Let’s start this off with a disclaimer. I am not a politician. I am not an activist. I am not a researcher (I don’t have the patience), and I live abroad. What I am is a Yemeni with families from the North AND the South. I have lived in Yemen and visit it often to be able to confidently say that I have something to say about Yemen based on experience. I am not part of any party or political movement. I stand with a unified Yemen, North and South, because I believe that Yemen’s beauty is in its mosaic and its strength IS in its diversity.
When something starts off on the wrong foot in anything in life, the only logical course of action to do, is to go back and correct it. If you build a house on wrong foundation you have the choice either to go back and work on the foundation or you can just cross your fingers and hope for the best. Or maybe you can put up some scaffolding and make it a decorative feature if you’re too lazy to start from scratch again but too paranoid to just cross your fingers. This is essentially how I see the problem with the unification of the North and the South, which is done in deed, but not indeed. I don’t believe it was done in the right way, with the right preparations or the right intentions. That does not mean that unification is wrong or it shouldn’t have happened, on the contrary, it is desirable. It should happen. But not by force. Not in spite of. Not at the expense of. and Not in the name of.
Looking at the Tunisians celebrating their first anniversary of their model revolution and transition leaves a bitter taste. Realistically speaking, it is asking too much of Yemen’s Arab Spring to achieve what the Tunisians have done. The truth of the matter is that it was always going to be a long shot for Yemenis. Tunisia has all the infrastructure and institutions of a civic state with decades of experience, with human and women rights that at one point in history surpassed those of some European countries. They are also very educated. They have a national army that has proved its loyalty to Tunisia not to a family, or a regime. It is made up of a society where everyone understands how to compromise. The secular understands how to coexist with the religious. There is space for all because there is a concept of nationhood.. A Tunisia for all.
The questions I find myself going back to over and over again are: Is there really a Yemeni concept of nationhood? If so what is it based on? Why is important and to whom? Can someone spell it out for me?
The way I see Yemen, as a Yemeni, is that it is a collective that has developed over thousands of years of geographic isolation due to geographic causes: the vast Empty Quarter on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. These natural barriers surrounded an area historically referred to as The Yemen, The Greater Yemen, Arabia Felix etc etc. The very name Yemen means “To the right of” . This name covered essentially the right half of the Arabian Peninsula. Is this where the concept of Yemeni nationhood comes from? A geographic reference? Is this enough? Within this geographic isolation, throughout its long history, there never seems to have been a single united Yemen. It has always been a sort of confederacy of independent organic kingdoms with Imamates in the North and Sultanates in the South. Each kingdom with it own unique set of distinctiveness. Just like the villages in Yemen, not two are the same and each has grown organically in response to its environment, its landscapes, its needs, and its realities. This is essentially what Yemen is. This is the essence of Yemen and that cant be ignored. You have to work with what you have, with what is around you. Trying to shape Yemen outside this context is just pointless. One only has to look at the architecture and landscape of Yemen. This is what Yemenis have always done. Work with what is around them.
So from the beginning it has always been a mosaic. This political formation of autonomous kingdoms may look like relics of a bygone era that could not stand the onslaught of modernity, but does that mean they don’t have anything to teach us 21st century Yemenis? Obviously I do not advocate the return of Kings or colonialists, I am just saying lets learn from our past, see what works and update it to a modern democratic context… After all the main reason Yemen is ungovernable isn’t just because of Saleh’s incompetence, it’s because this system has never gone away in the first place. Yemen is still a mosaic of independent enclaves crudely cobbled together by the Unification of Yemen in 1990. You can argue that the Republic of Yemen makes sense. It has enough in common to create a national narrative of sorts. The same could be said of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen at the time. Putting the two together in the way it has been done by Saleh and Al-Beeth is like a botched grafting procedure. The body is just not taking it. It can go on, but I dont think its healthy, or patriotic, or even decent, to pretend all is well with this union. Many Yemeni tweets express surprise or wonder about the silence regarding the latest attacks on Adeni protestors by the regime. Why wonder? The history speaks for itself. Again Ill go back to what I know best, and that is my own experience and that of my family’s.
What was the South when the North was still under the Imam?
