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What Yemen Can Teach America About Hospitality

In Yemen, I was welcomed to share meals and take tea with total strangers. But America is different: We do not welcome strangers as honoured guests. We barely welcome them at all.

My friend Jarallah Omar al-Kuhali was a human rights activist, a former political prisoner, and the deputy secretary-general of the Yemeni Socialist Party. I met him back in 1999, when I was spending the summer in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, helping to care for the young son of a friend of mine, a political scientist researching her second book. Given Donald Trump's attempt to ban travel from Yemen and six other Muslim nations, and in light of US involvement in the ongoing civil war in Yemen—a war that has exploded into a humanitarian crisis—I have been thinking about Jarallah a lot. I have been thinking about him and grieving.

Sana'a in the summer of 1999 was a vibrant if rough-edged city. In a country with a per capita GDP of just $820 at the time, the streets nonetheless were alive with commerce. Shops in the cobblestone alleyways of Old Sana'a glistened with bejeweled jumbiyas, the curved ceremonial daggers that hang from male waists. Nonprofits like the Salvation Army had dumped cast-off American clothing on Yemen, and there were roving vendors who'd rifle through the lapels on the half-dozen suit jackets they wore over their long, white thoobs hoping you'd literally buy the coat off their backs.

In market squares surrounded by Sana'a's ancient rammed-earth towers, sellers—mostly men sucking wads of the stimulant leaf qat, but sometimes also women wearing body-swathing sitara dresses in psychedelic patterns—presided over piles of fruits and vegetables laid out on tarps, skinning prickly pears for customers to eat on the spot. Hawkers displayed platters of honey-soaked sweets, vats of stew, golden rounds of cheese, sacks of spices and legumes and grains. At the fish souk, trucks sold their Red Sea catch whole, to be carried to a nearby restaurant and grilled on the spot.

There was a lot to eat on the streets of Sana'a. But though grilled meats and fresh breads beckoned, we didn't dine out much because we ate so grandly inside people's homes, including the home of Jarallah Omar. Jarallah was one of my friend's interview subjects, and as she got to know him, so did I.

He had spent most of his life trying to heal the fault lines in Yemeni politics. A guerilla fighter in the North Yemen civil war against the then-ruling imam in the 1960s, Jarallah was jailed for leftist activism. He later became a leader in socialist South Yemen, formed after defeat of British colonialism in late 60s. Civil rights restrictions there led him to call for democracy and unification with the north. In a unified Yemen, he served as culture minister under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, by 1999 when I was there, had been in power for 22 years. Jarallah didn't stay long with the regime; he was forced into exile for opposing a mid-90s civil war. When I met him, he was back home, advocating for human rights and helping to lead the Yemeni Socialist Party, a challenger to Saleh's General People's Congress.

Jarallah didn't speak English, and I spoke no Arabic. He made his spirit clear in his intensity and speed—he walked fast and talked fast and purposefully. He was a small man, barely five feet tall. And he was handsome: chiseled cheekbones and a Roman nose; thick, salt-and-pepper hair and moustache. In the afternoons before the muezzins called Sana'a to prayer, we would sit shoeless on pillows at a long low table with Jarallah and his wife, Ghaniyya, their three children, and whoever else was visiting that day—there were always people visiting—and feast. We'd dip flatbreads in ful medames—garlicky, lemony mashed fava beans—and dunk the long, flaky batons called jachun in skhug, a cilantro sauce blazing with fresh chiles. There were fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions; stewed eggplant and zucchini; roasted cauliflower. Among the meat dishes was my favorite, fahsa, a lamb stew whose frothy, green topping was made from whipped fenugreek.

The welcome Jarallah and Ghaniyya extended was typical in Yemen. In the stalls of the Old City, shopkeepers ushered us into back rooms lined in carpets and pillows to drink glasses of tea. Sundown brought invitations to qat chews where hosts shared bags of the leaves, and we debated politics and art. Despite living in one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, Yemenis prided themselves on their hospitality, a hallmark of the region in general.

America is different. The following year, during a cold November, Jarallah traveled to the US for a conference, and my friend, the political scientist, met him in New York, where I live. She invited me out to dinner. We ate at Prune. When the bill came at the end of the meal, and my friend and I split it, Jarallah was aghast: Shouldn't she be hosting me? What bad manners she had.

munchies-yemen

Illustration by Adam Waito.

