To Be Forgotten

050715_alexpotter_yemenifamily62 2-2

At risk of being cliche by starting by post with a Mother Teresa quote, here it goes anyway:

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”

Right now, Yemenis are suffering from both. Those in the country are suffering from hunger and dying from basic diseases and preventable causes due to the strict humanitarian blockade on the country, and the thousands stuck outside are being trapped in a recently created web of new visa restrictions, “illegal” status, and inability to return or even register as refugees.

War is one thing, abandonment is another. And Yemenis are learning, as the Syrian people know all too well, what it is like to be forgotten.

People like Helal Noman, a Yemeni medical student in Cairo who accompanied a boy in desparate need of brain surgery to Italy and Switzerland, and was not allowed back into Egypt to complete his degree, was returned to Switzerland and told by the border police he must leave.

People like Nabil, Jihad, and Samar, independent youth volunteering their little time and resources to Yemeni stuck in Cairo, whom have effectively had the burden placed on their shoulders that should have been carried by the embassy.

And people like the nameless Yemeni man in the street, who had nothing but a bag of papers (likely medical records) stolen from him by an Egyptian boy who heckled him and called him a beggar, as he walked away, hanging his head in defeat.

To know Yemenis is to know that their dignity is one of the most important things in life. And to see people’s dignity stripped away piece by piece is almost as great a tragedy as seeing the bombs drop.

What is comforting, is that I can recognize Yemenis in the street, before even talking to them.  Though they have nothing, though they’re stranded with a war that has no end in sight, I can tell by the way their carry themselves: with dignity.


For Country and Family

Yesterday was simultaneously one of the most comforting and disheartening days I’ve had in a long time. Celebrating Nowruz with a family I’ve come to know, the day in the mountains epitomized everything I know about community: love, family, food, taking care of elders, laughter, dancing, and patriotism.
Rise of the Houthis

Yet at the same time, yet another tragedy hit Yemen, two suicide bombs in mosques, targeting people praying, of all things. Up until yesterday, friends, say, Sana’a was as safe and quiet as they had remembered it in years. Fewer checkpoints, calmer nights, and any sort of violence moving toward the south. Yet after the carnage that killed 150 people broke not only bodies, but hearts.

This sounds so cheesy and like I’m writing on a trope, but I’m really not. I think one of the strongest things that makes photography effective is love. In the three years I’ve lived there, I have not just been based in Yemen, but I have developed relationships, gone through emotions, and care about my friends and neighbors, just as I know they care about me. This is obviously not possible for all people in all situations or countries, but because of my love for people in Yemen, I want all the more for the outside world to know and see the truth about the country, rather than just dusty overhead views of protests and  burning tires, shot on one day and one street.


I’ve encountered some journalists (obviously not all) who go through the motions in a country, talking about fixers as just people who “work for them” and running quickly through interview questions about a death toll without empathizing with their situation, without really trying to feel what the people of that country feel.

Though I’m not a citizen of Yemen, I feel like I am losing the country I fell in love with three years ago. But then I remember the ordinary citizens are those who make up a country. In this time of uncertainty I am thinking of Abdul Moghany the corner store owner next to my house, the family that sells fries and cheese sandwiches next to the domed mosque I’ve never entered, Am Ali who sells the richest tea in the city and gives it to his cats as well, the family that just opened a corner store selling sweets and cakes their wives have made, the shwarma shop that insists on giving me 2 free sandwiches every time I walk buy, the juice stand in Tahrir that knows I buy carrot orange juice nearly every day, the strawberry juice stand that knows I like my juice ice cold and my friends just room temperature, and the countless families I lunch with on the weekends.


As the situation has grown more unstable, I have seen the faces of my friends grow weary, from hopeful youth post-revolution, to ones with stubble and tired eyes too old for their faces. Thank God for the faith of ordinary Yemenis, because the “wisdom” of the country’s leaders is failing them. الإيمان يمان والحكمة يمانية


All quiet on the Northern front…


…as the action moves to the South. Since now self-reinstated President Hadi fled (or was allowed to flee) to Aden, Sana’a has been exceedingly quiet.  There have been a number of large pro and anti Houthi demonstrations, but politically and conflict wise, all parties seem to be on vacation. (For those news reports that say protests are “taking over the capital” this is completely untrue. I was out and about on all those days, not going to protests, and I saw no sign of them anywhere in Sana’a.) Nearly all the NGO offices and embassies have evacuated, but we are conspicuously left with the ever-present trio of  embassies Russia, China, and Iran. I believe Cuba is also out there somewhere…

While this very obvious alliance here to stay in Sana’a will not please the USA/Saudi governments, according to the Houthis, they do not need, nor do they want help from the aforementioned parties, when the others will do just as well.


