Postcard — June 4, 2015, 11:00 am

Inshallah

A visit to Djibouti City, where thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge from their country’s civil war.

Men and women walk through the bus station and market in Djibouti City, Djibouti on May 13, 2015. Djibouti has recieved scores of Yemeni refugees and migrants since the beginning of April. Photograph by Alex Potter

Men and women walk through the bus station and market in Djibouti City, Djibouti, on May 13, 2015. Photograph by Alex Potter

We traipsed across a muddy, trash-strewn creek bed in Djibouti City. Om Sakhr had insisted we chat someplace pleasant, and this was the way to the garden. She was dressed in a wispy black abaya and hijab, her lips painted a tart red. Her strappy heels weren’t exactly suited for the walk. But after several minutes, we reached a wicker table beneath long palms, tucked away in one of the city’s residential districts, a welcome respite from the afternoon sun.

A few weeks earlier, in April, 53-year-old Om Sakhr, along with her youngest son, Sakhr, arrived in Djibouti by boat after fleeing their home in Yemen’s southern port city Aden, now the center of the country’s civil war. (Om Sakhr translates to “mother of Sakhr”; she asked me not to use her real name.) In Aden, she had been a women’s rights activist. I asked her what she does with her days in Djibouti City. “Here, I don’t have any work except flipping through CNN, Al Arabiya, BBC, and Al Jazeera,” she told me, so she could keep up with the war in Yemen, where her husband still lives. “It’s not good for your psyche, but what else will I do?”

Om Sakhr suffers a common feature of refugee life: she waits. She waits for peace so she can return to her home, or for options—a job opportunity or a visa—so she can move on and try to establish a new life. Right now, none of these are available. Some Yemenis I met in Djibouti said they didn’t like being labeled refugees because they associate the term with the thousands of Somalis who used to pour into their country, fleeing violence and famine—but now they are desperate too.

1 Ali Abdullah Saleh was the president of Yemen for over 30 years, until 2012, when he stepped down following a year of Arab Spring–inspired mass protests. Saleh has recently aligned himself with the Houthi rebels in their efforts to gain control of the country.

Yemen’s long-simmering conflict reached a tipping point in February, after a rebel group of Iranian-supported Houthis attacked cities throughout the country and forced out Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In March, a Saudi Arabia–led coalition responded to the uprising by carrying out a series of airstrikes on Houthi targets. Later in the month, the coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen’s ports, cutting the country off from crucial imports such as medical supplies and fuel. The Houthis, with support from fighters aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been engaged in bloody street battles in Aden for nearly two months.1 Neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.

When Om Sakhr’s boat took off from Aden’s shores, she watched her beloved home, a beautiful coral-white city, disappear in the distance. “I never thought I’d leave Aden like that,” she said. “I was born in Aden and spent all my life in Aden, so taking me out of Aden is like breaking me down. It is not something I want to think about again.”

Djibouti, a barren corner of East Africa, is home to about 800,000 people, mostly of Somali and Afar descent. About 65 percent reside in the capital; almost 20 percent live below the poverty line. If Djibouti is known for anything in the West, it’s for capitalizing on its strategic location to court foreign militaries. In Yemen, Djibouti has the reputation of being a place where one can fly cheaply for a weekend of vodka and prostitutes. Across a 20-mile-wide strait, it’s Yemenis’ closest hope for safety. Around 13,000 have arrived to Djibouti from Yemen as of mid-May. For many of them, the country’s crowded capital—where undernourished Mogadishans beg on the streets and American defense contractors zoom around in SUVs—has become their home.

The Yemenis who flee to Djibouti often arrive with the hope that they will be able to travel onward, to the United States, Turkey, or anywhere else. Some get by with funds wired to them from family abroad. Others, like Om Sakhr, have Djiboutian family. Djibouti is their only guaranteed refuge. In nearby countries, the visa policies for Yemenis have been in flux since the war began. Notably, Egypt, where Yemenis typically used to travel for medical treatment, stopped giving them visas on arrival.

