An old Raymah proverb says: “People are partners in three things: water, the road, and the pasture.” When it comes to the road, this code of coexistence stands out. With the implicit understanding that anything can happen around the next bend, society has managed to hold fast to this form of partnership, even among strangers. It’s an expression of resistance to life’s pressures that often seem unbearable.
Travel has become an adventure fraught with fear and anxiety since the war broke out. Yemeni roads are dotted with checkpoints, and with access to some cities blocked, Yemenis are forced to take alternative routes that can be arduous and dangerous. Villagers may wait for days until a vehicle can take them to the nearest urban centre, even if it means riding on a car’s roof or its rear panel. Some travellers end up going on foot, not least because transportation costs have risen dramatically amid Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
My own trips are often marked by feelings of alienation and sadness over leaving loved ones behind. But despite a fear of the unknown at the end of every journey, I try to make my travel experiences enjoyable, relishing a chance to expand my perspective through new places and passengers with whom I can laugh, listen to music, and make friends.
Many Yemenis are keen to travel in pairs, especially for long trips. If friends can’t agree on a date right away, one may advance or delay other plans so they can journey together.
Helping each other is a duty of us all.”
Of course, what binds all travellers is the hope that our destination will bring resolution to some challenging circumstance in our lives. Many hit the road in search of work; some are pursuing higher education, while others leave home for medical treatment. In rural Raymah, holiday travel is rare.
But in Yemen, public transport is not just a means to get somewhere. No matter how long or short the distance may be, the road unites Yemenis from all walks of life. We share stories, jokes, and snacks (including ka’k, a baked doughnut-like pastry made of wheat, corn flour, ghee, and milk); in an emergency, we take a collective stand for the greater good. One harrowing example of such solidarity is etched in my memory.
My attendance at a conference in Cairo two years ago required my transit from Sana’a to Aden, a five-hour bus trip (the airport at Sana’a had been closed since the outbreak of war). Among the travellers was Mohammed al-Omrani, en route to Egypt for urgent eye treatment. For reasons no one understood, he was singled out at a checkpoint while a gunman searched the bus. Once ordered to disembark, al-Omrani could have been placed in indefinite detention were it not for the bus driver and all the passengers. Even at gunpoint, we refused to hand him over, declaring with one voice: either we all go down with our companion or we resume our journey to Aden together. This deterred the gunman, who relented and allowed al-Omrani back on the bus. Off we went.
Al-Omrani’s nervous state was palpable afterward; he panicked at every subsequent checkpoint, and his near-blindness only added to his anxiety. I did my best to calm him all the way to Aden. When we arrived late at night, I took him to a hotel where we stayed for three days to await our flight to Egypt so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
When we travel, there is no room for political baggage, so we leave it behind.
The conference coordinators had reserved special rooms for the participants in an upscale hotel so we could get acquainted the day before travelling to Egypt as a group. Torn over leaving al-Omrani on his own, I decided to take him with me. Booking an additional room would have been too expensive, so when the colleague slated to be my roommate arrived, I told him about our ordeal and asked if al-Omrani could stay with us for one night. He laughed, astonished that I would even seek his permission.
“Helping each other is a duty of us all,” he said with a warm welcome. The three of us later went for dinner and spent the rest of the evening wandering around the beautiful markets of Aden.
Al-Omrani became a friend to the entire group. We parted company only when he was met by a friend at the Cairo airport.
This incident points up a part of Yemeni identity that cannot be compromised, even in life-threatening situations. When we travel, there is no room for political baggage, so we leave it behind. In forgetting our differences, disagreements that might separate us melt away with every mile, and our hearts open wider.