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.
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.
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.
Around my senior year in college, I remember, as I was discussing my post-graduation plans with my father, I mentioned that I was getting more and more serious about moving back to the Middle East after graduation. He balked at the idea, though (at least ostensibly) not for the obvious reasons. Rather than citing more common concerns of safety and the like, he instead pointed to my lack of facial hair.
“You’ll never be able to pull it off,” he said, half-joking (but still, half-serious). “You’ll never be able to get any respect in that part of the world without a mustache.”
While its faded from ubiquity it once enjoyed among western elites, the mustache largely retains the prominence its long enjoyed in the Arab World. Brandished by men ranging from Gulf royals and Baathist autocrats to civil servants and cab drivers, the mustache is hard to avoid in the region.
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.