Wednesday, 16 February 2011

What you see is what you get: Yemen

Street scene in Sana'a. Yemen
Street scene in Sana’a, Yemen (2008)

Once I’ve visited a place, I pay more attention to news from and about that place. And that news seems more real: I have images, sights, smells, tastes, and sensations in my memories, maybe even tangible souvenirs on the shelves in my house, to give substance to the stories being told in the newspapers and on TV.

I’ve written about this before, from time to time, in the context of my longstanding interest and family history of experiences in Kashmir.

The last few weeks, I’ve been remembering my own visits to Cairo and Alexandria three years ago, as I watched live on Al Jazeera English (streaming online, since it isn’t carried by US cable TV providers, even if we had cable) as demonstrators denouncing the dictator massed on the square we looked over from the balcony of our filthy and dilapidated but perfectly situated hotel on the corniche in Alexandria, and on the bridges across the Nile that we crossed each day from the much more comfortable hotel we stayed at on the island of Zamalek in the center of Cairo.

Alexandria, Egypt

This week, the focus of the movement for democracy, and of my memories, has shifted to Yemen, where we spent an unplanned but fascinating week just before we got to Egypt, in the course of our most recent trip around the world. For me, it was one of the unexpected high points of that trip.

A recent monograph on Yemen produced for the U.S. Army War College, and which contains quite a good, if selective, general introduction to the country, begins, “Yemen is not currently a failed state, but…”

That’s true — I’ve said almost exactly the same thing lately to friends asking about Yemen — but that’s far from the whole story, as I wrote in recommending Sana’s, Yemen, as one of the places most worth a stopover that I visited on my 2007-2008 trip around the world.

I’m frightened, both for Yemen and for myself as someone who has been there, that Yemen seems to have become the new bogeyman of the war on terror just when its long-suffering people are beginning to see a hope of self-determination.

People who have been to Yemen, for whatever reason, have been detained and interrogated when they returned to the USA. Some haven’t been able to return at all, having been put on the US no-fly list while they were overseas despite being US citizens.

Last month I wrote about the case of a US teenager who went to Yemen to meet his father’s family and study Arabic, was put on the US no-fly list later while he was in Kuwait, detained and tortured by the “friendly” (to the US government) Kuwaiti monarchist government, and told his only chance to be removed from the US no-fly list so that Kuwait could let him out of its immigration prison and torture center and deport him home to the USA would be if he made a full “confession” to his Kuwaiti torturers and the FBI of everything he knew (although he may have known nothing) about terrorists in Yemen.

This week there’s the case of a British man who, several years ago, went to Yemen to interview for a job as an English teacher, but decided not to take the job. That and his having converted to Islam are the only reasons he can think of why he was put on the US no-fly list while visiting his wife’s family in Canada, and prevented from flying home to the UK from Canada because airlines serving Canada are refusing to transport to or from Canada anyone on the US no-fly list.

The implicit assumption seems to be that there is no “legitimate” reason to visit Yemen, that anyone who does so must have an ulterior motive, and that — because all Yemenis are terrorists, don’t you know — anyone who’s been to Yemen must have information about the terrorists that they could divulge (and would, if tortured sufficiently).

It hasn’t been a problem yet on half a dozen return entries to the USA, but I’m worried about what might happen the next time U.S. Customs and Border Protection notices the Yemeni (or Syrian) visa and entry and exit stamps in my passport. Will it warrant a notation in my permanent file in the “Automated Targeting System”? Or worse?

It’s easy to demonize a country to a foreign audience none of whom have ever been there. I was reminded of this over the weekend, at a salon with friends where we talked about our visit to Yemen. “I had no picture to put with what I’ve been hearing about Yemen,” one of them said.

I’ve never been to a country with fewer tourists than Yemen, or fewer people of any sort from the USA (tourists, business people, expats, whatever) . In a week in the capital city, Sana’a, staying at relatively westernized and upscale international hotels, we met no other tourists or US citizens, and only a handful of Europeans (academics and workers for NGO’s).

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it makes no sense to presume that ordinary people, in a country where ordinary people are pouring into the streets to denounce the government, share that government’s opinions on anything, including its views of either the US government or US people.

My impression is that ordinary Yemenis are much more hostile to the US government (as a supporter of despots and torturers in Yemen and everywhere nearby, and a consistent opponent of democratization or decentralization of power in favor of “stable” and “friendly” centralized authoritarianism) than is the current government of Yemen. But they don’t assume that every US citizen supports the US government any more than they support the government that rules over them. And we received nothing less than a warm, personal, and seemingly genuine welcome, as US citizens, from everyone we met in Sana’a, regardless of their opinion of the US government. The greatest danger appeared to be the drivers. It’s noisy, frenzied… and fun.

Ordinary Yemenis are heavily armed, but you could say the same about the USA. Few Yemenis are terrorists, but I’m sure there are plenty of villages up in the hills where the people are poor, the central government is rarely seen, and it wouldn’t cost much in funding for local community development for a band of brigands, even foreign ones, to buy themselves a safe haven as long as they treated the locals well.

