Most Americans know little about the country of Yemen, located beneath (geographically and metaphorically for many foreign policy makers) America’s oil-friendly ally Saudi Arabia. I have been going to Yemen since 1978, when I lived for over a year as an ethnographer in a highland tribal village northwest of the capital Sanaa. Since that time my academic career has focused largely on the history and culture of Yemen. I edited a bulletin (Yemen Update) devoted to all aspects of Yemeni Studies for a decade, and I have returned frequently as researcher and development consultant. Over the years there have been very few news articles about Yemen by American correspondents. The few that have appeared are generally so full of stereotypes and misinformation that I often turn the paper aside in disgust. The major 3-part article begun last weekend (Dec. 18, 19, 20) by David Finkel on a democracy development project in Yemen for the Washington Post is sadly yet another ignorant and dangerous posting that needs a reality check.

My problem is not with Finkel’s critique of the nefarious and largely ill-suited agenda of the Bush administration to export American-style democracy to the Middle East. The specific project he describes for Yemen was seriously flawed, a dangerous mix of naivete, lack of insight, beltway bandit opportunism and use of political dynamite for a relay race to an unreachable “mission accomplished.” The problem, for those who think reality is worth knowing, is with the distorted vision of a hotel-based journalist on a limited assignment published via dismissive rhetoric and translated quotes scattered about in tepid newspaperspeak like shrapnel after a cluster bomb explodes.

Here is where the reader begins, after the entry trope of an “old” American woman heading a development project involving tribal shaykhs, internal security police, and Yemen’s foreign minister:

“How it ended is this: Yemen, as of Dec. 15, was an embryonic democracy of 20 million people, 60 million guns, ongoing wars, active terrorists, extensive poverty, pervasive corruption, a high illiteracy rate, an infamous port where al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in 2000, a notorious patch of valley that is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, and a widespread belief that the United States is the reason life here for so many is so miserable.”

Such a plot would make a great novel, if only it were to be read in the Culture and Arts section. But Finkel’s assessment is presented as a serious investigative report by a Washington Post Staff Writer. I admit that his account is a view of Yemen easily found among hunkered-down officials in the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy or the constantly in-and-out development professionals that clog the hallways of Yemen’s overburdened Ministry of Planning. But Finkel, and by extension the Washington Post, does his American readership a disservice by substituting a tragedy in one isolated part of Yemen for the country as a whole. He neither understands the role of tribes and tribal customary law in Yemeni society, nor the nuances of a serious democracy based in large part on the very tribal frame Finkel seemingly suggests could have been saved by an American with $300,000, no Arabic and a team planning meeting where a handful of tribal shaykhs are asked if they know how to use Excel, the computer program.

I want to begin where Finkel ends his beginning. First, there are several relevant points left out of his Hobbesian bashing of the modern nation state of Yemen. As of December 15, Yemen has been a unified country for 15 years after the merging of the former socialist Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen with the more dominant Yemen Arab Republic in 1990. Unfortunately for Yemen, only two months after this historic unification Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and precipitated a climate of political counterpunching that left the newly reformed government of Yemen reeling on the political ropes with savage body blows to the already struggling economy. Yemen had received aid from Saddam, as Finkel notes, but far more aid had been pouring in from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In opposing the unilateral attack of the U.S. and its close allies in the first Gulf War, Yemen was punished with a double economic hit: some 800,000 Yemeni workers were unceremoniously thrown out of Saudi Arabia with an immediate cutoff of remittances flowing into Yemen’s burgeoning private sector and the additional burden of so many men returning with limited job opportunities at home. To make matters worse, Yemen was cut off from development aid, including successful programs in the ‘70s and ‘80s that sent young Yemeni professional to the United States for training. There is no better way to export democratic values than to provide Yemeni students with assistance to study in American and see those values first hand.

Indeed Yemen is an embryonic democracy, but unlike Saudi Arabia or Kuwait it is already a democracy with several successful elections as supporting evidence. That democracy was battered rather than nurtured by American foreign policy at the most critical early stage during the first Gulf War. Finkel correctly notes the continuing problem of Saudi money being used to bribe Yemeni shaykhs and promote their conservative Wahhabi view of Islam. The Saudis have long interfered with Yemeni politics, including active support in the mid 1960s for the regime of the former imamate. The current isolation of Yemen has more to do with the cozy relationship of the United States and the Saudi kingdom than anything that Yemen has done on its own. Democracy in Yemen is no longer an embryo; the baby is out and developing with all the growing pains democracies inevitably face. Articles such as the one written by Finkel serve only to abort the further growth of democracy in Yemen.

