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Where the Paved Road Ends

One Woman's Extraordinary Experiences in Yemen

CAROLYN HAN

Publication Year: 2012

In 2004, Carolyn Han left her comfortable life and position as a lecturer in English at Hawaii Community College and went to live in one of the most remote and mysterious places in the Middle East—Yemen, known in the West primarily for providing a haven for terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda. The previous year, she had sold her gold jewelry to travel with Bedouin by camel from Marib to Shabwa, and the life-changing experience opened the path for her to become the first American English instructor in Yemen’s wild tribal area, Marib.

Guided by fateful encounters and unfazed by warnings of danger, Han allowed her life to unfold as it might, with a sense of acceptance informed by the idea that whatever happens is meant to happen. Learning and understanding would come later. In this book, Han paints a vivid portrait of Yemeni customs, including their enjoyment of the stimulant qat and their proclivity for carrying AK-47s wherever they go, and she conveys what it was like to be a woman alone surrounded by a culture not her own. As the old saying goes, the teacher became the student, and through these pages Han allows readers a rare glimpse into a Bedouin culture that most will never encounter.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Contents

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pp. vii-x

Author’s Note

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pp. xi-xii

Part I

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1. The Journey

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pp. 2-3

In Marib, I disappeared. Although I did not drink a magic potion like Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I grew smaller and smaller. The desert bleaches bones chalky white, turning them to dust. Sandstorms twist day into night. Winds wear away rock. Raindrops...

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2. Places Find Us

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pp. 4-8

Since the 1980s, I had traveled the silk and incense routes through China, India, and the Middle East collecting and writing stories. Yemen was not next on my agenda; it was far down on the list, or so I thought. Destiny sometimes tugs at our consciousness, and...

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3. Embracing Adventure

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pp. 9-11

Although Yemen is one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world, it remains cloaked in mystery as one the least known places. While in Yemen, I wanted to see as much as possible. Abdulmalik, like other Yemeni drivers, carried a handgun when traveling outside Sana’a. He stashed his pistol in his wide leather belt, between a jambiya and mobile...

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4. Travel Awakens

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pp. 12-14

On a June morning after traveling more than halfway around the world, I returned to Yemen. Golden sunlight lit the jagged mountains encircling Sana’a, the capital, as the plane touched down. Legend has it that the mountains left the Sinai when Moses asked to see God’s face. Shocked and embarrassed by Moses’s words, the mountains...

Part Ii

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5. Camel Shadows

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pp. 16-21

In June of 2003, sunlight streamed through the qamariya, stained-glass, fanshaped windows of the room I stayed in at AIYS. Patterns of colored light danced on the well-worn red carpet runner from Afghanistan. My bare feet settled on the wool carpet, and I walked to the window. Opening the shuttered window, I looked out onto...

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6. Crossing the Ramlat as-Sab’atayn

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pp. 22-29

AIYS had not yet agreed to sponsor my fellowship. To finance the camel trip, I sold my gold jewelry: three bracelets and my wedding band. “You sold your wedding ring,” Fouad, a young Yemeni friend and student studying at Sana’a University, exclaimed when I mentioned selling my jewelry as we drank tea in Tahrir...

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7. Into the Hadramawt

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pp. 30-35

A camel’s gait takes getting used to, and sitting in one position for hours, thinking that if I moved I might fall off, made it worse. Eventually I relaxed and tried all sorts of positions: Legs stretched in front, balanced on the camel’s neck. Legs dangled on each side of the camel. Legs draped while sitting sidesaddle. I had ridden horses, but...

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8. Walking the Desert

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pp. 36-40

In Sana’a, I changed the airline booking and took my passport to the Yemeni authorities for the visa extension and an exit visa. Processing a new visa would take two weeks, but the man assured me a photocopy of my passport and current visa, which had not expired, would suffice. After much pleading...

Part III

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9. An Unmarked Path

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pp. 42-45

Just before leaving Sana’a, I made an appointment to meet with the American ambassador to Yemen, who was sympathetic to my idea of teaching English in Marib. The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a—with fortified sandbagged defense points, Yemeni military armed guards, iron gates, metal detection machines, and U.S. Marines—appeared impenetrable...

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10. Journey to Marib

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pp. 46-51

In June 2004 I traveled to Yemen with boxes of textbooks and hopes of making a difference. In Sana’a I was told there were no funds for teaching in Marib. The ambassador took me aside. “I personally support the project,” he whispered and gave me a pat on the back and the telephone number of an American woman running a...

