The Time I Played a Kidnapped Westerner on a Yemeni Soap Opera
The government-sponsored TV program was intended to discourage seizing foreigners. And it made me an accidental celebrity in Sanaa.
My phone rang.
“Ah hello, Abdullah.” Abdullah was my Arabic teacher in Sanaa, one of the first friends I made when I moved to Yemen as a freelance journalist early in 2009.
“My friend is an actor,” Abdullah said. “They need a foreign guy and girl for filming a program tomorrow. Will you and Robert do it?” Robert, a fellow student of Abdullah’s, was an English academic doing his Ph.D. research in the Yemeni capital. “Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
It sounded innocent enough.
And so one fine summer morning in 2009, Robert and I showed up with Abdullah to the village of Bait Baous, just outside Sanaa, to perform in a local TV program about which we knew nothing. In an open, dusty space below the town’s cluster of mud-brick houses, a film crew lingered, along with a variety of actors, some carrying drums, others assault rifles. Abdullah wasn’t too certain about what we should do, so we just sat on some rocks in the shade while he went to find his friend among the gun-toting actors. Village boys and girls who were watching the spectacle came over to the rocks to poke at us, the strange foreigners.
After about five minutes, a tall, well-dressed man with graying hair approached us.
“Ah, you are Robert and Laura. Welcome, welcome. I am Mohammed. I am the director. Please sit down. We will be with you soon.”
“He’s Iraqi,” Abdullah said after rejoining us. “He is working with the Yemeni government to make this show. The subject is kidnapping, against kidnapping, you know?”
“Wait. What?” I asked.
“We’re going to be kidnapped on national TV?” Robert asked.
“Yes,” we were told.
The kidnapping of Westerners was a problem in Yemen, though it rarely ended badly for the captives. If a tribe wanted to bribe the government in some way, to get Uncle Mohammed out of prison, for example, then Western foreigners were good bargaining chips. While they were in captivity, foreigners said they were always treated kindly, given lots of food and qat, a mild narcotic. Still, kidnapping boded poorly for Yemen’s reputation, and it certainly dissuaded money-generating tourism.
One of the actors came up to us. He was tall and stocky for a Yemeni. His black hair was shaved very short, and on top of it he wore a long, scraggly wig with pieces of fake hair sticking out in different directions. He and the other actors were meant to look like tribesmen from Marib, a province to the east of Sanaa, because Maribis are most often accused of kidnapping and unruly behavior. Apparently, they also lacked barbers.
“Welcome. Thank you so much for being here. I’m Fahd,” he said. He played Ganaf, the main character and star of the show.
“You look like Muammar al-Qaddafi,” I told Fahd, and we instantly became friends.
Soon, it was time for my scene with Robert. The director approached us. “Alright, here’s the thing,” he explained. “You two are in Yemen for your honeymoon. You are watching these musicians perform at a wedding, and that’s when the kidnappers come up to you. But then there will not just be one set of kidnappers, but two. They will fight over who gets to kidnap you. I need you to act really scared.”
“Do you think this is going to take more than a day?” Robert asked me.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied.
After the first takes, the director scolded Robert and me for not looking frightened enough when approached by our kidnappers. I looked over to the ragtag bunch of Yemeni actors in their black wigs trying to pretend they were tribesmen from Marib who lived in the desert, slept in tents, ate camel meat for lunch, and only adhered to tribal law—the group of city folks from Sanaa and Taiz who drank tea at street-side cafes on Saturday afternoons.
“Why don’t you yell ‘Oh my God!’” the director suggested to me. “And put your hands on your cheeks like this.” He demonstrated an affected scared look.
I did as I was told, but we had to do another take because I was laughing too hard as soon as my lines exited my mouth. And another one after that. After filming, the director told us to come back the next day to shoot another scene, and the next day, and the one after that, too. Production wasn’t finished after Ramadan started, so we filmed in the middle of the night when everyone’s bellies were full. The actors chewed qat right until it was their time to be on camera, and then reluctantly had to spit out the green wad of leaves. We tried to film in a cramped cave in the mountains, where we were being “held” as captives, but it rained that night and the film equipment got wet and wouldn’t function. Instead, as the rain poured down, we all sat cross-legged on the dirt ground, elbow to elbow, with the glimmer of moon and glare of cell phones as our only light. The actors sang Arab melodies in deep voices about the queens who used to rule Yemen thousands of years ago.
