Yemenity2010's Blog

The Newsroom – Sana’a Steil

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Kultur by yemenity2010 on 21/09/2013

The truth is not always easy to find, but a fascinating place it is. New York journalist Jennifer Steil tried running a newspaper in Yemen a few years ago and shares her experiences in The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a candid account of life and work in one of the oldest known civilizations on earth.


Among all the thank-you’s in the introductory pages, there is one dedicated to ”all the taxidrivers who kept their hands on the wheel”. Apparently, as described by the author in one  of the anecdotes later on, not all of them did…

But that’s more of a parenthesis. This contains a lot more than complaints and observations on the less appealing traits of Yemen. Cause that’s where the action takes place. Most of it in the capital Sana’a, supposedly one of the oldest cities on earth – some say 2500 years old, which is mentioned by the author. No one knows for sure. Personally I’m fascinated with her story not least because I spent one year in the same country, though most of the time in the city of Taiz. Also, my journalistic training adds to the common denominators. But I probably wouldn’t have fared so well running a newspaper in Yemen. That’s the challenge New Yorker Jennifer Steil decides to take on some time in 2006. To begin with, it’s only about visiting and teaching some journalistic principles for a few weeks, but she is asked to come back and embarks on an adventure where the cultural clashes become an everyday thing, it seems. Interestingly enough, a lot of it seems to come as a surprise to her, but she also appears to be a fast learner.

A general observation is that Steil’s revealing storytelling includes many details that could very possibly get people involved in trouble. Sometimes she leaves names out, often at least surnames remain undisclosed, and in the fine print you come across the disclaimer that she’s changed some ‘names and details’ and dealt with these issues before publishing the book. Granted, things like the female garments come up and Steil takes time to explain the difference between abaya and balto (two similar kinds of robes) as well as niqab (covers the face except the eyes), hijab (covers the hair) and burqa (hides the face and leaves only a grille for the eyes). At least what they mean in Yemen. For the record, the words I heard mostly were makrama instead of hijab and lithma – another epithet for niqab, the way I understood it.

One of the main dilemmas facing the new temporary editor of Yemen Observer in 2006 is obviously the lack of properly trained reporters. There are a couple of English-language papers in the country but it’s difficult to find staff combining knowledge of English and journalistic education. Also, Steil comments on cultural traits like ”The Yemeni education system does not encourage critical thinking. Children learn almost entirely by rote, and corporal punishment is common”. This and other cultural differences lead to a series of conflicts and frustrations in the process of finding news, writing, editing and producing the paper as a whole. Some of the predominantly young staffers catch on faster and Steil is obviously fonder of some of them, like the always curious and hardworking woman Zuhra. More troubling and unpredictable is the interaction with Observer’s owner Faris al-Sanabani, a man with more of a business-like background. Although educated in the US and with some big visions, he seems to be torn between loyalties; keeping good relations with the government does not always easily go hand in hand with being an independent publisher.

Remember, this was a few years before the so called ‘Arab Spring’ and Yemen had for almost three decades been ruled by authoritarian ex-military officer Ali Abdullah Saleh. Was he a dictator? Not strictly speaking.  As the author explains, Yemen at the time was at least a nominal democracy with some separated branches of government and a parliament with 301 elected members. Yes, there were elections even before the upheaval that started roughly two years ago. The system was more democratic than in many other neighbouring nations. But – Saleh as president and his party still controlled more power than would be accepted in a real democracy, the whole system was known for its corruption and presidential elections were for many years a formality, even if there were opponents. And campaigning.

Is there a form of recklessness inherited in the culture? Well, that might be a provoking statement, but the author makes some telling observations about the Yemeni mindset that are not completely misplaced, such as the frequent use of ”insha’allah” (roughly translated as ‘if God wants…’) as an excuse when things do no go as planned. It just wasn’t meant to be. ”The absence of personal responsibility bothers me” Steil writes (on page 158 to be exact) adding that her female reporters seem to work harder to get the stories finished in time, while the men ”spend the bulk of their time justifying their minimal efforts”. The latter have, in her view, in general had a more privileged upbringing and so… Well, the point is hard to miss. And the notion that girls usually have more obstacles to confront than boys in this respect is probably hard to argue with. bookrevies-blogotype1

Another worthwhile observation that at least seemed valid a few years ago (but may have to be reconsidered after what we’ve seen from the Yemeni version of the ‘Arab spring’ in the news in recent years) is the lack of witnesses in the stories published on especially dramatic events. The reporters seldom come near for example fresh crime scenes and as a rule they get most of their information from so called official sources, something also attributed to ordinary people often being afraid to talk to the press in these cases. This results in ”dull and often misleading stories” according to Steil. This while the country for years has been of interest to international media mainly for the terrorist groups based in the country, due to corruption and poverty. Steil emphasizes the government’s failing in translating the oil revenues to adequate services for people in general as a cause for that situation.