Yemenis appeared wherever I went in Djibouti City. At a bank downtown, two men were trying to access money that had been tied up in shuttered Yemeni banks. At a local store, Yemenis were behind me in line waiting to buy Djibouti SIM cards. When I checked out of my hotel, a group passed by the reception desk to ask if there was a free room; they were turned away. A moment later, when I got into a taxi, a Yemeni from Sanaa was in the front passenger seat. He said he was a runaway from Yemen’s secret police and asked if I knew of any hotels with vacancies. Then he asked me, an American citizen, to marry him.

Around 1,000 Yemeni refugees live in a U.N. camp in Obock, a coastal town north of the capital, where July temperature highs average 106 degrees. Many of the thousands of unregistered arrivals cram into Djibouti City’s hotels. “Everyone is hiking their prices. Djibouti City is very small,” explained a Djibouti businessman who wanted to speak anonymously. We talked under a much-needed AC wall unit in my hotel lobby. “If you extend their visas, what are they going to do? The money they brought with them is very small. Everything’s messed up.

“People think to stabilize their situation, and most Yemenis are thinking Yemen or Aden is done. ‘We lost our jobs. We lost our homes. So what do we have here in Djibouti?’ So they are trying to find jobs here, and a job here is very difficult. They don’t have any other choice but to stay and be patient, but until when?”

I first noticed signs of Yemen’s presence in Djibouti City when my plane landed at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Crowded on the end of the runway were several planes belonging to Yemen’s national airline, Yemenia. Presumably, they are stored in Djibouti because it’s much safer than at Sanaa’s airport, a frequent target of the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Just across from the Yemenia planes, a waving American flag identified a U.S. military base that, up until 2013, housed drones used in Yemen.

While waiting for Djiboutian immigration officials to let me into the country, I met a man from Yemen’s southern province of al-Dhale whom I’ll call Yassin. Ten days earlier, Yassin had traveled from his home through Djibouti en route to Ethiopia, where he was refused entry despite having the appropriate visa. He had spent two days stranded in Addis Ababa’s airport when he got word that his father had died and turned around to return to Yemen. Now, he told me, he had to find a boat in Djibouti to take him back to the war-torn country from which he had just fled.

Yassin and I went to a nearby restaurant for a late lunch of roast chicken and rice, which was served alongside a spicy pepper salsa similar to one used in Yemeni cuisine. He told me he had tried to go to Ethiopia because a friend worked for a pharmacy there and said he could have a job too, but Ethiopia began preventing Yemenis from entering its borders the week Yassin arrived. “I’m not a refugee. I want to work,” he said. I asked him how it was to witness his country descending into chaos from afar. “I cannot sleep if I think about it,” he replied, and so he tried his best not to.

After lunch, we walked through downtown Djibouti’s crumbling French colonial facades to the Medina Hotel, where Yassin was staying. The streets were deserted at this hour, around three o’clock in the afternoon. Most of the city took a siesta, but a few fruit sellers sat beneath umbrellas on the sidewalk, and a group of brightly clad Somali women sold qat, which Yassin stopped to inspect. As he felt the bundles of leaves he cursed how expensive the mild narcotic plant was in Djibouti. He bought it anyway, for about $15. Yassin always kept all of his cash on him—hundreds of U.S. dollars.

Back inside the hotel, a dismal block building that resonated with the staccato sounds of Yemeni Arabic, Yassin introduced me to a group of six men from Yemen living together in a fourth-floor hotel room. He then promptly forgot about his qat and fell asleep on the room’s only single bed, which was pushed up against the wall to make room for the mattresses on which the rest of the men sat. A muted TV in the corner streamed images of news from around the world: the Nepal earthquake, protests in Baltimore, and then a brief shot of a shelled-out city. I wasn’t sure if it was Aden or somewhere in Syria.

