Saturday, 7 April 2012

Curving the Arabian Peninsula: Dubai- Oman and Yemen

Dear all,

I have decided to synchronize all my Facebook posts from the beginning of my journey with this blog for those who don't have or hate Facebook (believe me, it is not that bad :). Thanks again for being part of this Middle East journey.

A warm greeting from extremely hospitable Middle East.


Helicopter over Dubai - great city where visionary leadership has lead to amazing success. In 1940s, they foresaw the end of pearl industry and proactively invested in trading. In 1960s, they foresaw the end of oil and proactively invested in tourism. Having next to no natural and cultural wonders, they built man-made wonders and make tourists pay big money for it. Outside my window is the tallest building in the world. Dubai boldly colonizes the oceans, aggressively pierces the cloud and greatly balances between modernization vs tradition. Although I have serious doubt on their human resources strategies and many other policies regarding foreign labor treatment, I do have respect for their economy vision. 


VERY proud of my visa to Yemen. This country is ranked top dangerous at the moment due to domestic unrest. No embassies in Europe would dare to issue tourist visa. However, I approached the consulate in Dubai and got it after 1 week. The people there blamed media for blackening their country: "Madam, it is safe in Yemen. The country is poor but the people are kind"


There is a dozen of cities in the world boast the nick name “White City” (think Begrade,Ostuni, Arequipa, Lisbon or Popayan…etc). Muscat (Oman) has never named itself as such, but this is the only true white city that is true to the title. Dedicating to the idea of living in harmony with the nature, people are only allowed to paint their buildings in one tone. Not so long time ago, each window still must have an arch (traditional Omani style). No building in the city can rise higher than 9 stories. In the heat up to 55 degree, hundreds of flower beds blossom on the sidewalk. Kids in Oman often do beach cleaning. Most people walk in their traditional clothes. For Oman, as a friend of mine put it: the country is not Westernized, it is modernized.


Moyed and his friend Ali pulled their car over to ask if I need any help (See how relax they sit?). They eventually drove me all the way far West to my appointment. It is absolutely SURREAL to be picked up at least 3 times/ day by the locals in a modern capital city. You often get picked up by genuine good people in a rural village or a dream, NOT in a super rich Gulf country where most cars are new and expensive, all buildings are clean and shining, and every meal may cost more than an eat-out in Europe). In Muscat (Oman), people are so friendly it almost does not feel real. Together with the beautiful white washed castle-like buildings, Muscat makes me feel I'm in a fairytale where the Good has triumphed the Evil. Modernization does not go hand in hand with dehumanization.


Happy Valentine day! Let’s meet Hamied, a security guard at the Government Office Building in Salalah (Oman). I talked with him in the guarding booth at his work place. 39 years old and a modest salary of 400 rials (app. $1000), he just married his second wife. With 5 children and 2 jealous women under the same roof, he told me the best way and the only way to manage this complex household is using sweet words (Hey, guys, listen!). I wondered if the first wife was chosen by his family (not very uncommon in Middle East), he said: “I chose both of them. And actually not me, it is my heart that chose them!” – “Are you a happy man?”- I asked – To which he replied “Happiness is not something you can pick it up on the road side. You have to create it!"

FYI: Muslims can marry up to 4 wives, and have to treat them equally. The reason for this is that in the past, wars and battles left many widows behind without proper right. The polygamy practice was to help women regain their social status while respecting their right of property, which is very liberal at the time when other religions did not have clear statements and rules regarding women’s social and business stands. It is of course getting outdated as times goes by. Interesting to know that Prophet Mohammed’s first wife is a widow and a trader who employed him, and even proposed marriage to him.


Khalid AlSiyabi is a very gentle man with kind face and modest way of talking. His car had a flat tire 3 days ago but he's still looking at it hopelessly. Not being able to fix his own car, but Khalid leads a department of 3000 colleagues in the Omani Ministry of Education. He is also the first Omani that conquered Mount Everest. Driving me thru the campus of Sultan Qaboos University, he pointed at groups of female students wearing black abaya and signed: "Look at those black creatures! Why they put on something so depressive? Nothing in Q'ran says a woman needs to wear those ugly things. I hate it. If you wear black you think black. Islam is not about the appearance, it is about what it is in your heart which goes straight to God. That's why I call imams TRANSLATORS of Q'ran. We have good and bad ones. The best way is to learn the language yourself.


