"I think you should go. Because even if you go and it's not good, at least you'll know. But if you don't go, you'll always wonder what it would have been like."
These words were spoken to me weeks before my trip by a woman I had met a few months before while standing in line at my bank in Atlanta, a drop-dead gorgeous girl by the name of Samar (yes, I was shyly trying to hit on her). And trite as they might seem, there was something about hearing conventional wisdom from the mouth of someone else that, in that moment, did the trick. I cast my misgivings aside and decided to proceed with my plan.
And that is how, ten years ago today, I found myself arriving in Yemen, one of the two countries that Samar called home; her father was Yemeni.
I was only there for five weeks--far less time than my preceding or succeeding sojourns in the Arab world. But those five, incredibly eventful weeks left a deep, deep impression on me.
It was in Yemen where, for the first time, despite the racism that I occasionally experienced, I generally felt something akin to the Arab hospitality of lore. I chewed qat. I fired guns--a pistol and an AK-47--for the first time. I got caught in a locust swarm. I got so sick that I shat myself to the point of losing consciousness, which finally made me understand how it is that children in poor countries can actually die from diarrhea. I was attacked by mini horses at an equestrian park. I went on the most arduous hike in my life through a mountain range with a group of tribesmen who slaughtered a goat for me and my small group of classmates. I ate at my first Syrian restaurant. Never before had I passed through military checkpoints just to move from one town to the next.
I saw a lot of the country, but not nearly enough. I made friends that I haven't seen since but haven't forgotten.
Yemen is a beautiful country. It is currently being torn apart by war. US-made bombs dropped by Saudi Arabia and UAE claim hundreds of innocent lives and destroy its infrastructure. Hunger stalks the countryside and cities. Cholera rips through the intestines of the young--leading to, yes, death from diarrhea. It breaks my heart.
I'm glad that I listened to Samar. I'm glad that I got to know what it was like. It is a privilege that I'm sure many Yemenis in the diaspora will not know again for some time.
I wish I could tell her. We had a falling out in 2009, after I returned from Syria... which was, coincidentally, the last place I saw her, on her father's large, lucrative farm outside of Damascus. It's where she was raised; the other country she called home. Her father was an official in the Syrian Baath Party--its representative of the Yemeni "sector" (قُطر) of the Arab nation, such as it exists in Baathist ideology. She resented the flurry of posts I made after being free of that country that denounced its government and complained about its people.
I'm sure that she is heartbroken, too.