Saturday, April 5, 2014

Yemen's 'Muwaladeen': The struggle for equal citizenship-

First Published in Al-Jazeera English 

Yemenis who are born to foreign parents face institutional discrimination because of their perceived lack of 'purity'.

A Yemeni activist and I were talking while walking in downtown Sana'a one hot morning. An old man kept turning back to look at us and eventually asked him with curiosity: "where are you from?" my colleague simply responded with a smile. "Ethiopia, Somalia?" asked the old man.

Anyone who has navigated the streets of Yemen will ultimately experience the friendly curiosity of its inhabitants. People are often inquisitive, welcoming, and honest. Political "correctness" does not exist here.

So the question that the man asked can be seen as an example of this curiosity. Yet for 37-year old Khaled Shanoon, who was born in Sana'a to a Yemeni father from Mareb province and an Eritrean mother, questions like these are often accompanied by negative connotations and memories of numerous incidents of discrimination.

Despite the long history of Yemeni traders travelling abroad, immigrating, and forming cross-cultural families, the term "Muwalad" is still used today to describe children born to one parent of another nationality.

The term itself is defined in an Arabic dictionary as "an Arab who is not purely Arab." While the term applies to children of Yemeni-Russian, Yemeni-Vietnamese, or Yemeni-Egyptian couples, it is most often used for children of an African parent or a parent with African descent. According to an article by activist Hussein Musleh this term is used for humiliation, as a way to remind the person that he/she is not "pure" Yemeni.

Such attitudes are exacerbated by today's obsession with light or white skin in the Arab region, which is in sharp contrast to the famous poetry and music where artists and poets wrote and sang about tan women.

Today, Arabic satellite channels broadcast the very negative "Fair and Lovely" commercial, that insinuates that the darker you are, the less successful/beautiful you are.

Unfortunately, in Yemen such attitudes to skin colour have recently moved from bad TV commercials to state institutions through the passing of the a decree on citizenship rights.

Relationship between Yemen and the Horn of Africa

Arabian-African relations date back to ancient times, when the kingdom of Axum, ruled both the southern Arabian Peninsula and Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia). Because of the two civilizstions' integration over the years, intermarriage resulted in Yemeni and Ethiopian mixed blood.

In modern times, Yemen provided a safe haven for Ethiopian refugees and Ethiopia in turn accepted Yemeni immigrants during times of political upheaval or seeking a better economic future. For example, many Yemenis remained in Ethiopia since Italy's 1936 invasion, when they were brought by the Italians to work as builders and became rich.

Dr Hussein Fouly, an Ethiopian researcher specialising in Yemeni-Ethiopian relations explained that Yemenis and Ethiopians intermixed first because of "Yemenis' ability to integrate and second, because of the Ethiopian civilisation's welcoming attitude toward foreigners in their land throughout the 20th century".

Strangers here and there

Children of Yemeni immigrants who have returned from the horn of Africa often share positive memories of nations that treated them well. Yet despite how welcoming many were, some complain that they never felt either purely "African" or purely "Yemeni".

Locals in both countries often treat them as citizens of the other country. They have deep connections in both places but do not fully belong to either country. "When I'm in Djibouti I'm called the Yemeni, and when I'm in Yemen, I'm referred to as the Djibouti," said a 26- year old artist with whom I spoke recently.

This lack of belonging is a common feeling that many children of mixed backgrounds feel around the world. The late novelist Mohammad Abdul-Wali, a Yemeni diplomat and a prominent writer of Ethiopian descent who died in 1973, tried to portray these feelings in his novel They Die Strangers where he wrote: "Yes it is us, we are in search of a nation, of citizens, of hope. You do not know how it feels to be a stranger."

Social and cultural discrimination

Yemeni citizens with links to the Horn of Africa often face cultural and legal discrimination on a daily basis in Yemen. Whether it is the name calling they encounter at schools, the obstacles they face when wanting to marry a "pure" Yemeni, or the daily struggles to convince authorities of their "Yemeniness".

If they can, a majority of children and adults hide the fact that one of their parents is from the Horn of Africa because of the "shame" or ridicule it could bring them. AT the same time, children from a Russian or Western parent would often boast about their "beautifully light" family.

"I ignored my grandmother for ten years when I was young, I wanted to disassociate myself from her," remembers Khaled sadly. "When I grew up, I visited her in Eritrea and quickly felt ashamed of my actions as a child. She's an incredibly kind woman. I wish I could write a letter to all the African mothers to apologise that we were once embarrassed from them," he added.

Khaled has transformed his regret into a positive campaign by creating the first NGO in Yemen, Sons of Immigrant's Organisation, which seeks to promote equal citizenship by highlighting discrimination against the Muwaladeen and demanding equal rights.

