“The village of Rihab in Wadi Dawan, a valley that is the ancestral home of Bin Laden”; Simon Norfolk/Institute, for The New York Times

Yemen hardly ever makes the news unless a journalist wants to rail against the green-dribbling khat habit of grown men who wear skirts or trump with the terrorism card. In the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times, Robert F. Worth asks the provocative question: “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” For an article that begins with a photograph of the valley “that is the ancestral home of Bin Laden” and mentions an American cruise missile in the first line, it hardly takes a Ph.D. to figure out what the answer is most likely to be in the mind of the reader. Worthy reporter that he is, The New York Times Middle East correspondent does not directly answer the question. He does not need to, since the Al Qaeda-laced narrative itself hinges on the comparison. The article ends with a visit to an “old man with a deeply lined face” and who walks with a cane. When asked if his son, an Al Qaeda figure described in the story, was really part of the plot in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the father responds:

‘No,’ he said, ‘ I don’t believe this.’ He was silent for a long time, staring at the closed door of the house, which was illuminated at its edges by a bright rectangle of afternoon sunlight. then he spoke again.
‘He is a mujahid,’ he said, or holy warrior. ‘He is fighting those who occupy Arab lands. He is fighting unbelievers.’

I have read a number of articles by journalist Worth, usually with a favorable view of his ability to introduce nuance into what is generally a black-and-white portrayal of things Arab and Islamic. For this article, he contacted diplomats (former Ambassador Hull) and scholars (Gregory Johnson) who are knowledgable about recent political events in Yemen. He is also to be commended for learning some Arabic, although I am not sure his year-long training in classical will be of much help in casual conversation in dialect. Yet he visited Yemen and actually talked to local people and not just the other reporters in the pool. In this sense, the reporting is not bad, certainly not like The Daily News or Fox News engineering. The problem is that neither is the article very good. The question in the title, which perhaps was not the journalist’s choosing given the control of editors, is blatantly rhetorical, not a genuine search for an answer that goes beyond the verbal War on Terror jousting on all sides of the aisle in Washington and in much of the media.

Worth’s article is a brilliant example of connect-the-dots journalism. He does not need to answer the question directly, thus implying that this is an objective account. The dots frame the story; the lines are drawn in your mind as you read through the lengthy article. Consider the image that appears on the very first page:

“it is the Arab world’s poorest country, with a fast-growing and deeply conservative Muslim population of 23 million. It is running out of oil and may soon be the first country in the world to run out of water. The central government is weak and corrupt, hemmed in by rebellions and powerful tribes. Many fear that Al Qaeda is gaining a sanctuary in the remote provinces east of Sana, similar to the one it already has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

No wonder many fear that Al Qaeda has found a new safe haven, back in the homeland of its founder. All the prerequisites are there. It might as well be Afghanistan.

As an experiment read through the article and pull out the questions. These are the big dots in the story. They are posed but seldom directly answered except through the translated dialogue or details of particular cases. Here are a few:

“What did it matter that they hated America and called themselves Qaeda?”

“The people of Rafadh had decisions to make, ones that might soon ramify across all of Yemen’s remote mountains and deserts and even half a world away in the Pentagon. What did Al Qaeda mean to them? Was it worth protecting? A bargaining chip to be used against a neglectful government? Or just an invitation to needless violence?”

Now for the details. The main problem I have with this kind of writing is that it often gets things wrong due to ignorance or just the desire to embellish a story. Consider the following passage:

“SANA RESEMBLES A FORTRESS, not just in its architecture but in its geography. It is set on a high plateau, surrounded by arid, craggy mountains. At its heart is the Old City, a thicket of unearthly medieval towers and banded spires that stands out sharply in the dry desert air. This was the entire city until a few decades ago, its high walls locked every evening at dusk.”

