Pages

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sana'a

On December 17th, Muhamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, sparked a flame that has erupted into a conflagration. All corners of the Middle East have felt the heat Bouazizi suffered during his martyrdom, and many despotic leaders are still sweating. Ironically, Ben Ali, the ex-Tunisian President, visited Bouazizi’s hospital bedside without understanding that he drove Bouazizi to such a desperate state and without clairvoyance of his own rapidly approaching end. On January 14th, Ben Ali fled Tunis. Egyptians intently watched the fleeing dictator, and subsequently, latent Egyptian protests were galvanized ---success was possible, with Tunisia as proof. Mubarak tested the resolve of Egyptian demonstrators with beatings, false promises and time. As the weeks passed, the rebel movement only strengthened, solidifying Mubarak’s exit. Mubarak resigned February 11th. The revolutionary flame has also spread to Libya, where a delusional Kaddafi struggles to grasp his inevitable fate. It will only be days before he is pushed out of Libya or assassinated.


For the past month, I’ve been watching demonstrations in Sana’a, Yemen, and I suspect that Yemen will follow the pattern set by Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. For 32 years, President Saleh has been mastering the arts of self-preservation and diplomacy, and the coming days will be his crucible, testing all the skills he has acquired throughout his reign. Already, Saleh has manipulated the problems of Al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP), Houthi rebels in Northern Yemen, and the Southern Separatists to imply to his citizens that without his fatherly rule, the country would explode into chaos. The “leaderless country falling into chaos” tactic was also used by Mubarak, and, so far, has not proven to be true. Saleh has also promised sweeping, Obama-like change, a strategy he has used in the past. On February 6th, Saleh promised concessions that briefly opened dialogue between the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and General People’s Congress (GPC, Saleh’s party), and the country appeared to be stepping towards democracy. The president said “There will be no extension of the presidential term and no dynastic succession, contrary to the reports that say otherwise. Hereditary rule in Yemen is unthinkable in my electoral program,” and, “The public is led by certain powers to an unknown fate, similar to what is happening in Egypt and has happened in Tunisia. In the end, it will lead to chaos.” Not long afterward, Saleh commented that votes will decide who will be president--a disastrously untactful statement, as it revealed his authoritative nature and his hopes to run a fraudulent election in 2013.

Independent of the JMP, a group of anti-Saleh protestors (most of them students) fervently demonstrated for Saleh’s departure. After Saleh’s thugs used violence against these students and after the GPC declared the president’s opponents to be “infidels,” the JMP retreated from dialogue. “The president is trying to gain back the people’s trust on social networks and in the media, while on the street he sends his criminals to cheer for him and to beat activists for practicing their right for free speech,” said Ali Al-Masouri (Yemen Times). It is difficult to understand the inconsistent JMP position, and it seems to me that college students deserve credit for fomenting the inevitable Yemeni revolution.



----------------------------------



I was walking to the University of Sana’a when a pro-Saleh demonstration was materializing. As I walked down Wahda Street, which leads to the university’s east gate, I heard the cries of the amassing crowd. I walked quickly, but throngs of demonstrators passed me on either side, so I ducked into an alley before I was caught in the stampede. When the mob passed, I was shocked to see small children in school uniforms ahead of me, brandishing pro-Saleh signs and weapons. I later learned that kids were released from school early, and if they demonstrated in favor of the Saleh, they were promised passing grades on their exams.

I’ve also seen Tahrir square in Sana’a, where Saleh manufactures his support. When Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the symbolic site for Egypt’s revolution, Saleh took the liberty of occupying Sana’s Tahrir Square, hoping to suppress any symbolism resonating with the Yemeni people. In Yemen’s Tahrir Square, “supporters” of Saleh come to chew free qat and eat free food while sitting lazily in military tents. They are a pathetically docile brand of demonstrators and clearly lack any attachment to the cause sponsoring their qat habit.



Meanwhile, the opposition demonstrations are ecstatic, filled with optimism. The protesters have closed a kilometer of road that leads to the university and occupied it with tents and make-shift living quarters. Hundreds of men guard the main street entrances and pat-down anyone entering the street to prevent Saleh’s thugs from bringing in weapons. The street has become an asylum for free speech, and thousands of posters animate years of suppressed expression with caricatures lampooning Saleh and other dictators. Speakers continually lead chants and songs voicing the opposition's demands, which are no longer for honest dialogue; the people in this street want Saleh and his family to leave.

Two days ago, two demonstrators were killed and the movement was given martyrs. As of today, I’ve heard that the Northern Houthis have joined the opposition, along with the strong Hashed and Bakil tribes. Saleh’s argument that his absence will invite chaos is looking weak as the country is beginning to unify around what they see as the major problem: Saleh.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Gahana

Bite-sized adventures, like my stint as a faux reporter, have kept me sane through the monotony of study. Regardless, this past week of Arabic was particularly strenuous and Sana’a rendered no remedy for the stress; the tedium of academia awakened my travel vices and forced me out of Sana’a.


