MARIB, YEMEN — The invitation came early in the morning. A friend texted, asking whether I'd like to travel with him to Marib province, in Yemen's rugged interior. I said yes, but with two conditions. First, we'd have to see the Arsh Bilqis, a millennia-old ruined temple whose five pillars are one of Yemen's most ubiquitous national symbols. Second, he'd have to guarantee my safety. Marib's reputation for instability -- not least of all due to its long-standing al Qaeda presence -- makes it a place one can't travel to lightly. In recent days, a series of U.S. drone strikes has pounded the region.
He answered both in the affirmative, so I packed my bags and hopped in a car with my friend and one of his co-workers a few hours later.
As we wound through mountain after mountain, it was the twists and turns of the roads -- rather than any security concerns -- that left me nervous nearly to the point of shaking. But despite my long-standing fear that I'm destined to die young in a tragic Yemeni car accident, we nevertheless made it safely to the provincial capital in decent time. Upon first impression, the monotony of its sweltering gray streets cast it more as an economically depressed town in the middle of nowhere than a place on the front lines of the battle against al Qaeda. At least in their initial stages, the bulk of the conversations I had with people there reinforced that notion.
Yemenis often talk about Marib the way Westerners talk about Yemen itself -- peppering discussions of the place with stereotypes of backward tribesmen and complaints about lawlessness and irresolvable disorder. Although Marib is the source of much of the country's oil and gas wealth, few of its residents have access to regular water and electricity, let alone decent health care or schooling.
It was Marib's more pedestrian challenges that seemed to be at the forefront of locals' minds: the rampant unemployment, the lack of development, the absence of government services, the "theft" of the province's natural resources, and the resentment all these things have fueled. The locals wanted to make sure I was aware that al Qaeda wasn't the only thing making their lives difficult.
"Even our own government may act like we're a bunch of backwards extremists, but look for yourself.… Don't you think we just want to live in peace?" a young Maribi studying at Sanaa University's satellite campus in the provincial capital mused to nods from the others in the room.
I nodded, mumbling something about how that's all anyone anywhere truly wants.
"We want to live with dignity, free from fear," another continued, "whether from the fighters of al Qaeda or from the American planes that terrorize everyone whenever they appear."
Nearly every time the subject came to al Qaeda during my time in Marib, the American drone program came up along with it. It's not as if people there seemed to have any sympathy for the group; condemnations of al Qaeda were generally treated as statements of the obvious. But the psychological effects of previous strikes were palpable, the lingering fear they've sown clear solely through the tone of a person's voice.
"You just don't know when another one will come," a teenager who witnessed a strike told me, the cracks in his voice doing more to convey his point than anything he could ever say. "Civilians have been killed and injured. Each time we hear the sound of a plane, we immediately worry it will happen again."
"Do Americans know this?" he said, straining his words as he seemed to hold back tears. "Does your government?"
I'd hate to imply that such heavy moments characterized the bulk of my conversations in Marib. For the most part, they were remarkably informal and, at times, uplifting: a gesture to shared humanity.
But even during my visit to the ruins of the Arsh Bilqis, the shadows of U.S. drones seemed nearly inescapable.