The Sana (variously spelled Sanaa or Sana’a) that Worth first visited is the one connected by a straight road to the international airport. True, it does not have the tall skyscrapers of Beirut or Dubai, but only the Old City could be considered a “fortress.” This part is a real gem, one of the best preserved old cities in the Middle East with a fabulous traditional architecture, but I can think of no worse description than “a thicket of unearthly medieval towers and banded spires that stands out sharply in the dry desert air.” Like the word “fortress,” “thicket” connotes a wild and uncouth locale, perhaps even a “wilderness” as Worth muses later. I assume by “towers” he means the tall houses, but in fact these are not medieval in fact even if the foundations may date back more than a millennium. Perhaps he means “medieval” simply as a general marker of their quaintness, which is even worse than not knowing his history. I am not sure what makes them “unearthly.” They are built of locally quarried stone, which is certainly a natural form of construction on this earth, with limited use of artificial concrete. I tend to associate “spires” with Christian churches, not the minarets attached to the city’s numerous mosques. And then there is that “dry desert air.” If he was talking about the Red Sea coast or the eastern desert around Marib, this would be fine, but Yemen’s capital is not in a desert. Ironically this year Yemen has received far more rain than usual, so the area is even less “arid” than a foreigner might typically see it. As for there being locked gates “a few decades ago,” I suppose that depends on the meaning of a “few.” When I first arrived to Yemen in 1978 the gates were wide open. Or is it that time does not really matter in a country considered so “medieval”

Then there is the ubiquitous “khat,” which Yemenis in the north pronounce “gat” and a classical scholar would transliterate as “qat.” Worth manages to resurrect every silly stereotype around in only a few lines:

“A narcotic haze descends on Yemen every afternoon, as men stuff their mouths with glossy khat leaves until their cheeks bulge and their eyes glaze over. Police officers sit down and ignore their posts, a green dribble running down their chins. Taxi drivers get lost and drive in circles, babbling into their cellphones. But if not for the opiate of khat, some say, all of Yemen – not just those areas of the south and north already smoldering with discontent – would explode into rebellion.”

A fact checker might have looked up the meaning of “narcotic.” Even Wikipedia would help here: “A Narcotic is defined as a drug as opium or morphine that in moderate doses relieves pain and induces deep sleep.” Qat retards both sleep and appetite; in its fresh state it is not a narcotic but a stimulant. Would Worth call coffee a narcotic? In my many trips to Sanaa I have indeed seen a haze, but I would attribute this more to natural climate and pollution than a narcotic. If Worth has ever tried qat seriously he would be hard put to believe that it makes taxi drivers get lost. The confused street system, yes, but qat acts as a stimulant to thinking, which is why Yemeni students chew as they study or for an exam. As for the “green dribble,” I question how many qat chews the journalist has attended. There is an art to chewing qat; I can’t ever remember seeing green dribblings by anyone who knows how to chew. Often a spittoon is provided to spit out excess juice. Even the Peace Corps people I knew in Yemen were able to master the art without needing napkins. I have taken Worth to task before on his mistreatment of the qat issue.

There is a novel suggestion here, one that “some say” which lets the journalist off the hook in giving an opinion. Simply stating it is, in fact, stating a view. If it is brought up at all, it is meant to be considered as a possibility. So the fact that Yemen has not seen a full-scale rebellion is that the tribesmen are too busy chewing qat. Well, the south is not only smoldering with discontent but has in fact already exploded, yet qat chewing is much rarer in the south of Yemen. Worth might have considered the traditional social setting of a qat chew. I have attended many, at least for those men who can chew and not dribble at the same time, and the point is that the chewing session provides a forum for traditional mechanisms of mediation to take place. In the sense that those attending state their views and a genuine democratic dialogue may take place then I suppose one could say that qat chewing hinders open rebellion. What Worth fails to mention, although it can be read between the lines for someone who knows Yemen, is that there are indeed ways of resolving problems and disputes even when the central government has no power or is considered corrupt. The decision of the tribesmen in Rafadh to send the Al Qaeda supporters packing is proof of this. Why not focus on how this decision was reached and the values within the tribal mediation system? Yes, there are feuds, but these come more from a breakdown in the traditional cultural system rather than an endemic tribal malaise.

I appreciate Worth’s reflective moments. Certainly this is an honest admission: “Every time I drive out of Sana I get an ominous sense of going backward in time to a more lawless era.” It reminds me of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, where the locals made good fodder for satirizing a cowboys-and-indians mentality. But Worth is wrong. Were it truly lawless, as he implies, he would not be riding out of Sanaa. He assumes the ineffective legal structure and enforcement of the central government is the only law in Yemen. There is a viable tradition of tribal customary law, one that has long been effective in mitigating violence in the absence of a police force or standing army. Were he to actually spend some time seeing the quotidian life of rural Yemenis, he would find that Yemen is not devoid of values or of mechanisms for achieving justice. Consider that Worth is amazed no government soldiers are guarding the spot near Shibam where four South Korean tourists were killed. Worth visited and did not get killed, neither has anyone else. Stop and compare the limited number of attacks on foreigners in Yemen, all of which garner media attention, with the daily bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq or the continual violence in northern Pakistan and Somalia. Instead of reflecting on this Worth takes a cheap shot, repeating (or perhaps making up) a statement by his guide that the murdered Koreans “discovered Islam.” Really? Is Yemen Afghanistan? Are Yemeni Muslims jihad-happy anti-Western killers?