After that, the Iraqi director decided that we should film the cave scenes in the basement of a house in Sanaa. There was a scene during which Robert and I argued about whose idea it was to come to Yemen on our honeymoon in the first place. I raised my voice at Robert and kind of pushed him to the side while Ganaf gawked at us in disbelief. This was supposed to be entertaining because a tribesman would never let his wife yell at him like that, or so tradition goes, but I’ve seen plenty of Arab women do plenty of yelling inside the home.
Others were being held hostage with Robert and me: “the Chinese” character, who in reality was a Vietnamese man who was raised in Sanaa, and Sami, a young Yemeni boy. “The Chinese” didn’t want to leave captivity because the kidnappers fed him lots of fahsa, meat stew he thoroughly enjoyed. (None of the actors ever used his real name, even when filming stopped.) Sami was the son of wealthy Yemenis who had been kidnapped for ransom, a practice that, though not common, sometimes occurred. He would lecture Ganaf about why kidnapping foreigners was an embarrassment to Yemeni culture. He waved his finger at the much older Ganaf and told him he should be ashamed of himself.
Then, the much-adored Sami character fell ill with diabetes. He curled up on the floor of the basement under some dirty blankets and was on the verge of death. The other actors put white chalk on Sami’s cheeks to make him look sicker. I happened to be a doctor and told the kidnappers that to help Sami we needed “a syringe.” They ran off to the other side of the room and, lo and behold, came back moments later with the prized needle. I stuck Sami in the arm, his head hanging limply alongside his small, weak body, and—imagine this—I saved his life.
That’s when Ganaf saw that foreigners weren’t so bad after all. He began to heed Sami’s lecture that kidnapping Westerners was shameful and a crime. So Ganaf decided to help us sneak out of our hiding place. We filmed the grand escape scene in the brown, dry mountains around Sanaa. Robert, Ganaf, and I ran across the rocks before we were ambushed by Ganaf’s fellow tribesmen. They pointed their rifles directly at us. Ganaf was shot. He fell to the ground grasping at his ketchup-stained chest in over-exaggerated horror. But Robert and I managed to escape.
“The problem isn’t Islam. It’s Arab dictators—they are only concerned about their own money. Islam is peaceful. The accident of September 11, ya Laura, that wasn’t Islam.”
Fahd was driving Robert and me in his large black SUV to shoot our final scene at a hospital in the Hadda neighborhood of Sanaa about three weeks after the first filming started. During the days upon days of sitting around with him on set, I had grown to appreciate Fahd. He was full of passion, drive, and energy, and he so wanted us to understand. He had been imprisoned for publicly insulting then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh onstage in 2008, which meant he was probably the first Yemeni activist I’d ever met. I learned that Fahd was an Islahi, an Islamist, someone who was supposed to be against the ideals that I, as a liberal American woman, held. But Fahd never made me feel that way.
“Ya Laura, in America, would they think I, as a Yemeni, am a terrorist?” he asked me during our drive.
“People are not just one thing,” I told him. “Some people in America would be able to understand, but some people in America would not. See, Arabs differentiate between government and people because in the Arab world people don’t choose their government. But in America we do. So people are not so good at distinguishing. If a government is bad then the people must be bad as well.”
Fahd drew in a big breath and stared straight ahead. He paused for a moment, seemingly thinking this through. Then he turned to me once more. “You will see in Taiz”—Fahd’s home city—“we are very civilized,” he said. “Have you been to Taiz, ya Laura?”
“No, but I really want to go.”
“I will drive you to Taiz myself! In this car. When do you want to go? We will go after Ramadan is over.”
“Inshallah, God willing,” I said. We never did go to Taiz together, not exactly anyway, but when I went there by myself to report on the spreading protests in 2011, it would be the first time I saw him after this day.
Inside the hospital, Ganaf, who was supposed to be recovering from a bullet wound from our grand escape, was lying in bed, covers pulled up to his chest. He didn’t wear his long wig anymore—a kidnapper reformed. Robert and I stood by his bedside, loyally looking after our kidnapper-turned-savior. Robert, sick of filming by this point, said only the minimum of what was required of him, and stood as stiff as a board while he stared at Ganaf. The director—far from happy at such amateur acting, especially when compared with the kidnappers, who said their lines with the gusto of Broadway stars—was going to make us go through take after take. So I tried to make up for Robert, and let affection for Ganaf’s heroism gush out of me.
“Oh Ganaf, you saved us!” I exclaimed, leaning over the bed, but not touching his arm, because such male-to-female contact would be frowned upon.
“Ganaf, we love you,” Robert said, only because he was told to or else we couldn’t move on. His lips hardly opened.
