It's not easy being the second-biggest rock band in Sanaa.
See Gaar Adams’ photos of Ahmed Asery and 3 Meters Away here.
SANAA, Yemen – In the waning days of 2010, a bookish medical student stood with me on an unswept street in the heart of Yemen’s capital. I had just finished touring the medical NGO where he worked, and I recall chatting briefly with him about his upcoming exams and struggling to keep up with the archaic Arabic biology vocabulary that he peppered into our small talk. This nerdiness seemed especially striking later when he confessed — crammed with me in the backseat of a rusted-out Peugeot 405 shared taxi — that his parents had just kicked him out of their house for trying to start a rock band.
As we wandered between the poorly lit offices of the NGO talking about medical licensing, Ahmed Asery, a gaunt kid with close-cropped hair and a meticulously tucked collared shirt, seemed a far cry from an aspiring rock star. But on that short taxi ride, whipping through the narrow streets in the capital of one of the most conservative countries in the world, Ahmed spoke only of the excitement of learning to pluck away at his second-hand guitar. With that, he jumped out of the taxi — medical textbooks in hand — and was gone.
That is, until a few weeks later, when I saw him all over the Internet strumming that same guitar in front of crowds large enough to make an arena tour manager envious.
Sanaa, an ancient city of 2 million cradled high among the craggy rocks of the Haraz Mountains, tends to feel more like a small, hospitable town than a bustling capital. But despite all of the warmth, friendliness, and inescapable invitations to tea one finds here, I didn’t necessarily expect to see Ahmed again after he hopped out of that taxi last December. I certainly did not expect to see him splashed all across YouTube.
But then a little thing called the Arab Spring changed everything.
The protests transformed the pedantic medical student from Sanaa University into a dreadlocked revolutionary, jamming in front of hundreds of thousands of people in Change Square. And the band over which Ahmed lost his family — 3 Meters Away — became Yemen’s first and only activist music group, playing shows at the very heart of Yemen’s protest movement.
Between my first meeting with him and my return to Yemen in January 2012, Ahmed went from a scrawny college kid one semester away from a medical license to being introduced as "the artist of the revolution" in front of mobs of his adoring countrymen.
The Arab Spring, needless to say, has yet to solve Yemen’s looming problems. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen with a combination of guile and brute force for more than three decades, may have resigned, but his allies remain entrenched in the country’s most sensitive security positions. Yemen’s new leader was not drawn from the protesters’ ranks — he is Saleh’s own former vice president, Field Marshal Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, whose rule was confirmed in a presidential election in February, where he was the only candidate on the ballot. And no one among Yemen’s many feuding power centers seems to have an answer to the ills plaguing the country — widespread electricity shortages, a depleting water supply, a moribund economy, and sky-high unemployment.
Yemen’s turmoil has conspired to create a set of problems that, it is fair to say, rock stars like Mick Jagger were never forced to contend with on their rise to fame. And today, almost a year after our first meeting, Ahmed is taking a short break from his own attempts to repair his battered country one rock ‘n’ roll song at a time in the pursuit of something that seems to unify musicians from around the world: narcotics. Pushing me through throngs of shouting protesters in Change Square, we begin our increasingly desperate quest to locate qat, a popular local stimulant for us to chew.
"I never used to do qat," Ahmed confesses sheepishly, picking up speed as we skirt past gruesome pictures of dead protesters tacked onto the sides of tents that have stood in defiant protest of the Yemeni government for almost a year. The photographs were all enlarged to highlight each corpse’s fatal gunshot wound from the sniper rifles of armed Saleh loyalists and security forces. "That is, until four months ago. We were playing a show in Djibouti, and some diplomats saw us. They invited me back to chew with them and talk about our perspective on Yemen."
Ahmed leans down to join a group of eager men rifling through bags of qat and inspects one handed to him by a wrinkly, toothless man. Ahmed scowls at the wilting leaves, hands back the bag, and bids farewell to the vendor. "How could I say no to an opportunity like that to talk about Yemen?" Deeper into the mass of protesters, the search continues. His dreadlocks and light blue T-shirt — a fading picture of Gandhi screened on the front — stand in marked contrast to the dusty thobes and red-and-white checkered keffiyehs of the men around him.
"Isn’t that the man from television?" a young woman in full niqab whispers to her friend, motioning slightly to Ahmed with one black gloved hand as we walk past them. I smile at Ahmed in acknowledgment of his admirer, and quickly realize that she is not the only one — whispers, handshakes, and invitations to dinner greet him at every turn.
