Sunday, May 24, 2015

Living is Resisting

"To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people -- perhaps because their lives are more rarefied, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire --  experience human emotions with less intensity and greatest indifference..... it was given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama."
- Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

As a war continues to ravage Yemen,   mainstream media focuses mostly on the political leaders, and often neglects the majority of the people or the looming catastrophic humanitarian crisis.  Information is provided about the war without a human context.  Victims are introduced as numbers without souls.  It is as if the people don't exist, as if their lives don't matter.  They are deemed irrelevant in the discussion of the war that affects them the most! 

What is also missing from the media discourse is the focus on survival mechanisms and the resilience of the people.  Yemen has always possessed exceptional social survival skills.  There is a side in Yemen that is focused on winning battles, but there is a side that is focused on winning life.  In the midst of the undeniable misery that the war - both internal and external - has caused, we see the thirst for life.  We see the strength of the people.  

Despite the lack of electricity, gas, food shortages, bombings, and street battles, they try to continue their daily routines as much as possible.   They find creative ways to gather water and live without electricity.  In the midst of war, comedy has also thrived, from daily jokes on WhatsApp, to satirical songs, videos and Facebook groups.

This post is not meant to undermine the dire humanitarian situation that is looming and destroying the lives of millions across the country especially those outside major cities, but rather it's an attempt to shed light on another aspect of the war.  Here are twelve examples illustrating life itself as resistance:

Man taking a selfie using the FRAME Yemen background. The flag on the public wall is made of shards of glass found on the streets of Sana'a after a massive explosion (For more info click here). Photo by Bushra al-Fusail, (@734555200), 20 April 2015.

Children playing on top of a tank in Aden. The photo was widely circulated in social media on 7 April 2015.
Photographer and exact date unknown.

Defying cultural taboos, women in Sana'a rode bicycles as a solution to petrol shortages and demanding the right to movement. This cause a fury of emotions, with many supporters, and some opposed to this initiative. Photo by Bushra al-Fusail (@734555200), 16 May 2015.

Weather in Yemen - shared on social media.

Mustafa Sabeha, a resident of Sana'a, posted this photo of his uncle on his Facebook Page and wrote: "It's impressive how Yemenis love life, no matter what they face still, they are determined to live each day with a smile. This is my happy uncle who has 25 happy males and females. Having as much children as he can is the ultimate happiness for him." 20 May 2015.

Young man at restaurant: "We don't stop, it's weird how people get hungry all the time these days!"
Photo by Thana Faroq (@ThanaFaroq), 29 April 2015.

إلا الشاحن هههههههههههههه
Posted by ‎الفنان الكوميدي خالد البحري‎ on Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Don’t mess with my charger! Video uploaded on Facebook by Yemeni comedian Khaled al-Bahry, 19 May 2015.

"Crazy about life" is how these young men described themsevles. In this photo from Taiz, they show us the proper way to use a tank. Photo by Ahmed Al-Asbahy.

Escaping war life to take a moment and read on the street. These street book vendors are very common in many cities throughout the country. Photo by Thana Faroq (@ThanaFaroq), 10 May 2015.

"The WhatsApp emoticons under bombs" -  shared in social media.

New street art campaign by Murad Subai entitled 'Ruins' to beautify walls in areas destroyed by the wars. Photo by Majd Fuad.

"We are alive and staying put- The dream will continue." Graphic by Ahmed Jahaf (@A7medJa7af), 17 May 2015.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

ساحة التغيير

في ذكرى شهداء وجرحى الثورة

في فبراير ٢٠١١، نصب المحتجون خياما خارج بوابات جامعة صنعاء مطالبين “بإسقاط النّطام”. يوما بعد يوم تضاعفت الخيام، وسمّيت هذه المناطق التي سكنوها بميادين وساحات التغيير والحريّة.

هذا الكتاب الفوتوغرافي هو محاولة بسيطة لنتذكر وقتا كان الأمل فيه حيّاَ؛ وقتا آمن فيه أناس عاديون بأن مواهبهم وقوتهم وإبداعهم ومرونتهم ستخلق التغيير.