Government responsibility

While cultural and social discrimination are unfortunately found around the world, many Muwaladeen feel that discrimination complaints often fall on deaf ears. In fact, Muwaladeen accuse government officials of institutionalising this racism.

Many complain that the state often neglects them and only uses them before an election. "Yemen only recognises us when they need our voice in the election, which means we are Yemeni citizens for only two days in seven years," wrote Ali Salem in article published in Al-Hayat newspaper.

These Muwaladeen are often denied identity cards or passports by officials arguing that they do not have sufficient "evidence" to prove their "Yemeniness" due to their darker skin and sometimes-imperfect Arabic. They are also sometimes looked at as "newcomers" in the country they were born and raised in, and hence treated as such.

Recently, this type of discrimination was legalised. On March 3, 2014 a decree was passed by the Civil Status Authority, which stated:

Copy of decree by the Civil Status Athority
"1) It is strictly forbidden to grant identity cards for Muwaladeen born outside Yemen, especially to those born in the Horn of Africa, who do not have proof of Yemeni nationality. 2) Excluded from this, are Muwaladeen born in the Gulf countries, Europe and Asia, provided that their parents are born in Yemen…"

While it goes without saying that proof of citizenship should in fact be a requirement to obtain an identification card, the mere fact that the decree differentiates between people from the Horn of Africa and others, illustrates the innate racism in government institutions against "black" people.

On January 25, 2014, Yemen's National Dialogue Conference concluded and resulted in a 300-page document filled with recommendations, many of which emphasise demands of equal citizenship and justice.For example, recommendation number four of the state-building working group states, "All citizens shall be equal in rights and duties before the law, without distinction based on sex, race, origin, colour, religion, sect, doctrine, opinion, or economic or social standing."

Yet the recent decree that was passed after the end of the NDC makes citizens worry that these recommendations will merely remain ink on paper.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Yemen's "Airplanes of the Sick"

Photo of a Yemeni hospital, via

"Airplane of the Sick" is what employees at Cairo Airport call the Yemenia plane that arrives from Yemen. Why? because on that plane, there are often a number of sick people arriving for medical treatment.

Anyone who flew on Yemenia, from Yemen to either Cairo or Jordan will notice the high number of sick patients on the plane, some even laying down in critical condition. On several occasions, patients have died on the plane.

Despite the progress Yemen has made to expand its health care system, it remains severely underdeveloped and therefore many try to seek medical treatment abroad.

Of course the rich can afford to travel to the Gulf, Europe and the U.S. for yearly checkups and medical examinations. In fact, former President Saleh himself had to fly out of the country when the Presidential palace was attacked and he was severely wounded. In the 33 years of his rule, his regime did not even invest in one decent hospital where he could have went for treatment!

The "lucky" ones in Yemen, manage to borrow money or sell what they can to travel to India, Jordan, Egypt or sometimes Lebanon for medical treatment.

However, for the majority of society, clinics and hospitals are rare, overcrowded and expensive. In fact, only 25 percent of rural areas (where majority of population resides) have health services as compared to 80 percent of urban areas.

Even basic cases such as giving birth can be deadly in Yemen. It is unbelievable for example that eight women die giving birth every day.

Most people have to travel quite a distance to get to a clinic or hospital. When they do, it is often extremely expensive. With no health insurance, if a life threatening disease infects someone, or an accident occurs, people have to either borrow money to pay for the expenses, or accept the harsh reality that they can not afford the treatment and therefore must wait to die.

My relative was lucky, she has a large family who helped with her expenses. Six months ago, Ina'am, a young school administrator in her late 20's suddenly became sick. When she went to get a blood test she fell in a coma for a couple of months. When she woke up, she could not speak or move, but she was aware of her surroundings. The doctors could not identify the cause of the problem, and therefore, as is often the case, they recommended that she seek treatment abroad.

After sending her medical file to India and Egypt (where costs are relatively affordable and there are no problems with visas for Yemenis) doctors there did not accept her case. Doctors in Saudi Arabia accepted her case but she could not get a visa. Then finally, a hospital in Jordan accepted her case, and because Yemenis do not need a visa, she was able to go there. Her family borrowed money and sold some things so they could afford to pay for two round-trip tickets, housing rental, and of course medical costs.

When they arrived in Jordan, the doctors examined her and said in front of her (she was conscious and could hear): "why did you bring her here? this is pointless! did you bring her to die in Jordan or what?!"

This careless cruel way of speaking was extremely hurtful, disrespectful and unprofessional. Ina'am returned to Yemen and miraculously got better, she even began speaking. Little did we know that it was the body's way of rejuvenating itself to allow her to say goodbye to the family. She passed away three days ago without a proper diagnosis.