I arrived in Yemen just 12 hours before the election. As a single female traveler, the airport police did not let me out until they could appoint a driver to take me to my friend’s house. Nobody left the airport untraceable.

The election has only one candidate, Mr Hadi, and it is interesting to see that this election aims at non-violence and a peaceful handover of power rather than genuine democracy. Many Yemeni activists told me that 5 other candidates were denied by the government. They were furious, of course.

However, looking at the turmoil that Yemen has been through, I can also see the reasons behind this seemingly undemocratic election. Being a very delicate and fragile country, Yemen needs stability and its people need to know that democracy goes steps by step. The country is like a patient after a big operation. He needs soft food and milk instead of steak.

I am happy for Yemen, that the country has moved one step away from dictatorship, being in a transition of moving forwards to a real democratic election in the near future. Democracy is a process, and it needs a lot of patience and dialogue.


I always thought Venice is my favorite city until i entered Babal Yemen - the giant gate of old Sanaa. The city is named after Sam- the son of Noah (Bible's Noah with the ark that saved his family from the great flood). With 3000 years of history, Sanaa competes with Damascus and Aleppo (Syria) to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. You can call Sanaa the world's first city with skyscrapers. Magnificent buildings of 5-8 stories lean on each other, creating a magical scene. I have been spending days deliberately getting myself lost in the labyrinth of old Sanaa, soaking in the mysterious beauty and the amazing hospitality of the locals, knowing that they see me as a sign of a better time ahead: tourists will eventually come back to Sanaa.


Open a new window now and google “Socotra” – one of the most beautiful islands I’ve been to. Socotri people are not only as hospitable as the mainland people but also very open. Seeing me approaching with a male tour guide, this girl in the picture stood up to her feet, came rushing to stop us on the road and started talking with both her hands and her body. She then wanted to send my tour guide back to the camp site so she could invite me home. Later on my tour guide told me he was actually……well,…scared. He has realized that with the revolution girls have turned somewhat less conservative. He has never seen someone that open before.

After months of traveling in the Middle East, I have learned that the black veil can easily mislead our opinions. Until now I still can't get used to the fact that all my Yemeni girl friends came to visit me like a big shadow devoid of identity. The moment they step inside, black abayas are taken off and they turn out to be very modern young people with perfect English. They know the lines of most MTV hits, they sometimes swear like a rapper, dance like Beyoncé and at the same time they can engage in serious debates and discussion of the most sensitive topics such as homosexuality and prostitution. The youth that started the revolution in Yemen may look like oppressed women according to Western perceptions, but they are exceptionally brave. Look at what they have achieved: A transition to new power without too much violence: the only peaceful Arab spring so far in the Gulf.


The first impression of anyone arriving to Yemen is probably the massive amount of weaponry carried by civilians. I imagine that children here probably sneer at the plastic “Made in China” toy guns. In a picnic area near Sanaa, I was shocked to see young boys of about 12 years old firing their AK-47s into the sky. They broadly smiled at me and furiously waved their hands with two fingers forming a V — sign for victory and peace.

 It is estimated that there are 60 million firearms owned by the population of 25 million. Children and women aside, each adult Yemeni man stocks up to 10 weapons at home or tucked into his belt. And that excludes the ornamental daggers that are part of the traditional Yemeni outfit. Quoting political science professor Ahmed al-Kibsi: “Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun.

However, despite the deeply-rooted gun culture, it is amazing to see what the Yemeni revolution has achieved so far, with a relatively low death toll (approximately 2000) compared to Syria (at the moment estimated at 30,000 and still rising).

One person who greatly contributed to the transition of power in Yemen is Jamal bin Omar — the UN envoy who orchestrated the negotiation process. One day after the election, I had the honor to meet up with him in a casual private gathering. Looking exhausted but calm, he agreed with me that Yemen stands now at the perfect position to transfer away from its gun culture, as security has to be the most important job for the new government.

In the same evening, I also talked with Cathy who is Jamal’s assistant. Overwhelmed with the very limited violence during the election, she told me that what is happening in Yemen is a miracle, given the country’s complex situation and its extreme gun culture: “There must be something very special in the makeup of the people here!” – Cathy explained to me – “They may scare the hell out of you with the loads of weapon they carry around, but they genuinely want peace!”

Strange but true: for Yemeni, weapons do not necessarily mean violence.

1 comment:

  1. It is great that you are experiencing Middle East with positive mind and yet not biased. I am sure you know about the pros and cons of each country as you travel thru the Arb Spring right now. Keep yourself and keep posting.


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