Friday, September 23, 2011

Sour Grapes in the Land of Bitter Lemon, 2001

Welcome to the Hotel Lavadhiotis, Cyprus.

Such a lovely place! The flight here was rather non-descript, lo and behold—there were no touts, hussies, taxi sheisters, hipsters, flipsters and finger poppin’ daddies waiting to pounce on me as I de-planed the plane. This must be the ‘low season’ as the airport is quite deserted here in Larnaka, Cyprus. The first building I saw as we touched down was a mosque located next to some salty marsh. Apparently, it is supposed to be the fourth most important Islamic religious site in the Middle East. It contains the tomb of the Prophet's (PBUH) Aunt Umm Haram who died here after falling off a mule on a journey. She was buried on the spot called Hala Sultan Tekkesi (tekke means Muslim shrine). This site has become something of a pilgrimage for Turkish citizens of northern Cyprus and other Muslims in the Levant.

I actually had to bug someone to give me a lift to downtown Larnaka as the cabbies were all too busy watching TV and drinking cups of (dare I say)—'Greek coffee'. The drive was in subdued light and I could barely make out the mosque which is set beside a salty marsh lake that was dotted with Pink Flamingos—the kind that Costco sells. I finally got to the Lavadhiotis Hotel, which was right downtown on a busy side street. It looked quite posh and a buxom bleach blonde receptionist with a husky voice greeted me—
Kal mare!” she said.
I answered—“No I’ve already eaten. Thank you
She replied—“No, that is a traditional Greek greeting”.
I said, “Oh. I thought that was fried squid ”.
Yanee, she was probably thinking—what a wanker! Her huge Ionian green eyes gazed deeply into mine and for a moment I was bewitched. Her husky voice broke the spell and she calmly told me that it was the 'low season' and it would be only 11 Cypriot pounds per night—so much for romantic notions as hard economy set in.
It really was the 'low season' so I got a break on the price and besides there was hardly anyone staying at the hotel. Hardly anyone here except for a Swedish guy who tormented us with a raucous imitation of Jellyroll Morton.  The Swede was constantly trying to learn how to play "Fly Me To The Moon" on the saxophone. Naturally, I sang the melody in a Mel Torme style (George eat your heart out!). 
There was a French couple with a rather precocious daughter who went around staring at everyone during the buffet breakfast. That was until I did the kid’s routine of “see food”—that usually breaks them up, especially with bananas and bran!

The 'rooms' here are really self-contained apartments with TV, balcony with Ikea chairs, a 4-burner stove top, fridge, sink, plus dishes and cupboards. I settled in and decided to go for a wee walk. Larnaka is known for its impressive promenade that stretches the length of a long sandy beach. The boulevard is lined with palm trees, tavernas, pubs, McDonalds, bistros and yes, even a little kiosk that sells Dairy Queen ice cream—How could they? The beach is quite wide and there must be a brisk trade in beach umbrellas, chaises lounges and melanomas during the peak months. The sun was waning so I headed over to some rocks to catch a bit of the sun. It felt nice on my face and I almost fell asleep but the neighbouring cats that were prowling amongst the breakwater rocks kept me awake.

Next day at breakfast

The ‘Continental breakfast’ at the hotel is quite substantial. For two Cypriot pounds you get a huge smorgasbord: Tang or a lemon drink (not bitter), a huge pot of tea or Nescrape, as much toast as you want, chocolate chip cookies, some kind of orange and peach conserve, blackened olives, corn flakes, hot boiled eggs, cheese and mortadella. Of course, I brought along my smallish jar of Marmite just to piss off the British patrons—“Sod off you lot and get your own jar!” There's was an Armenian Christian having brunch behind me—she must have snuck off on her parents. She is quite the beguiling babe: a statuesque olive-skinned beauty with long tresses of almond hair. She is chatting with some Greek boyfriend but she is carrying the conversation. She has an American or Canadian accent.

Earlier I went for a bracing walk along the Corniche against the wind but on the return portion the sun warmed my face and body. There were lots of Euro-eccentrics on the plage. Some old geyser was running along the beach in his native raiment— a g-string whilst others were doing their part for the Larnaka lunatic chapter of the Polar Bear Club. Blimey, but it wasn't the slightest bit warm, rather chilly actually—talk about shrinkage! It's incontheivable to believe that I would be wearing long pants, covered shoes, Columbia Safari jacket and a Mountain Equipment Coop Gore-Tex wind shell to keep out the biting wind—the shame was too much to bear. It felt like a spring day in the Canadian Rockies: the kind where you burn your face but freeze your arse off because of the cold wind howling off a nearby glacier which keeps you true to the season.
At any rate, there's lots of Turkish influences here and there must be Muslims still living in the area as I saw a sign for Ismail Mohamed—Exporter.

But, maybe they buggered off because the Turkish minority suffered so much at the hands of those Greek Cypriot gang's which was prior to the Turkish invasion in 1974. There's a huge mosque called—Imam Pasha's Mosque and it is presently undergoing renovations to prepare the minaret with huge ashlar blocks. God knows when they worship as I have not heard the call to prayer yet. However, I did hear church bells this morning that woke me up at 6:00am. Lots of interesting looking old buildings, arches and the old Sultan's Hammam (Turkish bath) has been turned into (of all things)—a youth hostel! I do not know if I could handle that lifestyle or way of travelling anymore by staying in a youth hostel—I have become too much of a softie and enjoy my creature comforts. Now I am just a frivolous raconteur, somewhat of a savant rather than the penniless vagabond of the 1980s and 1990s that most of you have come to love and cherish. During those halcyon years, I wouldn't have imagined staying anywhere posh so I suppose that is why I could travel on the cheap and for so long. "We live the life we choose, we'd fight and never lose those were the days, oh yes, those were the days—la, la, la"—ya, Lalaland. Anyway, the drugs were better back in those days so who remembers anything—right!

I wanna go home, oh how I wanna go home

Today I had the brilliant idea that I would head up to see the Turkish side of Cyprus—a much-debated point around these parts. First, I had to run a few errands then I ordered a 'service taxi' that would take me to Nicosia/Lefkosa for 11:00am. With a mad Ahab at the wheel, we roared off to the appointed site in a Dodge Caravan amidst lots of Greek curses, hand waving and other rude gesticulations by our driver which didn't seem to alleviate matters but he blew off sufficient steam. Nevertheless, all the passengers were a complete wreck by the time we got to our destination and individually we felt like throttling the driver. However, he did manage to take me to Checkpoint Charlie at Pafos Gate which was kind of him until I realised I owed him another 2 Cypriot pounds—rotten sod! And to further compound my agony, I found out that I had missed getting into the 'other side’ (the Turkish side that is) by a mere five minutes. No wonder the Gleek (plick) border guard had a smile on his face. He was probably just as happy that I wasn't going to give those damn Turks any business—HA! To say the least, I was just a tad pissed off with the Greek hotel hussy and the taxi driver as they must have known what time the border closed—it couldn't be that much of a secret could it? But then on further peregrinations, I realised—Why on earth would a Greek Cypriot want to go to the 'dark side' of northern Cyprus? The Greek Cypriots don't even recognise North Cyprus nor the Turkish Cypriots who our living there. Furthermore, the Greeks are probably not welcome there. This became even more evident because if you were to cross in this 'no-man's land' and get a Turkish stamp, you would therefore, not be allowed to re-enter back into the Greek side. The plot thickens—thus, you would be obliged (nay forced) to seek departure from a northern port back to the Turkish motherland. The Greek Cypriot maps don’t pull any punches either with bold letters stating—“AREA INACCESSIBLE BECAUSE OF THE TURKISH OCCUPATION”.