إن الحفاظ على هذا الوعي الجماعي أمر ضروري ليس فقط لتجسيده في التاريخ بصورة دقيقة وحيّة، وإنما أيضا لكي يكون مصدر إلهام للأجيال القادمة. ومثلما كانت ثورة ٢٠١١ امتدادا لنضال سنوات ماضية من المقاومة فإن حفظ مستقبل اليمن في الذاكرة الجماعية المشتركة لثورة٢٠١١ هو حفظ لاستمرار الأمل الموعود.

الصور التالية تغطي سنة واحدة من فبراير ٢٠١١ إلى فبراير ٢٠١٢. لم يتم التلاعب بالصور و تم اختيارها بعناية لقدرتها على التقاط الحياة داخل الثلاثة كيلوميترات من ساحة الاعتصام المعروفة باسم “ساحة التّغيير” في صنعاء، بدلا من خصائصها الفنّية و التقنيّة.

كما تم ترتيب الصور من فئتين: مدينة الخيام ، والمظاهرات.

Remembering Change Square

Do you remember Change Square?  We certainly do.

Four years ago this month, protesters set up tents outside the gates of Sana’a University, demanding “an end to the regime”. Day after day, the tents multiplied and the areas they occupied throughout Yemen became known as Change and Freedom Squares.

This modest photo book also available for free as a pdf recalls a time in Sana’a’s Change Square when people dared to dream, a time when they did extraordinary things because they believed in their own strengths, talents, creativity, and resilience.

The preservation of this collective consciousness is essential not only for an accurate portrayal of history, but also to sustain hope and inspire future generations. Just as the 2011 revolution was an extension of previous acts of resistance, the future will surely build on the shared memories of that year.

The following photos were taken over a one-year period, beginning in February 2011 and ending in February 2012. Without any manipulation of the photographs, the images were selected primarily based on their ability to capture a range of activities inside the square, rather than their artistic qualities or technical composition.

To illustrate life inside the three-kilometer area, the photos are organized around two main themes: tent city and peaceful demonstrations.

Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It's not a Sunni- Shi’a Conflict, dummy!

Last week, my young cousin in the second grade ran inside after an explosion shook the windows. “I don’t mind when the house shakes, I just don’t want to die in it,” he said out of breath. “You won’t.” I reassured him. He then went back to play. I followed him outside to find a group of children playing a political game: President Hadi v. Abdulmalik Al-Houthi. Their mission was to free the cats held hostage. As I sat there watching this game unfold, I heard them throw many terms around: democracy, justice, national dialogue conference etc. The words Sunni or Shi’a, were never mentioned.

This is not surprising given the fact that affiliation to a madhab (religious school of thought) rarely comes up in conversations in Yemen. This is slowly changing, and many fear that this historic diversity and tolerance might become something of the past.

To say there are no sectarian tendencies or cleavages in Yemen is incorrect (as Dr. Shelagh Weir explained from the 1980s), but the oversimplification of explaining the current power struggle entirely on historic theological differences between Sunnis and Shi’as is incorrect as well.

This is incorrect for a variety of reasons that I will summarize here.

First, while no statistics have been collected on the composition of Ansarullah, commonly known as Houthis; it is believed that many of their members are Zaydi but also come from various religious schools of thought in Shi’a and Sunni Islam, including Ismaili, Shafiʿi, and Ja’afari. Many Sunni tribesmen and soldiers have also joined the Houthis and fight along their side. In fact, prominent Shafi’i leaders like Saad Bin Aqeel, a Mufti of Ta’iz, are amongst Houthis’ leaders and in fact presented a Friday sermon at one of the sit-ins prior to their advance into the capital.

