Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I Just Can't Understand You

Photo by Raymond Lidal, May 2013 in al-Haima al-Dakhliya

First published in Muftah

Every night in my dreams
I see you, I feel you,
That is how I know you go on

Celine Dion’s nasal serenades were competing with the gruff voice of the mu’athin across the crowded café terrace. No one seemed to pay attention to either of them. Everyone was immersed in conversation except for Ahmed. He was sitting alone, waiting for her.

He looked up at the large beige umbrella that emerged from a hole in the center of the table. He remembered the first time he’d entered this fancy establishment and seen one of these large parasols.

It was two years after his father passed away. He had been working at an electronic store on Sakhr Street in Sana’a. One day, he’d met a client who had offered him some work fixing some computers and phones. The client had asked him to deliver the equipment to a café with a name he couldn’t pronounce. Arriving at the café with the large orange English sign, the security guard standing at the door stopped him from entering because he was chewing qat.

“Aren’t we in Yemen where everyone is chewing qat?” he had asked the guard.

“Yes, but not here.”

“Why not?”

“The owners don’t want the place to be dirty.”

Ahmed had spat out the qat and placed the chewed up green lump in a bag to save for later. He had, after all, only begun chewing an hour earlier. He remembered looking around, feeling out of place in this fancy space where stylish men and women sat comfortably together, sipping drinks and eating cake. He’d felt his oversized blazer and brown sandals were unsuitable, maybe even offensive, to the people around him. He had wanted to leave as soon as possible but the client was running late, so he had sat at an empty table waiting for him. A waiter gave him a menu. Though he’d turned it around, he could not find the Arabic version.

“My brother, do I look like a tourist?” he had asked the waiter.

“What do you mean?”

“You gave me the tourist menu.” He pointed at the laminated two-sided paper. “Give me the Yemeni one.”

“We only have one menu.”

“Why is it all in English?”

“Ask the owner…”

“Just give me tea.”

When the tea arrived, Ahmed had realized he had paid four times the usual price. The tea had been worse than usual; it was just water and a Lipton tea bag without any coriander seed, black peppercorns, green cardamom pods, cloves, or cinnamon. He could not believe how people could be so fooled into paying so much for something that cost nothing. I would be so rich if I sold real tea outside this place, he had thought to himself.

That was four years ago. Since then, Ahmed had become wealthier, but not from selling tea. The customer he dreaded meeting had helped him obtain two scholarships, one to learn English at a local organization, and another to pursue higher education abroad. When he returned to Sana’a, armed with an impressive British diploma, employment opportunities opened up. The more his social standing increased, however, the greater his family and social obligations became.

Now, Ahmed had become a regular customer at the same place he’d vowed he would never return. His white spotless zannah, so crisp and a perfect length – not reaching his foot, and not too high above his ankle- was covered by an expensive blazer, and complimented with black shiny dress shoes. His trimmed goatee and expensive SUV exuded a rich man’s confidence. Very few people could see his insecurities. Amal was one of the few who could.

He was anxious to see her. He knew she wouldn’t like what he was going to ask her, but she would just have to understand. He rolled a Kamaran several times between his index finger and thumb. The smoothness comforted him. These cigarettes were among the few things that could. If we can make these perfect cigarettes locally, why can’t we perfect everything else?

A piercing scream startled him back to reality. He smiled and shook his head as he saw Amal clumsily getting up from the floor, pulling up her balto all the way to her knee, and shaking the dust off the black dress covering her clothes. He smiled as he watched her climb up the three steps to the café terrace. Is she crazy, or am I the crazy one to be in love with her?

She began walking towards him. He looked down, sniffed his shirt. He smelled like a mix of sweat, cigarettes, and Christian Dior’s Fahrenheit Absolute. They shook hands and she sat down in front of him.

“I wish we could hug in public!” he confessed.

“Me too,” she said with the same innocent yet mischievous smile that made him fall for her. Amal pulled a pink flower from her bag and put it behind his ear. “I love your goatee, please don’t ever shave again.”

“Trust me, I won’t. You should hear the amount of criticism I received from everyone. By the way, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to watch the play with you. I had so much work to finish. How was it?”

Amal shrugged. “It was ok, I guess.”

“It sounds like you didn’t like it?”

“Well…it was annoying. The gender roles were reversed—the wife was too masculine and the man not masculine enough—and that simple fact was supposed to be hysterical. It was the basis of all the jokes. ‘How can we have two men in the same house’ the lead character said at some point.”

“Oh is this that play, Kun Rajaal?” Ahmed asked.


“The title is ‘Be a man’. You should’ve known!”

“But Mohammed Hassan was directing it! The so-called progressive artist, and his very liberal team of actors and actresses. That’s what shocked me the most.”

“They’re catering to society,” Ahmed said.

Amal looked at him. “But isn’t the purpose of art to question reality – to push us to think?”

“It’s just a comedy, don’t over analyze it.”

“Akhhhhh you don’t get it because of that thing that dangles,” she pointed between his legs.