The Turkish side does their best to rub it in because upon arriving near the outskirts of Nicosia/Lefkosa, everyone who travels on the road north get a visual prompt that reminds you of where you are and in particular—where the Turks are. There is a mountain range that acts as a backdrop to the lovely city of Nicosia and on this mountain has been painted or carved out of rock a huge Turkish flag. Beside it in equally imposing white letters set against the grey rock face—KKTC (KUZEY KIBRIS TURK CUMHURIYETI) or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I smiled when I first saw this sign but this was frowned upon by the scowling taxi driver who saw me in his rear mirror—too bad he didn't see everyone else he just about hit on the road!

So there I was, stuck at the Greek/Turkish border—what could I do? I was barred from entry into the beloved homeland of Ataturk and that modern Turkish-Cypriot born first President of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—Rauf Denktash. Apparently. Denktash is the stick in the mud in recent negotiations between the Greek and Turkish communities who are trying to sort out the divided island. Apparently, the EU has told both parties to get their shit together and get this island problem settled or as a result, neither the Greek Cypriots nor the Turkish Cypriots will be accepted into the EU. This seems like a rather daunting task given the intransigence of Denktash’s position in spite of a mellowing from the mainland Turks.  Nevertheless, there was lots of propaganda that were promoting the atrocities that had been committed by those Turkish imperialist forces under Turkish President Ecevit. In particular, there were pictures of two martyrs to the cause—called the Deryneia Martyrs. Deryneia is a Greek Cypriot town that lies next to Famagusta on the Green Line that separates the Republic of Cyprus from Northern Cyprus. Tasos Isaak was part of a Greek Cypriot crowd of supporters who had gathered for the march for ‘unification’, which ultimately ended badly. In all the confusion and confrontation with the Turkish community, Tasos got separated from his mates and was set upon by a paramilitary group of Turkish nationals—none other than the Turkish variation of Nazis called—the “Grey Wolves". The 'Grey Wolves' beat the Greek guy into submission with iron bars and wooden beams right under the eyes of the Turkish police. Perhaps, this guy should have heeded a warning that American Tim Sawyer (who teaches in Stambool) told Mike Bowie and myself—"Don't get a Turk mad at you". Tall Tim (AKA ConstanTimople) should know about this as he had the boots put to him outside a Stambool bar by some young Turks a few years back.

This martyr madness didn’t end here. Three days later at Tasos Isaak’s funeral, a friend was so overcome with grief that he sought some sort of retribution for his friend’s untimely and unfortunate death. Solomos Solomou decided to outrun both the UN security forces and Greek Cypriot police to pass through the border, shimmy up a Turkish flagpole and try to take down the Turkish flag. What was the guy thinking—that the Turks would allow him to defile their ground and flag? He was dropped by five bullets from a dozen Turkish sharpshooters. What the heck did this guy expect? Moreover, did the other Greek Cypriots expect that the passionate Turks would allow their flag to be pulled down—unbelievable? And pray, what would you expect to happen if it was an American, Israeli, British flag or anybody's flag and right in front of their armed troops—geez, it's not shocking is it? OK, maybe this guy's a martyr but he's one stupid f*#%**g martyr if you ask me! All of these atrocities were captured on film or video for posterity and act as a rallying cry for the Greek Cypriots. I’m sure that the Turkish Cypriots have their own ‘dark stories’ to tell of their incursion at the hands of the Greek Cypriots.

Enough of this blood wrenching martyrdom, I was starting to get hungry. I sashayed past bombed out houses and hotels, shot out windows as most of the buildings were pock marked with bullet holes. Sandbags were propped up against walls and they looked like they weren’t going to be moved any day soon. I headed out through Pafos Gate, which isn’t a gate in the true sense but rather a huge thoroughfare into the UN sector. I skirted the battlements of the old city walls that demarcated the Turkish from the Greek side—the Green Line. These ramparts are quite stunning in architectural terms and afford the Turks an excellent view of the 'other side'. These are correctly referred to as –the “Venetian Ramparts” and they were originally built by the Venetians between 1567-1570 as an attempt to rebuff the Ottoman Turk invaders to Lefkosa. I saw a few lonely Turkish guys looking down from a chai stand high on the ramparts rather wistfully at the slender ladies in short skirts of Greek persuasion. These lads and their glances of longing reminded me of one of my Syrian workers at the site of Tel ‘Atij in northeastern Syria—Mohammed Ahmed. After work, Mohammed would get dressed up in his finest with sunglasses and peer from his nearby house over to our little encampment. He always looked like he was waiting for an invite from us in the hopes of sampling our ‘sundowners’. But, it was not to be. I figured that he just wanted to fit in with “the westerners” but he would never be able to and that’s what these Turkish lads reminded me of. They and Mohammed yearned for western liberalism and freedom but I am not sure that they could have handled it. What we in ‘the west’ take for granted as democracy is actually “quite intoxicating” as my good friend George Evashuk so rightly pointed out to me on numerous occasions.

Nevertheless, I was looking a little wistfully myself but I was walking behind said babes. I walked down a few side streets but there were signs that warned of “Absolutely No Photography”, as this was a UN safety corridor between the two factions. I kept walking with the intention of keeping as close as I could to the “Green Line”. I wanted to see how people lived and carried on under the oppression of a divided city. There was one stretch of buildings that looked like an old market souk with lots of little arches and arcades. These were mostly full of carpenter shops, ironmongery, balcony builders and upholstery shops. There were Greek blue and white flags at certain intersections that were manned by Greek forces. I continued on until I came upon a small group of tourists with cameras at the ready. I thought-AHA, now I can take some pictures. It was, in fact, the only lookout where you could take pictures.

The Greek army guy guarding the “Green Line” observation post looked like Nik Kypreos’ (the hockey player) brother except he had traded a hockey stick for an M-16. I climbed the steps that led to a sheltered platform that afforded me a view across no-man’s land. To be truthful, I don’t know what all the fuss was about regarding photos, as there was absolutely nothing worth photographing. All that’s there is dirty old discarded laundry that is strung up haphazardly, empty lots, deserted houses, shot out windows and some old mouldy sandbags propped up on the Turkish side. What could possibly be offensive about taking photos of a ghetto—there were no people to speak of? I suppose this is what Beirut must have looked like after the Israelis, Amal Militia, Palestinians, US, Syrians, and Phalange all took a turn bombing the shite out of the place. However, here, the Greeks have turned it into something of a national shrine with a renovated museum cum tourist information cum propaganda mongering centre. Also, the street that leads up to the gun post has been transformed into a boulevard lined with trees and tiny tavernas. There was quite a feeling of gaiety in spite of the severity of the situation. Naturally, I was famished and I sought sustenance of a Cypriot variety. As per usual, the Krauts and the Pommies were all getting pissed on cheap beer and a high cholesterol diet of soggy, deep fried fare. Whilst the French and the leather clad tres chic Italianos were trying to outshout each other in their own ‘special’ romance language. I opted for boring instant soup and some prehistoric bread, which could have caused personal harm if loaded into a bazooka. What was killing me was the music—oh, please release me! The taverna owners had gone out of their way to find the most annoying pap from the 1960s and 1970s! Maybe it was karioke but there was a cheap imitation of some Greek diva doing a poor take on Bette Midler's-—“From a distance…” track. Really, I wish I did hear this from a distance instead of right on top of me. And the band played on…”God is watching us.” and I thought of what my grandfather would have said—“…and Jesus wept…” To temper all this unleashed passion was a sign that I kept seeing everywhere on the Greek side—“Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world.” Funny, but I think the Israelis and the Palestinians might have something to say about that one. The song that finally drove me out of there was when some truck driving, drug taking, tobacco chewing, son of a gun started singing—
I wanna go home, I wanna go home…oh, how I wanna go home.”
I took that cue and started to head back to Larnaka.

