Fall 2008, Volume 25.1
Elmaz Abinader is an Arab-American writer from Oakland, California, who has won the Goldies Award in Literature, the PEN Award for poetry, and a Silicon Valley Arts Grant for Fiction. Her publications include In the Country of my Dreams, a collection of poetry, and Children of the Roojme, a memoir. Her performance plays have toured in eleven countries, and Country of Origin—a three act work—won two Drammies from the Oregon Drama Circle. Her band is directed by Tony Khalife. She is co-founder of VONA, a foundation that holds summer writing workshops for writers of color. Her upcoming works include a new memoir, Country of Origin, a book of poems, The Torture Quartet, and a novel, When Silence Gets Frightening.
I could not get the qat to cooperate. The men sitting in the mufrage had balls of the leaves in their mouths and they smoked, drank Canada Dry and talked at the same time. Sadeeq, whose cheek was the size of a racquetball, instructed, "Chew the leaves and flip them in your cheek at the same time." I pulled off the top tender spears that yielded the most juice. The bitter tang made me want to spit it out or swallow it, get rid of it somehow, but the men in the room were watching me chew while the leaves scraped against the tender flesh of my mouth and juice pooled around my gums. Mohammed Shuraffaden, a professor from the University, was serving as my translator; he pointed and spoke in Arabic to Sadeeq. He handed me a tissue and I covered my mouth and expelled the weed. Embarrassed, I wanted to try again: to make it clear to my host that I accepted his hospitality, that despite the sour shot of extract that burned the inside of my mouth, I was honored to be there, and like all good guests, I was willing to partake in this time-honored Yemeni ritual. My mouth drew in, forcing a smile from a pucker.
When I entered the mufrage in Mohammed Safady’s house, the pillows on the floor were bathed in light. Rosettes of color circled the room. Its entire perimeter was padded with cushions arranged like floor-level couches. Lining a path in front of them, trays held water, soda, tissue, perfume and biscuits. I left my shoes at the doorway with the large men’s sandals and shimmied down to the seat in the middle—the one designated for the honored guest. On one side, Mohammed leaned toward me intimately, and on the other side, the host, Mohammed Safady, introduced me to the gathering. After little speeches, everyone relaxed into their qat chew.
In front of me was the qat bush, a tumbleweed of fresh slight leaves. Until arriving in Yemen, I had never heard of qat or knew of this custom. The men pulled the bush toward them, stripped a bunch of leaves with two fingers and slid them into their mouths. They piled in layers and layers of leaves, their cheeks inflating like the balloon blows of Dizzy Gillespie. As their faces expanded, the conversation seemed unimpeded; unlike Demosthenes, stuttering around a mouth full of pebbles, these men rattled off story after story, asked question after question. After the branches were cleaned of the leaves, they were thrown into the middle of the room; sagebrush bundles entwined at the hub of our conversation, stripped to their slick green tendrils. I knew qat was a mild stimulant and so I waited for the high to set in around the room, the hazy pot-smokers’ giddiness, but instead, the conversations felt natural and sensible.
Throughout the afternoon, Mohammed filled my ear with information about the guests: Safady, the leading poet in the country, wrote about women’s issues. His reputation as pro-feminist drew fire and praise. Next to him an editor of a daily newspaper described the forty days he spent in solitary confinement in one of his frequent prison visits. I was astonished and examined his long face, his light blue robe, almost basketball player stature. Another writer, stocky and balding, nodded his head vigorously. He knew the cell well: its damp walls, the metal door. The description inspired an eruption of chatter. Mohammed whispered. "That man," he pointed to the balding one, "and that one," he indicated the quiet man on his side, "are members of parliament."
"Why does everyone end up in prison?"
Mohammed smiled. "Lots of reasons. Insurgency is the most popular charge. But a poem, an article, a speech, maybe even a thought." He laughed at himself. "But we’re used to it. It’s only inconvenient."
Everything was described this way, as an inconvenience: a jail term, a kidnapping, a skirmish in the streets. I surveyed the writers in the room—their drawn faces and dewy eyes and smiles. This was one of those moments where I felt myself move into the room, quietly, stealthily, riding the electricity that moved from one person to the next, that generated the warmth among us, or between me and everyone in Yemen.
Yemen lightened me. When I visited Saudi Arabia, I was surrounded by chrome, steel and glass so insistent and aggressive, it was as if I had faded back, been pulled into the shadows and obscured, playing only in black and white. But now the scrubby streets of Sana’a and the blue and pink plastic bags flying between the buildings, the camel carts pulling bananas, the children scampering barefoot in the alleyways swelled the receding blood vessels and the arteries were flush with new light. Women filled the streets and the markets, their faces were visible, their gowns were splashed with color. Although many were also covered, their scarves blossomed colors.