I had told Jarallah that many of the little groceries in my neighbourhood were owned by Yemenis. He wanted to see them. So the next day, my friend brought him out to Brooklyn, and we went to the bodega on my corner. "As-salaamu alaikum," Jarallah said to the man at the counter.

"Wa alaikum as-salaam," the man replied.

"I'm sure he'll ask you in back for tea," said my friend. But he didn't ask Jarallah in back for tea. There was an awkward moment when Jarallah attempted to follow the grocer behind his register only to realise that there was nowhere to go. Though the shop clerk knew him, for Jarallah was famous in Yemen, he had nothing to give. His life in America now was a matter of nickels and dimes, and each needed to be accounted for.

The same, in essence, went for me. Though I had a decent job, I was young and living on my own in New York. I had rent, student loans, credit card bills to pay. I was constantly broke. And that morning, when I hosted Jarallah at my house for breakfast, I had all of $6 to spend. I could afford croissants, butter, coffee. Jarallah, who was being polite, made satisfied sighing noises over his croissant. He tried to eat the butter out of hand, mistaking it for cheese.

I was mortified. After he left, I told myself that, next time Jarallah came to visit, I would make sure not to be so careless with my money. I would save up. I would treat him as he treated me, like an honoured guest.

It wasn't to be. On December 28, 2002—just as he was finishing a speech to members of the moderate Islamist party, Islah, urging the opposition to join together against poverty, the marginalisation of women, the deterioration of democracy, and other ills under Ali Abdullah Saleh—Jarallah was shot point-blank in the heart by an assassin with possible ties, it was said, either to al-Qaeda, which was gaining a foothold in Yemen, or to Saleh.

That was the year that the US had started its drone campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen. We have been bombing Yemen ever since. Ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring, Saleh today is a behind-the-scenes leader of Yemeni Houthis in a civil war against Yemen's Saudi- and US-backed government. It is a war that, in the first week of Donald Trump's presidency, resulted in the deaths of nine children in an American-led ground raid.

In New York, as our new president attempted to lock the doors against refugees and legal immigrants from Yemen and elsewhere in the Muslim world, New York City's Yemeni bodega owners protested with their own locked doors, holding a one-day strike and pray-in at Brooklyn's Borough Hall. Among them were the men who operate the sparkling, new market around the corner from me, with its plump egg-and-cheese in the mornings and the only late-night snacks within a short walk of my house in the quiet neighbourhood. I went there a few days after the strike with a midnight hankering for a Snickers bar.

"Did you strike?" I asked the young man sitting behind the tall counter.

"Yes," he said. He looked weary of the question. "It was very good."

I paid him my dollar. In Yemen right now, with US bombs falling, the UN World Food Program estimates that 14.1 million people are food insecure, half of those severely. Nearly 500,000 children are at risk of starving to death.

I left with my Snickers. I thought of something I read in the English-language Yemen Times as I've been thinking about Jarallah and the fate of his people. It was an interview from March of 2015, just as the latest civil war in Yemen flared up, conducted with Johannes van der Klaauw, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. He said, "Despite Yemen being a poor country, it is the most hospitable. It is the only country in the region that has signed international commitments to protect refugees and asylum seekers, human rights and children's rights. It takes the responsibility seriously but it does not have the capacities and stability to ensure the implementation of these commitments."

America is different, I thought to myself. We are not a poor country. We are stable and capable. But we do not take our commitments to protect refugees and asylum seekers seriously. We do not welcome strangers as honoured guests. We barely welcome them at all—particularly, it seems, when we ourselves have been a party to their troubles.

What would Jarallah have made of this American moment? My friend the political scientist thinks he could not have survived to have witnessed it. His assassination, she thinks, was inevitable, the fate of a man who advocated unity in a world intent on pulling itself apart.

Out on the street, I unwrapped my candy bar. I took a sugary, gooey bite. Behind me as I walked slowly back home, the lights from the Yemeni bodega shone, illuminating the American night, promising treats to feed our late-night hankerings in return for our American nickels and dimes.