An involuntary adventurer in Yemen by Tanya Holm

One of the first issues which irritated me as regards to what I was reading about the war in Yemen, was the reporting from the foreign press and journalists located in Sanaa. Only drama, only misery and only focused on terrorism, al qaeda and destruction. No perspective, nothing positive. Once I made it to Yemen, where I am right now, to do my Expedition a couple of months ago I came across a young vibrant Swedish journalist, Tanya Holm, who actually was as young as the other stringers or freelance journalists, but actually knew what she was talking about and actually gave a perspective in a positive way. Since than, she has become a very good and dear friends to me and my family and is always there to assistst us here in Sanaa. So, of course, before I set off sharing my experiences of this extra ordinary country and the Expedition reports, I am honored to have Tanya write an article about Yemen, which stands so true! So, listen you other stringers, drama is one thing, reality another!

An involuntary adventurer in Yemen


Tanya Holm

“Dear adventurous daughter!”

That is how my dad begins his letters to me. He and friends say that I’m an adventurer. I disagree. An adventurer seeks adventures just as babies seek comfort and I seek only the latter. Adventures, however, seek me. That is as true as it is a cliché. I look for something far less exciting than things out of the ordinary. Thus I came to Yemen.

An autumn afternoon, two years ago, I changed the North European periphery for South Arabia. Here was no uprising, no thousands of wounded and shot dead protestors bleeding out on the asphalt and failed GCC signatures were no headlines. There was al-Qaeda, civil war and there were kidnappings, most of which did not end in execution and mutilation. Yemen, like any country, had its share of problems. But we live in a time where we better say the glass is half full. So I packed my bag and said Yemen has houses of gingerbread and the world’s kindest people. I had heard that Muhammad, the prophet, had said, “kindness belongs to the Yemenis” and I found it still stands. The three words all Yemenis know in English are:

I love you!

And they practice them with every bypassing foreigner.

As foreigners in Yemen we like to compliment the people, the way I just did.

– Yemenis are kind, we say.
– Very kind.
– They are generous.
– And they like to joke.
– Indeed they are funny!

Our compliments are sometimes insulting to the Yemenis. What did we expect to find in Yemen, rudeness? Most are kind here, sure. Others are not. Many joke, but some are horribly boring. They don’t laugh even when one is extraordinarily funny, and instead they share their own dull stories.

“A man asked to be taken to the angry imam who ruled the city. He promised to make the imam laugh. When he stood in front of the imam he pinched him. The imam did not laugh, he sent the man to his death.”

Yemenis are kind and funny, kind and funny, more or less all of them we say – also as to make amends for the negative and simplified image the Occident so often spreads. But, that is not the only bad joke in Yemen. The image of Saleh riding a donkey to the giant neighbor Saudi Arabia is not very funny. Yet I have seen hundreds of protestors laugh at it all through the Arab spring. And speaking of kindness I know a Yemeni who says, “fuck you” when he sees me. I tell him to fuck himself, and there is nothing pleasant over that conversation, yet it takes place every now and then in the ancient alleys of Sana’a.

I have nothing intelligent to say when speaking of Yemen. I have been a freelance correspondent for Swedish media for a bit more than two years. I have learnt only the following. Whatever one reports on Yemen, one must be sure to announce the opposite soon enough. My own country, I can hold her in my hands and say it is Sweden, but Yemen slips away. It is a much-complicated society.

Yemen is a country, but not yet a state. It is tribal, but has people who claim to be its citizens. Yemen has a few young men with dynamite anger and people who refuse to kill a bee.

– Haraam, they say when I, despite my vegetarianism, suggest they crush annoying bees with my plastic plate.

Yemen has youth within the age range between 15 and 60.

– We are all youth, an old man explained.

He spoke of the importance to get a chance in society and life. A chance that is just as necessary to the 75 percent that are under 25 as to the rest of the people.

Yemen has poverty.

– But we are the richest people in the world, Yemenis say.

They argue that one must also look to what people have in their hearts.

Yemeni women have this year been louder and more disobedient than anywhere, yet in Yemen women are silenced and held back in the most awful ways, according to gender gap studies.

Yemen has an ongoing uprising and yet the way it has been seems to be the way it shall be, at least for some time ahead.

Yemen has an awful luck.

Yemen has patience and eager. And no matter on which side of the political spectrum people are, they promise to continue the struggle for a New, Better and More Dignified society. But, with that said one must add that there are also people that gave up long ago here.

– Can I get a visa?, they ask.

No they cannot.

Yemen has blue skies and deserts. And leopards, dolphins and women unions.

Yemen has an electricity minister and electricity bills but no electricity. So why are the government buildings still lit up?

