I have written 7 books and done 3 documentaries. Some people say it is like having a child every time you have [...]
I have written 7 books and done 3 documentaries. Some people say it is like having a child every time you have finished your book or your documentary, which I disagree with. However, it is a grand feeling. This time , however, this is my first pil…
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“Let us kidnap you. Our government, or yours, will pay the ransom. You take half, we take half. You will get a nice vacation in our village. What do you think?”
This suggestion was followed by a big smile. I was visiting a great friend of mine, Ahmed The Kawhlani, as I have always called him and he was the first one which kind of introduced me to the world of the qabilis, the tribes of Yemen. He smiled as well, but added:
“He is only joking!”
The joker was a relative visiting him from the village. He, as Ahmed, carried their Kalashnikovs. And their jambiyyas (Curved daggers) and beautiful belts made by gold-and silver thread.
“Without a Kalashnikov, we tribal men would be seen as women” , Ahmed explained and added: “You never know when you need it.”
When he picked me up along the silah (a kind of a ringroad, but a beautiful one around Sanaa) this morning, he had a friend who owned a dabab who was driving, because my friend wanted to have his Kalashnikov at hand, just in case. I felt at ease and safe. There´s no better protection in Yemen, than the one of a tribe. Ahmed is from Khawlan and they are part of the biggest tribe in Yemen, the bakil. For example, if Ahmed gets into trouble in Sanaa, he will call his tribe and at least 30 of them, well armed, will quickly arrive to help him. But most of the time, Ahmed is the one helping others. he has the same kind of extra job as Sheikh Mohammed Naji Abdul-Aziz Al-Shayef, as I wrote about a few days ago (An insight into Tribal Yemen). He is a trusted arbitrator, margha, in his neighborhood in Sanaa. His cases are not as big as the Sheiks, but deals with for example theft, domestic violence and his favorite issue, when for example the son of Sheikh treat people arrogantly and bad.
“This happens too much!” , Ahmed said and continued with passion: “He will threaten us with his father and the only way to deal with such people, is threaten with something bigger. A bigger Sheikh!”
Ahmed is married to a girl from Sanaa and she doesn´t want to live in the village, so they have a comfortable apartment northeast of the capital. He is very wise, well read and have really sound opinions. So, of course, when I stepped into the car, we immediately started talking about the tragedy yesterday. He sad he was sorry that I had to be so close to the bombing, but added with great sadness:
“This is Yemen today.”
Since yesterdays great tragedy and loss of so many lives, I have talked to almost all my Yemeni friends. Their opinions differ a lot from the Westerners I know. Well, there´s even a distinction between the Yemenis which deal with Westerners professionally and the one´s who don´t meet to many Westerners. I am of course following the reporting in the global media and I notice that it has a tendency to immediately put the blame on Al Qaeda, which of course have claimed they have done it, as any other group of unhealthy fanatics would. But, not one of my Yemeni friends who are somehow involved with what is going on, think they´re involved. Ahmed bluntly said, as everything else he says in his broken English:
“I know, I know very well, if the government doesn´t give me money, I will blow something up and say I am Al Qaeda. If I don´t like this government and don´t want anybody else to like them, I will blow something up and say it is Al Qaeda.”
When it comes to the two other groups, many of them worry it is Al Qaeda. All we can do as wait and see and not speculate too much. And hope it doesn´t happen again. Since this was the National Day of Yemen and people were off work, traffic was as bad as ever and I therefore walked back from the far end of Hadda to the Old Town. I kind of crisscrossed through town and it took me over two hours, and people are really friendly. Almost everyone you meet, at times even ladies in their abbayyas, say hello and welcome. Since I, as usual, got lost in the myriad of streets, I had to ask my way, I always got more help than needed. like an ice cold Coke by a youngster, who obviously thought I looked over heated. The tenseness from the last time I was here is gone, even the day after such a tragedy. No hostility at all, most men were chewing qat, and the most fascinating aspect is those three times people actually came up to me and thank me for coming here in these difficult times. But, of course, people were really sad and in some stage of shock still.
