Yemenity2010's Blog

Taiz 2010 – The Story So Far

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Direkt från Jemen, Tema: Kultur by yemenity2010 on 11/03/2010

Special Report for potential Non-Swedish Readers

Approximately ten weeks ago I left the Swedish winter (unusually cold then, and still is, I’ve been told) for the Middle East. The Turkish Airlines flight from Gothenburg via Istanbul landed in (or rather, outside) the Yemeni capital Sana’a in the predawn hours, 31th of December 2009. I spent a few hours on a bench in the airport, waiting for a connecting flight with a national airline and finally arrived in the city of Taiz in the early afternoon. Already that was kind of a memorable experience, since I was treated to a New Year’s celebration with the Swedish colleagues here and also some other foreign workers in the city (there are quite a few of those, actually). Dinner took place on a roof, followed by a moviescreening (also up there) of a thriller about terrorism and dangerous infiltration (”Traitor” starring Don Cheadle, if you’re interested in the details). Watching it surrounded by the nightly sounds of the city, including chants from different mosques made for a special atmosphere. An early sequence in the film actually takes place in Yemen.

Here, we see things through a glass darkly...

This country seldom turns up on the media radar in Sweden, but the last week before I left it seemed to be mentioned in the news each and every day. It might have to do with my increased attention while preparing for the departure, but some specific news bulletins concerning this arabic republic south of Saudi Arabia, certainly helped make it a center of attention for a while. And most of the news had something to do with themes in the above mentioned first film I happened to watch here. The first week I spent here also included some heightened security measures and advices for foreign workers and visitors, following the temporary closing of some embassies in Sana’a. Since then, the situation seems to have stabilized, relatively speaking. All in all, it is complicated and has been for a long time. But this region where I am staying usually has been one of the less conflictive ones in the country.

The place where I am about to spend this year working (according to the plan, at least) is a so-called Training Center, founded by a Swedish NGO (non-governmental organization) some 40 years ago. Right now the focus of the center is education in English, electronics and sewing. All in all there are at present maybe 200 students here, with close to 800 more on a waiting list (predominantly in the English department). Probably things will change somewhat soon with the arrival of a new leadership team, made up of people from different countries; a transition that will take place in June. The briefest possible description of my assignment is to develop ideas for cultural exchange and related activities, a part of the process of expanding the platform for the center. Which, as you already guessed, could mean a lot of different things. So far, I am running a small simple cafeteria in the library we have, mainly to provide the students with some refreshments and such, in-between their classes. A desired side-effect would of course be to create another meeting place and circulation within the newest building on the lot. That’s the Culture Center, inaugurated in november; i. e. shortly before I came here.

Last week we arranged the first art exhibition in the building, displaying works by a young Yemeni artist with a gift for vivid portraits, still life paintings and some abstract motives – mostly in oil. My impression is that it worked out pretty well, even though the art of marketing and communicating as a whole in this culture still is something I’m learning about. In this case we relied heavily on word-of-mouth, personal contacts and networks and also information directed at the students who come here five days of the week. In the near future, I hope we can develop the cultural programming with music, more art, workshops of varying kinds and in the month of May we have planned for a sewing exhibition. To Be Continued…

Taiz is the third biggest city in Yemen, with maybe half a million people living in the area (no one seems to know for sure). It’s crowded, noisy and intense with a lot of traffic and a set of unwritten rules that might differ slightly from what we outsiders are used to. In other words, you have to be alert while walking, driving or getting out of a minibus known as dabab, a standard mode of transportation here. Motorcycles might be coming straight at you, driving in the wrong direction at full speed. People are prone to crossing the street walking, without paying much attention to the cars, buses and motorbikes but hoping for the best – and usually getting away with it. It’s exciting in a way. I think my three years working in Ecuador was sort of a nice preparation, but this is a step further out in the unknown in many ways. Power cuts are common, and like many other institutions and businesses we have our own diesel generator as a complement. Some people also predict severe water shortages in the future, and that the country as a whole might virtually run out of it within ten years.

Yemen is 99 percent muslim, which is obvious. The official prayer hours during the day are impossible to miss, but after a while you get accustomed to the regular calls from the minarets that can be found on several places throughout the city. The culture is also quite strict regarding clothing, at least for women. The majority of them adhere to dress code that requires a long dress called balto, accompanied by a head scarf known as makrama and a veil referred to as lithma (generally all in black). There are exceptions, and some women choose more colourful scarves and leave the lithma out of it. Those principles don’t apply to foreigners the same way, and among the immigrants and NGO-people and such, people make up their own rules – or follow guidelines from their employers.

The landscape around here is hilly and this time of year, also quite dry. It didn’t rain during the first month I was here, but lately it started with some daily showers from above, even though the rainy season is said to start out for real in april. This is still called winter (I think) but we might be closing in on spring, followed later on by a summer season that is said to be very hot and require regular use of air conditioning.

Something distinctive about Yemen is the widespread use of qat (or khat), a species of leaves that are cultivated here and consumed almost exclusively in this country. The tradition has been there for a long time, but exactly how long? Who knows. Some basic facts kan be find on Wikipedia. But I will probably return to the subject more in-depth later on, some time. Many people, at least men, chew the leaves on a daily basis, but there seems to be a growing resistance, especially among doctors, dentists and young people who state that the plant is a ”curse” and creates not only several health problems but also is an obstacle to economic development. Some households spend a significant percentage of their income on qat, which is a concern in itself. Talking to people about it, I realize that there are many dimensions to the topic and many different views. Too many to sum up quickly right now. So, another ”To Be Continued”…

Security issues and numerous problems aside, this is also a place where people in general are very friendly and if they know enough English, they will try to use it to help you out if you’re a foreigner with a very limited grasp of Arabic. I have begun to take some lessons with a private tutor once a week, but getting a grip on the written language is a challenge if you don’t know anything beforehand (like me). It’s easier to memorize common useful phrases, such as salaam-aleikum (common way of greeting), bekam hada (”what does it cost?”) and ashufaq ba’aden (”see you later”). But I am seriously going to make an effort at learning the basics of the Arabic alphabet and reading simple terms at least. The continuing experience here will probably benefit from it.

Yeah, I think we're on the same wave-length...

Recommended sources for more on Yemen as a whole:

BBC News: Middle East, Al-Jazeera English, Yemen Times, Yemen Today

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