Dream Palace of the Revolution
The smoke was thick in the air and the fighting went on for over an hour. You couldn’t see the protestors through the black plumes lifting from the burning tires, but Khalid knew that they were being shot. He could hear their shouts and the soldiers’ guns firing.
Khalid describes Yemen’s 2011 uprising slowly and carefully, pausing to consider how he will word each sentence.
Khalid studied English in Sana’a University and likes reading the thesaurus, he tells me, and uncovering new words in English, new ways of describing things. For Khalid there is always a right word, the perfect fit, it’s just a question of finding it.
We are walking down one of Sana’a’s wide thoroughfares, built to accommodate traffic in the rapidly-urbanizing capital of Yemen, where the population has just about doubled in the past ten years. Cars and trucks speed by on one side, jagged, dusty mountains rise on another.
Revolutionary graffiti and murals are still scattered around the city, from the uprisings that gripped this country two years ago. For over a year, these streets were crowded with protestors. Khalid was with them, he tells me.
Why were they demonstrating? Then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled the country for over three decades. Though Saleh had succeeded in uniting a historically fractured land, his government had been corrupt and violent.
Those connected to Saleh’s administration prospered, but the country is the poorest in the Middle East, with unemployment at 60 percent. Nearly three quarters of Yemen’s population of 25 million is under 25, which means Saleh was the only president they had ever known.
In February of 2011, students and other young people gathered at a junction of two main roads near Sana’a University, asking for reforms, for jobs, a representative government, and a more dignified life. They were inspired by similar protests that they had seen in Egypt and Tunisia. What began with a few hundred students grew over the weeks—they had struck a chord. It wasn’t just students anymore, but also tribesmen and villagers from outside the city.
By March, there were hundreds of thousands camped out. People set up tents, played music, shared complaints, and chanted together. They named their encampment “Change Square,” claiming it as a nonviolent, revolutionary space.
Khalid tells me about a Friday in March. It was a day that would change the country. Hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered, laid mats on the sidewalk and prostrated towards Mecca. Khalid had happened to pray elsewhere this day, and was arriving at the square just as the protestors were rolling up their prayer mats.
Something was different, Khalid saw. It was a bright, sunny day, but a thick plume of dark smoke had appeared in the sky over the square. On one side of the road, tires had been set on fire; on another, a low wall made out of concrete blocks had been hastily built. As the flames leapt into the air, the protestors were trapped, blocked in on all sides.
Because he was arriving late, Khalid found no way to enter the square—but maybe it was for the best.
The sharp crack of a gun cut through the air. A group of soldiers, armed with automatic rifles, had stationed themselves near the concrete blocks and began letting off rounds of bullets into the crowd. The protestors tried to get out of the trap that had been set for them, pushing aside the concrete wall, looking for any exit, but they were stuck—easy, unarmed targets.
“I was very close to the soldiers,” Khalid says. “I watched as they fired into the crowd. We couldn’t see the revolutionaries’ faces from where we stood, the smoke was too thick.”
Bullets tore through the air. Forty-five men died and over 200 were wounded. Four of those killed were children. Demonstrators picked up stones and fragments of concrete and hurled them at the soldiers. As the fighting went on, shop owners shuttered their windows and doors. Bystanders scattered, afraid that they might be caught in the fray.
“Those soldiers might not have seen where they were shooting because of the tires burning. It was chaotic,” Khalid says. “But they had to have known what they were doing.”
After that day, which revolutionaries began calling the “Friday of Dignity,” public opinion turned against Saleh. And, perhaps just as important for the trajectory of the revolution, a powerful general, Ali Mohsin, defected, siding with the protestors.
What had been a peaceful demonstration now turned into a civil conflict. The military splintered and battalions fought against each other, inspired as much by political opportunism as by revolutionary ideals.
More protestors gathered in Change Square. A counter-protest formed in an area called Tahrir, where supporters of Saleh and his political party, the General People’s Congress, also set up a camp. It wasn’t clear which way the country would swing.
After a year of protests and intermittent fighting in the capital of Sana’a, Saleh agreed—under significant international pressure—to step down from power. He and his aides would receive immunity. An interim government would be set up and institutional changes would be made. Saleh’s vice-president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took his place as president.
Though Saleh stepped down more than a year ago, it still feels like the 55-year-old president and one-time ally of the U.S. is nearby, hovering over the city.
The massive mosque that he had built and named after himself towers over the southern edge of Sana’a. At night its five minarets are lit bright yellow. The main dome shines like a moon. Though Yemen is plagued with constant power cuts, these lights never flicker out. It is garish and strangely beautiful, out of proportion to the rest of the city.
This mosque isn’t going anywhere. But the legacy of other revolutionary spaces throughout the city—how they will be commemorated—is up in the air.
Change Square is largely vacant now. It was evacuated months ago. A handful of tents, ragged and stained, remain. The Saleh loyalists’ square, Tahrir, on the other side of town, was also forcibly evacuated. The streets are now choked with exhaust and the constant sounding of horns, not protestors’ chants.
Over a thousand years ago, before this country was called Yemen, there was a poet named Imru Al-Qais who wrote poems dedicated to the mountainous, dry land that he lived in. He, and many other poets of his time, wrote tenderly about the passage of time, about what disappears and what stays.
“Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved,” he writes, standing over an abandoned encampment of a past lover. Even though years have passed, there are still signs of life here. “The traces of her camp are not entirely gone, even now. For when the south wind blows the sand over them, the north wind sweeps it away.”
Later poets picked up this tradition, both mourning the loss of, and commemorating, places that have faded away.
Long before Saleh built his mosque in Sana’a, there was another structure that towered over this city, the Ghamdan Palace, which found its way into many songs and poems.