A friend interrupted them. Ahmed got up and kissed him once on the right cheek and countless times on the left. The two men held hands, their fingers intertwined like two trees whose branches have grown together. The waiter appeared with a tray and two mugs. Like a pruner, he separated the two entangled hands. Ahmed sat back down and his friend went inside.

The waiter placed two mugs on the table. “One Cappuccino for our favorite customer and an Americano for my brother with the thick-lensed glasses.”

“I’m their favorite customer,” Amal said teasingly.

“A brother is closer than a customer,” Ahmed responded, sticking his tongue out. He quickly looked around in case someone caught a glimpse of his unacceptable childish behavior. Men don’t stick out their tongues! He remembered his mother scolding him as a kid. Ahmed turned his attention to Amal’s delicate long fingers, covered with silver rings, as she carefully placed a spoon of sugar into the heart shaped foam of the Cappuccino. She was stirring it with such devotion, as she did with everything else. He admired her passion. She was enthusiastic about everything. He wished he were more like that. Suddenly Amal looked up.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing, can’t a man admire a beauty?”

“Oh please, you and your cheesy lines. I look like crap today.”

“You can never accept a compliment. When I’m sensitive and romantic you hate it, when I’m not, you tell me I’m too insensitive.” He extended his hand and took hers in his. “Make up your mind woman!”

“We’re in public!” she pulled her hand away in a panic, spilling coffee on her black robe.

“My clumsy woman!” he laughed.

“Say that again and you’ll be the one washing it,” she smirked.

Behind them, the throaty sounds of a guitar began. Amal and Ahmed turned towards the music. A young man with long hair, a striped blue, pink, and white t-shirt, and faded jeans held a red electric guitar and was jamming to his own tunes. Ahmed looked at Amal as she watched the man play. He enjoyed watching her expressions change. He envied her ability to express every emotion. To be free to smile, laugh, and cry whenever and wherever she wanted. Society did not necessarily accept that she was so open about her feelings, yet she still was.

A man’s loud voice ruined the moment. “When will you cut your hair, you look like a woman!” the man yelled to the musician.

“Actually, he looks like a villager from Marib,” another man interrupted, laughing.

“So what? Neither of those two are a bad thing!” Amal exclaimed.

Laughter filled the outdoor section of the café.

“Amal, why do you always do that?” Ahmed said in a hushed voice.

“Do what?”

“Why do you feel the need to always respond to everything?”

“I don’t, but that was just so rude,” she snapped, giving him an irritated look.

“It’s between them,” he said, his voice beginning to rise. “It has nothing to do with you!”

Ahmed pulled out a cigarette from the blue and white Kamaran packet in front of him. He lit the cigarette and watched it burn. There was a familiarity to the flame. He pulled the cigarette closer to his mouth and inhaled it deeply. His lungs felt tight and alive.

Amal was staring at him. Finally she spoke.

“Seriously, what’s the matter with you these days? You’re full of contradictions. All our female friends come to you for advice, and you encourage them to continue doing what they are doing and even push them to challenge the status quo. But with me, you hate it when I’m outspoken in public. Maybe it’s because you worry I’ll be as ‘loud’ or opinionated with your family?”

“Here we go again!” he said, with a sigh.

“Just admit it. It upsets you that I am the way I am.”

“Oh, shut up!”

Amal pushed her chair back and half stood up. Ahmed glared at her, aggressive and self-assured. She sat back down.

“Amal, you accuse me of having contradictions, but look at you. Remember that day when the young man cursed at us in the street and I just walked away?” He looked at her intensely waiting for an answer. “I didn’t do anything to him, and you resented me because of it. It’s like you somehow felt betrayed or disappointed that I didn’t assert my authority or fall into a blind rage. If I had, you would’ve found me sexy, but because I didn’t I was a sissy in your eyes.”

Silence filled the space between their coffee mugs. His almond shaped eyes drooped like those of a sad dog. His dark eyebrows pinched together, revealing the wrinkles of a man with a much older soul. The pink flower placed gently on his right ear brought out his hazel eyes. Amal extended her hands to the Kamaran packet, looked inside for a cigarette to smoke, and then tossed the empty packet back on the table. Ahmed was relieved he’d finished the last cigarette. He didn’t want to have that fight again. There was something more urgent he needed to discuss with her.

“I’m sorry habibati, I didn’t mean to be rude,” he took her hands in his. This time she let him. Her fingers gently squeezed his.

Amal was quiet for a moment. Finally she sighed. “I just can’t understand you.”

“The truth is…” he paused. “I’m scared about how our marriage might impact my family.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re on television. My entire family is already mocking me for not ‘controlling’ my fiancée. They say if you have no shame to be on television and work with men, then….” He stopped himself.


“Listen, of course I don’t believe that shit. But you know what people say. It impacts me. It impacts my family. Do you know that a man who proposed to my sister retracted his proposal after he found out that you are my fiancée?”

