Yemen, Starting Over


My friend Bassem takes me by the arm and leads me to his home. We are in the northeast corner of the Sana’a, in a neighborhood called Shoaib. Outside the sun is bright and hot but inside his family’s home, the rooms are cool and quiet. We take off our shoes at the door and step inside.

Bassem’s family has prepared lunch for us and we eat sitting on the floor, tearing apart fresh bread with our hands.

His father sits across from me and pushes a plate of lamb towards me, urging me to eat more.

“He likes having visitors here,” Bassem tells me. His father doesn’t speak any English but nods and smiles, pressing one hand lightly against his chest.

Bassem’s wife and mother live here, too, but are upstairs, in another room. They’ve cooked our food and will clean after we’ve finished, but I will not meet them, even though I’ve known Bassem for over a month.

There is a soft breeze blowing through the window and a Quran resting on a pedestal at the head of the room. Hanging on the walls around us are family pictures—Bassem as a groom at his wedding earlier this year, Bassem’s younger brother, also as a groom, and a picture of his father as a young man, in military uniform.

Sitting next to them is a photo of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president who was ousted in the revolution that shook this country two years ago.

Bassem nods towards the picture. “My father was in support of him,” he says. “Me? I was on the street with the revolutionaries.”

*       *       *

Young Yemenis began gathering in at a junction near Sana’a University in late February 2011. Whether they knew then that they were setting in motion events that would change their country, we can’t know.

They set up tents and chanted slogans, drawing inspiration from the revolutions that they had seen in Egypt and Tunisia. Their encampment grew as the weeks went by. Hundreds of students streamed into the street, young men and women sat together and shared their frustrations.

They didn’t like how their country was being run and they wanted to see something new. They redubbed the junction “Change Square.”

Then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh had been sitting in office for over thirty years and (though adored by some, like Bassem’s father) he also ruled violently, the head of a large corrupt system of governance—one that privileged the powerful, connected and well armed. He had built up infrastructure in the country, but almost half of the population was unemployed. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.

A few months after the protests started, in Change Square, the numbers swelled into the thousands. These were young students, but also tribesmen, laborers, Yemenis from poorer, rural areas.

Not all protestors would stay overnight; some would come on Friday, the Muslim holy day, to show their solidarity with the cause by praying with the protestors in the crowded square.

On one Friday morning, March 18, it was estimated that there were tens of thousands of protestors in the square. State forces, dressed in civilian clothes entered the square and opened fire, spraying bullets into the crowd. Over fifty people died, hundreds were wounded.

More clashes followed. The country, which historically has been divided between the north and the south (and also other, smaller regions of decentralized power), began fragmenting. Armed tribes turned on state forces, and regiments of the army—notably Saleh’s one-time advisor Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar—eventually sided with the protestors.

With protests, and counter-protests, the revolution lurched forward. After over a year of uncertainty—and under international pressure—Saleh ceded power to his vice president, a man named Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in February 2012. The future of the country was even more uncertain than before, but change—of some sort—had come.

*       *       *

From the windows in Bassem’s home, I can see the tall rocky hills rising on the outskirts of town. Sana’a is a flat and sprawling city, surrounded by jagged mountains on all sides, the highest on the Arabian Peninsula.

All cities have their founding myths. They help us to connect to history, binding us to stories that are older than we are. Sana’a has ancient, biblical roots. In the Great Deluge, when God makes the seas rise, only one family is spared: Noah, his wife, and their three sons. Noah doesn’t want it this way. He pleads with God to spare the people, but God is firm—the earth will be wiped clean, there will be a fresh start. Noah is told to build a boat and to load all of the animals he could on it. He starts his work, reluctantly.

What I’ve retold so far is no different than the versions that have been passed down and written in both the Quran and the Old Testament; this is the canonized version of the prophet’s life. But this is where it becomes a local story, about this place.