In our efforts to promote change in Yemen, lets not only focus on political rights, but also on basic rights such as demanding our right for affordable and accessible health care.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Yemeni woman sings about the Perils of "WhatsApp"

WhatsApp is a phone application that allows users to send and receive messages, photos, videos, recordings from all over the world for free.  You can send information individually, or create a group of friends and/or family.

It has become a very popular tool all over the world, and in Yemen.  Yet, this Yemeni woman sings about the perils of WhatsApp and how it is impacting her relationship.

Here are the translated lyrics: [again i'm not a translator, so it won't have the appropriate rhymes, i'm just trying to relay the message:

"oh what a strange world, 
after all his love to me, he suddenly changed,
If only you know the reason, 
the damn WhatsApp,
He no longer listens to anything I say,
or shows that he cares,
He screams for the stupidest reason,
all because of the damn WhatsApp,
Dinner, breakfast, and lunch,
if he disappears one second, 
he becomes depressed,
all because of the damn WhatsApp,
If I tell him enough is enough,
it's as if I shot him with a gun,
I become like [Abu Lahab],
all because of the damn WhatsApp,
oh how wonderful he used to be,
a well behaved gentleman,
who today answers me with "shut up",
all because of the damn WhatsApp,
He wants a Galaxy S4,
to keep answering until dawn,
If I tell him get up, he falls,
all because of the damn WhatsApp"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Fear is fear, no matter where you are from

Earlier this month, I spoke at a panel in Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. During the talk, I showed a photo of a young Yemeni boy in the province of Mareb (which was hit by five drone strikes this month), demonstrating how he ducked in his school as soon as he heard the sound of a plane. He was not sure whether it was a drone or a fighter jet, but he has become used to ducking this way ever since his village was hit and his friend hit with a shrapnel.

The next day, I received an e-mail from David Swanson who was on the same panel. He pointed out that the photo of the Yemeni boy reminded him of the photo below, of children in the US in the 1950s ducking in schools for fear of a nuclear explosion.

photo on left via David Swanson from, photo on right by Atiaf Alwazir, taken in Mareb on Feb 28, 2013 
The two photos are strikingly similar, both children ducking to save themselves from bombs that kill, wound, and displace people.  From the early 1950s until the end of the Cold War, the US government taught "duck and cover" to generations of school children and adults as a method of personal protection in the event of a nuclear war.

In 1951, the American Civil Defense film, "Duck and Covered" geared towards children, portrayed the act of ducking and covering by Bert The Turtle. Wouldn't it be ironic, if we use the lyrics of this American film to teach children in Yemen today how to "duck and cover" from American planes?!

A Duck and Cover movie poster,


"There was a turtle by the name of Bert 
And Bert the Turtle was very alert
When danger threatened him he never got hurt
He knew just what to do
He’d duck and cover, duck and cover…”
“Now, you and I don’t have shells to crawl into like Bert the Turtle, so we have to cover up in our own way.”
"Sundays, holidays, vacation time, we must be ready every day, all the time, to do the right thing if the atomic bomb explodes. Duck and cover!”
“First you duck, then you cover. Duck and cover tight. Duck and cover under the table.”

Yemeni children living in areas of conflict have the same feeling of fear that has engulfed millions of children around the world. Their own government has also abandoned them. No films are being made to teach methods of self protection, no warnings given before US and Yemeni planes strike, and when wounded or when their houses are demolished, no apology or compensation is given.

It shouldn't matter where the person is from, where he/she is living, what religion they follow or don't; human lives are equal, and they all deserve a chance to live in peace and with freedom to move and enjoy this earth that we call home.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Get Out of Our Way"

Recently, a Yemeni man became a "WhatsApp" sensation when a short 2:19 minute mobile video of a his street performance was uploaded on social media.  

Though it is a simple poem, and though he is only using a plate for an instrument; it resonated with people, as it is an honest expression of how many feel about today's injustice and how they also console themselves with a dream of a better life and an afterlife in paradise.


Here, I attempt to translate his words (I am not a translator so I didn't do it justice, just trying to get his point across).

Get out of our way,
Get out of our way,
The heaven of love is for us, 
Tall women are for you, short and wide women are for us,
Beauty is for you, and ugliness is for us,
SUV's are for you, and old taxis are for us,
Fire and torment are for you, eternal paradise is for us,
Fire and torment are for you, eternal paradise is for us,
Palaces and villas are for you, and nests and huts are for us,
May God whiten your face [a saying of rapprochement], you who stole our rights,
Millions are for you, and extreme poverty is for us,
Honey and Ghee are for you [expensive items in Yemen], and anchovies and fish are for us [cheaper than other meat and widely available in Yemen],
Get out of our way, you who have tormented our people,
You tormented our people,
Oh how I wish I was a little bird in your roof,
Or a pigeon flying near your window,
Or a bodyguard or a security guard,
Or a bodyguard or a security guard,
I would go with you wherever you want.

