Travels With My Cello

  • A Christmas Carol


    Marianne Ide

    December in Yemen can be a strangely disconcerting experience for Westerners.  Not that it’s a regular experience the other eleven months, but December can be a little surreal.  In the west, Christmas madness begins before the Thanksgiving leftovers have even started to pick up refrigerator chill, and continues relentlessly until well into the new year.  Now, imagine if you will, a world where none of glitz and tinsel of the Yuletide exists, and you will have a pretty good idea of what Sana’a feels like in December.  I didn't mind; it’s not like I didn't know that I was living in a conservative Islamic Republic or anything, but still. If there really was a “War on Christmas” as Fox News seems to think, December in Yemen is what the shell-shocked aftermath would look like, or Whoville after a visit from the Grinch.

    I was playing cello in a small community orchestra in Sana’a comprised of expatriates, and as the holiday approached, we put together a concert for other westerners, and the handful of Sana’a’s Christian population that wanted to hear the oldies but goodies at Christmastime.  Some of the musicians in our group were wonderfully trained, and truthfully, they carried the rest of us.  Earlier in November another cellist joined us, which I think prompts the very serious question of who in their right mind (besides me) brings a cello to Yemen?  Katy was a very talented musician from Oregon, who was in Yemen taking Arabic lessons for no apparent reason.  She had played for over 20 years, in and out of orchestras, and was, as she put it, losing interest in playing.  Even so, she packed up her cello, put it in cargo, and sent it to Yemen.  After she joined our group, I felt like I had been given a Christmas gift from the god of music.  I had someone to follow, I was off the hook for the cello solo in “Coventry Carol,” and under the cover of an accomplished cellist, I played with more confidence.  And so, there we were, getting ready to play Christmas carols, in public, for the very first time.

    When it comes to playing western instruments, Yemen is not yet in the same restrictive condition as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.  There were no official prohibitions on us playing, but let’s face it- you can’t gather together 20 musicians in one space, have them play, and not attract a lot of attention.  We weren't overly concerned about security, but the notion that our playing might irritate the locals did register to our orchestra director, Stephen.  But he was nothing if not intrepid, and he found us a venue in a local coffee bar owned by two Americans, Tom and Susan.  They were thrilled to give us a performance space in the garden of their coffee shop, and because the property was surrounded by very high walls, they felt like we would be perfectly safe. 

    Tom and Susan decorated to the hilt, too.  They had trimmed all of the shrubs in the back garden so that the audience could see us, (and we could see each other), and the trees dripped with twinkling lights.  Their efforts to create a space for us to play were so sweet that we were able to work around the fact that we didn't have nearly enough room for us all.  The cello section (both of us) was spaced between two box hedges and I am not kidding when I say we needed the efforts of a geometry teacher to angle ourselves so that Katy didn't stab me in the ribs while I tried to keep my bow out of the bushes as we shared a music stand.   In addition, the audience was only about 6 feet from us and while I was watching our director, I kept catching distracting movements from the audience out of the corner of my eye.  But none of that mattered.

    As the sun set over Sana’a, we played our final set.  In December, the evenings are pleasantly cool and the air smelled like sage and coffee.  The lights in the trees came on, we turned on our stand lights, and created magic that night, in that garden, in Yemen.  We had worked out most of our nerves and the hiccups in the music, and we played beautifully.  The garden was overflowing with people, as most had waited for our evening set.  The lights from video cameras beamed down on us from the balconies above.  Transported by the energy from this crowd, we played our hearts out. Katy played the “Coventry Carol” solo with simple elegance, and suddenly, the whole piece worked: she played and we followed, sort of like an 18th century call and response hymn.  As the last haunting notes faded into the darkness, there was a brief hush before the applause began, the kind of stillness that only an enraptured audience creates.  I looked around at all of us, at the audience, and the lights, trying to capture every last moment in my memory before the spell was broken.Cello Section

    The Cello Section, chillin' in the bushes....

    Eventually, word got out about us, but in a good way- this time.  We were booked at the Movenpick Hotel, and The Old Sana’a Hotel for Christmas Eve.  We didn't get paid, although we did get free coffee drinks, but the satisfaction of playing for an audience eager for a taste of home at Christmastime was payment enough. 





    Marianne Ide is an international schoolteacher and amateur cellist currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  When not playing her Artist cello, she teaches government and economics.

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