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.
For a man of his diminutive stature, Ahmed possesses a voice of surprising depth and strength. It lingers between notes, undulating fluidly across the Arabic tonal system. With twice as many notes at his disposal, his vocal meanderings between sharps and flats sound perpetually sorrowful. Voice rich with mourning, he finishes the song that he introduced as "Green Creatures" and opens his eyes, the lyrics aimed at Yemeni military officers engaged in brutality and injustices still hanging in the air.
Though 3 Meters Away has always maintained a collaborative writing process, Ahmed and Hassan, the band’s two oldest members, lead the way into the next few revolutionary songs, navigating fluidly through some of their very first hits from Change Square. It was Ahmed who founded the band in late 2010 — back when he was still a bright-eyed medical student — and he recruited Hassan, the son of a Sudanese national singer and a prodigious musician in his own right, soon after.
The band plays its way through a few more familiar revolutionary songs, smoke from their abandoned cigarettes filling the mafraj as their set continues. They stop for a few minutes to properly introduce "Juvenile Lords," a song, Omr says, "about humans using their power to justify their own inhumanity." It’s clearly a band favorite, and they smile their way through the song with references to stature and power complexes. Watching the guys grin as they play the chorus, it’s hard not to picture President Saleh shouting his way through his imminent departure speech.
Edgy protest songs have become something of a phenomenon during the past tumultuous year in Yemen, a country with music so traditional that songs rarely make it to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone the broader Arab world. But more recently, Yemeni protest songs have traveled from Change Square to the world of ringtones in minutes.
The band’s song "Galas" ("Sitting") is no exception. In a testament to its popularity, no one in Sanaa seems to call the song by its proper name. In the streets, the song burgeoned in popularity and spread with the incorrect title of Zabadi (meaning "yogurt" in Arabic); Ahmed repeats the word several times in the chorus, as he describes the poverty-stricken protesters in Change Square who are living off cheap food like yogurt and bread:
I’m staying until the regime leaves/ I’m hungry before the regime leaves/ I’m full after/ All I eat is zabadi/ And I will eat meat after the regime leaves.
The song became so successful that people started calling Ahmed "Zabadi" after his first performance in Change Square. And while 3 Meters Away is not alone in achieving fame by utilizing revolutionary material, the band is one of the only musical acts in the country to write its own music and lyrics. Most revolutionary artists in Sanaa — talented singers with limited writing experience — rely on local poets to compose lyrics, and the few people in town who can mix a song to provide the melody.
The members of 3 Meters Away, already a musical anomaly in Yemen, fervently believe that they must travel through each step of the creation process to craft a song that resonates with their audiences. They allow for a few exceptions, however, including a song infused with lyrics from Abu Bakr, a traditional Yemeni oud musician.
Ahmed confesses that the song "really gets people going" when they play it live, but he is adamant that the lyrics were used only to augment the theme of national pride and identity for a song titled "I Adore the Soil of Yemen." Indeed, it becomes apparent within a few notes of the introduction that this song is going to be very un-Abu Bakr — like much of the music of 3 Meters Away, it is tinged with hints of reggae.
The band has lately taken to billing itself as "Yemen’s First Reggae Band," and it’s a style that goes deeper than a few incidental guitar chords jacked from Bob Marley. The band has embraced the Rastafari movement’s themes of repatriation and pride in one’s homeland, which jive with its ethos of reclaiming Yemen from the clutches of corrupt power and returning it to the people. "Reggae just fits with our message," Hassan tells me over tea. "It isn’t about killing. It’s about the people; it’s about being constructive and dealing with social problems."
Letting our second glass of tea cool, the band transitions into "They Cut My Brown Hand," an imperfect, unfinished song written in haste less than a week earlier in response to the alarming situation unfolding in Omr’s hometown. On Jan. 16, the entire city of Radda — less than 100 miles southwest of the capital — fell to a group of armed al Qaeda militants.
I cannot take this anymore/ They cut my brown hand/ I just wanted some bread/ To take away the hunger of winter
The song delves into how Radda — and the neighboring province of Abyan — are under the dangerous influence of ultra-conservative sharia law supporters, exploring the controversial subjects of religious and intellectual freedom in a country not necessarily known for much of either. The violence has only escalated in recent days, as al Qaeda fighters launched a surprise attack on an army base, leaving 17 soldiers dead, and the Yemeni air force responded with a series of air strikes that left dozens of people dead.