Finkel’s statistics are on target, but his choice is questionable. There are 20 million people, perhaps as many as 10 million sheep and goat, around a million and a half cattle and only about 190,000 camels. There are probably too many Toyotas, Daihatsus, Suzukis and similar imports to count, which explains the relatively small number of camels and their virtual disappearance from major transport. But why is it so necessary to count the number of guns. The 60 million figure would imply that there are three guns for every Yemeni, so in a worst case scenario every Yemeni could theoretically be killed three times. In a country where tribal men and many other members of society have always carried guns and where there is a different historical role for police and military, this is hardly surprising. How many guns do Americans own west of the Pecos and Canadians north of the Great Lakes? A more telling statistic would be the number of guns manufactured in Yemen. That number I suspect is zero. Who sells the guns (Kalashnikovs at $350) and ammunition (reported at only 36 cents per bullet in the Jawf) to Yemen? Why do many of these weapons continue to cross the long, always disputed border with our ally Saudi Arabia? The “gun-toting” shaykhs, some of whom we are told marry 11 year old girls, become the main models for Finkel’s jaundiced Jawf-eye view of Yemen.

Then we are informed that Yemen has ongoing wars. I cannot really think of any country in the Middle East or in many parts of the world were there are no “ongoing wars.” There are no ongoing wars in Yemen, unless you foolishly think tribal feuds, which are not endemic to most of the country, should be reclassified as wars. They should not be, nor should they be confused as examples of terrorism. Finkel approaches the Jawf region, with one of the smallest percentages of the country’s population, as Dodge City with no Marshall Dillon. In this case the Jawf tribes come across as both the lawless gunslingers and the savage Indians of “Western” cinema. There are tribal communities spread throughout Yemen and every region has its shaykhs, even if in name only. In the absence of a strong central government, the tribes developed a system of customary law that emphasized mediation and advocated an honor code. The tribal village that I lived in more than two decades ago followed democratic principles that would be welcome in America. I carried no guns, but never feared any man who did because I was a guest. Times have changed, both in Yemen and in America, but the problem is not with the tribal values and grass-roots cooperation that has long permeated Yemeni society. Yemen has been invaded by intolerant views of Islam and buffeted by the competing geopolitics of those countries who hand out the aid.

What about the wars that are over? The 1962 revolution in the north toppled a religious imamate that was corrupt and out of touch with the people; yet the Saudi government did everything in its power to bring back the old regime. Had Egypt’s Nasser not sent in troops to preserve the young republic, Yemen might be yet another monarchy on the peninsula. There were skirmishes between north and south Yemen before unification and a major civil war in 1994, but that war is over, even if the after effects linger. Yemen is not currently at war with any of its neighbors, although they had probable cause in an island dispute with Eritrea a few years back. Yemen has no arsenal of wmds aimed at any of her neighbors (as several other countries in the region do), nor has President Salih of Yemen spewed out provocative war talk against his neighbors.

The tribal wars described in Finkel’s article are a serious regional problem in Yemen. But this has little to do with American foreign policy and less to do with international terrorism. The article suggests that no Americans ever dared enter this war zone of anarchy, where shaykhs battle it out on dirt roads like Capone-era gangsters. Apart from archaeologists and tourists visiting the site of the ancient Marib dam, few people wanted to go to this region until oil was found. Here’s a reality check. The oil fields in Yemen’s Jawf were discovered and developed by Hunt Oil of Texas. Texan oil men, many of whom would vote for George W.Bush faster than a rodeo rider can turn a steer, have been going in and out of this area with the blessing of the local tribes and the central government for two decades. The Jawf has a lot of problems, not least of which is the amount of smuggling carried out and the lack of viable agricultural or livestock production in most of the region. As correctly noted in the article, the main problem in this part of Yemen is the poverty, exacerbated by the profitability of crime. But the feuds here are local. This is no more a breeding ground for anti-American terrorists than any other part of the Middle East.

There is, of course, a new war forced upon Yemen and that is the post September 11 war on terrorism. When the democracy program director, Robin Madrid, sought permission to travel to the dangerous Jawf region, she was cautioned against it.
“’We are talking about violence. We are talking about armed confrontation. We are talking about people who are killed every day,’ one U.S. Embassy official said, cautioning against such a visit. ‘They are the border of Saudi Arabia, and that’s where al Qaeda is.’” Other embassy people characterized the USAID program to promote democracy as another way of getting out the terrorists. This is the black-and-white war talk of non-combat hawks that fills a politicized vacuum of ignorance with visions of terrorists behind every bush. Is it surprising that some Yemenis, as ignorant of what is going on in America as most Americans who read the newspapers are about Yemen, think that our Bush is behind what they see as superpower terrorism?