I think it is also important to remember, when something as tragic as this happens and the media freaks out with catching headlines, like Yemen being the most dangerous country in the world, a new Afghanistan, etcetera, that like during the “war” or “the troubles” the last time I was here, there´s only a few parts of the city which is affected, when it comes to being unsafe or not and possible restrictive movement. Believe me, and this is based on 25 professional years of dealing with people in over 120 countries globally, Sanaa is safe, life calm and I feel absolutely no worries moving around anywhere.
The Expedition? No idea what will happen. One day at a time.
I was sitting at a café called the Coffee Trader this morning, congratulating my wife for her success in getting her final papers into the examiners, when suddenly a big detonation occured and in great shock I wrote to her:
Gee, a bomb just went off here in Sanaa, Yemen….what the hell was that? Sirens everwhere…I wonder how to get back to Old Sanaa, well, I will just wait and see how it all develops…..I wanted to walk back to get some exercise…see how it goes…..gee, everything shook…the lads here at the Coffee Corner thinks it could have been a car bomb on Sabaeein Street…just speculation, we will find out….
This happened 6-7 hours ago, we finally got some electricity back in Old Sanaa, apparently somebody blew up a power station in Marib, which supplies Sanaa, so…am still in shock, but I want to share my day with you…without any opinions, just as it was until I came back to Old Sanaa 3 hours ago.
I immediately hooked up on Twitter to follow what was happening, especially an acquaintence from Old Sanaa, Tom Finn at @tomfinn2, who I trust more than most journalists as regards to Yemen. He was in the middle of this great, great tragedy for Yemen and everybody involved in this great country. I felt a lot of worry for Tom. He is so young, looks almost like teenager, almost kind and warm, but have seen and experienced so much. He´s tweets over the next hour looked like this;
Tom: In Sabaeen. Police everywhere, pieces of flesh scattered over the Tarmac. Injured all in hospital.
Tom: Policeman said a young man blew himself up.
Tom: Suicide bomber was dressed in military attire. Blew himself up in the middle of a military parade.
Tom: Most of the soldiers here are blaming al Qaeda for the bombing.
I kept getting a lot of text messages and emails from worried friends all over the world, but mainly from Sanaa.
Kyle wanted to send a car, but I said no, better to walk back. Keep to the small streets he said. I agreed.
Salvador, he had received a security text a couple of days ago that Al Qaeda was planning something like this, advised me to get back to the house.
Well, instinctively I felt like, surely, it wouldn´t happen a second time this day, and if I kept off the most trafficeted streets, I would safely make it to the Old City. And than after reading more, even though most news didn´t know who did it, how many more were involved and why, the fact came over me that the suicide bomber was dressed as a soldier, I thought;
“How could he kill his colleagues, his friends….?”
Ever since the blast, people had moved in and out of the café, most of them in some state of shock, but everything more or less went on as nothing had happened. The show must go on. I left at 12, walked on to one of the main streets, heard the sirens of ambulances, saw 2 of them stuck in the thick traffic, police and military all over.
After 20 minutes of walking from the detonation area it was like nothing has happened. I saw 6 soldiers sitting in a small round about chewing qat, since it was lunch time, like they were oblivious to what had happened. And the closer I got to the Old City, well, it seemed like nothing had happened at all. No sirens, no shocked people and no worried walk. But of course people knew.
The first I met was Ahmed, Hussein s friend, sitting chewing his after lunch qat. I told him that I heard the blast and he smiled and stopped everyone passing to tell them. I went to have the planned lunch with Amin´, he sat and waited. We were supposed to plan the Expedition today. I went to Hadda to meet people who could help me. At that moment I realized:
“Did this useless human being blow away the expedition as well?”