When my father was 6 years old, his mother, my grandmother, packed him with some hard boiled eggs and bread and sent him down the mountains of Taiz with one sentence: Kun Rajal. It means, be a man now. I don’t know how common this was, but she was sending him, supervised of course, to Aden. Aden was where all Yemenis went for everything from education, to trade, to seeking medical assistance. Aden at the time was a British Protectorate. Now it couldn’t have been easy for her but she must have had a vision for him. She wanted a different life for him. This hard choice set him on a road that that crossed milestone after milestone even by today’s standards. He arrived in Aden, worked in a market, proved his worth and was fostered by people there. He got his education in Aden. This led him to pursue further education and was granted a sponsorship to study abroad which he did. He saw his mother again when he was 24. My mother went through a very similiar route. Her mother, my Hadrami grandmother wanted the same. She used her modest income from selling incense and arabic perfumes to save together to send my uncles and mother at a very early age to Aden. They gained their primary and secondary education in Aden too. I have pictures of my mother as a little girl in ribbons and a white school uniform with an English teacher. My mother was also offered a scholarship and in fact was living abroad while in her teens.On her own. She too completed her BA.
Having married and having decided to move to Sana’a, my parents had a lot of adjusting to do. Sana’a in those days had only one paved road. Transport was by motorbikes primarily. So Sana’a was still unaccustomed to the sight of a man in trousers and a woman from, God help us, the South. Her nickname amongst the locals in the neighbourhood women was The Whore. Rubbish was routinely tipped in front of their doorway. Im pleased to say that my mother gave as good as she got. Was it just about the appearance or it could be something to do with an ingrained perception that the South being seen as a corrupt entity bastardised by the English and then by communism? I am not saying this out of malice. Ignorance was very widespread back then, but I don’t think that the mentality has gone completely. I think its woven itself somehow, into the situation we are in today.
The next paragraph is about perceptions within my family. As children we were loved and pampered by both sides. Each claimed as their own. Neither side mixed with the other unless it was absolutely necessary. Things have improved over the years but the fact of the matter is that both sides would have much preferred if my parents had married to one of their ‘own’. These were true to my memory at the time, I have no idea if they are as extreme or as hardened as they were back then. I do, however, wonder at the residual effect these perceptions have on todays Yemen.
Lets briefly go through some of these conceptions or misconceptions based on what I picked up or absorbed into my conciousness as a kid. I speak for no one here but myself and my point of view. I learned that my Northern side of the family had a perception of Southerners as immoral. alien. misguided. corrupted. bastardised. That they have been un-Yemenised by 130 years of British rule, that Southerners looked down on and scorned Northerners, often using the term Qabili in a pejorative sense. The fact that that Southerners took up communism condemned them in the eyes of Northerners in a religious sense. That the South’s women were far too brazen and their men urban effeminates. Then theres the infamous beer factory and the night-clubs. The South was basically an intellectual den of moral corruption and that God was most definitely with the North.
The Southerners had a perception of Northerners as somewhat dim, primitive, backward, and un-educated. Rather smelly and rough around the edges. They saw them as chaotic and ungovernable. Incapable of taming and civilising. They did envy the North its weather, greenery, and landscape, but all in all they did not think the North had much to offer. And they were poor.
I would love to compare the perceptions I have absorbed as a child with others in a similar position. Have I been harsh? Have I exaggerated or spoken an untruth? Am I wrong to mention that this was how the two sides viewed each other? Or should we just stick to mujamalat?
These were generalisations both sides of my family had of each other. It doesn’t mean that they viewed each other through the prisms I mentioned above, however the two sides have mostly kept apart due to various reasons. One of these other reasons was the fact that they lived in separate countries. As a child, I remember that preparing for a cross border trip was a very thrilling experience. Picking up on the tensions from the adults, these trips felt like we were going on an adventure. Like going to the moon. There was endless paperwork and sometimes ‘interviews’ to go through.
