Ancient land, modern memoir

Cloverdale author Peter Twele's book, Rubbing Shoulders in Yemen, explores his time conducting research in was then North Yemen.

An image from the cover of Peter Twele's new book

An image from the cover of Peter Twele's new book

Peter Twele never meant to travel, much less spend 11 years in the Middle East and one day write about his early adventures.

But he’s learned that opportunity can present itself in the most unexpected places.

Twele was barely out of high school, in his early 20s, when a friend said he was planning a trip to Europe.

“I had no desire to travel, but I decided to join him,” says Twele, recalling how the pair backpacked across the continent, and eventually landed in Israel, where the once-reluctant tourist found himself living on a kibbutz, a type of communal farming settlement, for five months.

The immersion experience changed him, igniting a keen interest in the Middle East, driving him to study linguistics when he got back home. It’s an area of study that came naturally to Twele, whose first language is German. was working on his masters degree at the University of Texas in 1984 when another unexpected offer came his way, taking him far from home and back to the Middle East: a research position in Jordan. He leaped at the chance because it meant he could learn Arabic, which he picked up while living among the the nomadic Bedouin.

Nearly three decades later, now a Cloverdale father of three, Twele recently released a self-published travel memoir called Rubbing Shoulders in Yemen.

The book explores his time conducting research in was then North Yemen, a country on the southwestern part of the Arabian peninsula, to villages that weren’t under government control and few outsiders had seen.

Well beyond the typical touristic frontier, it was a region not covered in guidebooks, a land of dangerous roads, remote villages, and men carrying rifles.

In those days, it wasn’t possible to travel outside of the capital city without a permit.

Twele was issued an official document that gave him open access to the whole country, and he took full advantage, even if it meant getting into some sticky spots.

While he’s since returned to Yemen many times, in writing the book he focused on four month he spent there in 1987, conducting sociolinguistic research sponsored by various institutions.

He’d arrive in villages unannounced.

“Nobody knew I was coming.” Yet, he was always welcomed and treated with respect.

“i went to a couple of villages where they had never seen anybody in pants before. I was just this guy from Mars showing up. It was more fascinating for them than it was for me.”

Looking back, he marvels at the risks he weighed and is still amazed to have found such hospitality in far-flung locales and from the most outwardly hostile-seeming of hosts – gun wielding rebels.

Twele, who’s taught at Trinity Western University and at the University of Texas in Arlington, penned the book at the urging of his children, who had heard a lot of his stories but wanted more.

He suspects his eldest daughter hasn’t been able to finish reading the book because it’s too upsetting.

“We were in some pretty dangerous situations. There are things that she didn’t know.”

He found reliving those memories after 30 years difficult work, too, replaying instances where his life had been in jeopardy.

“It scared me. I was sort of sweating at times. It was potentially quite dangerous.”’s initial research in Yemen involved trying to pinpoint a problem he believed existed in Arabic comprehension, especially in educational settings where Yemeni students exposed for the first time in a classroom to classical Arabic – the form used in formal communications and scripture – might have difficulty understanding it as spoken by an Egyptian teacher. It was common in Yemen, he says, to import teachers from neighbouring countries.

The determined young researcher went from town to town, playing clips to Yemenis of spoken classical and Palestinian Arabic, and having them follow along with an Egyptian Arabic text.

“They were very interested, and were very open,” he recalls. “The one thing that always helps is that Arabs love to speak about their language. Whatever dialect they speak, they love it and they appreciated that I, an outsider, was interested.”

[At left, a small business in Yemen, circa 1988. Peter Twele photo]

He faithfully kept a journal, later typing his handwritten notes onto a computer, and, more recently shaping the stories into the book.

Twele says he’s spent the intervening years building bridges of understanding between the Middle East and the West.

What’s stayed with him is the warmth and generosity of the people he encountered, who welcomed him into their villages, and kept him safe.

He remains grateful.

“Part of my writing now is also for people to realize, there are a lot of radicals, but most people want to get on with life, just like here,” he says.

“We’re no different in some ways. They want a job and have a family and want to provide for them. It’s just more complicated.”

The intervening years have been eventful in Yemen: civil war, unification, the rise of Al Quaeda, mass protests and the Arab Spring.

“It’s chaos. It’s a mess,” he says regretfully, because he’d love to go back.

He’s currently working on Iraq on their Doorstep, a new book relating his and his wife, Hazel’s, experiences before, during and after the Gulf war in the early 1990s.

– Rubbing Shoulders in Yemen is available at in a paperback and Kindle version