Yemen: ISolated And Misunderstood
Kyle Anthony Foster
I am writing to you from a long, white sands beach under swaying palm
trees on the south coast of Arabia, in Yemen. The sun is setting over the Arabian Sea in a blaze of orange and gold. These days my sun also rises in Yemen. In fact, Yemen has been the place I call home for
most of the last ten years. I met Mikael here last year and we became
immediate friends; sharing a love of adventure and expanding our
horizons through travel. It might surprise you to think of some of the world’s most pristine and beautiful beaches in Yemen. It might also surprise you to know that the country is not a giant sand pit but a mountainous country, incredibly green in the rainy season, with incredible gorges and vistas throughout. So, when Mikael asked if I might write something about Yemen I grabbed paper and pen and headed straight for the beach. It is here, where the blue waters of the Arabian Sea meet the white beaches and rocky headlands of Arabia that the story of Yemen and its people begin.
Yemen has often been described by scholars as an ‘island’ surrounded by the Arabian /Indian Ocean to the south, the Red Sea to the west and the vast sands of the Rub al-Khali – the Great Arabian Desert – to the north. This geographical isolation has kept Yemen apart and misunderstood by the rest of the world since ancient times. And it has also spurred the people of Yemen to look across seas and sands in search of trade and resources. The ancient Greeks called this place, ‘Arabia Felix,’ in the mistaken belief that Yemen, and not India and the far east, was the source of spices. In fact, Yemen was the center of the spice route from the far east and its geographical position allowed for the Kingdom of Saba (reported home of the Queen of Sheba) to benefit from the spice trade through taxes collected on the spice caravans travelling through her land. Yemen was relatively little known to the outside world until the 1960s, when the secretive and feudal ‘Imam’ or king was overthrown for a republican government.
Yemen has remained little known and misunderstood since the revolution. The recent barrage of international media attention Yemen has received is testament to the world’s lack of understanding regarding this country. The international media is currently in the habit of calling Yemen a ‘hotbed of terrorism,’ ’the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden,’ (So what??? He wasn’t born here and did not grow up here.) and a place of ‘widespread anti-American sentiment.’ Regarding the Bin Laden issue I pose this to readers. I am a citizen of the United States and I was born there. Ireland is my ancestral homeland. If I committed crimes against humanity would the media report anything other than that I was a citizen of the United States?
Yemen is, in fact, a place of moderate, tolerant Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, and a place where the great majority of the population strive for a better life for themselves and their families and a better future for Yemen. Yes, there is a small (and I would call it very small) percentage of the population here for whom the words ‘anti-American,’ ‘extremist,’ or even ‘terrorist’ apply. It would be naive to deny this. However, I am sure that the world could use a dose of reality right now concerning the real situation of Yemen and her people.
Yemen is a developing nation with many problems, a government struggling to cope with meager and dwindling oil resources and a booming population (up to 3.5% by international estimates), a severe water crises for which there is no easy solution, a severe lack of food security causing 50% or more of the country’s children to suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth and a struggling economy which relys heavily on imported trade and not enough on domestic production. The literacy rate in the country hovers around 60% for men and women.
Yemen’s isolation has, since ancient times, caused her people to look abroad in search for resources and trade riches. The arches over the windows and the doors of buildings in Mukella, the city behind me, bear the unmistakable stamp of the orient, brought back to Yemen by traders who ventured from India to Malaysia over the Indian Ocean. The people of this country also bear the diverse characteristics of populations from the coast of East Africa, the interior of Arabia and all the way to the far east. This diverse mix has made Yemen a place of a very unique and distinct culture. And this diverse mix of people, culture and their history may also help to explain why the majority of Yemenis are surprisingly tolerant with a love of music, art and dance all their own as well as a tolerance for and interest in foreigners.
So what does Yemen need now? The country is facing political instability with a rebellion stirring in the north and an independence movement awakening in the south. Political support and a degree of military support are welcome and probably necessary at this time. However, the real need Yemen is facing is in development support and aid to help the nation through this period of economic change and population growth. What’s needed is real development aid funding government, international and local non-governmental development organizations focusing on education, food security and income generating projects and training – especially for rural areas where 70% of the population live. A sincere effort at supporting development in this country is the only way we can hope to bring about the stability the nation needs through increased educational standards and outputs, increased access to health care, rising levels of nutritional intake and increased economic production leading to increased income levels for the poor and middle classes. No amount of military assistance can bring about the development and change that the people of this nation seek and deserve.
Kyle Foster’s Arabian Notes. Regular updates from one of America’s wildest. High Arabian adventure including a few excerpts from his book in progress. fosterarabiannotes.blogspot.com