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STORY FOUR Being Useful or Being Used Sana, Yemen, 1979 37 A shower of khat leaves lands with a smack on the windshield of Ben’s Mitsubishi. It is early afternoon and the national ritual—khat chewing—is under way. The leaves come from the truck in front of him. Ben can’t see the driver, probably because he’s a twelve- or thirteenyear -old child. In this unregulated land, no one cares that half the truck drivers don’t have licenses. As long as they can see above the bottom of the windshield—even if they need a cushion to prop them up—kids can drive the heavy rigs. But all drivers, young and old, big and small, about to head to the Red Sea and the port of Hodeida (150 miles on the map but a treacherous six-hour mountain drive from Sana’s 7,500-foot elevation to sea level) fortify themselves with the narcotic green leaf, chucking the stems and outer leaves of the plant out the side window as they chew. Ben’s is one of the vehicles on the dusty Ring Road surrounding this remote, ancient capital. The traffic moves chaotically, plying between the airport on one side of the city and the three main roads leading out of town: one, to Taiz, near the border with Marxist South Yemen; one straight north to the Saudi border; and the Chinese road (a gift of the People’s Republic) down to Hodeida. New Toyota jeeps dominate the passenger vehicles, and Peugeot station wagons, the intertown taxis. The thousands of trucks are British and Japanese made. There are a few traf- fic lights, but either they don’t work or are ignored. There is no industry on the Ring Road, nor much of it elsewhere in Yemen. A Sheraton Hotel is under construction north of the Ring, a sign of things to come, but the few buildings to be seen here and there along the Ring are the headquarters of the international aid organizations that serve Yemen—the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO), USAID, and the Yemen American Language Institute (YALI)—and so on, as well as many government ministries, recently established in modern quarters. Beyond the Ring Road lie the barren mountains and terraced fields of a country living in the fourteenth century . Further inside the road is the “old city.” This inner city, ancient and dense, is a National Geographic photographer ’s dream. Its narrow five-, six-, and seven-story stone buildings, constructed by hand without any steel or wood inner framework, are dotted with irregularly sized and placed windows and doors, the wide frames painted white. From a short distance away the mass of buildings looks like an apprentice pastry maker’s first efforts at applying icing: the white painted window frames of the towers show an unsteady hand. In an increasingly uniform urban world, old Sana in 1979 exudes so much strangeness and difference that a visitor could palpably imagine himself Richard Burton coming into Mecca in 1853. Ben, director of the U.S. Peace Corps program in Yemen, occasionally takes his children to the old city. They don’t experience it the way he does. They focus on the smells, the open sewers, and the carcasses of dead dogs lying here and there in the narrow lanes. There are even more dead dogs lying at dusty intersections on the edge of the old city, killed by the new cars and trucks driven by inexperienced drivers. The climate is dry, so after a few days of stench, the dogs mummify, ignored by the “locals.” Ben’s son Max, age eight, has dubbed the place “dead dog city.” Old Sana is simply too old and inappropriate for the offices of the international agencies that have set up shop in Yemen since the country began to “open up” in the early 1970s and accept foreign aid. One exception to the general rule that international agencies be on the Ring Road is the Peace Corps. Faithful to its 1960s-style commitment to rep38 Story Four resent the opposite of the ugly American, the Peace Corps office is in a rundown four-story stone tower in the old part of the city. Ben’s office is on the top floor; he gets double the exercise he would in climbing the stairs because not one of the fifty steps...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781613760826
Related ISBN
9781558493926
MARC Record
OCLC
647376217
Pages
320
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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