Travel and the Single Girl In Yemen

Yemen Self portrait
Claudine Doury / Agence VU-Aurora

We travel because other places are different from where we came from. Being from one of the most liberal countries on earth, Canada, I was drawn to the opposite sort of place with a kind of repulsed fascination and desire to understand. To come from a world where I could do anything (or believed I could, which amounts to the same thing) and visit a world where women are banished from public life was as dramatic a plunge into difference as possible. Which is as good an explanation as any for how I found myself, at the age of 20—when I could have been at a fraternity party in the United States or Eurailing my way through Belgium instead—wedged into the front seat of a group taxi in a dusty parking lot in Sana, the capital of Yemen.

There was a man rapping at our window. Unlike most Yemeni men, who wore sarong-and-sport-coat ensembles, he wore a Western suit. In careful English he asked, “Please, will you sit with my relative?”

My friend Mona and I had been backpacking in Yemen for several weeks, on vacation from a school year in Egypt. These group taxis for eight or nine passengers were a good way to get between cities, but we usually tried to get the front seat, separate from the other riders, observing the prevailing gender apartheid.

We reshuffled ourselves so that Mona and I sat in the back with Shafa, the girl in crown-to-toe black, protecting her from having to sit next to a strange male. The man who had rapped at our window was her uncle, Abu Bakr. He worked in Sana as an English teacher, and was taking her down to the family home in the highland city of Taiz, where we were headed too. When she removed her gloves I saw her baby fat, and asked Abu Bakr how old she was. “Twelve,” he said.

“Isn’t that young to be wearing the veil?” I said.

“Yes, it is,” he replied. “She did not want to wear it but I made her. I will not let any member of my family go uncovered, because I am con-serv-a-tive.”

He enunciated the last word like one studied but rarely spoken. His worldview was broad enough to know that a foreigner might think his outlook needed explaining, and so he had learned the appropriate vocabulary but hadn’t found much cause to use it. I, likewise, had learned the words to explain myself here. I knew how to say in Arabic that I was Christian—only true in the vaguest sense—and that where I came from it was normal for women my age to be unmarried. But my knowledge was theoretical; conversing with an actual person who held Abu Bakr’s views piqued my interest.

By the time we got to Taiz, he had invited us to stay in his family home. It was not an especially surprising offer. Everywhere I’d been in Arab countries, I’d been shown an effusive hospitality of a kind rare in the West. And one of the great advantages of being female and traveling through Muslim lands is that “conservatives” like Abu Bakr can invite you to socialize with their women, an experience barred to foreign men. We were allowed to pass between the male and female worlds like Ottoman eunuchs.

Still, I hadn’t accepted this kind of invitation before. In the spirit of adventure, we did so now, and soon met Abu Bakr’s mother, his sister-in-law Hoda, and his wife, Ismat, who was also 20 and had been married for six months. They installed us in our own room.

The next morning Abu Bakr took us sightseeing, up to the hilltop palace that had belonged to Imam Ahmad, monarch until 1962. While we strolled around, he told us that he planned to marry a second wife and was looking for a foreigner, someone who spoke English. Perhaps a European—or even a Canadian.

I felt exasperated, as though his hospitality had been a ruse. “It might be difficult to get a European to wear the veil,” I said. She wouldn’t have to, he said, as though he’d already thought it through. He added that he would like to study in North America. “You might find it difficult to live there,” I said, to which he replied, “But I am progressive.”

Abu Bakr’s family cosseted us with lamb and rice, and took us to their village outside of town, where his father lived with one of his wives. There Mona and I huddled in a corner with Ismat, asking questions. I was as curious as if I’d been told I could walk on the moon. My every waking thought took self-determination for granted. I tried to imagine a different life.

Ismat, it turned out, had goals too. She wanted to study and be a teacher. If Abu Bakr went abroad, she wanted to go with him. And no, of course she didn’t want him to take a second wife.

“It’s better not to be married,” she said, which at the time I took to mean that she’d been drafted unwillingly into his home. Later I considered that she might have been trying to keep me away from her husband.

Ismat wanted to know why we wore such big shoes, and she smiled when we asked why they were taking us from house to house. “So that they can see you,” she said. I suddenly had the sense that we were a sort of gift to her from Abu Bakr, an educational amusement. They were as much cultural tourists as we.

Mona and I couldn’t stay—we had plans. We would take the bus down to the port of Aden. We would go hiking amid green terraced fields. We planned to go back to Egypt, back to America. We planned to see our boyfriends and have careers.

Abu Bakr drove us to the station and shepherded us onto the right bus, ending our break from the calloused autonomy we’d been building up. I nodded to him with my hand to my heart, avoiding physical contact, and wondered if he thought he’d gotten a fair deal.

Elisabeth Eaves is the author of Wanderlust: A Love Affair With Five Continents, published this year.