I had thought.

Two years later, I was in Yemen and the beginning of Ramadan coincided with Thanksgiving that year. Since the Muslim calendar is lunar, it is 11 or 12 days short of the solar calendar. Ramadan and all other Muslim holidays occur earlier in the solar calendar in successive years. The coincidence of Thanksgiving with what I had come to think of as a month of Thanksgivings prompted me to mention how we observed Ramadan in Abu Dhabi my last year.

As soon as I mentioned it, my secretary Sumayya suggested the local employees should host a similar iftar meal in Yemen.  She brought the idea to the local employee association. They agreed. And within a week, we had plans for a Yemeni-American Iftar-Thanksgiving event on a Thursday (Gulf Saturday) evening. The local staff set up Bedouin-style tents on the grounds of the embassy compound and brought in big pillows to line the interior of the tents for casual lounging while we ate. The Americans brought foods we thought of as typical for Thanksgiving and the Yemenis brought food they typically ate for Ramadan.

No one went away hungry.

Q is for Qatar

The summer of 1987, before I arrived in Doha in October of that year, the governments of Qatar and Bahrain adopted threatening postures towards one another, the result of a dispute about the Hawar islands off the coast of Qatar. Both countries claimed the islands, which can be seen from the western coast of Qatar on a clear day and are miles away from Bahrain.

The islands are uninhabited, but are in an area with rich petroleum reserves. The increased tension between the two countries led to the closing of selected air lanes in the Gulf* to international flights. The US government was concerned that the closure of the air lanes put both commercial and military flights at risk since Iran and Iraq were also battling one another at the time, and their battles involved guns, not just words.

For a short period of time Bahrain severed communications links between the two countries. This proved to be a challenge to the embassy in Qatar. Without telegraphic communications, no reporting on the war could be sent from Doha to Washington. Instead, telegrams had to be printed and carried by non-professional courier from Doha to Bahrain where they were sent from the embassy in Bahrain. The fact that all reporting about the dispute, covering both the Bahraini and the Qatari perspectives, arrived in Washington with the name of the US Ambassador to Bahrain at the bottom was a source of some embarrassment to the US Ambassador to Qatar, I was told.

I saw one small remnant of the dispute–a T-shirt ordered by the Doha Hash House Harriers that included the outline of the country of Qatar on the front where a pocket would have been. In addition to the neatly printed country boundary, an indistinct blob made by a permanent Magic Marker appeared to the left of the outline. Qatari Customs would not release the shirts to the Hashers until they added something to reflect that the islands off Qatar’s west coast were part of the country.

Hearing the story from my colleagues on my arrival reminded me of a Ziggy cartoon I had seen just before leaving the US for Doha. In the cartoon, Ziggy was watching TV as the announcer said, War broke out today between two insignificant little countries you probably haven’t heard of.

Sometimes life is just as funny as a cartoon.

FYI: The dispute between Qatar and Bahrain was settled in 2001 with Bahrain being named the owner.

*The Gulf referred to here has two names, depending on which side of it one sits. When I was in 8th grade geography, I learned its name was the Persian Gulf. On the southern side of that body of water, however, it is known as the Arabian Gulf. I saw atlases on sale in Qatar where the word “Persian” had been blacked out, again with black Magic Marker. I choose to refer to it as either “The Gulf” or “The Gulf that has two names.”

O is for Oman

Oman sparkles. In the three years, from 1996 to 1999, that we lived in Abu Dhabi, we drove to Oman several times. And every time, we felt a difference when we crossed the border. The streets looked as though they had just been swept for our arrival. The rocks at the side of the road washed and sprayed with oil or shellac so they would shine in the sunlight.

In exchange, Omanis expect those who live in the country to keep their property clean, too, especially cars. In fact, there is a law against dirty cars, with fines ranging from about $30 to $120. Since the roads are so clean, it’s unlikely your car will pick up dirt just from being driven–unless you drive off road.