As he fiddles with his guitar, squinting in the dim candlelight, Omr’s voice is tinged with urgency as he explains the situation in his hometown — self-described warriors of God imposing a curfew and even staging a mass public burning of the town’s mannequins due to their "evil" representation of women. "‘Brown Hand’ is about showing the dangers of that mentality," Omr continues. "For us, education and an open mind are paramount."
Though the band has experimented with writing some songs in English to reach an international audience, most of their work, such as "Brown Hand," is composed exclusively in Arabic in order to resonate most deeply with the Yemeni population. "We sing about love and peace," Hassan interjects partway through the song. "People need to hear that side too. Most important: unlike sharia supporters, we don’t force-feed people one ideology."
In the middle of a well-deserved cigarette break after "Brown Hand," the electricity tentatively flickers on from an overhead light for the first time since my arrival in Sanaa more than 12 hours earlier. Talal’s eyes light up: As everyone else sets down their instruments to plug in their cell phones, this is his turn to practice. After a torrent of clicks and beeps — assurance that everyone’s electronics are finally charging — the band gathers around Talal in the center of the mafraj while he prepares his magic show, now illuminated by the harsh florescent lights from above.
Talal transforms from a shy guy in the corner of the mafraj to a gregarious entertainer with just the addition of a deck of cards in his hands. His black trench coat and long, crimped hair make him look almost Gothic, but as he effortlessly shuffles the cards, he beams. He pulls off five fluid tricks in a row — making cards disappear, reappear, change suit, and disappear again. Magic.
This practice time is important. In two days, he will be performing in front of hundreds of families at a Yemeni college graduation ceremony. He confesses to me that this is one of his ultimate dreams: to perform annually at every Yemeni college graduation. "I want to show them all, as they start a new chapter of life, that not everything in life is as it seems," he explains, pulling another coin out from behind my ear.
After Talal’s show, there is a rush of activity before the electricity shuts off again. They can finally practice the other part of their set with electric guitars, rewash laundry that was stopped mid-cycle yesterday and purchase another canister of cooking gas to power their oven so they don’t have to lug it inside in the dark. Omr sighs, "This kind of shit doesn’t happen in America, does it?"
Hussam doesn’t let a beat pass, "This shit doesn’t even happen in Morocco." Laughter again fills the room and the conversation shifts to everyone’s time abroad as the band pairs off to start chores.
The fact that 3 Meters Away is at the center of this pivotal moment in Yemeni history does not mean that any of this — the protests, the electricity cuts, the price gauging, the violence — is easy. Ahmed grabs a bullet from a candle-wax covered table in the corner of the room and places it in my hand. He explains to me that Hassan picked it up off the street one day after taking cover when the sounds of gunfire erupted during his normal walk to band practice. It wasn’t until next morning that anyone even found out what happened — pro-Saleh forces had let off a torrent of celebratory gunfire in support of their embattled president. The ensuing rainfall of bullets killed several people in the streets of Sanaa who were just going about their business like Hassan.
"You become so numb that you don’t even realize there are explosions all around you," Omr chimes in. Playing in Change Square, the danger and death surrounding the band has forced them to grapple with these same issues of responsibility and mortality. The band’s name reckons with these hazards in several ways: It was inspired by their own rule of staying 3 meters away from riot police and not engaging in physically dangerous situations; it also acts as their own twist on the phrase "6 feet under," serving as a reminder and tribute of respect to the martyrs who died in Change Square.
Ahmed is the first of the band to finish his chores and head back to the mafraj to work on more music. He listens to a song called "Private Number," which he played solo at a few smaller venues. As he plugs in his electric guitar, he explains the cryptic name of the song.
After playing a show in Change Square several months ago, Ahmed got a call late the same evening from a blocked number on his cell phone. When he answered the call, the voice on the other end of the line was threatening. "We will teach you who you are and what we do to people like you," the man said. And then he hung up.
Ahmed speculates that it was a call from the Yemeni National Security Agency. I ask him if things like this have ever made him consider quitting music. Without hesitating, he answers, "I wrote this song 10 minutes after getting that call and published it online to show them who I was."
Before he can even finish the song, the electricity switches back off, his electric guitar again useless.
