A chat with Sabina Addailamy about the life of a Czech woman in a foreign land and the fact that you can get used to even to war

28. 12. 2020

After some time, Pavla Smetanová, a writer, journalist, and ambassador of Pomůžu jak můžu had a chat with Sabina about her life in Yemen. The interview was posted on her blog ostrovanka.cz in a section called Czechs in foreign lands and we are about to bring it to you here as well. We thank Pavla and wish you a pleasant reading.

“It takes some time, but people are able to get used to everything, including war. You can get used to bombing of your surroundings, waking you up every now and then. The downtown of our beautiful capital is severely damaged, however, we are not sentimental about it as we used to be. The prices of goods are changing day by day and we never can be sure whether there would be enough of anything…”

Hi, Sabina, Yemen is surely one of the most peculiar countries to live for a Czech person, and it is also quite difficult to get here, which is connected with the fact there is not many Czech people. Can you describe us how you got to live in Yemen?

My father was born in Yemen and relocated to the Czech Republic to study medicine, and later on, he met my mother. With my family, we travelled to Yemen when I was about three years old, but I do not remember much about it.

My mother described the country fondly though, usually stressing how great people she met there. Back then, she arrived in Yemen wearing a mini-skirt and smoking a cigarette, while the society was very conservative in those years. It was a very poor country and people did not tend to have TV. They were very kind, but my mother returned because she did not stand the conditions. My father kept visiting us back at home, but he established a new family in Yemen without divorcing my mother, which my parents agreed on.

I have always wanted to return to the birthplace of my father and I travelled there when I was nineteen.

And then you encountered your husband for the first time?

Yes, I spent a summer in Yemen and I met Khalid here. There was a rather short war between the North and the South going on, so in the end, I extended my stay here for a whole year. When I returned home for Christmas, I announced my mother I was going to get married.

How did you meet Khalid?

Together with my father, we were invited to Khalid’s family for lunch. I ate something really bad before and got food poisoning for two days. That is something every single foreigner undergoes in Yemen. I was very ill and Khalid tended to me attentively, bragging a bit about the number of languages he knew to make impression on me. It took me some time to figure out he meant he knew a few words in several languages, but back then, his charm worked.

Was it difficult to integrate into the local society?

Despite the initial shock, I managed to integrate among the locals quite smoothly. When I arrived, I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but nobody was making a big deal of it. I had no idea how people in Yemen were dressing and because I look a lot like a Yemeni woman, they were giving me odd looks. I was constantly in a centre of their attention, which I did not not like, however, neither my father nor my husband were telling me what to wear. They are not strong believers and they did not care about what I wore, so I started dressing like locals because it was convenient.

We also have a drink at home, especially if we are having a party.

What do you like about Yemen?

What I like the most about Yemen are the relationships among people in here, especially among family members. Families are rather large in here and people are generous and kind, inviting you over for lunch, and they would share the last loaf of bread with you even though they have almost nothing themselves. They are brave, patient, and they love their children dearly. They keet helping each other. Young people are taking care of their parents when they grow old. It is their duty, but also honour to do so.

Despite being in the middle of a war, Yemeni people are capable of enjoying their lives. They do not complain often.

I also like the local culture. I like their traditions they keep following and the local houses that look like ornamented with ginger-breads. The capital city is located 3,500 meters above the water level, so the journey in and out is always an adventure. I am also fond of the climate as it is sunny every day, but when it gets rainy, it is pouring cats and dogs. It lasts only about half an hour though.

What do you do for living?

Khalid used to work for British embassy and Group4, and then he founded his own Security Office, and because he was earning good money, I was able to stay at home. Once our three children were older, I started to earn money thanks to my long-term hobby – making jewellery and various decorations and I also taught English at private school.

There has been an ongoing war in Yemen for five years, causing the locals facing the worst famine in the world, and because the situation is getting worse, we have decided to establish a kitchen for poor people. Thanks to my friends in the Czech Republic who are behind the organization Pomůžu jak můžu and also thanks to generous donations sent by people from the Czech and Slovak Republic, we are able to cook one hot meal per day for 166 people in my surroundings. Usually, we cook for mothers, children, and elderly people who live in poverty that is hard to imagine for a person from Europe.

You have three children. What do they do and what languages do they speak?

We have two boys and a girl. Fahid is 24-years-old, Sami is 22-years-old, and Linda is 14-years-old. Fahid is quite an easy-going and calm young man and I think he will stay in Yemen unlike his brother, Sami, who would like to leave, however, if the situation does not get better, I am afraid we all will be forced to leave.

We speak English and Arabic at home and usually it is a combination of both. Unfortunately, I did not teach my children Czech, which I do regret now. As a girl, I faced racism a lot in the Czech Republic, so I felt some disdain towards our beautiful country and did not want to speak Czech language at all for some time. Lately, I have been trying to speak Czech with my children and it seems they understand, but do not speak on their own. It might change in the future, who knows.