My great friend Muhammed came running, he had heard through the grape vine, we are talking 15 minutes that I had heard the blast and said:
“My mother just told me an Al Marwiny had been in the blast and got killed. Not long ago one of the family got killed in Abyan. “
Muhammed´s father is a soldier, most of his clan are soldiers. He like all of us felt really sad for all the families who had lost so many fathers. At this stage, it was said that maybe 90 were killed and 200 wounded. I thought about my daughter Eva.
After lunch Amin and me talked about the Expedition, almost like nothing has happened. When I left him, chewing qat, I felt really empty and wondered, what will happen now? Will the authorities panic and send all foreigners home? Or will they calm down, access all of it and let the show go on?
I just feel more than ever I want to help to change the image of Yemen! This is not the real Yemen!
These are the latest news, before I sign off at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18142695
“Get inside!” shouted one of the bodyguards, Adnan, to us and Tanya and Benjamin got into the armoured jeep, but I took a chance and jumped up on the back of it together with more bodyguards and the sheiks security.
The jeep shot off full speed down the road, followed by at least 50 other cars, packed with regional sheiks belonging to the biggest tribe in Yemen, the Bakil. And of course our host, one of the leaders of the Bakil tribe, Sheikh ?. We were all heading for a place outside the capital, where the leaders of the second biggest tribe in Yemen, the Hashed, were waiting. What I was experiencing was a tradition older than the prophet Muhammed, tribal law and a tribal court. It is said that possibly as much as 90 percent of all conflicts in tribal areas are resolved by using this ancient system. A conflict resolution based on tolerance and forgiveness, dialogue and negotiation and which is much more flexible and responsible than the fixed written rules of the non-tribal law of Yemen.
“What has happened is that the son of a Hashed sheikh have been killed by one of ours and we are going to meet the Hashed and ask for forgiveness” , the sheikh of Amran told me whilst we were sitting in the palace sized house belonging to Sheikh ?, earlier in the morning; “What is going to happen now is called banadeq assawab, which means the Guns of Reason, which for us signifies our confession of this mistake. And our sheikh is the arbitrator and will ask for forgiveness or at least avoid getting our man killed.”
I felt I was part of an action movie. The speed we travelled through the city was high and every 3-4 minutes our driver put full brakes on, or did a u turn or passed the column of our cars in high speed, all whilst the two main body guards, Ayman and Adnan, where keeping an eye on the surroundings. I think more as a joke, the sheikh had said to us, the day before, when we went to visit him and ask for his help to pass through unharmed through his tribal area, that he would put us in this armoured jeep just in case Al Qaeda, would turn up. He smiled saying that. There’s an unreasonable fear of this group in Sanaa right now, but in the Sheikhs case, I am sure he worried about other enemies he might have. A tribal chief has of course enemies.
“They´re crazy!” shouted a young photographer from the Al Azal Channel, when we arrived to the outdoor meeting, when a grenade detonated on the side of a nearby mountain; “The tribes are crazy!”
They sure look wild the tribesmen, but unfortunately the tribes and their tribal system is often, if not always, portrayed negatively in Western media, well, Arab media as well and I know many of my Yemeni friends, really dislike them, because as with the media, they are often blamed as being in the way of proper development and state building. As a matter of fact, according to some of the best known academics on the Yemeni tribes, like my friend Khaled Fattah and Nadwa Al-Dawsari, they have played an important role in keeping Yemen together for centuries of weak governments meaning corruption, political instability and bad economy. The tribes of Yemen basically provide social order in the absence of a weak state.
“Get out! Get out and come with me!” shouted Adnan, one of our body guards.
We all got out, I heard fire in the background, we got pushed all over the place, as everybody else and we were all heading for the same place, a big open area in front of a halted construction sites and a mosque. Dust blew all over. Ayman turned up and dragged me through the crowd, the Sheikh came out of his car, followed by a big entourage, and even if this was serious business, everyone seemed pleased and happy. For me this is such a Yemeni trait. Smiling no matter how hard the times. Suddenly the big crowd who moved forward stopped, Ayman dragged me through the crowd, I ended up with Tanya in front of the two tribes on each side which looked like a soccer pitch. Young Bakil men arrived carrying big amounts of weapons and made two big heaps of weapons in front of a long line of Bakil tribal sheikhs. I look at the Hashed, they looked more serious, and two of their sheikhs countered a call from the Bakil sheikh, but a short shout and than they started walking towards us.