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11. Landing Head First

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pp. 52-56

In Sana’a, I bought a made-in-China electric hot plate and a stainless steel teakettle, along with a knife and peeler for fruit and vegetables—I am not a cook, but I could prepare simple meals without a kitchen. One cup, one plate, one bowl—I did not need much. With tea, sugar, salt, pepper, peanut butter, cans of tuna, and a package....

Part IV

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12. Awaking in Marib

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pp. 58-61

The next morning someone trashed plastic bottles by stomping on them— one by one—on the brick walkway outside my window. Stomp . . . stomp . . . stomp. In Marib, I had no need for an alarm clock. Again, red and blue sparks shot from the electrical plug when I plugged in the hot plate to boil...

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13. Following Mohammed

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pp. 62-63

While seated on a bench in front of the guardhouse with some of the off-duty hotel staff outside the entrance to the Bilquis Hotel, I first met Mohammed. He was dressed in a green camouflage military uniform and sat down on the bench next to me and positioned his automatic rifle against his thigh, barrel pointed skyward. We exchanged...

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14. No One Walks in Marib

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pp. 64-66

The next morning, I dialed Dr. Mustafa’s telephone number, and he finally answered. “Last night, I met Mohammed, a soldier. He works as a guard. Please let me hire a taxi for shopping and going to the Internet shop,” I pleaded. “I’m sure he’ll escort me. I’ll pay whatever it costs.” “Where are you...

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15. Ancient Marib

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pp. 67-70

Dr. Mustafa waited for me inside the hotel’s reception area, and I followed the traditional three paces behind him. We walked outside to the terrace overlooking the pool, and the waiter brought cups of tea, a bowl of sugar, and one teaspoon on a stainless steel tray. Stirring sugar into my tea, I said, “Abdullah Shaykh frightens me...

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16. Beginning to Disapp ear

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pp. 71-73

I plugged my hot plate into the socket the next morning but no red-and-blue fireworks shot from the plug. A cup of tea in the hotel cost $2.50. I decided to splurge. Entering the hotel lobby, I saw Abdulkarim, the gardener, chasing a stumbling black cat. Weaving back and forth, the cat managed to reach the front door before...

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17. Sunflower the Cat

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pp. 74-78

Early the next morning, I turned on my computer. I wanted to write. I opened “White Dragon,” a Chinese folk tale. In Yemen, I was writing about China. While rereading the story, I heard high-pitched, ear-splitting wails. For as long as possible, I disregarded the sounds. Whatever it was, I could not help. Finally, I opened the door, and...

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18. Foule, Bread, and Tea

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pp. 79-81

For once, the electricity did not go off during class. The tape player worked. Mohammed waited outside the classroom to walk me to the hotel. “You can study with the class,” I said, handing Mohammed a textbook. “Dr. Mustafa agreed.” “Can we walk to Marib?” I then asked. “I want to use a computer at the Internet café.” Mohammed looked..

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19. Black Goat-hair Tent

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pp. 82-87

Sa’id Mohammed, a young Bedouin with long, wavy, chestnut-brown hair, was introduced to me at a friend’s house in Sana’a. He worked for Hunt Oil Company in Marib as an armed guard. Oil companies hired local Bedouin to placate local tribes so that they would not blow up the pipelines, or at least not blow them up so often. However...

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20. Confronting Conspiracy

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pp. 88-92

Near the end of each month, Mohammed borrowed my mobile telephone to call his family because he was out of telephone units. He saved only a small portion of his salary for personal needs and sent the rest to his family using the efficient taxi delivery service. Yemenis depended...

Part V

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21. Queen of Sheba’s Temple

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pp. 94-99

Depending on tribal conflicts, kidnappings, and sandstorms, the American Foundation for the Study of Man (AFSM) visited Marib twice a year, in the spring and in the autumn. The organization was eager to unearth proof of the Queen of Sheba’s existence and carry on the excavation work established by the late Wendell Phillips, who...

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22. Ali’s Invitation

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pp. 100-108

Ali, Asma’s father, was like many Bedouin. He understood the importance of education even though he was illiterate. His willingness to bring his daughter to and from class maintained her chaste reputation. Most Marib families would not allow daughters to attend class for fear of social scandal. Our class was especially suspect, with...