It is morning at the 3 Meters Away household. Omr already has tea waiting on the patio and is pouring a cup for Hussam, who is standing in the garden. After the power went off again last night, the band insisted that I stay the night. "It’s too late. You won’t find a taxi at this hour. The electricity will be off in your hotel anyway," they said. Before I was able to protest, the conversation had evolved into a band-wide agreement of how silly it was for me to stay at a hotel at all.
"You have friends here," Ahmed reasoned, "And your family back home will be happy to hear that you are staying with people instead of alone in a hotel."
Standing on the patio, the bright Yemeni sun on my neck, I inspect the band’s house. This is my first chance to see it in the daylight. Hussam sees me admiring it. "This is our inspiration," he says, lighting a cigarette and looking around at the beautiful structure.
Located in an area of Sanaa built up rapidly during the 1980s, when Saleh’s promises of contracts and international business in exchange for loyalty to his government lured many sheikhs to the capital and encouraged a bloated government bureaucracy, the surrounding houses are almost Soviet in their architecture — cold and concrete. Remarkably, though, Ahmed’s house retained some of the Yemeni architectural styles found in the Old City, Sanaa’s enchanting 2,500 year-old cluster of mud-brick buildings decorated with ornate, stained glass windows and lightly-colored embellishments.
More astonishing, however, is the house’s garden. The beautiful vegetation and creeping ivy stand in stark contrast to the traffic mere feet away on the busy thoroughfare. "No one has a garden like this off a street like this," Hussam says proudly, sipping his tea.
But perhaps the most extraordinary thing is the fact that 3 Meters Away was able to get any house at all. The challenges of finding a landlord anywhere in Yemen who will rent to a single man are considerable. "To find a landlord willing to rent this beautiful home, not just to a group of single men but to a group of musicians without steady jobs, was nothing short of miraculous," explains Ahmed, who had walked out onto the patio in Bob Marley pajama pants and grabbed a cup for tea.
"We should be married and supporting families by now," Hussam confesses.
Big families are part of Yemeni culture: Later that day, Talal will admit that his dad has 18 children. Omr then shows me his family book — a government identification document — and it has space for 30 kids. "As a Yemeni man, my government anticipates me procreating that many times," he says incredulously. "Even worse, one of my cousins actually beat that."
This house isn’t just for the band, either. A revolving cast of Yemeni artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries stop by periodically for a few hours, a day, or several nights to hang out, cook meals, and listen to the band jam. As members of a largely rejected artistic community, they are outliers in Yemen’s conservative society. Ahmed’s house provides some level of sanctuary.
Omr suddenly slams down his tea and stands up from the rickety table. He starts pacing the length of the garden and lights a cigarette, takes a long drag, and finally looks up at us. "My whole family is fleeing Radda. I have to go arrange everything," he says. He stares blankly at his cell phone for several minutes.
"I’m so tired," he says finally, quieter this time, rubbing at his temples in the far corner of the garden.
In many ways, Omr is a father dozens of times over. Not yet 30, he already has two children — a four year-old and a five year-old. And though they live with his ex-wife in Radda, Omr’s fatherly duties often extend to 3 Meters Away as well. On several occasions throughout the weekend, Omr will come late to band practices or even brush off pleas to come play with the band with a definitive, "I have too much to do."
And now as the patriarch of his extended family — a 14-year-old driver ran down Omr’s father in the streets of Sanaa before his 48th birthday — he must arrange for his besieged relatives in Radda to flee the country. Standing alone in the garden and staring at the gate, Omr seems to teeter on the point of collapse.
Before we had gone to bed the night before, Omr had sat down next to me — deep circles under his eyes — and chatted by candlelight about the exhaustion of a year without electricity. "It’s horrible for Yemeni people," he said. "I mean, horrible for Yemeni women. If all the men had to wake up in the middle of the night when the electricity comes on to do the chores, they would be protesting first thing in the morning."
Now, Omr’s trademark humor is gone. He sits back down at the table with Hussam, Ahmed, and me, still staring at his phone, incredulous. Finishing one cigarette, he lights the next wordlessly. Taking another deep drag, he scrolls through his phone for a minute, humming a few bars from "They Cut My Brown Hand." Music starts playing from his cell phone — it’s Bob Marley’s "Running Away."
Running away/ Every man thinketh his burden is the heaviest/ Every man thinketh his burden is the heaviest/ But who feels it knows it, Lord
"I dedicate this song to my family," Omr says simply.