Finkel feeds this terror filtering of the world by referring to the port of Aden (which he sees no need to mention by name) simply as an “infamous port where al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in 2000.” This makes as much sense as calling New York “an infamous port where al Qaeda attacked the Twin Towers in 2001.” The Yemeni government cooperated with U.S. intelligence in the aftermath of this tragedy, which was the last thing in the world Yemeni officials wanted for one of the world’s best natural ports with major potential for development as a free trade zone. Finkel also dredges out “a notorious patch of valley that is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden” as though Yemen is responsible for this individual’s acts. That homeland is the Hadramawt, from which generations of Yemenis have migrated to places as far apart as Indonesia and England. Missing here is the fact that Osama himself grew up in Saudi Arabia, spent youthful time partying in England and became a political activist rather than a spoiled rich kid in Afghanistan with United States backing. If indeed there are “active terrorists” walking freely around Yemen, this is more a testament to the ability of some individuals to blend in after being encouraged to fight a jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan rather than an indication of active plotting.

Many ordinary Yemenis blame the United States for its war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and its continuing support of Israel. Yemen is not unique; I suspect the same sentiments are as widely distributed among ordinary Saudi citizens. But I have talked to many Yemenis, as recently as last May, and they are quite vocal about why their life is miserable. It has very little to do with American foreign policy. Yes, there is widespread corruption but this has generated a heated debate within the society and in the halls of Yemeni government on how to deal with it. Corruption is in part a feature of spiraling poverty, as it is worldwide. For the Yemenis I know the causes of their misery are lack of jobs, the high expense and poor quality of education and rising costs of living. Yemen has always been poor, but now there is a new kind of poverty in which some people are rich beyond belief while the majority just get deeper in debt. It does not take a World Bank consultant on $500 or more a day to see that the gap between rich and poor is increasing at an alarming rate. The real terror in Yemen is a growing class problem over a pie that must be cut in smaller and smaller pieces. If a cause must be found, it is imported capitalism rather than internal terrorism.

Finkel sprinkles quotes through his article from individuals he met as though they should speak for the masses. One man who hears about hurricane Katrina is said to want a hurricane “to destroy America.” Another man, who had just finished praying in a mosque, is heard to say: “I asked God to destroy America.” In the absence of a Gallup Poll these soundbites damn 20 million Yemenis as America’s enemy. Frustration expressed to a foreigner in another language is easy fodder for a clueless reporter. I could visit any number of evangelical churches in our country and hear the same sentiment expressed over Saddam’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria and especially now for Iran. Do Yemenis hate Americans? In over twenty-five years of traveling all over Yemen I have yet to encounter one person who hated me because I was an American. Many hate our policy and fix the blame on President Bush, but that hardly makes them into terrorists anymore than it turns those of us who criticize the current administration unpatriotic.

Having read this entire series of Yemen-bashing, it is not hard to find other negative images of Yemen. Yemen is labeled “one of the world’s most troubled and mysterious countries” in the world. Troubles abound in developing countries; the mystery is perhaps in the eye of the beholder, especially one who apparently has never read any serious research on Yemeni culture. The mystery is perpetuated by the serious flaws in the reporter’s rapid appraisal of a country he literally knows nothing about before stepping foot on the tarmac of the main airport and little beyond that on his return trip. Like many foreigners, Finkel has no clue about the role of qat (which he calls khat and which Yemenis pronounce gat). “In the dens of private homes, where Yemenis gather every afternoon to chew the leaves of a narcotic plant called khat and talk about Yemen’s chaotic politics and increasing deterioration,” he adds to a billboarded litany against President Salih. The plant (Catha qatedulis in scientific terms) is grown in Yemen for its fresh leaves, which are chewed by many Yemenis as a stimulant. The effect is similar to pseudo-ephedrine, but it is in no way definable as a narcotic. Fresh qat leaves are no more narcotic that several cups of coffee; chewing is not addictive like the hashish or opium still found in the living room dens of Americans across the social scale. Dens are where wild bears hibernate and Ozzie and Harriet watch television with the kids; there are no comparable “dens” in traditional Yemeni houses. There are rooms for entertaining guests, usually called by the Arabic term diwan, which has filtered into acceptable English. If the reporter had bothered to see how Yemenis view qat chewing, including the vigorous internal debate over its use, he might have been able to report something informative rather than more of the same drugged condemnation of a country virtually unknown to Americans.

I take consolation that the length of Finkel’s exploitative reportage, as well as its dumbed down newSunworthy English, would probably turn off most readers. As you might imagine, if you have had the patience to read this far in my critique, I do not recommend that anyone go online and read the three parts of his article. You will not gain a credible understanding of the politics or culture of development within Yemen today. Yemen, a country that is constantly maligned in the American media, deserves better. And there is better, much better and more readable. I end this critique with an invitation to read an exciting and informative new book by the anthropologist Steven C. Caton, who lived in a Yemeni town during a tribal “war” and describes that process brilliantly in his Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation (New York, Hill and Wang, 2005). Whatever one may think about the Bush administration’s selective push for creating democracies, especially in one of the few countries that already has one, the Washington Post owes its readers something more than the same old, uninformed Yemen bashing that makes news reporting both sham and shame.

Daniel Martin Varisco