The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (2 page)

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Nothing in this book or my life would be remotely possible without the entire
staff, past and present, of the
Yemen Observer
. Thank you for working so very hard for me, despite my mercurial management style. I owe you all an infinite debt of gratitude.
I also owe bottomless thanks to:
Theo Padnos, for getting me here.
My friend Tom Zoellner, whose invaluable assistance and encouragement from the very beginning helped this book to get off the ground.
My agent, Brettne Bloom, for believing in this book, for her unflagging enthusiasm and support, and for her inspirational thoughts on my original proposal.
My editor Kris Puopolo and her assistant editor, Stephanie Bowen, for their wise counsel in shaping this book, their meticulous editing, and their patience with my frequent long-distance phone calls.
My editor Christine Pride, for guiding this book through its final stages of labor and birth and for so indefatigably championing it.
Faris al-Sanabani, for trusting me. Sometimes.
Sabri Saleem, for his warm friendship and for providing me with my first Yemeni home.
Sami al-Siyani, for being the best friend, neighbor, and guide to Old Sana’a I can imagine.
My neighbors in the al-Wushali district of Old Sana’a for their infinite hospitality.
Muhoro Ndungu, for his tolerance of my moods during the darkest times, for his witch doctor skills, and for taking me in when I was homeless.
Bushra Nasr, for her generosity and friendship.
All of my Arabic teachers, but especially Fouad, for their patience with my erratic progress.
Mr. Jamal Hindi and the entire staff of Al Mankal restaurant, who always know exactly what I want for lunch.
The well-behaved taxi drivers who kept their hands on the wheel.
Harris Collingwood, for emotional and material support during difficult times.
Anne-Christine, Angelica, Carolyn, Koosje, and Jilles, housemates who turned my gingerbread house into a home.
Aida, without whom we would all have been wading through several feet of dust.
Rasheed, for showing me his Soqotra.
Anne Leewis, for helping me find a life outside work.
Phil Boyle, for making me laugh, feeding me curry, and granting me a pivotal interview with a British MP.
Don Lipinski, for the wine, movies, and loyal support, despite our political differences.
Marvin and Pearl, for the bootleg gin and Soqotra.
Tobias Lechtenfeld, for the lovely times in Sana’a, and for remaining a friend.
Peter Toth, for his phenomenal generosity, for his devoted friendship, and for Paris.
Chris and Peta Shute, for housing me as I wrote the first chapters of this book.
Lloyd, Dave, Colin, and the entire CP team, for keeping us all safe during the writing of this book and beyond.
Negesti, Alem, and Emebet, for taking such good care of us at home.
Cole and Ali, for keeping their senses of humor when I lost mine.
Manel Fall, for keeping me from bursting into flames.
Nick Janik, for saving me the horror of shopping.
Saleh and Didier, for their friendship and for Taiz.
Abdullah, for never failing to make me feel welcome.
My classmates and professors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, for their assistance in creating my original training course.
My friends in New York and elsewhere in the world—too numerous to list here—whose love and e-mails help keep me sane.
My parents, who are always supportive, even when they doubt the wisdom of my career choices.
Timothy Achille Torlot, for reading this book more times than anyone should, and for loving me more than I thought anyone could.

ONE
fantasia in gingerbread

I didn’t immediately see Zuhra when I walked into the bridal chamber. The
room was dim, and she was curled over in prayer on the floor to my left, a mass of white satin with a black scarf over her head. Few people were allowed in the room with her—only sisters and dearest friends—and everyone was quiet. I stood still against a wall, watching her, waiting for her to finish. I hadn’t thought I would see Zuhra until she began her slow, deliberate march down the catwalk that ran the length of the wedding hall. But her sisters had summoned me, pulling me by the hand into this back room. Zuhra looked tiny and vulnerable, solemnly whispering her prayers.

But all hint of gravity vanished as she finished and pulled the veil from her face to beam up at me. She stood, the silky scarf slithering from her bare shoulders, and came to let me kiss her. Above the white of her Brooklyn-bought dress, her arms, back, and clavicle were painted with curling flowery vines, rendered in
nagsh
, a black ink favored by Yemeni brides. We didn’t speak at first but just stood smiling at each other.

“Antee jameela,”
I said, touching her tiny waist. “Beautiful. Like a little doll bride.”