بعّدوا من طريقنا 
بعّدوا من طريقنا
جنّة الحب حقنا
البنات الطوال لكم والقصار والعراض لنا
الملاح والجمال لكم والدبش والخشع لنا
الصوالين نصيبكم والتكاسي القدام لنا 
 الحريق والعذاب لكم جنّة الخلد لنا
الحريق والعذاب لكم جنّة الخلد حقنا
القصور والفلل لكم والعشش والدّيم لنا
بيّض الله وجوهكم اللي أكلتوا حقوقنا
الملايين نصيبكم والحرف والطفر لنا
العسل والسمن لكم والوزف والسمك لنا
الملايين نصيبكم والحرف والطفر لنا
العسل والسمن لكم والوزف والسمك لنا
بعّدوا من طريقنا عذّبوا الشعب حقنا
عذّبوا الشعب حقنا
ألا ليتني في جباكم عصفري
ألا وإلا حمامي على الطاقة يطير
ألا وإلا مرافق وإلا عسكري
ألا وإلا مرافق وإلا عسكري
ألا وأسير معك حيثما تشتي تسير

Saturday, February 22, 2014

on the 3rd anniversary of the Revolution - can there be peace without justice?

First published in Aljazeera English

In 2011, the colorful tents of Change Square flourished with hope and a dream of a dignified life. Three years later, like the tents, hope of regime change has disappeared for many independent revolutionaries.

While many positive steps have been taken in the past three years, including the official removal of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, the creation of a transitional unity government, and the completion of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a complete break with the past is yet to be seen.

On February 21, 2012 on the first anniversary of the Yemeni Revolution, an uncontested "election" brought Saleh's vice president to power, based on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)'s power transfer agreement. This deal, signed on November 23, 2011, was a great blow to the independent revolutionaries, as it empowered traditional forces over those calling for radical change and cosmetically addressed their demands.

In 2011, prior to this agreement, the regime, that had once neglected the youth, was forced to interact with them, due to their street power, which expanded political bargaining beyond the traditional political elite. Yet the GCC blocked this process, emphasising instead traditional patronage politics.

Business as usual

The demands of the street extended beyond the removal of the president to include comprehensive change to the entire political structure, which has been the cause of marginalisation. Many independent youth felt that the traditional opposition figures who worked side by side with the old regime do not believe in real change and have co-opted the revolution for personal and political gains.

Creating a national unity government, while politically a positive move, meant that both traditional opposition and former ruling party members are in charge of government positions, transpiring in recruitment of government employees based on party loyalties rather than expertise. This marginalised a number of independent qualified technocrats, leaving management of many ministries to those who had no proper knowledge and blocking any reform of government institution, which is a necessary step to break away from the past.

Furthermore, the 2014 budget [Ar] allocated $11.3m to the Tribes' Affairs Authority, which will be spent on monthly salaries for tribal leaders. In comparison, as the Yemen Times highlighted, the budget projected for Yemen's Coast Guard Authority is $7.2m.

The fact that this line item remains in the budget post-revolution demonstrates that the transitional government is not keen on moving away from the patronage system towards a modern civic state on the basis of equal citizenship, social justice, and a plural political system.

According to a Parliamentary report [Ar], the same budget did not allocate any funds for the implementation of the NDC recommendations. This has made it difficult for people to trust the government's political will to move forward with the decisions.

The NDC brought together 565 members from various backgrounds; seven percent of the seats were allocated to independent youth. The 300-page NDC recommendations [Ar] are significant, and emphasize revolutionary demands of equal citizenship and justice. For example, The forth recommendation of the state-building working group states, "All citizens shall be equal in rights and duties before the law, without distinction based on sex, race, origin, colour, religion, sect, doctrine, opinion, or economic or social standing." Yet the fear is that such recommednations will remain simply ink on paper, and like many laws in Yemen will not be implemented.

While NDC members claimed that these recommendations are "binding", there is no legislative provision that obliges either the government or the outdated parliament to carry them out.

In fact, many do not believe that these recommendations will in fact be implemented, pointing to the "20 points" as an example. Prior to the start of the NDC, the technical committee created to organise the NDC publically recommended a list of 20 points that are meant to rebuild trust between the South, the Houthis, and the government. This was supposed to be completed prior to the NDC, yet even after the end of the NDC, only a few of these points have been implemented. This begs the question: If these simple 20 points cannot be implemented, what will become of the remaining 300 page worth of recommendations?

Another example of lack of implementation lies in the absence of proper compensation for the injured revolutionaries. Despite a presidential decree ordering their treatment, many of them have been neglected and the government has provided little financial and medical support for them.

