Yemen

While I was working out on an elliptical machine over at Duke (I don’t get to work out as often as I’d like, so on the few occasions when I do get in a workout, I’m going to slip it into my blog), I read the beginning of Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan? the cover article from the July 11 Sunday New York Times Magazine.

I know next to nothing about Yemen, so I thought this would be a good article to read.  It also posed a compelling question.  In order to compare Yemen to Afghanistan, though, I’d need to know more about Afghanistan.  That’s something I want to learn this year.  As I read the article, I got the sense that the comparison the author is making is that because Yemen is poor and not well organized, it can become a haven for terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda — much like Afghanistan was before the US invasion.

One section of the article made me think about my students, who I have only worked with for three days, and who I had the opportunity to get to know on an individual basis this weekend through the written introductions I asked them to hand in on Friday (they are good writers).

I’ll put some comments in red below that I think my students will find interesting (this quote is from the article):

SANA [a city in Yemen] 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. When we read Gilgamesh, we will see some high walls surrounding his city of Uruk.  Today Sana is a far more sprawling place, with Internet cafes and swarms of beat-up taxis and a sprinkling of adventure tourists. The Old City gates are mostly gone now, and although men still carry the traditional daggers known as jambiyas in their belts, they also wear blazers, often with cheap designer logos on their sleeves. Like other Arab capitals, it is full of policemen, and there are occasional checkpoints manned by bored-looking soldiers in camouflage uniforms.

But Yemen is different. Beneath the familiar Arab iconography, like pictures of the president that hang in every shop, there is a wildness about the place, a feeling that things might come apart at any moment. 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. I learned about khat from my trip to rural Ethiopia in the summer of 2006 — it’s a way to stave off hunger. 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.

One morning in Sana, I discovered a crowd of people protesting in the stone courtyard outside the cabinet building. Many had shackle scars on their wrists and ankles. They came from an area called Jaashin, about 100 miles south of the capital. But some of them, I found, did not even know that Jaashin was in the Republic of Yemen. Their only real ruler was the local sheik, Muhammad Ahmed Mansour, who is, it turns out, a kind of latter-day Marquis de Sade. Mansour is also a poet, who earns extra license for his cruelties by writing florid odes to Yemen’s president. Some pilgrims from Jaashin said they were imprisoned, shackled and beaten by the sheik – who maintains his own army and several prisons – after refusing to relinquish their property to him. I asked Ahmed Abdu Abdullah al-Haithami, a bent old farmer in a tattered green jacket, what country he was living in. He looked up at me with imploring eyes. “All I know is that God rules above, and the sheik rules here below,” he said. All of this, I later learned, was documented by Yemeni lawyers, who have been working on behalf of the people of Jaashin for years to little effect. As one lawyer, Khaled al-Alansi, put it to me, “If you can’t fight sheik Mansour, how can you possibly fight Al Qaeda?”  This struck me as a compelling question — if a small-town sheik is able to do whatever he wants, then wouldn’t that mean Al Qaeda cells could similarly do whatever they wanted in their own pockets of Yemen?

Two thousand years ago, the area east of Sana held one of the earth’s most prosperous kingdoms, a lush agricultural region of spices and fruits, fed by irrigation canals from a vast man-made dam. The Romans called Yemen “Arabia Felix,” or Happy Arabia.  We will be studying the Romans — it’s nice to have an article put the Romans in chronological context — about 2000 years ago. Today, the eastern region is an arid wasteland. Most people scrape by on less than $2 a day, even though they live atop Yemen’s oil and gas fields. There are few ways to make a living other than smuggling, goat-herding and kidnapping. The region is also, chronically, a war zone. Tribal feuds have always been part of life here, but in recent years they have grown so common and so deadly that as much as a quarter of the population cannot go to school or work for fear of being killed. The feuds often devolve into battles with bands of raiders mowing down their rivals with machine-gun fire or launching mortars into a neighboring village. No one knows how many people die in these wars, but Khaled Fattah, a sociologist who has studied Yemen’s tribes for years, told me that hundreds of victims a year is a conservative estimate.

Anyway, that’s a little of what I learned about Yemen while I was working out this evening.  I just looked up the city of Sana on Google Earth, and I found this neat picture that shows the old city lit up at dawn:

Here’s Sana in perspective — it’s more built up than I pictured, but it’s also small — only about three miles wide.

I look forward to reading the rest of the article.  But I thought I would share some of what I unexpectedly learned about Yemen today.  Thanks to whoever left that Sunday NYT Magazine at the gym for others to read.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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