Now we were breathing fresh air and walking rich ground, now we touched each other and chatted where the light refracted against our skin rather than in windowless rooms. Hugs and strokes replaced polite air pecks on the cheeks. Crimson, berry and mango adorned the robes of the women, and the messy, strewn markets lining the streets camouflaged glass storefronts and modest hotels.
At the University of Sana’a, Mohammed taught graduate students in English and literature. When I visited his class, his students wanted me to speak Arabic. Mohammed explained to them that I never learned it, that I was raised in a town where people didn’t want me to be Arab. That story was told over and over, the prejudice in my all-white Pennsylvania coal-mining town, the racism and minimization of who I was. The simple explanation sounded like an excuse, I thought. But I told them the story of the registration when I was barred from school until my mother changed my name to something American and saintly. I told them—a room of students given names of prophets and soldiers—how my small town by the river didn’t understand Elmaz. They grimaced in terror as I described Sister Sophie wielding her name-changing pen and my mother falling into the trap of assimilation, if just for that one moment. This was unthinkable, to have your Arab name taken away from you. I couldn’t quell their panic, explain to them how easy my life was compared to probably their own fathers’, to politicians, journalists, all the political prisoners who had spent time in prison.
At Safady’s, the members of parliament and the writers revealed bone-chilling stories of endless questioning and miserable confinement. Legs crossed, hands on knees, mouths stuffed with weed, the experiences were blown away with the smoke from their Marlboros. Everyone seemed to return to their lives as if it had only been an inconvenience, as Mohammed had said. They sat in a mufrage with their friends and chewed qat.
I felt whiney. Having my name changed was a paper cut in a country of mortal wounds. So when they asked again and again, why don’t you speak Arabic?, the stories of my embattled childhood rang hollow. Poor little Arab girl…sigh. So when the writers brought up my poem that was in the newspaper, I turned shy, pushed the attention away. That morning, the concierge had shown me my picture at the bottom of the front page of the Yemen Times. Most newspapers included poetry alongside articles about the upcoming elections, the street fights, the reports on which Western diplomat was kidnapped. My poem, Letter for My Father, I guessed from the length of the lines, had been framed by dark lines, and a caption under my photo bore a long description. Everyone in the room had seen it and they wanted, out of politeness or true interest, to hear some more. Never feeling more humble, I read to them while they leaned against their pillows, their legs tucked under, their cheeks filled with qat.
"Maybe it’s just the contrast," I said, as I walked with a new friend, Carol La Hurd, through the souq when I arrived, "but Sana’a feels like St. Tropez compared to Saudi Arabia."
Carol’s husband Ryan, who was finishing a Fulbright Lectureship at the University of Sana’a, chatted with some man selling copper coffee urns. Unfortunately the La Hurds were leaving the country in two days, but they took some time from their packing to show me the market. Carol and I were both wearing our raincoats and modest scarves that protected us from the potential downpour. They led me through the gate, Bab al-Yemen, to a magnificent open market where one merchant’s stand seemed to overlap with another’s. Donkeys and camels pulling carts came through the middle and forced shoppers to flatten along the side to give them room. The sun brightened the tables with shoes and fabric, gleaming pans and mountains of tangerines.
"Yemenis from the North or the South aren’t as fascinated by American culture as the rest of the Arab world. They will be very nice to you if you are not too aggressive." She pointed to a blond woman in tight jeans and a tucked-in shirt shooting photographs of some vendors in the marketplace with a long lens. As Yemeni women went by her, they turned away and covered their faces.
"In this part of Yemen, women are very modest and compliant with their religion. The South is a little different; you’ll see it right away."
The photographer persisted in pushing her lens into the face of the marketers. I avoided looking toward her because I wanted to say something, tell her to stop.
The new was obscured by the old in Sana’a. The buildings were ancient stone structures rising to six stories. The façades were whitewashed and designed with cornices that curled like large crashing waves. Above each window and door arched a half-moon of stained glass in the design of tahkrim. The city was ancient. Some say it was the center of Arab culture in the seventh and eighth centuries when these buildings were erected. Others say Yemen was the home of the Garden of Eden. As I wound through the streets of the souq with my Minnesotan friends, every dirt-covered pathway led to elegant archways and alabaster architecture.
The souq was in the old city and branched this way and that in a maze of shops and paths. The merchants sat in open rooms on the floor amid their merchandise. Displays of jewelry and antiquities spilled into the streets. Walking slowly we passed one vendor after another. There was no hustle, no calling out to the tourist in English or Arabic. I wanted to wander for hours and follow the men who walked around the streets holding each other’s hands. When men initially met, they often touched each other’s faces tenderly. The La Hurds explained that this was an act of friendship. It was astonishingly beautiful to see them stroke each other’s cheeks, to greet each other with such intimacy, to grab each other’s hands unconsciously. I wanted to follow their sandaled feet as they quickly moved over the stones and waste in the souq.