“Well good riddance” she waved dismissively. “You don’t want her to be with that kind of a man anyways.”

Ahmed shook his head.

“You know I can’t quit my job,” Amal said angrily.

“I didn’t ask you to quit—”

“Yeah, but you will…”

“I just don’t see how this will work out unless you do,” Ahmed admitted.

“Give me a fucking break. You pretend you’re a hero saving your family, just because you give them money every month. But in reality you’re a coward. You’re unable to confront them, to confront our traditions, and worse, to confront yourself.”

“Look, I told them you’re not quitting your job, but can you see how you working would make people think that I can’t provide for you?”

“Who exactly will feel like that?”

“Your family. My family. Society.”

“Look at your life—financially and socially—and look at mine,” Amal said. “I don’t own a car, I take public buses all the time, and I have a salary that pays peanuts. You, on the other hand, have an expensive car, an apartment in a rich neighborhood, and you wear ajambiya worth hundreds of dollars just to prove your manhood!” She took a deep breath. “And yet, you think I am the one who needs to have a rich guy?”

“Sure, but you come from a rich family, that’s why you can accept this lower paying job. You have a sense of security if something goes wrong. I don’t. Neither does my family. I have to be rich enough so that I could support us the way you are used to, but also continue to help my family.”

“You’re not Superman. That’s almost impossible, especially if I stop working.”

“I have obligations as a man in this society.”

“Are you seriously telling me, a woman, that it can be difficult to be a man?”

“Have you not heard anything I just said?” Ahmed slammed his fist on the table.

Amal looked at him with sad eyes. “It’s true what they say, a man thinks the sun rises just to hear him crow. What happened to you? What happened to us? Why have we become so disconnected?” She took off her ring and placed it on his right palm. “Ahmed, I love you. But that’s not enough.”

Amal stood up, and this time she kept on walking, leaving Ahmed alone, a pink flower behind his ear, under the large beige umbrella shielding him from the midday sun in a western café in the old city of Sana’a. He grabbed the Kamaran packet, crushed it and threw it on the floor.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

War Rant - Part 2: War Awakens Burried Prejudices

After a year and a half of being inactive or semi-active on social media, mainly due to a phase of reflection and depression, I began to tweet from time to time after the start of the war. 

While some of my views my had shifted a bit, the core remained the same. I continued to firmly stand against Saleh for the same reasons I joined the revolution in 2011 (and was outspoken about it long before). My secular views contradicted the conservative Houthi thought, and my anti-imperialist views made me staunchly anti-intervention by any side. Did I feel the need to reiterate this "stance" every single time I tweeted? No. Did people pressure me to do that? Yes, because, apparently if you don’t, baseless accusations hail on you.

The war has awakened buried prejudices. As psychologists note, in order to make sense of the world around us, we tend to sort information into mental categories. Unfortunately, if we are not careful, our inner stereotypes may emerge in the process. This has been very much visible during this war. The prejudices that were buried deep down came to the surface and blinded even the closest of friends and family.

Based on my discussions with some people, many of them don’t even realize they are being discriminatory. So, I thought I would highlight some examples of what prejudice in this context could look like:
  • The assumption that someone takes a certain position or formulates a certain opinion not based on their own beliefs, research, knowledge etc, but based on their city of birth, region, school of thought (sect), family name or lineage. These of course shape a person's upbringing, especially people who do not reflect on their own priviledge, but to assume that all people with the same background think in exactly the same way is discriminatory.
  • A statement such as “resistance fighters in the South are all ISIS in disguise” is generalizing an entire population.  The Resistance in the South is a mix of different groups with different ideologies. Some may be linked to AQAP, some to Hadi, and majority to neither, simply fighting against the occupation of the South. 
  • Believing that your lineage somehow makes you above everyone else! How are you still stuck on this ancient idea?
  • Thinking that all Zaydis or Hashemites are "Houthis in disguise," or using the terms interchangeably as if they are synonyms. Not all Zaydis or Hashemites are pro-Houthi, and not all pro-Houthis are Zaydi.
  • “I would rather an Arab hegemony than an Iranian one. Persians are just different than us!” Some Arab nationalists have gone too extreme! Can we just please say no to hegemony and intervention from ALL sides! We don’t have to pick either/or. 
  • When you deliberately single out one person from an entire group and ask, “What do YOU think of so and so crime? Or why haven’t you condemned it?” We see this a lot in the West, where Muslims are constantly asked to justify their position, and many have now refused to so, or do it sarcastically under #MuslimApologies. Now I see the same thing happening at a local scale in Yemen. Some people are constantly singled out and asked to “explain their position” on certain issues. When they refuse on matter of principle and ask, “Why should I?” the response is often “as a Hashemite and/or as a Zaydi, you must explain your stance publically or condemn it.” This is the same line given to many, even those who have never identified themselves as such. Should my grandmother apologize for AQAP simply because she’s a Shafi’i? Of course not! In the same manner Muslims don’t have to apologize for every “terrorist” activity, Yemenis don't either.
  • “Somali Mercenaries are being sent to Yemen to fight, like in Libya.  These black people are so blood thirsty!” Really? Really? WTF! Where can I start! 