My friend had read of a town called Gahana, 20 km outside of Sana’a, which had a market full of assorted fruits, vegetables and light weaponry. Aching to flee the city and curious as hell, we decided to investigate this “weapons” market.

We signaled a cab, and with a mixture of broken Arabic and misguided sign language (miming the firing of weapons) we relayed our destination to the driver and were quickly en route.

Leaving the confusion of Sana’a ushered in a calm as we made our way toward Gahana. Clustered buildings transformed into small countryside homes separated by great distances and ancient land rights.

The road into Gahana slices the city in half, and small shops line both sides of the main street. About a stone’s throw beyond the stores, houses dot the landscape, all the way to the base of distant mountains. The grey houses are built with local earth and, being so, fade seamlessly into the mountains on the horizon.

Entering the city, our curiosity was satisfied in seconds. Shops hugging the road colorfully advertise the arsenal of weapons they carry. We hopped out of the taxi and approached the nearest storefront. Ironically, sharing a building with a weapons store was a candy shop. I imagined the conversation:

“I’ll take a Snickers.”
“Anything else?”

“Ummm … you know what? I’ll take that AK-47 too.”

We discovered that buying a weapon here was free of paper work, waiting periods, and registration. My friend asked if he could fire some rounds and, to my surprise, if he was willing to pay, they would allow him. I thought this would mean relocation to a shooting range tucked away somewhere in the city … Nope. The shopkeeper grabbed an AK-47 hanging from the wall, slammed a magazine into it, jumped the counter and handed the rifle to my friend. The man pointed up, indicating sky as the direction of fire.

As my friend lifted the rifle, pedestrians, cars and motorbikes maintained a steady flow in the street. My mind raced and I almost had a heart attack imagining any number of terrible scenarios that could be mere seconds away. Thankfully, four rounds were safely fired at a forty-five degree angle into the distance (I don’t think the bullets could have reached the mountains). My friend forked over the cash and we proceeded to another store. Craving more rounds, my friend appealed to another shopkeeper with guns on display. The man agreed, and, this time, better precautions were taken. We followed him behind the shop to a clearing that left nothing between us and a distant mountain. After my friend fired a few rounds, we walked to a candy shop, which happened to be the last of the stores lining the road.


Suddenly, a fight broke out in front of the store we first visited upon our arrival. I asked a local standing nearby if this was a problem, and he assured us: “no problem.” More men rushed to the scene, but not to settle the dispute. People in the crowd engaged in heated exchanges, and two men began to fight over a rifle. Tugging, pulling and yelling, they fought over the rifle while the others continued to trade heated words. We watched until we heard the crack of rifle fire from within the angry crowd. We dipped behind the store. “Small problem,” said the local.

Our taxi driver had been attentive to the situation, and seeing our position, quickly drove our way. We dashed across the street and jumped into the safety of his car.


Returning to Sana’a felt like coming home—a sharp reminder that things are quite different outside Sana’a.




Sunday, February 6, 2011

Building

I’ve become friends with my neighbor, an Italian journalist. In addition to enjoying meals he’s prepared with Italian competence, I’ve been able to follow him on stories he’s investigating in Sana’a. A few weeks ago, I trailed him to the site of a collapsed building.


The first two levels of the building had been made of mud and the next three of concrete. A text message from a trapped survivor injected rescue crews and audiences with excitement and a sense of urgency. By the time we arrived at the scene, hundreds of Yemeni police hedged the site, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and keeping observers at bay. As spectators continued to amass, we strained to reach the police barrier. My Italian friend told a policeman that he was a reporter, but, under orders, the policeman stiffly refused him entry. I assumed entry simply wasn’t plausible, and began scoping out the scene immediately around me. Nearby, two kids were were trying to get a look at rubble and simultaneously inflicting light abuse on each other. One would stand on the bumper of a small semi-truck and peep around the edge of the truck over Yemeni heads. After seconds of viewing the ruined building, his friend would rip his safely planted legs from under him and send him crashing to the ground, millimeters from smashing his face on the metal bumper. They laughed it off and gaily switch roles.


Suddenly, I realized I had no idea where my friend was. Being a foot taller than everyone, I was able to quickly confirm he was nowhere near. I was retreating to a less dense area when I heard shouting past the human police fence. There was my friend, next to the crumpled building, yelling at someone, screaming that I was his assistant and demanding my entry. A ranked policeman waved me in.


Despite my burning excitement, I reigned in my smile. I furrowed my brow and assumed a professional air. I had a pen and moleskine in my back pocket and I figured pulling out these props would convince the bystanders I really was a journalist. To complete the role, I asked some important looking people a few questions, then wrote complete nonsense down in my notebook. I wrote:


“Big Crane”


“3 a.m.”


“9 people”


Meanwhile my friend snapped the pictures he actually needed. I realized that despite my efforts, I couldn’t hide my smile and was actually chuckling at the absurdity of the situation and the "journalist's assistant" guise. I wondered what an onlooker might have thought, seeing a foreigner smiling and chuckling while a citizen struggled for survival under four floors of concrete. We left a few minutes later.