Sample Chapter One
For the children of war; 2 million killed, 4-5 million disabled, and 12 million left homeless, in this decade alone.
Thus, I do not see what use there is in those millstones of the gods said to grind so late as to render punishment hard to be recognized, and to make wickedness fearless. Plutarch in Moralia circa 100 AD
Yemen seeps through the chinks in your soul, her drab sand deposited in the narrowest clefts of your deepest marrow. The country leaves your life furrowed, tormented, never to be the same again. It makes you a casualty and then a hero, both unsought.
Yemen left me hurt and healed me. It broke me into a million pieces yet mended the fractured boy inside. The Yemenis were like a lost branch of my family, becoming dearer to me than those who shared my own country and DNA. The closest of them, Jabbar, like a long-lost brother, nearer to my heart than the two I had grown up with. I, a dearer brother to him than the one that suckled his own mother’s breasts. I loved him, yet he was the only man I ever plotted to murder—and with good reason.
Those haggard mountain people barged into my personal life on an otherwise quiet summer’s day. I was more than halfway through my circumnavigation of the world in my sailboat, a Farr 45. The “45” stood for the length, 45 feet, and 13 feet wide. She was on old, racing yacht, built for speed not comfort, and ready for retirement if not the scrapyard. But I wanted to take the old girl for one more spin—around the whole damn world. After a decade of working as a physician associate in neurosurgery in Seattle, the trip was my sabbatical, my gift to my tired, stinky feet and depleted brain. I never wanted to don a surgical mask again or go to a compulsory six a.m. meeting to listen to a hospital executive—a blood fainter, nonetheless—lecture us on the latest paradigm shift in medicine. At thirty-five, it was time to call all my scattered thoughts home and reconsider what my future should be, rekindling my love for medicine from the remnants that remained—if there were any to reclaim.
My sister, Angie, the real sailor in the family, had taken a four-month leave from her job in New York to sail with me from Seattle to Thailand. Once I had my sea legs, I said goodbye to her at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. For the next six weeks, I alone crossed the stormy Bay of Bengal, the steaming Arabian Sea, and then moved into the Gulf of Aden.
The Gulf of Aden is beautiful water, an ocean painted in blue pastels, the thin edges like crystalline peridot cutting deep into the rugged tan Al Hajar mountains. As I sailed along the Omani coast, I was alone with my thoughts of pirates and the blistering early-August sun. Heat stroke in such an isolated place would be a real menace.
As the winds pulled me toward Africa, my worries were soon supplanted by my preparations for transiting through the Suez Canal, just a couple of weeks away. With calm seas and a good close-haul wind, a big smile took up residence across my sun-scorched and peeling face. Taking advantage of my privacy, save a few nomadic birds, I plugged my ears into my phone’s playlist and danced barefooted across my salt-stained deck. I’m a private dancer, never having graced a public venue with my gauche movements. My stuttering moonwalk scared away even the small flock of white-cheeked terns that were hitching a ride on my bow. Sailing through the Mediterranean would be the highlight of my one-year journey, or so I supposed. Then downhill across the Atlantic and back home to New York. Seattle just a reverie. What was coming next in my life? I hadn’t a clue.
As I approached the Bab al-Mandab Strait, that narrow river of sea that cuts between the southwest corner of Yemen and the northeast corner of Djibouti, I had no choice but to think about the bloody civil war just beyond my starboard. It came to me unsolicited. Gray Saudi Arabian patrol boats were out in force, attempting to prevent “conflict contraband,” such as drones and bombs—as well as food and medicine—from slipping through the cracks of their otherwise iron embargo. They pushed the shipping lanes farther to the west and away from the Yemeni shores, slowing us all to a crawl.
I could see the sun reflecting in brief flashes off the Saudis’ beady binocular lenses, as they watched my every move, including my exclusive dance steps. I added a sudden turn toward them and extended middle fingers that they could focus their damn binoculars on. Not a lot of love lost. After all, those bastards had killed my dad on September 11, 2001.
I’m sure most Saudis are good people. I would’ve forgotten my Army Arabic if it had not been for Dr. Khan, a Seattle vascular surgeon and a Saudi Arabian national, who insisted I speak only Arabic with him, for my benefit. A true friend and a good man. But I had to focus my rage somewhere. Why not the Saudis?
I was mesmerized by Yemen’s coast, the shore veiled behind a brown dust cloud with spiky bronze mountains rocketing into the clear air above, as if the Alps had been hung there to dry. Squinting through my own binoculars, I saw lofty crags sparse of trees. Leaning over my starboard gunwales for a better view, I saw a mysterious highland resting among summer’s tall cumulous clouds. Despite knowing that a civil war was ravaging through its valleys below, I found it enchanting. The suffering, unimaginable. I had to turn away—but I couldn’t.