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23. Eating Arsenic

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pp. 109-114

Before walking in the garden the next morning, I put on sunscreen and studied the lines on my face in the bathroom mirror. Slathering on cream, I noticed my prune-like earlobes sagging from the weight of gold hoops. I was shriveling. The face cream disappeared into skin, and for a moment, the wrinkles vanished. I looked again, and...

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24. The Looking Glass

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pp. 115-120

Eid al-Fitr followed Ramadan, a time of celebration after thirty days of fasting. “During Eid, the garden will be filled with girls,” the hotel worker—the pinched-faced man who told me fasting for me did not matter since I was not a Muslim—said loudly enough for everyone in the lobby to hear. The men giggled as their eyes...

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25. Words of Condolence

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pp. 121-123

Outside my window on Thursday, men gathered under a hastily erected tent for a qat session to honor the passing of Abdullah Shaykh. On Wednesday, Abdullah Shaykh had driven one of the military trucks that escorted the Dutch ambassador to Sayun. The police truck flipped, and he along with two soldiers...

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26. Choosing the Veil

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pp. 124-126

One evening as Mohammed and I walked on “Street Marib” (as he called it), a man stepped in Mohammed’s path, taunting him with words and gestures. Mohammed continued his purposeful walk without missing a stride, chest thrust forward, as though the man did not exist. I walked at his heels. Stunned, the man bounced...

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27. A Bedouin Tale

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pp. 127-130

Dr. Ahmed (my contact who represented the American Embassy in Sana’a) and Dr. Mustafa asked me to join them in the hotel dining room to discuss my fate. “I’m under house arrest,” I said to Dr. Ahmed and hoped that he might be able to explain to Dr. Mustafa that as an American, I did not like to be caged. “We want...

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28. Disappearing in Marib

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pp. 131-135

The soles of our sandals made kissing sounds, sticking to the gluey asphalt as Mohammed and I walked to the health department for afternoon class. Students had disappeared, and only three women and three men remained. The English course for the nurses and midwives met just twice a week. With fewer assignments to grade, I had...

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29. My Teachers

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pp. 136-139

Since invitations to homes in Marib seemed unlikely, I asked the female students to come to the hotel on Thursday afternoon. “We’ll sit by the pool and drink tea,” I said, thinking that would be a treat. From alarmed looks behind veils and rigid body language, I could tell it was a poor suggestion. “We’ll come to your...

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30. Rafallah’s Tent

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pp. 140-142

Mohammed waited by the classroom door, listening as the female students and I made plans to meet the following Thursday. I noticed his fixed gaze like a glinting knife-edge. “Are you saying I can’t have women come to my room?” I nearly shouted at Mohammed, feeling frustrated as we walked down the stairs. “Only your students,” he...

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31. Broken Images

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pp. 143-146

Three Yemeni girls dressed in green cloaks and white headscarves—school uniforms—walked to the hotel’s entrance, tying and untying scarves, fitting them just right, fiddling with them as young girls in America would fiddle with their hair on the way to school. They...

Part VI

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32. Sana’a

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pp. 148-155

“Many words in English are borrowed from Arabic,” I explained. The students looked dubious. “‘Alcohol,’ ‘alcove,’ ‘alfalfa,’ ‘algebra,’ ‘azimuth,’ ‘alkali,’ and many more . . . ” I asked them to think of additional words, but they remained silent. I added “algodon” (cotton...

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33. Living Traditions

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pp. 156-162

People sat around the kitchen table talking, and I poured a cup of tea and joined them. One of the joys of staying at AIYS was meeting interesting researchers and scholars. After introductions, I listened to a woman’s story: Kawkaban, like other Yemeni villages, had schools for boys. Asma, a young girl, convinced...

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34. Marib by Taxi

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pp. 163-166

Friday mornings, before the noontime sermon, Sana’a sleeps. It is the only time during the week that the city is quiet. The AIYS residents were asleep, and I had the kitchen to myself. After lighting the stove, I set a pan of water to boil. I dumped bow-tie pasta into boiling water. Afterward, I sautéed chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes, and...

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35. Bedouin, Russians, andThe New Yorker

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pp. 167-173

Mohammed, Salah, and Talib were why I was teaching in Marib. Locating three Bedouin in the desert—no permanent address and without telephones— in a tented camp somewhere between Marib and Shabwa seemed hopeless. Then one day, Mohammed al-Baraki called when Mohammed and I were in the photocopy shop. “No, I’m....

