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.
I 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.
- 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…
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!
- 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.
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”.
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.
2013 in photos…for fun, backwards. Starting with a great year’s end in Minnesota, to Yemen, Turkey, Yemen again, and Lebanon. Here’s to a great 2014 to come.