Second, Zaydis share similar doctrines and jurisprudential opinions with Sunni scholars. As Helen Lackner, author of Why Yemen Matters? stated “this has little, if anything, to do with theological differences or a Sunni/Shi’a split, but is based on issues of social cohesion, including tribal allegiance, power, control and (the absence of) development and social security funding for an increasingly impoverished and suffering population.”

Third, socially speaking Yemenis have lived and continue to live together without segregation. Muslims in Yemen, from the various schools of thought, whether Sunni or Shi’a, pray side-by-side, people intermarry without any special procedures or “conversions,” and communal violence based on confessional membership has been rare.

Fourth, according to Houthis’ their actions do not aim “exclusively or even primarily at establishing a Zaydi political order” as Stacey Phillbrick Yadav, Associate Professor and author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon” states. She adds, “Similarly, the fact that Islah’s membership is predominantly Sunni doesn’t mean it is working to reestablish the caliphate.”

Fifth, not all Zaydis are Houthis. Well-known Zaydi scholars and religious centers have been divided on their stance towards the Houthis.

Sixth, missing from the analysis is the link between rural deprivation and wider political contestations, and conflicts. The longer the transitional government ignored people’s grievances, the more the ranks of the discontented swelled. Last straw was when the government lifted the fuel subsidies overnight without warning in 29 July 2014, increasing the price of fuel and diesel by 60 and 90 percent. Mass protests erupted, and Houthis capitalized on these grievances, and by so doing, gained a significant number of new membership from various bacgrounds (not only Zaydis) which helped them expand.

Seventh, while sectarian cleavages are becoming exploited by various groups, such as when al-Qaeda uses the rise of Houthis to recruit more people to defend “the Sunnis," it is important to remember that those fighting al-Qaeda are not all Shi’a nor are they all Houthis.

Eigth, if this was a sectarian issue, Saleh (who is technically Zaydi) would not have engaged in six wars with the Houthis from 2004 - 2010. It appears that today’s former enemies have formed a temporary alliance.  This indicates that these conflicts are political in nature.

Ninth, there is no sectarian dimension to the victims of the violations by the Houthis such as the detention of activists and journalists in recent protests.

Finally, while the geopolitical tensions between the various political camps of course impacts what is happening on the ground, it is incorrect to explain the political dynamics in the country as simply foreign interference. In addition, narrowly framing the ongoing issue as sectarian absolves the transitional government from their duties as it helps them blame everything on foreign actors, rather than making them accountable for the localized grievances found throughout the majority of Yemen. It also absolves Houthis from the violations they have committed blaming their actions on theological differences instead of political aspirations.

As these ten points demonstrate, the issue cannot be reduced to a theological war. Analysis must include these nuances in order to better understand the ongoing political dynamics. Without a proper understanding, policies will continue to be flawed and no solutions will be formulated, which would perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

صنعاء سمفونيّة خالدة - Sana'a an Immortal Symphony

صنعاء سمفونيّة خالدة، يستلهم الناس نشيدها الخالد على مختلف أذواقهم: علماء، شعراء، فنانون.  دائما تعطي، ودائما تمنح في أي ظرف كان نعيما أم بؤسا، يسرا أم عسرا.  صوتها يظل يعزف ألحانه، فيجدد أزمانه، وينسي أحزانه، ويبعث الأمل من جديد. فصوتها لا يصمت، ونورها لا  يخفت
- زيد الوزير

"Sana'a is an immortal symphony which constantly inspires a diversity of people: scholars, poets and artists.  She always gives from herself, during misery or bliss, during times of fortune, or times of calamity.   Her voice continues to play familiar tunes, renewing life, dismissing pain, and reinvigorating hope once again.  Her voice will not be silenced, and her light will not dim." - Zaid Alwazir

Saturday, December 13, 2014

We Miss You Ammo Mohammed

Photo by Mona Raidan al-Mutawakel

“Come with me,” said my father after he got ready and changed into his grey pants and oversized black blazer. On the way, my father didn’t tell me anything about the man we were visiting, except that he is a “dear brother in the struggle.”

