The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (10 page)

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
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I was disappointed that Zuhra wasn’t with us. I didn’t know if she had gone home for lunch or already eaten. But then, just as I opened the door to leave, she flew toward it from outside. Clutching my arm, she dragged me back into the conference room.

“You haven’t seen me!” she said. She pulled me past the door and closed it tightly behind us. Then, as we stood facing each other just inside the doorway, she drew back her
niqab
. Unlike the other women, she yanked off her
hijab
as well, loosing thick ink-black hair that tumbled to her waist.

“Why, you’re
adorable!”
I couldn’t help myself. She really was, with chubby brown cheeks, dimples, and flashing black eyes. She glowed with pride, laughing, as she turned this way and that to let me admire her.

I can’t express how thrilling this was. They had let me into their world; they had trusted me with their faces.

“People have the wrong idea about the
hijab,”
said Zuhra with a toss of her glossy hair. “I wear it because I respect myself. And when the beauty is hidden the more important things rise to the surface.”

“So people can appreciate you for your brains and not your beauty?” I said.

She laughed. “Yes. But there is more. I can talk to you for hours about the
hijab
if you would like.”

“I would!”

“Careful!” said Arwa. “She can talk to you
forever
about the
hijab!”

“She can talk to you forever about
anything,”
said Enass.

“That’s okay,” I said. “There’s an awful lot I need to know.”

THREE
an invitation

Faris summoned me to his office a few days later. He had given me a copy of a
long, dull, and confusing interview he did with a man from USAID and wanted me to critique it. I hardly knew where to begin; there was so little clarity or interest in the piece. I would never have let it run.

I dragged my feet up the stairs. Sleep deprivation and information overload were sapping my strength. Little pieces of cultural knowledge and news and Arabic were continually escaping from my head and scattering about me on the ground. I was exhausted from constantly trying to pick them all up and stuff them back in. It’s only three weeks, I told myself. It’s not forever.

I staggered into Faris’s office, where he welcomed me with a broad smile, waving me to a chair. “Tell me,” he said without preamble. “Tell me what you think of this interview.”

I perched on the edge of my chair and pressed my palms against his desktop. “Now, it’s okay for me to be totally honest with you?” Exhaustion tends to vaporize my ability to speak anything but the naked truth. I didn’t have the energy to coddle him.

He spread out his arms again. “Totally honest. This is what I want.”

I took a breath. Why was I scared? It wasn’t like he was really my boss or anything. He wasn’t even paying me! “Your lead …” I pointed it out on the paper spread between us. “It says
nothing.”
And we went on from there. I had nearly twenty pages of notes and took his story apart piece by piece and told him how to make it better. To his credit, he never got defensive and expressed deep gratitude for my help, so I relaxed as we carried on.

The interview really contained several stories, so we talked about how the information could be better reported and organized. He nodded and said he understood. But every time I explained anything to my students, they would say the same thing, regardless of whether they truly got it. But I was grateful for the chance to spend time with Faris so that he could get an idea of the kinds of things I was telling his staff and perhaps help to carry on my ideas after I left.

Looking back, it’s incredible that I was ever that naïve.

THEO RESCUED ME
from work that night and took me to the British Club, a bar next door to the British ambassador’s residence in the upscale Hadda neighborhood, where most diplomats live. I’d hardly been anywhere outside of the
Yemen Observer
offices, and the mere prospect of encountering a pint glass and perhaps a native English speaker filled me with wild euphoria. We caught a cab down a long dusty road past neon-lighted supermarkets, travel agencies, furniture stores, spice markets, and bright windows displaying pyramids of honey jars.

The taxi turned left at an anomalous Baskin-Robbins creamery and dropped us off at a black-and-yellow-striped concrete barrier. Men in blue army fatigues clutching AK-47s stood around on street corners and at the gates of walled mansions along the street. Just beyond the British Club, I could see the Union Jack flying over a massive green building. As we approached the large black gates on our left, a small window flew open and a Yemeni man peered out. Theo flashed his membership card and the gate swung open to admit us to—a miracle!—a bar.

The warm scent of stale beer and fried food greeted me as we walked in, and I inhaled deeply. I love bars, everything about them. Though I am not a big drinker, I love the community, the chance for unexpected encounters, the eclectic mix of people. In New York, I spent nearly every Sunday night at my local Irish pub, doing the
New York Times
Sunday crossword puzzle and talking with Tommy, my favorite bartender in the world. For the first time since I arrived in this ancient city, I was completely at ease, in a place I recognized.

Operated by the British Embassy, the British Club draws an assortment of expats—diplomats, oil workers, development workers, teachers, and the odd journalist—desirous of escaping Yemeni prohibitions. It was relatively empty when we arrived. The World Cup was playing on television screens at either end of the room, and a scattering of Brits sat at the small tables with pints of forbidden beer. Beyond a long porch out back was a tennis court and a pool hidden by a row of shrubs.

Theo introduced me to the bartender, a slim, smiling Yemeni-Vietnamese man named Abdullah. My first—and likely only—Yemeni bartender! Theo ordered us a couple of Carlsbergs, which we had only just tasted when his French friends Sebastian and Alain arrived. Theo promptly abandoned me to go play tennis with them.