The women tromped through the market with purpose. Their wraps looked like batik and most had their eyes or face visible. When Ryan was busy bargaining, and Carol and I were examining the cones of spices on the trays in front of the stands, an old woman dressed in black and red came up, touched our faces and talked to us. She wanted to know if we were teachers, and she told us about her son in Brooklyn. Crimson bursts of color decorated her body. She examined my face seriously, speaking Arabic, expecting me to understand. Carol translated as we talked and the woman grazed my cheek with one finger. When Ryan joined us, she turned around and walked away without a word. My cheek tingled. I had never been approached this way or touched so freely—something in my body flashed. I cast a glance over my shoulder hoping to see her figure disappear through the crowds.
In the Souq al-milh, Carol guided me through the aisles with pots and pans stacked like poker chips, to the alleyways where meat was slaughtered, carcasses hanging and emptied; then, we continued on to a smaller, more narrow maze of the silver market. We landed in the depository of pirates’ plunder. In the shops that occupied the bottom floor of an ancient building, rows of antique silver pieces, necklaces embedded with lapis lazuli, garnet, coral, amber and pearl dangled from the windows and were pinned on the walls. Earrings had stones like eyes in a peacock feather, surrounded by the curlicue of filigree. We browsed casually. I caught sight of an old necklace hanging from the shutter of a building, with delicate silver fish lying alongside teardrops of amber. In this shop, the walls were lined with velvet and beautiful, latticed earrings, row after row, each elaborate and twisted into a tantalizing design. I ran my eyes along the displays and turned around the corner of the room, nearly stepping on the vendor who was halfway lying on a tattered rug, his eyes full of liquid. It was after two o’clock, so he had his qat.
He rose up onto his elbow and greeted us, waved his hand and described the background of some of the earrings, explaining he could change things around if we preferred, pointing at a hook on one, then at the stone on another. Each glimmered like the ocean, the wet stone reflecting the sun. A million eyes of gems surrounded me, their arabesque settings swirling against the crimson velvet. As he pushed to his feet, his face gleamed toward me. "Shaa’ira! Welcome to my shop!" This man in his small amphetamine high recognized me as the visiting poet. Under his elbow on the torn blanket he was lying on was the daily paper with my picture and a poem.
He liked my poetry very much; he opened his arms and sang to me. Carol nodded her head at what he said about me or my poetry; I was not sure. But he rose in the midst of us talking excitedly.
"You know who I like the best of all American poets?" he asked. "Gwendolyn Brooks."
I turned to Carol, "Did he say Gwendolyn Brooks?"
Carol translated my question to him in Arabic.
"Gwendolyn Brooks," he repeated.
We real cool, we/skip school/ we play pool/. How did this sound transform into the slushy guttering of Arabic? I smiled hugely remembering my first memory of reading Brooks in college. I recited this poem like a jump rope rhyme for weeks. Did the Arabic version ring out like the sing-songy qitah my father and his brothers composed on their terrace under the stars competing with one another?
Carol explained, "Everyone in Yemen reads poetry. Poetry is in the newspaper everyday. It’s a part of their lives."
The man was nodding and smiling. I goosebumped seeing his happiness or his high, and I smiled a high, aching smile—at him, at Gwendolyn Brooks, at the whole notion of poetry everyday.
As we exited the market we saw boys standing in a line displaying lengths of material—often ten or twelve feet long. They created a maze of magical colors and cloths, rivers of reds and yellows and purples and blacks like I had never seen. I would gladly have wrapped these piles and bolts and rolls of stunning fabric around my head and face, for in all my vanity my features could not compete with these designs. What flag were they as Yemen tried to unite and create one country?
As we stepped through the archway to the street, the buzz of cars, traffic, and dubaabs (stuffed with passengers and more shoppers going to the electronics store on the main street) returned. Hidden in the souq, the modern Sana’a was left behind. The motors were replaced by shouts and barkers, the carbon monoxide fumes were overwhelmed by the pure stench of animal blood, the shiny electronic displays had been upstaged by the staggering colors of spices in mountains and piles of rainbow baskets.
Back in the twentieth century I saw the press of people occupying every corner and every vehicle. Children were running everywhere. The buses were filled; bodies were spilling out of the entrances and the exits; hands reached out of the windows. Small Fiat taxis buzzed by carrying businessmen and visitors. Some were reading newspapers. Some were reading poetry.