“Really?” She turned this way and that, so I could admire all of her. Her thick black hair was piled on top of her head in fanciful hair-sprayed loops. Her dark eyes were outlined in kohl, her face thickly powdered, and her lips colored a pale pomegranate.

“Really. I wish I could take a photo!” We had all been patted down at the door, to ensure none of us smuggled in a camera.

Zuhra pulled me down beside her on cushions at the end of the room, where we stayed for another hour waiting for her guests to finish their sunset prayers and work themselves into a frenzy of anticipation. Zuhra passed the time chatting with me and making calls on her mobile phone, mostly to her groom, who was (contrary to tradition) picking her up at the end of the night. “You are sure you haven’t argued with anyone today?” she said into the receiver. “You sound like maybe you argued.” She was worried that her husband had squabbled with her brother but was evidently reassured.

“Are you nervous?” I said. All the Yemeni brides I’d seen before had looked stricken with terror on their walks down the aisle. But unlike those brides, Zuhra knew her groom.

“No,” she said, smiling placidly. “I am just happy.”

Her two older sisters, clad in long, shiny ball gowns, popped in to tell us it was almost time.

I stood next to Zuhra, feeling tall and awkward in heels, which I rarely suffer for anyone. Outside the door, we heard the increasingly boisterous ululations of women, meant as encouragement for the bride. As this Arabic yodeling threatened to reach a crescendo, Zuhra suddenly looked panicked.

“My pill!” She grabbed her purse from a friend standing nearby and rummaged through the pockets of her wallet. She pulled out a blister pack of birth control pills, with all but four missing. We’d spent an entire afternoon picking out these pills, making sure they were the right combination of hormones and made by a legitimate pharmaceutical company.

Zuhra struggled with the package, unable to get the pill out with her fake nails. “Here,” I said. “Let me.” I popped one out and handed it to her. She washed it down with a swallow of water from someone’s bottle and picked up her skirts.

“Jeez, Zuhra, just in time,” I whispered as we started out the door.

I entered the room just ahead of her. The hundreds of black-cocooned women I had seen hurrying into the hall earlier that evening had transformed into gaudy miniskirted butterflies, coated with glitter and lipstick, tottering on three-inch heels. There were no men.

Zuhra’s youngest sister thrust a basket of jasmine petals into my hand. “Here,” she said. “Throw.”

Zuhra stepped forward. The lights had been dimmed, and all of the younger women and girls were on the stage at the end of the catwalk, their hands over their heads, swaying like so many colored streamers. Music swelled from behind the screen, where the band was hidden. At first I couldn’t quite believe the evidence of my ears. At a Yemeni wedding I expected Arabic music. But no, Zuhra was starting down the aisle toward her married life to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” from the soundtrack of
Titanic
.

THERE IS AN OLD JOKE
about Yemen, told to any traveler who sticks around long enough: “Noah came back to Earth recently, curious to see how it had evolved since his time. In a private jet on loan from God, he first flew over France and said, ‘My! Look at France! How it has changed! What exciting new architecture! What amazing innovation!’ He then flew over Germany. ‘Incredible! I would hardly recognize it! So much new technology! Such thrilling industry!’ And then he headed to southern Arabia. ‘Ah, Yemen,’ he said fondly. ‘I’d know it anywhere. Hasn’t changed a bit.’”

In many ways, it hasn’t. Of course, I wasn’t in Yemen back in the first millennium
BC
, when Noah’s son Shem is said to have founded the capital city of Sana’a. But in many parts of the country, people are living exactly as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. They herd goats and cows; they grow wheat, pomegranates, and grapes; they travel long distances to fetch water. They live in simple square mud-brick homes. They paint themselves with
nagsh
for weddings. They pray.

The ancient landscape reveals little evidence of the passage of time. On a flyover today, Noah would find that erosion has run light fingers over the jagged mountains of the central highlands. Long stretches of empty beaches in the south are touched by the same tides that have washed them since the Flood. In the east, desert sands shift in barely perceptible ways. The green terraces carved into the Haraz mountains in the west or the hills around Ibb and Ta’iz to the south may have been there since the dawn of agriculture, cultivated by generation after generation of Yemeni farmers. The dense vegetation of the valleys suggests the whim of a playful god who, weary of the relentless beige of Arabian rock and sand, tossed a thick emerald quilt over Yemen’s countryside, creating a fertile layer that has fed the Yemeni people for generations.