On February 9 Abdul Jabar al-Namer, a protester who was shot in the stomach in 2011 died waiting to travel abroad for further medical treatment. Unhappy with this situation, the youth have staged numerous protests and demonstrations in support of their injured fellows, and some of the wounded have gone on hunger strikes. Despite promises to address the situation, no serious action has yet been taken. To date, four lawsuits have been filed by injured revolutionaries and their families, yet there has been no change in the status quo.

Increasing violence

Although the presidential decrees aimed at restructuring the military were bold in their gaols, personal loyalties still control the army. In fact, Human Rights Watch reported that President Hadi informed them that "a general issue with the Yemeni military is that each brigade is formed from the same tribe." In his words, it is impossible to "remove a commander who commits an abuse because the commander will simply reject the decision and the brigade will stand by him."

This might explain why the committee setup by President Hadi to investigate the military attack on a funeral of a member of the Southern Movement in al-Dali last December has not yet provided any explanation or charged anyone. This lack of accountability is a natural consequence of the immunity law that provided protection for members of the former regime and enshrined this culture of impunity.

Violence by security institutions has continued against peaceful protesters, even on the anniversary of President Hadi's "election". On February 21, security forces shot at a large rally in Aden where peopledemonstrated against the outcomes of the NDC and called for secession. At the same time in the North, violent clashes between the Houthis, Salafis and tribal militias have persisted over the past months.

The NDC clearly did not succeed in addressing the main issues in the South or in the North.

There is no doubt that real change will take many years, yet the foundations need to be built correctly. With no real reform of government institutions, no rule of law, deteriorating economy and a catastrophic humanitarian situation, conflicts throughout Yemen have dramatically increased. Three years after the Yemeni revolution, we are left asking ourselves: Can the Yemen model really succeed? And can there be peace without justice?

Friday, January 3, 2014

The birth and death of cinema in Aden

This article was first published in Aljazeera English

Photo courtesy of Lutfi Mahmood

Every day, Mohammed Afeef, a native of Aden, skipped out on lunch at school, and saved his daily allowance in order to go to Regal cinema - later named Shahinaz cinema- at the end of the week.

Along with his friend, Mohammed took a bus to watch a film every week. "It was best to arrive early, or else we would have to sit crammed near the ventilators," he remembered. To go back home they had to walk 10 kilometres because there was no public transportation at night. "It was definitely worth it," he added with a grin.

Forty years later, Shahinaz cinema, where Mohammed spent some of his best childhood memories, is now closed along with 46 other cinemas nationwide. Only three cinemas remain partially open to young working class men, where they occasionally show live soccer matches, Bollywood or old Hollywood movies from a projector.

Good old days

This went in sharp contrast to the latest Egyptian movies that used to be screened. Famous actors like Farid al-Atrash or Abdulhalim Hafiz appeared on the screens of Aden's cinemas at the same time they appeared in Cairo. In fact, in the mid-1970s the controversial Egyptian movie "al-Asfour", censored in Cairo, was screened in a film festival in Aden.

Mohammed Hamood Al-Hashimi is credited with bringing cinema to Aden and to the region. He began this venture in 1910 by screening mobile shows for a "silent" cinema in the Tawahi district, making Charlie Chaplin a popular figure in Aden. His legacy continued and one of his children, Taha Hamood, "Master Hamood" as he was called, is credited with opening the first cinema on the Arabian Peninsula named Hurricane - after a British aircraft - followed by three other cinemas: Radio Cinema with a facade of an old radio; al-Shariqiyah, andal-Jadidah or New Cinema - named after a well-known cinema in India.

Slowly cinemas spread to the rest of Yemen's southern and eastern provinces, as well as to North Yemen. By the 1950s and 1960s North and South Yemen were home to 49 cinemas. Both men and women used to attend film screenings, and it was a favourite family outing. During this golden era, female artists - such as Sabah Munser, and Fathia Alsagheera - also rose to fame.

By the mid-1990s, most cinemas had closed down. The once packed Hurricane now only has 10 to 15 customers a day, who pay 150 Yemeni Riyals to watch movies from a DVD and a projector. Gone are the days when attending the cinema was an important event, where women and men dressed up as if they were going to a party. Hoping to maintain this cultural hub, Hamood's family renovated the building to make it suitable for theatre production. It has since shown a number of popular plays.

Once known as "Steamer Point" during Aden's time as a British colony; today, passing by the district of Tawahi, with its neglected buildings, and closed down shops, it is difficult to imagine this area as a point of entry for merchants, tourists and cultural exchanges. The New cinema still stands strong in the midst of this changing district, but devoid of its spirit and content. It has been transformed into a multi-purpose wedding hall on the second floor, and a shopping centre on the lower floor. While they cater mostly to weddings, they are also happy to rent it out to those interested in showing movies or to show theatre programmes.