Crossing the border was something that could take a day depending on when you arrived. I forgot the name of the town where it happened, I just remember the bottleneck of trucks and family cars waiting to be searched, questioned and stamped. Crossing the border immediately felt different. The flags, the uniforms. It may not have been very picturesque but it felt different. I will try to describe my impressions of the South at the time as a child. The first thing that springs to mind was that it was cleaner. Much much cleaner. There was something orderly about it. Cars did stop at the red lights. No one honked their horns. The British architecture was very alien. The cars parked within painted spaces. The whole layout, which was of course the British influence, visually told me that this is a different country. Contrary to what was said, people DID go to mosques. My relatives couldn’t have been an exception. I think there were ‘limitations’ to their religious activities: No political religious movements and no religious bodies/institutions. Southerners were image concious. Mothers would spend ages getting their kids ready to go to afternoon play in the neighbourhood looking absolutely spotless. The other feeling I remembered as a child was this feeling of interconnectedness. There was a homogenisation due to the influence of first the British, and then Communism. Tribalism, if it ever existed in Aden, was replaced by urbanism. A civic society. Women worked. They travelled unsupervised. Couples dated. As a kid I liked going there. So was everything perfect in the Communist South? Well I remember that we never headed to the South empty handed. There was always a list of things our southern relatives needed. I don’t remember. They just always seemed short of ‘stuff’. As the North rapidly developed economically, the South stagnated. The power struggles of certain factions in the Communist South grew. Yes, the South had all the hallmarks of a well established civic society but the problem seemed that it was economically not working out. Their experiment with Communism was losing its sparkle.
The United States and the USSR fought their proxy wars here, using these two countries. This is where Saleh sharpened his dancing on snakes credentials and learned to milk the Americans well. It was thanks to the Americans that Saleh turned the position of North from defeat to success. The South also started to collapse as a system within itself ,unleashing a brutal Civil War in the mid 80’s which took the lives of 1000s. The South simply ran out of options, money, and steam.
Whatever the reasons for the unification between the North and the South, in my own un expert opinion, it boils down to this: The people of the South were getting poorer. The Southern Civil War had worn them out. They wanted what they perceived was a better way of life outside of this spartan communist existence. If Southerners had no preconceptions or prejudices of Northerners before unity, they were about to get one now.
The North’s establishment, the Saleh regime, saw unity as a golden “opportunity” . The political elites of both sides wanted the unity but each side was adamant that it will be the dominant factor.The Southern leadership failed. So who has been the real winner in this unity? The people? I very much doubt it, and the proof is where we are now. The real winners have turned out to be Saleh, his regime, and Yemen’s established business families. Upon unification, Saleh unleashed his regime upon the South with wholesale ‘privatisation’ or appropriation. Pillaging real estate and redirecting of resources. Having neutralised the South militarily, the unity must have looked like an invasion to the South. An invasion of the Da7abisha. Why do I say that? Because that was the talk within my southern side of the family. It started innocently enough. At first it was amused irritation. How northerners drive on the wrong side of the road, honking their horns, and generally acting too comfortable. Then it became a bit more disconcerting. The emerging corruption, the whats in it for me bakshish culture. The invasion of a politicised religious culture. It wasnt too long before even my cousins would wear the hijab around me. The reason was because of harassment at the hands of religious zealots flocking to the South to save it’s soul. The beer factory was bombed or burned down. The nightclub culture was also targeted. I have no idea what it was back then, but the concept of clubs has gone from social to sexual. They are brothels now. Frequented by tourists, GCC ones. Besides the program of pillage dressed up as privatisation, there was the rising inflation, the deliberate starving of finances and investment so that whatever institutions and systems the South had were incapacitated. This was collective punishment on a vast scale inflicted on what was a distinctively independent country that had a lot to be proud of. To deliberately allow unemployment, underinvestment, state sponsored and endorsed corruption to eat away at whatever civic society the South has attained, is as horrific, and in my opinion far graver than what his regime has done to the north and its people. When I ask my relatives what went wrong, they said that they, the South, got too greedy. Knowing what they knew now, unification was a big mistake. Of course, not all southerners feel like that, and I am sure that there are many southerners who benefited from Unity, but what should be looked at is the bigger picture. The South is much poorer in every sense of the word. All down to a regime that only saw the South as an extension of its fiefdom. It saw Harbours, ports, and potentially more oil and a lot of natural GAS.