The first thing I noticed about Dr. Mohammed Al-Mutawakel was his childlike sincere smile that magically forced even the grouchiest person to smile back creating an instant connection.

I had met many of my father’s friends before, including intellectuals, scholars, poets etc., but Ammo [uncle] Mohammed was different. Despite the fact that I was young, he acknowledged my existence, and addressed me as an individual. Throughout that first visit he spoke to us both.

The topics he brought up were daring and provoking. They pushed me to question my own beliefs and thoughts. At one point, I hesitantly turned to my father and with my eyes asked, Can I answer this honestly? My father understood and replied nodding his head.

Throughout the years, and despite the continued challenges, Ammo never gave up. His hopeful aura, his encouraging demeanor, his modesty and his genuine belief in what he does were unique. He generously gave so much of his time to others. He met with almost anyone who would ask for a meeting. I remember seeing him many times in Change Square in 2011 sitting in various small tents giving lectures on Human Rights in Islam, gender equality etc.

When we disagreed politically, Ammo patiently listened. This tolerance is truly amazing, and it is projected in his relationship with his children, who have sometimes expressed vary different opinions in their writings and political affiliations. These differences were almost theatrically expressed on Friday lunches when their entire family met. Those times, Ammo would smile, sometimes interject with an opinion or just get up and serve us some tea.

“You see these?” he would point to the family portraits on the wall. “People ask me why I place my daughters’ photos publically, I tell them why not?”

The last time I visited Ammo Mohammed was in April 2014. While fixing the black and white shawl on his head, he proudly pointed to the wall of photos once again. This was a man who gave his life to Yemen, and was content because he knew that his wonderful five children and their partners, his grandchildren, and countless mentees would surely continue his path of peaceful resistance.

Today marks the 40th day since his cold-blooded assassination. Too many great people have been taken away from us recently. With every death, pieces of our souls have slowly chipped away. I don’t want death to become our only constant in this changing Yemen. We need doses of Ammo’s optimism and hope. We must keep his spirit alive.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Yemeni public, and its diverse reactions to recent events

There is an array of reactions to the recent events in Yemen. While it is difficult to generalize how people feel, this is an attempt to demonstrate (briefly) the various reactions by ordinary Yemenis.

We’re just confused: the majority of people are simply confused. With rumors flying around, and facts very difficult to verify, confusion looms and anxiety escalates. President Hadi added to that confusion by calling the events a “conspiracy” only after he signed the U.N. brokered peace deal.

What the.... just happened?: they were shocked at how fast the situation changed in a couple of days.  They do not know what to expect and believe that time will tell. They are generally happy that some iconic elite who are said to block the transition process are out of power, and are content with the reconciliatory language in the national agreement, and in Abdulmalik Al-Houthi's most recent speech . Yet, they remain skeptical and hope that these words carry real intent and are not merely ink on paper. They fear that while the Houthis have legitimate grievances and were oppressed, some of their recent actions are worrisome and questions their peaceful rhetoric.

Yay: those who are very happy about the recent events, they feel that the Houthis revived hope in a “hijacked revolution” and gave them a sense of pride in a movement that has challenged the grip of the elite, and controversial GCC initiative. They are also happy that after being neglected by all major political power groups, the Houthis have imposed their demands for basic rights and inclusion on the political establishment.

They are the devil: those who believe that the Houthis are merely “Iranian agents” dominated by foreign agenda. They believe that the Houthis never had any grievances and that the Saleh regime was right to start the war in 2004.

Don’t violate our Rights!: this group fears that Sanaa may now be run by a radical religiously conservative armed group that bans personal freedoms, most notably related to freedom of expression, art and women’s rights. They also want the Houthis’ armed militia to retreat from the capital as soon as possible. They feel depressed thinking that all groups in power have so far continued the same practices. This feeling was exacerbated by the closure of Suheil channel and storming of homes of some notable Islah leaders.

As long as we live..: this group is mostly apolitical, and their focus is on access to basic services. If Houthis can guarantee that, this group would surely support them.  The increase in electricity, and the general perception that Houthis will protect the area has increased their support for the group.

