The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (5 page)

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
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Still, to be careful, I told him I had a boyfriend in the States, as a kind of insurance policy against any possible advances. It wasn’t a lie; I did leave behind a romance. But it was complicated, like everything in New York.

Theo and I left Sabri to his work and walked through Tahrir Square, the large plaza at the heart of Sana’a, to the walled Old City, weaving our way to his apartment.

As we walked, emaciated cats and children darted across our path. The streets were so narrow that if I stretched out my arms I could touch rough stone on either side. An earthy, damp smell wafted up from the ground. We passed men asleep in wheelbarrows, their legs dangling over the sides.

I was overwhelmed by the city’s architectural beauty. I never could have dreamed up the edible-looking buildings. I wanted to take a bite out of their walls. It is almost impossible to see into the boxy tower houses; they have few windows on the lower floors, to keep men from spying the women within. The upper floors are adorned with elaborate stained glass windows often referred to as
(although I was later informed that the word
originally referred only to alabaster windows, which were used to soften the sun’s rays and keep the interiors cool). I had never seen a lovelier city.

I quickly realized that a map would be utterly useless. Even as I followed Theo to his house, I knew I would not be able to find my way back easily. He had told me that there were no addresses in Yemen, and he was serious. The Old City is a labyrinth of seemingly unnamed streets and addressless buildings. While each neighborhood does have a name, I would eventually learn that even Sana’anis could rarely locate streets outside of their own neighborhood.

Tiny boys wearing tiny daggers in their belts ran after us as we passed, calling out, “Hello! I love you!” Theo spoke to a few of them in Arabic, and they laughed and scattered. A man in a white robe passed us carrying an enormous television on his shoulder.

Little girls were running around in pink satin princess dresses with puffy short sleeves. When I asked Theo if they were dressed this way for the holy day, he said, “They are dressed that way because they are princesses of the dust.”

Theo’s apartment, located at the top of a gingerbread building, was magnificent. We walked up a dozen flights of uneven stone steps—there is not a uniform set of stairs in the entire country—to a large metal door with three locks. Inside was a warren of rooms, including a large, airy
filled with cushions and illuminated by a half dozen
. The word
literally means “a room with a view” and is usually the top floor of a Yemeni house. I was interested to learn that the word comes from the same root as an Arabic word for “vagina.” In this room nearly all social activity takes place, from meals to
chews. Theo had the top floor of his building and thus the only apartment with a true

We settled there, on deep blue cushions, to talk about my class and finalize the plan for my first day. This had the effect of making me feel simultaneously more at ease and more apprehensive. “They will love you,” he’d say. “Don’t worry.” And then a moment later he would add, “But you cannot show them any weakness. You cannot show them a flaw, or they will become completely disillusioned and lose faith in you.”

After a few cups of tea, we climbed to his roof so I could take photographs before dark. The roofs around us were draped with carpets airing in the sun. I leaned over the walls, trying fruitlessly to see in the windows of other buildings. I was hoping to spot that elusive species, womankind. Already I missed them so much.

As evening fell, the stained glass windows in these buildings lighted up like gems, glowing from lamplight within and splashing color into the night. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I felt as though I had caught sight of an extraordinary woman and was spellbound by the details of her face.

“Allaaaaaaahu Akbar!”
a male voice suddenly blared through the speakers, which sounded as if they were set in Theo’s windowsills. The sound jolted me, although I’d heard the call to prayer at least once before, that afternoon. And then Theo tossed me out of the nest.

“You haven’t truly arrived until you’ve gotten lost in the Old City,” Theo said. “So go, get lost.”

Now, as independent a traveler as I am—I have nearly always traveled alone, usually without any concrete plans—I came very close to begging him to come with me. I had no idea how to find my way around this medieval city. It was getting dark. I was tired. I didn’t speak Arabic. I was a little frightened. But hadn’t I battled scorpions in the wilds of Costa Rica and prevailed? Hadn’t I survived fainting in a San José brothel? Hadn’t I driven a van full of theater sets over mountain passes in Montana during a blizzard? Hadn’t I once arrived in Ireland with only $10 in my pocket and made it last two weeks? Surely I could handle a walk through an unfamiliar town. So I took a breath, tightened the black scarf around my hair, and headed out to take my first solitary steps through Sana’a.

I remained apprehensive as I headed up the alley toward the
, having no idea where I was going. A clutch of black ghosts drifted by, their curious eyes following me. I imagined I could hear them whispering, “Who is that?”

“I don’t know, but she obviously doesn’t belong here. Her
is tied all wrong!”

As they brushed past me, I caught a whiff of musky incense rising off of their clothing. A man hurried by carrying a plastic bag of tomatoes and dragging a boy by the hand. Though I kept my eyes cast toward the ground, everyone I passed stared at me as though I were an escaped zoo animal. A Western, bare-faced, blue-eyed ocelot.

