In Yemen, Women are the Heroes

7 March, 2021
Yemeni artist  Arif Al Nomay 's File 7987 (Corrupted Files Series), Light Box Photography, 60x90cm, 2014-2018 (

Yemen has too often been in the news since 2014, for all the wrong rea­sons. A beau­ti­ful coun­try with one of the world’s old­est civ­i­liza­tions, many Yeme­nis are on the verge of star­va­tion since the Sau­di-led coali­tion launched its war against the Houthis. Human Rights Watch con­tin­ues to mon­i­tor Yemen’s human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis, even as women and chil­dren are those suf­fer­ing the most. Inter­na­tion­al aid work­er and writer Farah Abdessamad has been trav­el­ing to Yemen for work since 2014. This is the first time she has writ­ten about her expe­ri­ences there pub­licly. The names of her women friends have been changed to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties. Abdessamad’s col­umn is ded­i­cat­ed to Inter­na­tion­al Wom­en’s Day.

Farah Abdessamad

 

 

I had just vis­it­ed the hotel where Arthur Rim­baud had been a guest near­ly 140 years ear­li­er, climb­ing over stacks of rugs and using my cell­phone torch­light to guide me through the upper floor of the old build­ing turned car­pet shop. Luck­i­ly, some­one had under­stood me when I asked for direc­tions (“Ah Ram­bo? Straight ahead”). It was a light and breezy first stay in Aden on Yemen’s south­west­ern coast, filled with end­less cans of Diet Pep­si and fresh grilled fish. Lin­ger­ing behind the walls of the wom­en’s sec­tion of a local beach, I heard that the sit-ins in Sana’a were like­ly to escalate. 

A fam­i­ly who had kept me com­pa­ny float­ed hap­pi­ly on the warm sea, and I stared at the enig­mat­ic sight of the ele­phant-trunk-shaped rock fram­ing the gen­tle Gold Mohur Bay. At noon, I went back to my hotel room. When I tried call­ing friends and col­leagues in antic­i­pa­tion of my flight back to Sana’a the next day, I real­ized that all the com­mu­ni­ca­tion lines had been cut off.

Less than 24 hours lat­er, I drove from the Sana’a air­port to my house, pass­ing the impos­ing Al Saleh mosque in an eeri­ly desert­ed cap­i­tal city. There was none of the usu­al bus­tle and I reached home in an impres­sive twen­ty-minute ride. The fol­low­ing day, mil­i­tary planes cir­cled over head. They ini­tial­ly remind­ed me of the Bastille Day mil­i­tary parades and air­shows in France, except this was­n’t a drill and Ansar Allah, the Houthi move­ment, swift­ly seized pow­er. I had start­ed not long ago a three-month assign­ment to advise an inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion on job cre­ation pro­grams for young peo­ple in Yemen. Alone at home, wait­ing for a strange out­come, I remem­bered a scene from a week pri­or. Ear­li­er that month, I had attend­ed a vol­ley­ball game on the grounds of a west­ern coun­try’s embassy, where white diplo­mats had rec­om­mend­ed I watch I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced, which recent­ly came out—as if I need­ed to watch a movie to under­stand the sex­u­al­iza­tion and soci­etal pres­sure on girls in North Africa and the Mid­dle East. I smiled instead to mask my dis­com­fort, and reached for a slice of water­mel­on, leav­ing expats to grunt punch­ing a ball over a net. Ever since I’d been Nojoom’s age, some of my rel­a­tives would point to “cousins” who “come from a good fam­i­ly” dur­ing my sum­mer vis­its to Tunisia. For the diplo­mats with sweaty gin and ton­ics, Nojoom’s sto­ry was exot­ic; it was part of a pecu­liar Orient. 

Very soon, the white diplo­mats left togeth­er with the vol­ley­ball games. News came that Pres­i­dent Hadi fled his house arrest in Sana’a overnight to reach his native Aden, alleged­ly sneak­ing out and avoid­ing detec­tion dis­guised in a niqab, the female gar­ment derived from a rig­orist inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam. Then came March 2015, a time of chang­ing sea­sons which sud­den­ly car­ried a new name: Oper­a­tion Deci­sive Storm. The first air strikes from the Sau­di-led coali­tion rained over Sana’a and its four mil­lion people. 

