Looking beyond the veils of terror

Published on 3 May 2012 in Culture
Helene Aecherli (author)

Helene Aecherli

Helene Aecherli in wadi Dahr.

Helene Aecherli in wadi Dahr.

Visiting Yemen these days takes courage - and the urge to see beyond the headlines. But doing so, you will find treasures: 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 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 again.

The first thing I noticed driving through the streets of the Yemeni capital was, that I didn’t see as much change as I had expected: The traffic was as heavy as always, 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. Soon however, the layers of violence and chaos started to unfold to me. They exposed heavily armed soldiers, clustering with lethargic vigilance at street corners or below bridges; they exposed long rows of trucks, that were stuck due to of lack of petrol, and flocks of hundreds of workers, who were desperately looking for jobs, that could feed their families for the day. They exposed the spreading of measels and malnutrition in the country and the stubbornly recurring cuts of electricity. And seeing that, I couldn’t - and 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 still: There is something about Yemen, that keeps me optimistic. That makes me believe, that there is a self-healing power, which is strong enough to prevent the country from falling apart. This power emerges form the courage and passion of its people, who strive to build a civil society - against all odds.

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 releases a lot of energy and creativity.

When I visited Antelak in her institute, she introduced me to Hana, a brilliant young woman, who presented a project to me, that has been launched as a competition among eight Arab countries. 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 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, if girls and boys work together.” Now she is looking for a book on how to start one’s own business, a sponsor and a suitable building for her institute. She knows, that she is heading for a difficult task. But the revolution has taught her one thing: “If you want to do something, do it now!”

Almost the same words I heard from 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 on his own, people wondered, what he did and shouted at him. But just one week later they 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. I paint, because I don’t believe in weapons. Using weapons will only lead to more weapons. Using colours, however, will lead to more colours.”

Following the path of colours will finally lead you to Arwa Othman, the founder of the House of Folklore (that unfortunately is closed for the time being). She researches about the colourful past of the country, to make people remember the colours in the clothes, the dances, the stories, the unveiled faces and in the voices of women, that had started to fade away, when the colours turned black. Arwa Othman is one of the few women in Sana’a, who doesn’t veil herself at all. It’s her right as a Yemeni citizen, she says, to have a face. It’s an act of self-determination and personal freedom for which people admire her deeply - and for which she also is heavily harassed. But she just goes on, driven by he courage and the love she feels for her country.

It’s because of people like Antelak, Hana, Najla, Murad and Arwa that I am optimistic for Yemen. Their individual initiatives will make a difference. It will take time, but it’s time to start.

And to be frank: I am very glad, I boarded that plane to Sana’a. As a visitor in the City I felt relaxed - dangerously relaxed.