As soon as I had turned a corner, a small girl called out to me in English, “Hello, Bostonian!” and I laughed, feeling a little insulted. I may have been born in Boston, but I am a New Yorker to my bones. The laughter loosened the knot of fear in my chest. Another little girl in a tattered green taffeta dress followed me, saying, “What’s yer name, what’s yer name?” But when I finally answered her, she turned mute and ran away.

I quickened my pace, wanting to find the markets before it got too dark. But I was distracted by a flash of green on my right. I stopped and retraced my steps. A window was cut into the stone wall on the right side of the street. I stood on tiptoe to look through, into—a secret garden! Behind the wall was a lush oasis of palm trees and unidentifiable green crops that filled an area the size of several city blocks. Green! Bright, shiny green! Elated by the sight of something photosynthesizing in the midst of all of the urban brown, I carried on.

Emerging from a series of twisting alleys, I found myself in a wide plaza in front of a mosque. To the left was a tiny storefront restaurant with outside tables, where several men sat drinking tea from glass cups. Across from the mosque was a pharmacy, busy with both male and female customers. To the right were more gingerbread houses. A herd of mangy-looking goats trotted by me, followed by a boy with a stick and the faint scent of garbage. Children pushed wheelbarrows piled so high with produce they could not see where they were going.

I wasn’t sure which way to turn, but a steady stream of people seemed to be heading down a street to the right, so I joined the flow.

Several men called out to me,
“Sadeeqa! Sadeeqa!
I love you!” But the women did not speak. They just followed me with their dark eyes, the only exposed part of their bodies.

At several points in my journey, I attracted a retinue of children, most of whom seemed to be completely unattended by adults. The girls were still in their fancy dresses, although many of them were smeared with dirt, while the boys wore suit jackets over their
and curved Yemeni daggers called
. They trotted after me, asking my name and where I came from, crying,
“Soma! Soura!”
I didn’t learn until days later that
was Arabic for “photograph.” They wanted me to take their picture.

At last, I entered the maze of shops that made up the
. There are several different kinds of
, arranged by type of merchandise. Handmade jewelry is sold in the streets of the Silver Souq; cloves, cardamom, and cumin are found in the Spice Souq; and
are found in the—you guessed it—Jambiya Souq. There are also sections devoted entirely to woven shawls (mostly from Kashmir), livestock,
, and coffee.

The shops were mostly tiny storefronts, with shelves behind the counters where men reclined on cushions with cheekfuls of
. Some called out to me, gesturing to their wares, while others just chewed and stared. I didn’t stop. This was reconnaissance work, not shopping.

The scents of cardamom and coriander overwhelmed the spice market. Piles of orange and yellow powder were teased into perfect pyramids that sat on tarps spread on the ground. How is it that they could make these perfectly uniform towers of spices, yet not create an even set of stairs? Another Yemeni mystery.

Raisins in an astonishing array of sizes and colors—green, yellow, black, blue, chartreuse—were also arranged in careful pyramids, next to bins of red pistachios, almonds, and cashews. Entire stalls were devoted to dates. Big, gluey, warm globs of dates under heating lamps. I’d never seen so many dates, or such

I walked on, past rows and rows of
. There were tiny
the length of my hand and giant ones as long as my thigh. They were made from silver, steel, wood, and rhinoceros horn. (It is officially illegal to sell rhinoceros-horn
, but that doesn’t stop the traders in Old Sana’a.) The
sellers were particularly keen to get my attention, waving me over to their stalls. I smiled but kept walking.

From a distance, even in the urban areas, it appeared as though everyone was dressed alike. The women were draped in black from head to toe, and the men in white. This was a world before color, before fashion, before the rise of the individual. Before God was declared deceased. The homogeneity of dress obscured the devastating poverty of most of Yemen’s people. You could not tell a person’s class or income bracket until you got close enough to see the embroidery along the wrists and collar of a woman’s black
or the engraving on the
dangling from a man’s embroidered belt. Yemenis, of course, can size each other up in an instant, discerning by a few telling details a person’s tribe, class, and level of devoutness. There are ways to tie a head scarf, for example, that indicate an especially pious nature, and a man demonstrates his wealth and prestige by flaunting a pricey rhinoceros-horn-handled

The men looked so cool and comfortable—so much more comfortable than the women, swathed in their dark polyester. I wanted to trade outfits with them. I liked the daggers and their pretty sheaths. When I had asked Sabri, earlier in the afternoon, why he didn’t wear a dagger, he said, “You are my dagger.” And laughed. I had no idea what he meant. Only weeks later would his comment make sense, when I learned how men appraised each other by the kind of dagger they wore. A cheap wooden-handled
suggested a lowly social position, whereas a fancy ivory-handled
conveyed the opposite. Strutting about town in the company of a Western woman, Sabri had implied, was another indicator of status. Only the most elite Yemenis spoke English and could therefore conduct business and socialize with foreigners.

were full of shops flaunting brightly colored polyester prom dresses—lacy red floor-length confections, low-cut green satins, and flouncy pink ball gowns. This piqued my interest. I wondered if it were possible that women wore these scanty, frothy frocks under their black
. And where did they
decked out like that? I had to find out!

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
8.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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