Visiting Yemen these days takes courage - and the will to see beyond the headlines. But doing so, there are treasures to be found: People passionately struggling for a new civil society.
To be frank: For my nerves and above all for those of my family and friends it would have been much better if I had fallen in love with another country than Yemen. With Malaysia, perhaps, with Egypt or at least with Oman. “But why Yemen, for God’s sake?”, have I been asked innumerable times. And when I revealed a couple of weeks ago, that I would travel to Sana’a again, the tone of the question became almost desperate.
I bravely argued that I had fallen passionately in love with this country five years ago, when I visited Yemen for the first time to work on my Arabic language skills. I had been instantly mesmerized by its beauty and its people, whose warmth and hospitality moved me deeply, and I instinctively sensed, that there must be something in its soil, that is magic. That whispers about being the cradle of human civilization, the Arabia Felix, that has fascinated and influenced mankind ever since.
Sadly enough, Yemen is covered with a veil nowadays, that is so dark, that it is almost impossible to see through it, and even worse, makes any attempt to approach the country an act, that is considered suicidal. In Europe and Switzerland, Yemen has become synonymous with Al-Qaeda, US drones and fierce kidnappings. Even though the Yemeni uprising and the power transfer had been covered extensively by the media, the events were largely overshadowed by those in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Clearly visible are just the headlines knitted by terror.
So it was time, I told myself, to start knitting different ones. That’s why I boarded the plane to Sana’a just recently, the warnings of family and friends, but also my own fears reverberating in my head.
The first thing I noticed driving through the streets of Sana’a was, that I didn’t see a lot of change. The traffic was as heavy as always - which basically is a good sign, isn’t it? - , the piles of rubbish were still carelessly high, the women still in black, some buildings still bleak construction sites, the cheeks of men still swollen to the size of tennis balls in the afternoon, the Jebel Nugum still towering stoically over the city. As weird as it may sound, but this had a remarkable effect on me: I immediately felt dangerously relaxed. This didn’t even change, as some layers of violence and chaos started to unfold themselves to me and exposed heavily armed soldiers, who with lethargic vigilance clustered at street corners or below bridges, long rows of trucks, that were stuck due to of lack of petrol or flocks of hundreds of workers, who were desperately looking for jobs, that could feed their families for the day.
I don’t think I am naïve, and I can’t help wondering, how and why this country, that could be so rich and prosperous, has managed to bring itself to the brink of ruin; being, so it seems, almost masochistically hooked up with never ending power games. But there is something about Yemen, which keeps me optimistic. Which makes me believe, that there are self-healing forces which are strong enough to prevent the country from falling apart. These forces emerge form the courage and passion of its people, who strive to build a new civil society.
The more I sat down and discussed during daylight and dark, and the more tea I drank, the more I realized, that change in Yemen is not yet to be found in external developments, but in a change of awareness. “We have been asleep for 33 years. Now we see, what is going on in the country”, said Antelak Almutawakel, the co-founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation in Sana’a. “It’s like a collective awakening.” And this could release a lot of energy and creativity.
When I visited Antelak in her institute, I was introduced to Hana, a brilliant young woman, who presented a project to me, that has been launched as a competition among eight Arab countries, also in Yemen. She did this in excellent English and with an enthusiasm, that instantly got hold of me. The project aims at making schoolchildren reflect on the role of the civil society. It asks them to define a problem, they consider to be crucial in their society, to name the institutions, which are supposed to deal with it, to come up with ideas and solutions of how to solve this problem and more over: to present way of implementing these tasks. Hana has managed to make 40 classes in Sana’a participate, they dealt with social problems such as child labour, dependency on Qat and early marriages. I was deeply impressed and figured, it would be great to input such a project also to teachers in Switzerland.
Some days later I met Najla, one of the cousins of my friends, whom I had the honour to stay with. They had organized a women’s session for me and invited sisters, relatives and neighbours, so that I would get a good chance of talking and exchanging till I drop. Najla and I got along instantly. She is 17 years old and dreams of opening up an institute, where children could enhance their talents under the supervision of teachers and professional artists. “I want to make their talents visible”, she said energetically, “and at the same time show the community, that good things come out, when girls and boys work together.” Now she is looking for a book on how to start one’s own business, a sponsor and a building, that would be suitable for her institute. She knows, of course, that this will be difficult. But the revolution has taught her one thing: “If you want to do something, do it now!”
This is the fuel, that also drives Murad Sobay, one of the very first Yemeni artists, who uses graffiti as an art form. After I had cruised by his bright work on the walls on Kentucky-Street, I wanted to meet him. Murad painted his first graffiti this year in March, one day after his graduation. First, he was alone, people wondered, what he did and shouted at him. But just one week later people joined him. “We have a foggy future”, he said, “but I do, what I can: I paint. I want to show, that there are a lot of colours in this country and a change is going on. And I paint, because I don’t believe in weapons. Using weapons will only lead to more weapons. But using colours will lead to more colours.”
It’s because of people like Hana, Najla and Murad, that I am optimistic for Yemen. Their individual initiatives will make a difference. It will take time, but now it’s time to start.
And to be frank: I am very glad, I boarded that plane to Sana’a.
This essay was published in The Yemen Times