One interesting point the Houthis have apparently decided, is to localize all of Yemen’s trade goods. While it’s not confirmed, reports are going around that soon Yemen will no longer import foreign goods that are readily available in-country (i.e., produce that is already grown here, certain household items, weapons, etc…) I’m not sure how this is enforceable, considering Yemen imports a huge amount of goods, but it will be interesting to see what this would do to the economy – shopping and doing business extremely local. A friend who works in tourism thought it’s a good idea, to a point, as it would “support the local population and keep  Yemeni business in Yemen.”

Despite all the drama, believe it or not, tourists are still coming to the country, and do so quite comfortably. Most come to Sana’a for a few days and trot off to Socotra, which is as quiet as ever. Whoever has proposed that a prison for ex-Guantanamo detainees be put on Socotra, please please don’t. You will completely kill tourism in the country and destroy the Galapagos of Yemen, and the livelihoods of the few who are left in the business. There are many small uninhabited islands next door that will work just as well.
Meanwhile, Hadi is in Aden, convening with a number of government officials, talking talking talking, as always with no action. For any journalists outside Yemen taking their news from local media, without verifying from multiple individuals – don’t. A perfect example is the news that spread rampant this morning that a Saudi diplomat had been kidnapped, written in the local press, picked up by internationals, when in truth, it was a rumor.

What is not a rumor, unfortunately, is that a French woman and her Yemeni translator was kidnapped last week. Working for large, high profile international company with visible security, and not covering / dressing properly has proven time and again to be the biggest kidnapping risk. Though France often publicly denies paying to kidnappers, their citizens generally don’t have problems being set free, as I hope and believe it will be with her.

One of my favorite things in Yemen is hearing people laugh in the Debab. Ridiculously small buses with two bench seats facing each other, each seating three people, from small children, large men, and women roasting in their jilbabs, each Debab ride is a different experience. Some are silent, some have lively political conversation, others, the normal chatter. Today I met a Somali friend dropping his relative off at the station. We got to talking about how Somalia and Yemen have both been characterized as “failed states”…I said to him “Yemen won’t be a failed state till Yemenis get on boats and flee to Somalia like the Somalis fled to Yemen” and the whole bus burst into laughter. All in good fun.

Yemen is complicated.

I should say, the politics of Yemen are complicated. Just when it seemed like progress was made (as always through the pushing and shoving of international actors, some of whom have Yemen’s instability in their own best interests), and a transitional period announced by UN Envoy Jamal Ben Omar, ex-President Hadi fled Sana’a to Aden, apparently in women’s clothes (a la’ Imam Badr in 1962) to Aden, where has declared himself the ex-ex-President, taking over duties once again and declaring all political contracts made after September null and void.

I can’t say anyone could accurately predict what is going to happen next, myself least of all. What I can tell you, is that life is the opposite of politics here in Sana’a. Simply, it goes on as normal. The past week has had few demonstrations, fewer checkpoints, and I’ve gone about my days as normal – buying groceries, working in coffee shops, getting naqsh (yemeni henna) done for a friend’s wedding, waving to the Coat Man, with a dozen or so sport jackets piled on his shoulders, and to the smiling Watch Man in Tahrir, hunkered down over his table of dials and hands. akp_blog_wktwo_02  What is more worrisome to most, rather than conflict, is economic collapse. Should the Rial suddenly lose all it’s value, oil and gas drop out, and all international investment disappear, that would be a real disaster. However, as Laura Kasinof mentioned in her recent Zocalo piece, “Yet I am confident of this: if the Yemeni government…continues to mirror a scenario from an apocalyptic future, Yemen will not be a land where ever man is for himself. There is a social contract in Yemen more ancient than the one that exists in the United States, and the ties that bind people to one another can step in when the government fails.”akp_blog_wktwo_07 (Installing a battery for the house. If there is extensive power outages and fuel shortage – as expected, should conflict come to the deserts of Mareb – a generator won’t be much help. Huge batteries have been popping up for sale everywhere in Sana’a. Hooked up to the grid of the house, it will run four laptops, four lights, the internet, Tv, and a few other appliances for at least 10 hours before it needs recharging. Sustainable energy!)

After the coup…ahem I mean, transfer of power.

