July 2013

Pasted photography on wall, Sana’a 2012; photograph by Jameel Subay

From Street Politics to Street Art in Yemen
By Anahi Alviso-Marino, Nafas Art Magazine, July 2013

In January 2011, demonstrations inspired by the contentious mobilizations taking place in Tunisia and Egypt started to be carried out in Yemen. Gradually, anti-governmental demonstrators came to modify old repertoires of contention, such as the demonstration or the sit-in, into what became a permanent camp and a new space of contention in Sana’a named “Change Square.” Among the self-proclaimed “revolutionary youth” of a sit-in that lasted until April 2013 were a number of visual artists. Their presence in the Square contributed in giving political demands an artistic expression, alongside using artistic practices as a means of contention. Contributing to the symbolic aspects of this mobilization, artistic practices developed inside and outside the tents. As a continuation of street politics acquired in the Square, certain visual artists incorporated dissent, transgression, and civil disobedience in their artistic practices. Among such cases, street art techniques such as graffiti, free writing, mural painting or stenciling participated throughout 2011 in reproducing political slogans that aimed to overthrow Ali Abd Allah Saleh’s regime.

In 2012 this contentious street art underwent certain changes. (more…)

[Webshaykh’s Note: There is an excellent report on the progress in humanitarian aid to Iraq over the past decade on the website of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Click here to access the full report and updates.]

BAGHDAD/DUBAI, 22 April 2013 (IRIN) – Ten years after US forces took over Iraq, opinions on the progress made are as polarized as ever.

On one side, the Iraqi and American governments argue, the gains have been significant.

“Despite all the problems of the past decade, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis agree that we are better off today than under Saddam’s brutal dictatorship,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki wrote in a 9 April opinion piece in the Washington Post, marking 10 years after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Paul Wolfowitz, who served as the US Deputy Secretary of Defence between 2001 and 2005, wrote the same day in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that given the hardships under Hussein, “it is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far.”

Others are more circumspect in evaluating these gains, looking to the 1980s – under Hussein’s rule – as a time when Iraqi society was much further ahead.

“By all measures and standards, there has been a deterioration in the quality of life of Iraqis as compared to 25 years ago,” said Khalid Khalid, who tracks Iraq’s progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the UN Development Programme (UNDP). “The invasion comes on top of sanctions that came before it and the Iran-Iraq war. It’s one continuous chain of events that led to the situation Iraqis are facing now.” (more…)

Al-Zindani, father and son

The winds that ushered in the “Arab Spring” were less a simoon, in the sense of a gust that stirs up everything in sight, than they were variable. Regime change has not been the same in every case. Take the case of Yemen, where Ali Abdullah Salih was ousted after three decades in power, but still remains free and influential in Yemen. Such a situation would be impossible for Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi and especially Bashar al-Asad. Although lives were lost in the Yemeni protests, these were few compared to the bloodshed that rocked Libya and Syria and escalates in Egypt with the recent protests against President Morsi’s removal by the military. Currently Yemen is in the process of a “National Dialogue.” This is admittedly a financially bloated endeavor that only the United Nations could create, but it has brought in a broad array of Yemeni views and has proceeded peacefully and with dignity.

Dialogue is always a plus. Monologue is the problem, whether it is a military dictator or a self-important religious cleric. Now the National Dialogue has been compromised by an irrational monologue carried on by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a Salafi whose henna redness in his beard is in direct contrast to any common sense and good will. Al-Zindani reminds me of the “moral majority” preacher Jerry Falwell, who founded his own university and soaked up all the lavish praise his accolades could offer. Al-Zindani founded and runs, in his spare time it would seem, al-Imān University, which teaches hate more than it professes tolerance. The United States considers him a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”, for his links to al-Qaeda, but this has not stopped his constant monologue of self-promotion.

Apparently upset that he was not getting enough attention in the media, al-Zindani has written a letter to the Yemeni people claiming that the National Dialogue is against Islam and that the only constitution possible is that of the shari’a (I suspect he has long forgotten about the Constitution of al-Madina). (more…)

by Daniel Martin Varisco, Middle East Muddle, Anthropology News, July, 2013

The removal of Mohammed Morsi as president of Egypt has generated a frenzy of talking head punditry that shows little sign of abeyance, at least until another Middle Eastern leader bites the dust. Was it a coup? Was it yet another people’s revolution? Was it a failure of democracy? Did the Obama administration support the ouster? Was Morsi trying to make himself into a modern day Pharaoh? Tut, tut, sings the chorus of pundits.

Beyond the rhetoric back and forth, here is a reality check. The military has always been in charge of Egypt since Nasser took power in a well-recognized coup in 1952 that toppled a puppet king. Sadat and Mubarak came from the military, no matter what the status of their election. The military owns Egypt, quite literally, and is its main economic player. Morsi was not elected over the objection of Egypt’s top brass, but his attempt to weaken the power of the military is probably the main reason for his downfall.

In one sense of course it is a coup. It was the military, not the protesters, who really stormed the Bastille. It is the military who is keeping charge of Morsi and pushing for legal action against him. But in another sense it can hardly be called a coup when the military never gave up its power. Morsi was given slack, perhaps to let him fail on his own, but he never had any real power. Despite the official rhetoric, the leaders of most, if not all, Western nations are quite happy to see Morsi out of the way. At least a bloody corpse was not posted on state television, as happened at times in old-style army coups in the region. No American or European policy makers wanted to work with the Muslim Brotherhood any more than they do with Hamas in Gaza or with the militants calling for a new caliphate in Syria.

But here is the dilemma for scholars who study Egypt and have lived there. Egypt’s history, ancient, post-Arab conquest and modern, is a gold mine for researchers in a number of disciplines…

For the rest of this commentary, click here.