Although the lion’s share of the book takes place in 2006, the epilogue and afterword deals with some later developments, both personal and somewhat political, wrapping up the accounts during the fall of 2010. The conclusion after spending what turns out to be a couple of years in Yemen, is obviously a scepticism towards most of the reports coming out of there. ”It’s not a country a reporter can figure out in a flying visit… The only way to stand a chance of knowing what is really going on in Yemen is to be there. And even then the truth is elusive.” Hard to argue with that one as well.

By the way – I wonder what Aaron Sorkin could make out of this story if he decided to give it a shot?

Reviewed: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil (Broadway Paperback 2011).

Related: Steil’s official homepage


Storm och stilla veckor

Posted in Direkt från Jemen, Tema: Kultur, Uncategorized by yemenity2010 on 07/08/2010

Sedan en dryg vecka är jag på semester i Sverige, fram till slutet av augusti, efter en senaste månad full av omställningar på arbetsplatsen. Tillbringade innan avresan ett par dagar i huvudstaden Sana’a och skaffade en del av de saker jag hittills försummat, som en yambiya – den traditionella jemenitiska kniven som många bär i ett bälte med mer eller mindre utsirade tillbehör och dekorationer. Dessutom en välbehövlig klippning hos en frisör i gamla staden med åtminstone tre porträtt av Saddam Hussein på väggarna. På väg hem, under mellanlandningen i Istanbul insåg jag på allvar att jag tillfälligtvis lämnat Jemen och befann mig åtminstone i porten mellan mellanöstern och Europa. Främsta ledtråden: damernas generella klädval. Det var naturligtvis ingen överraskning, men det är märkligt hur fort man ändå vänjer sig vid att se en annan, annorlunda (och i det här fallet strängare) standard i samhället omkring sig, vilket i Jemen inte minst manifesteras genom den trefaldiga kvinnliga klädkombinationen balto, makrama och lithma.

Det rådde ett ovanligt lugn på Swedish Training Center (som snart kommer att byta namn) under någon vecka i skiftet juni-juli, efter alla avskedshögtider, kursavslutningar och bokslut under den sista tiden som vårt hemresande föreståndarpar Edström tillbringade där. Nu har en ny tysk/amerikansk ledartrojka tagit över ansvaret och  värmde upp med lite inskolning innan de drog igång med diverse personalmöten (främst för den jemenitiska personalen och de mer fast anställda, lite mindre av den varan för oss få projektarbetare som är kvar) och inledning av den nya tiden. Ombyggnadsarbeten, renovering och i första ledet en del rivna murar rent bokstavligt, var några av de synliga – och ofta ljudliga – resultaten under juli.

Undervåningen i det senast byggda huset (där jag spenderar det mesta av min arbetstid) byggs om och volymerna i övervåningens bibliotek har packats ner i lådor i väntan på mer klara besked om vad som ska komma i stället; något slags resurscentrum är utlovat. Muren på baksidan av centret är delvis riven och håller på att ersättas av något förhoppningsvis mer grund…murat. Byggarbetare har omsvärmat oss överallt. En kväll vid 22-tiden tyckte jag mig se en springande okänd man inne i området vid personalbostäderna och vet fortfarande inte om det var någon av de nya nattvakterna som förirrat sig in för långt eller någon helt annan individ.

Och den ordinarie personalen har  i vissa fall jobbat övertid, inte minst vår elektronikspecialist Ameen som bland annat inventerat utrustning, rensat undan ålderstigen sådan, upptäckt antika manualer på svenska som hör ihop med lika antika apparater från Sala… Dessutom har han dragit om ledningar från ett system som uppenbarligen härrör från centrets barndom och kan behöva sorteras för att undvika fler av de återkommande säkringsutblåsningarna under den varma junimånaden. Som bonus fångade han skymten av ett par ormar på vinden i bostadshuset vi brukar oss av.

– Farliga?

– Nej, de är rädda för människor.

– Giftiga?

– Kanske, men de försvinner när de ser dig.

Med andra ord: Don’t worry, be happy.

Själv har jag den senaste tiden framförallt sysslat jag med skrivgrupper, men även med baskurser i gitarrspel. Planen är att de ska fortsätta, efter fastemånaden ramadan som påbörjas i mitten av augusti – det här året vill säga, för i det fallet följer traditionen en annan kalender än vår.

De flesta ur den personal som bott på centret fram till nu har flyttat ut, delvis på grund av nya direktiv från ledningen. Elektriciteten är ett ständigt äventyrsmoment beroende på byggnadsarbetenas inverkan på kopplingarna, inte minst i det nyaste huset. Ett tillstånd av (förhoppningsvis) kreativ destruktion rådde alltså i stort när jag åkte ifrån Taiz i slutet av juli. Processen är påbörjad, på flera plan. Vad ska den leda till?