Descriptions of the Ghamdan Palace vary. It was likely built in either the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., perhaps by the Sabean King Ilshara Yahdub. Sana’a’s ruling royal family lived here, but in popular retellings it has been claimed for all Yemenis.
In some tales it is 20 stories tall, in others it is 100. The engravings on the façade of the palace are intricate, the finest in the land. It casts a deep, long shadow, which reaches for miles, one poet writes. The lights from the tower can be seen twinkling in the distance—as far away as Medina.
Villagers travel for days into Sana’a, just to admire the structure. Each face of the palace is a different color: black, blue, green and red. The ceiling is made from alabaster, a soft translucent stone, and one can sit inside and watch birds flying overhead.
Bronze statues of lions decorate the roof. When the wind blows in from the mountains, it sounds as if the lions are roaring.
In the 7th century, the palace is destroyed by the Caliph Othman, who is afraid that it might become a base for rebellion against his rule, which has expanded all over the Muslim world.
A huge mound still rises near the south gate of Sana’a’s walled Old City. The foundations have been cobbled over with pavement and homes. But what happened to those alabaster blocks, those bronze lions and ornate decorations?
They were salvaged, local stories tell. Men rummaged through the debris, picking out prize stones and lugging them away. People built new homes from the rubble, using the ruins of Ghamdan as the foundations for their new lives.
The 10th century poet Al-Hamdani describes the castle as reaching to the stars. “If paradise lies over the skies, Ghamdan borders on paradise,” he writes, which means that parts of that older dream, that paradise, are kept alive today in more humble, domestic spaces—in the basements of buildings, in the bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms of Sana’a.
Khalid and I meet another Yemeni friend, Ali, for lunch in a crowded restaurant. We yell to get the waiter’s attention and lean in close to speak to each other over the din. Our lunch comes, salta, a traditional Yemeni dish of lamb and vegetables. We rip apart pieces of bread and eat with our hands.
Ali is in his late twenties. His left eye is slightly lazy and he wears a dress shirt unbuttoned at the top. He was on the street with the protestors in 2011 and was shot in the shoulder, near his neck. Ali tugs at his shirt with one hand, revealing a scarred lump near his collarbone. The bullet shot straight through. He tells me what he and the other protestors wanted to see: the end of Saleh’s regime.
After Saleh stepped down from power, there was pressure to move the protests out of the street, to begin a broader national conversation that would lead to concrete reforms.
This past March, something called the National Dialogue Conference started. The sprawling conference brought together all of the diverse interest groups here into conversation. There are 565 participants in the conference, and they come from a wide range of political parties and groups. There are men, women, Islamists, socialists, members of the former regime, and protestors from the street.
The idea was that after the end of all this dialogue, they would write a new constitution and hold elections, sometime in 2014. They intend to come up with new parameters for the state, new legislation that will fit everybody.
The conference was meant to wrap up in August, but has seen a string of setbacks. A participating member tells me that it will still take a month or so longer before this “first phase” comes to a close. The next phase, of instituting the changes they they’ve agreed on, will take years.
It’s easy to criticize the conference, and many do. It’s going slower than anyone imagined. There is too much foreign influence—from Saudi Arabia, from the United States, I’ve heard said. It’s a grand gesture, but what will come from it? The country has splintered since 2011, with regional powers jockeying for influence, tribal sheikhs operating with local sovereignty.
U.S. drones regularly hit villages in the south of the country, where official Yemeni government sources say Al-Qaeda forces are holed up. Whoever the targets are, civilians are killed, too, and these regular attacks erode many Yemenis’ trust in their own government, which directly approves of the U.S. strikes. It doesn’t appear that Hadi or the new transitional administration will—or can afford to—take a stand against the American strikes.
Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but in the last decade, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that somewhere between 268 and 393 Yemenis, including civilians and alleged members of Al-Qaeda, have been killed in confirmed U.S. drone strikes. Some strikes remain “unconfirmed,” and other researchers and activists place the number of dead much higher. Strikes have intensified in the last two years, numbering at least 64.
An official, speaking with Human Rights Watch in a report published this month, said that the Yemeni government is “too weak” to capture Al-Qaeda suspects. This, he explained, is why they condone the U.S. strikes. “Our security apparatus is in shambles,” he said.
Many blame the revolution for further deteriorating state power. Khalid doesn’t say this, but he does admit that there is a lot at stake right now in the country.
“If the conference doesn’t work, Yemen will fall into chaos,” Khalid tells me between bites, wiping the sides of his mouth with his hand. “But we can’t know what will happen now.”
After we finish eating, Ali picks up his story of the protest. He was knocked unconscious after being shot in the neck and taken to a “field hospital,” a small tent set up by revolutionaries on the street. He lost a lot of blood, but other than the deep scar on his back, he has no injuries.
We pay our bill and step outside.
“How will history remember what happened here?” Khalid asks. He’s draped his arm around Ali’s shoulder as we walk on the crumbling sidewalk, stepping over cracks.
“Was it a revolution, a crisis, an uprising, a regime-change?” He looks for words to describe the transformation he’s seen, like flipping through pages in his thesaurus. He admits that the country has changed in the past three years—but has real, institutional change come?
He hasn’t found that word that fits yet. The midday heat has passed and a cool, dusty breeze has begun to blow in off the mountains. The sun has just dropped behind the jagged hills, illuminating them from behind with a soft, diffused light.
“I wanted to see change, we all wanted change,” Khalid says. “And we still want to see that change.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a staff writer at the Jewish Daily Forward. Previously, he worked at The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah, and Beijing. Follow him on Twitter @skestenbaum.