The first time I met Ali Abdullah Saleh, I had recently emerged from the ocean. I was unkempt, hair damp and tangled, legs unshaven. It was last December, and Yemen's president was visiting the island of Socotra, off Yemen's southern coast. The president invited the handful of tourists on the beach to sit with him in a three-walled hut overlooking the sea. We exchanged a few banal phrases, mostly about how lovely the island was, and later ate young goat and rice with Saleh and his entourage.
Most of the world knows Saleh through news reports -- as the man with a keen understanding of carrot-and-stick politics and an uncanny ability to navigate the country's factional, tribal currents. But with the president's return uncertain after he departed to Saudi Arabia on June 4 to seek treatment for shrapnel wounds sustained in a rocket attack, I keep returning to a tense hour that I spent with the long-serving dictator this January.
My experience with Saleh would have ended after our first meeting on the beach had I not also met Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani, the ex-prime minister and head of the Shura Council, a legislative body whose members are appointed by the president. Ghani had gone to Colorado College, where my mother worked for 36 years. We had a friendly and benign chat about Colorado Springs -- he knew the street I had grown up on. He struck me as a soft-spoken, fatherly type.
A month later, back on the Yemeni mainland, I dug up Ghani's contact information. It was Jan. 26 and, only the day before, the people of Egypt had taken to the streets en masse in a fast-moving revolution that would soon topple President Hosni Mubarak. The next day, thousands of young men and a few women would take to the streets of Sanaa in Yemen's first major opposition protest. I sent Ghani a quick email saying hello and thanking him for his crew's hospitality in Socotra. In Yemen, personal connections are everything, and I thought a high-level contact might come in handy in the future. I might even get a free lunch out of it.
A few hours after sending the email, Ghani called. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he got down to business.
"Can you come to the palace?" he said. "To the club? Can you be ready in half an hour? We'll send a car." It was all very sudden.
Forty minutes later I was waiting outside the local pizza place when an unmarked black Mercedes pulled up and the man inside waved. He turned out to be the protocol officer, though he didn't give me any protocol advice. Too bad; I could have used it.