I weaved around some of the street and came upon a disused mosque called Arablar Mosque. I poked my nose inside one of the shattered windows between the iron bars and the place was bereft of rugs, furniture except for a weathered old wooden minbar where the mullah would have led the faithful. Further along, I hit upon a street called Ippokratous which is some sort of taverna mall that was strictly for pedestrian traffic. It was kind of neat and intimate with nice coffee rooms and cosy little tables set up outside for late night of frivolity and enchantment. Too bad the place was deserted as it was in between mealtime. Nevertheless it was chock a block with taverna after taverna all set on cobblestone streets. In amongst all this were tiny little tourist shops selling everything from antiques, coins, maps, postcards and your usual bric-a-brac. At one point in the bowels of this food area I noticed that there were many cute Filipinos girls parading their stuff. I had been told that there were around 20,000 indentured slaves from Tamil Nadu and Filipinas who were ‘domestics’ but these girls were too dolled and beat up to be ‘domestics’. Further along I saw some neat postcards so I decided to buy some. It was a pokey little shop that was more a kiosk than a shop. There were tattered paintings and old posters with a thick layer of dust on them. I was busy talking to the Greek Cypriot stamp collector and his odd looking girlfriend who I thought looked Russian. It turned out that she was indeed Russian and that she teaches Russian in Nicosia.
Where are you from?” she asked me.
I’m from Canada.” I said proudly
Can I go to Canada?” she asked
Yes, but you need a visa.” I added.
Can you get me one?
She asked me as if I was an ambassador. The collector had some old postcards that I started to leaf through and eventually I picked a few of them. They were pre-invasion postcards depicting a carefree state of affairs in Kyrenia and the great beaches of Famagusta in northern Cyprus. This storeowner asked me if I needed stamps and I said of course. So he handed me a wad of stamps that he pulled from a dusty binder under his desk. I never thought any more about it and dutifully pasted onto my new postcards. It wasn’t until I was later in Limmasol that another store owner pointed out that I had, in fact, not only bought  ‘antique’ postcards but also ‘antique’ stamps. The stamps were not as old as the cards but they were 1981 vintage. I was a bit worried and wondered if the Post Office would accept them. At any rate, the coin collector gave me a tip in getting a ‘service taxi’ back to Larnaka as it was starting to get late. Taxi trip back to my hotel was just as hectic but this time I was in the front seat beside the harried driver of a beat up old Mercedes stretch station wagon.
Later, that evening, I was part of an interesting conversation with a vivacious blonde night clerk at the Hotel Livadhiotus. Actually, it was a three-way discussion about the Turkish question in Cyprus. There was an older British couple who were part of the discussion too.
I hear there is cheap property to buy in Turkey.” I asked the older couple
Yes, especially along the Turquoise Coast.” They added
Where?” I asked.
“The south western coast is the nicest.” He added.
But you’d better hurry before Turkey gets accepted into the EU.”
What will happen then?” I was curious.
The prices will all go up—they are cheap now.” Said the wife
The Greek beauty didn’t want any part of the Turkish population—
Those fucking Muslims.” She yelled.
We were shocked by her tone.
What’s wrong with them?” I was curious about this animosity
They destroyed everything, all the churches…” her voice was rising now.
 Yes, the Turks have a bad record against Christians especially the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia and the Kurdish populations.
The Turks invaded our island—it was ours.”
I wondered why mainland Greece didn’t come to the rescue. She was quite bitter about the whole experience.
Those Turks will screw it up for us getting accepted by the EU.” She said.
Why do you want to be part of the EU?
Because we want the euro.”
But you are already European.” I countered.
In Larnaka there is absolutely everything you could ever want from Europe. Cyprus is by no means backwards and on the contrary, appears to be quite affluent if not a tad expensive. There is no way that such a country could afford to have ‘domestics’ shipped over from the Philippines or Sri Lanka otherwise—the Greek Cypriots were already ‘living high on the hog’.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The land formerly known as Persia

Full of the Empty 1998 (the very condensed version)
Funny bus sign.
It was five am, a car horn tooted outside our villa—it was our friendly Kashmiri taxi driver Maruf waiting for us. My friend Brian Rose and I were driven off to the Sharjah International Airport from whence our trip to Iran would begin. I was feeling under the weather so I slept most of the waya rather auspicious way of starting the trip of a lifetime. We had been planning this Iran trip since my good friend George Evashuk first proposed it a year earlier. Truth be told, I had wanted to go to Iran for over 20 years. Because it was Iran, we would be obliged to have a guided tour and the mere thought of a “guided tour” was enough to give me the willies.

Mr. George was waiting for us upon our arriving at the terminal. Before going through the security x—ray machine, he noticed that we didn’t have our internal tickets from Shiraz to Isfahan. Panic set in and we tried to get a hold of our Iranian travel agent in Dubai—Mr. Massoud. Funny, he wasnt in his office so we hurried on to the check-in area.

Brian Rose in Imam Square, Isfahan.
The check-in line continued shuffling along, as the Indian clerk, Hernandez queried me
You are only staying for 4 days in Iran?
Initially, he gave me a start, but then I didn't bother telling him that the visa does not start until you enter Iran. George called the travel agent again. Luckily, this time he was there. We were thinking of all the possibilities that would await us in Iran: having to buy a ticket there, would the guide be waiting for us and what other surprises awaited our presence. Massoud answered the phone—

No, he reassured George, there was no problem as the guide would look after
 the ticket when we arrive in Iran.

Phew! That was close and a load off our beleaguered minds. It was at this point that I promptly left my rocket launcher cum monopod at the telephone booths where George had been talking. On approaching the plane, Rose noticed I didn’t have my monopod. I got off and told the Indian maitred that I forgot something in the airport. He told me that I couldn’t return to the airport for security reasons. He calmly wrote down my seat number and said he would try to find it for meI didn‘t have much faith in him and kissed the tripod goodbye. We were sweating buckets and I had already misplaced my monopodnot a great beginning! We finally got seated on the ageing Aseman Iran Airline 727 and one of the stewards came up and asked me for my seat number. At first, I thought that he was trying to shift Rose and me so as to accommodate some Emirati women. However, as it turns out, he was trying to find out if I was seat 18F. Then along came the monopod, thrust from hand to hand down the length of the plane and finally into my waiting handswhat a relief!

L-R Brian Rose and George Evashuk, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
The in-flight entertainment package was a couple of childrens toys that I managed to finagle from the dour stewardess. There was no in-flight magazine either and our snack was a rather stale bun, brackish coffee and a mystery dessert bun with some hidden lemon sauce in it. Also, there was some kind of dark pudding that looked like a liver transplant with a few pistachios sprinkled on it. I tried a spoonful and promptly regurgitated it back into its cellophane wrapper as the damn thing was laced with rosewater. Later, the flight attendants brought us the main course. Unlike the last pathetic offering, this was excellent. Tender chunks of chicken breast with a curry sauce, some potatoes and other veggies on the side. We were all given warm Zam Zam cola which did little to slake our thirst. World

The landscape looked tortured much like the Iranians had been over the past few years since the war with Iraq. First of all, they were screwed over by the Shah and then they were forcefully converted into an Islamic Republic of the Mullahs. However, in spite of their brutish features, the Iranian passengers all smiled at us. We passed over razor edges, serrated knives of brown land that separated long swathes of dried lakes. Some of the peaks looked like they had brilliant granite outcroppings, but, upon closer inspection it was drifts of snow. Great buttes of bleached rock and uplifted vaults. There was evidence of rivers and dried wadis that carved their signatures through the strata and towns pooped up on their alluvial fans. We twisted this way and that way as if we were trying to sneak between mountain passes. I was starting to wonder what tack the pilot was trying to take on his approach to Shiraz.