It seemed to me that war had been shadowing me my entire fucking life. From losing Dad in the World Trade Center attack when I was just twelve to my own tours in Afghanistan a decade later. I swallowed hard what spit I could muster. I wanted nothing to do with fighting anymore, yet I was enthralled by this land of conflict of which I knew almost nothing. I kept putting my binoculars away, wrapping the neck strap around them and tucking them into a drawer in the cabin, only to go back every few minutes to retrieve them for further study of the coast.
I moored my boat near the Hanish Islands as darkness was settling across the Red Sea. While the Hanish were Yemeni, they fell outside the Saudi blockade of the mainland. The islands were nothing more than an archipelago of camel-colored rocks floating upon the translucent blue waters. The largest of the islands, with its elongated tail pointing north and its jutting head on its south end, lay on those waters like Jabba the Hut lounging on a waterbed, wearing a lighthouse as a hat. I chuckled with the comparison. The water-swept rocks were inhabited by thousands of war-weary fishermen, along with tens of thousands of seabirds who really didn’t give a damn about any war.
Following one of their colorful fishing dhows draped in nets, I found a relatively quiet bay of liquid jade, a safe harbor to drop my anchor. A colony of stone houses and renovated caves covered the tan bluffs above me. The peaceful waters were soon interrupted when three small rowboats piloted by thin, dark-skinned boys donning filthy robes and faces approached my portside. One child stood in the center of his boat and screamed, in English, through a big white grin, “You buy, okay?” Then he and his friends held up long sticks with trinkets, bracelets, and combs dangling on strings. One of the boys held up a stained blue-and-white baseball hat that read “I [heart] Yemen.” Apparently, I wasn’t the only transient boat to stop there to moor for the night.
I rifled through my pockets and tossed the scrawny boys what money I had on me—a few Omani rials, leftovers from a brief resupply stop in Muscat a week earlier. One coin fell into the water. A scrappy boy, so thin that you could see his ivory bones through his mahogany skin, dove in after it. In a minute he came to the surface with a big smile, the water draining from his black hair, the curls quickly popping out of the mat, and the coin between his teeth. My jaw dropped. A ripple of giggles spread out across the dirty faces of the children, I assume because I was so easily impressed.
The little boats were immediately multiplied by a factor of five, one piloted by girls, seeming to come out of nowhere as if the stones themselves were bearing children. With a stunned look I quickly pulled up my—just deployed—anchor while yelling back at them, “Lays ladaya almali. yabtaeidu. [I have no money. Go away].” To my surprise, as I’m sure they were in want, they slowly rowed back toward shore, their little shoulders slumped. Looking over my own shoulder for one more glimpse, I saw them climb out of their boats, stand on the beach—oars in hands—and give me one last stare with their rusty brown eyes. Eyes like pairs of peepholes on exotic doors, behind which a mysterious world loomed. The life of Yemen’s sweet-smiling children of war, an enigma.
I re-anchored my boat farther from the shore to discourage more visitors. I was too tired to sail through another night, and the shipping lanes were becoming too crowded to rely on autopilot during catnaps.
I went into the cabin, cooked up a good meal, and opened a beer. I had a foot-long sharkha, an Omani lobster, which I’d bought from a fishing boat three days earlier. I’d tried to keep it alive in a bucket of sea water, but it had become quite docile since that morning. If I failed to consume it tonight, it would go to waste. As I sat inhaling the meat of my crustacean in garlic butter, I wished I had given the little trinket-selling boat brats some food. Only two hundred yards away, they were eating their last dreams.
My satellite dish was well positioned for a good internet hookup. While I should have been sleeping, I spent most of the night reading about the war, so close that—despite the dark—I could sense its presence, smell its oily smoke, and hear its faint rolling thunder on the mainland, preceded by flashes of light. The star-clad clear sky told me this wasn’t just a summer’s storm. Out of curiosity and before retiring to my hammock, I searched online for opportunities for physician associates in Yemen. Fat chance, but what if? Rubbing my chin stubble, I focused intently, my face drifting so close to the small font, my eyes began to blur and my breath fogged up the screen.
By the wee hours of the morning, the pursuit had landed me on the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) website, where a job was posted for an “Advanced Practice Clinician, NP or PA” in a refugee camp in the mountain village of Haydan. Interesting. I brushed my teeth and fell into my hammock, knowing that a few hours of slumber were required before another busy day of sailing.
