As someone who’s lived in Yemen for more than two years, its hard to suppress a general sense of alarm each time the media spotlight falls on this particular corner of the Arabian Peninsula. In my work as journalist, I often feel like I’m swimming against the current with only a handful of other comrades, fighting a nearly sisyphean battle to add nuance to discussions that tend to be plagued with rather lazy stereotypes. With Yemen once again in the news due to the current “AQAP threat alert,” I figured I’d collect some of the pieces I’ve written for those seeking a deeper context into the country that–for better or for worse–is currently dominating the news cycle.
It’s fallacious–if not dangerous–to equate Yemen’s troubles with Al Qaeda. Almost every Yemeni you speak with will tell you that the nation’s Al Qaeda presence is only a result of other larger issues. Yemen remains acutely impoverished and while the country’s current post-Arab Spring “transition”–most specifically, the ongoing Conference of National Dialogue–has been hailed by some as a model, things are far more complicated. The ultimate fruits of the 2011 uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh remain unclear; the central government continues to face the challenge of reckoning with the Houthi rebels, who have carved out a virtual state within a state in the country’s far north, and southern secessionists, who seek to restore autonomy to the formerly independent south. The country often seems as if it’s sitting on a knife’s edge; “on the brink” appears to be the favored term. Still, on occasion, there are moments where Yemen’s political divisions feel as if they’re not as fractious as they often appear to be.
Even in areas notorious for their Al Qaeda presence, residents tend to argue they have bigger things to deal with. Still, the battle against Yemen’s local extremist franchise often tend to dominate the discussion outside of Yemen, even its effects of American government’s policies that tend to do so here. At times, the resentment of these policies is palpable. But as an American who’s nearly constantly surrounded by Yemenis, I’d argue its false to say that anti-American sentiment here is rife. Few Yemenis are keen to support AQAP, which is unsurprising, as the vast majority of those killed by the group’s attacks have been Yemenis themselves.
Since current president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office as part of an internationally brokered power transfer agreement aimed at ending the uprising against Saleh, there have been some tentative gains in the fight against AQAP. But even victories are not as resounding as they seem. American drone strikes may have lead to the deaths high-ranking AQAP militants like Said al-Shihri, they’re also deeply opposed by many Yemenis. There have been numerous cases of civilian casualties, in addition to strikes that seem to contradict the Obama Administration’s claims that they’re only used as a tool of last resort. In areas where the strikes are common, many locals say they’re ultimately doing more harm than good.
This shouldn’t have to be stated, but Yemen is–obviously–more than simply a “battleground in the fight against Al Qaeda.” As a young freelance journalist, I often feel particularly enslaved to the tides of media interest. But to state the obvious, I’d much rather be writing about things like Sanaa’s surprisingly vibrant art scene, the glories of Yemeni cuisine, of certain controversial cultural habits. In the end, the last thing Yemen represents for me is a refuge of bloodthirsty militants plotting to strike the US and, for that matter, I’ve long seen it as far more than just a staging point for launching my career as a journalist. Ultimately, Yemen is my second, adopted country; more than anything–as as bizarre as it may sound–Yemen is home.
1. Cab driver from Sanhan, diverging as he answered a question regarding his thoughts on yesterday’s military decrees:
You know, as a people, we’re tired. But every Yemeni knows what’s possible. We’re sitting in one of the world’s oldest cities in a country that is the birthplace of the Arab people. Drive through the countryside—whether to the north or to the south: where else is nature that incredible? Walk through the old city: have you ever seen buildings that beautiful? We’re tired, yes, but we’re capable of so much. And within every Yemeni is the ability to make this country into something that would fill Saudi Arabia and the Emirates with envy.
The situation is completely different here, and the reason has nothing to do with the (GCC) initiative or the international community. People say we’re backwards, that Yemenis are violent, that the country is filled with guns. They have no idea what they’re talking about. There’s poverty, yes, and unfortunately, there’s a lot of illiteracy and a low level of education. Still, look at 2011—any other country would have fallen into civil war a thousand times. But even when the bombs were exploding and people were dying, I didn’t think it would happen. Maybe its our culture, or something we’ve learned from everything we’ve had to put up with in our history. But within nearly Yemeni is this real wisdom. And that’s why what’s happening in Syria, God willing, could never happen here.