When the floodwaters finally recede, 90 days later, Noah’s boat—packed with his family and hundreds of animals—beaches on top of a high mountain peak. Noah speaks with his three sons then—Sham, Ham and Japheth—as they look out over the fresh, muddy world. He tells them to each go in their own direction, start their families. God wants to see a more just world here, he says, and we have to make it.

Shem, the middle child, goes south. He travels for weeks, finally reaching a long flat plateau surrounded by jagged mountains. Something tells him that this is the place he has been looking for.

He has begun measuring out what will be the foundations of this new city when a bird lands on his shoulder, picks the string he had been holdings in his hand and flies off, toward a nearby mountain. Shem drops his things and races after the bird. The message is clear to Shem: he had been in the right valley, but not exactly the right spot. This bird was sent by God to show him his error.

The bird lands at the base of another dusty, brown mountain, and Shem catches up. After one false start, this is where the new city will be built. The bird flies off and Shem begins working again, laying the foundations for the city that today we call Sana’a.

*       *       *

When the idea of what is now called the National Dialogue Conference was proposed, in 2012, it began with a deceptively simple idea: to move forward after this revolution, Yemenis would have to sit down and talk things through.

Everyone—including social groups who had been discriminated against for hundreds of years, the kind of people who are normally ignored and silenced—would have their say. Old systems of hierarchy, which privileged those powerful, well-established armed tribes and corrupt officials, would be turned on their head.

Or that was the idea. The reality—always—is messier.

After months of planning—and with significant input from foreign actors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Nations—the conference started this past March with over 500 participants. The conference is expected to last for six months, during which the members will divide into smaller “working groups” to discuss contentious issues in depth. A new constitution will be drafted and in February 2014, national elections will be held.

Makeshift security checkpoints dot the city, manned by young Yemeni soldiers carrying guns and flashlights and promotional posters are plastered on the streets and mounted on billboards.

Though significantly fewer in number, some students are still in the streets.

Revolutionaries, specifically those who were injured during clashes at Change Square, say that justice is still far away. The conference will fail, protestors say, because it’s still full of corrupt officials, people who do not want to see Yemen really change.

One of the revolutionaries’ complaints with the former administration was that the Saleh family held a monopoly over positions of power in the military. This past week President Hadi announced Yemen’s second “restructuring of the military.”

Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was previously in charge of the elite Republican Guard, was appointed as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Other nephews of the deposed president have been assigned jobs as attaches at Yemeni embassies abroad. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the general who sided with the revolutionaries, landed a job as military advisor to the president.

Bassem shrugs when we talk about the future of the country. “I haven’t seen anything good come from the revolution yet,” he says. “What change? The people who are at the conference are the same ones who made the problems for us before.”

“The structures haven’t changed,” Bassem tells me, “there are just new faces.”

*       *       *

There are neighborhoods full of charred and crumbling buildings in the capital, reminders of the cost of revolution. In sections of the city where defected military troops clashed with the government loyalists, buildings are burnt and spattered with bullet holes. The top floors are vacant and crumbling.

But on the street level, in the markets, restaurants and homes, life goes on.

Bassem and I finish lunch, wash our hands, and step out onto the street. In the afternoon, a cool breeze blows in from the hills. The first spring rain fell a few days ago, leaving the air crisp and clean, washing the dust out of the streets.

The call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque rises in the afternoon. Yemen is still a devout country and Bassem is proud to remind me of the history of Sana’a, of how it was founded by the son of a prophet, in a distant time.

In front of us, graffiti from the revolution is spread over city walls. In one image a defiant fist is raised. A Kalashnikov rifle has been carefully drawn by someone, a flower sprouting from its muzzle instead of bullets.

Words in Arabic and English are scrawled on the sides of buildings: “I love Yemen,” “Be who you want to be,” and “A New Yemen.”

One mural pictures a small city, looking something like Sana’a, being built by a group of children. They are moving and restacking the buildings by hand, as if they were as light as toy blocks.

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.