Section: the Yemeni Diaspora
Interview with Saif al-Shara’abi, a naturalised British Yemeni now living in London, whose interest for politics is something of a family legacy. Active twitterist and self-confess activist, Saif shared with the Yemen Post his views on Yemen.
• Yemen Post: Did your perception of being Yemeni changed since the beginning of the uprising and why?
That is a good but very difficult question to answer, especially for my generation, which I will label as the Saleh’s generation. We grew up in a lengthy chapter of Yemen’s history that was quite nihilistic and apathetic. The golden age or the boom that my parent’s generation experienced had turned into a sort of mythology to be ridiculed or admired within the timeframe of that same generation. Although I last left Yemen as a late teenager, I had grown in a household where politics and discussion of the state of affairs were a staple diet. It is very clear to me even as a kid, that I was in a country where mediocrity was an accepted state of affairs and corruption was as normal and as consistent as breathing. I grew up accepting that this is what Yemen is, was, and always will be. That doesn’t mean I loved it any more or less than I do now, it’s just that in the past I often found it hard to justify that love or sense of pride to friends from other countries and nations. We were in a chapter that was hard to justify to ourselves let alone others. It is hardly a surprise that Qat dependency and usage has become a defining national characteristic of the Saleh years. It is escapism. Some escaped with Qat and some escaped abroad. This uprising has challenged everything in my life. It has not only changed me but it is forcing very difficult, confrontational issues that I have to come to terms with: As the generation that has turned a blind eye should I/we hang our heads in shame? Are we as guilty as the regime for not only tolerating it but cozying up to it? For accepting and promoting the culture of cronyism, and bribery, and sectarianism? To be fair we didn’t grow up in a country that felt like ours. It felt like we were there by the grace of Saleh, his clan and his tribes. My perspective is in a state of flux between the romanticized Yemen of my childhood and the traumatic rebirth of the last 9 months.
• Yemen post: What makes Yemen’s Revolution different from other movement across the Arab world?
In my own very humble opinion, and I hope I get accused of being over dramatic, the people of Yemen have finally risen to take upon themselves the responsibility of taking ownership of their nation at a time when the stakes couldn’t be any higher. This is a turning point. It is not just about democracy. It is about adults living on 1000 calories a day. Its about a malnourished children. It’s about your next door neighbour digging a well just because he can afford it to sell a scarce resource to make easy money. It’s about that woman in Hodeida who burned herself to death when diagnosed with cancer as a cost effective solution to her problem. It’s about a government that hardly taxes you, consequently provides no real services for you and sells the nation to the highest bidder. It is about Karma and self-respect. The Revolution in Yemen is the equivalent of shock resuscitation to a critically ill patient.
• Yemen Post: What has changed for you since the uprising?
The youth, the women, the protestors, the martyrs of Yemen have hijacked my life. All I have to say is that I have learned to walk around London without taking my eyes off the Twitter timeline, bumping into a lamppost or walking in front of a bus. There is stress, a lot of up and down emotions and a lot of thinking. I think all of us out here in the diaspora are experiencing the uprising vicariously through the videos, tweets and messages from our brothers and sisters on the front line. We feel their pain, and although we can come back to a home with running water and electricity at a flick of a switch, Life, as we say in Arabic, has lost its taste and flavour. For the last 9 months my life is neither in Yemen, nor in London, but somewhere online.
• Yemen Post: Did the uprising made you more aware of politics?
No, it hasn’t. I have no concept of politics as far as I am aware. Politics and politicians are very 20th century. I grew up in a house full of politics and it was all yap yap yap.. and while they were busy yapping about politics, Saleh was busy milking the country. So for me I don’t understand the point of politics. I think Yemen needs a technocracy. A federal technocracy. The uprisings have made me aware of how much I care about the homeland, and it has made me aware of lots of wonderful, articulate and creative Yemenis in and out of Yemen who seem to have popped out of no where.
• Yemen Post: Do you believe that the International Community can truly pressure president Saleh into leaving the presidency?
I don’t. We don’t. Saleh doesn’t. The International community knows it can’t.
• Yemen Post: Are you happy with the political alternative to Saleh’s regime?
I wasn’t even aware there was one! Isn’t the whole problem with the Yemeni revolution is that the political alternative is as clear as ditch water? If there is one then it hasn’t been articulated properly for it to be seen and understood by all. For me a federalist technocracy is the only way to go
• Yemen Post: Are you pro or anti Saleh?
• Yemen Post: What do you think should happen now?
I’m very Robespierre-ist about what I think should happen, but of course what I think is irrelevant. We, in the diaspora, should look to the Yemenis who are in Yemen for direction. Our duty is to support them and their needs. We are the bridge that links them to an outside world that is too busy and too overtaken with events to do anything for them and in certain cases certain countries like the USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have conspired to prolong their misery and suffering. That is what the Yemenis outside of should focus on, to make the voices of the protestors in Yemen be heard.
• Yemen Post: What do you think will happen?
I have no idea what will happen. There is Saleh, the regime, opportunists posing as opposition, AQAP, a faltering economy, USA and Saudi Arabian interference. Yemen has had to deal with antagonists more numerous than Egypt, Libya, Qatar, and Syria put together and for a lot longer. Not to mention food inflation, shortages of cooking gas, petrol, and lack of electricity. They have proved they are a formidable force. I do think that Saleh can survive and sadly I don’t think he has any qualms of lighting the fires and ruling over the ashes of whatever is left. He simply doesn’t care. Yemenis must take lessons from what happened in Egypt. The regime there sacrificed Hosni to save the collective regime. It was a quick and logical act of self preservation. In Yemen the regime has benefitted from the GCC initiative which is giving it a lot of scope to regroup and adapt. It is very tense times and the outcome is anybody’s guess. My guess is that the demands for keeping it peaceful is being observed however it is becoming unsustainable especially after the protest of the burning veils. The women expressed their anger, and appealed to the tribesmen’s honour for protection. This has highlighted a question that is now on everyone’s mind: Has the time come to stop being peaceful? I have no idea. I do understand the wisdom of a scenario where the regime finally succumbs to the pressure of peaceful civilian pressure. I understand the significance of having the success of the revolution owed to no one but the people, but that is only achievable with a lot more patience and, crucially if Saleh’s regime is cut off from any financial income. This would eventually bring the regime down.