Having fallen asleep while my brain was so engaged, a chain of odd dreams about Yemen’s war haunted me throughout the morning, like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts. But it was predawn when the most upsetting and vivid dream occurred. It came in that twilight time, between deep sleep and awake when the boundaries of reality are indistinct.
I made the teak decking in the open cockpit my bed sometime during the night, escaping the previous day’s heat that had refused to dissipate from the cabin. The early morning’s redness was leaking over Yemen’s craggy peaks in the east. My eyes were half open. I heard a soft whisper, a child’s voice in Arabic, coming from somewhere across the dark water. “Bryan, help us.”
How do they know my name? I sat up, the muscles in my legs tightening like ropes, and answered in a sleepy whisper, “Who’s there?” Then quickly repeated in Arabic, “Min hunak?”
With the silence, save the distant booms, I lay down again. I felt a chill flush over me as I wrapped my chest with my arms, tucking my hands into my armpits for warmth. My jaw quivering, I unzipped my spinnaker’s storage bag and pulled the corner of the crimson sail through the opening and over me like a makeshift cover. My trembling spread. I didn’t want to return to the cabin until my encounter with the voices was finished.
Before long, the child’s voice was followed by dozens in harmony, in Arabic and English. “Bryan, please help us.” Finally, the voices of thousands of children.
I flinched with each petition. I rotated on the hard deck, one ear down and the other covered by my arm and the sailcloth. Still, the voices softly penetrated my ears. A solo-sailor’s hallucination?
Sitting up, I rubbed my face with my hands, moist from a cold sweat. I shook my head and stood. A damp, milky air had filled the space around my boat and across the sea rendering the Hanish islands invisible. However, mainland Yemen’s mountainous silhouette to the east stood in the glassy space above the haze, the mountains’ sharp edges becoming more pronounced as the sun’s rise was imminent.
The application for the IRC position in Yemen asked for a current photo. I went into the head to take a piss. In the dim light afforded by the overhead LED, I studied my face in the stainless-steel mirror under the brilliant white light. My cheeks were cherry red and marked by patches of flaking and peeling skin. I was overdue for my weekly shave. My unkept hair, normally the color of coffee, was sun-bleached on the tips like a cosmetologist’s experiment gone awry. Additionally, I had been a stranger to a barber’s chair since leaving Seattle a year earlier, and my shoulder-length locks couldn’t have been crustier from the buildup of sea salt. Besides the constant spray from my bow, when I bathed, it was usually in the same briny waters but with full immersion and over the side. Maybe if I were applying for residence in a homeless camp such a “current photo” would have been helpful but in every other instance should put an end to my prospects of employment. But it didn’t.
Two weeks later, when I reached the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where I should have been turning to the northwest to Suez, I instead turned to the northeast toward Eilat’s harbor in Israel. After forty-eight hours spent corresponding with Dorothy Edwards, IRC’s Yemeni country director, via e-mail and one satellite phone conversation, I had agreed to take the position in Haydan, my background check pending. What the hell was I thinking?
Angie had always said I was the impulsive one in the family. I think the tragic loss of my dad at a critical age had left me with candor about my feelings, while my two older brothers as well as my mom were the opposite, emotionally catatonic. Angie was only five and remembers Dad by photos alone. If anyone in our family was spared, it was her. In ways, she became our anchor.
My degree in Arabic from my Army days must have impressed Dorothy, especially when she asked me a couple of questions in the Yemeni dialect, adorned richly in a British accent but understandable. I must have answered to her satisfaction. I didn’t explain to her that I had studied Arabic, not as an Army requirement—Afghans don’t speak Arabic—but because I wanted to read the Koran for myself. A Muslim will tell you that you must read the Koran in Arabic. I wasn’t a Muslim, but I wanted to know why the hell the 9/11 terrorists had slaughtered my father, a medic in the south tower trying to save lives. He was a good man. I never figured it out, even after resorting to an English translation of the book. My Muslim friends were as perplexed about it as I was, except that hate has no boundaries, no nationality or religion.
For the next six days, I lived on my boat moored in Eilat’s quiet harbor. The Israeli city was flanked by lovely white beaches peppered with dark-skinned, half-naked tourists. Behind them, the well-lit storefronts were full of more modestly dressed shoppers. Once the IRC paperwork was processed, a two-year contract signed, I dry-docked The Protagonist in the marina and took a bus to Tel Aviv’s airport. Then a convoluted flight to Geneva, where I waited a week for a Red Cross flight directly to Sana’a’s international airport, a strip-mall looking facility, squarely in the crosshairs of both the Saudis—and at times—the Houthi rebels.