Decline of art

There are many reasons for the decline of the cinema: political, economic and social. Politically, the change in governments impacted the promotion of the arts. When the Socialist government came to power in South Yemen, the General Association for Cinema was created, and many cinemas were nationalised. The Association had the role of importing the latest films, and distributing them at a low price. Film festivals were conducted, and a state-led effort to promote the arts began.

After unification of the North and South in 1990, some of the previously nationalised cinemas were returned to the original owners, and others remained part of the state. The owners could no longer afford to buy the movie rights directly, as the association was not active in importing movies. The new government had no interest in promoting the arts, and the role of the association was eliminated. Today, nothing is known about the budget of this association, and where the money is allocated.

In addition, the political conflict in the early 1990s led to the empowerment of conservative elements, emphasising that the genre is incompatible with family values and immediately turned against the art culture of Aden. As writer Abdulqader Sabri said, "In their eyes it is haram [forbidden], in the eyes of the moderates a 'shame' and in the best case scenario, it is a waste of money."

This has led to threats against cinema owners, not only from conservative elements, but also from speculators who wish to take over the land. Hamood's family wrote an open letter [Ar] to the government in 2012, asking for protection from constant threats by armed men to confiscate cinema Hurricane. The government should not only protect this historic monument, but also encourage the owners to maintain and renovate it. According to local artists, the government has so far provided no aid whatsoever to cinema owners, in fact it has become an obstacle in their way, through corrupt tax collectors, and the constant monitoring of government employees.

New frontiers

Hamood's grandchild, Lutfi, an elegant man in his 50s, also added another reason for the decline of the cinema industry. "Satellite dishes have ruined us," he said while sitting in the cinema- turned-wedding hall. "In the past, if one wanted to watch a movie, they had to go to the cinema, today, they can watch any movie from their home and pay very little for it," he added. The proliferation of electronic media and the internet have also contributed to the disappearances of cinemas in Yemen.

At the same time, some amateur artists believe that the internet has had a reverse impact on them, allowing them to showcase their work to the world. In the absence of proper cinemas, the internet became their arena, and world citizens their audience.

The reality today is that movies, either as institutions of production or as cinema houses, are absent in Yemen's cultural scene. To fill this gap and thirst for art, groups like Khaleej Aden theatre produces plays; and some NGOs screen movies in their offices. In addition, a group of youth are working on a broad campaign to re-open and reinvigorate Yemen's public and private movie theaters.

The government needs to encourage such activities, but others should share the responsibility. When cinema is produced solely with government money, it is propaganda, closer to a political statement than art itself. Cinema needs investment, risk, and freedom to thrive. It is, therefore, important for the private sector and civil society to also take an active interest in promoting the arts.

One might argue that it is too early to discuss culture and art in time of conflict, since it appears as an unnecessary luxury. Yet, it is precisely because Yemen is at a transitional period facing a number of conflicts that art becomes important and necessary.

The more tense the political situation becomes, the greater the need for debate, dialogue and reflection. Cinema and art offer that open space.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reclaiming our public sphere - Enough Harassment!

I recently arrived in Tunis to attend a training course. On the first day, we finished at 7 pm.  I went to my room to finish a paper but I couldn't sit in front of the computer after such an intense day, so  I decided to go out and walk around for a bit.

I was having a nice walk in a main open road, enjoying the refreshing weather.   Then, a young man passed me and was a bit too close to me, so I moved quickly in a panic, and as he passed by I laughed at my paranoid action.  Why was I so jumpy I asked myself?!  Then I wondered if it had something to do with the last time I visited this beautiful city. 

In June, I was here on a very short work trip.  After lunch, I had to go back to the office, located on the fourth floor of a downtown building.  As I stepped out of the elevator I began walking through the double doors, to reach the office.  Before I got to the door, a man happened to be there and asked me where something was, I told him I didn't know.  Then I began walking away, but I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned around, and as I did that, he came very close to me, and started yelling at me to shut up, then he pushed me towards the wall, where he cornered me and tried to kiss me.  

I panicked, froze, but managed to push him away, while thinking to myself, "maybe this is not the right floor, what if no one is here, who is going to hear me if he rapes me!!"  This made me panic even more. 

I wanted to scream, I wanted to yell, but words wouldn't come out. 

I don't know how long this lasted, probably five minutes, but it felt like a lifetime.  

Eventually, I managed to raise my voice, somehow pushing him away, and he left.  Slowly, I walked towards the door,  and with a shaking hand opened it.  

At the office, people noticed my shocked and pale face.  We wanted to file a police report, but figured it was pointless and I didn't have much time there (in retrospect, I think I still should've).  Instead, we told the guard of the building, and asked him to keep an eye out.

Anyway, it seems that this incident was what caused me to panic as that man passed by me; so realizing that, I  smiled, because I was happy that this story didn't prevent me from going out in a new city alone.

