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A Morning as an American in Yemen

New America Media, Feature, Shane Bauer Posted: Sep 03, 2008

SANA'A, Yemen -- Can I ask you a question? a woman inquires just after I overhear her asking another man where I'm from. To me, she looks like almost every other woman in Sana'a. Her long black abeya hangs loosely around her, rippling softly in the breeze that blows across the open field around us, and her face is masked by a black veil. All that is revealed are her hands and eyes, dramatically accented with eyeliner.

It's Friday, the Muslim holy day, and it's 7 a.m. The city is mostly sleeping as the sun casts its soft, early morning light against the brand new multi-million dollar French-designed President's Mosque a short distance away from us. Its six, crescent moon-tipped minarets jut toward the sky, which is still unmarred by the usual noontime dust. Gardens of corn, lettuce, and onions spread out from the holy building's south side. People are taking advantage of the cool morning hours to irrigate their plots or harvest vegetables to sell in the markets before the start of the holy month of Ramadan in two days.

The woman, who never offered her name, sets down the bundle of green onions that she's just collected from her garden plot and looks straight at me. "You have to promise that if I ask you, you won't get angry," she says. I recoil, not in anticipation of her question, but for the fact she is even speaking to me. Most Yemeni women won't board a bus if it means they have to sit next to a man, let alone speak to one they don't know.

"Ask me whatever you want," I say, trying to appear as confident as she, but unable to keep myself from nervously looking down to the ground to avoid eye contact.

"When will your country stop occupying Arab lands?" she asks, her voice calm and confident. Her question is rhetorical, but she lingers on it as though I might have an answer.

I of course do not, and she pines a while for explanations about why the United States is occupying Iraq and supporting the Israeli military. Once she is satisfied that she has gotten her point across, she asks her second question: "Why don't you convert to Islam?" I respectfully decline, thank her for her offer of a copy of the Quran, and assure her that I have a copy of my own that I will study.

As soon as she leaves, I sit along an irrigation ditch and resume watching a man who is skillfully guiding the flowing water into the garden plots by building and destroying tiny dams of dirt. Another man approaches from across the fields, dressed in traditional Sana'ani fashion. He is wearing a long white robe, a sports jacket, and a sheathed, curved dagger suspended in the front by a wide embroidered belt. He sits down next to me and starts asking questions about what I'm doing. There is a hint of suspicion in his voice, but it's one that I'm used to. Decades into U.S. involvement in the Middle East, it's not unusual for someone to question the motives of a white, Arabic-speaking American who carries a big camera.

But this man's suspicion wasn't civilian. He was mukhabaraat, an intelligence officer. As soon as I get up to leave, he gracefully guides me to a street corner where I am picked up for interrogation. As his commander drives me to his office, he assures me that everything will be finethey were afraid I was photographing a nearby military baseand that his questions are just a matter of procedure.

The nervousness in the Arab world about American espionage seems only to be increasing. Three years ago, while I was being detained by Yemen's political security apparatus for visiting the northern city of Sa'ada (which the government had closed off for journalists to cover up the war between it and a Zaydi Shia insurgency), one of the guards told me I should just be grateful that I wasn't in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. That time, my fixer ended up spending a month in an underground prison and was accused of working for the CIA. Another time, a basic traffic infringement (driving a motorcycle without proper plates) exploded into a national conspiracy, with articles splashing the front pages of Yemeni newspapers about a CIA agent with spy equipment (a camera and a cell phone) apprehended by political security. That drama spiraled so out of control that it eventually became the subject of a bogus UPI story published by the Washington Times.

This time, my interrogation is over quickly. Within three hours, I'm grabbing a soda just down the street from the station. As I cracked it open and take the first cool sip, the shop owner asked me where I am from. "The United States," I tell him.

"Bush has destroyed the world!" he says in a raised voice, shaking his head. "America used to be good, but now it's out of control."

The words roll off his tongue and I take them in like they are a part of regular conversation. I pay him for the soda and he offers me directions to where I need to go, his tone now warm and hospitable. "Head down that way and you'll catch the bus," he says. "But walk around a little bit first and take in the morning. The exercise will be good for you, and it's a beautiful day."

Shane Bauer is a freelance writer based in the Middle East and Africa

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