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Welcome to Marib ... Goodbye

 

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Welcome To Marib … Goodbye

 

 

 

It began -- as it always began; as he hoped it would end -- with the simple turn of the key in the Sana’a Mercedes Benz franchise, capital city of Yemen, as the German closed up shop for the day. The sun went down early at that time of year and if he had been one of the natives he would have said it was cold if he hadn't been used to dank, damp Hamburg instead of the gentle, mountain sunshine of the city of Shem, Noah's son, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.

Just outside the shop door, he stopped to buy Kamaran cigarettes and qat from the street vendor who did a thriving business there every Thursday weekend. Dressed in a dirty, second-hand sports jacket, futah which exposed his knobby knees and ankles, jambiyya , dusty sandals and head scarf, he already had a full cheek of the leaves bulging in his left cheek, perhaps as endorsement of his own product or just maybe because once you started it was harder to stop chewing than it was for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle or even for an ordinary Yemeni to find a job that left enough at the end of the day -- after he'd chewed of course -- to feed even one of his four permissible wives, never mind the resulting children.

Marhaba,” the vendor muttered – “Welcome” – as Dieter thumbed through the worn wad of riyals in his pocket to pay for the narcotic and absently passed a few bills to the one-legged beggar chewing nearby as zakat, or alms. Then, “Majnoon,” the shopkeeper added, as he always did when he thought the foreigner wasn’t listening. “Lunatic.” Only a fool would be walking down the street unarmed when he could have just as easily driven out of his own showroom in an armour-plated, bulletproofed car. Worse, in a country of seventeen million people and twice as many reported automatic weapons, the German was one of the few males over the age of twelve who had neither an AK-47 or Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder or at least a security detail to do the nasty work for him, like the few rich men who could afford his vehicles. With the economy the way it was, kidnapping foreigners – who were by definition rich – had grown to be a cottage industry for many of the tribes who used Sana’a as neutral ground to settle their differences, real or imagined, between each other or a central government which had only a tenuous hold on entire regions of the north, like Al-Jawf or Marib.

If that was how it began, it continued when he paused to light a cigarette, looking up and down the street with its cacophony of traffic, hole-in-the-wall shops, minarets and high-walled private residences; square stone buildings in drab tones of tan and grey. Six o’clock, dusk, the shops would be open well into the evening but many were shuttering up temporarily as the muezzin sent out calls to prayer from loudspeakers at the top of the minarets. The mosques and temples were perhaps the only buildings in the city, his own shop included, which didn’t have re-bar sticking up into the sky, the upper stories uncompleted, due to the “re-bar tax” which stipulated that building owners were exempt from tax until the property was finished. Some had been in this “unfinished” state for decades. There was dust everywhere

Raking his eyes up and down the street – ever vigilant; no, nothing yet -- he saw a dabbab (a cross between a cab and bus; a white, mini-van with black stripes, open side door, that stopped and picked up passengers and took them anywhere they wanted, so long as you didn’t mind sharing the ride with everyone else in the van) facing backwards against traffic in the middle of the road with the driver’s door open, four men sitting on road in a circle -- chewing, oblivious to the traffic, potential passengers and even the open sewage trickling away -- but again the German chose to walk. There was there was no point in hurrying home anyway. Unless one of the other bored businessmen popped over to drink contraband vodka in commiseration, he'd be alone tonight again anyway. Living in the foreigners' compound of a city like Sana'a was too numbing for a wife or children.

Never mind. Most of him was numb already anyway. He didn’t need the vodka for that. Slowly, there was no rush, they would come if – no, when, he insisted to himself – they would come and there was no point in trying to push it. Build it and they will come. Give them time and they would come. He knew it as well as he knew that if it wasn’t today that they’d come, he’d spend a sleepless night staring out the window listening to the traffic, his bed sheets twisted into submission, the Black Dog crouching in the corner of the room, waiting for him to move, lying at the foot of his bed, like a shadow, until he tried to get up. Then, it would growl and force him back to lassitude.

Drink enough vodka or chew enough qat and he might be fooled that it – The Black Dog -- had gone away, but after sobering up he’d find it had only been lurking, stalking him in the night. He went nowhere alone. The Black Dog was always by his side. He could feel its breath on his neck hairs. Smell it. The spoor was everywhere. Sucking the light out of him and wicking the moisture from his soul. Unyielding. All the vital fluid seeping from some invisible rent. Taunting over and over again: “You are worthless. Hollow. Beyond forgiveness and hope.” So, y es, they would come. He was a Westerner and this was Sana’a. It was only a matter of when. And waiting.

Languidly, the German continued his walk down the street, stopping here and there to buy vegetables from street stands, some bread from a bakery, a chicken already roasted on a spit. A boy with a switch was herding a flock of goats down the street. Through the bleating, he could make out the sound of faint gunfire. Give them time and they would come. Furtively, he ducked into a shoe repair shop, where the owner winked and for a large handful of riyals passed him a bottle of Moskavaya in the back, well out of sight. If today was another day they didn't come, he had to have something to keep the Black Dog at bay. For the unbeliever alcohol was allowed, but for the cobbler -- a Yemeni, and by custom if not actual law, all Yemeni must be Muslims -- forty lashes awaited discovery of his defiance of basic Sharia'a law.

It continued with him out on the street again, bottle safely tucked away. The dabbab had gone now, full of ten-riyal-paying customers. In traffic, children wandered in and out of the stalled cars, hawking bottles of water, packets of tissue and newspapers. Some of them were crippled. They’d either started here and hadn’t dodged a truck in time or been forced to work the traffic because there was nothing else they could physically do. Like day-labour corner. Across the street, a huge mob of men with spades and pickaxes waiting for fate to come by and pick them for a day’s work on a construction site; have shovel, will travel; unshaven, dishevelled; dirty; the men holding hands and laughing with each other. No use in worrying. Whether a man found work or not was entirely up to God’s will.

Yes, the beginning was as always, right up the minute, hamdu lillah , praise be to God, the German finally saw them. They had been driving the Land Cruiser for hours, careful to avoid contact with other tribes. Each had their own territory in the border areas, where they jealousy guarded their customs and traditions -- ruled by sheik, not President -- with as little contact with the central government and other tribes as possible. Invariably, conflicts arose, settled by gunfire, retribution, or arbitration between sheiks, but invading another tribe's area was virtually impossible; when everybody knew everybody else – nay, was married to their cousins – outsiders stuck out like a clean-shaven man on the street. If the imams and sheiks couldn't settle the disputes, the tribes took to the streets of Sana'a, the capital, neutral territory, controlled only – and marginally – by the government to settle their disputes with automatic weapon fire. A grenade could be bought in the market for 300 riyals, a machine gun for 25,000, mortars and tanks negotiable. But today they weren't here for blood vengeance. The target was the government, which had broken promises of a school for their village; the means to get back at them, the German.

***

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Welcome to Marib ... Goodbye

Welcome to Marib, Yemen: the land that Sheba forgot. Or at least most of the modern world, until Al Qaeda and its putative successors made it a tableau for terrorism, civil wars, kidnappings and death. It is here, in Yemen, where the Queen of Sheba came from; where Noah's son Shem settled after the Ark did, too; where Osama bin Laden's family originated; where the German called home, a man who had had no reason to live finally found one while searching for death. Goodbye.

  • ISBN: 9781370683086
  • Author: Darvin Babiuk
  • Published: 2016-11-06 21:50:09
  • Words: 6055
Welcome to Marib ... Goodbye Welcome to Marib ... Goodbye