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36. English-Arabic Dictionary

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pp. 174-178

“This is how Sana’ani women walk,” Daood said, demonstrating by sashaying back and forth across the hotel’s reception room. “You walk like a Marib woman,” he said to me, “who carry things on their heads.” “Carrying the burden of the world,” I thought and sunk into the sofa. Three dusty, armed Bedouin...

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37. A Restaurant Guide to Marib

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pp. 179-182

“Mohammed, why can’t I walk to Marib with Daood?” I complained the next day. “If anyone asks, he’ll say I am his aunt from Sana’a. I will wear my Sana’ani veil. Promise, I will not speak.” “If there’s trouble, Daood can’t protect you,” Mohammed replied. “He’s not a trained soldier.” “The shopkeepers in Marib...

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38. Blown by Desert Winds

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pp. 183-188

Dressed neatly in a crisp white shirt, Daood sat behind the reception desk, his eyes red. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He wiped tears on his shirtsleeve. Before he answered, a goat ran into the lobby. Her feet skidded on the slick tiles, unable to get traction, and she ran in place. We burst out laughing, which frightened the goat, and she peed. “I’m off duty...

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39. Princess Shoes ina Fish Restaurant

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pp. 189-195

Mohammed stood outside my door, looking sheepish. “Where have you been?” I asked, irritated that he had gone off without telling me. “I didn’t think it would take so long,” he replied, staring at his unlaced boots. “We had to protect the tourists.” “Why didn’t you leave a note and explain that you’d be away?” I asked. “You didn’t answer your...

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40. Classics and Camouflaged Cars

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pp. 196-198

Back in the Marib classroom on Saturday, I cautioned my six students, “There is danger in not reading,” speaking in a low voice. I noticed that when I spoke softly, they listened. “If you don’t read, you’ll limit yourselves to knowing only ideas of like-minded people. To be educated, you have to read and expose yourselves to a variety...

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41. Isolated Lives

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pp. 199-202

“You’re in Yemen?” I said, shocked to hear Nathalie’s voice on the telephone. Our last time together was in Sana’a shopping for princess shoes a lifetime ago. “Guess what? I finally bought the shoes.” “I gave the shoes away,” she replied, her voice tinged with sadness. “I never wore them.” Nathalie was in Sana’a at ALYS after...

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42. Women over Sixty

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pp. 203-206

“We’ll have a meeting in Marib on Wednesday if we get security clearance to travel,” Cheri said on the telephone. “What can I bring from Sana’a?” “Cat food, please,” I replied. “I heard Whiskas reached Sana’a.” “Your computer is fixed,” she added. “It only needed cleaning—there’s no charge.” Having a computer did not make much difference. I was not writing. Cheri arrived on Wednesday...

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43. Superstitions

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pp. 207-210

Before class, Amal asked if she and the women could see me on Thursday. “Yes, of course, but I thought someone told you not to visit me,” I answered. “He called Nura,” Amal explained, keeping her voice low, “but Asma will not join us—we’re three, and they won’t know.” “Do you know who called...

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44. Without Words

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pp. 211-214

“I can’t write,” I said, shutting my eyes and feeling like a failure. “No words.” Mohammed brought the daily ration of bread, noticed my tears, and came inside. “Writing beautiful words about Yemen—foreigners will read the books and come to Yemen and think you lied. Yemenis will never read them,” he said. “Yemen is unique—a place like...

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45. Spells Cast

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pp. 215-220

Marjorie knocked at my door just before noon the following day. “I won’t pay any more money,” she said, “to the military man standing outside my door.” Mohammed stood between Marjorie and the disgruntled soldier. “Come in,” I said to Marjorie, who for the first time wore a long, black baltu, her curly auburn hair partially...

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46. Pre-Islamic Glass Beads

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pp. 221-226

“Your AIDS test is not in the file,” Dr. Mustafa said to me loudly enough for the Japanese tourists, who happened to be in the hotel’s reception area, to hear. “That’s because I don’t need an AIDS test,” I answered. “All foreigners need AIDS tests,” he said. “I’ve checked.” “Not if we’re over sixty years...

Part VII

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47. Christmas

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pp. 228-236

“Visit your family in Taiz while I stay in Sana’a,” I said to Mohammed. “If I go to Taiz,” he answered, “I’ll need gifts.” “Your Christmas bonus,” I said and gave him an envelope. “I would like to buy you a warm Christmas jacket in Sana’a.” Walking to the taxi stand the next morning, I braced myself against the cold wind. Marib looked especially...

