The Other Side of Yemen

I entered Yemen in October amidst official travel warnings and countless stories of violence, instability and threats to foreigners’ safety. We all know the list: a six-year bloody conflict in the North, a brewing secessionist movement in the South, and of course, the increasingly active Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), all exacerbated by a central government with little control, capacity or credibility. Last week’s plot to send explosive packages from Yemen to the United States only reinforced analysts’ conviction that Yemen is a fragile state with grave problems that endanger the region and beyond.

No doubt, this is one reality. Compounded by a number of environmental, economic and political crises, Yemen does, indeed, face several unprecedented challenges. These cannot be ignored, and the media and American government is right to focus on them. In fact, the Bush Administration’s lack of attention to Yemen can be considered one cause for the current predicament. President Obama, on the other hand, while demonstrating an appropriate sense of urgency, has failed to develop a policy approach that addresses Yemen’s problems holistically and comprehensively, rather than simply militarily.

But what are the other realities in Yemen? Surely this country – labeled Arabic Felix (“Blessed Arabia”) by the Romans for its fertile land – represents more than political insecurity and a terrorist threat. Surely its people – praised by the Prophet Muhammad for their wisdom and faith – offer more than the poverty, conflict and radicalism we read in the news.

Allow me to share one brief story from my time in Yemen.

I’m walking through the ancient city of Jiblah in southwestern Yemen, perched amidst breathtaking seven-thousand foot terraced mountains. Imagine thousand-year old mosques that still function, streets so narrow that only donkey-carts can pass, tiny and varied shops carved like caves into the surrounding buildings and landscape, unrecognizable sights and smells that remind one of a bygone era. All five of my senses soak up the scene as the adhan, or call to prayer, rings from a mosque that still houses the library and tomb of the 11th/12th century ruler, Queen Arwa al-Sulayhi.

Transfixed, I watch the locals, with their uniquely Yemeni fashions, push through the crowded pathways to attend the Friday prayers. I’m enveloped by smiles and shouts of “Welcome,” “Peace be upon you,” and “What’s your name?”

Suddenly and unexpectedly, an elderly man who clearly lacks a degree of sanity approaches me. Somewhat aggressively, he raises a Twenty Riyal coin. Assuming that he is a beggar hoping to demonstrate what he, in fact, wants, I rebuff his efforts. Yet he continues to stubbornly wave the coin. Finally, he shoves the coin in my hand and motions that it now belongs to me. Flashing a fleeting smile, he staggers off down the ancient pathway.
While obviously anecdotal, for me, this simple story has come to symbolize a nation whose people openly give of themselves – their time, their resources (however meager) and ultimately, their hearts – to visitors. Here, the first inclination of even those lacking all their wits is to generosity and friendliness towards foreigners.

Similar stories can be told a thousand times over by any visitor to Yemen, where access to hospitality is literally considered a religious right. Having lived in the country in 2007 as well, I too have enjoyed countless such experiences, far too many to share or even remember.

This is the “other side of Yemen.” When we look to this alternative view, what else does it reveal?

It reveals an alluring country replete with singular customs and histories, as well as staggering natural beauty, a civilization with sophisticated indigenous literary, scholarly and artistic traditions. It paints a picture of endless wonder and curiosity, a place where the ancient intersects with the modern on a daily basis and where local customs and creations trump global trends and products. It uncovers a kind people who take profound pride and joy in sharing their cultures yet demonstrate a remarkable curiosity in difference. One could go on.

But what does this other side have to do with a context where terrorists are threatening the lives of Americans? Recognizing Yemen’s charm does not imply a lack of diligence in tackling its core challenges, security or otherwise. It does, however, offer critical perspective on a complex nation with histories and cultures that extend far beyond present-day turmoil. Perhaps most importantly, it returns some dignity to a proud people consistently humiliated by the tarnished image of their country abroad.

JAMES R. KING is an independent analyst, specializing in Zaydism, Yemen and the broader Middle East. A former Fulbright Fellow in Jordan, King lived in Yemen in 2007 as part of an American Institute for Yemeni Studies fellowship, where he conducted interviews with leading Zaydi scholars on the Zaydi community in Yemen. This research was published as “Zaydis in a Post-Zaydi Yemen: ‘Ulama Reactions to Zaydism’s Marginalization in the Republic of Yemen.”