“This is called banadeq assawab or Guns of Reason” , somebody whispered in my ear and I turned around and said; “Meaning?”
I saw a man at my side dressed what I would call the Taizz style, with shirt and trousers like an office worker, and he spoke good English.
“Well, Sheikh ? is the arbitrator and this is a way to show that the Bakil confess and hope the Hashed Sheikh will give his tribe forgiveness. The guns and money here are guarantees that the tribes will follow the verdict.”
Suddenly it seemed everyone turned up in front of the weapons and suddenly a jeep came and all weapons were loaded on the back of it.
“They have said yes to forgiveness” , my new friend said; “That is good.”.
As sudden most attention turned to us and our cameras. Everyone wanted to get his photo taken. This was a joy to agree upon, since there are an unlimited amount of colourful personalities amongst these men. They came from all over the country. Al Jawf, Saada, Marib, all these places I want to cross by camel, but which seem more impossible to do by the day. And seeing the tribes here, made me even more convinced I wouldn´t get any problems, because within the tribes, as this court case, everything is based on collective responsibility and strict tribal rules.
“We must leave!” Ayman and Adnan told us and wanted us to return quickly to the armoured jeep.
Something had happened. But it was hard not continuing taking photos of these personalities. But our body guards were adamant. This time we had to squeeze in all of us inside the drivers cabin of the jeep. We heard some shooting, even a grenade, but minutes later, full speed, we were heading away on the motorway which I recognize as the airport one. For some unknown reason, maybe as a show off, added drama to their day, they took the main route through the centre, Tahrir, Hadda and just imagine this scene, anywhere else in a capital city in the world, going down the main drag, we inside an armoured car and the back of it full of heavily armed qabilis (tribes men). Not many took notice. It wasn´t anything out of the extra ordinary in Sanaa!
They dropped us of at the Sheikhs office, asked to be photographed with their guns. They were really far too young and should have been at school instead. We spent a couple of hours there, waiting for him to come back, so we could do an interview. But he never turned up. We were told that the family of the killed, didn´t agree at all with their sheiks and demanded more justice. Either in the shape of more money, weapons or harder punishment. Somebody even called it black shame, which is the worst offence you can do in a tribe. Other offences included in this list are killing men even if they’re accompanied by women, violating safe havens, blocking roads and kidnapping!
”Do you want to get kidnapped?” the sheikh had asked me the day before when visiting his office and smiled a bit; “I think what you want to do is very brave and it would help my country, but at this moment it is impossible. The situation has changed a lot since you were here half a year ago. I cannot guarantee your safety if you travel by camel.”
Right now everyone has said the same. Great idea, but not right now. I disagree of course. It is needed more than ever. There´s not an hour without bad news coming out of this country and believe me, it is just a tiny bit of the truth. And I will make my camel journey happen. Somewhere in Yemen.
However, I have realized since coming here, which in itself was very important, that the situation has changed since my last visit. Due to the Arab Spring both the government and the tribes are weak. They can´t offer the protection they once could. A new generation of young people have evolved due to the protests who run their own game and don´t care about the tribal law. So, the danger along my proposed route thorugh Marib, Al Jawf, Shabwa and Hadramawt isn´t the heavily over dramatised presence of Al Qaeda, or AQAP, it is young tribal men playing their own game and gain. I guess this is the greatest threat to a stabile Yemen!
This is Ayman, one of our tribal body guards, keeping a lookout on top of the armored jeep.
© Copyright 2013 Explorer Mikael Strandberg | Photos and texts Copyright Explorer Mikael Strandberg