When Eric Hansen left Yemen in 1989, Eritrea had not yet declared its independence from Ethiopia and made it onto maps of the Arabian Peninsula area. The accompanying Eritrea-less map in the back of Hansen’s book entitled Motoring with Mohammed was printed in 1991 and is a prime example of how much the Middle East has changed in the last two decades. But given the central role the region plays in world politics these days, in the spirit of ‘knowing your enemy’, Americans would be wise to read it.
From his Manhattan apartment in 1990, Hansen sets the stage for Motoring with Mohammed in the forward where he gives away the ending to the story. He writes that he is thumbing through his journals in which he kept seven years’ worth of notes from his travels across the globe, journals that until recently had been buried for ten years on a beach in North Yemen.
From there he takes us back to 1979, when the yacht he and his friends were attempting to sail to Greece shipwrecked on Uqban Island. After two weeks the group is rescued but knowing they will have a long walk across the mainland to find help after they are dropped off, they opt to take only essentials and bury the rest of their possessions in the sand, hence the buried journals. The group ends up under house arrest at a Northern Yemen army outpost on another island. This would be the first of many of Hansen’s run-ins with “local law”, a complex system involving the military, corrupt government officials, and lots of tribesmen armed with Kalashnikovs.
Thinking the journals as good as gone, Hansen heads home to New York, then returns to Yemen 10 years later to try to recover his journals. Unfortunately, Uqban Island lies in a security zone which individuals, especially foreign individuals, are forbidden to visit without express consent by the National Security Police. Not to mention “the network of army checkposts, random police roadblocks, required travel permits, prohibited military and tribal areas, and armed villagers suspicious of a stranger’s every move…”
Although his original visa expires after 30-days, a new friend in the government grants Hansen a 6-week extension. During that time he gets near the island only once but gets stopped and detained by police. The rest of the time makes for an intriguing look at life in Yemen. The people are fiercely territorial but also fiercely loyal; to avenge a family member by killing someone is looked on as honorable, even raising one’s social status. They are also patient and slow-moving, taking hours every day to gather to chew qat, a tobacco-like leaf. The qat sessions are “the great equalizer”, bringing together the elite and the destitute alike to sit and converse and enjoy life.
At one point Hansen mentions the Yemenis’ confusion over all the different branches of Christianity. The Muslims point out that although they do have the Sunni-Shia segmentation, all can and do pray together in the same mosques.
Until late in the story, Hansen avoids the public bathhouses, believing them to be morally bankrupt and unsanitary. When he finally does visit one, he finds the opposite is true- the patrons are pious and the facilities quite clean.
As a character in the story, Hansen is fairly non-descript. He makes a nice blank canvas on which the Yemeni people and countryside paint an elaborate mural. It is the story of a people faced with many obstacles, patiently waiting for an opportunity to overcome them like Hansen finally does his. But just like Uqban Island, Yemen seems to be located in a spot that will not lend itself to making dreams come true anytime soon.