Yemen has Yemenis and kind foreigners and rude foreigners and those that are a bit of both.

Islams, traditions, debates on secularism and Yemen has garbage. Although foreign journalists are not allowed to film it. Yemenis are ashamed of their country. And they are also very proud of it.

In a multicolored society life does not get dull, but rather adventurous and even so I am still here. Because apart from the I love yous, and fuck yous, the recent protests aside, along with the violence and death that looks just like in the movies, and all the things that can not be mentioned without appearing insensitive, without seeming like entertainment when they really are about injustices – lived by people who exist in their own damn right – Yemen has the ordinary life. It has days and nights and stray cats. And that is what I choose to write in my letters back home, the ones I sign “an involuntary adventurer”.


Today I woke up before the first prayer call. The muezzin did a sound check.

– Allah, Allah, Allah, he called before he was ready to declare that God is great.

I’m fine, but this winter is cold to the Sana’anis. They complain and I too would catch a cold in their worn down plastic flip-flops and light clothes.

Today I will meet a prominent Yemeni Feminist. She will talk about boyhood, mother work, and the art of pushing for equal rights on the Arabian Peninsula. It is for an interview in a feminist newspaper.

These days many speak of violence. “There is a war in Taiz”, they say. It looks frightening. Do you hear any of it back home?

In Sana’a much still goes on the way it always has. People collect water in the mornings. The old women opposite my house sit in the sun. They wave to me to join. They ask me a thousand and one questions. It makes me uncomfortable that they walk around knowing what I had for breakfast. The children play and sing songs to me. Men chew qat.

– Yemeni Viagra, one guy said, to try to convince me to start chewing.

By the way, if there are any good movies running back home, tell me which. There are still no cinemas in the country, but we download movies illegally. There is no need to worry as the drones aren’t aimed at pirates.

Now I must be quick to send this, we have had electricity for about an hour, it will cut and return earliest after another twelve hours.


Tanya Holm is a Swedish freelance journalist based in Sanaa.



  1. I couldn’t agree more about your views on the magic of Yemen! Have lived there and go back as often as possible. You’re right–all the “news” seems bad because that is what the media looks for.

  2. Tanya is a true honest,brave and so peaceful …she lives with people, sharing their lives, happiness and sadness insepired by ture environment not just remote politclized media
    thank you Tanya you are the European if not to say the Western Ambassador to Arabia, Yemen, the forgetting country the great history and all arts and of course ..she is right, people and es kids..Good luck, thank you from Arabian people

  3. respect! this is what it means to live, to see life for what it is, and most of the time it is ordinary and beautiful…

  4. Assalam aleikum and THANKS Peggy, Womanfromyemen, alhaj, Mohammed Albasha and Luai Ahmed for your very kind comments <3 Now I will smile for many days!
    Together we must try to show the many different sides to Yemen as possible. Yemen is too important to be left in the hands of journalists. Countries must always be described also by artists, poets, soccer players and the unemployed, in paintings, poems, goals and sighs. There is of course always more to a place than what journalists – and I am one of them – report on. We lack insight, we lack skills, we lack time. And sometimes we also lack the respect and even ethics needed to do a good job. Most often we lack guts to speak up to the editors (who sit far away and chew gum while rewriting good pieces so they become simple – and inaccurate). I am sure there is a special place in hell reserved for both foreign correspondents and their editors ☺
    Seriously, with regards to Yemen, few countries are portrayed in such a one-dimensional/stupid way. I want to know the following. How many times must we hear of the “sectarian conflicts” within the Yemeni society? And how many times must the differences within the Yemeni community be discussed – only – as a great security threat?
    I don’t believe the Occident needs to wet his jeans cause there are different opinions in Yemen.
    Who will be the winners, and losers, once the outside world is convinced that Yemenis disagree on everything, and that because one Yemeni disagrees with another there will be civil war in Yemen?
    How did Yemen become the little kid who needs a a big brother on each continent? Not only politicians but also all of us working in media must reflect on that question.
    The past months I have myself read the news on Yemen and got scared of the place I live. Of course there has been reason to worry, as violence against protestors escalated, as violence between the regime’s forces and tribes with ties to the opposition broke out. But there has also been reason to hope, because people did take their desires to the streets – either to march for change or to express their fear of it. That was great. Disagreements started debates that are still going on. People are, since the beginning of the year – and since longer than that, changing their views, their life, their Yemen.
    Yemen is dynamic. But black inc on white paper can be, and has been, very black. As Mikael says “no perspective, nothing positive”.
    And the best way to calm down after reading the international news on Yemen is to walk out the door and step into the country. And meet the words of “peace” that bind all the people living in Yemen together. Alf shukran wa ma-salama ☺

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