Although it’s probably not high on your list as a either a place to live or teach English abroad, Yemen is actually a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list opportunity. Oxford Seminars does not currently send graduates to the nation due to the violence factor, but understand that there are more to countries like Yemen beyond what makes the evening news. If you’re still scratching your head at the thought, let me tell you my story since it could change your perspective.
In my last year of university, I took a History course on Yemen. Well-read for a youth of those years and that age, I thought I knew in theory, if not by experience, about how diverse the world could be. But Yemen… the country is the moon, an impoverished third-world nation, Arab, Biblical, ruled by tribes, purported home to the Queen of Sheba, and Muslim and Communist at the same time. I just couldn’t imagine the existence of such a place, much less being part of it!
Yet a decade later, I was living there, teaching English for a major oil company. In this role, I had the opportunity to travel the country, rotating almost weekly between the company’s desert oil sites and headquarters in the capital city, Sana’a, named after the son of Noah, Shem, and considered the world’s oldest continually inhabited city. Some of the sites I’ll never forget visiting are:
- The walled gates of Sana’a, World Heritage site
- The still-functioning Marib Dam, built by the Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) in 940 B.C. (and also ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden)
- Shibam, a village known as the “Manhattan of the Desert,” because of its mud brick, 11-story skyscrapers constructed in the 16th century (the original “Stargate” movie was filmed there)
- The Hadramaht, translated as the “Valley of Death,” and its isolated oasis villages
- The “Rub’ al Khali,” or Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world and playground for Lawrence of Arabia
- The pristine beaches on the Indian Ocean
- The Amazing gingerbread house architecture of the cities
Stereotyped as lawless and dangerous, Yemen is certainly that as fighting and violence are a daily possibility for the 24 million people who live there. Civil war, kidnapping and tribal warfare has been a constant in modern times. It has the world’s highest per capital gun ownership; boys routinely receive a Kalashnikov rifle to denote manhood at age 14, and most men regularly walk around with both a machine gun slung over their backs and ceremonial jambiyah dagger on their waists. I once asked a student what he had done on his day off; his blasé answer was, “Teach my sister how the use the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade].” Not quite the norm of how students in Western countries would spend their Saturdays, is it?
However, there is much more to Yemen than the violence and the warfare. It’s a cliché, but what I remember most is the warmth and kindness of the people. I remember fondly the numerous times complete strangers offered me a handful of qat to chew, the mild narcotic that is as common a sight in the cheeks of Yemeni men as cups of coffee are in the West.
Here are a couple of my favorite memories that depicts the kindness of the Yemen:
Upon coming back to class after lunch in the company canteen, a student asked me if enjoyed it. Absently, I told him I wished they’d had some fruit. He asked me if I liked oranges to which I told him I did. That night, that young man borrowed a company truck, drove a couple hundred kilometers home to his village where they had a family orchard. He arrived back in time for morning class where he offered me a 20-kilogram sack of lovely fruit, along with the comment, “Teacher, I brought you an orange.”
One day I was teaching a class, when I heard a Land Cruiser noisily skid to a halt in front of the Training Centre. I heard running footsteps, then a very polite request by the driver to speak to one of my students. After a very passionate, animated conversation in Arabic between the two, the student asked me for permission to leave. When I asked why, he answered, “I must go. My village is killing each other.” There was a tribal dispute that resulted in a pitched battle, and they were expected to go
help. I told him that that was more important than today’s grammar point, and the student hastily sped off in the Land Cruiser, only to screech back a few minutes later and politely inquire if I was going to mark him absent. I told him I would leave the attendance register blank. If he returned alive the next day, I’d mark him as being present. When he did, he brought me some dates, and thanked me.
It’s indisputable that Yemen is very different than many other countries. But what many people fail to consider is that there are good people there just like there are anywhere, and the need for English teachers exists just as it does in other countries. If you’re in the process of deciding which country you’d like to choose as your destination, consider a road less traveled because you might be surprised at the opportunity you find.
Darvin Babiuk has taught English in eight countries at the public and post-secondary school levels, as well as for a number of oil and gas majors in Canada, Japan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar, Iraq, the UAE and Kazakhstan. He enjoys writing and a number of sports, such as kayaking and hockey. He is currently working for for Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s International Projects Team on a Kazakh project, as well as being an Oxford Seminars TESOL Certification course instructor.