My fear is that prejudice has become normalized even within activist and academic circles. When disagreements emerge, or when people stray away from the dominant war narrative, the response is not to discuss political differences but rather to judge and retreat to discriminatory and prejudicial reasoning.

Sadly, for the first time in my life, I’ve felt I needed to “filter” my friends because I no longer have the patience for discrimination and bullying. The level of narrow-mindedness has shocked me to a point where I’ve felt so disconnected from the community of activists I once held so dear. Conforming to these new disturbing social norms means more activists will adopt such behaviors unless we begin to question this publically. The finger pointing has closed a door on dialogue, and made it impossible to work together. Let us change that.

See War Rant - Part 1: The War Narrative and the Death of Philosophy

War Rant - Part 1: The War Narrative and the Death of Philosophy

Let me start off by saying this is NOT a research paper. It’s simply the first part of a longer rant. I want to get all the negative energy out of my system and into the wild (sorry universe!).

Gone are the early days of 2011 when no question and no theory were off limits. We argued and we disagreed in a community where we felt safe without judgement or prejudice. Today, we are living a different time. A time where thought is frowned upon, where mere questions are unwelcome. A time where even academics became reductionists, generalizing, and placing people in boxes.

Politics without knowledge has become the sport of the nation. We’ve become a group who no longer looks back, and does not look into the future. We reduce everything to one word answers, and we don’t have the patience to listen to deeper discussions. We exchange insults with those we disagree with, we trade punches with a total disregard for one another.

Here are four war narratives we are told we shouldn’t question – because after all, why should we use our brain?

The war-coalition is there to protect democracy, legitimacy and the people

Just like Saleh used the pretext of democracy and "constitutional legitimacy" to attack protesters in the 2011 uprising, President Hadi in exile, is using "legitimacy" to attack his people, despite the fact that his term had ended and he had no popular support among Yemenis, including very few amongst the Southern resistance.

It goes without saying that the people in Aden are suffering from two wars, an external and internal one, with rampant diseases and lack of humanitarian and medical aid. We should not by any means diminish this, but in almost four months of bombing, war is still ongoing. The Saudi-led, US/EU backed war coalition has not succeeded in its supposed mission to win the war against Houthis or in “restoring hope” like promised.

In addition to the numbers of deaths and wounded, the catastrophic humanitarian situation, the apparent destruction of Yemen’s already very weak infrastructure, and the targeting of civilian structures including bridges, hospitals, wedding halls, wheat and dairy factories have been hit, in addition to a chicken farm etc, is a clear sign of the war coalition’s deliberate intent to destroy what little remains of the country’s infrastructure and force Yemen [not just Houthis] into total dependency.

There is only one group to blame for the war

It is common sense that in a war, all sides participating will be responsible for civilian casualties. While there are layers of issues involved here, layers of responsibilities, the war narrative insists that everyone must focus only on one group.

Depending on how far back we go, we could blame different people and groups. A historian for example might go back to 1926 when Imam Yahya declared himself king of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, and blame his harsh, theocratic and 
discriminatory ruling. We could fast forward to the Saleh/Ali Mohsin era of corruption, poverty, neglect, lack of institutional building, centralized powers, and vicious wars in the South and north. We could blame Saudi for its long hegemony and funding of extremist center throughout Yemen since the 1980s - with the blessing of Saleh/Ali Mohsin. 

We could blame the spread of Wahabi ideology for the spread of AQAP and US for its failed war on terror that only exacerbated militants. We could blame Qatar for all the money pouring in. We could blame the Islah party for hijacking the revolution and the weakness and/or tacit support of the other “opposition” parties including the Socialists. 

 We could blame the transitional government for their focus on power grabbing, neglecting dire issues facing the people, and relying on the west for legitimacy rather than their own people. We could blame the UN, EU and US for their insistence on calling the transitional process a success and hence refusing to address the obvious issues. We could blame the IMF for pressuring Hadi to lift all fuel subsidies, increasing prices by 60 to 90 per cent overnight, without prior notice or measures to absorb the shock. We could blame Houthis for violently expanding throughout Yemen. We could blame Iran because like Saudi, it sees Yemenis as pawns in a political game to be supported and abandoned as and when it suits them.

It’s clear there are many actors to blame and it's important to discuss these points.  I'm sure the opinions will be as diverse as the people. The blame will shift, depending on personal analysis. But let's keep the door of discussion open, because a sickness must be diagnosed properly in order to find the cure.

Those who focus on foreign intervention don’t care about the civil war in the South

Civilians in the end of the day don’t want to be casualties of any war, local or foreign. Murder is murder, by a bomb or a bullet. Yet just because people focus on one advocacy strategy, such as focusing on the foreign intervention, does not mean that they are prioritizing a death over another or disregarding what is happening in the South. Some chose to focus on the civil war, while others chose to focus on the foreign intervention. Both are necessary.