Civil war is coming: many people are simply afraid of a potential civil war. For example, those in Sanaa who recently witnessed dead bodies rotting in the streets, slept through nights of loud and ongoing explosions, and had their daily life briefly came to a halt are terrified. They fear the unknown and the potential of a civil war, due to potential increase of retlation by AQAP, especially since the Houthis vowed to fight them.

Bye bye Ali Mohsin!: Some, such as many in the South, are simply ecstatic that General Ali Mohsin, known for his bloody and corrupt past, is forced out of power. Everything else seems irrelevant to them.

Saleh's plot: this group is worried that former President Saleh is behind the Houthi’s rise to power, and that Yemen would go back to square one.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Everyday is a 5th of September

Dear Ibrahim,

Yesterday my phone beeped while I was having dinner with a group of people.

“It’s in two days…” read the SMS from one of our close friends.

I looked at it intensely then put down the phone and listened to the array of complaints hailing on the table about mobile service providers. Focus on this, I tried to convince myself. My stubborn mind however would not listen to me. It drifted far away, beyond the reach of any mobile network.

The truth is, I wish it mattered whether your “death anniversary” was in two days or fifty. Since you left us a year ago my dear friend, you have been constantly on my mind. Sometimes you make me laugh, like when I imagine you suddenly standing between two clashing groups, raising both of your hands and yelling, “BOO.” I imagine the reaction of the armed men, their confusion, and I smile thinking of your gift. Sometimes tears roll down my face. Other times I wish you would give my mind a break.…then I take it back quickly.

Why do we feel the need to remember the exact moment of death? I personally try not to remember that specific dreadful day. I try hard to erase the details from my memory, but they cling to my thoughts like shiny leeches to my skin. I don’t want to remember how weak, helpless, and distraught I felt. I don’t want to remember how many times I wished I could’ve used my so-called conflict resolution “skills” to engage in a long dialogue with Mr. ‘Izrail. I would’ve pleaded with the Angel of death to release your soul, explaining that we really need you here.

“Please Mr. ‘Izraeil, we need his childlike laughter to replace the darkness we feel inside. We need his “Tablet” with its infinite lectures and books so he can read to us what Albert Camus says about life, and what Ahmed Matar says about Arab regimes in ways we can’t...Yemen needs him because” 

But you would interrupt us and with a smirk say, “Your words won’t work on him Atiaf.” I would turn back to you and say, “they did!”

I guess, we can all dream, but eventually we will have to wake up to the nightmare of reality. In the real world, I didn’t have superpowers to bring you back from the dead, nor was I able to convince ‘Izrail to keep you here with us, for us, and for Yemen.

Speaking of dreaming, I was just joking when I asked you guys to “visit” me in my dreams if any of you died, but thank you for remembering. It’s nice to see you from time to time.

This is not a tribute to you, for no words can do you justice.... Why I’m posting this publically today is still a mystery to me, but maybe I would like to join the crowd, and maybe, just maybe, releasing this short message to the universe will mean it will reach you, somewhere, somehow.

I hope you are not offended if I don't do anything special tomorrow.  To me, everyday is a 5th of September......

I miss you, but you already know that.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

We're All On The Stairs...

"We are all on the stairs, my friend; some of us are going down, 
some of us are going up."
 - Mehmet Murat ildan 

Photo I took in the suburbs of Tunis

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

So-called Regime Change Explained in One Photo

The Eid "gift" to Yemen this year was the reunion of former President Saleh, seen here kissing current President Hadi (who used to be Saleh’s vice President) with the blessing of Military General Ali Muhsin. This was taken at Eid prayer held in Saleh’s $60 million mosque.

Two days later, subsidies for fuel were cut, and the prices have increased once again. Since early 2011, the price has increased by 269% (when leaded petrol was still used).

Not sure how we can look at the families of the martyrs, what are we supposed to tell them:

Viva la Revolution?!