[Note: The most notable, at least in the Nobel laureate sense, Arab writer of literature is the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who passed away in 2006 . Among his many novels, several of which are available in English translation by Doubleday Press, is the classic “Midaq Alley”, written more than six decades ago, but still a vibrant testament to the universality of human foibles in a literary mirror. Below is one of my favorite character descriptions in the novel. If you have not yet read “Midaq Alley”, then do so as soon as you can, and taste the sweet words (even in translation) for yourself.]

Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes, or the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that, but in any case, the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one. How could it be otherwise with its stone-paved surface leading directly to the historic Sanadiqiyya Street. And then there is its café known as Kirsha’s. Its walls decorated with multicolored arabesques, now crumbling, give off strong odors from the medicines of olden times, smells which have now become the spices and folk cures of today and tomorrow…

Although Midaq Alley lives in almost complete isolation from all surrounding activity, it clamors with a distinctive and personal life of its own. Fundamentally, and basically, its roots connect with life as a whole and yet, at the same time, it retains a number of the secrets of a world now past. (more…)

In the Sanaa suq; photograph by Charles and Patricia Aithie

[This is the third part of a reflective essay on the author’s upbringing. For part two, click here.]

by Samira Ali BinDaair

A change of scenes

After the skyscrapers of the Gulf, to me, Yemen with its rugged mountains and varied topography was a refreshing change. As I wandered through the old city, I felt I had come home at last, as I sniffed the different aromas of spices, and feasted my eyes on the different colors. Here I thought was where the dreams of centuries had been weaved and many hearts broken which needed mending with new dreams. Maybe my work in development programmes helped me to feel the kind of fulfillment I had never felt in all my years in the Gulf. The early days of settling in a new environment was challenging, but we eventually managed to find our place under the sun. Whatever we missed in the Gulf was made up by our trips to the mountains, where my children roamed freely in the wadis collecting fossils instead of the trips to Burger King and the imaginary teddy bears and clowns who no longer made them laugh.

Our trips to Wadi Shaab to my husband’s village also made them see a different reality from the fairy tale world of the Emirates. There was no electricity there and to date it has none, but we enjoyed seeing the stars which seemed to shine brighter as my father-in-law, a retired building contractor, taught them the names of the different stars. As I watch my son spending hours on his computer on his favorite hobby, Astronomy, I remember those simple beginnings. I remember spending sleepless nights when my husband went to the village alone wondering whether he had reached safely or not, since there was no means of communication in those days. Today I call my sister-in-law regularly on her cell phone, which she charges on a car battery; necessity is the mother of invention. (more…)

Shops in Crater in the 1960s

[This is the second part of a reflective essay on the author’s upbringing. For part one, click here.]

by Samira Ali BinDaair

Back to the roots

The return to Yemen came sooner than we expected in the last phases of British rule in South Yemen. Being young, my brothers and I managed to adjust quickly to our new life and whereas I had enjoyed riding bicycles and climbing trees in Africa we found new forms of entertainment like riding gari gamal (camel carts) and others. Quite often when we went shopping in Crater we were suddenly told to get to the floor as the bullets passed over our heads and while my mother looked worried, to us it seemed like a cowboy film. It was the exchange of fire between British soldiers and what they called “Snipers” but what the Yemenis called “freedom fighters,” There were many checkpoints then especially at the “Aqaba” and the golden highlanders with their Scottish kilts and red caps were a common sight in those days.

As adolescents we were filled with nationalistic ideas of independence, although I dare say without necessarily understanding the historical antecedents of British rule nor all the political implications of the struggle then. As soon as we went to Abyan beach in Khormaksar, we became children again as we played with the waves collecting seashells and chasing the sea gulls, forgetting all about revolution. Alas we had weaved dreams bigger than the half pennies in our pockets.

The convent school I went to in Crater Aden was a completely different version of Yemen and I still remember the kind sister Serena who had taught me how to play the piano,contrasting with the life within my grandfather’s cousin’s stone house in Sheikh Abdulla street in Crater with its old fashioned structure. His wife would sit in the afternoon in her elaborate sitting room, chew qat and smoke the mada’a (waterpipe). In those days it was shameful for young girls to chew qat or smoke in contrast to what is the case today when qat chewing has crossed the age barrier across the board. (more…)

by Samira Ali BinDaair

As I was growing up outside of Yemen, in my early childhood days, I was filled with dreams of the homeland I had never seen. Tales of my grandfather’s adventures in Hadhramout where he worked with Sultan Al-Gaithi fired my imagination. The stories were certainly more exotic than the childish fairy tales I read. Moreover it was more real to me since it was my grandfather rather than Jack and the Beanstalk. My grandfather died before I was born, and all I saw of him were pictures of an imposing face with his Yemeni turban and descriptions of a hefty man who had to bend his head before going into any doorway; typical of Yaffais. Like him many Yaffais had settled in Hadhramout and considered themselves to be Hadhramis for all practical purposes. All these stories came from my grandmother as she spoke lovingly of the husband she had wed as a young girl.

Her stories included the silk gowns and satin beddings that he had bought her while in another breath she would suddenly lament that all he had brought her from his trip to India was a ‘maure’ (stone handmill). l would then look at her huge four-poster bed with its picture of a peacock at the headstead and imagine all the glory of the old days as I saw the faraway look on her face guessing she was going into memory lane with her bitter sweet thoughts for company. I was her constant companion as she painted romantic pictures of poetry and songs. notwithstanding the high mortality rates at the time which had made her lose a few of her children or the endless household chores and breadbaking at the ‘mofa’ (stone oven). (more…)

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