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Peggy in Wadi Do'an

Peggy in Wadi Do’an

Two women friends and I were in the Wadi Do’an in southeastern Yemen, ancestral home to Osama bin Laden.  It was 2004.  Our vehicle had made its way along the rocky dry stream bed for a couple of hours and we’d finally arrived at the halfway point in the wadi, the village of Sif.  The restaurant had a clean bathroom.  It also had a huge mural on the wall depicting the twin towers, with Mohammed Atta’s face framed admiringly on one of the towers.  We knew we were in territory where the horrors of 9/11 could be interpreted as a victory for the “little guy.”  A kind of David and Goliath story, starring someone from the area who had brought powerful America to its knees, at least figuratively.

The restaurant owner came over to where I stood looking at the picture.  Actually, I had taken a picture of the picture.  “Where you from?” he asked gruffly, suspiciously.

Because we had avoided having security guards by claiming to be French (we were told the French don’t tip security guards, so no one cares if they are protected) I told the man I was French.  I looked him in the eye as I said it.  He knew I was lying.  I knew from the picture precisely where he stood on the issue of America.  Neither of us blinked.  Neither of us showed emotion.  Since he did not speak French, he could not challenge my statement.  The subject was dropped.

A little later, I bought some of the expensive Hadhramaut honey from the man.  He told someone to wrap it carefully for me.  Our little party continued on through the Wadi Do’an without incident, saw Shibam, the “Manhattan of the Desert,” and enjoyed several days in that legendary wadi.

A few months later, a group of Belgian tourists was not so fortunate.  They were ambushed by gunmen along the road past Sif and four were killed.  Not long after that, a suicide bomber killed a group of Korean tourists at sunset near Shibam.

The story does not prove anything, of course.  We three had the advantages of being women and of having age on our side.  Who wants to murder old women?  Who in their right mind would want to kidnap them and have to deal with them??  Our getting out of Wadi Do’an unscathed may have been nothing more than good luck.

I do feel, however, that a calm and open manner (along with a clear sense of purpose) can help would-be terrorists to see us as human beings.  It is harder to hurt or kill someone you have spoken with, sold honey to, and received basic human respect from.  Arrogance and ignorance could erase that inhibition.  So, ironically, could fear.  By sending calm, non-threatening, normal body messages, we take away the ease of shooting or hurting an “alien.”  Soldiers have trouble shooting enemy soldiers when they look them in the eye.  I believe terrorists (at least some terrorists) might have the same issue with hostages or victims.

I had lived in Yemen and had studied it intensively before this incident.  I knew that dressing ultra-modestly was required in order to establish rapport in Yemen.  I knew that unobtrusive behavior would be wise.  I knew from being a Peace Corps volunteer that even radical people can have rational bases for their actions.  I continue to think that, while it doesn’t always work, person-to-person communication can be self-preservative!

Peggy Hanson

Peggy Hanson is an author and travel blogger who loves to share her international life with her readers. Peace Corps, Voice of America, teaching of English–all these have played major roles in her life. Growing up in a series of small towns in Colorado, the daughter of a mountain-climbing Congregational minister and teacher, probably helped mold her affinity to nomadism. In her adult life, she’s lived for extended periods in Turkey, Yemen, India and Indonesia.

Her first two books are mysteries in the Elizabeth Darcy series set in other countries: DEADLINE ISTANBUL and DEADLINE YEMEN. She is currently working on the third in that series, DEADLINE INDONESIA, and is also compiling and editing her great aunt Mary’s diaries and letters and pictures from 1888-1920 when she was a missionary teacher and principal in the Balkans. The working title of the diaries is MISS MATTHEWS OF MACEDONIA. It is a story of early feminism and a woman’s bravery in the face of war.



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