My surreal afternoon with Yemen's president.
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.
The presidential palace is an outwardly unremarkable structure that sits just to the east of Haddah, Sanaa's diplomatic area. To get into the complex, we passed through two sets of nondescript walls. I hopped into a second car once inside -- some kind of Jeep or Land Rover. I tried not to step on the two AK-47s on the floor of the back seat.
We passed through another two sets of walls before encountering another security checkpoint. The officers took my purse and phone, though they let me keep a notebook and a few business cards.
A few minutes later, a straight-backed attendant in red opened my door and showed me into the palace club. I walked up a short flight of stairs into the wide, open space, decorated with warm wood and upholstered in red and gold. I looked enviously at a door to my left, which opened to a bright, well-equipped gym.
In the middle of the club was a billiards table; Ghani was holding a cue, talking to Saleh.
I remember the president's cheeky smile as he looked up at me. The mischievous expression on his face said something
along the lines of "Ta da! You weren't expecting this, now, were you?"
I was intrigued. I thought I might learn something -- that I might gain some great, exclusive insight into the man behind the curtain.
I went over to shake hands, looking down at the president's gray, receding hairline. Saleh is not a large man. I'm 5 feet, 11 inches, and, in 3-inch heels, I towered over him. He was wearing odd glasses, tinted but not dark. He waved me into an upholstered wooden chair. A flute of orange juice appeared within minutes on the table beside me; I sipped it and looked around the room. On my right, an enormous glass wall looked into the swimming pool, decorated with a seahorse mosaic.
I watched Ghani and the president play pool. Neither was making many shots, but they finished their game and I asked who wanted to play me. Ghani handed me the cue, and the president told me to break. I looked at the lush crimson carpet below the table and considered whether to take off my shoes. It was a hot day, and my socks were both hole-riddled and not particularly clean. I left on my chunky, brown boots and took my first shot, failing to sink a ball.
The president took his cue and nudged the ball into a more favorable position on the table.
So the president of Yemen cheats at pool, I thought.
"Haram alayk," I scolded. Shame on you. The president burst into laughter and gestured toward Ghani.
"Did you hear what she said?" he chortled (in Arabic). "Shame on you." As the president laughed at me, I wondered whether he had understood my challenge. Had anyone ever bothered to explain the rules -- did he even know that he was cheating? Perhaps he was just amused by the white-girl-who-speaks-Arabic novelty, or did not mind being called out in a private setting by a young woman with no influence or standing.
Our conversation was at times stilted because my Arabic is a confused patois of formal Arabic and Yemeni dialect. Saleh did not seem to speak formal Arabic at all. A few times I would say something in the formal language, and Ghani would translate back into dialect.
The president's brazen repositioning of the cue ball before every shot gave him an edge, and he eventually beat me. I re-racked my cue and the president waved me into his office, an open space with myriad photos of himself: Saleh on a horse, Saleh with his arms around handsome, white-uniformed young men, single photos of individual young men in uniform (sons? cousins?). A bronze stallion reared on his desk. His bookshelf was all Arabic and no frills.
Ghani wandered off. The president asked me whether I wanted to swim in the pool. I considered objecting on the grounds of not having a suit.
"I don't really like swimming," I said instead. The president offered me a tour of the club. Perhaps it's here that I should have felt a more sinister current come into play, but I was still half in shock, repeating to myself: How did this become my life? The two of us wandered past the pool and turned a corner into the locker rooms, decked out with a sauna, steam room, and a hot tub big enough for Saleh and all of his wives (he has four -- they do not participate in public life). I imagined more than one young journalist walking through these rooms, feeling like they had access to an inner sanctum.
"Enjoy yourself," the president told me. "Do you want to go swimming? Use the sauna? The hot tub?"
The president motioned me to sit down on a small love seat by the hot tub, a nondescript floral piece of furniture that looked like it might have come from Craigslist.
"So," said the president. "Are you married?" Perhaps he didn't open quite so abruptly, but that's what I remember. Are you married? Ghani no longer struck me as an entirely benign figure. Why had he wandered off?
I said I wasn't married, and my heart beat faster.
I can't remember how the conversation turned but, all of a sudden, the president started making fun of my shoes -- the chunky, brown-leather boots I'd had since eighth grade and refused to take off to play pool.
"You're a very tall woman. Why are you wearing tall boots? They're like boots you should wear for…"
The president took the hem of my gray floral skirt and flicked it up toward my knee, pointing toward the boot.
"For what?" I said. "What's that word you just said?"
With a bit of linguistic maneuvering, we worked out that he meant horseback riding. Like boots someone would wear to ride a horse. The president dropped my hem, and I smoothed my skirt back over my lap, saying that equestrian boots were in style. Suddenly the president stood up, brusquely mentioning a book about Yemen written by an American journalist. He moved briskly toward his office and I followed dumbly, shaking, feeling a deep anxiety grow in the pit of the stomach, my body's warning system kicking in. He encouraged me again to use the pool, casually rifling through his desk and bookshelf in search of the book.
Ghani appeared, sweating, fresh off the exercise bike. He had changed into a pink T-shirt and sat down with us.
"We have a saying in Yemen," said the president. "Girls who are very lovely get married. Girls who are not so lovely finish school. Why aren't you married?"
"Maybe I'm not so lovely," I quipped.
"No, no. You're very lovely." I turned down his offer to introduce me to a friend, a wealthy and "open-minded" Yemeni businessman. I said the cultural differences would preclude a happy marriage. The president needled me some more about my boots: "Look at them! Tell her they're something you wear to ride a horse!" Ghani, to his credit, pleasantly mentioned that Colorado, where I was from, had many ranches.
And then it was over. The president and his advisor stood up.
"The president has a meeting now. So you will go."
The president's flunkies signed me out, taking my business card and information. His "protocol officer" drove me back into town, asking friendly, pointedly detailed questions about my life in Yemen. I had him drop me at the supermarket instead of my home and wandered zombie-like through the bright aisles, trying to figure out what had just happened.
So much of Yemen is opaque. Every time I learn something new it's like cresting a false peak; I can see how much farther I have to go. As the world asks what will come next for Yemen, I wonder what will happen now to this coarse but energetic figure as he moves into what might generously be called "retirement." Goodbye, Mr. President. We knew you all too well and understood you not at all.
CHRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images