From March 2020 onward, cit­i­zens in west­ern coun­tries have expe­ri­enced intense iso­la­tion and a dete­ri­o­ra­tion of their men­tal health as they cope with Covid-19 con­fine­ment and pan­dem­ic-relat­ed mea­sures. Stay­ing at home isn’t that easy, it turns out, and peo­ple long for free­dom, to get “their life back.” 

Peo­ple in Yemen have been stuck at home for the last six years, with unre­li­able elec­tric­i­ty, no Net­flix, and half of the coun­try’s health facil­i­ties no longer func­tion­ing. Suf­fo­ca­tion starts with the mun­dane, or what appears this way at first, like the day a mili­tia man arrest­ed my friend Iman because she drove with­out a male guardian to buy groceries. 

Shams is one in a series of woman photographed and narrated in Yemeni documentarian Thana Faroq's haunting series, the online slideshow,  Women Like Us .

The sum­mer when all media atten­tion focused on Syr­i­an asy­lum seek­ers arriv­ing en masse to Europe by sea and land, I hugged Najla who mis­car­ried in Sana’a. We thought it hap­pened because of stress and pro­longed lack of sleep, due to the fre­quent air strikes at night. When she even­tu­al­ly became preg­nant again, she con­fid­ed her fear. I don’t want my baby to be born here, Farah, she said; the hos­pi­tal has noth­ing, we don’t have elec­tric­i­ty, what life is this? I said it would be okay. I lied.

Anoth­er friend, Amal, chose to move back to her fam­i­ly vil­lage dur­ing the ear­ly days of war. She shared pho­tos of beau­ti­ful cows on our female-only What­sApp group, run­ning polls for the most elon­gat­ed bovine eye­lash­es while send­ing us cheer­ful self­ies adorn­ing a tra­di­tion­al straw hat. It was an untouched cor­ner of the coun­try, she said, for now inshal­lah, she added. Amal missed her city life though.

And Lamis asked next in the chat what had hap­pened with the 2011 upris­ing, an Arab Spring of hope tossed aside by a Spring of war. Lamis had joined the move­ment call­ing for dig­ni­ty, she had mobi­lized oth­ers, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the his­tor­i­cal demon­stra­tions across Sana’a. Was it all for noth­ing, she wrote to an audi­ence of empa­thet­ic emojis. 

I received a phone call ear­ly one morn­ing, one that still sends shiv­ers down my spine years lat­er. It showed the name of my Adeni friend Salma, with whom I’d quick­ly con­nect­ed after we’d first met, and whom I looked after like a younger sib­ling. Upon hear­ing her voice, I imme­di­ate­ly sensed that some­thing was wrong. 

Katyusha rock­ets, she whis­pered in a bro­ken voice. By then, after a few weeks of war, we had become experts at dis­tin­guish­ing artillery sounds, sui­cide bomb­ings and air strikes. I heard her sob­bing and shriek­ing when rock­ets land­ed near­er to her build­ing. We stayed on the phone silent for a while until she said, I think it stopped now. At that time, the Sau­di-led coali­tion waged a street-by-street bat­tle to retake con­trol Aden from the Houthis and my friend’s home was right in the middle. 

As soon as Aden’s air­port reopened, I board­ed the first human­i­tar­i­an flight to vis­it Salma and Aden again. The city had changed and exposed vis­i­ble scars—military sand­bags, bul­let impacts on the walls, car­bon­at­ed cars. Our office had been flat­tened by an acci­den­tal air strike. Salma and I went to the beach for a quick stroll and goofy self­ies, and we grabbed a tasty Adeni ice cream. It would be nice to be all togeth­er again, I said. Salma paused. It’s com­pli­cat­ed now, she said, no longer smil­ing. The war in Yemen widened the North­ern-South­ern rift, with “North­ern­ers” and “South­ern­ers” feel­ing more estranged from each oth­er as the years passed. The Houthis con­trolled the North, the inter­na­tion­al­ly-rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment the South. His­tor­i­cal­ly, women in the for­mer social­ist regime of South Yemen had enjoyed more free­dom than their North­ern coun­ter­parts as they ben­e­fit­ed from greater access to edu­ca­tion and polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. Over­all though and since the uni­fi­ca­tion of the coun­try, Yemen reg­u­lar­ly sits at the bot­tom of the Gen­der Inequal­i­ty Index, an imper­fect mea­sure which looks at repro­duc­tive health, empow­er­ment and employment—it’s a tough place to be born a woman. 

