After New York ... Before Sanaa: A Postmodern Lufthansa Lullaby

by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 40 (1998)

There are times when I feel the only problem I have with Yemen is getting there. Having been in the business of getting there and back well over a dozen times in the last two decades, I have logged quite a few hours airborne and on the runways of Cairo, Amman, Addis Adiba, Nairobi, Athens, Paris, Frankfurt and London. This has involved, in one way or another, carriers such as Air France, Alia, American Airlines, British Air, Delta, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airways, Gulf Air, Iraqi Airlines, Kuwait Air, Lufthansa, PanAm, Saudia, Swiss Air, Yemenia, and no doubt a few others my memory has mercifully blotted out.

Getting there from New York (or even a few times from Washington, D.C.) has long been a two-step process since there are no direct non-stop flights from the U.S. to Yemen and since some of my past journeys have necessitated an "American" carrier as far as the crow (no doubt an "American" crow) flies. I do not want to give the impression I am a true frequent flyer. Indeed, I must admit that my extensive miles accumulated with Pan Am (now with Delta) will probably expire before I use them for what must be at least a free trip to the moon (when Disney World opens there). No, I am not that experienced, but I have sampled business and first class, as well as the common tourist (eat your knees for snack) class. Yes, I do have stories. That's what this piece is about. And I would not be surprised if some of these are not very similar to stories of your own.

Let's start by dredging up the past. My first trip to Yemen was in student days, trying to max grant money and get there on the cheap. The cheap at that time -- in early 1978 -- was to fly standby to London on British Air, then take British Air student fare (ah, when students could afford to fly as one of the few benefits of their age and an added bonus for matriculation fees). Our ticket, issued through British Air, included their flight to Cairo with a connecting link to Yemenia (the plot thickens immediately) for the final jaunt down the Red Sea to Sanaa. All this for a ridiculously low price that made us (my wife, Najwa, was also on her way to do fieldwork in Yemen) the smuggest of bargain flyers.

There were a few "ifs," of course. First, we had to make standby or the whole scenario might collapse like a sno-cone in mid-summer Kuwait. But the ticket people said "No problem" and who was I to doubt stalwart British efficiency. It was February, probably not the peak season to Cairo and Sanaa, if there even was a peak season. With the foresight to spend a few days in London with Najwa's relatives, we made it there on the first try. The connection to Cairo was relatively painless, although we had to fork over a little for excess baggage for all our equipment. This despite the fact we sent a lot of clothes and miscellaneous items for our stay in a separate air shipment (and therein lies a separate tale of near woe). But the agent assured us all was well with our connection and we were confirmed to Sanaa. With beginner's confidence we arrived at Cairo Airport and bounced into the transit lounge, looking in vain for any information on the Yemenia flight. Najwa tracked down a British Air representative and we discovered what seasoned travelers know all too well -- what was written on the ticket was a poor reflection of reality. The Yemenia flight to Sanaa had left several hours earlier, as it had been doing for several months. (Later we discovered that at that time Yemenia routinely changed times without notifying the ABC Book the agents and airlines used for bookings and confirmations.)

Next flight to Yemen? In three days. Any Yemeni representative in the airport? No. Hmm. So here we were in Cairo with all our camera and recording equipment, not exactly lots of spare cash, and no sure solution in sight. The American in me was ready to sit down and feel helpless. The Arab in Najwa boiled over -- oh how I wished at the time my academic Arabic could be that dramatic. It was, after all, as much British Air's fault as anybody else. It was their ticket and it said in black and white there was a flight that clearly was not a flight anymore. So after a bit of how-can-you-do-this-to-us, we were promised a free hotel room for the night (we had to pay for the next night) and a ride there.

The young Egyptian British Air rep who inherited us was about our own age and very friendly. He drove us himself to a small hotel in Heliopolis, asking about how he could get a visa to America (as though I had the slightest idea) before we were halfway there. I say "small" hotel with a clear and undistorted memory. I forget the name of the hotel, but I remember the smallness of both ediface and room with a clarity that belies however many unused brain cells have switched off in the intervening years. This, I think I can say with some degree of confidence, was not an airline hotel -- not where tourists were booked and not where British Air or probably any airline graciously accomodated passengers caught in the at-times-vicious vortex of international travel. It was probably the guy's cousin and he more than likely put down the 10 guineas from petty cash in the office. At the time, however, we were just glad to have some place to be in a city we did not expect to have a leisurely stopover in.

