Keeping Yemen Alive
Burj Al-Salaam, Old City of Sana'a, 2013
I wrote the word “Yemen” on the blackboard then asked my students: “What’s the first thing that comes to mind?” Confused faces stared back at me. Few moments later a girl in the front row broke the silence and responded: “Famine.” “Ah, oui!” I heard someone else shout in the back and then without hesitation others joined: “War, refugees, conflict, displacement.” “Anything else?” I asked, but the 23 students in Auber 203 shook their heads in unison.
On the one hand, I was happy that they knew about the conflict, but no matter how often it happens, my mind can’t wrap itself around Yemen as a simple hashtag or media headline, eliciting either fear or pity without context or history. It pains me how misunderstood this ancient civilization is.
In no means am I denying or reducing the gravity of the horrifying situation where parents helplessly watch their children turn into skeletons. Where people are forced to bury rubble or try to guess which body part belongs to whom after an explosion. Where torture and disappearances have become normalized. Of course we should be talking about these atrocities, we should be holding people accountable; but that is only half of the story. There are many others too.
As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s said in her talk the danger of a single story, “to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
We shouldn’t report on a war without highlighting other components that are just as important, such as how people live during the conflict, how they cope, and their innovative, creative and resilient spirits. Let’s talk about how teachers are continuing to teach despite the fact that they haven’t received their salaries in months. Let’s talk about how artistic expression has flourished in the midst of war, how new book clubs, music videos, films, and photo exhibits have emerged. Yemenis----like others living in war zones----also create beauty amidst the ugliness. If these stories aren’t told, we lose our voice, we lose our dignity. We appear without agency.
I don’t want the memories of my Yemen to be overshadowed by media reports. I am terrified that I will forget what burning incense smelled like in a crowded room filled with laughing women and ‘oud. Or the taste of street hot potatoes with cumin and peppers. In the midst of daily deaths, my resistance is to keep the Yemen I remember alive. My resistance is to prevent my memories from being hijacked by all the blood. My resistance is to keep Yemeni culture present in everything I do and transfer its beauty to my daughter. My resistance is to write down my memories so that I know they really exist and weren’t a fabrication of my imagination. My resistance is to dance in the face of adversity. I recognize that I’m writing from a place of extreme privilege, living in France away from the war but I know that many Yemenis inside and outside also don’t want to be reduced to what media tells us we are. I’m not saying let’s not talk about the war, we must; but let’s also talk about what keeps us alive.
Atiaf Z. Alwazir is a researcher and university lecturer by day and writer by night. She considers herself a world citizen, but her world is currently focused on Yemen. She resides in Lille, France. Many will know her from her personal blog Woman From Yemen. She co-founded the media advocacy group @SupportYemen and has written in Foreign Policy, the Arab Reform Initiative, Project on Middle East Democracy, Jadaliyya, Al-Akhbar, openDemocracy, and the Fair Observer, in which she wrote her well-known piece, "It's not a Sunni-Shiite Conflict, Dummy."