Why have some activists decided to focus on the international intervention?

1) The Saudi-led war coalition is supported by UK and US. These countries are directly involved in logistics, arms trade and in providing intelligence. Raising awareness to citizens of these countries that their governments are involved in yet another war, is very important.

2)  The fact that Saudi is a leading buyer of weapons from US, France, UK means that it is in the interest of western powers to keep a war going. Arms trade keeps economies afloat, in fact makes them prosper. This is about the power and policy of those who drop bombs (the Saudi government) and those who profit from them being dropped (the US/UK).  This is not simply about Yemen but about the military industrial complext as well.

3) The “international community” has time and again condemned the Houthis, and even the UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR 2216) only condemned Houthis/Saleh. Except for a statement by the EU Parliament, they have not done the same for the foreign intervention, hence why advocacy in this area is necessary.

4) Focusing on the bigger picture of the war is a way to connect the movements for social justice throughout the world, because while the struggles may take different forms, they all, share the need for a new world order.

'Objectivity must be maintained'

Noam Chomsky once said “there’s a very high ideal that’s celebrated by the elite media, and that’s to maintain objectivity – objectivity has a very different meaning in media culture – it means repeating accurately anything that’s said within the beltway [Washington, DC]. If you do that, it’s objective, if you go beyond that it’s bias, it’s subjective, it’s emotional and so on and so forth.”
In the case of the war on Yemen, we also hear calls for objectivity but the truth is it’s all bullshit! It just means do not question the war narrative.

Today for example we see some of the same people who were against drone strikes because of their impact on civilian casualties, now cheering for bombs by coalition airstrikes. When we question this shift, we are labeled as subjective. 

When we ask a simple question such as, why doesn’t the media write “Saudi backed Yemeni government in exile” but insists on writing “Iran-backed rebels” we are immediately ‘judged’ on the wrong side. 
While both are competing now for influence, the fact is Saudi has been directly involved in Yemeni internal affairs for much longer than Iran and yet there is no mention of Saudi hegemony in the dominant narrative. [I know I will be trolled for this!]

This objectivity “bully” has pushed people towards 
virulent self-censorship. In the private sphere, people message me and share many thoughts. It seems many are afraid to be open about their own feelings. Some of my friends in the South for example who are staunchly against Houthi takeover are also against the Saudi intervention, but they feel they cannot say this publically.  I personally feel the same urge to self-censor, and hence by writing this I hope to shake this feeling away.  

The above four war narratives are just some examples of many. I highlight them because unfortunately some activists have fallen in the trap of pushing others towards a ruthless demagogic take on the war narrative.

In our effort to constantly blame those who have a different strategy, we become blind to the fact that we’re actually on the same side. This I believe is intended to divide us and in order to weaken the civil voice. Instead of focusing on what we all agree on – peace - we’re too busy pointing fingers at each other.

If only we (myself included) cared less about our "online" image or our "activist brand", and focused more on real life activism and collaboration, maybe we would’ve gotten somewhere. In the end of the day, we should be working together. Let's not let the war narrative dictate who our enemies or friends are.

While Yemen is drowning in interventions, let's free our own minds. Let's maintain our mental independence. Let’s ask questions, let’s think out loud, let’s argue, and let’s debate.

See War Rant - Part 2: War Awakens Burried Prejudices

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Living is Resisting

"To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people -- perhaps because their lives are more rarefied, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire --  experience human emotions with less intensity and greatest indifference..... it was given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama."
- Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

As a war continues to ravage Yemen,   mainstream media focuses mostly on the political leaders, and often neglects the majority of the people or the looming catastrophic humanitarian crisis.  Information is provided about the war without a human context.  Victims are introduced as numbers without souls.  It is as if the people don't exist, as if their lives don't matter.  They are deemed irrelevant in the discussion of the war that affects them the most! 

What is also missing from the media discourse is the focus on survival mechanisms and the resilience of the people.  Yemen has always possessed exceptional social survival skills.  There is a side in Yemen that is focused on winning battles, but there is a side that is focused on winning life.  In the midst of the undeniable misery that the war - both internal and external - has caused, we see the thirst for life.  We see the strength of the people.  

Despite the lack of electricity, gas, food shortages, bombings, and street battles, they try to continue their daily routines as much as possible.   They find creative ways to gather water and live without electricity.  In the midst of war, comedy has also thrived, from daily jokes on WhatsApp, to satirical songs, videos and Facebook groups.

This post is not meant to undermine the dire humanitarian situation that is looming and destroying the lives of millions across the country especially those outside major cities, but rather it's an attempt to shed light on another aspect of the war.  Here are twelve examples illustrating life itself as resistance:

Man taking a selfie using the FRAME Yemen background. The flag on the public wall is made of shards of glass found on the streets of Sana'a after a massive explosion (For more info click here). Photo by Bushra al-Fusail, (@734555200), 20 April 2015.