“Even in the capital, law and order often mean less than they do in other Arab countries.” Alright, this would be hard to refute since there are quite a few “Arab countries.” Since Worth asked the question if Yemen is the next Afghanistan, even forgiving the fact that Afghanistan is not Arab, make the comparison yourself. Where do you think it is safer to be as a foreigner? Or take Baghdad, where Worth had been stationed. Can he claim that law and order means more in Baghdad, even today? Or Gaza, not in terms of Hamas as much as the physical violence and mental anguish inflicted by the Israeli government on Palestinians?

Worth goes on to state that Yemen’s long-standing President Saleh “has encouraged tribal practices, and the feuds have returned.” Really? Encouraged? President Saleh has been in charge of a nation state in which the central government has never been able to establish a dictatorship like Saddam did in Iraq. He survived by playing the system, but he really had no choice. Indeed, President Saleh has tolerated the “tribal practices” but he certainly has had little to gain from tribal rebellion against his authority. Like the imams before him, his mode of survival has been one of forming alliances. For years he worked in close cooperation with the paramount Hashid confederation Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. The unification in 1990 has not worked out for those in the south, but to think that “socialism” is the issue is to miss the point. The conflict is over resources like the potentially lucrative port of Aden, oil fields, and land. Like President Saleh, the former leaders in the south were never able to establish firm control over the whole area.

Worth provides historical backdrop in his article, but at times confuses aspersions with probability. President al-Hamdi was murdered, perhaps with Saudi instigation because he was interested in uniting with the south, but to state that “The killers had thrown the bodies of murdered French prostitutes beside him to blacken his legacy” is accurate in terms of the intent except that the French girls in question were probably not prostitutes but innocent victims. There are many other “minor” infringements on the actual facts, but this is after all a popular magazine article and not a scholarly treatise in a peer-reviewed periodical. There is a need for articles like this in popular forums, but not when they do more damage than saying nothing at all. It is impossible, I suggest, for an average reader with little or no knowledge of Yemen to read this reporting and not conclude that Yemen is either just like Afghanistan or close enough.

So what is the “real problem”, if I may add a dot of my own? Here is Worth’s assessment:

“The real problem was that Yemen, with its mind-boggling corruption, its multiple insurgencies, its disappearing oil and water and its deepening poverty, is sure to descend further into chaos if something does not change. Everyone has acknowledged this, including President Obama and a growing chorus of terrorism analysts.”

Is it really wise to echo the tune of “a growing chorus of terrorism analysts” rather than engage in investigative journalism? The real problem in the litany provided here is mentioned last: growing poverty. Yemen has never been a rich country by foreign standards and even its discovery of oil has mainly benefited the regime’s pockets and created a new class based on influence cum wealth. But the problem is not the potential of its land, where agriculture has flourished for centuries. The poverty has many factors, although these are not explored in the article. A population outstripping key resources like water and struggling without a viable central government is part of the problem. But corruption is not mind-boggling at all. It can happen anywhere when a few people have access to major resources, have the blessing of outside political players, and suffer from geopolitics. When I lived in Yemen in the late 1970s and 1980s Yemen was developing by its remittance-driven shoe strings. Optimism, not a narcotic haze, was in the air. The boom came and the boon ended in 1990 when Yemen was punished for not siding exclusively with the Saudis and the Americans and most of the Yemeni men earning wages in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were sent home to a country without meaningful job opportunities nor the resources to absorb them. If Yemen descends deeper into chaos it will have nothing to do with Al Qaeda, which is a minor irritation within Yemen’s political context, but everything to do with the continued external manipulation that prevents Yemenis from connecting the dots by themselves.

Yemen is not Afghanistan; it is not Iraq, nor is it Somalia. The job of a reporter should be to investigate what actually goes on rather than echo the chorus agenda back home. In this particular article I regret that it is not worth reading.

Daniel Martin Varisco

This commentary has been posted to History News Network.