I was greeted on the tarmac in Sana’a by Dorothy. A tall woman, about my height, five-foot ten, with auburn hair, but gray sprouting here and there like weeds, all well sprayed to hold its bold form even in the mountain breezes. She reminded me of old videos of the late Margaret Thatcher—same red lipstick and string of pearls but with a schoolgirl’s giggle. I would guess she was in her early sixties, but her skin was a smooth as a twenty-year-old. Maybe she’d had work done, but I doubted it. Her sense of humor may have been her way of coping in a very stressful environment—it even calmed my own nerves, her humor so dry it could ignite a fire.
We approached her snorkeled Land Rover where her Yemeni driver was sitting on the bent-up hood in his button-up tan shirt, hands folded, legs crossed, a smoking cigarette between his fingers, and staring off into the distance as if he was wishing he was doing anything else but this. Suddenly, the rear door opened and a woman stepped out. A gorgeous woman with a pale complexion and coils of shoulder-length blond hair. My attention was drawn to her irresistibly. I watched her in my peripheral vision over Dorothy’s left shoulder. I glanced now and then to see her directly, not believing what my peripheral vision was telling me. Meanwhile, I listened carefully to Dorothy as vital information about the country and my job poured from her fluttering bright red lips into my curious ears.
As we approached the car, Dorothy paused and looked at the woman. “Oh, Bryan, this is Sheila, uh, Dr. Emory, whom I was telling you about.”
I reached out my hand and took hers. It was soft and strong. A dimpled smile erupted on her freckled face. Her natural beauty left me speechless. Perfection. I blushed as if my sailor’s cheeks could get any redder.
“I’m so glad you’re here Bryan. I’ve been in Haydan for a year with no rest. I’ve worked my buns off,” Sheila said with a silly laugh.
Stuffing my sweaty hands in my pockets, I responded, “I don’t, uh … I mean, I don’t know why, but I assumed you were a man. I mean, on the phone when Dorothy told me, ‘Dr. Emory is alone in the camp,’ for some reason I was thinking of a man. Maybe I didn’t expect a woman, especially a woman of your beau—I mean, uh … I mean a woman alone would feel safe enough to take this job.”
Her dimples reappeared, “Oh, I can take care of myself. Besides the people in Haydan … well, they love our work. They’ll watch your back.”
“You’re so … like, I mean young,” I said with a staring squint, “I mean you look so young. When did you complete your residency?”
“I didn’t,” she said. “Came here straight from medical school.”
“Really?” I said in a tone of disbelief. “You’re one brave woman.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’m ‘brave,’ maybe I am. But … well, some would say, ‘foolish.’”
Dorothy interrupted her. “You two will have plenty of time to talk as it’s an eight-hour drive to Haydan. It’s not that far, but the infrastructure of this broken-down country makes you work hard for each mile gained. If it’s not for the dissolving roads, it’s going through countless checkpoints and dodging Saudi bombing raids.” A big smirk. “Oh … hmm, or you could take the bullet train I suppose and be there in an hour.”
Her face—straight as an arrow—left me stunned. I grinned. “Sure. Made of real bullets, I assume.”
Dorothy giggled as she wiped an unruly tuft of hair off her face.
As we pulled out of the airport and into the chaotic streets, I clinched my jaw and fists. It was same feeling pulling out of Bagram Airfield into the bustling streets of Kandahar. The streets were crowded with people and animals. Many of the men had AK-47s slung on their shoulders. Others, holding big, curved knives, sat in circles around tables sipping tea from small clear glasses. Street vendors quickly washing out the empty glasses and refilling them for the next customer. The women, some with their faces covered by burkas, some not, all carrying something—babies, big blue water jugs, bundles of bedding, or straw—were constantly crossing the street and dodging the chaotic traffic. Amid all of it was a menagerie of animals, beasts of burden, sources of meat or fiber, or both.
I didn’t know how big Sana’a was until Dorothy said, looking out her side window, “Sana’a has over four million residents … and it looks if they’re all out on a summer’s stroll today.” After a reflective moment, she added, “With so many people crowded into such a small mountainous space, during such a vicious war … you know, it could get quite dangerous.” She glanced at me over the back of her seat. “Don’t you think?”
I gave her a confused look in return.
“Sitting ducks,” she added. “What were they thinking … starting a bloody war here? Must have run out of khat and needed something to do.” Then she turned and looked over the seat again wearing a smirk. Sheila chuckled. I saw our driver’s squinting, sober eyes glance at Dorothy through the cracked rearview mirror.