Children playing on top of a tank in Aden. The photo was widely circulated in social media on 7 April 2015.
Photographer and exact date unknown.

Defying cultural taboos, women in Sana'a rode bicycles as a solution to petrol shortages and demanding the right to movement. This cause a fury of emotions, with many supporters, and some opposed to this initiative. Photo by Bushra al-Fusail (@734555200), 16 May 2015.

Weather in Yemen - shared on social media.

Mustafa Sabeha, a resident of Sana'a, posted this photo of his uncle on his Facebook Page and wrote: "It's impressive how Yemenis love life, no matter what they face still, they are determined to live each day with a smile. This is my happy uncle who has 25 happy males and females. Having as much children as he can is the ultimate happiness for him." 20 May 2015.

Young man at restaurant: "We don't stop, it's weird how people get hungry all the time these days!"
Photo by Thana Faroq (@ThanaFaroq), 29 April 2015.

إلا الشاحن هههههههههههههه
Posted by ‎الفنان الكوميدي خالد البحري‎ on Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Don’t mess with my charger! Video uploaded on Facebook by Yemeni comedian Khaled al-Bahry, 19 May 2015.

"Crazy about life" is how these young men described themsevles. In this photo from Taiz, they show us the proper way to use a tank. Photo by Ahmed Al-Asbahy.

Escaping war life to take a moment and read on the street. These street book vendors are very common in many cities throughout the country. Photo by Thana Faroq (@ThanaFaroq), 10 May 2015.

"The WhatsApp emoticons under bombs" -  shared in social media.

New street art campaign by Murad Subai entitled 'Ruins' to beautify walls in areas destroyed by the wars. Photo by Majd Fuad.

"We are alive and staying put- The dream will continue." Graphic by Ahmed Jahaf (@A7medJa7af), 17 May 2015.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

ساحة التغيير

في ذكرى شهداء وجرحى الثورة

في فبراير ٢٠١١، نصب المحتجون خياما خارج بوابات جامعة صنعاء مطالبين “بإسقاط النّطام”. يوما بعد يوم تضاعفت الخيام، وسمّيت هذه المناطق التي سكنوها بميادين وساحات التغيير والحريّة.

هذا الكتاب الفوتوغرافي هو محاولة بسيطة لنتذكر وقتا كان الأمل فيه حيّاَ؛ وقتا آمن فيه أناس عاديون بأن مواهبهم وقوتهم وإبداعهم ومرونتهم ستخلق التغيير.

إن الحفاظ على هذا الوعي الجماعي أمر ضروري ليس فقط لتجسيده في التاريخ بصورة دقيقة وحيّة، وإنما أيضا لكي يكون مصدر إلهام للأجيال القادمة. ومثلما كانت ثورة ٢٠١١ امتدادا لنضال سنوات ماضية من المقاومة فإن حفظ مستقبل اليمن في الذاكرة الجماعية المشتركة لثورة٢٠١١ هو حفظ لاستمرار الأمل الموعود.

الصور التالية تغطي سنة واحدة من فبراير ٢٠١١ إلى فبراير ٢٠١٢. لم يتم التلاعب بالصور و تم اختيارها بعناية لقدرتها على التقاط الحياة داخل الثلاثة كيلوميترات من ساحة الاعتصام المعروفة باسم “ساحة التّغيير” في صنعاء، بدلا من خصائصها الفنّية و التقنيّة.

كما تم ترتيب الصور من فئتين: مدينة الخيام ، والمظاهرات.

Remembering Change Square

Do you remember Change Square?  We certainly do.

Four years ago this month, protesters set up tents outside the gates of Sana’a University, demanding “an end to the regime”. Day after day, the tents multiplied and the areas they occupied throughout Yemen became known as Change and Freedom Squares.

This modest photo book also available for free as a pdf recalls a time in Sana’a’s Change Square when people dared to dream, a time when they did extraordinary things because they believed in their own strengths, talents, creativity, and resilience.

The preservation of this collective consciousness is essential not only for an accurate portrayal of history, but also to sustain hope and inspire future generations. Just as the 2011 revolution was an extension of previous acts of resistance, the future will surely build on the shared memories of that year.

The following photos were taken over a one-year period, beginning in February 2011 and ending in February 2012. Without any manipulation of the photographs, the images were selected primarily based on their ability to capture a range of activities inside the square, rather than their artistic qualities or technical composition.

To illustrate life inside the three-kilometer area, the photos are organized around two main themes: tent city and peaceful demonstrations.

Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It's not a Sunni- Shi’a Conflict, dummy!

Last week, my young cousin in the second grade ran inside after an explosion shook the windows. “I don’t mind when the house shakes, I just don’t want to die in it,” he said out of breath. “You won’t.” I reassured him. He then went back to play. I followed him outside to find a group of children playing a political game: President Hadi v. Abdulmalik Al-Houthi. Their mission was to free the cats held hostage. As I sat there watching this game unfold, I heard them throw many terms around: democracy, justice, national dialogue conference etc. The words Sunni or Shi’a, were never mentioned.

