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