“Sana’a(Yemen)” by eesti

I am often asked what countries I’d like to travel to that I have yet to visit. Ethiopia and Lebanon have long been two standard answers (probably because I love the food and music from both). Victor Kaonga’s blog has convinced me to one day visit Malawi. But lately I am increasingly drawn to Yemen. It is the Middle Eastern country that most people (including me) know the least about. The few times that Yemen is mentioned in the news it is almost always related to violence, terrorism, or natural disasters.

Via Walid Al-Saqaf, a Sweden-born Yemeni journalist and hacker, I discovered, but little of the content is in English, and Google’s machine translation from Arabic to English is still mediocre at best. There has been some content about Yemen on Meedan, a community of volunteer translators promoting more dialog between the Arabic- and English-speaking worlds, but again, most of the articles and discussions focus on the so-called war on terror.

Omar Barsawad, who grew up in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, has an amazing family history – and also a wonderful blog about life in Yemen. I especially appreciate his photo tours of places like Seiyoun, Shibam, and Tarim. I’m hooked, and I hope to one day meet Omar in person.

In 2006, writing in the New York Times travel section, Tom Downey described Yemen as “practically a cool green paradise, with crisp mountain air, enormous acacia trees, pristine coral reefs and verdant fields bursting with khat, a psychoactive plant that induces mild euphoria.”


“Playa de Detwah (Qalansiyah)” by Soqotra

Omar Barsawad agrees and says that foreign descriptions of Yemen as dangerous are unfair:

Due to a few incidents, associated with the so called ‘terrorism’ – Yemen has been (wrongly) made to appear dangerous and unsafe. But contrary to what some or many think, Yemen is very safe. Where else can one stop by on any highway and rest or help others, so easily, without fear? Where else can one walk the streets at any time of day or night without the fear of being mugged or robbed? Very few countries can claim or boast that.


“Faces of Yemen 09” by Richard Messenger

Of course, I would also like to meet Ghadia’a al-Absi and all the participants of “Empowerment of Women Activists in Media Techniques – Yemen“, a Rising Voices grantee project. Yesterday Rezwan published a post on Rising Voices about some of the latest conversations and developments in the project. He included this incredible short documentary by Yemeni filmmaker Khadija al Salami.

The story behind the film is even more amazing. On Imagining Ourselves, a project of the International Museum of Women, Khadija Al-Salalmi writes:

I met Najmia by chance as I was walking around the old city of Sanaa. I noticed this young girl struggling to live her life freely in a society that places so many restrictions on women. She was unveiled, played in the street with boys, rode a bicycle and did whatever she felt like.

Fortunately that day I had my camera and began to shoot spontaneously. I went back to film her in her neighborhood and remained discreet. Najmia’s personality put her in the spotlight since people were not used to seeing a strong girl like her. Though most people rebuked her, I noticed a feeling of admiration as they joked and laughed with her.

After seven months of shooting the film, Najmia’s father stopped her from attending school and ordered her to wear the veil. A year later when the film won first prize at the Berlin Film Festival, the President of Yemen asked to see the film. He was so drawn to Najmia’s personality that he offered to pay for Najmia’s education. That to me was the best prize I could have ever gotten for the film.

Like Najmia, I too had a rebellious personality. Forced to get married at 11, I realized I had to fight my battles myself. With my mother’s help I was able to secure a divorce and quickly realized that education was my key to success and independence. I worked at a local TV station in the afternoons and went to school in the mornings. At 16 I won a scholarship to study film-making in the United States and Najmia ‘s story is my first film.

Relatives who earlier opposed me now praise me and hope their daughters would follow in my footsteps. Instead of being a bad example, I became a good example. This change makes me happy and makes me feel like I contributed to the evolution of women in my country.