Reporter's Notebook: Bomb plots? What bomb plots?

Skepticism and denial prevail in San’a; Yemeni gov’t and people are strongly anti-Israel, but more nuanced about Jews.

311_Sana,Yemen (photo credit: Associated Press)
(photo credit: Associated Press)
SAN’A, Yemen – The taxi driver was ranting as he drove me to work on Sunday morning. His cab had been stopped five times in the past hour by armed police, searching vehicles all over the city.
Security checks are an everyday occurrence in this ancient capital, but with the discovery on Friday of multiple parcel bombs, originating in Yemen and destined for synagogues in the US, the police here have become increasingly twitchy.
“If Yemen’s on the news, it means more police and checkpoints on the streets, which means fewer customers for me,” my driver moaned.
Aside from the extra traffic jams, life in San’a, a historic city nestled in high mountains, has continued in its normal noisy and chaotic manner. Yemeni boys are still weaving in and out of the traffic with wheelbarrows full of oranges, dodging the debabs – small buses that carry the people of San’a to work.
But despite the bustling, romantic backdrop, the hallmarks of recent terrorist attacks are ever-present. Toyota pick-up trucks, mounted with machine guns, guard the courthouses and government buildings, diplomats speed around the city with police escorts in convoys of blacked-out armored cars, and the US and British embassies – both of which have been attacked in the past two years – stand like fortresses, encircled by six-meter-high bombproof walls.
Although guns have been banned from the city, San’a also suffers from its share of tribal violence.
Just last Thursday, two tribes battled it out in a diplomatic area, torching parts of a city block and raising fresh worries about stability.
Yemeni people are skeptical at the best of times, so you can imagine the response you get when you try mentioning ink cartridges filled with explosives, planes and American synagogues.
“This has more to do with the upcoming American elections than it does with Yemen,” asserted Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of political science at San’a University.
“The Americans are always using their planes to spy on us, so it’s about time we sent some back,” a waiter shouted at me on Sunday in a busy restaurant.
The Yemeni government has demonstrated similar skepticism in its reaction to the bomb plots.
“No UPS or DHL cargo packages heading to Chicago through Yemen took place in the last 48 hours. These accusations are false and baseless,” Mohammed al-Shaibah, air cargo director for Yemenia Airways, told the local press on Friday.
And Saba, the government’s official news agency, posted a statement on Saturday warning the media against “rush decisions in a case as sensitive as this one and before investigations reveal the truth.”
Since then the government has arrested, and released, a 22-year-old female engineering student in connection with the explosive devices. Her detention had prompted demonstrations earlier on Sunday outside San’a University by fellow students.
While the Yemeni government and its people are renowned for being raucously anti-Israel – three members of its parliament were on the aid flotilla to Gaza at the end of May and millions protested the air strikes on Gaza in 2008 – Yemeni opinions about Jews in general are more mixed.
On the streets of San’a one can often hear men insulting each other with the expression “ya yahudi,” or “yo Jew.” But at the same time most Yemenis will talk fondly of a time in their country when Jews and Muslims lived happily together.
“We have nothing against Jews,” a journalist at the Yemen Times told me on Sunday.
“Whoever did this obviously sat down and thought, ‘Which destination will get us the most media coverage? Oh, I know, how about synagogues in America?’”