Of all of the members of 3 Meters Away, Omr has perhaps the strongest ties to Yemen, but also the deepest desire to leave it. While Hussam affectionately reflects on his time in Morocco and Hassan loves to tell the stories of his experiences playing music in Europe growing up, it is Omr who most frequently infuses his conversations with anecdotes from his adventures abroad. He first spent time in Italy as a young man and humorously peppers his conversations with overdramatized Italian accents and curse words. But it was his time in Scandinavia, first as an asylum seeker and then as an activist, that transformed him.
Omr shares a last name with an infamous member of Yemen’s terrorist network. He is in the process of legally changing this notorious tie not just for himself, but for his immediate family as well. As a member of a large Yemeni family, he has several relatives of note, including an uncle who started a guns-for-appliances trade-in program in a remote area of Yemen. The program was a success — too much of a success. Soon after its launch, a group of local sheikhs started collecting guns from the area’s families and demanding payment from his uncle’s program, with no intention of divvying up the money to the guns’ original owners. His uncle refused payment to the corrupt sheikhs, and a few days later several members of Omr’s family were kidnapped in the night as payback.
Omr then fled to Sweden, where he remained in the dark about the whereabouts of those taken, including his younger brother. He quickly applied for asylum, but his case was rejected. The acts of racism and discrimination he experienced while in this legal limbo inspired him to meet back up with his Italian friends in Copenhagen in 2009, to work as an activist against Danish immigration laws. He fondly recounts his time handcuffed overnight in a public square while protesting during Cop15, a 2009 United Nations global warming conference that also spawned demonstrations on border and migration laws. As he tells the story, I’m glad that something has taken his mind off the immediate situation of his family, if only for a moment.
Today, Omr is again in chains, but in Yemen instead. Married twice, his two kids and large extended family keep him here. But the two hats he wears — devoted family man and loyal band member, attempting to advance human rights in his country — will not be able to coexist much longer. His family knows nothing about his involvement with 3 Meters Away, even those closest to him. He has kept this explosive secret from everyone for months. I ask, pouring him another cup of tea, what would happen if anyone were to find out.
"The best scenario is that they push me out of their lives and pretend that I don’t exist," he states simply. This is just a fact to Omr, and he speaks with no malice or bitterness toward his family. It is almost as though he views his musical inclinations as a personal fault, at best a selfish desire and at worst a kind of sickness.
"I never smoked this much until last week when I heard about what was happening in Radda. The anxiety, it’s just …" Omr trails off. He looks at his watch: There is much to arrange, especially in the face of the crippling embassy bureaucracy he must attempt to overcome today. Omr grabs another cigarette and his lighter, staring at the latter. "I believe my family will get visas as much as I believe in this lighter," he says. He tries to light his next cigarette — it doesn’t start. It takes five clicks to get the flame steady.
The constant barrage of violent imagery on his sons distresses Omr more than anything else. Reaching for his sixth cigarette of the morning, he looks mournfully into an empty pack, "My 4 year old looked up at the sky the other day in Radda and called the stars bullet holes. My family had to actually convince him that they were stars and not flashes from guns. In Yemen, kids are miserable by eight or nine. By the age of 40, they’re all ready to die."
The thought of his children in danger makes Omr seethe even more. As he speaks about the ancient castle in his hometown, occupied by heavily armed terrorists, his anger at the regime finally boils over. "Everyone knows Saleh is the biggest fucking terrorist of all," he shouts out angrily.
Too mad to keep talking, he plays a Nina Simone song from his phone. It calms him a little and he finally smiles again. Looking around, he admits, "If we were playing music on a Friday like this anywhere outside of this garden, we’d get our asses kicked!"
A few minutes pass as we listen to Nina sing. Omr’s cell phone rings suddenly, and it’s a blocked number. He lets it go, but continues staring at the phone for several moments after the ringing has stopped. "Hopefully it was someone calling from Sudan," he says aloud, more to himself than to me. He sounds shaken, though, and after glancing across the street, Omr slaps his forehead in aggravation.
Though Ahmed’s house provides a stunning garden, it also is next door to a government building. "Oh shit," Omr grumbles, nodding his head upwards, motioning for me to follow his gaze. "The man upstairs is on the phone. You never want to see the man upstairs on the phone." Omr lets loose a few choice phrases.
"In America, you guys have the saying ‘Karma is a bitch.’ In Yemen, we say, ‘The man upstairs is a bitch.’" Omr chuckles, "I sure hope he can’t read lips." He flashes a giant faux-smile and mouths to the man, "I love you." He keeps the same megawatt smile and then mouths, "Fuck you."
