- 1997, 25 September Yemen: My detailed 9/11 conversation

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Thursday morning I was collected from my hotel and taken to the YemPak factory for what I expected to be another groundhog day of overseeing two trained machine operators.

I made a point of saying there was literally nothing more that I could show them and that I would just observe them and be on hand as required. There was a relaxed atmosphere in the factory that morning and in my peripheral vision I saw the Chief on the far side of the factory speaking with a man I’d not seen before, the man identified as ‘the Engineer’ in subsequent photos.

I had not spoken with the Chief since my arrival on Sunday so was pleased when he walked over to chat with me: 

"Yes, the installation had gone fine.
Yes, the hotel is fine too, thank-you.
And yes, I think the WTC will be attacked again by the same group as before, but using hijacked airliners as missiles this time"

The Chief had asked me if I had really spoken with the machine operators about the WTC being attacked. He paused to consider my reply before saying a man would meeting me at my hotel that evening for dinner; I said great, looking forward to the company and hoping for a good meal to celebrate a successful installation. I asked who my dinner companion would be but the Chief was vague in his reply: he said he was not a YemPak employee but that I shouldn’t worry and just enjoy the dinner. 

It was around 11-a.m. and the Chief ended the conversation by saying I could have the afternoon off - I said this would mess up my plans to sign off the machine installation that afternoon but he said that could be done in the morning, when I had expected to be enroute for the airport.

I appeared to be being given a new schedule by the managing director of YemPak, the Chief, Mr. Saeed 'Obadi’.

Dinner with Youssef

Thursday afternoon was my first chance to see some of Taiz. I wandered the streets alone, buying some souvenirs and enjoying the peaceful ambiance of the city. My mystery dinner companion arrived at the hotel around 4-p.m. He introduced himself as Youssef and suggested we take a walk before dinner. We strolled to a view point overlooking the city and as the sun began to set I took a couple of photos. Youssef gestured across the ancient city skyline and asked what I saw. 

It seemed a rather searching and philisophical question in what had been general conversation about my work, my family, my home in England, etcetera. I didn’t answer and we were distracted by a some children taking an interest in me and my camera. We made friends with the children - joking and laughing with them before taking their photo and bidding them goodbye. We had a positive conversation as we walked back to the city for dinner, saying that children were the future and that every generation has a chance to make the next one a little bit better, the world a little more equal and fair for all. I sensed Youssef was a deeply humanitarian thinker and I felt a connection to him in this matter. 

Over dinner we discussed the news events of the day, going back to the fall of the Berlin wall and how badly the world was evolving post cold war: the former Yugoslavia civil wars, Rwandan genocide, US interference in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine. I thought it was an informed and interesting discussion, but perhaps Youssef was just a good listener. He asked me about my visits to the US and I repeated my comments that I’d made to the machine operators a few days before; I said it was a large and rich country with many, many decent and kind people but with a stunning ignorance of the extent and impact of their government’s aggressive and colonial-esque foreign policies.

A specific part of our conversation over dinner was remembering Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was assassinated in November 1995 by Yigal Amir. Mr. Amir was a right-wing extremist opposed to the Oslo Peace Accords that the Israeli Prime Minister had signed two-years before. Amir was also a first-generation Israeli, born in 1970 to an immigrant Orthodox Yemeni Jewish family. Youssef and I talked about the rise of the more extreme elements in Israeli politics and I recall Youssef lamenting for the late Israeli Prime Minister and what Youssef had seen as a genuine chance to find a peaceful solution to the imposition of Israel on the Palestinian people.

It was in the context of these conversations that I repeated my prediction that I expected the WTC to be attacked again by the same international group as in 1993, but using hijacked civilian airliners as missiles this time. Youssef then asked if I wanted this to happen and I replied:

‘God, no - it would be an abhornet act of mass murder of thousands of innocents,
 But someone will do it one day if US foreign policy does not change very soon'

Youssef appeared to agree and approve of that answer and the conversation returned to more positive things, finding hope amongst all the grim news of the day. 

I enjoyed the evening with Youssef. I thought he was a gentleman of great humanity and our conversations gave me hope that a better, more peaceful world was still possible. We had dined in the restaurant of my hotel before I said good bye to Youssef and retired for an early night, ready to leave for the airport first thing Friday morning.

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I’d had similar meetings before during my travels, specifically as a lone English speaker overseas. People are largely welcoming to foreigners I'd found and will happily engage you in conversation, often to just practice their English language skills. I had assumed this to be the case with Youssef - I had guessed he was a relative or friend of the Chief at YemPak and was simply practicing his English whilst showing me some hospitality in a strange city. I put very little weight in the meeting or conversation at the time, my thoughts more focused on getting back to Madchester for the weekend.

When clearing out old photos in 2006 my dinner photo with Youssef was the only original print that I kept from my visit to Yemen, other than the contact sheet of the full film, linked here

Truly, for some of us nothing is written, unless we write it