Of the countries on the Saudi peninsula, Oman is better prepared for tourism than the others. Most times we drove to Oman, we stayed at the Al Sawadi Beach Resort for at least a day, to relax and wind down. We just wanted to hang around the beach, collecting shells and dipping toes into the water. But it was clear we could have arranged to take part in any number of other activities as well–diving or snorkling on water or tennis or horseback riding on land. Trips into the desert for camping and camel rides can be arranged as well.

Some of the most elegant hotels and restaurants can be found in Oman’s capital, Muscat, including the Al Bustan Palace, one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever seen.

For more information about traveling in Oman, check out one of the following travel guides:

Lonely Planet Oman, UAE & Arabian Peninsula (Travel Guide)

The Rough Guide to Oman

Insight Guides: Oman & the UAE

Oman (Bradt Travel Guide)

I is for Iran

I loved it and I hated it on the same day every day for 882 days. It was Iran, and my love-hate relationship began on April 2, 1975, at the start of what I referred to as the world’s most elaborate April Fool’s gag.

Two years before, I hadn’t thought such an adventure possible. At that time, I lived in Berkeley, California, with my husband and our cat named Kitty. I planned to enroll in graduate school in the winter. Without warning my husband told me he thought we should divorce. It was simple and amicable: we had no property to split, no home to sell, no children. But simple doesn’t mean painless.

For most of the first year in grad school, I had nightmares, dreaming that I either chased my husband or was chased by him. My subconscious wanted to hit him, to hurt him, but I never caught him. And I didn’t want to be hurt any more, though why I thought he was trying to do so remains a mystery of the dream state. I woke up exhausted. Then, for months I had no dreams at all.

Toward the end of year two, he appeared in a dream, a guest at a party. I introduced him to other partygoers, referring to him as a friend. No chase scenes, no anxieties. The difference was so pronounced I wrote him a letter describing the dream. He wrote back, admitting that he hadn’t handled suggesting our separation well, asking for forgiveness, though not reconciliation.

Two weeks later, the University of Southern California offered me a job in Iran. The timing was right. Painful as it was, I knew that if we hadn’t divorced, I wouldn’t be at the beginning of this adventure. A door had to close for me to see the open door next to it.


April 2 began in London where the New York to Tehran Iran Air flight picked up a small number of passengers for the final leg. Passengers originating from New York filled most of the seats. Ten of us from USC—nine teachers and the man who hired us, Bill, the director of USC’s American Language Institute—joined them. We stood out from the rest. We were taller. Our skin, lighter. We were foreigners.

I hope there is space in the overhead compartment for my violin. There had been no problem on the flight from Los Angeles to London, but that plane was much bigger: two seats on each side of the plane with a center section of five seats across. So large, I could imagine I was on a train or a boat, not a plane, as I wandered up and down the aisles.

This plane had three seats on either side of the aisle, the size I was used to for domestic flights from California, my adopted home, to Minnesota, my birthplace. The overhead bins reduced headroom, making the plane feel even smaller. The thought of spending six hours shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow, and knee-to-knee on such a small plane brought on anxiety, especially since my boarding pass was for the middle seat. There was nowhere to escape the crowding, like my 4,000 member hometown church’s pews at a Christmas or Easter service.

“Hey, Roger,” Annie said. “Is this our row? I’ve been counting them.” She pointed to the strange symbol under the overhead bins and held up her boarding pass.

Annie and I had been roommates in San Francisco. She wanted to teach in Spain. But my offer came through first, and she traded being faced with finding a new roommate and simultaneously looking for a job for a guaranteed position just a bit east of her goal.

“Yeah, this is row 22,” Roger said. He had been in the Peace Corps in Ahwaz, Iran, ten years before, the only one of us who had lived in Iran. “They use Hindi numerals in Iran. The 1 and 9 look similar to our numbers. The rest are like chicken scratches. You’ll get used to them.”

Annie squeezed her way to the window seat. I pushed and rearranged the bags and bundles already in the overhead compartment above our seats until my violin case fit and then settled in the center seat. Roger took the aisle seat, to keep us protected from intrusion by prying eyes and hands across the aisle, he said.