I couldn’t control my blinking long enough to get a good view of the city. The poverty was all encompassing, from the over-worn, dirty clothes, to the skinny children with potbellies. People with missing limps, or patched eyes dotted every block. It seemed like every male had a weapon within reach. What the hell have I gotten myself into? My mouth went dry and stayed dry for the next two years.
We dropped Dorothy off at the IRC office, and Sheila moved to the front seat, while I remained in the back seat alone.
“I get car sick easily on winding roads,” Sheila said, “And, as you’ll see, Yemen is quite mountainous.” She closed her car door and fastened her seatbelt.
Having the back seat to myself, I wanted to close my eyes, calm my nerves, and sleep. Jetlag. Only two time zone changes since Switzerland, but our flight had left before dawn, and I’d had a sleepless night with a head full of worries before that.
As my eye lids gently closed and I focused on relaxing my muscles and taking deep, long breaths, Sheila turned and spoke to me over the back of her seat. “Bryan, I have a lot to tell you about life in Haydan and how we practice medicine there. It’s busy right now. I hope you can be in the clinic first thing in the morning. With me taking two days off to come to Sana’a to pick you up … well, we’ll be swamped tomorrow for sure.”
We navigated through the chaotic streets of Sana’a and out of town. I leaned forward and put my face closer to hers, so she didn’t have to turn around to speak. It also put me within the spell of her delightful ambience. Maybe it was the smell of her hair that enticed me. Possibly strawberry shampoo mixed with something organic. Since stepping off the plane, all I had smelled was a rotten kind of smoke. Her smell was a pleasant change, distracting from the ill feeling I was having about being in this place. As I listened to her sweet voice, I studied the back of her head and noticed the spectrum of colors of her blond hair. Each hair a different shade. Certainly, a natural blond. Who would make the effort to bleach or dye their hair here?
I watched Sheila’s expressions, dimples, smiles, and grimaces, all from a side view of her face. I noticed how she wrinkled her nose whenever she spoke about something unpleasant, like children dying from cholera or Saudi bombing raids. I looked at her freckles and tried to count them. I lost my place at sixty-four. I saw a translucent chicken pox scar on her left temple. I imagined her as a little girl, covered in sores, in bed, golden locks around her head like a mane. I would have brought her ice cream. Meanwhile, she, ignoring my stares, continued talking in earnest. Me, trying to ignore the images behind her on the other side of the Land Rover’s window. But soon those images took control of my senses.
New to the country, I was quickly overwhelmed, my mind not able to keep up with the visuals along the road. The suffering was more than Afghanistan. The farther we traveled from Sana’a the greater the impact from the war. More people on crutches or homemade wheeled chairs, some with bandages from recent injuries. The children dirtier and thinner with each mile gained toward the Dammaj Valley, the war’s epicenter. Each scene of misery passed by my car window like a fast-forwarded Mad Max movie, streaks of color but silent. With each mile, I felt us going deeper into the country and farther away from the possibility of escape. Panic material.
We traveled through several towns—Raydah, Khamir, Huth, Alamashya, and Sa’dah. The dystopian movie beyond the glass came out of its blur and sharpened as we slowed down to pass through those congested towns. Vicious horrors and signs of violence written in the rubble of what had been homes, even towns and written in the scars on the bodies of the people—on their skin or in the haunting expressions of their faces. But seated on my side of the glass was the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen, lecturing me on how to survive in that world. Entranced by her beauty and distracted by the humanity outside our car, I heard few of her words. Yes, her hair did smell of strawberries, and maybe a little body odor. But who doesn’t sweat in Yemen’s summer?
As we passed through the town of Sa’dah, Sheila stuck her finger out the Land Rover’s window, pointing at a white-washed stone and brick building, and identified it as the Doctors Without Borders hospital. “They take our difficult cases.” As we left the hospital behind us, she added, “I’m dating Michel, a doctor from France who works there. He’s pretty smart.”
Damn! I collapsed back into my seat.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Car sick?”
I nodded. “Yeah … uh, and a little tired.”
My back then resting against my seat, I turned my head to stare out my window. I had to reprogram my mind, like making it colorblind but beauty-blind instead. Sheila would be a colleague and nothing else—out of my league. Too many weeks alone at sea had left me vulnerable. I had even thought Dorothy a little bit cute.
