We finally find some suitable qat next to the rickety stage where Ahmed first harmonized with the chanting grievances of the Yemeni people. After paying for his bag, Ahmed thinks better of it and also picks up two packets of cigarettes from another old man. "At least I'm buying something from these people. So many have had to shutter their businesses because of the economy."
When protests broke out across Tunisia and Egypt last year, Yemenis found common cause with citizens across the world and rose up against their own longstanding ruler. Ahmed's lyrical vocalization of those criticisms was briefly a little too loud -- he spent two months this summer composing and playing from Ethiopia and Djibouti when the attention from government forces grew too strong. His time in East Africa is the one subject he hesitates to discuss. "I've been through a lot, that's all," he tells me tentatively. "But we all have."
We exit Change Square and look back for a moment at the ratty tent city. Ahmed opens a packet of cigarettes and starts humming his way through a new bass line. "Let's get back to the band," he urges. On our way, he shakes hands with a revolutionary friend holding a Kalashnikov. Two more, grinning widely, wave their guns in greeting toward him, the artist of their revolution.
I first meet the four members of 3 Meters Away in the pitch dark.
Accompanied by his close friend Talal -- one of Yemen's only performing magicians -- Ahmed picks me up outside my hotel in the ancient heart of Sanaa as the sun faded past its mud-brick houses. Though our taxi evades the checkpoints installed by government forces since the protests broke out in early 2011, traffic still snares and stalls throughout the capital. In the ensuing gridlock, we do not arrive back to Ahmed's house -- just a few kilometers away -- until well past dark.
It only gets darker inside: There is no electricity here or anywhere. Regular brownouts and electricity shutoffs have been a staple of Yemen's overloaded power grid for years, but since the protests lack of electricity has become the norm. Sanaa residents sometimes receive only one hour of power each day, and it often comes in the middle of the night. The government blames opposition militants for damaging Yemen's power supply in order to incite further protests, while the opposition accuses the regime of purposefully damaging its own power grid as punishment for the year's insubordination.
A loud bang from a nearby room is quickly followed by an impressive string of profanities. A few curses later, a short, handsome man with a shaved head enters the room carrying the flickering nub of a dying candle. With an outstretched hand, Omr introduces himself as the band's harmonica player. He has just stubbed his toe on a pair of conga drums lying in the other room.
His face screwed up in pain, he apologizes to me. "You'll have to excuse the dark. We seem to only have power when important guests are here," he says, referencing the widely remarked phenomenon that electricity seems to only remain a constant in Yemen when foreign diplomats are in town.
The band's drummer arrives moments later from the corner shop, his hands full of candles and Yemeni Kamaran cigarettes. He is a greeted with cheers of approval. Hussam introduces himself and apologizes for being late -- he has just left from his accounting classes, and, as expected, traffic was hellish. In one fluid motion, Hussam unwraps a pack of cigarettes, lights three candles, and pours droplets of hot wax on the table to use as a candleholder.
Though the bassist has yet to arrive, Ahmed ushers us all into the next room. We each carry a candle into the mafraj -- a Yemeni living room for socializing and qat-chewing usually lined entirely with ornate, decorated cushions, though the ones at Ahmed's are threadbare and fading from plush red to deepening brown. Discarded cigarette cartons and notebooks half-filled with lyrics lie strewn across the floor, and the three low tables in the room are covered with more packets of Kamaran cigarettes.
We each set our candles on the tables, dimly illuminating the center of the room and its contents -- two amplifiers, a keyboard, an electric guitar standing upright next to an accompanying bass, a shiny blue drum set, and Ahmed's secondhand acoustic guitar. Omr is already clutching his harmonica in his hands and takes a seat near Ahmed, who is feverishly tuning his guitar. Hussam bounces off to the kitchen, fumbling through cabinets in the dark.
Ahmed plucks at his guitar a little but looks over to me in the corner of the room and assures, "We will wait to really get started until after the tea." While I might be sitting with a budding rock band in a room filled with electric guitars, this is still, in fact, Yemen -- and certain things like Middle Eastern hospitality trump even a jam session.
The tea and fourth band member arrive at exactly the same time. Hassan, the band's bassist, is older, taller, and darker than the rest of the band, with a defined jaw line and striking salt and pepper hair. He is in his mid-40s; everyone else in the band has yet to hit 30. Ahmed introduces Hassan to me as "the band's godfather" and, with a smile, "the philosopher of the group." Though he greets me warmly, Hassan quickly grabs his bass, eager to take his place on the mafraj next to the other members of the band. 3 Meters Away has work to do.