The pressing problems were several. We had to find Yemenia and make sure we could get a reservation on the next flight. We also needed to locate a telegraph to notify the old family friend who would be waiting for us at the airport in Sanaa. And we were famished. But the door of the room didn't really lock and here was all this equipment. So do we carry the cameras and tape recorders to a restaurant or take a chance that we had not fallen into a den of forty thieves lurking outside in large clay pots (there were a few of these pots, to be sure)? Putting our trust in Egyptian human nature, we went out to a nearby kebab place, then went back to the room and slept.

Next day we found a telegraph and wired our friend in Sanaa that we would try to be on the next Yemenia flight. (Our friend got the message after we arrived. In fact we were staying in his apartment and Najwa answered the phone to be read the exact message she had sent almost a week earlier by the local Western Union operator, who, not missing a beat, welcomed us to Sanaa.) The main agenda for the day was to find Yemenia. We had a vague idea of where to go. When we got near and started asking, we ended up in a perfume shop having tea and feeling obligated to buy some perfume (not that we were stupid tourists or anything). When we made it to the main and only Yemenia office, the signs were not encouraging. The outside sign, barely hanging and somewhat rusted, seemed to be on an old warehouse. We wended our way up crowded stairs into a small office with what seemed at the time to be bales of hay. Meanwhile, we were inching through a mass of people; a new experience for the American in me while Najwa was clearly in her element. We got to the man who had the all-important manifest and explained our tale of woe. But there were no seats, no way to get to Sanaa for at least a week. I caught enough of the Arabic conversation to feel a foreboding sense of doom, but Najwa knew better and persisted until our names were scribbled on the manifest (only by crossing off other names, of course). I had not even arrived to the field and already I felt like the "Ugly American" and all this because we were doing it the "Arab" way. If I had been a little more reflexive in training, I might have stopped and written my thesis right then and there: "Reflections of Going to Fieldwork in Yemen" -- the kind of book to be used in all intro level courses on what it is like to go into the field and be the other alongside the other. This could have been my ticket to academic fame --a hermeneutic of airline angst, a structuralist deconstruction of flight fallout, a semiotic reading of meaningless ticket trauma. Maybe it was stupid to go on to Yemen and actually live there with the locals (I mean what right did I have to foist my Westernness on their vulnerable otherness?). Yeah, right.

When we went to the airport two days later it was not with an air of confidence that we would actually get on any flight. We did, but it was my first experience in segregated boarding. The women, more veiled than not, had a different security check to go through. The way in which I was body checked confirmed that it was probably a good thing they did. Some physicals by trained physicians have seemed less intrusive. But the good thing was that Najwa got to board first with the other (discriminated-against?) women and she was the kind of person who saved seats. Our tickets had no seat assignments. And the possibility that there might be a no-smoking section seemed somewhat remote. The sign above the seat of the Boeing 727 flickered "no smoking" and I could sort of make it out through the haze of smoke in the cabin.

In every cloud there is supposed to be a silver lining. True enough, in every smoke filled cabin there can be a saving grace. In this case, I had without realizing it ended up in a seat of someone who had, to not coin a phrase, lost his (or perhaps her) cookies. The crew of airline cleaners apparently didn't notice the results of this. So when it came time to fasten the seatbelt, I found that it was rather gooey and the aroma of that regurgitated cabin class food was penetratingly putrid. Perhaps the previous occupant had been an innocent victim as well and this seat was cursed to pass on the retching urge to the next unlucky wretch who plopped down there. At this point, with no other seat available, the notion of choosing another location was inoperative. And we American men raised on John Wayne films don't like making scenes over trivial health matters. Real men can handle vomit -- it's a pride thing, especially if you're an anthropologist going off to rough it in the field. Napoleon Chagnon ate squirming Amazon grubs; the least I could do was ignore an unpleasant odor. The stewardess brought me a few of those minature, only-available-on-airline wet-ones, but the ensuing chemical reaction seemed to escalate the queasiness rather than mitigate it. But, you see, the smoke was so thick and oppressive to my lungs that the problem was quickly solved. The nicotene habit of my fellow passengers was a godsend. I actually sat back and enjoyed the flight (but I didn't eat the meal!).

Now that I can look back at my fieldwork and all the subsequent research and consulting returns to Yemen, I'm really glad it was such an interestingly unexpected experience just getting there. If it had been smooth cloud surfing all the way, no snags, no adventure, there would also be no memories, no shared sense of this really happened. How easy it is to forget the boring flights and why shouldn't they be forgotten?