This is not surprising given the fact that affiliation to a madhab (religious school of thought) rarely comes up in conversations in Yemen. This is slowly changing, and many fear that this historic diversity and tolerance might become something of the past.

To say there are no sectarian tendencies or cleavages in Yemen is incorrect (as Dr. Shelagh Weir explained from the 1980s), but the oversimplification of explaining the current power struggle entirely on historic theological differences between Sunnis and Shi’as is incorrect as well.

This is incorrect for a variety of reasons that I will summarize here.

First, while no statistics have been collected on the composition of Ansarullah, commonly known as Houthis; it is believed that many of their members are Zaydi but also come from various religious schools of thought in Shi’a and Sunni Islam, including Ismaili, Shafiʿi, and Ja’afari. Many Sunni tribesmen and soldiers have also joined the Houthis and fight along their side. In fact, prominent Shafi’i leaders like Saad Bin Aqeel, a Mufti of Ta’iz, are amongst Houthis’ leaders and in fact presented a Friday sermon at one of the sit-ins prior to their advance into the capital.

Second, Zaydis share similar doctrines and jurisprudential opinions with Sunni scholars. As Helen Lackner, author of Why Yemen Matters? stated “this has little, if anything, to do with theological differences or a Sunni/Shi’a split, but is based on issues of social cohesion, including tribal allegiance, power, control and (the absence of) development and social security funding for an increasingly impoverished and suffering population.”

Third, socially speaking Yemenis have lived and continue to live together without segregation. Muslims in Yemen, from the various schools of thought, whether Sunni or Shi’a, pray side-by-side, people intermarry without any special procedures or “conversions,” and communal violence based on confessional membership has been rare.

Fourth, according to Houthis’ their actions do not aim “exclusively or even primarily at establishing a Zaydi political order” as Stacey Phillbrick Yadav, Associate Professor and author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon” states. She adds, “Similarly, the fact that Islah’s membership is predominantly Sunni doesn’t mean it is working to reestablish the caliphate.”

Fifth, not all Zaydis are Houthis. Well-known Zaydi scholars and religious centers have been divided on their stance towards the Houthis.

Sixth, missing from the analysis is the link between rural deprivation and wider political contestations, and conflicts. The longer the transitional government ignored people’s grievances, the more the ranks of the discontented swelled. Last straw was when the government lifted the fuel subsidies overnight without warning in 29 July 2014, increasing the price of fuel and diesel by 60 and 90 percent. Mass protests erupted, and Houthis capitalized on these grievances, and by so doing, gained a significant number of new membership from various bacgrounds (not only Zaydis) which helped them expand.

Seventh, while sectarian cleavages are becoming exploited by various groups, such as when al-Qaeda uses the rise of Houthis to recruit more people to defend “the Sunnis," it is important to remember that those fighting al-Qaeda are not all Shi’a nor are they all Houthis.

Eigth, if this was a sectarian issue, Saleh (who is technically Zaydi) would not have engaged in six wars with the Houthis from 2004 - 2010. It appears that today’s former enemies have formed a temporary alliance.  This indicates that these conflicts are political in nature.

Ninth, there is no sectarian dimension to the victims of the violations by the Houthis such as the detention of activists and journalists in recent protests.

Finally, while the geopolitical tensions between the various political camps of course impacts what is happening on the ground, it is incorrect to explain the political dynamics in the country as simply foreign interference. In addition, narrowly framing the ongoing issue as sectarian absolves the transitional government from their duties as it helps them blame everything on foreign actors, rather than making them accountable for the localized grievances found throughout the majority of Yemen. It also absolves Houthis from the violations they have committed blaming their actions on theological differences instead of political aspirations.

As these ten points demonstrate, the issue cannot be reduced to a theological war. Analysis must include these nuances in order to better understand the ongoing political dynamics. Without a proper understanding, policies will continue to be flawed and no solutions will be formulated, which would perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

صنعاء سمفونيّة خالدة - Sana'a an Immortal Symphony

صنعاء سمفونيّة خالدة، يستلهم الناس نشيدها الخالد على مختلف أذواقهم: علماء، شعراء، فنانون.  دائما تعطي، ودائما تمنح في أي ظرف كان نعيما أم بؤسا، يسرا أم عسرا.  صوتها يظل يعزف ألحانه، فيجدد أزمانه، وينسي أحزانه، ويبعث الأمل من جديد. فصوتها لا يصمت، ونورها لا  يخفت
- زيد الوزير

"Sana'a is an immortal symphony which constantly inspires a diversity of people: scholars, poets and artists.  She always gives from herself, during misery or bliss, during times of fortune, or times of calamity.   Her voice continues to play familiar tunes, renewing life, dismissing pain, and reinvigorating hope once again.  Her voice will not be silenced, and her light will not dim." - Zaid Alwazir

Saturday, December 13, 2014

We Miss You Ammo Mohammed

Photo by Mona Raidan al-Mutawakel

“Come with me,” said my father after he got ready and changed into his grey pants and oversized black blazer. On the way, my father didn’t tell me anything about the man we were visiting, except that he is a “dear brother in the struggle.”

