Regaining my composure, I called my friend, who told me to pass the phone to my kidnappers. However, I soon lost this vital link to the outside world: About three minutes in, my phone ran out of credit. Whether as a result of the conversation or their independent decision, the tribesmen decided to take me to meet a local military official in a location that, unfortunately, was outside of my cell phone carrier's coverage. After remaining calm as I spent what felt like an eternity, but was probably about 15 minutes, screaming about my lack of service, the army guy, who had been in contact with my friend, passed me his phone.
The sheikh, my friend relayed, was currently in a meeting, but he gave his assurance that I'd be released in a few hours. Until then, the military official would host me at his home -- a euphemism, I soon discovered, for the fact that I'd spend the evening chewing qat with half the village, my kidnappers included. It took about an hour for me to realize that there was something kind of odd about a military officer mediating a kidnapping.
I settled in, as relaxed as I was ever going to get given the circumstances. My kidnappers were rather welcoming, stressing that they saw me as a guest rather than a hostage. I didn't have cell coverage, but my portable modem worked, which allowed me to keep tabs on my Google news feeds to make sure news of my predicament hadn't hit the media. Until the publication of this article, I don't believe it has.
For the next two hours, my kidnappers and their kinsmen issued a litany of complaints and requests in the hopes that I'd pass them on to my contacts when I got back to Sanaa. Gas, they grumbled, is too expensive and often difficult to find. Jobs are scarce, they said, and government services are nearly absent.
"Why don't foreign businesses and [humanitarian] organizations come here?" one tribesman asked, prompting the room to erupt in claims of the area's mineral wealth and a cataloguing of the inadequacies in education and health care. The entire district, apparently, lacks a single hospital.
"Kidnapping an American journalist might not be the best way to get foreigners to come here," I noted in English, prompting my Yemeni friend I was traveling with -- a hostage by association -- to burst out laughing, forcing us to translate what I said to the confused tribesmen, most of whom laughed as well. Generally speaking, it wasn't too different from the hundreds of social gatherings I've attended in Yemen that didn't involve me being held against my will: I may have been inconvenienced, but I certainly wasn't in any danger.
Nevertheless, I was pretty pleased when the call came through with the news that a resolution had been reached. My release was guaranteed, and the army officer would travel to Sanaa in the coming days to discuss compensation there.
Still, my kidnappers' problem was far from solved. They didn't make much of an effort to hide their disappointment. In the end, their demands were simply forced up the chain of command -- a far cry from their hope of getting urgent government attention.
"If you called the government, I would have gotten my money," one vented. My half-hearted attempt to stifle a laugh failed miserably.
"My brother, how long have you been a Yemeni?" I retorted, prompting a few in the room to erupt in laughter. "If we left this in the government's hands, I'd be married from your village with two kids by the time I got out."
Most in the room nodded their agreement. It's a fact of life in Yemen: When it comes with dealing with an important issue, it's best to ignore the question of whom you should trust, and instead defer to whoever will actually be able to get things done. I had full faith that my friend's connections would get me out as quickly, quietly, and as safely as possible. More conventional ways of dealing with the issue never crossed my mind.
I said goodbye to my erstwhile captors, who sent me on my way, urging me to call to confirm my safety as soon as I returned to Sanaa. The ordeal was over.
In a way, what happened to me was an odd testament to the resilience of the informal conflict resolution mechanisms embedded in Yemeni society. Everything transpired without the involvement or knowledge of Yemen's government or, for that matter, my country's embassy -- "tribalism" caused the problem, and a few hours later, it provided the solution.
That's not to say, of course, that the rather painless resolution of my kidnapping means that all's well here. A diverse group of Yemenis may have taken to the streets in 2011, but when you asked those demonstrating what they wanted, most of them ended up saying the same thing. "Dawla madania," they repeated, "a civil state." In English or Arabic, they're rather flexible words -- they could suggest a genuine attachment to secular ideals, or nothing more than political posturing.
Staring blankly at revolutionary commemorations as I sat as a guest-hostage in a random village 60 miles north of Sanaa waiting for a politician-sheikh to pacify his irate tribesmen, efforts to project ideology or politics onto the upheaval in Yemen seemed to miss the point. For most citizens, having a "civil state," ultimately, just means having a government that actually works.
"Don't blame me, blame the people in Sanaa," one of my kidnappers told me, pushing back at my tongue-in-cheek suggestion, at one point, that he apologize for wasting so much of my time. "This wouldn't have happened if the government did what it was supposed to do."
I take issue with his means of dealing with the problem. But still, I have to admit -- the guy has a point.