Soon we passed a row of massive trees lining the road, looking gnarly and old, like they had witnessed a thousand seasons of peace and war. Pointing at the trees, Sheila said, “The legend behind those olive trees, those big ones over there, is that they were planted by one of Mohammed’s nephews … yes, that Mohammed. We’re right on the old frankincense trail that ran from Mecca into Oman. The story goes that the trees were planted almost fifteen hundred years ago and promised protection for everyone who stands in their shade until the final hour or day of judgment. You’ll see believers congregating there, especially during bombing raids. But myth or no myth, the trees are old.”
I watched men, women, and even goats high in the strong arching branches picking and eating its green fruit and spitting out the pits. Then I must have dozed, being overtaken by my exhaustion in the moment of silence. As I drifted off to sleep, I could hear the Land Rover’s squeaky brakes engaging and disengaging, my head going forward or backward with each squeak, and the seat rising and falling in sudden jerks. Muffled by the window, I heard distant voices in the crowds outside. Then dark silence ensued.
“Bryan! Hey, Bryan, we’re here,” came her soft voice.
I opened my eyes to a blurry world, the car still moving. I rubbed my eyeballs and looked again. I sat up. Where the hell was I? People were walking in long lines. Like leaf-cutter ants, they walked in straight rows on the road’s shoulders carrying bundles on their heads. The brown-teethed men, none of them over five-foot-six. Many had turbans or scarfs wrapped around their heads and wore long white or brown robes called thoobs and sports jackets. Others wore silky wraparound plaid skirts of ashen blue. Several of them, boys too, had curved knives—large as Bowie knives and highly ornate—in the front-center of their belts. Others were wearing shirts and pants, much like in the western world. I saw children, many carrying loads too—little girls in brightly colored dresses and grimy faces, boys in thoobs with sticks in their dirty little hands, pausing to aim them at one another like guns.
The bundles appeared to be straw, wheat, or possibly khat leaves. While khat had no nutritional benefit, I quickly learned that because of its monetary value as a drug, it could be exchanged for food or consumed as an escape from hunger. I soon found my nose pressed against the car window—eyes wide to take in the full view of my new town.
The Land Rover was slowing down to avoid the people and because the road had become quite bumpy. I looked down at the pavement, which had dissolved into dirt and rubble. Little campfires dotted the roadside, women cooking circles of—what looked like wheat—paste spread across pieces of hot hammered metal on bricks above the fires. Behind the marching lines of people were adobe and concrete buildings, all in shades of brown, most with white accents around windows and doors, and many a ruin. Concrete buildings had broken into large pieces, like a Lego city after a toddler’s tantrum, but with tangled rusty and bent rebar sticking up into the air. The adobe ruins appeared like dirt that had returned to its natural state of piles.
High on the hills in front or west of us were five- and six-story buildings, precariously perched on massive rock outcroppings. The old adobe buildings, so tall and wedged side by side, some rows leaning, reminded me of a colony of giant mud dauber nests.
Turning left, we pulled through a stone wall’s metal gate, four panels painted red and green, looking as if it had been cobbled together from pieces of burned car doors and other war debris. The compound sat on the eastern edge of the village where the old mountain road leveled off, catching its breath after a steep climb from the Dammaj Valley. Beyond the clinic, the gorge’s flat bottom was covered in a deep green, orchards flanked by fields of grain. Back the way we had just come, the green continued in stacked terraces, down the ravine until the water petered out. It was the same going up the mountain, west of the village, where green patches climbed the mountain like a carpeted staircase for Titans.
“We’re here. This is the clinic’s compound. Home!” announced Sheila.
All that I saw was a dilapidated, partially destroyed, old stone structure, with shiny—obviously new—corrugated steel roofing over wings going north and south.
As we stepped out of the car, Sheila turned to me, rested her warm hand on the back of my shoulder, and explained, “This was previously a private hospital built in the fifties by a local doctor. Then it was taken over by Médecins Sans Frontières—you know, Doctors Without Borders—until the Saudis bombed it three years ago. Some locals patched it up, at least the north and south ends, but MSF didn’t have the personnel to return to Haydan. IRC had a refugee camp here”—she pointed to her right—“to the north of the village, and they got a permit from the Houthis to reopen the clinic. The clinic is on the south side of the old hospital. Our personal quarters and … oh, and the commons … are here in the salvaged northside. The commons has a kitchen, two restaurant booths, and an informal area with a couch and coffee tables. It’s a nice place hangout, although I prefer to be outdoors.
“The bombs destroyed the middle, leaving just a crater, right where the word ‘Hospital’ was painted on the roof. Bombing a hospital is a Geneva violation, you know,” she said with a grimace “but the Saudis don’t care. Anyway … in the commons is a kitchen and where we eat.