Moments later - only in a coincidence that only seems to happen in the movies- another man passed by in the sidewalk.  This time, I was sure nothing will happen, but from a bit far, I saw that the man was beginning to move closer to my side of the sidewalk; I told myself that I'm imagining, but he kept coming closer until he was close enough to say something, and touched my ass!  

My heart started racing, and I sped off, without turning back until five minutes later when I found him standing far away.  

I was so upset that I didn't yell or slap him.  
Why did I let him make me feel uncomfortable?
why did I let him own this public street?

Florence + the Machine's song popped in my head:
"You hit me once, I hit you back
You gave a kick
I gave a slap"

but, that didn't happen.  I didn't hit, kick or slap.  I just walked away upset with myself.

Logically, I know I shouldn't be harsh on myself, and should only be upset with these men, but a part of me can't help but be upset about my own reaction as well.  

It infuriates me that these incidents happen too often.  We are told to ignore it, and we are encouraged not to talk or write about it, because if we do, then people will ask us what we did, or what we were wearing to merit such actions!

The truth is, sexual harassment happens everywhere, and can happen anywhere. These incidents occur in many countries throughout the world.  At this point, I don't want to theorize or analyze these incidents, I just wrote this to let off steam, and to remind men that they don't own the public sphere.  It's time for us to reclaim it.

Enough is enough!!!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Yemeni Delegation Arrives in the U.S. to Train on Dialogue Process

An edited version was posted on Free Arabs entitled: "Government Shutdown? Ask the Yemenis"

Meeting between Yemeni President Hadi and U.S. President Obama to discuss mutual cooperation between both allies (Photo credit: The White House)
WASHINGTON:  A U.N. Special Envoy arrived in Washington today to help a country on the brink of chaos.  The delegation, composed of Special Adviser to Secretary-General on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, along with Yemeni experts and tribal leaders, will share their knowledge on dialogue and conflict resolution.

“Given our ongoing support to Yemen, we believe it’s only fair that the Yemenis help us with the technical assistance; that we in fact paid for.” said State Department Deputy Secretary John Smith.

The US recently ended the government shutdown from October 1 – 17, after Congress failed to enact legislation for appropriations for fiscal year 2014.  The 16 day shutdown is the third longest in U.S. history.

During the shutdown, about 800,000 federal employees were indefinitely furloughed, another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates, and many services such as the post offices, and park services were suspended or curtailed.  Analysts at IHS Global Insight calculated that it knocked $300 million a day off US economic output. 

Based on Yemen’s reported successful National Dialogue process, the Yemeni delegation will train their American counterparts on how to create an inclusive national dialogue process that engages both the Democrats and the Republicans, in addition to representatives from the Texas Nationalist Movement and the Alaskan Independent party, in an intense and long discussion on important topics.  The main issues to be discussed will include healthcare, gun control, military spending, women’s rights, and also unresolved historic grievances threatening the unity of the country, since the civil war between the north and the south, in the 19th century.

Secretary Smith had previously praised Yemen's democratic transition and national dialogue conference, a process where the U.S. spent  $10.5 million in assistance.

Given the bleak economic conditions of the U.S. today, it is highly likely that the U.N. will secure a trust fund to support the U.S. national dialogue process.  “Don’t bother raising funds from your own budget, the U.N. will gladly do it for you” said Ahmed Al-Ahmed, a member of the Yemeni delegation to a U.S. official .  “You obviously will not resolve the deep issues, just make it look like you will” he added.

During the shutdown, employees forced to stop working, worried about the looming impact of this shutdown, and many citizens felt caught between the tug of war between the two parties.  The tension resulted in a number of unsettling events; including the self-immolation of a man at the national mall in Washington D.C., and the killing of an unarmed mother suffering from postpartum depression after a car chase from the White House while her toddler was in the car.

Known for it’s long tradition of dialogue and conflict resolution, the Yemeni experts will also train various selected neighborhood watches on how to secure their communities through local committees in the event there is another government shutdown; and in order to avoid a repeat of such actions or an escalation of tensions between the two political parties in conflict.

For centuries, numerous parts of Yemen relied on tribal law to handle conflicts between various entities, as they were able to preserve order and security in the areas with no government presence. 

The U.S. has the highest number of guns per capita in the world, and is home to Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols; the perpetrators of the Oklahoma bombing that killed 168 people on April 19, 1995.


While inspired by true events such as the U.S. government shutdown and Yemen’s national dialogue process; much of what is written is fabricated and only intended as a satirical piece. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Coffee, Yemen's Golden Commodity

First published in Al-Monitor

Mohammed Al-Maisi's coffee nursery (photo by Atiaf Alwazir)

Moving from tree to tree, an old man shows off his treasure. He is so engrossed in his task that, at times, he forgets who is around. His hand, tanned and wrinkled by years of working under the sun, cautiously extends toward a stem and carefully handpicks coffee cherries, while explaining the delicate and intricate process.

