False Starts And Full Circles
My second trip to Yemen draws to a close. It’s been a little briefer this time, but it was good to experience a taste of life outside Sana’a, as well as track down some more vinyl gems. I had seen Adebe again – sadly, things seemed as uncertain as ever with regards to his return to Ethiopia. He seemed in an almost impossible position, and eventually he knew the only way of ascertaining for sure whether he was off the black list was to roll the dice and return. It was just a matter of when, even though the risk could never be completely eradicated.
One afternoon, driving back from the Old City, I decided to try the number of another man I’d been put in touch with after that first visit to the Ethiopian community centre. I had been set to meet him on my last visit, but he’d suffered what sounded like a fairly serious bout of food poisoning, which had landed him in hospital. He was now back in his shop, the promising sounding ‘Abyssinian Music Store’, and so we arranged to meet. He had a gregarious manner, and the slight air of a Dickensian rogue. Friendly as he was, I opted to take what he said with a pinch of salt.
He told me how he’d had some ‘shekla’ but it had all been broken. To prove his point he went to a back room and came out with a pile of Romanian folk records that looked like the victims of a vinyl vendetta! Not merely broken, but seemingly cut into pieces with a sharp blade, and scuffed beyond recognition. Who knows how they’d ended up in this state – he certainly offered no explanation. Still, he said he had some others at home, which he could let me see, and that he’d call me to arrange a time. All this seemed somewhat unlikely, and I decided that if I ended up with anything, it’d be a bonus.
To my surprise, his assistant Ahmed called me a couple of days later, saying they had some music that might be of interest. Hoping for a nice little pile of Ethiopian gems, I was sorely disappointed to be greeted by a selection of water damaged trash. Boney M, Abba, bad classical, and some more of that mysterious Romanian vinyl. Most things were in their wrong sleeves and almost all in abysmal condition. It was like record collecting purgatory.
I politely explained again what I was after. Ahmed seemed a little sheepish and said he’d let me know. A couple of other leads were offered, but these too came to nothing. I figured for Ethiopian music there no more nooks or crannies to search in.
I had one final nice afternoon with Salim, a pleasant stroll through the Old City, picking up some gifts for friends and family. It seemed that the search for Yemeni vinyl was also at an end. A couple of other sellers had come up with interesting selections, but the condition or price hadn’t made it worth it. The funniest of these was a notorious Jambiya (traditional curved knife) seller. He was from a well known family, and was also somewhat of a ‘fixer’ in the market place. When me and Salim went to visit him a couple of days earlier, he was sat at his shop, smoking, mobile phone in the other hand, receiving a series of petitioners who were asking him to solve their disputes. I was ushered into his store, and nervously sat next to him. He was imposing, and would fix me with a penetrating gaze from time to time, particularly when he was trying to emphasise a point.
His speciality was rhino horn handle Jambiyas, some of them over 400 years old – serious status symbol material! He kept on saying things like ‘I only let you hear these, because Salim ask’ and ‘Ah yes, the price is no problem just ask what you want. Relationship is relationship and business is business!’ In my mind, this frankly didn’t bode well.
The records were indeed excellent, though quite scuffed. Some had apparently been given to him by the singers themselves. I finished the pile and after some more small talk asked about the price. A lengthy, abstract conversation then took place between him and Salim. I looked up at the walls of the shop, covered by dozens of those expensive knives.
Eventually, the opening price was $50 per record. This was outrageous, especially considering the condition. We talked some more, and he said he’d normally charge $100, but was offering this discount because of Salim! I decided that negotiation was pointless, and that I’d get no where near the price I wanted. I thanked him for his time, and said I’d consider his kind offer. I was happy to leave the slightly charged atmosphere. My main concern was that Salim wouldn’t be put under some sort of obligation later, but he seemed unconcerned. This was in stark contrast to the relaxed experiences sifting through records elsewhere in the Old City. I think, at the end of day, he didn’t really want to sell his memorabilia. But it was a nice opportunity, I suppose, for a grandiose charade.
To conclude my time here, I decide to revisit chewing qat. I had tried some back in November, and had not been impressed. It’s bitter, numbing taste had made me want to retch after a while, and I had quickly swilled my mouth out and spat the caustic green mulch into the sink. There were two reasons I had decided to retry this experience. One, I wanted Salim to pick the qat for me – I hadn’t been convinced of the quality of the first batch and felt a local eye for the leaf would at least allow an objective assessment.