But let's take this flight of thought a bit deeper. The beauty of getting there, at least for me, has been the absolute absurdity that invariably has come along with it. My mind is so chock full of what went through it on these flights that I am convinced I could write (not that anyone would want to read) an entire book on it. I am not just referring to the odd or unusual things (the Yemeni family taking a goat on the flight from Hodeidah to Sanaa, the eeriness of an almost totally empty flight from Sanaa to Bahrein), but to the reflexive potential of being forced to sit still for several hours and peer through the clouds at famous and largely unrecognizable landmarks whizzing by below.

One of my most recent flights to Yemen was in March 1997 on a consulting assignment for the World Bank. This was the Lufthansa business class connection -- me and the business types in more expensive suits. It was, as you might expect, the antithesis of that earlier trek from Cairo to Sanaa. Very comfortable -- tons of room to stretch out. The food was the kind I would pay for (and probably not be able to afford) in a restaurant. White table cloth on your fold-out tray, crystal, real silver. The wine -- ah the wine -- Lufthansa is savy enough to serve German white and French red. This buzz is also available in tourist, but the business buzz is bodacious.

I have in front of me the menu served in Business Class from the New York-Frankfurt leg of my journey. "Wir heissen Sie herzlich willkommen an bord unseres Lufthansa Fluges." The same line is in English and Spanish, in case I prefer to be a passenger or pasajero to a Fluggast. I like the German better -- a guest in flight not just passing through the atmosphere. And they know it, too. The German welcome wünsches me a "guten Appetit" and the same phrase, untranslated, is wished me in the English part, while the Spaniards get "Buen provecho!" One could teach a whole lecture on this semantic tidbit (The English say "titbit," which is the word you are referred to when looking up "tidbit" in the OED; one can even be titbitical -- a daunting spelling bee word if every there was. But it might be problematic to pronounce the word "tit" in today's pc -- or is it PC, which might make it a more capital idea that it is -- academic environment).

But I deter a bit ... Let's get straight to the programmed dinner (Abendessen, Cena) and breakfast (Frühstuck, Desayuno). I provide the full, unexpurgated English version:

Appetizers and Salad
Butterfly Shrimp and Angel Hair Pasta
marinated in Lemon and Oil Dressing
with "French Salad"
featuring Button Mushrooms,
Green Asparagus Tips
and Honey French Dressing
Roll and Butter.

Main Course of Your Choice

"Cowboy" Sirloin Strip Steak
with Blackened Salsa Roja, Onions,
roasted Corn and Black Beans

Mustard-seared Salmon
with Chanterelle Mushroom Vinaigrette,
Green Beans with Bacon
and sautéed Red Bliss Potatoes

Spinach Fettuccine
with creamy Tomato Pesto,
Squash, grilled Shitake Mushrooms,
Pine Nuts and Tomato Concassée

Cheese and Dessert Selection

Chaumes and White Cheddar Cheese
Fresh Fruit
Coffee, Tea, Liqueurs
Fine Chocolates


Cantaloupe and Kiwi Slices
Vanilla Yogurt

Roll, Bagel and Banana Nut Muffin
with Cream Cheese, Butter and Jam

Mild Coffee
from the Highlands of Columbia,

Let us, for the sake of argument, take this menu as our ethnographic text. What can it tell us about ourselves? What thoughts does it shape in the minds of the people whose mouths are salivating and munching it all up?

First, there is the accuracy part. The main course is said to be "Your Choice" ("zur Wahl" or "a Escogar"). In truth, if there are say ten passengers in first class, is it the case that there will be ten selections of each meal, hence covering all the permutations of those who stay awake to eat a "free" meal? Obviously, not. Over on the left hand side of the menu it says in italics: "Wir bitten um Verständnis, falls wir einen Ihrer Wünsche nicht erfüllen können" (Do I really need to translate the obvious?) Now, I assume that some Hochschule graduate has an entry-level job with Lufthansa to analyze what Fluggasts actually eat on each flight, so there is a reasonable chance for predicting how many people prefer steak to salmon to vegetarian pasta. Personally, I ordered the salmon, which was probably the least ordered item. But we are analyzing the menu here, not my own biased food preferences.