Ahead of us, Bob and his wife, Nancy, stood in the aisle next to row 21. Already in that row, I saw a man wearing a heavy winter jacket in the window seat. Boxes tied with twine and fabric bundles filled the area under the seat in front of him as well as under the middle and aisle seats. An additional case rested on each of the two otherwise empty seats, as though they marked them as saved for companions. But Bob and Nancy’s boarding passes bore 21B and 21C.

“Excuse me, sir,” said Bob to the man in 21A. “Are these your suitcases?”

“Sorry, no Eengleesi.”

Bob looked up, noticed a woman in uniform with the Iran Air logo on her hat, and motioned to her. Pointing to the items on seats 21B and 21C, Bob chose his words diplomatically, not wanting a confrontation, simply pointing out the problem, just as any other Midwesterner would do. “These spaces are already full,” he said. “Where can we put our carry-on?”

“You shouldn’t have brought so much with you,” the attendant replied and then broke away to continue moving to the front of the plane. Nancy’s mouth dropped open.

“Welcome to Iran,” said Roger. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I have Valium,” offered Annie. She and I had laughed when her doctor handed over a container with thirty 1-mg tablets of the anxiety-reducing medication in response to her request for something to deal with motion sickness. She had expected him to give her two or three tablets of Dramamine. Before we left, Annie counted out fifteen tablets for me and kept fifteen for herself. We never dreamed we would take them all. But by the time I left Iran 822 days later, I had replaced my fifteen tablets many times. No prescription required. Even 10-mg strength.

“Let me help,” said Roger as he got out of his seat and took one of Nancy’s bags. He squeezed it into an overhead bin a few rows behind us. Bob did the same with another bag several rows in front. The man in the window seat picked up the parcels on the middle and aisle seat and placed them on his lap, apparently prepared to hold them for the entire flight.

“You better take the middle seat,” Roger said to Nancy. “You can stuff your purse between you and the guy next to you. It’s a better option than the aisle seat. No one will bother Bob when walking down the aisle.”

Once all passengers were seated, a male flight attendant read the standard safety instructions, first in Farsi and then in English. During the announcement, I watched a second male attendant across the aisle lean back as he lowered both his seat and the seat-back tray, and lit up a cigarette. The final statement of the standard instructions also differed from what we expected: “Let us know if there is anything we can do to make your flight comfortable.”

“Don’t they usually say ‘more comfortable’?” I asked Annie and Roger.

“Welcome to Iran,” Roger said one more time.

Ten hours after leaving London, we arrived in Tehran after a stop in Ahwaz to clear customs and immigration. Bill would return to LA once USC sent someone as director of the Iran program. Annie and I were the last two teachers Bill hired, just two weeks before we left. I was single and, at 26, the youngest of the group. I was also the most naïve.

The above is the opening to the draft of my first memoir with the working title Stuck in Stage Two: A Memoir of Cross-Cultural Confrontations and Misunderstandings.

D is for Doha

When I got off the plane late one October evening in 1987 in Doha, my first thought was Who left the oven door open? The heat assaulted me at the top of the stairs set up on the tarmac to facilitate passengers getting off the plane. I had never felt such heat.

Doha seemed like a sleepy little town when I lived there from 1987 to 1989. I could barely find any information about it before I left. So instead, I read all about Saudi Arabia, including a cultural guide put together by members of the US embassy staff in Riyadh to help those assigned to the Kingdom prepare for life in an almost entirely gender-segregated society. Armed with that mis-information, I brought videos of every movie I ever wanted to watch, every book I ever thought I’d read, and every board game I could get my hands on. I expected to spend most of my two-year assignment there indoors, more specifically, in my own home.

But Doha was a surprise in so many ways. Those videos, books, and games I brought? Most of them stayed in the boxes. Of all the overseas assignments I had, none offered more to do than Doha.