We finally landed and the temperature reminded me of the Canadian Rockies warm sun on the face and a cool breeze on the backno pollution! As we were waiting in our line-up, an Iranian overheard our conversation about being hassled by the Iranian customs. He laughed and said
You dont have to worry as they only hassle Iranians!
We handed over our passports and the official scrutinized our photos, in particular, mine. George and Brian were ahead of me and managed to get through unscathed. My passport did not have a very flattering photo and I looked very much like a cross between Jerry Garcia, who is gratefully dead, and one of the mad students of the Taleban in Afghanistan. Rose caught the guards worried expression and laughed out loud saying—
Yah, I wouldn‘t let him either.”
The guard laughed too, as he probably hadnt seen the likes of me in Iran since the Shahs time (maybe we should call him Marjoribanks).

We eventually got through PASSPORT CONTORL which was decorated with mug shots of his holinessAyatollah Khomeni and his hair apparent, Ayatollah Khatami. There was a festive feel to the place as many of the returning Iranians were greeted with garlands of roses from loved ones and next of kin. We were greeted by a different rose. Out of a crowd of Iranians came a rather pretty Iranian woman covered in the mandatory hijab with a big fur wrap around her shoulders and a floor length black coat.
She seemed to know who we were but we hadn‘t a clue who she was. Above the din, she tried to tell me her name but it sounded like she was saying her name was Frozen Ass. She tried again—
Hello, my name is Frozan Nahas, I am your International Guide for Iran.
Martyr or Basiji Mural in Shiraz.
She had sparkling eyes and excellent Englishvery diminutive but respectable. We were kind of shocked that we would have a woman as a guide, esp. in Iran of all places! In the Emirates, we are not permitted to look at women, touch them or even talk to them. In reality, there is half a society here in the Middle East that we (western men) know absolutely nothing about. Except if you get to teach a night school course to women, then, just briefly, the veil is lifted for a tease and a wink. At any rate, who is the first person that we meet in the Islamic Republic of Irana single woman, an International Guide no less! She facilitated the formalities of getting through PASSPORT CONTORL, retrieving our passports and making our way through customs without any hassles. As it turned out, Frozan was 25 yrs. old, single from Teheran; she had studied in Teheran University and spoke Parsi, English and understood Turkish. Frozan gathered us up like lost sheep and led us through the labyrinthine Iranian arrivals area. The customs man waved me through the final gate and as I walked by he said a few words that caught me off-guard
Happy Birthday.
Thank you”, I replied and whispered to Rose
How does this guy know it’s my birthday?’
Rose looked dumbfounded and asked me
Is it your birthday?’
Of course not, but I appreciate the gesture.’
 I smiled back and said
Merry Christmas
He just smiled back oblivious to the fact that it was the Iranian New Year and not Christmas nor my birthday.

George at ruins of Cyrus palace, Pasargadae
I almost cried when I finally set foot outside the airport, the air was refreshing and the tension of Iran was slowly dissipating. Travelling to Iran had been the stuff of dreams, especially since first reading Byrons, The Road to Oxiana in 1982. In the subsequent years, it had become something of an obsession. I had originally planned to follow the Silk Road overland route but politics, war and university study delayed the project. All the bad press warnings and negative images that had flashed through my mind were starting to dissolve as I crossed into terra sancta of Persiathe land of the legendary kings (Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, even that Greek punk Alexander) whose rule had encompassed the Four Corners of the World.

Three Churches and a Wedding (June 2004)

This actually happened and in this order.
It seemed like a good idea at the time—getting married that is. Going through this whole marital experience once in a lifetime is enough, having to do it twice within the same week is a bit off-putting, even more so if you are trying to organize this in a foreign land called Kuwait. Last week, we had the 'civil marriage' in the Ministry of the Public Notary which went off without so much of a hitch except when witness #1 Professor Arthur Bukowski hedged on which Christian faith he adhered too. The Madame Judge insisted—
Catholic or Protestant.” She asked ready to tick off the corresponding boxes in the wedding form.
I turned to Professor Arthur—“Well which one?
He mumbled to me—“I’m Lutheran.”
The judge looked sternly at me for an answer, so rather than rehash the "Great Schism" again
He’s Protestant.” I said.
I smiled back at her before Art could protest further. This seemed to appease the Madame Judge who duly carried out her duties and when I bent over to give my wife, Gracie the ‘wedding kiss’, Madame Judge reassured us that “no kissing is allowed”. Acting like a pair of teenagers who were caught making out, Gracie and I sheepishly shook hands like do boxers before their match.

Next, we had the brainwave that we would have a typical church wedding after all at the behest of the good Pakistani Episcopal reverend Father Christopher Edgar. Father Edgar was a decent chap who sounds more British than Pakistani. Prior to the blessed marriage, there was much paper shuffling which involved getting a "Free to Marry" letter from the CDN embassy (11.5 KD=$35US) which proved that I hadn't been previously married. Quite an odd situation as usually you have to have something to show that you are, in fact, married, like a ring. How you prove that you are single is quite another thing and a tad preposterous if not downright silly. At any rate, I had to play the game here even if the rules were stupid. Having procured the authorized "Free to Marry" form the embassy, the form then had to be translated into Arabic at another cost. After which, it had to go back to the CDN embassy where it was then re-authorized as a good translation company by the CDN embassy (11.5 KD=$35US). This is then submitted to the Kuwaiti Ministry of Public Notary who then authorized and sanction the marriage.

We still wanted to have a marriage in the kanisa or church. After subsequent arrangements and another rendezvous with the good Father, we finally worked out a date at the church. Unfortunately, trying to round up bodies at this time to be ushers, flower girls, maid-of-honour and best man was a daunting task since everyone at GUST had bolted for greener pastures of their summer vacations. I was able to enlist Roxanne's husband Ray as the best man and Robert Ankli as photographer and his lovely wife Lena as the maid-of-honour. Then there was the problem of the wedding dress. We were in Kuwait and the wedding dress was in Nairobi. No problem/hakuna matata—we would have it sent by courier from Nairobi. Not a problem if you are anywhere but Africa where there is no competition for courier service—little did we know. I had asked the DHL people in Kuwait how much it would cost for sending a package that might weigh between one to one and a half kilos—they assured me that it should cost 12KD=$40US. OK, I could live with that. We went ahead and instructed Gracie's brother to send it but first we would have to send money by Western Union to Fred in Kenya.
We sent a bit more money to cover the costs and his taxi fares to and from DHL in Nairobi which amounted to $266US. It turns out that it cost more than that—to the tune of $333US for a kilo and a half package—blimey the bounders! I did call DHL to vent but to no use as they told me that each country can set its own rate—airway robbery! Profit is one thing gouging is quite another. It seems fair to say the Nairobi needs another courier service to be competitive. What got our goat was the fact that the courier service cost more than the actual making of the dress. Who knew?