There is a striking international flavor to this menu, fitting to the fact we are on a so-called national carrier over international waters -- international enough to allow one to buy duty free until such time as some bureaucrat extends political domain to the sky as well. There is, to my thinking, nothing German about this menu. Butterfly Shrimp? Not in the Rhine, even without East Bloc pollution. Angel Hair Pasta (the German is Fadennudeln), Pine Nuts, Tomato Pesto, Fettuccine? This reminds me of Sunny Italy not Industrial Strength Germany. Honey French Dressing, Chanterelle Mushroom Vinaigrette? Does Air France serve Borscht? and "Cowboy" Sirloin Steak is still Cowboy in the German not "Kuhknabe" while the Spanish is "vaquero"! Is it better tasting to the palate that buys the Western-Beef-Cowboy-Food line of all those non-spaghetti Hollywood westerns? Shittake Mushrooms -- a token acknowledgement that Asians outnumber us all. And why only Columbian coffee? Does Juan Valdez have German roots after all? Bagels? Well the flight did originate in New York, so I can't fault the logic here.

Here I am (or was or reflecting on when I was) flying some 500 miles per hour, some thirty thousand feet above the ocean. There is nothing here except the baggage we bring with us and we are going far too fast to recognize anything that might be there anyway. On the way somewhere with time to kill. I hardly need a full meal at ten o'clock in the evening, but I gorge it down like a refugee. I'm not quite sure what it means to ingest food at such high speeds. Or if it is better to drink like a lush. I keep reading that it is a bad thing to drink alcohol on long flights, but the business class booze is non-stop just like the flight. All the pros -- those business types who do this a lot and have zillions of frequent flyer miles -- are heavy into drinking. In this environment even Mormons might break down and ask for a cup of coffee. Normal logic seems to get suspended when flying high.

Entertainment! Here is where logic disintegrates. A seven-hour flight with a five-hour or so time difference -- that means I basically lose a night of sleep. The sensible thing to do is to try and sleep. The seats are rather conducive to this once you graduate from tourist class. Your little travel kit (I hate to throw them out, but what do you do with them when you get home?) even has a pair of blinders and earplugs. But because it is there -- the films and music -- the temptation is sustainable. I always put on the headphones and search the channels. Some captains are nice enough (or forgetful enough?) to start the system before we leave the runway. And on this flight there were minature fold-out tvs and videos to rent (free, of course). How, in God's name, can one just go to sleep? After all, I reckon, this will be the last hurrah since I probably won't listen to music or watch videos in Yemen (another outdated thought, to be sure).

Another ethnographic text -- my "individual inflight entertainment guide" for März 1997. Video first. On the big screen you get stuck first with "Lufthansa's World" -- about as original as the local news -- pounding you with all the things I am hoping to escape from in Yemen. Then there is the constant "airshow" for the anal passenger -- "ground speed, altitude, outside temperature, routing and current position of the aircraft." There is supposed to be comfort in knowing where you are, I guess. Maybe it keeps people from bothering the stewards with "are we there yet?" Somehow, I don't want to know. Isn't that the Captain's job?

To the uninitiated it looks like there are tons of films. Here is where it takes some labor to decipher the schedule. There are 15 channels, although all not operating at once. The trick is knowing where you are going. All destinations get stuck with Barbra Streisand and Jeff Bridges in "The Mirror has Two Faces" -- in German the mirror breaks to mere love ("Liebe hat zwei Gesichter"). "A bittersweet romantic comedy involving two Columbia University professors..." (the German does not note that the action takes place at Columbia). Did this turkey play in any theaters or was it made for captive airline audiences? Later there was a shot at Bill Murray's "Larger Than Life" about a management guru and an elephant. I tried to imagine how I would describe these two films to the people in the Yemeni village where I lived. I am not sure I could do it for my own family (and certainly not for this essay).

But consider this cross-cultural phenomenon. Flights to Latin America had Kevin Costner in "Tin Cup" (no commentary written here in English!); but to Brazil there was "Fly Away Home" ("Amy und die Wildgänse" or "Voando para case." To Japan there was "The First Wives Club" (my computer does not have a Japanese font for the Japanese translation of the title); to Korea, how about an "airline version" of "Multiplicity"?; to China "A Time to Kill" -- also in an airline version; to India the Hindi film "Yaraana" ("The story of a young girl, Lalita, who is brought up by her aunt and uncle but flees home to avoid marrying the rich but cold-hearted J.B. Taken in by a young man, Raj, and his kindly grandfather, Lalita's happiness is short-lived. J.B. tracks her down and convinces Raj that Lalita is his wife. Will Raj find out the truth and will Lalita escape the clutches of the evil J.B.?" Should I fly to India just to see this template cinema?).

