When we arrived in Yemen, the sun was hot, the view was amazing.
White tall buildings surrounded by bare red wild mountains. From the minarets prayers were being sung. We had entered the Arabian world and I was a little scared.
What about the covered women? What about my blond hair and their perception of me being a whore? How should I behave in this strange world? I covered my body from tip to top and entered the dinghy. It was early afternoon, we needed Yemeni money and set out for the search. The streets were empty except for a few men sitting on the sidewalks. They fell silent as I passed their way. They stared at me with amazement and I didn't dare to look back. What were they thinking? How should I respond? We walk the streets and I?m the only girl in them. Sudden silence envelops my way, eyes follow my every move, I don't know what to do with mine. I try to avoid their stare but every single eye I pass is looking at me. I?m the town's blinking target. Normally I would smile at those eyes. My smile produces miracles. But here, in this culture, may I smile? I feel like I don't even have the right to be. My discomfort grows, my body becomes a stranger, I lose confidence, my power is drained through those peering eyes.
Then I see a woman, she's covered in black thin fabric. Only a thin slit shows her eyes, she's even wearing black gloves. I pass her. I stare at her, she stares back. What does she think, about me, about herself, about what I see, about what she sees when she looks at me? I walk on. A car is filled with women, the car stops, the windows are open, 5 or 6 pair of veiled women look at me, I see only the eyes, nothing transpires from the black cloth, only the intensity of their staring. I smile at them and nod a greeting. Are they smiling back? Or not? I can't see any reaction. I smile, but I can't know what I?m smiling at, maybe I?m smiling into angry eyes, maybe I?m smiling into insulting thoughts, maybe I?m smiling into disrespect, or disgust. But maybe not, maybe I?m smiling to smiles, maybe I?m smiling into warmth, and curiosity. I can't see, I can't know. I feel so very lonely.
I?m holding Hakan's hand. For support, for protection, for energy. I feel so vulnerable. We eat something in a little street cafe. I feel awful. I?m holding for dear life onto Hakan?s body. Hakan?s trying to let go of my hand as we pass men playing cards or dominos and falling silent as we pass. My hart sinks. The next morning I don't want to go ashore, my body is screaming, adrenaline is pumping into my veins, no no, not into this hell. I end up crying, emptying my soul into Hakan's ears. '' If I am to go ashore, you must hold my hand.'' I tell him. '' But I?m bothered'' he answers ''this is a conservative place, people don't hold onto women?s hands. I don't like their eyes on me.'' I cry even harder now. He can't take the stares? What about me? And the attention my presence gathers? In between sobs I tell him how I feel, how his letting go of my hand breaks the little strength I have left, how I need him to take just a little of the discomfort from my shoulders onto his, how I need a few of the stares diverted to our hands, to his person. How I need his hand, his energy, his support. He understands, he'll hold my hand, he'll take the stares, share the burden of being a girl, here, in a man's land.
So I cover up again and go to the town. Slowly I get used to being the only girl with a face in town. Slowly my eyes straighten up and I can look at people, smile at them even. We are invited by locals to drink tea with them, I?m sitting at a table with all these men, I drink many cups of tea and I look at life evolve around me. Everybody is chewing qat, green leaves from a bush or a tree. People chew and then collect the leaves into one of their jaws until it bulges close to explosion. It is a mild stimulant although the whole country drops to a standstill after lunch to indulge in the omnipresent green leaf. We?ll try it as well... won't we?
So Hakan buys with the help of one of our new friends one fix of qat. They explain us how it's done, and I look at Hakan?s first try. He turns red then runs to a corner of the street and spits it all out to the hilarious howls of our friends. ??No spitting, you should keep it into your jaw.'' Hakan complains about the difficulty of the task. They tell me to try as well. Low profile I put some leaves into my mouth and chew. It has the taste of tree leaves, not so good, quite bitter, but if they say the effect is good.... I?ll chew. We?re sitting on a very long table in a street downtown. We chew and drink tea. The passers by seem to like that we're chewing qat. Some stop to greet us, others offer us more qat leaves or welcome us to Yemen. We drink a lot of very sweet tea. Slowly I feel my tongue getting loose, my body less conscious. We laugh and giggle through the afternoon. I watch the people in the street, all traditionally dressed, I feel a little as if on a film-set of some Arabian flick. They wear dresses or skirts with huge curved knifes stuck into large gold embroidered belts. They wear turbans in all sorts of ways and often have a blanket folded neatly over one shoulder. I feel good. This is a good day. Some young men stare at me as if I was a TV screen, others trip while walking, some stop in shock when they see me then continue as if nothing happened, but the closer I look the more I notice that they stare because they are not used to see women around and not because they think it is a bad thing, filthy or scandalous. They?re shocked at what their eyes tell them and then rather happy when they understand what they see. Sitting there among them and watching the others stroll by I start to understand how to handle this huge hormonal unbalance. They don't want to kill me, they don't want to wrong me, they don't want to harm me. They look with curiosity, children will point at me. All will have a double take but being at ease myself now I can see and feel there is no negative energy involved in the whole process. I feel relieved. I have after all the right to exist here...
Now that I?m more at ease I start looking around. There?s a clothes shop, the women clothes are extremely sexy, pornographic sometimes and complicated, with sequence and glitter, frills and lace. The neckline often plunges to unthinkable depths, surely leaving nipples visible or boobs popping out. Skirts so short they look like belts. Stiletto shoes I can't believe anyone can walk in. One shop after the other sells these babe clothes and all you see in the street are black mysterious shadows with women living under them. I look at their eyes and they are heavily made up, what are they wearing under those veils? I look at a narrowly veiled one, her hips swing snakelike down the street. She exhales femininity, click click click goes her heels, she looks at me, he eyes catlike almond-shaped pause on Hakan, she slows down looks away and click click click goes on, her hips luxuriously undulating. Are her tits popping out of her silver glittery top?
So, let's say you're a man. A Yemeni man. You?re what, 43 years old. In all these years you've seen, in the flesh, maybe, 4 or 5 women. One is your mother, two your sister, 3 is your wife and 4 your daughter. 5 is either your second daughter, second wife or your grandmother. For the rest, women for you are black shadows with piercing eyes and mysteries who will keep you awake burning with curiosity for hours, weeks and years. You?d see the evening dresses in the shop windows, the whorewares in the markets, you'd smell their sweet perfume in the streets and hear their clicking heels. Because don't think that behind those veils the women disappear, oh no, I?ve observed them. And women they are. Calling to be seen, moving to be yearned for, walking to be desired. Under their veils they seem to be giving free flight to their sex-appeal, exacerbating the whole thing to balance out their being hidden all their lives. And you're that man. How do you live these frustrations? How do you live with those women you know nothing about?
To me, an infidel unveiled woman, there is so much mystery that I can't give you an opinion, I can give you thoughts but they'll have no value as I know nothing of what goes on in either women?s or men's heads on the subject. All I can say is that one day I went back to Mardek and there was a girl-school on a daytrip. Fifty or sixty girls dressed in the thin black veils. They saw me and something clicked in their minds. They assaulted me like a mob, touching me, asking my name, wanting their picture taken with me, they touched my hair, caressed my skin, told me they loved me, and wanted my signature. I felt like a new pop star and distributed autographs and our website address. They hurled me around for half an hour until Hakan called me into the dinghy, as a well behaved wife I parted from them, my head spinning with questions and a world of new mysteries.