CBS4’s Sallinger Recounts Trip To Middle Eastern County In 1990s
News reports indicate the would-be bomber of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day was trained and armed with explosives by a branch of Al-Qaeda now based in Yemen. It is a country not often visited by Americans for a weekend vacation, but that’s exactly how CBS4’s Rick Sallinger saw it in 1993. Here is his account of a small country that is now center stage in the war on terrorism.
DENVER (CBS4) – It’s a question often asked. “Of all the places you have been in the world, which is the most fascinating?” My answer without hesitation is Yemen. The events that took me there begin with the days leading up to the first Gulf War.
In the months before the first missiles were fired to and from Iraq I was sent by CNN to the country of Qatar (an appendage off the coast of Saudi Arabia). While there journalists and servicemen were cordially invited to the home of the US ambassador.
His house was filled with an outstanding collection of artifacts from the Arab world. When I asked where he had gotten them the answer was during his prior posting in Yemen. He showed me pictures of what seemed to be straight out of “1001 Arabian Nights.” That’s when I decided I had to go. Several months later the opportunity would arrive.
The Gulf War had since ended but once again I was sent to the region, this time to report from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. Its fighters were assigned to enforce the no-fly zone created over portions of Iraq. After spending a week on board with the impressive crew my editors gave me the green light to return to my home base of London. Since I had a few days off coming I decided now was my chance to take a side trip to Yemen.
I booked a flight from Bahrain to Sana’a, the capital of the impoverished country located on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. While Yemenia airlines got me there just fine, I found no reason to inquire whether it offered a frequent flyer program.
Arriving alone at Sana’a airport late at night I quickly realized despite having just spent numerous months in Arab countries I had made cultural error. When my bags were searched at the airport customs officers pulled out a videotape of stories I had just done on board the Kitty Hawk. Among the titles listed on the label were “Homosexuals in the military.”
My explanation to the Yemeni customs officials that this was a story on President Clinton’s new “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy didn’t seem to impress them in the least. My tape was promptly confiscated although I was allowed to enter the country.
I caught a taxi to the Sheraton hotel, arriving well past midnight. When I awoke in the morning it took only a moment to see that the Yemenia Airlines flight had transported me a few hundred miles and what seemed like several hundred years to the Arabia I had been seeking.
The old city of Sana’a is filled with what are actually ancient skyscrapers. These are buildings up to 400 years old, rising 5-6 stories tall (no elevators).
Men walk the streets with curved daggers attached to the center of their belts. Even young boys wear the knives, known as jambiya, as a sign of manhood.
Whenever I show my pictures to friends they seem amazed at the sights.
With only a short time to spend I hired a car and driver to take me around the desert and to some of the smaller towns. Everywhere there were men carrying a big batch of green plants in their arms. I asked my driver what it was and he told me it was khat (pronounced like “cot”). It’s a leafy plant that is said to produce a mild “high” when consumed. My driver persuaded me to give it a try. You don’t smoke it, you chew it.
I took a quick taste, but not liking much of anything related to a vegetable I spit it out as I probably would with broccoli.
So what to do next on my weekend in Yemen? Not exactly what any Yemeni tourist visiting America would probably have on their list … we went to a wedding.
Now this was not like any wedding I had been to before. The women were all in one area, the men completely separated in another.
“Okay,” I thought, “this is a bit different.” But when the men all pulled out their knives I began to wonder if I wasn’t as welcome as my driver had indicated.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “this is part of the tradition.”
I guess it was kind of a dance they did with their knives in the air. Okay with me as long as the finely decorated daggers weren’t pointed at me.
My stay in Yemen was a brief one and, fortunately, without serious incident. As I was preparing to leave the country a customs official approached me at the airport.
“Uh oh,” I thought. “Here comes trouble.”
“Mr. Sallinger,” he said, “you can have your tape of the homosexuals back now.”
I tried again to explain it was simply a news story about gays in the military, but realized it didn’t really matter now.
Not long after my visit I read in the news that a westerner had been kidnapped in Yemen. All I had met with were friendly and welcoming, but I later realized, with slightly different timing and circumstances that kidnap victim could have been me.
It was the start of what would be several similar incidents.
Later in 2000 came the attack on the USS Cole in which 17 American sailors were killed in Aden.
Now, once again, the world’s eyes are focused on this poor and troubled land neglected for too long.