Secondly, it is because it is simply everywhere in this country. It determines the rhythm of the day, and seems to be the apex of an afternoon’s activity. A few days before I had gone to cash a cheque in the middle of the day, only to be told that the bank would reopen at 4pm, after everyone had gone out to buy their daily qat. Sure enough, when I returned most workers were sat behind their desks, idly chewing, sometimes furtively reaching for more leaves out of plastic bags. The fact that this seems so normal now is in a way what briefly shook me from my passive acceptance of this sight.
The only equivalent I could think of, would be people taking a break in the afternoon to go to the off license to refill their hip flask, which they’d then gently sip on for the rest of the afternoon. What was it about qat that so captures the local imagination, here, as well as in Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere on the East African coast?
I charge Salim with picking up a small bag for me from the market which he duly did after which I head for home. It should be said that qat is almost inherently a social ritual. People will chat and chew for hours with friends and family. It is an arbiter of disputes, and a settler of discussions. It is also, shockingly, a consumer of 80% of the country’s water, in a place where water is increasingly scarce. It potentially sows Yemen’s own self destruction, and in reality, in terms of the real cost, it would probably be cheaper to import than continue to grow here. In the surrounding fields of one of Yemen’s landmarks, Dara Haga, (the old king’s palace built astonishingly on top of a large rock), what had once been the preserve of fruit and vegetable plots, was now replaced entirely by qat trees.
After the first twenty minutes of chewing, I started to relax, and felt woozily mellow. I was in addition listening to some of the records I’d purchased, to see if the music would help me penetrate further into the national psyche. The leaves were certainly more pleasant this time round, though there was still a slightly cloying taste about it. After a bit longer, the mellowness shifted to some sort of clarity. I felt content – the music played, and I was happy to sit reading and pondering.
I friend of mine recently went to ‘a chew’, and found a recurring pain in her left shoulder had dissipated. A fellow female chewer said she used qat to counter the effect of period pains.
After another 20 mins, I suddenly felt sharp and alert. My mind raced briefly. A couple of worries from earlier in the day suddenly seemed irrelevant, or at least not worthy of current concern or consideration.
I thought back to my trip to Aden, and, whilst passing a row of run down shacks on the walk to Seera castle, I saw young boys of Somali or Ethiopian descent chewing with their families, waving lazily as I walked past. I wondered then if qat didn’t provide some sort of self medication against the harsh realities outside. It certainly seemed more symptom, than cause.
After a bit longer, I stopped and sat back, feeling at ease and relaxed. The music hadn’t sounded different during my chew, but certainly provided conducive company. A bit later, as I felt the cocoon lift, I felt a slight sadness as one does at the conclusion of a nice day out. An acknowledgement of a good experience, but a realisation that the activity concerned, with it’s adjacent endorphins, must now pass into memory.
Even as a brief recreation I could see it’s merits. As a way to bypass day to day troubles, it isn’t such a surprise that this mild amphetamine claims dominance as a respite from the day to day.
But it’s also true that it proves detrimental to a place with limited environmental resources, poor economic access and slender choices for the current generation. The lack of governmental will to provide alternatives is stark, and, what the future holds for Yemen is frankly unclear.
Some predict not the apocalypse provided from the local Al-Qaeda branch (AQAP), currently the source of so much of Yemen’s international attention, but eventually a complete absence of economically viable water sources, as well as the depletion of the country’s small oil reserves. This, apparently, could be imminent within the next five years.
If that happens, I wonder what the international response would be then? The Saudis would probably all but seal the border. AQAP would eventually shift their base of operations, after which the US and the UK would no longer be so anxious at what happens inside this already fractured country. Would we then all sit back and watch one of the oldest human settlments slowly grind to a halt, and become uninhabitable again as it perhaps was in pre-history?
Whatever the conclusion, qat will of course continue to grow, be sold and chewed day after day. It’s a far more lucrative crop than other foodstuffs. It’s also a social panacea that briefly makes the day go by and keeps troubles at bay, at least until tomorrow.