We had originally planned to get married in Kenya but after some thought on the matter and Gracie's mother consent—we decided that it would be cheaper to do it in Kuwait—or so we thought. Okay, there was the usual running around between government agencies, Father Christopher Edgar, GUST, the Canadian embassy and on and on ad nauseum. The dress eventually arrived and we hadn't really thought much about the dress until three days prior to the wedding. The English dept secretary, Aisha said that we should take it out of the box and have it ironed. She also warned me to tell the OK Laundry dhobi-wallah guys not to burn the dress or they would have to make a new one—tssk, tssk I thought! Seemed like a good idea at the time and we were further shocked to see a bill for 3500KSH ($45US) stuck in the box as well, a reminder that Gracie's brother Fred had also kicked in more money to have it dry-cleaned and ironed in Nairobi prior to sending. We thought, okay now we don't have to send it to OK laundry after all. We looked at the dress and it looked presentable but to our horrors, we unraveled the veil only to find that the laundryman wanker in Nairobi had melted the bottom part of the veil. The veil is more like a mosquito net than anything but the swine had done his best to screw up the veil. When Gracie tried it on it was lopsided and not symmetrical—bloody great! I was so furious I told Gracie that the laundry guy was lucky we weren't in Nairobi or I would have throttled him. I told Gracie even I could have done a better ironing job. Gracie told me to be quiet about it as her brothers would go and put the boots to the laundry man back home in Nairobi. Gracie could only laugh at it but I found no laughter in it—how did Aisha know that laundry guys don't know how to iron a wedding veil? Moreover, how does one iron this plastic veil? I thought it was supposed to be taffeta or maybe lace but this was plain old plastic mosquito netting. What to do? We eventually took the dress to OK Laundry to get ironed nonetheless and the chaps there couldn't believe their eyes either when we showed them the veil. My favourite guy, Babu told me that they should have used a steam press and not an iron. One other guy said that he could fix up the rent garment and cut off the fried section along with the silver trim. We thought that these guys knew what they were doing. They also told us that there were many wedding shops nearby in Hawally and that we should go there as well. We took a side trip over to there trying to avoid getting killed by the Kuwaiti populace whose cars seem to be martyrs to their cause. No wonder car bombers are prevalent in the Middle East, the Kuwaitis and Indians/Pakistanis/Bangladeshis here drive like they were in prep school for it. We chose the shop called Valentina. There was an Indian couple running the place and they duly told us that wedding dresses rented from 150 KD to 200KD ($500 to $660US) or have one made from 900KD to 1000KD (~$2,970US to $3,300 dresses). Their showroom was full of the gaudy stuff—too rich for our blood but we had already paid in excess of 200KD what with shipping and such for Gracie's dress. The tailor Babu said he could fix our veil so we hurried back to our OK Laundry guys who were busy trying to mend the veil. I told Babu that I wanted the veil and the veil flowers—I gave him a half KD for his trouble. We raced back to Valentina showroom and presented our chopped up garment. The owner hum and hawed for a moment and said it was polyethylene—isn't that just a fancy name for plastic? He said he would use a better grade of plastic, sew on the flowers and Gracie would have a decent, long-flowing veil after all. I would cost an additional 35KD ($90US) with a deposit of 10KD but in the end he said it would be a rental. We told him that we were getting married on the 21st which was only three days away and he assured us that it would be ready by then. Gracie then mentioned that she needed wedding makeup, pedicure/manicure and help with putting on the veil. The wife told us of a saloon nearby so we hopped in the car to go there. The tailor's wife brought along another Bangladeshi woman to ride shotgun—god knows why? Did she think I was going to rape the wife or something? We drove past the hurly burly of Hawally and got to the saloon—men are not allowed into the saloon! Gracie went in with the tailor's wife and later they came out. The bodyguard remained curled up in the back seat and I didn't realize she had been there. Gracie came over and said that they wanted 70KD ($240US) to do her makeup, manicure, pedicure and fix the veil. I told Gracie that we didn't want to buy the store. Earlier, Gracie had got her manicure and pedicure done for 5KD at a nearby Bangladeshi saloon so we decided to go back there. I guess the Kuwaitis have so much loot that 70KD is nothing to worry about. As I have been trying to tell Gracie—money is no object to the Kuwaitis. In fact, the higher the cost: the greater the prestige.
The Wedding Day
I made a mental note:
  • need to pick up veil,
  • wedding dress,
  • drop off translated marriage form to be authenticated by the CDN embassy,
  •  get Gracie a pedicure and manicure,
  •  get saloon  to do Gracie's makeup and arrange her veil for her,
  •  pick up film,
  • get corsage for Gracie and me.
I took Gracie to the nearby saloon at 9:30am and she said that she will need two hours and a half to do everything so I dropped her off and headed off to do my own little errands. The wedding was at 4:30 in the afternoon. I raced to Sultan Centre to get film and the corsage made. I dropped stuff off at home and headed back out to the CDN embassy. It was 12 noon when I got inside the office, took my number and noticed that other people are also waiting to find out about 'visitor visas' to Canada. I suddenly got a brainwave to ask more about the "Temporary Resident form" that I would have to fill in for Gracie's visa to Canada. I went back to the information part and enquired again about the form and if there is any additional information/documentation that might be required. The receptionist asked what country my wife was from—I told her Kenya. She then said that it would take 10 business days. I was flabbergasted as I had had the form for more than a month and it said in black print—5 business days. I was dumbfounded—why had they changed it just out of the blue. She said this was the busy period and they have to allow for this more time. Great! Would this be the same in Kenya if I apply for a visitor visa from there, I asked? She couldn't confirm. Lovely, now I was really pushed for time on the visa to Canada and getting residency for Gracie in Kuwait. If this was the case, then we couldn't go to Kenya after all as we only had 8 days there to sort out a visa to Canada. Not only that, I would have to cancel the Kenya flight and hopefully be able to change our return flights to Canada for 10 days after July 5th not easy here in Kuwait given that all ex-pat staff will be flying around this time. What a to do? All this to think about plus getting married—what next I thought?

Both Gracie and I had said that we would be happy when this day was over but it was just beginning. Just then I got a text message from the best man asking—“Were there any last minute changes?” I thought to myself—Where does one start? I went back to the apt at 12:30 pm and phoned Gracie at the saloon to see if she was finished. They don't speak English so I had to ask for "Memsahib Africa". Gracie came on the line —“I thought you were picking me up?” So I rushed back in the a/c car to get her and she looked like something between a carnival and catwalk—was this my wife? Gracie got in and looked in her hand mirror and said, “I think they overdid it?” No comment from me especially on our wedding day.

Next door to the saloon was the OK Laundry so I got out to get the dress whilst Gracie rearranged her facial makeup. As I approached the door, I noticed there were two huge strips of red tape with Arabic script plastered over the door indicating that they were sealed. Great Caesar's ghost—now what? Great, the wedding is in a few hours and now we don't have a dress! I went to Gracie and told her the place was shut. Funny because these OK laundry shops are rarely closed—these poor beggars work 24/7 and get a bit of Friday off. Some guy saw me and I muttered—“they've got my bloody wedding dress inside!” He motioned to me to go around the corner for Babu. I did so and found my laundry guys sitting on some stairs with their cellphones. I was yelling—
Babu—I’m getting married in an hour!” He just looked at me.
What’s going on? Where’s my bloody dress?” I yelled at him.
At this point, I was fed up with the wedding, the dress, the heat and they just smiled and laughed. Babu told me that the baladiyah (municipality) had shut the place down. Shut the place down, what for, illegal dry-cleaning, bootleg steam irons, oh wait— money laundering. I was livid. Babu took me back to the door and I saw some bricks nearby and told him—
If you don’t open this door, I’m going to throw a brick through it.”
I actually grabbed one of the bricks and motioned that I would get the bloody dress myself (actually much stronger words than this!).
He said –"Oh bloody Krishna, don't do that!" and said—“you will be waiting for half hour when the owner soon coming.”
All that Gracie could do was laugh—I was ready to cry—maybe we weren't supposed to get married today after all. Luckily, we had the 'civil marriage' a week before. No doubt the Kuwaiti laundry owner didn't pay his baksheesh to some police guy—hence the laundry lockdown. Neither Gracie nor I were impressed. I wasn't so sure of this and told her she would have to wear another dress for the wedding. This was unbelievable. At this point, I got a phone call from abu Khaled at GUST asking me about my residency for Gracie and the wedding. I told him of the predicament and all he could was laugh about the laundry being shut down and on my wedding day no less.