I didn’t care. I was just happy to sip my beer and amuse myself with strangers. The beer made me tipsy nearly immediately—a combination of the altitude and the fact that I hadn’t had time to eat. There were two men next to me at the bar, so I turned and asked them what they were doing in Yemen—thrilled to be able to talk to strange men without the risk of being thought a shameless harlot. Well, with slightly
less
of a risk of being thought a shameless harlot.

“Construction,” the man next to me said. “Embassy specialists.”

The two of them told me about the British embassies they’d built all over the world. We traded stories about our travels and love affairs. One man wore a wedding ring but was not married. The other was married but not wearing a ring. The ring wearer explained to me that a long time ago his Norwegian girlfriend gave him a wedding ring as a gift. When he left her and moved to Amsterdam, his jealous Dutch girlfriend bought him a second ring. And when he moved back to Britain, his British girlfriend bought him a third. He lost that one, so she bought a replacement ring, the one he still wore although he’d just broken up with her and sent her back to England. This is why I love bars. Maybe living here wouldn’t be so difficult after all, if there were oases like this one.

After a second beer, I joined Theo and his friends. The night was delicious, cool and breezy. Stars flickered on over the tennis courts. We ordered another round of beers and some fish curry. As we talked, it occurred to me that the last time Theo and I had spoken French together was in 1986, in a small classroom on the top of a hill in Vermont. And that if I had not been on that Vermont hilltop in 1986, I would not have been in Yemen some twenty years later. Interesting where one teenage romance can lead. Eventually the Frenchmen left, and I sat talking with Theo until long after dark.

I was surprised by Theo’s unabashed enthusiasm for my class. “They love you, you know,” he said. “Zaid told me, ‘Jennifer is the best American in the world.’”

“Really?”

“I was interviewing him for the article I wrote about you, and I wanted to move on to another subject, but he said, ‘No! I want to talk more about Jennifer!’ He asked me if he could marry you.”

“Isn’t Zaid already married?”

“Yes, but he wants to marry you too.”

“I don’t think I could get around the teeth.” Zaid’s teeth, like those of most Yemeni men I met, are stained dark brown with
qat
and tea and tobacco. Many Yemenis do not brush their teeth at all, though some chew on a stick called
miswaak
to clean their teeth. As a dental hygiene fetishist, I was horrified by the crumbling, putrid teeth and rotting mouths.

“Well, he loves you. They all love you. And it’s funny how the girls have taken you in. You’re like their leader now.”

“I love them, too.”

“I can’t tell you how happy they are with your work, how happy I am with what you are doing. I don’t know what I am going to do when you leave.”

This was a historic first. Theo had never, to my recollection, praised anything I had done, and certainly never with this kind of passion. I glowed with a sense of accomplishment that dimmed anything I had ever felt writing my science pages at
The Week
. Maybe I really could make a difference here after all.

THE NEXT MORNING
I met yet another new student. Shaima worked for the World Bank and had called Faris looking for a place to improve her writing. Faris recommended my class.

Shaima smiled. She was very pretty, with a narrow face, long doe-like eyelashes, and full lips. She wore a
balto
and
hijab
but left her face bare. It was a terrific relief to speak face-to-face with a Yemeni woman for more than a few fleeting seconds. We sat down in the conference room, and I ran through everything we had covered so far. She asked what else she could do to improve her writing, and I told her to read something in English every day. “It doesn’t matter what—read something you enjoy. But make sure it’s written by a native English speaker.” I wrote her a list of newspapers and websites.

Shaima had had an unusually privileged life for a Yemeni. She received a full scholarship to the American University in Cairo, although her mother forced her to turn it down because she was too worried that Shaima would come into contact with drugs and alcohol. But Shaima did manage to go to university and then graduate school—in Jordan. Though she was thirty, she still lived with her parents, in the upscale neighborhood of Hadda. “We are stuck to our families until we are married,” she told me.

I enjoyed talking with her and sensed that she could become a real friend. Worldlier and more independent than my reporters, she could move about with greater freedom. She also was the only Yemeni woman I knew who owned a car—a Mercedes.

When I was through with Shaima, the women took me to one of the back offices, where they had spread out newspapers on the floor. They locked the door and lifted their veils, smiling at me.

“You don’t think it’s wrong?” Enass asked me. “To sit on newspapers, since that is your work?”

“Oh no,” I said. “We line gerbil cages with them.”

Three of the four girls hiked their black
abayas
up to their waists in order to sit comfortably. All were wearing blue jeans.

They handed me a rolled Jordanian sandwich of pickles and falafel and watched closely as I took a bite. “Do you find it delicious?” Arwa asked anxiously. I assured her that I did.

Zuhra then launched into one of her high-speed monologues, telling me about her seven brothers and sisters, her hopes for her future, and her criteria for a husband.

“I expect never to marry,” she told me. “I expect that. Because I will never compromise my career. And I will only marry a man who will support my career. But he must also be religious. There are very few Yemeni men like this.”

Zuhra and I were the last to finish our sandwiches. “Because you never stop talking!” said one of the other girls.

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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