The half-dozen men came from cities across Yemen. They had led a variety of lives—some lawyers, others uneducated and unemployed—and met on the boat as they fled Yemen. The married men left their families to scope out life in Djibouti and to see how difficult the journey by boat would be. The sea winds pick up in the summer, which will make the trip more hazardous.

The most well-spoken of the group was a businessman from the ancient city of Taiz, where Houthi militias have been battling a homegrown insurgency since the war began. Abdel-Aziz, as I’ll call him, wore a colorful wraparound skirt, known as a mawaz, and a white, sweaty T-shirt. He told me the boat from Aden was overstuffed. “It’s not for people; it’s for animals,” he said. They were crammed on the top deck, under a blazing sun for over 10 hours, sitting knees to chest.

“We are looking for a solution,” Abdel-Aziz explained. “Yemen is destroyed. The Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh, they are the ones who killed everyone. Even if you are able to live, they rule you.”

Little made these men smile or laugh. They repeatedly said “inshallah, if God wills it, my lot in life will improve,” yet they were overcome by a general malaise at the obstacles they face. They are loathe to admit to themselves that they too may end up at the camp in Obock, and every day they hear news that more are killed in Yemen, more infrastructure destroyed, and another humanitarian aid shipment denied entry.

A skinny 19-year-old from Ibb was searching around the room for his lost qat bag. He grew frustrated with our conversation. “The problem is no one knows what will be the future!” he yelled, throwing a mattress to the side. At this, Yassin sat up from his nap and half listened from his stupor.

“The West has all the technology, power, and weapons,” Abdel-Aziz added. “If there is just the will to end the war in Yemen, they can kill Saleh with one drone.”

These men have other practical concerns. When they first arrived, they didn’t know how to wash clothes, and the laundromats in Djibouti are prohibitively expensive. Eventually it was decided by the group that the youngest, the man from Ibb, was to figure out how to do their laundry. He smiled sheepishly when admitting that this was true.

2 A month later, Yassin told me via a phone message that he was still in Djibouti, unable to find a boat to take him back to Yemen for his father’s funeral. His visa will expire soon, in which case he will have to register with UNHCR and officially become a refugee.

As the afternoon turned into evening, some men left to run errands. “Do you know if Western Union is still open?” one asked. “There is no more water in the bathroom!” another yelled. Their room was cluttered with empty water bottles, cologne, and qat stems. Each night they swept up the floor, lined up the mattresses, and tried to sleep so that they can tackle whatever the next day might bring.2

In the garden with Om Sakhr, a caretaker brought us two bottles of Coca-Cola. The property was owned by a well-off Djiboutain family Om Sakhr had met through her daughter’s Djiboutian in-laws. They told her that she and Sakhr could visit as often as they liked. A network of the wealthy, especially locals with ties to Yemen, try where they can to make refugees’ lives less bleak.

Sitting at the wicker table, Om Sakhr was eager to explain how women have played an important role in aiding Aden’s local insurgency. “They aren’t afraid of the shelling,” she said. They provide water to the fighters, water that they have to fetch from wells in mosques because there is no other fresh water to be found. For Yemenis today, she said, “there is an element of revenge in it. They’ve lost their sons.”

“The problem is snipers,” she added—trained Houthi marksmen who shoot from nearby buildings down onto Aden’s streets.

Like many Yemenis, Om Sakhr does not see a solution to the war ravaging her country. I asked if she worried that she would never be able to return to Aden. “Right now, I am not thinking of that seriously,” she said. “I am just crying.”


Laura Kasinof is the author of Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, a memoir of her time reporting from Yemen for the New York Times. She’s also written for the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, Newsweek, and Guernica, among other publications.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chances an American who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 can no longer recall having done so:

1 in 2

People tend to believe that God believes what they believe.

Nikki Haley resigns; Jamal Khashoggi murdered; Kanye visits the White House

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today