My suit­case did­n’t make the con­nect­ing flight to Aden so after stop­ping for an ice cream we also went for a shop­ping run to Crater, the his­tor­i­cal city cen­ter which sits inside a dor­mant vol­cano. The next day we drove to a neigh­bor­hood where inter­nal­ly dis­placed peo­ple had set­tled. Salma and I were part of a larg­er group of aid work­ers vis­it­ing dis­placed fam­i­lies to assess their sit­u­a­tion and needs. We fol­lowed the group until we saw a woman look­ing at us, the only two oth­er women among the aid work­ers. We approached and took her aside as the men spoke at length with a com­mu­ni­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tive furi­ous­ly fill­ing their notepads. Are the girls ok here? we asked her. 

She grabbed both of our arms and we walked togeth­er behind one of the makeshift shel­ters. There was a girl recent­ly, she start­ed. She told us pri­vate­ly about two child rapes and reg­u­lar bouts of domes­tic vio­lence in the com­mu­ni­ty. A month before in Sana’a, I had seen an acquain­tance con­ceal­ing her dark­ened eye behind a niqab she did­n’t usu­al­ly wear. We had exchanged a glance and left it at that when she sig­naled it was best not to ask. It had hap­pened dur­ing a tire­some week of heavy air strikes. One night, it was relent­less. Past mid­night, my bed shook after each hit. Where did it land, on whom did it land? It did­n’t stop. A Lebanese friend stay­ing a few rooms away texted me: are you sleep­ing? No. Are you scared, too? Yes. 

The liv­ing con­di­tions in the dis­placed set­tle­ment near Aden were abject at best. On the way out, we passed two girls car­ry­ing gigan­tic jugs of water—too big for their tiny frames—from the near­by pump which had formed a large pud­dle. No one stopped to give them a hand. The front­lines shift­ed and our mutu­al friend Amal start­ed send­ing us dif­fer­ent pho­tos from the usu­al cows, of skin­ny girls car­ry­ing mea­ger twigs to feed a cook­ing fire. It was­n’t clear what they would eat. Hunger had increased in pock­ets where fight­ing raged most and over­all in the North. The coali­tion-imposed block­ade placed a fur­ther strain on vital food imports (Yemen is a net food importer), com­pound­ed with decades of under-devel­op­ment, oper­a­tional chal­lenges in human­i­tar­i­an food deliv­ery and some actors see­ing food as a weapon of war. 

The What­sApp chats swelled and shrank, fol­low­ing the com­mo­tions of the war, and mir­rored dif­fer­ent real­i­ties in Sana’a, Taiz, Aden, Turkey, Europe, Egypt and the US as some of us relo­cat­ed. An unlike­ly and par­tial reunion took place in Sana’a in 2017. From our group chat, two Yeme­nis had by then left the coun­try with their fam­i­lies and joined a grow­ing dias­po­ra. One had a new­born baby, one was engaged (Salma!), anoth­er strug­gled to climb upstairs while preg­nant and tripped often over her long abaya. 

Skyline over the Old City of Sana'a (Photo courtesy Farah Abdessamad)

We met at the famous Burj al Salam hotel in the Old City of Sana’a. Dur­ing its hey­day, the busy and live­ly place—an institution—offered drinks, food, and an unprece­dent­ed view over the UNESCO World Her­itage site. Less fre­quent­ed now, it was still a pub­lic space, so we did­n’t wear elab­o­rate make-up and hair­dos, put music on and pass along ten­der qat leaves to chew as we some­times had in more pri­vate venues. It was a good­bye gath­er­ing, though it pained me to admit I would short­ly pack my bags and leave the coun­try, too (three months had turned into three years). I rem­i­nisced over wed­dings, par­ties, moments of absolute shock and hor­ror and it seemed that briefly, on the high­er floors of the hotel’s mafraj, our tales could stop time. Out­side, dark clouds formed over the city announc­ing the start of the rainy sea­son. Sana’a is one of the dri­est cities in the world, with a water table lev­el near depletion. 

Amal, who had lost some weight, made plans to vis­it cof­fee shops in the city—she would stay for a week. So many had closed and not many busi­ness­es had fuel these days to run a gen­er­a­tor. We had to tell her things weren’t quite the same as before. I want to drink cof­fee or tea and read a book, she said, the weath­er is per­fect. Is it real­ly that impos­si­ble? she asked.