Sightseeing in Yemen’s droneland
The invitation came early in the morning. A friend texted, asking whether I’d like to travel with him to Marib province, in Yemen’s rugged interior. I said yes, but with two conditions. First, we’d have to see the Arsh Bilqis, a millennia-old ruined temple whose five pillars are one of Yemen’s most ubiquitous national symbols. Second, he’d have to guarantee my safety. Marib’s reputation for instability – not least of all due to its long-standing al-Qaida presence – makes it a place one can’t travel to lightly. In recent days, a series of U.S. drone strikes has pounded the region.
He answered both in the affirmative, so I packed my bags and hopped in a car with my friend and one of his co-workers a few hours later.
As we wound through mountain after mountain, it was the twists and turns of the roads – rather than any security concerns – that left me nervous nearly to the point of shaking. But despite my long-standing fear that I’m destined to die young in a tragic Yemeni car accident, we nevertheless made it safely to the provincial capital in decent time. Upon first impression, the monotony of its sweltering gray streets cast it more as an economically depressed town in the middle of nowhere than a place on the front lines of the battle against al-Qaida. At least in their initial stages, the bulk of the conversations I had with people there reinforced that notion.
Yemenis often talk about Marib the way Westerners talk about Yemen itself peppering discussions of the place with stereotypes of backward tribesmen and complaints about lawlessness and irresolvable disorder. Although Marib is the source of much of the country’s oil and gas wealth, few of its residents have access to regular water and electricity, let alone decent health care or schooling.
It was Marib’s more pedestrian challenges that seemed to be at the forefront of locals’ minds: the rampant unemployment, the lack of development, the absence of government services, the “theft” of the province’s natural resources, and the resentment all these things have fueled. The locals wanted to make sure I was aware that al-Qaida wasn’t the only thing making their lives difficult.
“Even our own government may act like we’re a bunch of backwards extremists, but look for yourself. . . . Don’t you think we just want to live in peace?” a young Maribi studying at Sanaa University’s satellite campus in the provincial capital mused to nods from the others in the room.
I nodded, mumbling something about how that’s all anyone anywhere truly wants.
“We want to live with dignity, free from fear,” another continued, “whether from the fighters of al-Qaida or from the American planes that terrorize everyone whenever they appear.”
Nearly every time the subject came to al-Qaida during my time in Marib, the American drone program came up along with it. It’s not as if people there seemed to have any sympathy for the group; condemnations of al-Qaida were generally treated as statements of the obvious. But the psychological effects of previous strikes were palpable, the lingering fear they’ve sown clear solely through the tone of a person’s voice.
“You just don’t know when another one will come,” a teenager who witnessed a strike told me, the cracks in his voice doing more to convey his point than anything he could ever say. “Civilians have been killed and injured. Each time we hear the sound of a plane, we immediately worry it will happen again.”
“Do Americans know this?” he said, straining his words as he seemed to hold back tears. “Does your government?”
I’d hate to imply that such heavy moments characterized the bulk of my conversations in Marib. For the most part, they were remarkably informal and, at times, uplifting: a gesture to shared humanity.
But even during my visit to the ruins of the Arsh Bilqis, the shadows of U.S. drones seemed nearly inescapable.
My friend’s local partner, the head of the Marib-based NGO that was hosting his meetings, jumped at the opportunity to make the visit happen, driving us out in his Land Cruiser and maintaining a continuous narration of the area’s history, both ancient and modern. Seeing the surprisingly peaceful greenery of the Wadi Abida, often dubbed an infamous “al-Qaida hotbed,” was an education in itself.
“What’s it like driving through Marib with an American?” I asked our host at one point, expecting him to agree that the whole thing felt a bit unreal.
“It’s weird,” he said with a pause prior to heading in a different direction. “Your planes bomb my country, and you’re sitting in the back of my car even though . . . you’re my enemy.”
Uttered without even a hint of hostility, his words still left me numb. It had nothing to do with any fears for my safety – if anything, it seemed like the guy would take a bullet for me, if necessary. That didn’t change the fact, however, that he still irrevocably associated me with the missiles my country’s military has launched at targets in the vicinity of his home. It wasn’t always this way, he noted, reminiscing about when he used to work with a tourist company “before drones or al-Qaida.”
Either way, my instincts immediately told me nervous laughter was the only acceptable response, freeing me up to silently speculate about the long-run effects of fallout from the so-called “war on terror.”
By the time we made it to the Arsh a little later, the mood had again lightened, and after giving the five columns and the surrounding ruins their necessary attention, the four of us did the inevitable and scoped out a decent spot to take ridiculous pictures of each other in the hopes that at least a few would be decent enough to post on Facebook. I had more interviews to do and my friend had a pressing meeting, so we were only able to spend about a half-hour there. But still, as we drove off, I saw fit to declare an early mission accomplished. Obviously, I’d file a few stories, but as I flipped through my iPhone, the photos of me standing in front of Yemen’s most famous ancient monument with one of my closest friends seemed like enough to deem the trip a success. From this point forward, whenever I thought of Marib, I figured, I’d think of the Arsh and these photos, gesturing on some small level to some better world where Marib is simply a decent place for a road trip rather than an al-Qaida hideout.
When I got word of a drone strike in Marib a few weeks later on Aug. 6, however, those memories of jokingly flashing peace signs in front of ancient ruins suddenly felt rather incongruous. I thought back to my friend’s comment that the only time he was truly worried during the trip was when we stopped so I could use the bathroom in the middle of the desert on our way back to Sanaa. Noting that we were in a car full of young men parked on the side of a highway shortly after dusk, he said he couldn’t shake fears that we might get droned. At the time, there hadn’t been a strike in the province in months; it was hard not to see the scenario he imagined less as a legitimate fear and more as a piece of black comedy – an American journalist making it safely in and out of a particularly unstable part of an unstable country, only to have his own government accidentally kill him as he’s urinating on the side of the road. As I wondered whether I’d passed by the site of the latest strike during my trip to Marib, however, his fears didn’t seem as irrational. It was the fourth in a series of drone strikes tied to a raised terrorism alert stemming from intercepted communications between high-ranking al-Qaida officials. The threat shuttered embassies across the region, prompting British and American diplomats to evacuate Sanaa, while spurring the United States to carry out 10 attacks on al-Qaida targets – two of which occurred in Marib – in roughly two weeks.
I went to Marib to experience its history. I came away with a more nuanced take on a part of Yemen that even Yemenis tend to stereotype. Yet I still can’t help associating Marib with drones and al-Qaida terrorists. Far more unsettling, however, is that when people in Marib think of terrorism, they also think of drones. And being an American means that when they’re thinking about drones, they’re ultimately thinking of me.