We both keep looking next door at the government building for a few minutes. The flag waving atop its roof is tattered; the upper stripe — a proud red — has separated from the white and black stripes of the Yemeni flag below it. Omr calls this a bad sign, and with that, he stands up. It will be prayer time soon, and after that, he should be able to get some Sudanese visa logistics rolling.
After lunch, I sit next to Omr as he puts on his shoes and prepares to arrange everything for his family. He looks more resolute than just an hour before. In a rare moment of complete seriousness, Omr puts his hands on my shoulder and looks in my eyes, willing me to remember what he says next: "Our lives are our time. That time and the things that we leave behind are our heritage. Each human is adding to that heritage. That is our impact on Earth." He pulls out one more cigarette for the road from a carton on the floor.
As we drive through al-Hasaba — the center of fighting between pro- and anti-government forces in Sanaa — Ahmed tries inconspicuously to point out two of the most heavily shelled government buildings, which were taken over by rebel forces this past spring. It is difficult to miss them: The bullet holes, broken glass, and scorch marks throughout this northern district of Sanaa make the jovial magic show we are driving toward seem that much further off in the distance.
I am jammed into a taxi with Ahmed, Talal, and Anwar, one of the band’s friends who offered to drive us in his taxi so he could see the show too. Dressed in the same black T-shirt and trench coat as the two previous days, Talal checks and rechecks his box of magic supplies as we zoom past a pair of charred buildings.
Inside, women sit on the right side of the room while families, and single men are stationed on the left. Qat leaves are strewn across the floor, and women wearing full black niqab with purple graduation caps fill the second floor, lining up and preparing to descend the stairs. After Talal leaves to speak with the manager, I ask Ahmed if he thinks Talal is nervous to perform in front of all of these people; I guess that there are roughly 400 milling about the giant, dusty hall. "We have played in front of hundreds of thousands. This is nothing," he winks back at me.
A few minutes later, a tired-looking man saunters over and hands each of us a program. I nudge Talal when I see his name listed, but the other guys are buzzing instead about the presence of a band’s name further down on the program. Before I have time to ask if they know the group, a gaggle of long-haired young men in matching black T-shirts approaches. Each of them shakes hands first with Ahmed and then with the rest of us; the greeting is cordial but not warm. After they depart, I watch Ahmed survey them as they pick up their instruments and check the extensive sound equipment on stage.
Hussam shows up a few minutes later and plops down in a mafraj seat next to me, all smiles. He whispers that he used to go to school with one of the girls currently walking down the aisle. Though they do not know each other very well, Hussam explains that they have had some good, albeit superficial, interactions recently and that they even exchanged numbers a few weeks ago. I tease him about having a girlfriend but he just chuckles to himself and slaps me on the back, "I wish."
Later, as he tries in vain to point out his not-girlfriend standing in a crowd of women dressed in black robes with nothing but their eyes showing, he tells me how he once heard her remark after class, "Marriage is stupid."
"That alone made me know that she is the one for me," Hussam grins.
After the drawn-out ceremony finally finishes, Talal takes the stage. The younger members of the crowd go wild after each trick — he puts cell phones through balloons, makes knots in shoelaces disappear, and walks though entire sections of rope. The older men and women, however, only clap perfunctorily after a few tricks. Talal takes a big bow at the end of his performance and gives 3 Meters Away a special wave, winking in our direction.
After Talal, the band in matching black shirts gets on stage and grabs their instruments. Within a few bars of their first Egyptian pop song, a good chunk of the audience is singing or humming along. Young men push their way to the front of the stage area to bust some moves, and even the fully veiled graduating girls wave their diplomas a little bit to the beat of the music. Anwar nudges me in the side, grinning. "Look! Even the girls want to dance to Tamer Hosni!"
The band grins at the start and finish of each number, as the whole audience recognizes each pop song and claps or roars with approval. Seven or eight songs in, Talal rolls his eyes. "How many songs are they going to play?" he asks.
Hussam goes to speak with his not-girlfriend for a few minutes while Talal tries to find the organizing committee manager so he can get paid for his show. Watching Hussam dart through the crowd to find her, Anwar jokes that we will have to drag Hussam by the ears if we ever want to leave the building.
Talal returns first, but his eyes are glued to the ground and he looks like he got punched in the gut. "They didn’t pay me," he whispers.
