Yemen is of course the place where I have most of my thoughts nowadays. And, unfortunately, the global media still insist only to highlight the negative aspects of this amazing country, the cradle of Arabia. Sure, they ain´t helping themselves much either, by the way. The Yemenis through their own thunderous media and at times very destructive behavior. However, love is always blind and therefore I continue to find ways to highlight Yemen, its people, past and present and culture. Therefore I am happy to present another picture of Yemen, through the eyes of a crazy Frenchman – Benjamin Wiacek!
Yemen; Through The Eyes of a Crazy Frenchman
Yemen, a word that four years ago did not mean much for me. I might have read it sometimes in history books related to the Middle-East. I’ve been interested in Egypt since the age of 11, dreaming of my professional career as an Egyptologist digging the treasures of the desert. Even though my hopes were based on orientalism and romantic adventures, nevertheless, the journey has made me fully aware of the need for us to discover and try to understand the world, as a way to understand and reveal ourselves.
Realizing with time that my dreams of Egyptology were not necessarily what I truly wanted or was able to achieve, I still left to Egypt (to study law) and immersed myself into a new universe, a mix of cultures, beliefs, religions, characters and ways of life, that truly transformed me during the three years spent there. Described as “crazy” by my family and friends, I was convinced that these “adventures” as they say, could only bring so much positive elements to my life.
And this is when I realized how Egypt would change my life forever. Yemen entered my life while I was in Cairo, through the lovely image of the woman that would become my amazing wife and introducing me to a new world. While Egypt is often seen as a bridge between the West and the East by its history, Yemen is quite something else.
Arriving here in September 2010, I tried not to have preexisting ideas of what I would discover. We traveled twice in Sanaa for two weeks before moving here, but nothing can be compared to the feeling of living in this place. I read dozens of articles and books related to Yemen to start the journey of understanding this country, but quickly realized that except for few of them, most of this writing was clearly outside the reality I was living in.
It is hard for me to describe these 20 months here, as I feel that my experience is more an accumulation of numerous completely independent stories than a homogeneous frame. The discussions I’ve heard in Sanaa’s mini buses (dabbab), the taxi and motorcycle drivers, the restaurants, the new fashionable coffee shops, the Arabic schools, my French students, my work as a journalist, the revolution, are all part of this experience, and all added to the vision I have of the country. The accumulation of these experiences cannot be diluted into one article, but I will try to share some of these experiences.
One of the first things that clearly characterize my own experience is the fact that I’m married to a Yemeni woman. As many know, society here is often divided between men’s and women’s “spaces”, and it is hard to share and discover both of them, especially for a man. But I realized many times how being French was allowing me to see a side of Yemen, many Yemeni men cannot.
I participated in many family lunches with my in-laws, men and women, as it was more accepted for me as an “outsider” to share the same space with the women unveiled. They felt more comfortable because I was not sharing the same culture and thus would not judge them, but yet still part of the family, making a unique relationship.
I also remember once wondering about “men’s rights” here. As a joke, I told my wife how everyone focuses on women’s rights in Yemen, but what about us? There are many high expectations for men in this society. When visiting people, we have to wait outside the house, even when it’s raining, until we are told it’s safe to enter (giving women the time to cover). Men are expected to deal with bills and all plumbing and electricity issues, which are very frequent here, and men can never pass quickly through checkpoints, unless they have women with them in the car. This of course was said in a humorous way, since I do not deny in any way the obstacles faced by women in Yemen, as evident by the large water bottles they have to carry home every day.
The time spent here has made me “more Yemeni than the Yemenis” according to some friends who cite my qat chewing as an example. While many are campaigning to fight “this plague” and to ban it everywhere – I understand the concerns and truly believe some reform and regulations should happen – I started to chew qat regularly. But this was more for the atmosphere, the talks and many other things than the qat itself. Indeed, I really love the gathering, the fact that we sit for hours to talk, discuss or debate various topics, and share an amazing social experience.
As I used to spend hours smoking shisha in Cairo’s coffees, qat became for me a new necessary social activity that connects me to various aspects of the Yemeni culture. Wearing traditional clothes and chewing with relatives, colleagues, friends or random people taught me a lot about this country which was thousands of miles away from what the mainstream media portrays.
When I settled here, I was shocked not by the country’s instability, nor by security concerns or by a so-called under-development of the region, but by the enormous difference between what I read and saw in the media and what I was living.
It’s as if there were two Yemens, one described as the most dangerous country in the world, terrorism and Al-Qaeda’s heaven, ancestral land of Osama Bin Laden, and the other Yemen, one of the most welcoming countries I’ve ever lived in, where warm people open their door and their heart to you even when they’re very poor.
I still do not understand why there is such a huge gap between the two perspectives. Yemen is no longer a desert country, cut from the world, where you would need months of travel to reach it. Yemen is also not a country that no foreigner visited. On the contrary, it is a place where numerous westerners have been living and working, where few hours by plane are enough to land in one of Yemen’s international airports. Oil companies’ employees, researchers, teachers, journalists, aid workers are present here, and most of them will tell you to what extend they love this welcoming country.
It is this difference of perspective that pushed us to begin a news website about Yemen in French. Our aim is to provide a more real and deeper understanding of Yemen, by highlighting many of the unknown aspects of the country to bridge the gap.
Of course, there are a lot of issues in Yemen that need to be addressed – security, equality, poverty, etc – but that cannot be the sole focus by the media or people, since that would mean missing the true reality of this country. All of us, all the people who have a connection with Yemen, who lived, visited or worked here, should work on changing the image of this country. All media outlets covered Yemen’s revolution, but it has now disappeared from the news again, with the exception of stories related to Al-Qaeda.
During the revolution, I hoped people would now associate the words “freedom” and “democracy” with Yemen, rather than “terrorism”. One year later, by looking at today’s headlines related to Yemen, I wonder if my hopes were too unrealistic for now. But I still have faith that time will reveal the true essence of Yemen.
Benjamin Wiacek is a journalist with over four years of experience living and working in the Middle East and North Africa with publications in numerous prestigious newspapers including Liberation, Al Masry Al Youm and the Yemen Times; wrote deeper analysis pieces for La Revue Averroès, Fair Observer and Le Courrier de l’Atlas, and co-founded the first News website in French about Yemen. In addition to written pieces, I also reported live on television and radio for various outlets including France 24, Al Jazeera English and BBC, participated in photography exhibits, and contributed to the production of a short documentary on Yemen.
Follow his Yemen reports on http://www.lavoixduyemen.com