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The Ambassador of Nowhere

When Yemen’s U.N. Ambassador quit during the troubles, he lost his job, his country, his mansion, his well-fed chauffered life. But what he kept was more important.

Alsaidi at his office.  

“No dictatorships,” Abdullah Alsaidi said firmly the other day. “That was the policy.”

You’d have been forgiven for thinking he was holding forth on his treatment of various despots throughout the Arab world. Alsaidi, who resigned last month as Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, was so horrified by the strong-arm turn taken of late by the Yemeni government—ignoring a populist groundswell for political reform, deploying security forces to shoot massing protesters—that he abruptly broke ranks with the president whose administration he had served since 1984.

At the moment, though, just two weeks later, Alsaidi was talking about his thoroughly democratic approach to home décor, with a certain amount of wistfulness. In 2005, he and his family finally moved into the majestic limestone townhouse on 71st and Park (five bedrooms; eight fireplaces, two of brecciated peach marble; a narrow sixteen feet across, “but the depth is what makes this house”), after he convinced the Yemeni foreign ministry that there was value in laying down nearly $7 million so that its U.N. representative would have a New York dwelling fit for an ambassador. The Alsaidis’ search for it had lasted through his first three years on the job at the U.N., during which time they endured a Trump rental on First Avenue. He declared in no uncertain terms that in their new home, each vote would count equally. “Everyone got to choose how to do their own room,” he recalled. “I said, ‘There are no dictatorships here,’ and my wife and children selected what they desired.”

So his three children, all adults now, chose among loft beds, desks, and reading chairs from Ethan Allen for their rooms, and his wife, Amirah, went to work on swags and jabots. Alsaidi, meanwhile, made a personal fiefdom of lighting, installing five crystal chandeliers that burst from the ceilings like fireworks and descend with the languid curves of an odalisque in pantaloons. “I found them in the Czech Republic,” he said. “I mean, come on, where do you think you get Bohemian-crystal chandeliers like that? These are things you know if you’re a diplomat. Actually, I found them in catalogues, then I had the Yemeni ambassador there purchase them tax-free.”

All that, and much more besides, he gave up when he stepped down. Now he was untethered from his homeland, adrift in New York City. It was something to think about, though he knew his problems didn’t compare to those of his countrymen. “These are not real problems I have,” he said. “This is nothing.”

All the death, all the protests, and still President Ali Abdullah Saleh refuses to step down. Yemen has not always been peaceful—there was a civil war in 1994—“but it never happened that you go and bring snipers and start shooting your own, unarmed people.”

The evening the first casualties were reported, Friday, March 18, Alsaidi returned home from the U.N. and discussed quitting with his family. “My wife, Amirah, she understood and she agreed,” he said. “My youngest daughter had been telling me to leave for a long time. She’s naïve.” The next morning, he went to the empty offices of the Yemeni Mission and tendered his resignation to the president by fax. “I had a young man on the staff come in to assist me. I don’t type in Arabic.”

Then it was good-bye, townhouse, and farewell also to the household staff, car and driver (“I never took taxis”), and gravy-train meal plan. “I knew literally every restaurant in this town,” he said. “It’s part of the job. You invite people to lunch, or they invite you. For Northern Italian, I think Felidia is the best. For Southern, I can’t say; there are so many places.” He smiled gamely. “Now I’ll buy a tuna sandwich.”

Alsaidi has a compact frame and a graying mustache. In his living room on a recent evening, he wore a dark-brown suit and caramel-colored, high-vamped loafers. He excused himself to fetch coffee, then headed down the stairway again and returned empty-handed. “Some nuts, then I’ll be back,” he said, on his way now to an upper floor. “I just need to find them.”

He came back with Yemeni almonds and raisins and sat down again. “We will be fine,” he said. He will still be able to do the things he most loves to do in New York: play soccer in Central Park with his son, browse the bookstores at Columbia and NYU for obscure medieval-history works.

“And we’ll find an apartment,” he said. He rolled his eyes. “On the West Side.”

As he began to look for a new place to live, Alsaidi was discouraged by two things, “the lack of space and the prices,” he said. “Maintenance alone in a co-op will end up costing $7,000 a month—I didn’t spend that much of my own money in a year here.”

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