 Just before going back to the apartment, Gracie said we should go pick up the veil. So off we raced again. It was about 1pm by now and very little traffic on the road. As we drove over, it just dawned on me that the store might not be open as it was Kuwaiti siesta time! Sure enough we got to the door and it was closed for the afternoon break. I was mad, Gracie was not impressed. First it was the dress and now the veil! I realize now why the groom is not supposed to see the bride prior to the wedding. I also told Gracie that usually this is the bride's family responsibility and that I had far too much to do today. At the very least, the laundry and tailor guys knew we were getting married today and could have had the decency to at least phone and tell us that we would neither have a dress nor a veil for our wedding. They have the annoying habit of taking cell phone numbers for everything and then don't use them. We quickly raced back to the apartment to find the down payment bill for the veil but when I phoned it was only a fax number!! Crikey! I told Gracie that I would pick up the blessed veil later on and bring it to the church. We quickly gulped down some lunch and waited to phone for the dress at OK Laundry. They eventually re-opened so we went to retrieve the dress and then I drove Gracie over to the maid of honour's place. Lena was from Hong Kong and was married to Robert Ankli—Economics Professor at GUST cum wedding photographer. It was now 3:15pm. Gracie asked if I could pick up the veil and bring it to Lena's place but I said I don't think the store opens till 4pm besides I still had to have a shower, get dressed and the wedding was less than two hours away never mind having to fight the afternoon traffic. Gracie would travel with Lena and Robert to the church. No sooner had I shone my covered shoes, shaved, linted the suit jacket, gathered my faculties than Robert phoned to say that they were at the church area already. I said that I would meet them there and told them how to get to the church in Kuwait City.

For some reason, the Filipino Catholic and Egyptian Coptic churches are at one end of a huge mile long square and the Protestant: Evangelical, Baptist, Pentecostal and Presbyterians are at the other end. I still hadn't showered so had a quick, not refreshing hot shower as there is no cold water in Kuwait during the hot months. The only way to get a lukewarm shower is by not turning on your hot water geyser; the cold water tap is linked to the water reservoir on the roof which has scalding water.
I quickly grabbed the flowers, camera and all the documents for Father Christopher and bolted for the church via Valentina's wedding shop. Drove much like a Kuwaiti and my dad would have been proud of my kamikaze techniques. Got to the shop as they were just opening it but neither the Indian owner nor his wife were there-gadzooks! I told the Filipino lady that I had a veil here and that I had a wedding in 20 minutes! She didn't know of any order nor was there a veil in sight—it did not avail itself! She said she would phone the owner but I told here if she didn't have it now I was leaving. She phoned and the owner said he would be there in 5 minutes but I threw up my hands and said "Forget it, I'm gone". You can appreciate that I was slightly perturbed, just slightly at this juncture. OK, 10 days for 'visitor visa', no flight to Kenya, a shut down laundry and now a veil-less bride. Gracie will really be impressed now and to top it all off— I would be late too! Where was Stanley Holloway when you need him—"For god's sake get me to the church on time!"

It was 4:05pm. Slightly pissed, I bolted for Kuwait City highway and broke all land speed records for Hawally to Kuwait City (the photo speed tickets will follow later). Got to the church and headed through the Christian enclave to the pokey little church where we have had communion with Father Christopher. Lena was trying to hide Gracie from my view and I had to break the bad news about the veiless bride to Robert. Father Christopher was not present and Robert then said that there was a Bible study group planned to have a Bible study at the same time as our wedding. My heart sank. Father Christopher had assured me that the smallish church was empty so why were these Indian guys laying out stacks of metal chairs—there were only 5 of us in the wedding party?

Blimey! I felt sick. I realized that maybe the good Father was at his other church, St Paul's in Ahmadiyah—a church that I had never been to.
Why don’t you phone Father Edgar?” asked Robert.
Okay, so I reached into my suit pocket but no phone. In my haste, I had left the phone in the car. Back out into the blinding sun and 48C heat to get the phone. I passed the best man Ray.
Where’re you going?” he asked innocently.
I forgot my phone.” I hurried past him in the heat.
 I retrieved the phone from the hot car. Of course, I had never saved the good Father's number and had to go back through my calls to see if I could remember the number. I guessed at one and phoned it. It was 4:30pm—the time of the wedding!
Father Edgar—how are you?” I asked.
Yes, where are you?” he answered.
I thought we were getting married in Kuwait City.” I told him.
I’ve been waiting here for an hour.” He sounded slightly perturbed.
I told him we were at his small church in Kuwait City.
I’m so sorry but I assumed you would have the ceremony at St. Paul’s.”
The only St. Paul’s I know of is in London.” I joked.
It will take 45 minutes to drive back to you.” he added.
I was busy talking with other about this when he interrupted—
Do you want me to drive back or will you drive here?” he asked.
Besides, I’m already in my gown and the church is empty down here.” he added.
We’ll come there as there is a Bible study group in here now.” I replied.
Oh well, what the hell—let's all go to St. Paul's in Ahmadiyya .I asked around and Ray said he knew of St. Paul's and so we rushed out into the heat lashing with apologies all the way. Okay, 5 days extra for visa, no Kenya trip, closed laundry shop, no veil, poor makeup, sweaty armpits, and wrong church—what next? I told Ray I could use a drink right about now (he is a bit of a bootlegger, Irish and all). One church down! We laughed at our follies and besides—it broke the monotony! Off down the notorious Highway 30 through the hugger mugger of evening traffic. We eventually took the Ahmadiyyah exit and drove through a pleasant tree lined suburb to St Paul's Church.
We parked the car and got out.
It’s a Catholic Church.” Yelled Robert.
Sure enough it was St. Paul’s Catholic Church.
My heart sank—“Oh god, at this point I don’t care if I’m married by a Jewish rabbi.”
Sure enough, we crept in, religious and pious icons everywhere and the ubiquitous confessional booths lined the sides of the nave. The silence was deadening. Hmm—suspiciously Catholic I do declare! No Father Christopher and rightly so unless he had just converted to Catholicism in the past 30 minutes! Ray headed off to see the Priest and appeared at the entrance again—
One of the elders told me where St. Paul's Anglican (Episcopal) Church is”—said Ray (alhamdulillah!)
Okay, two churches down! Off we went like some giddy teenagers at a sock hop as all we could do at this point was laugh. A few blocks away, we found the right St. Paul’s Church and we piled out of the cars but no Father Christopher to be found but we had the right church. It was now 5:00pm. It was too hot to stand outside so we sought the cool refines of the church. I yelled over at Ray and the wedding party that this was—"Three Churches and a Wedding" instead of "Four Weddings and a Funeral". They meekly laughed more out of insanity than anything else. Presently, the good Father showed up with cold drinks and water for us. At this point, the fruit juice was a god send as I was starting to become dehydrated and I am sure the others were too. After much apologies and swilling of drinks we finally got down to the subject at hand—the wedding. It was quite a motley crew: a Pakistani Christian presiding over the service, a Chinese maid-of-honour, and American photographer, an Irish best man and a Canadian groom—goodness gracious so bodacious. Nevertheless, it was a real church with genuine wooden pews and not the shabby thing in Kuwait City with the metal fold-up chairs. We opened the service with a traditional Irish song that only Father Christopher and myself knew—so we bellowed forth. It sounded suspiciously like the John Wayne's western tune for "When we see Eldorado". It was a double ring ceremony where Father Chris draped his whatchamacallit tie thing that was around his neck around our enclosed hands. We took communion and I at least was able to slake my thirst albeit with the blood of Christ. We stood facing each other and repeated the vows and then were allowed to kiss this time! It was 6:30pm. Ray and Robert took many photos and quite a few afterwards. The sun had already set and we drifted down the aisle into the twilight. We signed the blessed documents, gave a donation, said our goodbyes to Father Christopher and headed back to Kuwait City. Robert and Ray treated us to a huge feast of Italian fare. It was about 11:30pm when we bid goodbye to the wedding party and drove back to Hawally. During dinner, Robert tried to cheer us up what with all the shenanigans of the wedding day—
Well, at least you'll only have to do this once in a lifetime.” He joked.
I thought back to what Professor Art's wife Marcia had told us after our earlier civil wedding—“At least you'll have something to tell your grandchildren.”
So much for the honeymoon as we both collapsed in the nuptial bed.
Grace Akinyi Abungu and Emerson P.F. Grossmith married on June 19th, 2004 at St. Paul's Anglican Church, Ahmadiyyah, Kuwait. Finally!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tales of the Demented Traveller

Qat tales from Yemen
Stories by Emerson Grossmith (originally published in "Big World" Travel magazine)
Turkish Citadel, my home in Zabid.
The bulbul or nightingale is chirping in the nearby papaya trees and the diesel pumps are starting up again—it must be morning. The sun blinds me as it creeps through my British Army mosquito net. I kill the last of the blood-sucking mosquitoes as their swollen bodies prevent them from escaping. I manage to somehow crawl out of my mosquito net just before I roast under the gruelling Yemeni sun. I live within the medieval Turkish citadel of Zabid, which is located on the Tihama Plain in Yemen. We dubbed this the Qasr Keall (Fort Keall) in honour of Dr. Keall, who is referred to as the mudhir. Qasr Keall is to be my home for the next two months of excavations. However, it is only 6:00am and I am already starting to sweat—not a good sign!

Qat chewing camelteer, near Zabid citadel.
I rise too quickly from my makeshift bed and almost pass out. After regaining consciousness, I curse having spent last evening with the ‘boys’ for the pleasure of chewing qat and drinking gin—again. What were formally bad habits are now starting to become part of my daily routine. Blame it on the sun, I say. The ‘boys’ are two Yemeni archaeologists who I am entrusted to teach some of the finer aspects of Islamic archaeology. In addition to their studies, they also have a penchant for strong booze and the dreaded narcotic plant of the Arabian Peninsula— qat. The chewing of qat (pronounced kat) is rampant throughout the Arabian peninsula and eastern Africa. Local tradition relates that the qat bush wasoriginally brought over to the Arabian Peninsula some 700 years ago. According to the Koran, the consumption of qat is permitted whereas the consumption of alcohol is forbidden.

Last night, we were celebrating the fact that we had been able to get contraband liquor in spite of it being forbidden in Yemen. To procure the evil spirits involved an epic 11/2-hour high-speed taxi drive from Zabid to the contraband capital of Yemen—Mafraq. In fact, all taxi trips in Yemen take on epic proportions, especially when the drivers are under the influence of qat—which is usually the case.
Mafraq literally means ‘junction’ in Arabic and it is nothing more than a tumble down ghost town. I expected to see Angel Eyes—Clint Eastwood amble down the street at any moment. We pulled up beside a nondescript gas station, whereupon two rough looking characters lurched out of the shade. At first, I thought we were going to be carjacked but it turns out that these ruffians wanted to take our orders--
"Ahmar or abyan, or red or white" they asked.
I wondered what the hell they were on about. 
Then the two Yemeni guys smiled and told us--
"White is Beefeater Gin or vodka" said the younger guy.
"And red is Johnnie Walker Red or whiskey." said the other guy, smiling through his blackened teeth. 
Naturally, we chose the gin— it mixes better with the local limejuice. The liquor is smuggled by boat across the Red Sea from Djibouti and is primarily sold to westerners but quite often it finds its way into Yemeni households. However, there is no law that forbids westerners from consuming alcohol. As a result, the boys are happy because this means that they can buy as much liquor as they want without the fear of being hassled by the police who check for contraband at the many checkpoints. The taxi ride back to Zabid was rather merry—complete with beer for the driver, qat to make the time fly and a box of gin that would keep the staff going for a couple of days and make the journey less painful.

The ‘boys’, Hassan and Ali are a lot younger than I am but years of working in this hostile climate and evenings of copious spirituous libations have taken their toll on them. For the record, I don’t know how many more of these late nights I can handle with sundowners but it passes the time as we have no TV, internet--only my trusty old SONY short-wave radio and the BBC World Service for entertainment. Nevertheless, we all have to be up and ready to work by 6 am, or the mudhir will feed our bones to the kites that fly ominously over our heads. After a moment or two, I stumble off the roof in the general direction of our hammam or toilet. At the foot of the stairs I meet Ahmed and he looks much worse than I feel. He has a sheepish grin and greets me in the traditional manner—
Sabah al-khayr’ (Good morning).
Blood streams to my brain and I finally respond with —
Sabah ha noor’ (Morning of light).
We then shake hands and he asks me—
Kayf halek?’ (How are you?).
Not missing a beat, I respond—
Mush tammam’ (Not well) and continue with—
Qat mish qwayiss!’ (Qat is no good!)
Hassan laughs or rather croaks, as his lungs are trying to work after a night of cigarette smoking and chewing qat. Hassan’s grin is a cross between a Cheshire cat’s grin and a dental hygienist’s nightmare. Most Yemenis suffer from blackened teeth as the result of too much sugar in their black tea. For that matter, neither of us is a pretty sight and maybe the black kites will have us for a meal after all.

The sun is starting to arc over the battlements and yes; it is going to be another hot day of digging outside the citadel of Zabid. Work comes and goes as the boys are back to chewing qat in the afternoon either under the shade of the papaya trees or in the cool recesses of the many Turkish arches that line the compound. Most of our Yemeni staff chew qat daily and I think that it must be an expensive habit. Most books refer to qat as either a “mild stimulant’ or a “mildly narcotic leaf, but they claim— it is not addictive. I beg to differ! Perhaps, these so-called authorities have never tried the drug. Hassan and Ali made a recent trip to Canada as a guest of the mudhir. Ali recounted to me the story of how Hassan had experienced what would appear to be classic drug withdrawal symptoms from qat: nausea and profuse sweating even though it was -10 C degrees outside. The lads were lucky that Toronto has a large Somali population and some of the shopkeepers have a steady supply of qat flown in on daily Somali Air flights. However, the boys paid the inflated price of $50 for a bundle of qat that would normally cost them $5 in the qat souk in Sana’a. I wondered if this is where the term gadzouks came from? Moreover, both Hassan and Ali have been chewing qat since they were teenagers and it doesn’t look like they are about to quit anytime soon!

Be that as it may, the chewing of qat is an essential part of the Yemeni social fabric for both men and women. From 2pm till 6pm, all of Yemen shuts down strictly for the purpose of chewing qat. Moreover, if one is to really experience Yemen then one must chew qat. And, if one is to chew qat, then one has to chew a lot of it—usually one kilo worth of the green stuff. There are about four grades of qat ranging from rough woody sections or trucker grade to the finer quality top end leaves like Shami and Hamdani varieties. There is a discernible taste difference between the cheaper and expensive varieties: the lower you go on the bush the rougher the leaves and the most tender leaves come from the upper branches. 

