I hit the snooze button on my alarm clock. It’s the day of my mid-term, and I am still exhausted from filling out graduate school applications. My eyes shoot open as a massive explosion slashes through the morning air, rattling my windows, echoing across the innumerable alleyways of the Old City. My roommate directs my eyes to the horizon, where I see a plume of black smoke in the distance. I suddenly speak out of instinct. I ask, “Is it just me, or do you not care at all? Like…” and then I laugh. My voice replays in my head like a broken record.
I brush my teeth and spray myself with something fragrant. The scent of something sweet from my flesh is particularly important. I walk outside and spend about fifteen minutes trying to check it out. No such luck. Just blasts from the distance, and the crackling of gunfire. My heart sinks when I see it rising from the Old City. Was it the Shi’a Mosque that I visit frequently?
I walk to the college to take my exam. I purchase some tea and ask the restaurant owner what is going on. He responds by saying, “Pockets, pockets,” in broken Arabic while making explosive gestures with his hands. Pockets of gunfire. Pockets of explosions. Pockets of death. Pockets of a sense of un-life. I go to the computer lab and update my Facebook profile so that everyone knows I’m okay. I read an article that says the explosion was at the Defense Complex near the entrance to Bab al-Yemen, the ancient gate to the Old City. The article says nothing about gunfire. They’re behind.
My teacher is late to class and gives me my exam. I ask him if he heard the blast, and he jokes, “Fireworks!” We laugh. It is nothing, he tells me. It is nothing, I agree. “It is the same in Pakistan, isn’t it?” he asks me in Arabic. “Yes!” I say. We laugh. Get it? There are just so many fireworks in Pakistan!
I write my exam. It is easy, though I should study more. I occasionally look towards the window because I hear more pops. More crackling. “Majnoon!” I say aloud with a laugh. “Crazy.” Where did I pick that word up? And why am I so able to focus on this exam right now?
I finish early. My teacher spots a mistake and tells me that I need to focus. Suddenly, the curtain drops, and I say that the violence has made me afraid. “But it’s the same in Pakistan,” he tells me. “But it isn’t good there either,” I reply. He says yes. We share a moment. I close my eyes and feel my mind separating from myself, floating into the air and spinning around my body. Suddenly, I begin to feel the skin hanging from my fragile bones. I see my eyelids just before my eyeballs. I feel the warm flow of my blood through my capillaries.
I leave the college and find my body gently pulling my mind through the city streets. We walk together into the Old City, and I bite my bottom lip at the sound of lively conversation, awash as it is with mentions of the military. My eyelashes bat at the millennium-old architecture. I feel a cold tingling at the base of my spine.
“Is this what sex feels like?” My mind asks my body. “I feel so alive,” my body whispers in reply. More gunfire. More blasts. Sirens now. And we continue to drift together, dancing through the marketplaces, closer and closer to Bab al-Yemen. My tongue savors the sugary spice of Yemeni chai from my favorite chai dukaan. I see ancient faces smoking cigarettes as the sunlight burns into their wrinkles. The workers sing their songs next to posters that venerate martyrs. “Shaheed (Martyr) this fellow,” they read. “Shaheed that fellow.” The Houthi graffiti says, “America is the mother of terrorists!” And the scents of incense, peppers, and shawarma, waft into my nostrils. My breath accelerates in the company of such profound un-death.
Suddenly, I’m at Bab al-Yemen. They aren’t letting anyone within 500 meters of the gate. I sit down between two crates and watch as a crowd gathers in the narrow alleyway to see what is happening. The sunlight feels so warm on my feet. And then, gunshots. Gunshots. We lean over to watch. And then boom! Another blast. Was it another explosion? Was it heavy arms? Regardless, we begin running. “Erhaab,” (Terrorists) a shop owner shouts in anger while hurling his fists in the air. My heart is racing.
I sit down close to the 1400-year old Great Mosque of Sana’a, and take solace that it both predates this horror, and will survive it. I begin writing in my notebook, as the song and dance continues a kilometer away. For some reason that I can’t understand, I feel better here than I would in the safety of my dormitory. I walk into the mosque. I begin praying, confusing the Shi’a onlookers because I cross my arms (Shi’i Muslims pray with their arms down.)
I find myself adhering more rigidly to Hanafi Sunni rituals I inherited from my parents than I ever thought possible. With the sound of every blast and gunshot, my motions become more rigid, more traditionalist, and my recitations of Arabic slightly louder. In the process, my mind has an emotional insight about the refuge that Islam provides for the traumatized. Why is it that I feel the need to seek refuge here, and feel so safe, even as the sounds of war seem to slither ever closer?
We walk together out of the Great Mosque, and back to my favorite chai dukaan at the edge of the Old City. I sit down quietly, and an old man spots me. Without justification, he gives me what remains of his bread, and not only pays for my tea, but buys me another cup. I am nearly brought to tears by the fact that he looks at me like I’m a human being. As I taste the food, and drink, I feel my mind float back into my body.
I realize that even though my dormitory is physically safer, I do not feel better there. It has nothing to do with the expats I live with, since I get the same feeling from the people I care about. I just don’t feel understood, and feel as though I lack the tools to deal with the emotions I have in reaction to the fighting.
A major part of the reason I felt the need to go to Bab al-Yemen, despite it being so dangerous, is because it prevented the violence from seeming like something abstract. When I can see that the violence is something tangible, I am able to navigate it far more easily. It becomes something that is an event, and can be rationalized. Then, it ceases to be as scary, and becomes something to think about.
Another is simply that I need to feel certain sensory things (“un-death”) in order to feel alive after seeing something traumatic. I need to hear people talking. I have to taste things again. All of these experiences reestablish my sense of bodily integrity, and anchor me into the present, from which I can move forward. Personally, I have always just found it very difficult to get what I need around people who actually know me. That reestablishment of personal boundaries needs to be something I do alone.
Maybe it’s because people just don’t really get it. I remember a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war telling me in Manhattan that “people will never understand” the things that have happened to me, and that I need to explore how I can feel alive without them. I think I get it, though. I may not be a veteran myself. However, close proximity to violence is inordinately instructive.