Pythagoras, said to be one of the intellectually most important men who ever lived, would have had a hard time in Yemen. This is not due to Yemeni’s disrespect of geometry; beautifully shaped semi-circles decorate traditional windows, but due to the prevalence of beans in Yemeni diet.
Pythagoras made groundbreaking advances in mathematics and founded a religion, based on the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. While Islam’s account of paradise would have certainly pleased him, the amount of beans munched in the country would make him turn in his grave by more than 180 degrees straight.
That Pythagoras would not seem entirely at ease here is altogether fitting, as I find notions of my journey reflected in the combination of mystic and rational elements of his philosophy.
Beans, fuul in Arabic, are easiest to dispose of, and shall be treated first. Pythagoras presumably banned beans drawing on an older pagan cult. Yet even the people of his times would have none of it and revolted wherever Pythagoras managed to get his religion instigated. In Yemen, it did not take the prohibition of beans for people to revolt, but I shall come to this later, and talk about Yemeni staple-food before. Apart from fuul, which is the poor mans, breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are many other exciting dishes. One that is only found in Yemen is called Salta. I personally do not like Salta very much, but eating out in a Salta place is an experience. Salta, a mixture of eggs, tomatoes, spices and meat, served with fresh bread, is prepared in enormous pots on deafening gas-burners. The chef and his pots usually stand somewhat elevated and a crowd gathers before the pot, shouting up their orders while wielding the corresponding money. Once ones pledge has been heard, one tries to find a place at one of the many simple tables in the eating hall and waits for the waiter to eventually bring the order. So hot is the massive iron pan containing the food that the waiter, amid much shouting, literally cuts his way through the crowd.
What is interesting is that all this could clearly be organized differently, as a Yemeni friend remarked, but people seem to like it that way. One cannot help and wonder if something of the Yemeni warrior tradition manifests itself in the Salta place, as the people in the melee wear wild turbans, scarves and the obligatory swords, adding to the unique atmosphere of eating Salta.
I now come to the revolution. As I said, it did not take a bean embargo for Yemenis to revolt, but an equally important philosophical concept: Freedom. Inspired by similar revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis have been trying for a year, as I write these lines, to rid themselves of their President. The result of which was the deployment of troops in the city, massive shootings, demonstrations, artillery shells raining down on some quarters, protester camps, security forces, tanks on each crossway, clashes and explosions.. for a year, until President Saleh finally left the country.
While people are incredibly proud and hopeful about the future, one can barely imagine what kind of ordeal normal citizens have been through. Living with an ordinary family, I get to see the family view, with young kids terrorized and parents in deep worry about their family’s future. Now that most of the ordeal is over, I remark how happy they are for their children to play again, as a notion of returning normality.
In a journey trough the city I am told all the places where tanks would be positioned just until a week ago, and which places came under artillery fire. I see the schools that have been used by the government as ammunition dumps and firing positions and on some days I watch fighter jets landing at the airport. (where they come from, I do not know). In the old city, I try to avoid the buildings with Baghdadesque security. Earth walls reinforce the many concrete blocks, barbed wire, armored vehicles and forward shooting positions even hundreds of meters before the fortifications.
Yemen is a politically very diverse environment, and one never quite knows who the fortifications, vehicles, soldiers and planes belong to, but fears that they might not necessarily be on the same side and unleash their respective shells onto the other side at any moment.
According to the theory of the transmigration of souls, the immortal soul leaves the body after the body’s death to continue living somewhere else. This is what seems to have happened to Sanna, too. After the death of the former regime, life has clearly come back, and there is a sense of a new beginning. People are back fighting for Ghat, instead of their lives, the souk in the old city bristles with life and the overall feeling is one of people celebrating their country’s rebirth. The celebrating is also extended to the nights, though, in which I often lay awake, struggling to distinguish wedding fireworks, wedding shootings, door knocking, real shootings, explosions, falling onto the floor on top of me of heavy items and kids setting off improvised fireworks in the street.
I want to finish with some thoughts about why I have come here. Pythagoras, as it happens, exemplifies a philosophic schism that I have found useful to explain my wanting to come to Yemen. As happens often in dialectic writing, it is only by way of many detours that we arrive at the final conclusion, and, it dawns on me, the many postings about earlier journeys have helped me to both physically and mentally arrive here.
The conflict between our rational and instinctive side is a timeless one, and also lies at the heart of the current European crisis. In the struggle between self-mastery and satisfaction of bodily desires, everybody has to find his own equilibrium, but is advised to stay clear of the extremes. In Pythagoras’s philosophy, ratio and mysticism are closely united, as can be seen in his understanding of progress in geometry as a way to get closer to god.
My journey here has also been one of self-mastery and satisfaction. As I understand that coming here, against all odds, is yet another exercise in emotion control (fear), I also dwell in the energy and chaos of Sanaa, like there was no tomorrow. As I think about this, I realize that my desire to risk my neck has gone, but that I can nevertheless enjoy the place.