Travels With My Cello

  • Concerto for Al Qaeda

    Marianne Ide

    It was always hard to know what to do with the Warden’s security messages that passed through our email in boxes every so often.  The State Department took its job of warning Americans of potential danger quite seriously, and in Yemen, danger was part of the collective conscience, to varying degrees.  The Yemen Post would report such exciting tidbits like “Al Qaeda Franchising into Southern Yemen” and “Yemen Proves Attractive Breeding Ground for Al Qaeda.”  But what did that mean exactly?  9/11 proved that you can’t turn a rock over in the sands of Arabia and not find someone waving a picture of Osama bin Laden.   It didn't help much that the Warden’s messages were always the same: “… some threats had been made against westerners, vary your timing and route to and from work,  avoid demonstrations, do not hang out in places where westerners congregate, etc. etc.”   The use of the passive voice and the non-specific nature of the threats made the Warden’s messages both alarming and shrug inducing all at the same time.   The long timers, folks who had been in Yemen for years and years, shrugged; they had lived in Yemen through a civil war, two invasions of Iraq and 9/11.  They had personally seen some truly horrific events in Yemen, so unless there was actual gunfire in the streets, they didn't pay that much attention to the State Department’s security messages.  Those of us who had arrived more recently did our best to vary our routes to work, but after that, what more could we really do?  Only the criminally insane and journalists went to demonstrations in Yemen, and the places where westerners congregated were frequently filled to the brim with wealthy Yemenis.

    That spring, the Warden’s message got specific, and this time I felt like I had personally received a telegram from Al Qaeda.

    Our community orchestra had had a fantastic Christmas season.  We played at three different venues, and by the third concert at the Movenpick Hotel, we were playing to overflowing audiences.  The hotel had very nicely given us a balcony space, so the music echoed throughout the lobby.  People came and sat and stayed all day, drank coffee, ate pastries, and dreamed of home.  The Movenpick staff had even constructed a gigantic gingerbread house in the balcony and decorated it with little twinkling lights that gleamed on the marble floors and the polished oak balustrade.  When our sets were finished, the hotel manager came over to our director, Stephen, and pumped his hand ferociously.  He had done a whopping big business all afternoon and was clearly thrilled to have us.

    About a month later, the manager of the Movenpick called Stephen and begged us to come back for Valentine’s Day, and miracle of miracles, offered to pay us.  It was thrilling! !t was amazing!  It was totally impossible.  There was no way we could put together a concert that fast, but Stephen’s fire was lit.  He promised the Movenpick that we would have something together for Easter, with a spring theme, and true to form, the music Stephen had selected was indeed beautiful.  “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” with a trumpet solo, Bach Cello Prelude #3, “Spring” (of course)  from The Four Seasons, “La Rejouissance,” (with its scorching tempo intact) from Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Pachelbel, which I gather most cellists find insanely boring, but Stephen had actually rewritten parts of it so that there was a cello passage that actually required something more than the same four notes repeated ad nauseum.   It was music for spring; joyful, life affirming music and as the bougainvillea began blooming all over Sana’a, I anticipated more magic when we played.  Stephen had fliers printed, and advertised like mad all over the city.                                                                                                                                                      

    Then it happened. 

    About four days before our scheduled concert at the Movenpick, Stephen’s connections at the State Department sent him a copy of the most recent Warden’s message, one we would all soon be receiving in our email inbox.  This one was totally different.  Westerners were now being advised to avoid the Movenpick until further notice.  Of course it contained all the usual language about “unnamed threats”, but no one, not one single old timer had ever seen a message that mentioned a specific street address to avoid.  In fact, the message didn't say anything about avoiding places where westerners congregate- only the Movenpick.   

    In Stephen’s mind, the threat was clearly targeted at us personally.  While it might seem obvious that the thing to do was to cancel the concert, Stephen was, among us, one of the oldest of old timers.  He didn't scare easily and he really hated the “run for cover” mentality that accompanied Warden’s messages, as they kept us all in a perpetual state of fear.  (To be fair to the Embassy folks in Sana’a, they had good reason to be afraid:  our embassy had been bombed not long after I moved to Yemen, killing 17 people).  Stephen started calling around to see what we all thought about playing the gig; he wasn't going cancel until he personally saw representatives from the local Al Qaeda franchise standing around outside the entrance to the Movenpick handing out playbills.  We had a few State Department folk in the violin section, and of course, they absolutely couldn't play.   By the time Stephen called me, he had about half the group willing to play, so what was I going to do?  I was torn.  I admired his “you can’t scare me” attitude and strangely, the Movenpick Hotel pooh-poohed the warning and was perfectly willing to let us play. However, by this time, both of my kids were playing in the violin section, too. If you really want to rattle a parent's cage, threaten their kids.

                                                              The Movenpick Hotel Sana'a Yemen

    After the shock faded, the jokes started.  Were the threats some bizarre form of musical review  by Al Qaeda?  Were we that bad?  We started making up stupid headlines and e-mailing them to each other “Al Qaeda sezs to Western Musicians ‘You are Satan’s Orchestra,’ ” and “Death to Western Musical Infidels!”  But in the end, good sense prevailed and we canceled the concert.  It was a sad ending to our wonderful group.  We had one last concert scheduled at a local coffee bar, but the relentless rain made it all but impossible to play. As summer approached, it was fairly clear that Yemen was heading for revolution of some kind or another, and leaving seemed like a really good idea.  One by one, most of the members of our group packed up our instruments and headed to safer lands. 




     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.  You can contact her at



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