“Personally,” she said pointing at herself, “I prefer to eat dinner out in the garden on the south side. It’s a grassy area with nice shade trees where the patients line up in the mornings. We close the south gate after the last patients leave, so we have the area to ourselves. At the end of a busy day, I close my eyes and pretend it is … well, Pawnee Park back in Nebraska.”
“Nebraska?” I asked, brows arched.
“Yeah … west of Lincoln. And you?” Folding her arms to wait and listen.
“Me … uh, New York. The Bronx, to be exact.”
“Hmm,” she said. “Didn’t hear a Bronx accent.”
“Oh … I lived in Seattle for ten years since. Before that Kandahar.”
With the word, “Kandahar,” her brow furrowed. “Really?”
It took me a few days to get settled. I tried out the small indoor space for my quarters for three nights but soon decided I preferred to sleep outside in a pup tent. I found the tent in our supply room left over from when the first IRC survey team stayed in Haydan for a week prior to starting the clinic. Not only did I love sleeping outdoors, but it was much cooler than the indoor space, especially by morning, when it was almost cold, even in summer.
The survey team had set up an outdoor shower and toilet, which I preferred to the indoor bath shared with Sheila. Once my sister Angie turned seven, she took over our single bath for two hours each morning. I wasn’t sure if Sheila would need the same, but I wanted to give her the personal space if she did.
I found Sheila intimidating. It wasn’t the fact she was a doctor. I had worked with a Nobel Prize–winning neurosurgeon in Seattle who had become a friend. And it certainly wasn’t her demeanor, as she was as humble and innocent as apple pie. But her aura, intelligence, kindness, and natural beauty gave me the feeling that she was in a class far above a simple mortal like me. Was it infatuation? Perhaps. The reprograming of my brain to make it beauty-blind, well—it wasn’t working.
The first morning, I joined Dr. Emory in the clinic as promised. It was busy, but we were able to see patients at an amazing rate. The good pace was set by our nurse, Mazen, who kept the whole clinic running efficiently, and with a broad smile on his boyish face the whole time. Never frazzled. Humming some strange Swedish grunge tune as he worked.
Mazen had grown up in Sana’a and then immigrated with his family to Stockholm at age twelve. His Yemeni Arabic was flawless. In Sweden, while picking up fluent Swedish and English, he also finished nursing school. Then he heard the same faint children’s voices I had. However, for him, they were not just imagined words in the dark. He was intimately acquainted with the world of growing up Yemeni, at least before the war. While he was well into his twenties, he could have passed for one of those children himself, and it wasn’t just his short stature.
On that first day, I was nervous about my medical skills. I caught myself constantly rubbing my face and combing my hair with my fingers, a nervous tick. While I had been a medic in the Army and had a good education in Yale’s PA program, having spent the previous decade in surgery, I wasn’t sure I was up to general outpatient medicine, especially in the developing world. But Sheila was a great mentor, and she helped me quickly resurrect my dormant skills. In turn, I helped her hone her surgical skills.
In my third week in the clinic, a man about my age, Jabbar, was carried in on a blanket by his two wives and two small children, one at each of the corners. He was in bad shape, barely conscious, mumbling something in Arabic, which I could not understand. But I could understand his wives, who spoke clearly in Arabic. He had a high fever and coughed continuously, sounding like a whale’s blowhole when it first emerges from the water. But instead of seawater, he blew yellow and green sputum with each cough, leaving clumps of it sticking on the blanket beside his face.
Jabbar was a sick man, lungs full of fluid, which we could hear but could not image without a working x-ray machine. We started IV antibiotics, assuming it was a typical bacterial pneumonia. Cultures were sent down to the MSF hospital in Sa’dah, but it would take a week for results. Sheila contemplated sending Jabbar down, along with his sputum, to be cared for in a real hospital, if he could survive the trip. But when she called her boyfriend Michel on the radio, he told her that they were so busy dealing with another Saudi bombing raid in the valley, they would probably have to let nature take its course with poor Jabbar. Either he would respond to the antibiotics and live or he would die. But they didn’t have the eyes to watch him. I volunteered to stay with him overnight in our clinic.
I never imagined that sitting with Jabbar would carry on for the best part of a week. But I was already used to nights of catnapping thanks to the times I’d had to tend my tiller and sails. As Jabbar started to recover—and he did recover—he started to talk. On those first nights, between his rudimentary English and my rapidly improving Arabic, we were able to communicate remarkably well.