Ahmed and Anwar jump immediately into action, scouring the hall to find the committee manager, who is suddenly nowhere to be found. Talal gets on the phone with Omr to explain the situation, though he is already neck-deep in his own bureaucratic nightmare by spending his second day in a row at the embassy trying to secure visas for his family. "Corrupt bastard," is all I can make out from Omr on the other end.
We beckon Hussam to follow us outside. Ahmed puts his arm around Talal reassuringly as we head to Anwar’s car. Talal picks up his deck of cards and box of magic. The light gleaming in his eyes while he performed is gone.
Outside the hall, a kid tries to sell me some bullets. "I’ve got a whole arsenal of them!" he beams, flashing a toothless grin at me. When I decline, his smile drops, and he pretends to pull out a gun from his ratty clothes, miming shots at me. Hussam shoos him away.
It has been a rough day all around. Back at Ahmed’s house, Talal goes straight into his room and closes the door — the dozen or so calls to the graduation committee organizers have gone unanswered all afternoon.
And Ahmed, whose pursuit of a medical license had been largely derailed since I first met him in late 2010, had experienced another setback. His practical exams — the very ones he first talked to me about more than a year earlier — were actually scheduled for a week later than he originally thought. They had already been postponed for more than two semesters, due to the protests surrounding the university.
Though he is not even sold on wanting his medical license anymore, the work he put into schooling for so long weighs on Ahmed. For him, there will now be at least one more week of stress, self-reflection, and forgetting material, where he must reckon with all that he gave up in pursuit of creating 3 Meters Away.
"I wish I had found music earlier so I wouldn’t have to think about how far I could have gone in medicine," Ahmed admits unprompted later that night, during a moment of silence in the mafraj.
The interactions with his love interest long forgotten by mid-afternoon, Hussam has his own academic tensions to deal with now — several huge assignments to start for his accounting studies, notes to take, a draft of a proposal due to one of his professors. The time Hussam has put into the band this week has not made the rest of his life easier, and Ahmed and Hussam share a moment of mutual academic frustration. "Do you think our university accepts songs?" Ahmed shouts to Hussam from the kitchen. They both laugh, but I see Hussam sigh and rub his temples.
And on top of all of this, everyone had to listen to that damn cover band with its hokey matching T-shirts. "A day like today calls for some serious therapy," Ahmed says, grinning. That can only mean one thing: It’s qat time.
We arrive back at Ahmed’s house with our supplies as the sun is setting. Once each guy takes his place in the mafraj and starts picking through the little green leaves, it does not take long for the frustrations of the day to seep out into the room.
Omr starts, and I can hear the restrained aggravation in his voice as he keeps his eyes on the floor, flipping his harmonica over and over in his hand to soothe himself. His day hasn’t been any easier: Crushing bureaucracy was the name of the game at the Sudanese embassy, and though he had promised himself he wouldn’t, he had to resort to bribing officials to make any headway with the visas. His gaze grows more distant: he starts talking about the time he climbed his favorite monument in Rome, Il Vittoriano, and the perfect view it provided of his perfect city. His cell phone vibrates, jolting him out of a simpler time, and he runs into the other room to answer it. The conversation is short and his voice is raised.
Omr returns to the room with a look of resignation and touches Talal’s shoulder. "You should get your money soon," he says. The woman on the other end of the phone who had been screening their calls all day finally explained the situation: The organizing committee just did not have the money as promised to pay Talal. She would get it to him as soon as possible. Or so she said.
"How can you develop the artistic community here when there is no appreciation for it?" Ahmed scoffs. Exasperated, he spits little bits of green leaves out of his bulging cheek as he speaks. "There is an expectation that art should not be paid for in Yemen and that what we have to contribute is not worth the same as other services."
Talal picks up a shoot of qat leaves and throws it over to Ahmed. Throwing someone qat is a sign of friendship, agreement, and approval when someone makes a statement that resonates during a chewing session. Ahmed picks up the leaves and smiles at Talal, and the conversation about art and payment quickly turns to the other band.
From their first chord — or even just after seeing the matching T-shirts — it was clear that the graduation cover band approached music and performance differently from 3 Meters Away. Though Ahmed admits that the guys in the band are nice enough, the groups’ differing musical philosophies have prevented the two acts from engaging on a deeper level. Playing more commercial gigs, like wedding parties and graduations, the rival band has been able to rake in considerably more income than 3 Meters Away, and it has escaped the brunt of the stigma inherent in being in a band in Yemen by avoiding politics and controversial topics altogether.