Ganaf explained once again, this time for the camera, that Islam was a religion of peace that does not advocate hurting foreigners. He talked to us like a school principal. It was obviously a message that was supposed to resonate with the wider audience who would be watching the grainy serial on their home televisions a few days later.
Next, the rest of our kidnappers entered. Robert and I cowered in fear by the side of the bed.
Ganaf told us not to be afraid. Then he told the kidnappers that they should apologize to us. The smallest of them, whose long hair from the black wig kept falling over his eyes, balked at this, but finally they all obliged.
“What can I say? I am sorry. Sorry,” he came forward and said in Arabic.
“He is. You said. Sorry,” Ganaf said in English to Robert and me.
“I understand him, but I don’t understand my translator,” I replied in Arabic. Viewers at home would then hear a Loony Tunes-like sound effect, like boooing, just so they knew this was a joke.
Then came the moment when I endeared myself to households across Yemen.
“There are good and bad people all over the world,” I said to the group in a sing-songy voice, the sort of tone you hear in a child’s TV show. “And I can see that Yemenis are a good people.”
The kidnappers standing around Ganaf’s feet at the end of the bed nodded in agreement.
“Hathy hely,” Ganaf said after my declaration, using a phrase from a very localized Taizi dialect that can be loosely translated as, “Well, isn’t that something?” It was thrown in for humor. Yemenis knew Fahd was from Taiz, but he was supposed to be speaking in Ganaf’s Marib accent, in which this phrase would never be used.
“Hathy hely,” I repeated with a smile.
“Cut,” the director stepped in. “You’re not saying it right. Hathy hely. Hathy hely. No cut, let’s do it again.”
“That’ll have to do,” the director said. Fahd winked at me.
Two months after filming our final scene, I banged shut the door of a taxi as my friend Erik paid for our ride. A dark-green striped scarf was wrapped around my hair and an abaya covered the T-shirt and jeans I was wearing underneath. I slipped on large square sunglasses, wishing that my face would disappear behind them if the abaya I was wearing wasn’t enough concealment. We entered an exhibition hall to visit Sanaa’s annual International Book Fair, hoping to ingest a bit of culture in our qat chew-driven lives. Through the aisles of religious texts from Saudi Arabia, where big-bellied men stood behind booths of Qurans, we searched for the small Arabic literature section.
“Ah! You’re the actress!” came the first shout. More took notice of our presence. My disguise was futile. “Enty hag Ganaf!” (literally, “I am belonging to Ganaf”) they said in disbelief and elation.
Yemenis didn’t remember the name of the show (Hammy Hammek), nor the name of my character (which, not so creatively, was Laura, although that wasn’t as bad as “the Chinese”). They just called the show by the name of its star. And I was whittled down to “the actress, al-momathala.”
Erik rolled his eyes. This happened whenever we went out together in Sanaa. At first it was a fun way to start a conversation with the random passerby. Then it became overwhelming. The Yemeni paparazzi were always there. They were harmless, and just wanted to show admiration and perhaps exchange a few words. But for now they were surrounding us.
I looked at Erik as if to ask, “Well, what am I supposed to do?” I didn’t know this was going to happen. Abdullah made it sound like I was only going to be in one show, not 10. He never told me that the show would be wildly popular, airing every day of Ramadan. After families broke their fasts during the holy month, they gathered around the TV and watched Hammy Hammek. It just happened that one day I walked out of our house and everyone recognized me. Robert had left Yemen for England, so it was only me who got to experience the results of our fame.
The typical old-city crowd had grown used to seeing the actress hag ganaf around the block, eating fava beans for dinner at a local haunt or buying water bottles from the corner shop. The book fair, however, was new territory, not a place I should have dared to try and keep a low profile.
There was a part of the attention that I loved, though. The baggage of being an American woman in Yemen—of being from a place of loose social morals and invasive politics—wasn’t my defining characteristic anymore. Being hag ganaf trumped all that. I felt that I now had my own identity in Yemen, and that identity was beloved because Yemenis were excited by the idea of outsiders starring in their television shows. I felt like I belonged in Sanaa.
On the drive home from the book fair, we passed the intersection where 60th Street leads to Hadda Street and Sanaa becomes wealthier. Our driver stopped the car at the intersection and waited for the traffic policeman to signal from his cylindrical booth. An animated street beggar began washing the front windshield of our taxi with a dirty rag. He looked inside as our driver scolded him.
“Enty al-Momathala! Enty al-Momathala! You’re the actress!” he yelled in jubilation. He danced in circles on the street with his rags. I looked over at Erik and saw him crack a smile at the spectacle.
This article has been adapted from Laura Kasinof’s forthcoming book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen.