I’ve been thinking a lot about Sana’a, and my friends that are living there now, in this time of turmoil, fuel shortages, and uncertainty. The photos I see of the city on the news are surreal to me- I can hardly make myself believe that all that is happening on streets I used to walk. I see the streets full of people, and hear how there is little traffic in the streets, and it makes me remember back to when we lived there, and my husband and I would go for a bus ride.
Once a week or so, we would need to get something for the house, and my husband would say, “Wanna go for ride?” And within ten minutes I would have all my hijaab on, my good old tennis shoes tied, and we would be out the door. We walked to the nearest large street and waited for a bus. Each route has its own signal. Move your finger in a downward spiral for Daairee, or Ring Road. Hayl is a back and forth rocking motion with your hand, and so on. If it doesn’t much matter which bus you get on, simply point down, as in, “Stop right here,” or , as I usually ended up doing, wave frantically at the bus and hope it will stop! Being a Muslim country, the buses are segregated- women and men do not sit side by side in the same seat, unless they are married, or have a familial relationship such as mother and son, or sister and brother. So, at times I would sit next to another woman- but I liked it best when my husband and I were able to sit side by side, enjoying the ride.
Nighttime is the best time for bus riding. The streets are lit up, as are the beautiful stained glass windows in many of the buildings. People are out shopping and visiting. The restaurants and juice and tea shops are full of men, some sitting at tables sipping freshly made lime or mango juice, others crouching on the ground eating bean sandwiches and drinking tea. Men who have never met before sit at the same tables and talk and laugh, and when someone new comes in they invite him to join them. Some men wear t-shirts and jeans, some wear khakis and a button down shirt. Others wear a long thowb that extends to below their knees, while others wear a colorful plaid wrap-around skirt called a mahwaz and a button down shirt. Many of them wear business jackets, no matter what else they are wearing, as well as jaambiyas, the daggers that many Yemeni men wear around their waists.
Tall, regal looking Sudaanee women in their long, earth-toned overgarments walk behind smiling Somali women dressed in brightly colored tie dye scarves. Most Yemeni women wear black, but not all. Children dash across streets, or walk along between their parents, tugging on their hands and asking for sweets or a little toy or hair bauble from the merchants’ carts. Tarps are spread out along many of the streets, the men selling everything from cell phones to homemade incense to slick polyester running shorts. Men and children selling dishes, car parts, maps, tissues, water, and other assorted items walk from car to car at the stoplights, hawking their wares. Beggars also walk from car to car, and bus to bus…sometimes a woman with a baby, sometimes a blind man being led by a child, sometimes a small child alone. When they receive money, they bless the giver and move on. One can never tell who will give to them. It could be a man in a business suit, a fully covered woman with a couple of children in tow, or a group of teenage boys- generosity is the norm. Even at the restaurants a beggar is always given some food and a hot cup of tea.
I love it when the window is open so the cool air filters through my veil as we speed between intersections. Sometimes the driver will play Qur’aan recitation, which is beautiful and always touching. It always helps me to clear my mind and keep things in perspective.
Sometimes the drivers just drive crazily, and that can be scary…but it is thrilling to be flying through the streets, careening around other vehicles and the occasional street sweeping garbage man or bicycle cart selling homemade ice cream. More than once, when I have been sitting near the door, the woman next to me has grabbed me and pulled me closer to her, as if to keep me from falling out. The Yemenis do not have the personal space issues that we have in the West. They have no problem with sitting on the laps of complete strangers (of the same sex, of course). Men hold hands with their male friends, and women link their arms and hold hands as well. On the buses, men sit four in a seat, their arms around each other and no space between them, and they simply don’t mind. It took me awhile to get used to this closeness, but I have come to enjoy the feeling of sisterhood that comes of it. This woman I don’t even know grabs me and pulls me over to her, to keep me safe…that is a pretty nice feeling.
These bus rides were always a blessing to me in so many ways. Being out with my husband, feeling the speed and the wind on my face, breathing the cool night air, seeing all the people…they almost always contained moments of almost childlike delight, when I could forget the pressures and issues in the rest of my life, and just sit back, and enjoy the ride.