My life has taken a number of unexpected turns since I moved to Yemen last year, but I never expected it to lead me to a Brooks Brothers in downtown Washington, DC. But there I was two weeks ago, picking up an umbrella for one of my neighbors in Sanaa’s old city.
For whatever reason, my neighbor Hussein, an area elder and former world-class ping-pong player, took an almost immediate liking to me. Within months of my arrival in the Yemeni capital, the 60-something father of 10 had me calling him uncle, rarely allowing me to pass by without summoning me by enthusiastically screaming “Texas” – an odd choice for a nickname, since I’ve never set foot in the state.
He also took a liking to my black and white-checkered Brooks Brothers umbrella. Whether due to the memory of the draconian laws of the long-overthrown Imamate, which restricted umbrella use to the upper echelons of Yemeni society, or a genuine admiration for classic American design, he developed an odd fixation with it. Having spent a few afternoons as a guest in his home, I couldn't refuse his request that I pick him up an umbrella like mine during my brief trip back to the United States last month.
It was only one of a string of things, from Aspirin to iPhones, I’ve been asked by Yemeni friends and neighbors to transport back to Sanaa. Neighborhood kids have grown to anticipate my returns from abroad, loitering by my door for my eventual appearance with a bag of candy or a box of sweets. As I passed out desserts I picked up from a famous Egyptian bakery during my lengthy layover in Cairo, I felt like some odd derivative of Santa Claus – a diminutive Italian-American who falls from the sky to deliver sweets during the last days of Ramadan.
As I devoured baklava and basbousa with my neighbors, I distributed the motley assortment of specific items they had requested. I finally got a bottle of baby aspirin to the older man with a heart condition who lives across the alley from me.
I also managed to get whitening strips to neighborhood teenagers, who have grown increasingly self-conscious about their teeth as they approach marrying age – qat, the chewing of which is a favorite pastime of male Yemenis, discolors their teeth.
It took a great deal of effort to rebuff their efforts to pay me back, although I’m sure I’ll be milking free dinners from the gift giving spree for months. (I’ll admit, though, that I did make my driver give me $200 dollars for the iPhone I picked up for him, at his request.)
It often seems like conflict zones such as Yemen become merely places where violence happens, not where millions of people live. The humanity of people living there often seems forgotten.
But as I gently grabbed my new iPad back from the crumb-covered hands of neighborhood children admiring its “Call to Prayer” app, impressive even to non-Muslims, and headed out into the night to track down my charmingly eccentric, Brooks Brothers umbrella-loving adopted uncle, the often dominant image of a violence-wracked Yemen “on the brink” was far from my mind. For a few moments, at least, it was hard to see Yemen as anything other than home.