Three spoons, please
Naomi Prior, 23, is studying Arabic in Yemen for the next 12 to 18 months. Here, she tells us what life is like for an English woman in the intriguing Middle Eastern country.
During a time of great tension and conflict in the Middle East, Naomi discovers friendly, funny people, fabulous food and more in Yemen.
"I would like three spoons please." The waiter brings three forks. "No, I would like three spoons please, not forks." Again, the waiter brings three forks. On the third attempt I give up and opt for forks. This isn't a rehearsal for a comedy show but my early attempts to speak Arabic in my new home, Yemen.
When I announced I was moving to Yemen, most of my friends didn't know where it was, let alone anything about it. Those that had heard of it had only negative preconceptions - terrorism, kidnapping, arms trafficking and drug use in the form of Qat, a narcotic leaf. When they worked out it was in the Middle East most of them thought of the tragic conflicts in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. By sharing my experiences I hope to break down those negative stereotypes and nurture a greater understanding of this fascinating country. Already I have been humbled by the Yemenis' generosity and entertained by their fantastic humour; delighted by the food; stunned by the landscape; and mesmerised by the souqs (markets) in the Old City.
So where is it then? Nowhere near Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine actually, but tucked away in the south western corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Apart from tragic conflicts, say 'The Middle East' and many people think of vast oil wealth and flashy cities. Well, throw out those Dubai images. Welcome to the poorest country in the Middle East where 42% of the population live below the poverty line; more than one in 10 children die before their fifth birthday; 46% of under-5s are malnourished; and only 25% of girls in rural areas attend primary school. Yet unlike its rich neighbours, Yemen has an income of just $570 per person per year (2004) to cope with all these challenges.
But it's certainly not a country without successes. Take politics. I've moved to The Republic of Yemen at a significant moment in its history. On 20th September Yemenis go to the polls for their second Presidential and second local elections since the Unification of North Yemen (The Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen). Big deal I hear you cry. Well, it is considering Yemen has only been unified since 1990 and is one of the few countries in the region to not only hold elections, but also to give women the vote. While it's true there are ongoing accusations of some electoral fraud, this is a step in the right direction of which Yemen deserves to be proud. And while many Yemenis believe that the result is already sown up - that President Saleh will secure another seven years to add to his existing 28-year reign - at least this time there is a credible opposition candidate campaigning against him and debating the issues.
"Women do dine in restaurants but in separate rooms, or they have a screen erected around them. Once there were so many screens up I thought I was in a hospital not a restaurant!"
As I weave around the crazy streets of Sana'a, I am confronted by Presidential Candidate posters on taxis, billboards, cars and buildings. But they're not alone - they stare out proudly next to posters of Hassan Nasrallah - the Hezbollah leader. I arrived in Yemen at the height of the Lebanese tragedy and was immediately aware of the anger and distress felt by the Yemeni people. It is deeply worrying that not only has the Lebanese tragedy inflicted such intense suffering on so many people but it has added flames to the anti-Western fire. The leader columns of the English newspapers here (my Arabic isn't good enough to read the Arabic papers) are packed full of praise for Hezbollah seen as the only group actually standing up to Israel and full of condemnation for what they believe is a continued US-Israel and very much UK-led assault on the Middle East. So I've clearly moved to Yemen at a critical juncture in wider West-Middle East history. Let's hope I have some more positive reflections later in my stay here.
The food has also made a deep impression on me. Not only is it delicious and gigantic in proportions but eating is such an amazing experience. The first time I dined in a local fish restaurant, I was plunged into a noisy hive of activity - waiters speeding past with mountains of food; chefs shouting in Arabic way beyond the hearing range of the kitchen; and small children scuttling round your feet as I negotiated my way through the happy chaos. Considering this backdrop, I thought the maître d' was having a laugh when he asked if we'd like to sit near the kitchen... Only if a free ear-drum transplant was dessert! Instead, we were ushered into the quieter (it's all relative!) room to the right.
Looking around I was greeted by a sight somewhat different from a restaurant in the UK. Firstly, the customers were predominantly men. Women do dine in restaurants but in separate rooms or they have a screen erected around them. Once there were so many screens up I thought I was in a hospital not a restaurant! Secondly, the men were dressed in traditional Yemeni dress: long white robes; patterned scarves around the shoulders and sometime head; and the detail which marks Yemenis out from their neighbours - the gold embroidered leather belt proudly holding the Jambiya, a curved dagger, some six inches long.
Seated at a long table, the waiter instantaneously puts down a new plastic table covering. Totally sensible when you learn what culinary carnage awaits you. My friends opted for fish roasted in the fire. I was somewhat disturbed by this choice as it was 2pm already and I was starving. But within nano-seconds two huge foil-baked fish were plonked on our table. Clearly there was a major production line in operation. The fish was accompanied by the biggest bread I have ever seen - a giant dough Frisbee and yes, I've seen it thrown across the table like a Frisbee! You tear off pieces of bread, dip into sauces, pile on fragrant rice and use it to peal off pieces of fish. The fish is ridiculously succulent and falls gracefully off the bone. The feast is followed by papaya, bananas and a delicious date-bread mix, drizzled with Yemen's famous honey. Stuffed to the gills, you wash your hands in the basins to expel the fishy odours, helped by the obligatory squirt of perfume from the door attendant as you leave.
Two weeks time will be really interesting on the food front as the fasting month of Ramadan begins at the end of September. I was totally honest with my Muslim friends here in that I have nothing but respect for their ability to fast. I can't even last four hours between breakfast and lunch without getting exceedingly grumpy.