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One Night in Sana’a

In 2006, I lived in Yemen for six months. I made the trip there on a
whim, combined with the allure of the place. Once in 2000, while I
studied Arabic at Middlebury College, I heard the reminiscences of an
American graduate student who had been there and seemingly had been
swept away by its singularity. Another time, a work acquaintance would
recollect similarly offbeat images of his experiences there. Seeking
to improve my Arabic language skills and chew qat, I arrived in
Sana’a.

For students looking to learn Arabic, Yemen has been touted as the
best country to live in. Costs of living are cheap: grand apartments
can easily be found for modest sums. The Arabic programs were indeed
thrifty, with tutoring possible at even better rates. Most ideal of
all, students could live immersed in Arabic with few other languages
reaching their ears. Most of the students I met were academically
oriented, though often with an interest in Yemen aside from the
linguistic.

With my then wife volunteering for the United Nations, I ended up
spending most of my social time either among foreigners or Yemenis who
interacted with the U.N. crowd. The scene was typical of the expat
life in out-of-the-way places with the diplomatic community having
incestuous parties and events which would bleed over into the business
and academic crowds on occasion.

Off the ring road, somewhat distant from the center of the city and on
a hill, lies the American embassy. Instead of building an embassy that
most Yemenis would come in contact with, the emphasis was placed on
survivability. Confronted by the façade, it seems more of an ugly,
fungible fortress than anything else. Though seemingly impregnable,
and with a cluster of Yemeni troops guarding it (though these gainsaid
the impregnability), I would manage to wend my way in without trying.

Alcohol was hard to come by. One could bring it in from the airport,
on arrival. One could buy it from illicit vendors, who I never managed
to meet. There were a few diplomatic clubs, which required membership
to enjoy their swill. Another alternative was to hit the hotel bars,
one of which is located quite close the American embassy. Finally, one
could go to the Russian Club or the Lebanese Bar, located in a
compound right next to the United States embassy.

The story of how I got into the embassy, after midnight, without being
in danger or an employee begins at the Russian Club. Out for drinks
with a gang of two French girls in their early twenties, I and my
ex-wife arrived looking forward to drinks and a night away from our
posh house in a well-to-do neighborhood. Though I wanted to live in
the medina, the U.N.’s security guidelines forbade living there.

After having our share of drinks at the Russian Club, our group moved
on to the Lebanese Bar. Out to satiate their hunger, the French girls
happened upon the intentions of some lonely American marines. The
security detail for the embassy, those marines were having their
Saturday night fun in place they were barely allowed to move about in.
Drunk, or at least inebriated, the marines had the fun idea of
inviting our party to the embassy for a late-night dip in the embassy
pool and some beer.

We left the compound with the bars and drove across the street to the
embassy. By that point, our party included one American, one
American-Moroccan, two Frenchwomen, and one Lebanese man. The marines,
there were two or three of them, we’re anxious. They drove into the
embassy first, through the elaborate vehicle barriers, and then waived
us through without the guards having performed the normally cursory
checks on who we were or if our vehicle was safe.

I parked the SUV and meandered, along with the rest, into the embassy.
The marines led us to some rooms adjoining their barracks, which had
ping-pong tables, a dart board, a television, and beer. Nearby this
rumpus room was the outdoor swimming pool. One of the marines tried to
lure one of the French girls into the pool. Before we could become
settled, the commander of the detachment appeared. Quickly, the
marines were reduced to having to disinvite us. The party was over.

When the embassy decided to shut down two weeks ago over security
concerns, I wonder if these loopholes were of concern any more that of any
putative terrorist group.

BROCK L. BEVAN can be reached at: brock.bevan@gmail.com

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