With the recent goings-on in Yemen, I understand why, from outside the situation sounds frightening. Back in MN for a teaching stint and a break, the news that the president stepped down and Houthis taken control made me nervous as well – what’s coming next? The truth is, nothing has happened – yet. (Besides having a new President, now obviously official since it’s on Google). Yes Houthi militias, are in control of the streets – as they have been in the past. The only thing different is their clothes – now full military garb instead of street clothes. The political situation is tense, as Yemen’s kingmakers have pushed out every other political option to govern. Yet the streets are quieter than they have been since the beginning of September. Life goes on as normal – people work, go to school,  hang out with friends, and take care of their families.The streets of Sana’a are no stranger to weapons – since I arrived in 2012, either tribesmen, military, or local militias have openly carried weapons. Yes now the numbers have increased, and the streets are lined with Houthi checkpoints instead of military ones. Yet according to a number of Yemeni friends, they have never been asked for a bribe, annoyed, or stopped with a family by Yemen’s new adopted government.  I am by no means saying Yemen is fine. It is far from this – the economy is flailing, the political process hijacked (which wasn’t working anyway) and parts of the hinterlands (Mareb, Shabwa, Hadramaut, al Bayda) are experiencing violence that isn’t seen in Sana’a. Yemen is reeling, divided, and tired. But it is not Baghdad during the war, it is not destroyed like Aleppo, and it is not Iran circa 1979. I urge readers to look beyond the tired “Iranian backed militia taking over Yemen” line,  and read pieces that explain why Yemen is where it is today, what Yemenis truly want and need, and how the closing of many embassies and decreased international interference might allow Yemenis to sort out their issues better (the words of many a friend, not mine).
This is not to say that Yemen’s economy couldn’t completely crash, and the country break into multiple pieces. That is entirely possible. But from what I have seen from how Yemenis deal with conflict (especially in the North) from queen Arwa al Sulayhi defending her Sulayhid dynasty against opposing tribes in the late 1100’s, to highland tribes wasting Ottoman Turks during the invasion, to the current fight against Al Qaeda, Yemenis have proven entirely resilient and hopeful. I just hope and pray this tense new political situation leads to an eventual resolution rather than further fracturing.


One note on personal safety, as many a friend and family are asking. Most importantly, I do take all the necessary precautions to be safe – dressing right, speaking the local dialect, and having contact with the right people.
Yet for those who imagine Houthis as militants ready to strike out against any westerner who crosses their path… they have been in and around Sana’a in large numbers since early 2013, and not one time have I heard a word of hate against me personally. Their acerbic “Death to America…” chant, is always followed by “We love you our American sister! We love the American people, but your government is wrong,” plus usually an offer for a ride somewhere and always an lunch invitation if it is mid-day. Women (foreigners included) are lifted onto a sky-high pedestal here; crowds part like the Red Sea during protests or public gatherings. If I were ever in danger, my Yemeni friends guarantee, they would be the first to either put me on a plane out of here or drive me to the most remote mountain village, where I would be kept undoubtedly happy with and unlimited supply of farm work (as you all know my roots) fresh produce, and qat.



mooncatchers 2I have so neglected this blog for most of this year, and it’s a goal (I won’t say resolution, because no one ever keeps those) for 2015 to keep this updated with my current works and thoughts. What is best word for 2014? Intense is the only thing that comes to mind. From assignments in new countries, fellowships, finishing projects and starting anew, excitement and disappointment, and the devastating death of a number of friends and colleagues, this year is one not easily forgotten.akpotter_year_01akpotter_year_02

– Tbilisi, Georgia –

In early spring, Laura Kasinof (a journalist friend and colleague) traveled to Georgia to report on the resurgence of religion among youth for ICFJ (International Center for Journalists). The work was eventually published in Guernica and The Riveter. The Georgian people and Khachapuri are calling my name to return…

akpotter_year_03– Asmara, Eritrea –

akpotter_year_04– Coyote Springs, Kyle, South Dakota –

In late summer, trying to get away from the exhaust of motorcycles in Sturgis, I was invited to photograph a math camp for young girls on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. While some boys attended, it was mostly pre-teen girls from the community, given a refresher before school started again. Since it was the last day of the camp, the girls took part in a coming-of-age ceremony known as Tapa Wankaye Yapi (throwing the ball), which I was privileged to photograph. Lara, here with her star quilt, was chosen as the thrower, and given special responsibilities for the coming year. Thank you all for welcoming me into your family!

akpotter_year_06– Tel Cochar, Rojava –
In late November, I traveled to Kurdistan. An edit of this work is still in progress, but the journey was the most physically and emotionally intense I have ever undertaken. I’m ever grateful to the Kurdish youth that welcomed us like their own.

akpotter_year_10– Al Ghayfa, Yemen –

akpotter_year_09 – Sabr Mountain, Taiz, Yemen –

As the news about Yemen gets worse and the political situation continues to go downhill, I’m thankful for the quiet moments -with farmers in their fields, with midwives in mountain villages. Tourists are still coming to this beautiful and amazing country despite the strife. Though those who want power will continue to make trouble, the true Yemenis – those who want peace and a bright future – continue to be hopeful that the proverb will prove true that “Faith is Yemeni, Wisdom is Yemeni”.

akpotter_year_11– Sana’a, Yemen –

Here’s to a brighter 2015 – one where colleagues are safe and able to do their jobs, one where youth of the world keep the faith, and one where we can all continue to learn and grow together. This is what we hope, whether it happens or not depends on us.