I am itching to visit Yemen; CAI has a feeding program in conjunction with ALLA and WABIL to feed the starving people ravaged by the sustained violence of war. But the doors shut on my face with every attempt to get a visa and a method of going in. So I try using wasta of a prominent ex-Yemenia Airline officer, very well connected with former and current power brokers. He meets me all right, but scrutinizes me like an irate physiatrist would his patient.
Aree Baba, he says at length, I am not in the business of abetting suicides, no matter if it’s for a good humanitarian cause. You’ll be kidnapped for sure, or killed or both. Forget it. Work with the people already there and help as much as possible.
I am not a person who takes refusal easily and feel the usual rebellious taste of helplessness, frustration and bitterness rise in me. So although I swallow the letdown with some difficulty, I am comfortable with my conscious; I tried.
So I turn my attention to Ethiopia and the starving people there. After suffering scorching temperatures of about 120F in Najaf and Karbala just a few days ago, the 70F of Addis Ababa is pure ecstasy. Joining me for the 3-day trip is Sohail Abdullah, CAI Trustee from New York. We clear immigration and customs at Addis painlessly, $50 poorer each; the process is well managed and efficient.
Ethiopia is a refreshing change from many countries I am lucky to visit, in many aspects. Ethiopian people smile easily, are genial and helpful. The women are startlingly attractive, with abundant smiles and both Sohail and I struggle to keep our eyes cast down. The people always respond with ‘Ayshee’ (yes); actually coming through with the request is another matter. The country is well connected, with 3G links almost everywhere we travel, even in remote areas. The streets are largely clean, vehicles driven on the correct side of the road, with groups of women rising sandstorms as their arms, equipped with pronged sweepers, swing away.
David, our guide for the next three days, is waiting for us outside and we connect after some hiccups. Almost all Addis taxis are ancient Ladas from the Soviet era, rickety, and reek of cheap, offensive gasoline; no wonder I feel so lightheaded after every cab ride. We take one of these and end up at pre-booked room at the Caravan Hotel not too far away. A small family owned property; clean, comfortable and with above average service, again, everybody working there with a ready, winning smile. The hotel, though very safe, is lined by massage parlors offering exotic services left to our imaginations.
We confer with David after checking in and plan strategy. Immediately evident, with David and many others who we connect with, is the palpable fear on their faces while we talk about means to feed the hungry. The tone of voice will lessen to a murmur and eyes become shifty, as if afraid of someone invisible snooping. The government of Ethiopia, although efficient and relatively clean from corruption ravaging other African countries, is ruthless in what it deems inappropriate actions by her citizens. This includes clandestine meeting with foreigners, especially those coming in to help.
David is able to arrange the drive to Dire Dawa the next day, some 300 miles away, and the closest we can get to the starving masses. There, we’ll be able to connect to a network of momeneen that will make any food distribution possible. Our strategy complete, we ask David to take us for dinner since our tummies are rumbling. I get high once again, driving in a cab to a Yemeni restaurant. Outside the restaurant, I get an opportunity to purchase more intoxicants if I want – miroongi, or khaat. The bloody stuff is everywhere in this country. With the gasoline fumes and miroongi and the liquor shops and the massage parlors and ladies of the night that stalk the corners of this city at all times, urban Ethiopians seem to be in one continuous euphoria!
The choice of food in Ethiopia, at least the ones we are exposed to, is Tibps (tiny bits of beef sautéed with few greens and excellently spiced) with Njeera (something like mkaate except much thinner and made with millet without sugar) or fresh hot naan and Mandi (Pilau rice with chunks of lamb dumped in). Sohail cannot pronounce Tibps even after hundreds of attempts. I stick to Tibps with Njeera or naan; the Mandi packs colossal amount of calories. Coffee and tea in Ethiopia are classics.
We burn some calories early next morning, walking up and down streets of the slowly waking city with some outlets still partying to loud music and young women in dubious attire lounging around bars that are still open.
It takes us 10 hours to get to Dire Dawa, stopping only for salaat on uncomfortable terrain under trees or beside the road and lunch in Nazareth. There is continuous chitchat or loud music (not unpleasant, reminds me of Taarab of E. Africa) in Amharic. I suspect the driver keeps it loud to stay awake. The roads, built by the Chinese, are super smooth. We learn that David, in his late thirties, already has eight children and wants as many as his current wife can produce. Perhaps thirty, he says nonchalantly. Or maybe he’ll add one more wife, he adds after a thought, a coy smile playing on his lips. And how is he going to support all the kids and second wife, demands Sohail? David lifts his eyes to the sky.
We arrive at Triangle Hotel in Dire Dawa exhausted. There is no food except few semi-sweet mangoes we pick up earlier. The hotel is dated but the Internet is reasonably good so I’m happy. I fall asleep with cockroaches for company. The next morning, after breakfast, where a waitress serves me ‘toasted white bread’ because I requested ‘brown’ bread, we tour Dire Dawa while we await the arrival of a renowned Sayyed who will advise and help with our program. Dire Dawa reminds me of a much bigger version of Tanga, Tanzania; once a bustling city now in steep decay. It has a lot of character and history, however, with obvious signs of diverse nationalities and religions once calling it home. It is overwhelmingly Muslim now, with mature men in unsavory saffron beards roam, wife(s) trailing behind like unsetting shadows.
The Sayyed arrives from a place distastefully called Jigjiga. He is a highly respected man who is nationally revered. He leads us to a village called Shinile, where communities are in dire need for food. Rains have failed them when they were most in need but have now returned with a vengeance, destroying whatever is sowed. I can see the poverty and decay of the village. The Sayyed informs us that this village is better off, communities further away are in even bad shape but we cannot go there. CAI will insha’Allah try and put together a feeding program and incorporate with the regular Ramadhan Iftaar Distribution Program.
The return to Addis is as tiring. Again, we stop for food (lethargic looking spaghetti with canned tuna in a spicy broth) and salaat under a tree overlooking a very scenic plateau; I feel so much closer to Allah praying here.
We have a day free so decide to tour Addis but rains curtail our plans somewhat. Nevertheless, we have an enjoyable time driving through the ancient rain soaked city and Sohail does some shopping to appease gods back home. I leave for Dar (eager for nundu, mishkaaki, kuku yaku chooma and Coke-soaked karaangas) the next day while Sohail flies to NY via Dubai.
Click here to view the photo blog of our trip by Sohail Abdullah.