“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 YemenPortal.net, 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.
Mmmm. yeah, sounds fantastic. Especially for women. Or Americans.
I don’t know, one of my closest American female non-Muslim friends lived there for two years and loved it. No sexual harassment like some other Muslim-majority countries. People typically can tell the difference between Americans and their government, you know.
I think that’s completely fair, and in discussing any country, both its good and bad points should be raised – however, I follow news and blogs about the Middle East almost obsessively, and this is the only post I’ve read in a long time that didn’t focus on Yemen’s injustices and human rights issues – so while you see it as glossing over, I see it as a refreshing perspective.
Also, I don’t trust U.S. Dept. of State travel warnings. The ones for Morocco and Syria contain blatant exaggerations and scare tactics. I’m not saying there isn’t terrorism in Yemen – just that the experiences of people who’ve traveled there are strikingly different than the fear-mongering travel warnings the U.S. puts out.
I don’t think the idea is to ignore or gloss over … for me what’s important is more awareness and better understanding. It’s easy to judge what is different, but much more difficult to understand it.
I agree with you about the treatment of women in Yemen (which is why I’m so glad that Rising Voices supports the work of Ghadia’a and EWAMT), but I’m not going to boycott or ignore the entire country because of that. And, as far as the paranoid prose of State Department travel warnings go, the one for Yemen is pretty mild.
That island is badass. Definitely put on the agenda!
Jill, I’m referring to the incidents (not fear-mongering) laid out in the State Dept warning:
On March 15, 2009, four South Korean tourists were killed in a suicide bomb attack in the city of Shibam in southern Hadramout province. On March 18, 2009, a South Korean motorcade was attacked by a suicide bomber near Sana’a International Airport. On January 17, 2008, suspected al-Qa’ida operatives ambushed a tourist convoy in the eastern Hadramout Governorate, killing two Belgians. On July 2, 2007, suspected al-Qa’ida operatives carried out a vehicle-borne explosive device attack on tourists at the Belquis Temple in Marib, which resulted in the deaths of eight Spanish tourists and two Yemenis. The targeting of tourist sites by al-Qa’ida may represent an escalation in terror tactics in Yemen. On February 3, 2006, 23 convicts, including known affiliates of al-Qa’ida, escaped from a high-security prison in Sanaa, some of whom remain at large. Two of the escapees were killed in vehicle-based suicide attacks on oil facilities near Mukalla and Marib on September 15, 2006. Those attacks were followed by the arrest the next day in Sanaa of four suspected al Qa’ida operatives, who had stockpiled explosives and weapons.
It’s definitely true that my view of the country is only informed by the bad news I see in US media and appreciate that it’s not a complete picture of the country. I guess I was just having a moment of cognitive dissonance when we’re talking about how cool a country is, how it’s not as dangerous as people make it out to be, and then watch a video and read a quote that highlight some pretty ugly treatment of women. And maybe this is my cynical side (yes, I have one) but if the president really cared about Najmia’s education he’d enact some policy, not pay for one girl to go to school. It just seems so patronizing.
Anyway, if anyone decides to go to Socotra, let me know, I’m in. (But I’ll be checking in with the US Embassy when I get there).
do you have a home base??
They only focus on the bad – corporate corruption, the worst of pop culture consumerism, the Bush administration, parts of US foreign policy – but they completely ignore everything that makes the US so great. (Often times because those things don’t enter the European media.) It’s like when journalists visit Mexico only to report on drugs and violence (damn you Graeme!) – they’re only seeing .01% of the country.
And all the expats who exploit it. I don’t know how many Americans, Europeans, Australians, etc I’ve met in Mexico who live in penthouses, hire butlers for parties and then spend an evening pissing all over Mexico’s idiosyncrasies and faults.
Babble off: That first photo of Yemen is fantastic.