Over the past few days, the village of Jaleela, in the southern province of al-Dhale, has been the scene of a fierce violence. The facts are muddled, owing to Jaleela’s general isolation and the (unsurprisingly) differing narratives of those involved. But the basic chain of events appears more or less uncontested. A convoy of troops from the Republican Guard was met with some form of resistance from locals as it traveled through the area. Things soon escalated. Subsequent clashes proved deadly, leaving at least three–including a child–dead, and raising accusations that the military used excessive force.
Its unfortunate for a number of reasons, but sporadic violence in rural areas of Yemen often risks fading into a blur. Regardless, here–or anywhere, for that matter– clashes are almost never just “clashes;” regardless of catalyst, events cannot be divorced from the environment in which they occur. And while recent events in al-Dhale may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, the violence touches on issues that reverberate far beyond the south Yemeni countryside.
Sitting in a posh Beirut apartment complex, it was surprisingly easy to forget I was meeting with a man who is ultimately a historical figure. Up until July of 1994, of course, Ali Salem al-Beidh was in the center of it all–from unification and its aftermath to the almost incomparably bloody 1986 Civil War. As he sat across from me in the flesh, Ali Salem seemed almost separate from “Ali Salem:” the ability to maintain an astoundingly low key face to face presence, I’ve noticed, is a skill many Yemeni politicians seem to share.
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.
I’d always imagined that I would make it to Beit al-Ahmar at some point. The village, a short drive outside of Sanaa, was the birthplace of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and number of the key players in his rise and fall to power. Regardless of whether I’d end up gaining any profound insights from any prospective visit, a trip to Saleh’s hometown seemed like a necessity, if only to say I’d been there.
Even if I still find it hard to believe it took place, it was a November 7th drone strike on the outskirts of the village targeting an alleged Al Qaeda militant from a prominent local family that finally brought me to Beit al-Ahmar. Through a series of events I can’t really get in to, I managed to secure passage to now-even-more-notorious town, escorted by the late target’s brother and his driver, who conveniently offered to pick me up a few minutes walk from my house.
It’s hard to describe how it feels, as an American journalist, to drive through Sanaa in the back of an SUV coated in posters commemorating the ‘martyrdom’ by drone of an alleged Al Qaeda militant as his brother sits in the front seat. All the obvious triggers of ill ease almost contradicted each other, mostly leaving me with a low level of paranoia that was largely focused on all the possible ways I could screw things up, ranging from incorrectly conjugating Arabic verbs to failing to suppress nervous laughter. The ride was far from painful; that being said, I’m glad it was short.