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48. Wine and Cheese

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pp. 237-243

“When will you leave Marib?” Waheeb asked, standing in the lobby holding a stack of accounting books. “The middle of January,” I answered. While we were talking, a telephone call came from Marylene in Sana’a. “Yes, I’m back,” I said. “Thanks for a lovely Christmas party.” She then asked if I could host a friend of hers from the World Bank named Oliver. “Sure...

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49. Diplomas

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pp. 244-249

“Oliver’s smart,” Mohammed said as we watched the taxi speed down the highway on its way to Sana’a. “He made me think.” “Oliver’s educated,” I said. “He reads.” “Do you think Yemeni people are kept ignorant on purpose?” Mohammed asked. “If we had education, maybe it would be different—but now, the shaykhs control everything. We obey...

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50. Celebrations

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pp. 250-256

“Zhara is fine, crazy as ever,” I said to Daood on the telephone. “I’m watching her dig through the trash. Now she is running with a candy wrapper in her mouth. She jumped from the bookcase to the bed and is doing her circle dance on tiptoes!” I told Daood that Mohammed offered to take Zhara. He became furious. “He’ll drop Zhara in the desert,” he shouted...

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51. Tarim

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pp. 257-260

At nine o’clock the next morning, a knock at my door. “Yes,” I said. “It’s Mohammed,” he answered. “Meet me in the restaurant,” I replied. “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” “I’m going to reception to check my Kalashnikov.” “How did you sleep?” I asked as we walked to the dining room. “I love my room,” he said, beaming...

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52. Mud Mansions

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pp. 261-266

After breakfast, we planned to check out of the hotel, and I carried my small bag to Mohammed’s room. I waited in the hallway. The door was open, but he was not inside. His bed was already made, the blanket neatly folded, and sandals placed under the table. On a wooden stand beside the bed, the Koran lay open. His yellow checked shirt...

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53. The Last Supper

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pp. 267-270

The long-awaited graduation party would be in the hotel dining room. “What do you want for the lunch?” Hisham asked. “Fish, meat, pasta, salads, and fruit and cream caramel for desert,” I read from my list. “Bottled water, tea, and coffee.” He estimated the price per person to be between ten and twelve dollars. For gifts, I ordered six hardback...

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54. Packing Zhara

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pp. 271-272

“I would like to buy Rafallah’s family fudge,” I said to Mohammed. We walked to the candy store. The clerk sliced a brick of brown-and-white fudge and wrapped it in waxed paper. “May I have a sample?” I asked and pointed to a pan of orange-colored candy worms. “They taste like gummy bears,” I told Mohammed. Since we were in the suq...

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55. Graduation Lunch

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pp. 273-278

Thursday morning, I picked flowers from the garden and arranged them in water glasses. The mid-January sun was warm on my shoulders as I walked to the hotel lobby to speak with the chef. Mohammed owned the cassette player, and I heard Yemeni oud music floating from the guardhouse window. “May I put the flowers on the table?” I asked...

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56. Gifts of the Desert

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pp. 279-280

“Any service?” Mohammed asked as we stood in the hallway. The question required no answer. Mohammed pressed the light switch, which controlled the timed lights on all floors. I followed him down the stone steps. Lights went out before we reached the first...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 281-282

I started writing this book in 2004. It has been long in gestation, which means there are many more people than mentioned here to thank. Thank you all who have added to the book. Hilary Claggett, senior editor at Potomac Books, for her enthusiasm and belief in this project deserves applaud. Thanks to Aryana Hendrawan, production editor...

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About the Author

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pp. 283-284

For twenty-five years, between teaching assignments, Carolyn Han has traveled the Silk and Incense Roads listening to and writing stories. She believes tales give us insights into diverse cultures. Perhaps by understanding others we may come to know ourselves. In


E-ISBN-13: 9781597977265
E-ISBN-10: 1597977268
Print-ISBN-13: 9781597977258
Print-ISBN-10: 159797725X

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 967538774
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Where the Paved Road Ends

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Subject Headings

  • Han, Carolyn, 1941- -- Travel -- Yemen (Republic).
  • Women travelers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Women travelers -- Yemen (Republic) -- Biography.
  • Yemen (Republic) -- Description and travel.
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