Mohammed al-Maisi’s coffee nursery is hidden behind a red mosque in the mountains of Al-Ahjar, one hour away from the capital, Sanaa.

The 60-year-old father of four and grandfather of six has been farming his entire life. “I used to go to school, and when I returned I would help my father plant coffee,” he said. A general and a coffee cultivator, his father passed his love for farming on to his son.

Maisi proudly points to the different coffee varieties he cultivates, which are safely covered by a green plastic tunnel: “aldawairi, tufahi, shibrigi, alahjuri.”

Yemen is credited with being the first place where coffee was consumed as a beverage and cultivated as a commercial crop. Coffee drinking appeared in the middle of the 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen.

“Coffee was everything for Yemen,” said Sheikh Shabbir Ezzi, a businessman at Al Ezzi Industries. “It’s a gift from our ancestors. You can see how important coffee was for Yemen from the emblem of the country. Inside the bird’s heart is a coffee plant.” 

While coffee has proved lucrative for some business ventures, many farmers have not been able to live on coffee alone.

Since the 1950s, Yemeni coffee has been facing great challenges. In 2011, coffee export was 20 times less than 150 years ago. Once a world-renowned port, Al-Makha — from which the English adaptation of the word “mocha” comes — is now almost out of business. In fact, according to Peet’s Coffee & Tea, the word mocha “became associated with chocolate because Europeans' first experiences with cocoa, in the 17th century, reminded them of the bittersweet coffee they imported from Yemen.”

Today, farmers often do not get remuneration comparable to the quality of their coffee for a variety of reasons, including the disconnect between the farmers and the market abroad.

Maisi grew coffee all his life, and is nostalgic about the good old days, when coffee was a “golden commodity.” He is forced to diversify his crops with qat — a mild narcotic commonly chewed by a significant majority of the country — to survive. “Financially, I’m doing very well. Yet, I cannot attribute it to coffee alone,” he said.

“The government should help me remove the qat plants and support me to plant more coffee instead, as a pilot project,” he added. “We receive nothing from the government. They do not care about our resources.”

He was surprised to hear that this idea is in fact being implemented in the beautiful mountains of Haraaz by the local community and Al Ezzi Industries. The enterprise is currently working with 3,500 coffee farmers — including 1,000 from Haraaz— providing them with incentives to produce better quality coffee and paying their farming cooperatives directly to achieve long-term sustainability.

Their sophisticated post-harvesting techniques of fusing tradition and modernity, and their knowledge of marketing abroad using Yemeni coffee’s uniqueness and reputation, has enabled their success. According to their website, Al Ezzi Industries implements “globally accepted standards of grading and classifications, fair trade systems and traceability by utilizing the very latest technology.”

Their knowledge of this niche market enables them to connect to various markets in the West. Maisi, on the other hand, was unaware that hipsters in New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood sip a cup of Arabica coffee after paying about a quarter of his daily salary. “Maybe we should move to America,” he jokingly said, after being told the cost of a cup of Arabica at one of the many coffee shops in North America.

As they sip their delicious Arabica coffee, many customers are unaware of the long process it takes to make a cup. The beans used to make their coffee can only begin to be harvested five years after being planted at 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) above sea level, a unique climate for coffee growing. “In Yemen, you have a perfect balance of the warmth and shade that you need to create good coffee,” said Ezzi.

After changing color from green to red, the coffee cherry is picked by hand, a labor-intensive and difficult process. “This is why I have many children, the more hands the easier,” said Maisi giggling. He added, “I usually prefer to pick them myself, because if done incorrectly one can damage the stem or even the tree.” It needs patience, care and observation, and is very time-consuming.

Maisi rotates among the trees approximately three times a month, choosing only the cherries that are at the peak of ripeness. After harvesting, the cherries are cleaned and then placed in the sun to dry up to four weeks. Finally, he removes the last layers of dry skin.

Maisi does not toss away the coffee husk. Instead, Yemenis use every aspect of the coffee plant. The beans make traditional coffee known as Bun that can also be ground to fit different needs — French press, espresso, Turkish coffee and so on. From the husk, Yemenis make the popular coffee drink known as qishr, which is spiced with cardamom and ginger and known for its antioxidants. This is the most popular drink in Yemen. They also infuse the leaves to make a red tea-like herbal medicine for women with postpartum hemorrhage.

If a compromise is reached between short-term and long-term investment, between cultural authenticity and productivity and between local and international market needs, Yemeni coffee could regain its worldwide status.

On the way back to the nursery, in a rusty voice, Maisi joyfully sang Ayoub Tarish’s famous song: “Yemeni coffee, oh pearl, oh treasure above the tree; Whoever grows you, will never be poor or humiliated.”