After an extended break I’ve returned to Yemen with a fresh mind and a new camera.
The combination of recent events in Libya & Syria, an absentee president and a lack of foreign journalists has meant that Yemen, which just a few months back was being touted as the next favourite to fall (after Tunisia and Egypt), has instead slipped off the radar and back into the shadows. Yemen’s revolt seemed to have reached a crescendo on 3 June when President Saleh was airlifted to Riyadh to be treated for shrapnel wounds after a booby-trap explosion ripped through the mosque of his fortified compound. But the story was far from over. Instead of stepping down Saleh clung to power from his hospital bed, opting to rule the country by proxy through his pariah-like family until he was well enough to return.
Yemen’s protesters meanwhile, dismayed by their President’s stalwart defiance, have stuck to the streets, refusing to budge until their original demand (the fall of the regime) is met. Their iconic slogan (heard across large parts of the Arab World this year) ‘Al Sha’ab yureed eskaat al nazam!’ [The people want the regime to fall!] has now been adapted to ‘Al Sha’ab yureed bina’ Yemen jadid!’ [The people want to build a new Yemen!]. Meanwhile the showdown in Libya seems to have blown new life into Change Square, the sprawling shanty town by Sana’a University whose tent-filled streets stretch for miles into the capital. It’s inhabitants have recently vowed to march every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday to help ‘get their revolution back on track.’ As scheduled, tens of thousands marched the streets of Sana’a this Tuesday. I filmed them. Here’s what it looked like.
Change 360p to 720p to watch it in HD.
Yemen’s revolution has been a slow burning one. For three months now, Yemen’s youthful protesters have been hounding their President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But as each day goes by and Saleh continues to cling to power, they’re only growing stronger and better organised. This video made by young Yemeni film-maker Sarah Ishaq profiles five young Yemeni activists: a blogger, videographer, actor, social networker and a writer. Incredible stuff.
The blogger – Atiaf – @womanfromyemen
The videographer – Hamza Shargabi – @ichamza
The writer – Shatha Harazi – @ShathaAlHarazi
The social networker – Alaa Jarban – @AlaaAjJarbaa
Adam Sjoberg, a budding film-maker from New York, came to Sana’a in March in search of Yemeni break-dancers for a feature documentary he’s making. “Shake the Dust” tells the stories of break-dancers in struggling communities across the globe who, although separated by cultural boundaries and individual struggles, are intrinsically tied to one another through their passion for break-dancing and hip-hop culture.
I followed Adam, the Blast Boyz, and RockinCity (Yemen’s 2 bboy crews) as they toured around the capital dancing everywhere from the rooftops of the ancient Bait Bous ruins to the bustling souks of old Sana’a.
This film tells their story, taking you above and beyond conventional views of Yemen and capturing the beauty of its people and their customs as well as the many struggles they face.
If you want to know more about Yemen’s bboys and the sort of reactions they got when dancing in public then have a read of this story I wrote for Esquire Middle East.
In the meantime watch and marvel.
These two videos take you to the heart of Yemen’s ongoing protests; a movement that started out with a handful of rowdy students celebrating the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak at the gates of Sana’a University which has now morphed into a sprawling tent city whose tentacles are slowly extending further and further into the dusty streets of the capital.
The first is from Hamza Shargabi, a Yemeni doctor and political activist I profiled along with 4 other Yemeni bloggers last week. Follow him as takes you into the sea of tents at Tagheer (change) square to hear from a lively group of young Yemeni activists who discuss everything from Bloody Friday to Saleh’s broken promises.
The second is an interesting and uplifting video featuring 50 protesters in Tagheer Square all answering the same question – what they will do on the first day after the fall of the regime? Notice their variety, (age, sex, background, appearance) which is symbolic of the melting pot feel you get at these protests.
After nearly three months of youth-led popular protests, defections by top generals, ambassadors and senior members of his government, Yemen’s longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh looks decidedly beleaguered.
Earlier this week, American officials, who have previously backed him, discreetly admitted his rule is “untenable.” Even his most loyal backers, including members of his own tribe and longtime aid donors, including Saudi Arabia, are now ushering him toward the exit. Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, tightened the screws further late this week, telling the state news agency that a coalition of Gulf States hoped “to reach a deal with the Yemeni president to step down.”
Not that the president hasn’t tried hard to quell the unrest. At first, he tried a charm offensive, slashing income taxes, raising military salaries and promising he’d step down at the end of his term in 2013. Then, he switched to harder tactics, allowing government forces to violently crack down on the protesters. Since neither strategy has worked, one may wonder how he remains in office. One reason can be found in the recent—and so far failed—negotiations between Saleh and the Yemeni opposition, a loose coalition of Islamists, Socialists and Nasserites that Saleh has described at various points as “Houthis”—Shia Muslim insurgents—and “drug dealers.”
One major bone of contention between the two sides concerns not the embattled president himself but the still undecided fate of his family whose tentacles reach into every corner of Yemeni society and business. Having ruled the country for more than three decades, (he came to power when his predecessor was assassinated by way of an exploding suitcase,) Saleh has anointed family members to powerful positions within the army and government institutions.