Then there are the flights to Germany from these other serviced points: "The Associate" (or "Wer ist Cutty?"), "Surviving Picasso," Mrs. Winterbourne," "Chain Reaction," "Up Close and Personal," "Irren ist männlich," "Ransom," and a Hindi "Kismet." The News & Info channel on all flights has "Financial Times," "Business Weekly," "BBC World," "Newsweek," a special version of CBS "60-Minutes," "ARD Wochenspiegel," "Deutsche Welle tv." For tv entertainment, you may luck out with "Frazier," "Lukas: Das Kopftuch," and "Country Music Television."

Bear with me, if you made it this far. I will get to a point; maybe you will get there before I do. We still have the audio portion. Something for just about everyone, of course. On this flight there were four channels for classical music with a healthy listing by renowned German orchestras (or American orchestras led by German conductors). The composers included Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn Bartholdy (we Americans tend just to think of him as Mendelssohn), Mozart, Dvorak, Händel, Liszt, Tchaikowsky, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, Verdi, among others. Then there was Jazz, Rock Classics, Pop aktuell , a whole channel devoted this month to Elton John, Children's Corner, Easy Listening, German Volksmusik, Country Charts, the Best of Broadway, Big Bands, and then targeted channels for specific flights with Arabic, Indian, Latin American, Brazilian, Chinese, Japanese or Canzoni italiane. On some flights you can get an on-board Berlitz English language course. (I forgot to mention that the video selections include "Flyorobic" -- an in-flight fitness program and a bit of a stretch of the imagination.

Why these lists? Boring and silly? Absurd, perhaps? There is something odd, to say the least, in flying about fast enough to make the head spin in other contexts, silently watching Barbra Streisand try to act like a college English teacher, sipping red French wine, listening to Little Richard and reading the menu selections that include a "Cowboy" Sirloin. Every primary sense organ I had was on overload -- all at a time I should have been asleep. Where was I? Why, 30,000 feet above sea level, 940 km/hour, -49º C outside temperature ... on my way to Yemen via Frankfurt. I wanted to throw up, but here I was in the no-smoking section on a German airline.

Ersatz. That's where I was alright. The sign up high said "Besitz" ("Occupied"). A holdover from the aftermath of World War II East Germany? Noooooooooo! It was the toilette that was in use. That meant Besitz to anyone else's shits. This was a one-seater, of course and one where you were mandated to use your paper towel to wipe the sink for the next Besitzer. My mind wandered. Should I use the john (Peter Falk as Columbo called it "the can") in tourist? Would it be clean? Did they have the paper seat covers there, the ones that still have the inside attached and have no instructions for use? Did Lufthansa use these same toilettes for flights to and from Turkey? If so, what a balancing act. My mind wandered because my body was looking for that Besitz to unlighten and soon. What happens to the waste when you flush at 30,000 feet? I am told it is jettisoned when in flight. Does it make it all the way back down to earth? Not long ago a cow fell out of a Russian military plane and destroyed a Japanese fishing vessel. What if a ship, a luxurious ocean liner with all the Love Boat add-ons, was cruising below on a bright sunlit day. I can see a beautiful, bikini-clad millionairess sipping vodka and tonic, her white-fuzzied poodle nestled next to her, a long cigarette holder positioned in the left hand, reading the Wall Street Journal -- when out of the sky like a direct kamikazi hit the evacuated toilet waste of a Fluggast bound for Yemen on this Lufthansa plane she can't even see with her unfocused naked eye torpedos her coiffure and splattens her blond curls... A one-in-a-million shot, of course, but a bird once got me in the Easter Parade in Philly. Or would the force of even one swoosh from the Besitzed toilette miles above be enough to sink even the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean?

I reached Yemen last March and again in August. The taxi ride to the Sheba, the shock at how low the riyal had fallen, the blast of dust-enhanced heat on Sanaa's streets, the sense that all these buildings along the airport road were not here last time -- my sleepless head was still landing. Later the makhbazaoff of Qasr Street exchanging stories with Tim MacKintosh Smith and the gat. I felt grounded. I had gotten here at last. And I'll be darned if I can remember the name of that Little Richard song (no it wasn't tutti-frutti he was screaming) on channel 5.

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