Around noon we stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant. The word ‘restaurant’ is a little deceptive, evoking pictures of checked tablecloths, salt shakers, and little flowers in tiny vases, rather than men with guns sitting on a mutton-stained carpet, so let me set the scene a little.
The typical Yemeni eating establishment resembles a commodities trading floor on one of those days they call ’Black’. There is not a lot of furniture, but there is a lot going on. We enter a dark room that has some bare cafeteria style tables, each covered with a plastic sheet and with a plastic cooler of water at one end. There is a display case of food near the door, but people seem to be ignoring it, and its contents bear no relationship to the food I see people eating.
The restaurant is full of men all wearing the traditional outfit of skirt, jambiyeh and sport coat. Some of them have an AK-47 slung across their shoulder, barrel pointing upwards. The guns tend to swivel around as people eat and add a sword-of-Damocles excitement to the meal. Knowing that you might get shot at any moment really heightens the flavors of a Yemeni luncheon. Around the tables there are carpets, and many of the men choose to eat while reclining on the floor.
In Yemen you don’t really talk while eating. This makes the heavily-armed diners staring up at me from their carpets seem even more menacing. The wait staff, on the other hand (at least I assume that’s what they are) run round shouting at the top of their voices. Almost everyone has already purchased a bag of qat, which they’ll start chewing after lunch. The qat is leafy and kind of bulky, and comes in a colored plastic bag. Some men tuck it under their shirt, so it hangs over their belt like a paunch. Others carry it in their hand. The effect is to make everyone look excessively health conscious and obsessed with salad.
Ali motions me to a row of sinks at the back of the room where we can wash our hands. He speaks a neighborhood dialect of Yemeni Arabic that even some other Yemenis have trouble with, while I speak a halting form of the literary language understandable only to myself. We’re at an early stage in our relationship where he relies a lot on sign language and exasperation.
He finds us a table and I position myself so I’m not looking down the barrel of too many rifles. An elderly man seated next to us is just finishing his meal, his eyes fixed on mine, his white beard bobbing up and down as he chews. Ali leans across the table and asks me, “What would you like to eat?”
I find the question delightful. Caviar to start. Perhaps a clear court-bouillon, toast fingers, suprême de foie gras, smoked duck tongues, and an endive salad. Strawberries in non-alcoholic kirsch.
“Ali, I’m in your hands. Anything!”
"Whatever you like.”
Ali grabs a waiter and demands chicken. A young boy has already materialized with big plates of rice and two cans of Pepsi. Coca-Cola may be famous for having distributors in the remotest, least accessible parts of the world, but in this corner of the world, the Cola Wars ended differently. Pepsi is king.
As two halves of a roast chicken are brought into the presence, Ali gives me a searching, penetrating look. For a moment, something between us hangs in the balance. It’s like he’s examining my soul. Then he rises from his chair and returns with two plastic spoons. I give him a hurt look and push the offered spoon away. Are we not men? Is this not Yemen?
I’ve been using my right hand all my life, but eating non-sticky rice with it makes new demands on my dexterity. Ali has an impressive way of forming three fingers into a scoop and neatly, almost surgically, removing a portion of rice from the edge of his dish. His plate looks like a pie chart, with a slowly growing wedge of negative space tracking his progress through the meal. My side of the table looks like someone has been repeatedly smashing my head into the food to try to get me to talk.
Nervous about using my hands wrong, I forget to pace myself. Meals here tend to arrive in stages, and I’m already pretty full when another child waiter arrives with big disks of hot bread, a kind of bean dip, and a salad of finely diced tomato and cucumbers. Lunch is a big meal in Yemen. For a lot of qat chewers (which is everyone), it’s the final meal of the day.
I make stomach-exploding motions to persuade Ali that I’ve gotten enough to eat. He leads me back to the row of sinks to wash the grease off our hands. One of the sinks has been converted into a dedicated qat-rinsing station. The others are available, but there is no soap.
In America, I would go wait in line and ask the host at the front of the restaurant for help. Now I get to watch how things are done in Yemen.
First, we need numbers. Ali collects a quorum of other dissatisfied diners. The nimblest of the group captures a waiter, who quickly folds under interrogation and gives up the owner’s name. We bellow this out loud. The owner is in the back room, stirring something massive in a cauldron. He bellows back at us, and Ali charges in to begin negotiations.
There is some yelling on both sides, then a final loud cry from the owner. A young boy shoots out of the kitchen and out the front door, running at top speed. Ali follows him at a more dignified pace. Soon I see Ali coming back my way, holding a packet of laundry detergent in the air. Someone slices open its belly and spreads the contents across the sink tops in a fat white line. As the foreign guest, I am invited to wash my hands before everyone else. Another young boy chases me down with a paper napkin so I can dry my hands.
This little episode captures something I’ll see over and over again in Yemen. Faced with a problem, you find out who is in charge, escalate to the highest level of authority present, and communicate your sincerity by vigorous yelling. There is always a phalanx of sons (and presumably a similar, hidden number of daughters) who can be deployed as messengers, sent on errands, or otherwise made useful. Everything is done with a level of verbal vehemence that would involve grief counseling and possibly lawsuits back in the United States.