Reviewed by Darcy M. Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)
The older I get, the more I appreciate straightforward writing. And the more I travel, the more I understand the world. I have just finished reading Mary Lou Currier’s Letters from Yemen, a collection of 158 color photographs and letters written home during her Peace Corps service as a TEFL teacher from 1991 to 1994.
I chose this book to review because I currently live in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. The Republic of Yemen is my neighbor to the south, with only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between us. Yemen also borders Oman and has coasts on the Red and Arabian Seas. Due to the uneasy situation in Yemen now, I doubt I will visit it, but I have learned a great deal about it from Currier’s Letters.
Yemen is a mountainous, arid country. It was once an important trading center for caravans carrying incense from the East. From the mid-1800s until the 1950s, northern and southern Yemen were largely controlled by the British and Turks. In 1990 the north and south united, but civil war broke out in 1994. Currier notes, “Although the civil war was short lived, there is still an uneasy relationship between the central government and many of the tribes, compounded by the recent uprising of the Arab Spring and the growing influence of Al-Qaeda, especially in the south.” Yemen was already a very poor country, and when it sided with Iraq in the early 1990s during the Gulf War, the U.S. and its allies withdrew their aid support to Yemen, and Saudi Arabia sent home thousands of Yemeni workers. This was the situation in Yemen when Currier entered as a PCV.
Currier, an open-minded, experienced professional, was in her 50s when she joined the Peace Corps. She has always been intrigued by different cultures. “I grew up in a very Anglo Saxon area of northern New Hampshire and can remember seeing my first African American when I was six years old. I am excited and stimulated by trying to see the world through the eyes of people who have a different cultural bias.” Currier had traveled extensively in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa before her tour in Yemen. The ease of the experienced traveller is apparent in Letters, as well as her trust and eagerness to see countries on a personal level.
Reading Letters from Yemen, I had the impression that Currier was one of the most active PCVs in Yemen. In addition to teaching English at the University of Sana’a, she helped out at a camp for Somali refugees and obtained a grant for the Women’s Center. She gave private English lessons. She visited many beautiful sites such as Ibb, the ancient Ma’rib Dam, and Sa’da. Her descriptions of Sana’a made me want to take the next flight there. She house-sat and hosted “quat chews.” She would have been a model to me if we had served together.
In her 1992 Christmas missive she lists what she will never take for granted again: “good wine, bacon, ham, steak, a stove, broccoli, good music, movies, plays, the Red Sox, a meal in Boston’s North End, TV, clean streets, good water, efficient toilets, chairs, good lobster, a real bed, Doritos, flowers, trees and, most of all, friends and family.” As an RPCV who served in another hardship post, I could relate!
On a more serious note, Letters from Yemen reveals a country that most Americans know only from bloody news reports, lumped together in a hateful mash with all “Arabs.” In January of 1993, Currier wrote: “I watched the Yemeni news in English and was heartsick at the pictures shown of the civilians killed and wounded in Baghdad by our bombs . . .. It is a funny feeling to walk around a city where the people basically disapprove of your country’s actions. It is so much easier to go through such an experience at home.” It would indeed be instructive for foreign policy makers to live in the places they choose to bomb.
Mary Lou Currier is a sensitive, honest observer and describes vividly her two years in Yemen. Although Letters from Yemen is the first book she has published, it would be an excellent purchase for anyone wishing to learn more about this ancient and rugged country.
Darcy M. Meijer was a TEFL teacher with the Peace Corps in Gabon, Africa, from 1982 to 1984. She has been teaching in Abu Dhabi for the past six years. In 2011 she edited a collection of stories written by Gabon RPCVs entitled Adventures in Gabon: Peace Corps Stories from the African Rainforest.