The first thing I noticed about Dr. Mohammed Al-Mutawakel was his childlike sincere smile that magically forced even the grouchiest person to smile back creating an instant connection.

I had met many of my father’s friends before, including intellectuals, scholars, poets etc., but Ammo [uncle] Mohammed was different. Despite the fact that I was young, he acknowledged my existence, and addressed me as an individual. Throughout that first visit he spoke to us both.

The topics he brought up were daring and provoking. They pushed me to question my own beliefs and thoughts. At one point, I hesitantly turned to my father and with my eyes asked, Can I answer this honestly? My father understood and replied nodding his head.

Throughout the years, and despite the continued challenges, Ammo never gave up. His hopeful aura, his encouraging demeanor, his modesty and his genuine belief in what he does were unique. He generously gave so much of his time to others. He met with almost anyone who would ask for a meeting. I remember seeing him many times in Change Square in 2011 sitting in various small tents giving lectures on Human Rights in Islam, gender equality etc.

When we disagreed politically, Ammo patiently listened. This tolerance is truly amazing, and it is projected in his relationship with his children, who have sometimes expressed vary different opinions in their writings and political affiliations. These differences were almost theatrically expressed on Friday lunches when their entire family met. Those times, Ammo would smile, sometimes interject with an opinion or just get up and serve us some tea.

“You see these?” he would point to the family portraits on the wall. “People ask me why I place my daughters’ photos publically, I tell them why not?”

The last time I visited Ammo Mohammed was in April 2014. While fixing the black and white shawl on his head, he proudly pointed to the wall of photos once again. This was a man who gave his life to Yemen, and was content because he knew that his wonderful five children and their partners, his grandchildren, and countless mentees would surely continue his path of peaceful resistance.

Today marks the 40th day since his cold-blooded assassination. Too many great people have been taken away from us recently. With every death, pieces of our souls have slowly chipped away. I don’t want death to become our only constant in this changing Yemen. We need doses of Ammo’s optimism and hope. We must keep his spirit alive.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Yemeni public, and its diverse reactions to recent events

There is an array of reactions to the recent events in Yemen. While it is difficult to generalize how people feel, this is an attempt to demonstrate (briefly) the various reactions by ordinary Yemenis.

We’re just confused: the majority of people are simply confused. With rumors flying around, and facts very difficult to verify, confusion looms and anxiety escalates. President Hadi added to that confusion by calling the events a “conspiracy” only after he signed the U.N. brokered peace deal.

What the.... just happened?: they were shocked at how fast the situation changed in a couple of days.  They do not know what to expect and believe that time will tell. They are generally happy that some iconic elite who are said to block the transition process are out of power, and are content with the reconciliatory language in the national agreement, and in Abdulmalik Al-Houthi's most recent speech . Yet, they remain skeptical and hope that these words carry real intent and are not merely ink on paper. They fear that while the Houthis have legitimate grievances and were oppressed, some of their recent actions are worrisome and questions their peaceful rhetoric.

Yay: those who are very happy about the recent events, they feel that the Houthis revived hope in a “hijacked revolution” and gave them a sense of pride in a movement that has challenged the grip of the elite, and controversial GCC initiative. They are also happy that after being neglected by all major political power groups, the Houthis have imposed their demands for basic rights and inclusion on the political establishment.

They are the devil: those who believe that the Houthis are merely “Iranian agents” dominated by foreign agenda. They believe that the Houthis never had any grievances and that the Saleh regime was right to start the war in 2004.

Don’t violate our Rights!: this group fears that Sanaa may now be run by a radical religiously conservative armed group that bans personal freedoms, most notably related to freedom of expression, art and women’s rights. They also want the Houthis’ armed militia to retreat from the capital as soon as possible. They feel depressed thinking that all groups in power have so far continued the same practices. This feeling was exacerbated by the closure of Suheil channel and storming of homes of some notable Islah leaders.

As long as we live..: this group is mostly apolitical, and their focus is on access to basic services. If Houthis can guarantee that, this group would surely support them.  The increase in electricity, and the general perception that Houthis will protect the area has increased their support for the group.

Civil war is coming: many people are simply afraid of a potential civil war. For example, those in Sanaa who recently witnessed dead bodies rotting in the streets, slept through nights of loud and ongoing explosions, and had their daily life briefly came to a halt are terrified. They fear the unknown and the potential of a civil war, due to potential increase of retlation by AQAP, especially since the Houthis vowed to fight them.

Bye bye Ali Mohsin!: Some, such as many in the South, are simply ecstatic that General Ali Mohsin, known for his bloody and corrupt past, is forced out of power. Everything else seems irrelevant to them.

Saleh's plot: this group is worried that former President Saleh is behind the Houthi’s rise to power, and that Yemen would go back to square one.