He could sense the gravity of his illness, the death angel encamped outside his door so close he could smell her musty breath. He began sharing things that his family had to know in case he died, such as where he had hidden money in his old house in the fishing village of Al Hudaydah. Three thousand American dollars in a jar, tied on a string, dangling inside an abandoned well. The string had been covered with mud and no one could find it without knowing exactly where to look and he told me. “Just inside the well, between a white rock and a red rock is a deep groove. Dig out the clay and you will find the sting there. Don’t let it slip out of your hands, but carefully pull it up.”
This money was his and his extended family’ life’s savings. He insisted I tell his wife Ghada about it but not his other wife, Mona. The reason, as he explained, was that Ghada was his son’s mother. He felt that in the case of his death, all money should be channeled toward his only son, Alam, his family’s name bearer.
When Jabbar became too tired to talk, he would listen to me. I shared things with him that I had never told anyone, even the fact that I was falling in love with Sheila. It was the first time I had experienced love at first sight. But she was taken. He listened attentively to me, talking about a silly grade-school crush despite his own plethora of things to worry about.
Jabbar also gave me the space, despite his own dire circumstances, to spend most of one night talking about losing my dad. I cried when I told the story of that horrible day.
With me sitting in a chair beside his bed and tears starting to drip from my chin I said, “Jabbar, I’m so sorry for crying so easily. It seems like my tears are always sitting at the threshold of my eyes, never going completely back inside to rest. On the other hand, my brothers, who experienced the same loss but older than me, never cry.”
He reached over with his right hand, the arm that was taped to a green IV board and grabbed my wrist. Raising his head from the pillow with great effort, he looked into my eyes and said, “In Yemen, loss is your daily bread, uh … masa [tragedy] the hourly markings on your life’s clock, men cry … uh, until they are dry.” He chuckled, adding, “It’s poetry in Arabic too, tabki hataa tajifa. Don’t be ashamed of your tears, Bryan. The Koran says, ‘And that it is He, Glory to Him, who makes [one] laugh and weep.’ It is Allah who dribbles the tears in your eyes as from the tip of his merciful finger. Never shun them … knowing that he is also the one who brings the laughter too.”
After Jabbar recovered, he spent his last two, more energetic days telling story after story about his adventures at sea as a fisherman. We shared our love of the sea and boats, but I lost count of how many times he was almost killed. A dozen? Honestly, I kept him in the clinic for an extra day because I wasn’t done listening to his stories of the sea. My one thousand Arabian nights of storytelling needing just one more night.
We drank tea throughout the last night to stay awake, laughing so hard at times, we blew more tea than snot out of our noses. The next day, Jabbar was given over to the care of his wives and children. By the time he walked out the clinic door—bushy-haired, frail, thin as a rail—I had come to see him as a long-lost brother.
The Yemenis taught me to love their country. The stony land had shaped this mountain people over millennia. It was as if the baren hills had instructed them in kindness and hospitality. They had learned a long time ago that if they didn’t help one another, they would perish. The long, narrow springs had pulled the people deep into their ravines, closer and closer together, their waters a spiritual glue.
War made hospitality even more necessary. There wasn’t a day that went by that I was not invited to someone’s house for tea or food—if they had food. I attended weddings and home birth celebrations on a regular basis and, sadly, too many funerals to count. Those we laid into the cold earth were far younger than any soldiers in America. Often young children.
I played soccer with the boys after work several days a week, when they weren’t distracted by chores. We had balls made from rags and bottles wrapped in bandage tape. I sent notes to my sister Angie to mail me a real soccer ball, but with the embargo, nothing got through. Damn Saudis!
I hung out with Jabbar a lot that first year, helping him with his apple and pomegranate harvesting. We stood side by side on rickety bamboo ladders picking fruit, him talking constantly about his days as a fisherman. I could tell that he had lost part of his soul when he had to move away from the sea. He wanted so much to take me to the fishing village where he grew up. I agreed to go, but we both knew it would be wise to wait until it was safer. But if we couldn’t go to his village, another, safer one on the coast would suffice.
All things were well in Yemen, as well as they could be in a hellish place of conflict and loss. The more I came to love the people and the country, the more I hated the war and killing. I grew sick of the smell of death. But we had found a rhythm in the clinic, and despite working virtually every day and most nights, I had never been more satisfied as a physician associate, or as a human being. I also rediscovered my love of medicine, sometime about my sixth month. It was hidden all along in the “shukran [thanks]” of my patients.
But near my one-year mark in the country, when things were just starting to go well, our life clocks, as Jabbar called it, struck thirteen.