But there’s a difference between a country where there are some terrorists and a “terrorist country”. Not all Yemenis want to wage an Islamic jihad against the US, just as not all Americans want to wage a Judeo-Christian “Crusade” in the Middle East. Both have been tried, but that doesn’t mean either necessarily has popular support today.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Yemen is that, as is instantly apparent to any visitor, it’s its own highly distinctive place with its own culture, traditions, geography, architecture, and national identity — unlike other Arab countries whose borders were defined not by the people’s sense of who they were but by foreign colonial masters or monarchist fiefdoms. That common Yemeni national identity survived decades of partition between North and South Yemen before the country was reunified in 1990. Yemen is not just a state but an Arab rarity, a genuine nation-state.

tower house in Sana'a
Tower house in Sana’a’s Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Indeed, even to call Yemen an “Arab” nation at all may be as misleading as it would be to think of Yemen as a cookie-cutter or domino-theory country. Yes, they speak a dialect of Arabic. But unlike most of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is mountainous. The capital, Sana’a, is at more than 7,000 feet above sea level, in a bowl surrounded by peaks going up to more than 10,000 feet. (And with, as a result, that perfect warm mild climate of equatorial highlands.) Crucially, the mountains capture enough moisture for farming. Unlike the Arabian nomads of the low desert, Yemenis have been settled agricultural town-dwellers for centuries or millennia.

Sana'a skyline
Sana’a skyline

Yemen’s terrain also presents obstacles to both infrastructure and central control analogous to those of Afghanistan or, in the U.S. context, West Virginia.

Yemen has negligible oil, gas, or mineral resources. It’s a poor country, more on an economic par with sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia than the rest of Arabia. Think of Yemen as being situated between Somalia, Eritrea, and Pakistan, not as being next to Saudi Arabia. (Just as Mexico is influenced by remittances from Mexicans working in the US, but culturally and demographically closer to Central America than to the US.) In many attitudinal respects Yemen looks west to Africa and east to South Asia, historically relatively close across the water by dhow, more than it looks north across the empty desert to the “Middle East”.

Most of the people in Yemen still work in semi-subsistence agriculture. The coffee, like the food, is superb — Yemen is one of the claimants to being the place coffee was first cultivated — but the main cash crop is qat. The chief source of foreign exchange is remittances from Yemenis working abroad, mostly in the richer but more authoritarian Gulf Arab monarchies.

Not only is Yemen the only country on the Arabian Peninsula that isn’t an an overtly absolute, hereditary monarchy, but it is the only one with any semblance of a democratic element to its past, at least in the memory of the ideals of the former socialist government of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). There are many refugees and immigrants in Yemen from even-poorer Eritrea, just across the Red Sea, but it’s not clear to me what, if any influence the memory of the Eritrean war of national liberation might have on events in Yemen. Yemen and Eritrea have much in common geographically, but very different ethnic and cultural identities. For what it’s worth, the present ruler of united Yemen, through I’m not sure what machinations and intrigues, is the former ruler of the part of the country that had fewer democratic pretensions, North Yemen. (For more on that history see Arabia Without Sultans, 1974, 2nd edition 2002, by the late Fred Halliday.)

And lest I forget, Yemen isn’t as small a place as you might think: It has a population of between 25 and 30 million people, the largest in the Arabian Peninsula and slightly greater than than that of Saudi Arabia, including both Saudi citizens and “guest workers”.

What will happen? I have no idea (although I hope that Syria’s day for freedom will also come soon). I’m not an expert. I spent a week in Yemen. But I’m glad I have some pictures to put with the stories in the news.

[Addendum: Looking for more news and views from and about Yemen? The day after I wrote this, the New York Times published an excellent op-ed by Yemeni novelist Ali al-Muqri, Qat Got Their Tongues. Key takeaway? “While I understand the risks, I believe that the future cannot be worse than the present.” Gregory Johnsen’s Waq al-Waq blog (“Yemen, the Middle East, and the World Beyond”) has been analyzing news and events with more subtlety than the typical lumping together of groups of actors into “pro-government” and “anti-government”. Freelance journalist Iona Craig is blogging in English from Sana’a. If you are going to Yemen yourself, the Bradt Guide to Yemen by Daniel McLaughlin is the best guidebook available, although like a number of other Bradt Guides it’s written by someone who speaks and reads the local language and is insufficiently attentive to the practical needs of independent travellers who don’t and who don’t have a translator/guide. And if you want some good stories about travel in Yemen, there’s Eric Hansen’s “Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea”.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 16 February 2011, 15:25 ( 3:25 PM)

And here's another site about life in Yemen!

Posted by: alnakhla, 3 March 2011, 22:58 (10:58 PM)

"because all Yemenis are terrorists, don't you know -- anyone who's been to Yemen must have information about the terrorists that they could divulge (and would, if tortured sufficiently)."

A similar situation with Israel and Syria. If you were in Israel, you will not be allowed to go into Syria (((

Posted by: Yuriy, 4 March 2011, 02:18 ( 2:18 AM)

If you are a foreigner that has been to Syria you can still go to Israel.

They will ask you silly questions such as "Have you met any Arabs there?" "Yeah sure, the place is warming with them" "What are there names?!" "I met about two dozen Mohammeds, at least a dozen Ahmeds,..."

However, once you've been to Israel you cannot go to Syria anymore because they won't let you enter with an Israeli stamp or any other indicator that you've been there...

Posted by: Max Schneider, 28 April 2011, 05:11 ( 5:11 AM)

Yemen is a beautiful country, with a rich heritage. I have traveled there, and it was a rich experience.Thankx.

Posted by: Swetha Jain, 8 December 2013, 03:43 ( 3:43 AM)
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