First Person: Inside Yemen, with alumnus author Joshua Maricich ’03
Monday, Apr 18, 2011
I wasn’t ready to be kicked out of Yemen.
But on the morning of March 14, 2011, my bedroom door was thrown open violently. I woke, confused, and squinted through sleep-deprived eyes at several armed men staring down upon me in my bed. “Get dressed,” one ordered in Arabic. They escorted me and my flat mates, three Western journalists, to immigration where they confiscated our mobile phones and passports. After several hours of detention, the officer in charge drove us to Sana’a International Airport and we were told to board a plane to “anywhere but Yemen.”
I’m often asked how an American 20-something ended up in Yemen, an ultra-conservative and allegedly anti-American country best known for the bombing of a U.S. battleship, tribal kidnappings, child brides and the exportation of incendiary underwear. My unlikely road to Yemen actually began at Whitman. I was studying anthropology, and the college sponsored a grant for me to accompany anthropology professor Gary Rollefson to Jordan as a research assistant. It was 2002, just eight months after the September 11 attacks, and tensions were high between the West and the Arab world. Friends and family warned me not to go. However, in Jordan, I was overwhelmed by the Hashemite hospitality, and returned to the United States determined to bridge the vast cultural divide.
Joshua Maricich in Yemen
After graduating from Whitman, I attended Middlebury College’s intensive Arabic course and spent a summer memorizing a confusing squiggly alphabet and learning how to produce deeply guttural sounds I hadn’t previously known existed. I couldn't wait to return to the Arab world and employ my new language skills, and Julia Ireland, assistant professor of philosophy, led me through the Fulbright application process. I received a fellowship, and spent 2005-2006 in Jordan continuing my study of Arabic. It was in Amman that I got my first taste of Yemen, literally.
I was introduced to a Yemeni restaurant outside of the University of Jordan and became hopelessly addicted to salta, the traditional dish of highland Yemen, a hearty concoction of ground beef and vegetables served boiling in black pots made of hardened clay. The Yemeni waiters waxed poetically about their country, the ancient land of Queen Sheba and the setting for some of the romantic tales from “1001 Nights.” Yemen, they told me, had once been called the Arabia Felix, blessed Arabia, by the Romans on account of the wealth derived from its location on the ancient caravan routes.
Today, Yemen has fallen on difficult times. It is the poorest country in the Arab world, and nearly half of the population of 24 million lives off less than $2 a day. Yemen is the homeland of Osama bin Laden’s father, and the country is often accused of being a haven for al Qaeda militants. In 2000, the U.S.S. Cole was bombed off of the southern port city of Aden, and al Qaeda training camps operated in remote rural areas not under the control of the central government.
Again, I was warned not to go, but I knew from my experience in Jordan that headlines can be misleading. After the Fulbright fellowship ended, I made the move to Yemen. For the past four years, this forgotten corner of Arabia has been my home. During my time in the country as Arabic language student, writer, photographer, professional basketball player and co-founder of the Yemen Adventure Club, an NGO that promotes development through adventure sports, I have had the rare opportunity to travel throughout Yemen.
It is a complicated country steeped in history and contradiction. The Yemenis are beyond a doubt the most hospitable people that I have ever encountered. Every day I was bombarded with calls of “Welcome Yemen,” and invited to share countless cups of tea. However, during my time in the country the American Embassy was attacked twice, and two plots against the U.S. originated here. The CIA has recently appraised Yemen as “the most significant threat to American security,” and with high unemployment and dwindling resources the future of the country is grim. Analysts warn that the country could become “the next Afghanistan.”
This January, the scent of jasmine unexpectedly swept south from Tunisia to isolated Yemen, and the people have taken to the streets calling for the immediate ouster of a president who has been in power longer than I have been alive.
I watched as the opposition movement grew from a few dozen college students to thundering crowds a hundred thousand strong. As the protests intensified, they sometimes turned violent. Several times, I tip-toed over young men gasping for breath after being tear gassed and visited makeshift hospitals where surgeons treated gunshot wounds in unarmed protesters.
Tensions continued to escalate in February and March, and my flatmates’ coverage of the government's violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters was appearing regularly in the international news. Several of my photographs appeared in major media outlets. So, it was not surprising when we were rounded up and deported, but as I waited in the airport to board a plane to Ethiopia, I harbored a horrible feeling that the situation was going to get worse and that the Yemeni government didn’t want the world to see.
Tragically, four days after our deportation, I sat in Addis Ababa reading the horrific headlines. Snipers linked to the Yemeni government had opened fire, killing 52 unarmed protesters and wounding hundreds of others in the streets of the capital after they had completed Friday prayer.
One month has passed and the Yemeni revolution is ongoing. The country’s obstinate president remains in power and dozens more have died. Americans should be watching closely, because the outcome directly affects our security, and a failed Yemeni state will greatly threaten the stability of the Middle East region.
I write this from Cairo where I wait trying to obtain another visa, because in this historic moment I don’t want to be anywhere but Yemen.
About the author:
Joshua Maricich ’03 graduated from Whitman with honors in anthropology. His first book, “Within These Ancient Walls,” is about the Old City of Sana’a and will be published shortly. You can view his blog at http://15yemenroad.tumblr.com or contact him at email@example.com.