For anyone interested in listening to me discuss Yemen for about an hour, my appearance on the latest edition of the Middle East Week podcast is available here.
There are plenty of American Journalists living in and writing about the Arab World; for various reasons, there are comparatively few Arab journalists living in and writing about the United States. A year ago, my friend Khalid Abdulhadi traveled to the United States in a trip organized by the State Department’s International Visitors Program. Here the English version of an article he wrote for al-Masdar; original Arabic article can be read here.
America is split, tightening its belt
There will be no better ideal opportunity to see Americans normally behave than to visit a bustling city, such as San Francisco, which I actually did late last October. At that particular time, the US presidential campaign was nearing its climax just one week ahead of Election Day, as the San Francisco Giants team won the World baseball championship, which was coupled with the advent of the Halloween festival.
The US, which is the world’s economic superpower, receives its visitors with an official caution and yawning atmosphere as if it acquiesced to economic concerns after it had renounced its costly pride.
Washington Dulles airport , which receives the bulk of travelers coming to the US capital through Europe, features America’ fear of any visiting foreigner. Visitors usually stand in long lines, waiting for drastic security checks and/ or huge police dogs appallingly and zealously scrutinizing all new comers in what can be described as the most noticeable psychological legacy from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Autumn has strewn about cherry leaves along Washington pavements surrounded by landmarks tinged with French taste and Greek-like design. A combination of scenes spurs visitors to think that the superpower that grapples with an economic crisis is to going to see another autumn visiting exhausted empires.
Furthermore, myriad renovations are simply and austerely carried out on Washington streets and buildings as the Japanese and European-made vehicles dominate vehicle lines in all US cities. It is here in America that gleaners of paradoxes can pinpoint many signs of austerity in the largest country of Capitalism and the guardian of its values.
Though the third debate that took place on October 23 between the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, was allocated for the discussion of the US foreign policy, both nominees tended a little bit to deliberate upon economic issues that have been of key concern for Americans since the global economic crisis erupted.
“One of the challenges that have faced us over the recent years in the countries we governed (Iraq and Afghanistan) is that we tried to build up such countries while neglecting our economy, education and energy. We cannot give lessons to the world without applying same in our country,” said Obama.
Responding to Romney, who pushed for an increase in defense spending, and criticized his rival’s military policies by accusing him of stinting military spending and of weakening the US influence across the world, Obama said, “The world needs a strong America. therefore, it is important to rebuild America. My plan is this: let us first bring industrial jobs into our country. This is actually what I have done when I subsidized automakers. We should also do our best to create job opportunities for tomorrow , mainly in the field of energy”.
Last week, Hareth al-Nathari, a prominent AQAP cleric, made what I believe is his first video appearance on behalf of the group. The tone of his calls to arms were far more restrained than the images of angry, screaming jihadis that the idea of a statement by a leading Al Qaeda figure probably calm to mind, but they were certainly gripping enough. Nevertheless, most Yemenis I showed the video to seemed almost disinterested in what he was saying. Instead, they were distracted by what he was wearing.
Unlike his comrade Ibrahim al-Rubaish, who appeared bearded in a thobe and gutra in a video released the same day, Nathari appeared clean shaven, wearing a uniquely Yemeni form of dress. Such clothes come with a special meaning, one that dates back to the days before the fall of the Yemeni monarchy when traditional class distinctions were set in stone and Qadhis (judges) and sayyids (descendants of the prophet Mohamed) could typically be discerned by their specific mode of dress. They’re still worn today, of course, but far less commonly than in the past–grooms from sayyid families will don traditional dress for their wedding photos, while politicians and officials descended from qadhis tend to treat the traditional apparel as a sort of formal wear.
It’s hard to differentiate the clothes of a sayyid from the clothes of a qadhi; to make things even more difficult, the details vary from region to region. The easiest way to tell a Yemenis background is from their family’s background (there’s a reason I have a 150 dollar encyclopedia of Yemeni last names). A quick check confirmed that Nathari was indeed from the Natharis of Baadan, Ibb, who’ve had members in the ‘ulama (the ranks of scholars of Islamic jurisprudence) for centuries. Case closed, I thought to myself, he’s a descendant of qadhis dressed as a qadhi. But the reactions of many Yemenis I showed the video to fueled doubts.
I was sitting next to a friend from Ibb when I first saw the video. We both immediately thought he was dressed as a sayyid; his comment that the Nathari wasn’t a sayyid name was what initially spurred me to consult my multi-volume encyclopedia of Yemeni last names. He was too focused on the oddity of extremist cleric’s sartorial choice to do much speculating on its meaning.
“It’s so weird,” he kept repeating. “I’ve never seen Qaeda dress like this.”
A different friend initially responded with certitude.
“He’s dressed as a sayyid,” he said. “Al Qaeda is trying to appeal to sayyids.”
Hailing from a prominent sayyid family himself, he quipped as he explained his argument.
“Come on,” he joked, “When I see a guy dressed like this, I immediately have to pay attention.”
A few more inquiries to a few other friends lead to a lot of speculation but little certitude; one friend went as far as to argue that Nathari’s clothes were those of a Hadrami sayyid. Finally, the next day, I gave Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal a call. Abdulrazzaq is an AQAP analyst with pretty unparalleled sources within the group, so I have no reason to doubt what he said: that Nathari was wearing qadhi clothes due to his position in AQAP’s sharia council. Still, I had to ask him what his initial reaction was.
“When I first saw the video,” he said, “I did think [Nathari’s] clothes were kind of strange.”
Of course, Abdulrazzaq’s remarks were only one part of the to the question of what Nathari’s clothes meant. On one level, yes, they were simply a sign of his role in the group, worn to demonstrate his prominence. But on another level, the cleric’s mode of dress served as a subtle demonstration of AQAP’s larger strategy.
The key is the juxtaposition of Nathari’s uniquely Yemeni clothes with his broadly directed remarks. It’s hard to make the case that his statement was Yemen-focused: subtitled in English, it delved into recent events in everywhere from Afghanistan to the Sinai, casting the actions of disparate groups like the Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra and AQAP itself as part of one single movement, as different arms of a global jihad. It’s obviously not my place to tell AQAP how to cast its activities, but to paraphrase the comments of a few analysts I talked to, the statement seemed almost divorced from the bulk of AQAP’s activities on the ground in Yemen. Nathari’s clothes, however, brought things back to the country, subtly demonstrating, I guess, that the group can indeed walk and chew gum at the same time.
In that sense, the video functions as a clear–if, perhaps, inadvertent–demonstration of the reason for AQAP’s resilience, of what, ultimately, makes the group so dangerous: they can play to audiences abroad while still doing the same for those in Yemen itself. The video wasn’t the first time a man of Nathari’s ilk appeared in a video in Yemeni dress–Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, often delivered addresses in the traditional clothes of a tribesman from his native province of Shabwa.
When it comes to discussions of AQAP, the focus often tends to be on the group’s global aspirations: its status as an Al Qaeda franchise, its plots to strike the US. But AQAP’s strength is inextricably tied to its knowledge of local dynamics in Yemen and its ability to manipulate and respond to them. Drone strikes and military offensives can kill militants, but those battling AQAP can achieve victory by beating them at this part of their larger game–by outplaying them on the ground.
All AQAP statements are analyzed and dissected by intelligence agencies across the world; Nathari’s latest, I’m sure, is no different. I have little doubt that there will be a great degree of effort paid to divining the larger meaning of what he’s saying. But I wonder how much attention western analysts will pay to what Nathari was wearing.
link to video; for those who didn’t get it, title is a reference to the American board game “Guess Who?”
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.