SANAA - I hadn't even finished reading the first sentence of the first report on Yemen's most written-about museum, but I already knew I'd have to visit.
It wasn't the elephant tusks, the decorative swords, or the Swedish health-food products -- I would only learn that these were some of the items on display later. No, the first thing I learned about the museum that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh had built to commemorate his rule was that it showcased a pair of pants. But not just any pants: These were the pants Saleh had donned that fateful day when a bomb blast nearly killed him.
I needed to see Yemen's most infamous pair of trousers. To my mind, the display seemed an odd combination of politics, kitsch, and conflicted nostalgia over the recent past -- an Arab Spring equivalent of the National Museum of American History's exhibit featuring Archie Bunker's chair.
But the museum was still not open to the public. Unwilling to wait, I decided to mine my contacts to get in. The gatekeeper, it seemed, was one of Saleh's secretaries; a friend passed on the number of his assistant, and a call to him yielded a meeting with the secretary the next day.
I assumed his aim was to vet me. This being Yemen, the word "meeting" was actually a euphemism for qat chew, meaning he had a full afternoon to do so. We mostly talked politics -- the museum barely figured into our conversation. I did confess the sartorially rooted purpose of my visit to his assistant. That didn't appear to be a problem: I made it to the museum, housed inside the 4-year-old, $60 million Saleh Mosque, two days later.
As I descended a staircase in the sumptuously decorated compound and entered the exhibition, I discovered I wasn't the only visitor. Oddly, there was a group of Asian tourists milling about.
The museum is tastefully decorated -- more akin to an American presidential library than anything else. The items on display, mostly gifts given to Saleh by foreign dignitaries, were almost comically dissimilar. An impressive assortment of decorative swords sat a few yards away from a display case dominated by metal "Central Intelligence Agency" and "House of Representatives" plates, which struck me as the kind of souvenirs a Midwestern grandmother would purchase on a visit to Washington.
Pride of place was rightfully given to the charred article of clothing I'd come here to see. The bottom half of a mannequin, placed in a glass display case in the center of the larger of the museum's two rooms, sported the black dress pants. A decent portion of the front of the pants, it appeared, had evaporated in the explosion that nearly killed Saleh. His black Montblanc belt, however, remained intact.