The question now is who needs the other more? The tables are now turned. It is the North that needs the South. The oil is running out. The water is running out. Desalinisation is not feasible for the mountainous North. The port and the gas are in the South. Sooner or later, there will be more and more people moving to the South. The regime understands this. It means the deliberate running down of the South was done to enable the regime to remove any possible power indigenous to the South from re emerging. If the South was to be rebuilt, it will be they who rebuilt it, on their own terms, and with the balance of power firmly in their grasp. The only problem is the regime has failed its own people, let alone its relatively newly assimilated cousins. It does not have the ability to succeed technocratically and it doesn’t even have the intention to. The proof is that after 22 years, nothing has been developed. Of all the regimes in the MENA, Saleh is the one regime that has delivered the least. His supposed crowning glory is this Unification, which is not as well done as as he was shortly after the attempted assassination. When things are done on a bad foundation and for less than honourable intentions don’t expect to be pleased with the results. As I have tweeted before, this is a crooked deal done by crooked governments, but it is one worth salvaging. But not at any price and not off the back of the Southern people of Yemen.
I don’t know how real the threat of separation really is. I don’t know how many people in the South are for it. The way Saleh deals with the South suggests that his long term planning is based on the presumption that it is a very real threat. I subscribe to the theory that Saleh is playing a role in establishing a link between AQAP and the South. There is now a view from out here, that the South is over-run by AQAP. I don’t hear, see, or read anything else when I read about the South. In fact, if I go by what I read, the only problem the South seems to have are the terrorists. Otherwise they are absolutely fine. Coincidence ?
The Americans don’t seem to be for separation which is odd, since divide and conquer is the name of their foreign policy. The Saudis have previously recognised the independent South shortly after the end of colonial rule in the South and Imamate rule in the North but that was definitely a divide and rule tactic. What is their position on Unification now? The Secessionists have their work cut out for them. They will find no international fans or supporters. The same as the rest of the country really.
So after 11 months where are we now. We have a GCC innitiative which has passed. It has offered immunity to the ENTIRE regime and adherents. It is paving the way to more dubious elections in a country unprepared and ill advised for what is coming. Some people speak of Saleh as an outgoing president (I don’t think he is going anywhere, especially in the SUDDEN emerging of Al-QAIDA in Rada’ of all places.). So nothing has really changed. Nothing has turned the corner. The onus is now on the Yemeni people to push forward this change. If its not clear by now it should be: There is no international community coming to the rescue, there is no meaningful top down change in Yemen. That means its all down to the people of Yemen. Correction: the PEOPLES of Yemen. Saleh has been able to rule Yemen because it is a non homogenised population. It is this fractiousness that is referred to when the media describes Yemen as the next failed state ready to implode. But why can’t this fractiousness be turned into an advantage? If the history of Yemen teaches us that we have always been a collective of nations, why dismiss this? Why aim for something that works against the fabric of the region? Why is it impossible to create a political system of governance that modernises and keeps the essence of who we really are. One that allows each region of Yemen to develop in a way that is good for them? Let the tribes be tribes. Let the civics be civics. Let the Houthis be houthis. let the South be the South. But never again let any political single party or dictatorial regime play one part against the other. Let us preserve each part of the mosaic that makes up Yemen and bring out the beauty and the distinctiveness of each piece. Where one lacks the other makes up for. If the South becomes industrialised and economically vibrant it could could be a source of benefit for the poorer parts of Yemen. If one area is known for its fertility it can perhaps feed the other parts of Yemen that cant. If one area is famous for its beauty and its temperate climate, it could provide a haven for the parts of Yemen that don’t. It is federalism that we had in the past and considering it again is not a step back. It is a step towards Yemen embracing what it was and working with it. If life gave you lemons why try to make chocolate soufle. There will never be a homogenised Yemeni state. There will never be one yemeni voice unless it is over the voices of the others. So lets join together by consensus. Each area rules itself as it sees fit within the framework of one nation by a government tailor made to nurture this kind of arrangement. But never again should one party or one family or one tribe seek to enforce or mould another. Technocratic Federalism is the answer..