His eldest son Ahmed, a taller and scrawnier version of his father, commands the U.S.-funded and trained Republican Guard that comprise 30,000 men as well as the country’s Special Forces, which controls all the entrances to the capital Sana’a. His nephews, Amar, Yahya and Tariq are in charge of the country’s national security, central security, counterterrorism units as well as the Presidential Guard. His half-brother Mohammed is head of the Air Force. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A further 32 members of Saleh’s family, many of whom also have mass land holdings and own much of the nation’s businesses, are scattered throughout the upper echelons of the government and the security services.
In one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, where the average annual income hovers around $2,200, and more than a third of the population lives below the national poverty line, the unrest has also meant sharp spikes in prices for food and fuel, raising concerns about a humanitarian disaster.
That Saleh’s family is enriching itself on the backs of the impoverished population is a major part of the continuing political crisis—the “family problem” as one opposition member calls it,
“Saleh knows he’s on his way out but, while still at the negotiating table, wants certain guarantees. Chief among those is that his sons and nephews won’t be shut out of the military and politics after he quits,” says Mohammed Al-Qahdi, a prominent member of Yemen’s ruling party, who resigned 10 days ago and has since survived two assassination attempts.
The opposition demands that Saleh disband his family-run institutions, including the security services, so that they function “according to the constitution and not nepotism.” But Saleh has so far dismissed those demands.
The young protesters on the dusty streets of Sana’a have also protested Saleh’s nepotism. Banners feature the names and faces of 32 officials, all of them the president’s relatives and in-laws, with the word Irhal—go—scrawled in thick red marker across their foreheads.
“It’s not just Ali we’re after—it’s the whole clan,” says Mahmoud Al-Faysi, a 22-year-old protester from the outskirts of Sana’a who is eking out a living by ferrying protesters between Sana’a university and the center of town on the back of his battered motorbike. “That family has pillaged our country for the past three decades. Do they think we’ll just let the others off the hook?”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has been pressing Saleh to investigate two months of swirling violence which has left at least 125 protesters dead. Nearly half of those died on March 18, dubbed “Bloody Friday,” when baltigiya, plain-clothed government supporters, carried out a co-ordinated rooftop sniper attack on protesters camped in tents outside Sana’a University.
“The strongmen at the top cannot be allowed to just shift quietly into the sidelines,” says Adel Al-Surabi, a 23-year-old medical student, who has become a de facto spokesman for the young demonstrators. “The protesters want to know who killed their fellows … who committed those crimes … They want to know whether the perpetrators were the president, his relatives or any one of Saleh’s officials.”
American officials, already anxious over what Yemen might look like post-Saleh, are no doubt pondering the fate of his relatives, especially his nephew Yahya, who heads Yemen’s highly trained counterterrorism unit, a force they’ve been funding and training for the past five years in the fight against al Qaeda in the country.
“President Saleh’s immediate family has played a leading role in the campaign against the terrorist organization, and, for most of this spring, the U.S. has been worried that any change in power at the top would allow [Al Qaeda] more room to operate,” says Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen. “In the coming months, the U.S. is going to be forced to re-evaluate how it is pursuing its war.”
American rhetoric, meanwhile, is catching up to the possibility of a Yemen without Saleh or his cronies. Earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “Our position with regards to working with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism efforts is that it is not—and has not been—focused on one person. Nor should it be.”
Much of the West’s knowledge of what’s happening in Yemen at the moment is coming from a handful (I can count them on one hand) of foreign journalists based in the capital Sana’a. As brilliant as those guys are they’re no substitute for local Yemeni journalists who know both the language, the people and the ins and outs of Yemeni politics far better than any ajnabi ever will.
In the past couple of weeks a number of young Yemeni bloggers and youth activists have sprung up on the web. Armed with twitter, facebook accounts and blogs, they’re doing an invaluable service in disseminating timely, on-the-ground updates as well as a much needed Yemeni perspective on what’s happening here.
Here’s my selection of young Yemeni journalists/bloggers/photographers who I think you should be following.
Let me know if there are others who think deserve a place on the list.
Afrah describes herself a ‘A young Yemeni woman who was born to be a writer.’ She’s a journalist at the The Yemen Observer and was recently interviewed by IWPR to discuss Yemeni women’s role in the demonstrations. Her blog gives you snapshots into the lives of protesters as well as her own views on what’s happening. Twitter: @Afrahnasser
I think its safe to say that Nasser is Yemen’s most well established (English-speaking) journalist. He writes for The Yemen Observer, Al Ahram Weekly, Gulf News. His blog gives balanced, independent reports with details you won’t find in the mainstream western media. He’s recently started tweeting, follow him: @narrabyee
Alaa is an amazing source of information for those who want to know what’s going on in Yemen’s volatile port city of Aden. He gathers mobile videos of attacks on protesters as well as the latest statements from youth protest organizations and posts them on his blog Opinions.
His tweets are regular and invaluable: @AlaaIsam
He’s set up a blog called the revolution ate my homework, in order to document his trip. Every day he posts a photo or a story giving a behind-the-scenes, personal and moving account of what he’s seeing. On day 6 his father, Yemen’s Minister of Water and Environment, resigned from the government in response to the killing of peaceful protesters. On day 13 he joins a group of youth activists who are trying to get political representation by distancing themselves from the opposition parties.
Here are a few of his photos, his flikr account is well worth a look too.
Stumbled across this video. Reminded me a bit of how the Western media are treating Yemen at the moment…