Why did not you run away when the war began? Your husband has a family in England and your children have English citizenships, while you have your Czech one.

It was not that easy. At first, you just do not think of what is going on, admitting the war might last for a few weeks at most, so you do not want to leave your home. And later on, you couldn’t leave at all because the airports are not operational and the same goes for the mail and other quite basic things. Moreover, Ministry of Defence owes Khalid lots of money for a commission he had done for them before the war. They were supposed to pay him on 25th of March 2015, however, once he turned up at bank to collect the cheque, he was told to come the next day. Unfortunately, the next day was the day the war started.

Therefore, we are still waiting to get the money because without them, we cannot start anew.

Do you celebrate Christmas?

Yes, we celebrate them in the Czech way, which means that we have the Christmas tree and unwrap presents on the Christmas Eve. I always prepare fish or chicken steak and potato salad, and I bake some typical Czech sweets. We also celebrate Ramadan and we follow its tradition, which I welcome as it is a great opportunity to lose the weight I gained during Christmas. Otherwise, I would not have forced myself to fast.

How long did it take for you to learn Arabic?

It took me half a year to learn enough to be able to communicate. Gradually, I became able to speak and understand, but I have not mastered the language. I got stuck on a certain level from which I am not able to advance to a higher one as when I make a mistake, nobody corrects me because people simply estimate what I want to say. Getting better is beyond me, and moreover, my accent is terrible. Some people like it though. I can read well, but I am not good at writing, and after all these years, I am not really eager to get better.

What is the weirdest and the most typical meal in Yemen?

Helba, cooked in a stone pot called maglah, fits both criteria. You roast some tomatoes, then you add chopped eggs, and in the end, you add minced beef meat, chopped potatoes, sometimes some rice, and meat and vegetable broth. You let it cook and in the meantime, you whip some fenugreek into a slick mass, add parsley, coriander, karath (green sprout similar to parsley), garlic, salt, and chilli.

Then you quench the fire under the pot, but its content is going to boil for some time on. You add the fenugreek mass on the top, and once its finished, you eat it right from the pot, picking it with bread pancakes.

Everybody has a different recipe, but every single time the meal is delicious.

How does your typical day in Yemen look like?

My usual day does not differ much from yours. In the morning, my children attend school and I and my husband go to work. School starts at 8 o’clock in here and because students do not have the opportunity to have lunch at school, we gather at home about 1 or 2 o’clock and have lunch at half past 3 o’clock. During the afternoon, children are doing their homework, I am working on the jewellery and creating new designs, but only commissioned ones as I have no time left for other.

Here in Yemen, everybody is chewing khat which is a leaf of tea. Actually, you can overdo it, so you need to pay attention to it. People usually gather in the afternoon, chewing khat of different degree of bitterness. Quite often the locals drink sweet beverages when chewing.

It is prohibited in some countries because they perceive it as a drug, but I do chew khat often, however, when I do not chew, I do not miss it. Some foreigners describe their experience with khat in a way that people are not able to sit and talk for five hours without khat. It stimulates and helps with focus, so students use it when learning for exams. The prices differs according to quality, and basically, chewing is a thing you do to kill some time.

Still, it deteriorates you teeth and gums, especially when you realize you are chewing something for five hours. I do not really know what I would compare it to because in Yemen, most people chew khat regardless of age, sex, and social status. Of course, children do not chew.

Sometimes I spend the afternoon walking around the old part of the city, I cross the market place or I just stroll around. In the past two years, I have been devoting most of my time ensuring our kitchen is working.

How have you daily routine changed since you opened the canteen together with Pomůžu jak můžu?

In the morning, my husband brings food, usually rice and anything he can get, by our car. If it is possible, we buy stuff in advance, for example oil, salt, spices, and puree which we have enough for the whole month. In terms of vegetables, we tend to buy some each two or three days. Then we cook lunch for people who start coming to our canteen at about 11 o’clock. We put their meals into the boxes we had distributed among them in the past, and we also distribute some clothes and toys for kids (basically anything others donate to us) at that time.

Currently, it is prohibited to gather, and moreover, I bring masks, gloves, and sanitizer to canteen.   

What do you have in common with Khalid and what divides you?

There is one main thing we have in common – we know both worlds. We have similar opinions, we get along very well, and have something to talk about all the time. Thanks to our experience, we do not disapprove of any nationality or culture. In Yemen, it is nothing unusual to complain about America, so we try to explain the locals that the goods we have in here was brought from the West and the doctors were educated in America. I think we are able to look at the world from different perspectives.

And on top of that, we like the same meals.

The only thing we have different opinions on is the upbringing of our children. I am a strict mother, while my husband would do anything for our children, and not always it is good for them. He cannot see when he is spoiling them.

But that is the only thing, really, because after all these years together, we still love each other.


Thank you very much and I wish the whole Yemen these terrible times to end as soon as possible.


The complete text enriched by photographs and the readers comments could be found on Pavlína’s blog ostrovanka.cz > 

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