Noah would find the most familiar territory in the country’s remotest places, such as the island of Soqotra, located 220 miles off Yemen’s eastern coast. On Soqotra, there are few roads and fewer electric lights. The dominant structures are not the crumbling stone buildings (which blend so completely into the hillsides that you don’t see them until you trip over a small child running out of one) but its fanciful dragon’s blood trees, their tall, thousand-year-old trunks erupting into such a wild tangle of branches that they resemble a forest of umbrellas blown upward by the wind.

Many Soqotri people still live in caves, where they boil tea over fires in a corner to serve with goat milk still warm from their animals. Their dining rooms are thin woven mats spread outside their doors, where they eat fish stew with chewy flatbread under salty night skies. There are people on Soqotra who have no idea what happened on September 11, 2001, in America. There are no radio stations, and almost no one can read. Everything they know they have heard from neighbors, imams, or the occasional foreign aid worker. Britney Spears does not exist here. Hollywood is meaningless. Ice cream would not survive—there is almost no refrigeration.

Many of Yemen’s mainland villages feel just as remote, tucked along a mountain ridge or at the edge of a stretch of desert. These villages get their news from state-controlled television or from the mosque. Only the elite would pick up a newspaper or read a book. But what use is news of the outside world to these people? Will it help their crops to grow? Will it keep their goats free from disease? Will it bring them closer to God? No? Well, then.

Yemen has not only kept herself looking much the same as she did in Noah’s time, but she also wears the same perfume she did when she was young. Cruising at a lower altitude, Noah would smell frankincense, the fragrant resin that put Yemen on the map for traders four thousand years ago and is still burned as incense; the acrid sweat of laboring men and rayon-wrapped women; the purple-and-white jasmine flowers that proliferate in its lush lowlands; and the smoke of wood fires warming bread ovens. In her cities, these odors mingle with the smell of frying beans and jalapeños, fenugreek-flavored meat stews, tobacco smoke, and roasted lamb, while the countryside is fragrant with overtones of manure and ripening bananas, dates, and mangoes.

Following those scents earthward, Noah would soon glimpse clusters of boxy brown houses, their roofs strewn with airing carpets and drying laundry. Through the maze of streets hurry men on their way to mosque, women selling flat disks of bread, and children chasing a ball.

Sana’a is one of the oldest cities in the Arabian Peninsula—and in the world. Built at least 2,500 years ago, it was once home to Sabean kings and Himyarite rulers.

Islam arrived in the seventh century ad, rearranging the face of the city. Many of the buildings erected during the time of the Prophet Mohammed are still standing, though crumbling a bit around the edges. The Great Mosque of Sana’a was built under the instructions of the Prophet himself, according to local legend. It is not only the biggest but the most famous mosque in the Old City (Sana’a al-Qadeema). It contains a large library and a host of ancient manuscripts.

More than a hundred other mosques now populate the Old City, a fact that is particularly evident during the calls to prayer. No matter where you stand, you feel as if you are directly underneath a mosque loudspeaker. The muezzins drown out conversations and make it impossible to listen to music. Which of course is the point. Prayer is the only appropriate activity at these times. When Allah’s messengers talk, you should be listening.

No modern buildings mar the ancient aesthetic of the Old City, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984; it probably looks much the same as it did thousands of years ago. Noah would definitely recognize it.

This is Yemen yesterday, this is Yemen today.

YET THERE ARE
unmistakable signs of change, too. The city roofs are now dotted with satellite dishes. Billboards advertising GIRL brand ghee, the Islamic Bank of Yemen, cardamom and cinnamon toffees, and the fabulousness of President Ali Abdullah Saleh deface the sides of buildings. Women can be seen walking to jobs in government ministries. Men sport pinstriped Western suits or polo shirts. Brides march down the aisle to Celine Dion. A few silver Porsches can be spotted maneuvering down congested, Chinese-built roads. Even remote rural villages are now knee-high in modern detritus—plastic bags, candy wrappers, and soda cans.

And if Noah were zooming by in June 2006 and looked very, very closely, he might have seen me, clinging to the edge of a building in the center of Sana’a, terrified, exhausted, but bursting with wild hopes for changes of my own.

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
8.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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