To Be Continued…

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

Battleground Culturica – The Plan

Posted in Tema: Kultur, Uncategorized by yemenity2010 on 25/02/2010

”Vägen till studenternas kulturintresse går genom magen”

Gammalt djungelordspråk eller möjligen rent önsketänkande från min sida.

Nu har den planerade cafeterian öppnat på prov i kulturbyggnaden på Swedish Center. Det är tänkt som ett enkelt och smidigt sätt att dels förse studenterna (av vilka de flesta läser engelska, elektronik och sömnad) med någon form av förtäring på nära håll, men också att öka cirkulationen överhuvudtaget i huset, som i korta drag ska utvecklas och få  ett bredare programinnehåll.  Första förmiddagen var ett allmänt kaos och vissa regeländringar vidtogs till nästa pass, som att studenterna beställer och inte själva lagar till sina önskemål inne i köket, som är ett (grovt uppskattat) tio-tolv kvadratmeter stort utrymme inne i biblioteket på övervåningen. Jag testar just nu olika öppettider och försöker snappa upp signaler på om utbudet är tillfredsställande eller inte. Delikata frågor, det där.

Dessutom har jag för ändamålet skaffat en fin liten bärbar CD-spelare kombinerad med kassettenhet och radio av märket Panasoaenic (sic!). Nej, jag tar inget ansvar för hur många originaldelar som ingår, även om produkten sägs vara ‘huvudsakligen’ sammansatt i Japan. Billig var den i alla fall. Försökte också bränna ut en del CD-ar med lämplig musik (något som man ju gör mer och mer sällan numera i takt med lagringsmediernas evolution och ökande artrikedom) men råkade ut för ett uppenbarligen inte helt ovanligt problem; de brännbara CD-skivorna här är ofta av sekunda kvalitet och ger upp innan de är färdigstekta. Förargligt. I värsta fall får jag väl beställa från bekanta hemmavid. Och hoppas att MacBookens brännarenhet inte själv grillats i processen av trial and error. Det uttrycket kan för övrigt appliceras på det mesta man sysslar med här. Möjligheterna till misstag är många…

…liksom när man tar beställningarna. Cafeterian innebär en konkret övning i att känna igen vem som beställt vad, även om menyn är enkel. Jag talar givetvis om damernas önskemål, eftersom majoriteten av dem är klädda i heltäckande svart tunika, eller som det kallas här; balto, med tillhörande makrama och lithma. Ögonen ser man, men inte så mycket mer. Att lära sig komma ihåg och skilja åt olika sorters handväskor och dylika tillbehör, det är ett tips från den kvinnliga delen av lärarkåren på stället. Jo, de har ju lättare att lägga märke till sådana detaljer automatiskt, kvinnor. Eller inte? Röstprofilering är också en taktik jag arbetar på att förfina till perfektion…

Noteringar i marginalen; den tveksamma tandstatusen (framförallt färgmässigt) hos alltför många jemeniter brukar tillskrivas olika faktorer. Ibland framhävs dålig vattenkvalitet, liksom det utbredda bruket av qat (de där löven som tuggas frekvent, ni vet). Något som också skulle kunna ha en inverkan är mängden socker som blandas i kaffe och te. I samband med starten av caféverksamheten inser jag hur mycket sötningsmedel som anses vara normalt – åtminstone tre teskedar i ett glas (det är ju så man helst dricker te här). Smaken är ofta tilltalande, inte minst på grund av den extra kryddan som ska till för en riktig shahi halib (europeiserad stavning) och jag riskerar nog själv att bli beroende om jag fortsätter konsumera te på jemenitiskt vis i samma takt som hittills. Det kanske är dags för en tandblekning när jag återvänder till Sverige.

Coming up: På lördag öppnar vi den första konstutställningen i kulturhuset (såvitt jag känner till) med en ung begåvad artist härifrån Taiz. Utformar en del enklare marknadsföringsmaterial och hoppas på word-of-mouth-taktikens framgångar inom konstnärens och centrets personliga nätverk.

Dagens värda vetande: En människa dör snabbare av sömnbrist än av svält. I det första fallet räcker tio dagar för en dödlig dos, medan hungern kan vara i några veckor innan den tar ut sin rätt helt och hållet. Förutsatt att man i båda exemplen är helt utan sömn respektive mat, antar jag. Källan är i alla fall twitter-flödet från den mexikanska tidskriften Conozca Más.

För ännu mer övrigt nästan allra sist: Nu har jag lyckats komma till skott och recensera Alicia Keys ”The Element of Truth” här. Ifall någon undrade över just det, vilket kanske inte är troligt men ändå möjligt. Och allt är möjligt för den som tror och betalar skatt, eller hur?

Och apropå den möjligen märkliga rubriken, så är den inspirerad av en science fiction-serie jag också recenserat – samtliga säsonger, faktiskt, med den senaste här.

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