My first weekend in Doha coincided with the first visit by a cabinet-level official, the Secretary of Energy, to the country of Qatar. I spent the two days before the visit traveling around the city to see all the places the Secretary would be during his very short stay. The evenings were spent in the homes of other staff members at the embassy, entertaining the White House advance team members so they didn’t have to stay cooped up in their hotel rooms.

That week turned out not to be exceptional. Every evening there were dinners, receptions, or other events I was invited to attend. Many evenings, there were both dinners and receptions or receptions and cultural performances. If I managed to spend an evening at home, it was usually in the company of 20-30 other people, support staff sent on temporary duty from Washington or expatriates from the US or Europe whose employers were important contacts for the embassy.

Doha will always have a special place in my heart. I met my husband there, one of the British expats in Qatar. The country of Qatar relied on expats from all over the world–still does. When I lived there, the population of the country was around 300,000, only one third of which were native Qataris. Two thirds came from somewhere else–India, Pakistan, the Philippines, other Arabic-speaking countries, Europe, and North America.

Doha has a special place in the hearts of most European and American expats who lived there. Evermore after, when I run into someone I learn once lived in Doha, I see wistfulness in the eyes as we begin to share stories of how much we enjoyed living in that tiny little city in a very small country. As a small town Midwestern girl, I felt entirely at home in Doha, once I got used to the heat.

C is for Cairo

I didn’t want to go to Cairo. I had just arrived in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in August of 1996 to take up my responsibilities as management officer of the US Embassy there. I was eager to get started. But instead, I was sent for a three-day conference in Cairo less than a week after arriving. The conference was important. But the financial management officer was also going, and I didn’t see why we both needed to go. But the boss insisted. So I went.

On the first day of the conference, our seats were assigned. Table tents with our names and the name of the diplomatic post we represented were already on the tables. Mine was in the front row. Abu Dhabi had the alphabetical advantage I rarely enjoyed personally.

After getting settled, I turned around and noticed that the name on the table tent just behind me was familiar, Ohaila Ataya. Almost ten years before, Ohaila worked for me at the US Embassy in Doha, Qatar. I hadn’t seen her since.

I was so pleased to see her name, and then to see her come forward to take her place, I nearly cried. We hugged and chattered back and forth about how happy we were to see one another after so long.

I had hired Ohaila as the financial management specialist in Doha and I believed that she had learned much from me. But I had learned so very much more from her.

Ohaila is Palestinian. She and her sister had lived in Doha most of their lives since her family lost their home in what had been the British Mandate of Palestine. Less than a year before, their parents left Qatar as immigrants to the US. Ohaila and her sister had to stay behind, living with their aunts, working at the US Embassy.

From Ohaila, I learned much about the Palestinians who were displaced when the state of Israel was formed. Most of them left their ancestral homes. Many ended up in refugee camps in Jordan. Others with more means took jobs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, or Oman. Some emigrated to the United States.

The generation of Ohaila’s parents sent their male children to the US, Canada, or Europe to university, hoping they would make a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere–once they stopped dreaming that Palestine would be returned to them. That generation kept their female children close, planning marriages to the young Palestinian men sent off to other lands so that they, too, could escape. But many of the Palestinian men fell in love with and married the women in the countries of their studies. So the Palestinian women left behind became spinsters, denied children of their own because of the lack of eligible men to marry and the lack of freedom to choose a non-traditional life.

And yet Ohaila always smiled. She was a devout Muslim woman who adhered to the pillars of Islam while at the same time respecting the faith of others around her. She explained aspects of Islam that Westerners find so difficult to understand. For example, I had always heard reference to how simple it was for a man to divorce his wife by saying “I divorce you” three times. But Ohaila pointed out that the requirement to say it three times was to provide assurances to women that a man was certain about what he said, not shouting it in anger. In context, Ohaila’s explanation made sense.

Ohaila never blamed others for her situation. She viewed everything in her life’s path as an opportunity. She demonstrated her faith every day. Her example gave me reason to want to understand more.

And Cairo gave me an opportunity to connect with her again. So while I didn’t want to go, I’m glad I did. I even saw the pyramids and rode on a camel.