The pop band provides a community service by recreating the well-known music from Egyptian culture, while 3 Meters Away creates new, unfamiliar, and "dangerous" music, Ahmed explains. The former is acceptable, the latter is indulgent. "There is no commercial market for our kind of music," he laments.
The conversation turns slowly to audio equipment, and both Omr and Ahmed shift their eyes to their poor-quality amplifiers in the corner of the room. "Everything else and everything new is out of our price range," Omr shrugs, the amplifiers hissing and crackling as Hussam fiddles with a few of its knobs.
During a qat-induced lull in the conversation, Hussam checks his phone for any sign of messages from his love interest. His inbox empty, he complains about how difficult it is to form a real relationship with a girl in Yemen. Of the three younger band members, Ahmed has the gold standard in terms of a relationship: His girlfriend, a Yemeni-Russian architecture student, is the exception to the rule in conservative Yemen and openly hangs out with the guys at their house. She regularly visits, sits with everyone, and makes everyone listen to Amy Winehouse, her favorite artist. Ahmed even references her in several of his songs, and his ability to sing openly about his feelings is an attribute Hussam respects deeply. Hussam picks up an ash-covered notebook off the floor and starts reading me a few lines from one of Ahmed’s new songs in which he references his girlfriend:
Remember when we used to meet/ And hide our love/ Oh — what a feeling.
"The subject may not be new, because hidden love is something that happens in Yemen, but Ahmed is the only one to express it publicly in song like this," Hussam marvels. "It is just not something people talk about."
The band spontaneously picks up where Ahmed’s lyrics left off, jamming a little, qat cheeks spilling over. Midway through the song, however, the power goes out again. Everyone reaches for the nearest candle, and Omr grumbles about the electricity problem. "The government is controlling the lives of millions with one phone call," he mutters.
As half a dozen candles are lit to shed some light in the mafraj, Hassan walks in the door, a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck to shelter him from the chilly night air. After handshakes, hugs, and kisses on the cheeks all around, he wordlessly reaches into his pocket and, grinning, pulls out a special surprise — a bag of hashish and some rolling papers.
The guys look on eagerly as Hassan sits down to roll a blunt. Hassan turns to me and apologizes, "I had some of this Iranian stuff the other night too, but I wasn’t sure if it was the right moment."
The band starts an impromptu acoustic jam, accompanying Ahmed, who is determined to pound out some new lyrics for a song that has been floating through his head the past few days. For inspiration, Hassan pulls out his failing laptop from his rucksack, plugs in a cracked flash drive, and screens some classic music videos.
Flipping between videos from Sade, Luther Vandross, Billie Holiday, and old school Sudanese reggae, Hassan sings along to each one while simultaneously pointing out all his favorite parts. "I have watched these all hundreds of times," he admits, taking a long drag of hashish. He speaks passionately about working at a music venue in Europe as a young man first performing odd jobs and then eventually playing music; he had the opportunity to meet and listen live to artists that influenced his musical edification, like Miles Davis and Peter Gabriel.
While switching between his eclectic selection of music, Hassan just as fluidly swaps instruments — alternating among an oud, bass guitar, and drum sticks as the inspiration from each video strikes him. The multitalented musician has turned down several opportunities to play elsewhere, including the recent offer of a stint in Germany as a bassist.
"I reject the word ‘known.’ People don’t need to know my name. They just need to know my message," Hassan assures me. But consciously recognizing the importance of delivering a message to Yemen does not necessarily make the decision to live here any easier.
As he keeps smoking, Hassan’s discordant feelings on Yemen become more apparent. In one breath, he marvels at the inspiration and vibrancy of Change Square. But in the next, Hassan laments the minuscule music scene in Yemen while reminiscing about all of his European adventures. "Mostly, I try to be a part of my environment," Hassan says. "So thank God there is this movement here that I can be a part of."
The band plays one last song for the night, titled "Plant a Tree," before heading to bed. Its lyrics touch on the importance of education and spreading knowledge, tolerance, and critical thinking. Ahmed starts off:
Free your mind, fly and be free/ Cut off your roots, fall into misery/ They want us shadowless and doomed in captivity/ Your son and your family/ Plant a tree/ It’s not just a tree
"One year ago, I didn’t know any of these people. Now they are closer to me than anyone else I have ever met. Most importantly, we have started something," Hussam smiles, packing away his drumsticks for the night. "We are together, and we will not be on the margins of society forever."
I throw him some qat.