20 Shawwal, 1423 Hegira

So it is Christmas Eve at last, and I've been gone for three whole months.

Sana'a is, as always, oblivious to the outside world, and one could be excused for forgetting about the whole Christmas thing altogether. Sure, there are fairy lights, but then there always is, leftovers from Ramadan or the latest Revolution Day celebration. I keep on forgetting which revolution it was we were celebrating a month or so ago - Yemen has had so many. The only thing I can remember from the day is a shooting incident near the al-Shahidun mosque, hardly reported by the local press despite three people dying, two of them women. Like revolutions, deaths have been too numerous of late for anyone to take active interest in them.

"'Eid al-miladi al-mubarak", the qat-seller greeted me today when I emerged coughing from the cloud of dust blanketing Sana'a every morning, when the 4WDs yet again start grinding the unpaved streets of the capital. "Blessed Christmas to you." So they know, and they know I'm feeling lonely today. Ask any Yemeni, and they will tell you nothing is worse than being alone, without allies, without a home. Yea, verily, they will say, it is the lot of a foolish foreigner. Solitude, says the seller of qat, is a thing of the West.

So it is Christmas Eve, but the muezzins of the hundred minarets pay no heed to the date. Every month, every day they invite the people to bear witness that God the Most Great is one, sending their haunting cries forth from hundreds of loudspeakers. Every day, five times a day, I feel alien to these people and this culture with its mixture of faith and violence, fierce pride and extreme poverty, and the religion I cannot understand any better than the one which supposedly is my own.

Roaming the streets after the noon prayer, one can see the feeble expatriate community of Sana'a coming together for this one lonely night. Candles are lit, mince pies are baked (from raisins, for there are no plums), someone has managed to secure an illegal bottle of red wine. All the while someone is reciting the Quran in the next apartment, giving the party an eerie, otherworldly feel. The ajnabiuun, the foreigners - students, traders and travellers - bear their desolation bravely though. A teacher of medicine from France plays Christmas carols on the old, battered piano, which probably was left behind by the British when they left Aden for the last time in 1967. Merry Christmas, dear friends, merry Christmas.

It is Christmas Eve, and I'm still worlds apart.