Photo is of a poster in my favorite dessert place. Text is a remark said to have been made by the prophet Mohamed (PBUH). “الايمان يمان و الحكمة يمانية:” faith is Yemeni and wisdom is Yemeni.”
“Nobody knew Hadi was this clever.”
This time last year, success for newly inaugurated president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi was roughly defined as mere survival. Few knew much about the man many mocked as “عبدربه مركوز.” He’d stood silently by Ali Abdullah Saleh as his Vice President for well over a decade, but it was easy for skeptics to joke that his accomplishments were largely limited to presiding over ribbon-cutting ceremonies as Saleh’s stand in.
12 months later, Hadi’s been able to hold his own, proving many pessimists wrong. Still, true leadership requires more than just (barely) holding Yemen together. Giving a positive review of Hadi’s first spate of reforms last Spring, one Yemeni political analyst added a key caveat, stressing that the president “has yet to prove that he’s the state builder that Yemen so desperately needs.” His words, arguably, are just as true today.
Full article reflecting on Hadi at one year for the Christian Science Monitor
و نفس المقالة بالغة العربية
The idea of Yemen as a land caught in time–though somewhat appealing–is ultimately a rather orientalist stereotype. It’s something I’m almost constantly reminded of here, whether in the form of tribal leaders who tuck Iphones in the embroidered belts holding their centuries old Jambiyyas or the smattering of FC Barcelona memorabilia decorating shops tucking into ancient buildings in Old Sanaa. Even rural areas, it seems, are far from untouched. A friend, I remember, once described his astonishment as he reenacted a famous movie scene on a cliff-top in his village: as he shouted “I’m the king of the world” with arms outstretched, his cousin noted that the scene was “just like Titanic,” getting the cultural reference without missing a beat.
This idea of Yemen the isolated has been floating through my mind recently as I’ve been subjected to the surprisingly frequent sounds of Korean rapper PSY’s single “Gangnam Style,” a rather-focused satire that’s somehow developed into the most paradoxical global hit since Los del Rio’s “Macarena.” I have no idea whether those behind the song had any inkling of their impending worldwide fame when they initially set out to parody classless Koreans’ vain attempts to attempts to channel the “style” apparently epitomized by the residents of Seoul’s exclusive Gangnam district; either way, months later, the original meaning has more or less dissipated. PSY and his colleagues have been compensated with money and notoriety, so I’d imagine that they’re not particularly distressed.
This is what it looked like when Yemenis gathered to demonstrate for political change, a better future, and the end of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33 year rule. Week after week, the crowds stretched on in both directions. Does quite a lot to put the numbers at Thursday and Friday’s anti-film protests into perspective.
For various reasons, I’ve opted to move this from a post to a page. The guide is now accessible here; that is, via a tab at the top of the screen.
The front page of Al-Thawra, Yemen’s top state-run newspaper on Jan 25th, (coincidentally) the one year anniversary of the start of protests against Mubarak. Reads “Basindowa visits Change Square,” photo shows Mohamed Salem Basindowa, longtime opposition politician and Prime Minister since late last year and Yemeni Nobel Laureate/activist Tawakkol Karman. There have been a lot of shake-ups in state media since the signing of the GCC Deal, but it was still rather jarring to see such a headline on a what was once a staunchly pro-Saleh newspaper.
An odd footnote in this year of upheaval has been the May 2011 death of American Jazz musician/poet Gil Scott Heron, who authored “The Revolution will not be Televised,” arguably the most quoted poem ever set to bongo drums.
Unsure how the under-appreciated proto-rapper would have reacted to the ubiquity of his words throughout the various fronts of the so-called Arab Spring, but I imagine he’d be sort of cool with it.