An afternoon qat chewing session, Wadi Zabid.
To enjoy the pleasures of qat, one must be comfortable. One afternoon I decided to walk up the Wadi Zabid, where I came upon a man and his friends who were ensconced in their afternoon ritual of chewing qat. They had all the accoutrements that should accompany the qat chewing ritual: tihama beds with thick cushions, freshly picked qat, wet tobacco for the narghile or waterpipe, cold water for drinking and an extension tube for the narghile. All the comforts of home brought outside for an afternoon of muted conversations and friendship under the shade of the eucalyptus trees. Qat is an Old World narcotic whereas tobacco is a New World drug and in this small Yemeni yard we have the melding of East meets West.

The men beckoned me to join them but I refused their offer, as I wanted to continue with my exploration of the Wadi Zabid. Later on, I did succumb to chewing qat. I was invited to a qat chewing party that was hosted by our local antiquities representative of Zabid—AK. Most qat parties take place on the upper storey of a house in a room called the mafrajsh—this is the man’s domain. The mafrajsh at AK’s house was pocked with mihrab-like niches that were cut into the plaster walls. These niches are used to store family relics, Islamic posters of the Islamic Holiest place—the Ka’aba, Yemeni banners and the obligatory photo of the recently elected President Saleh. It was both quaint and comfortable at the same time.

As I entered the room, windows were opened so that fresh air would relieve the afternoon heat and air out the billows of stale smoke that had formed from the water pipe. I was accompanied to AK’s house by my two younger Yemeni compadres—Ahmed and Habib. They propped me up with embroidered cushions next to my gracious host AK. AK was our antiquities representative for Zabid and he was obliged to oversee daily operations of our excavations. But, because his wife was expecting, he managed to only show up on pay day. At any rate, he always invited me to come to his place after work and join with him and some friends in “the chewing of qat”. For the most part, I had been able to gracefully decline saying that the mudhir was to blame for my refusal. This was because the mudhir had established a camp policy in which the first commandment sayeth that: “There will be no chewing of qat in the afternoons of work days” followed by “on the weekends you can do what you bloody well like”.
Fair enough, this was the end of the workweek and I was going to do what I bloody well liked—chewing qat with the locals. A refusal to oblige the host would have been considered the height of rudeness—so I gave in to the powers of qat.

Qat chewing is a special occasion and usually the men put on their finest to celebrate the event. AK and his friends were reclined on cushions, deep in conversation, smoking from an ornate narghile whilst Yemeni oud music played feebly from an antiquated ghettoblaster. Each guest had huge wads of qat jammed into their cheeks— they were well on their way to nirvana. Actually, the correct term here is qayf— a kind of transitory state of higher consciousness or an awakened state of being. Something akin to the trance-state that the “whirling dervishes” of the Sufi sect enter into during the course of their whirling dance.

I was handed a bag of what looked like spinach. It was, in fact, high-grade qat. OK, now what do I do? The ritual starts: Ahmed pulled an individual stem of qat between his fingers, flicked at the leaves with his index finger, plucked off the best leaves and handed them to me (I was told later that the qat farmers still use DDT spray on the plants!). The aim of this venture is to stuff as many leaves into your left cheek as humanly possible, spit out the juice and end up with jowls that would make Dizzie Gillespie envious. Apparently, those men with the bigger bulge (in their cheeks!) are admired the most in Yemen. Hence, the nickname for Ahmed is al-Dim, or one who chews too much qat.

Throughout the afternoon vast quantities of qat were consumed, as were cups of sweet chai or tea, local tobacco in the water pipe and the chewing of either clove or cardamom pods (which is said to heighten the effects of qat). The chewing of qat in association with cardamom is said to arouse the sexual appetite in men and women. As a result, cardamom is not offered to unmarried men lest they become over amorous. I didn’t have any appetite for food that night and this is apparently one of the other side effects from chewing qat. At 5:30pm, the chewing of qat came to an abrupt end and I was instructed to spit out the great seething wad of green phlegm that had formed in my left cheek. That was a relief and I felt a kilo lighter but I felt like I was in a trance. I can see it now, the weekly meetings of QA (Qats Anonymous—“I was powerless against qat”). Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the last piece of advice regarding spitting out of the juice from the qat and I swallowed most of the active ingredients cathin, cathinon and residual DDT. Sometime later, at four in the morning, I was lying in bed, gazing upon the black universe and still flying.

Night watchman, Misgagi chewing qat.
Back at the citadel, our night watchman— Misgagi enjoys chewing his qat during the afternoons, much to the disdain of the mudhir. According to the mudhir, Misgagi had borrowed money from his father-in-law in order to buy some land and Misgagi was having trouble paying back the loan. The mudhir felt sorry for Misgagi’s plight and offered to help him out of his predicament. In addition to daytime work on the site, the mudhir also gave Misgagi an added bonus of being our night watchman—an additional 500 Yemeni rials per night. However, the mudhir was furious when he found out that Misgagi was spending this added bonus on qat rather than paying off his loan. This was oblivious to Misgagi, who sang loudly while stringing his tihama bed in a qat induced state under the arch of the Bab al-Nasr. This area was the gathering place for the Yemeni staff who wanted to chew qat and enjoy the cooling breezes that swept through the arch in the afternoon.

On one trip back to Zabid, our taxi driver must have thought that his gerry-rigged 1970 Peugeot 905 had been transformed into a Formula One racing car and that he was Gilles Villeneuve on the Grand Prix circuit. I think Gilles would have been proud of him, as our taxi driver drove like a madman around the many hairpin turns of the Ta’izz to Zabid highway. Back in the 1960’s, the Chinese government helped build these tight, Yemeni highland roads—however, they forgot to build the roads so that two cars could pass each other safely. As a result, it was not unusual for our driver to pass another car on a blind curve, which caused no end of excitement. No doubt, the chewing of qat brought on this aggressive road rage exhibited by our driver.

We stopped at a rather precarious 9,000-foot pass to take pictures of the 1000-year old terraces that have been cut from the arid landscape of the western slopes of Yemen. Despite the dryness of this land, the farmers do get a considerable amount of rainfall during the rainy season. It was during the 1800’s that these terraces were used to grow coffee for the burgeoning coffee trade in Europe. However, in the past 50 years this has all changed as the farmers now, would rather grow the more profitable qat. A hectare of qat can bring five times the profit as a hectare of coffee. Moreover, as qat plantations proliferated, the price of the weed dropped dramatically and now anyone can afford it. According to some statistics, up to 30% of many Yemeni household’s monthly income goes towards buying qat—at the expense of buying food.

The taxi stopped and everyone scrambled out of the crowded car and made a beeline for the closest tree or bush. Everyone that is but me—my door would not open. All of a sudden the taxi lurched forward toward the abyss—a 6,000-foot drop. For some reason, the taxi driver had forgotten to put the parking brake on. I panicked. I suddenly remembered that my life insurance wasn’t paid up! Just before I sailed into the deep blue yonder, the driver noticed my plight and deftly put a rock under a rear tire and in doing so, spared me the ride of a lifetime. After exchanging pleasantries, he managed to open the rusted door and I rushed to the nearest bush to relieve myself like never before.

Highlanders buying qat at a traffic jam, near Manakhah.
After awhile, a long while, my nerves finally calmed down and we continued on our way to the capital of Yemen—Sana’a. We came around a hairpin curve and ran smack into a traffic jam that included several men yelling and waving branches of green twigs at our taxi driver. This is the Yemeni version of a drive-in qat shop, complete with young boys who are struggling with ancient AK-47’s that are slung haphazardly over their tiny shoulders. In no time, our taxi driver and Habib got into an argument over the inflated price of qat. Gradually things settled down and they bought enough qat to last the drive to Sana’a. Yemen is not the only country in this region to be cursed by wide spread use of qat. You can find other varieties of qat or Cathea endulis in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and it is smuggled into Saudi Arabia from Yemen. Apart from its unusual narcotic properties, a trip to Yemen would not complete without trying “the little green twig of paradise”.