An outsider gives an inside lookA Portrait of two Yemenis [Archives:2004/796/Culture]

December 6 2004

By Yoni Levine
SANA'A, Yemen ) The Yemen I saw last summer was a country divided, as is commonly said, between “the pants-wearers and the bearers of the Jambiyya.” The Jambiyya (ceremonial dagger worn over the traditional robe) is the standard of the people of the mountains, whose visage demands at least two guns, and whose loyalty is held by the tribe and by God, in that order.
The “pants-wearers” hail from the universities and towns; the elite among them have studied abroad, some even in the United States. These men are the consummate bureaucrat, the engineers and the educated workforce, and have, through the generations, slowly severed ties with their tribal roots. It was related to me that His Excellency the President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been famously quoted as saying, “What need do I have for the pants-wearers, who can be stepped on in the street and no one will protest. On my word alone, one and half million tribesmen with guns will appear here to defend me within the day.”
But it seemed more likely that those who don the trouser pants constitute nothing less than Yemen's only hope for economic development and political stability. I was lucky enough to get to know two of such wearers of the pants, both of whom may one day give Yemen the critical push towards desperately-needed democratization, liberalization and reform.
Often, during my afternoons and evenings, I participated in one of Yemen's most hallowed, if slightly disgusting, traditions ) the qat chew. After the workday finishes up at around 1 p.m., Yemeni men, old and young, pile into a top floor sitting room, specially designed for masticating golf ball-sized wads of this bitter stimulant, the qat leaf. The intense conversations induced by this mild narcotic range from politics, religion and history to sports, marriage and Led Zeppelin.

Abu Ghani the Reformer
Several of these qat sessions afforded me a window into Yemen's insular, clannish and otherwise opaque society. One of these pants-wearers, Abu Ghani, was my guide and “in” to the qat chews, where intellectuals, democratic reformers, and the more adventurous of the foreign researchers and aid workers gathered. Besides the usual dismay over America's foreign policy, what I most often heard was a profound disillusionment with the state's half-hearted effort to simulate the motions of democratic process. In reality, the state was making thinly veiled attempts to snuff out what remains of Yemen's civil liberties.
Abu Ghani is the nephew of a highly prominent politician, and the heir in a line of notable statesmen, recognized for their diplomatic skills, open-mindedness and embrace of liberal values. He had completed his undergraduate studies in Oregon, of all places, and returned with an American wife to Yemen, to help build his country. With only 10 percent of Yemen's population living in cities 30 years ago, Abu Ghani was one of the few to be raised in the capital, Sana'a, and the gentleness and urbanities of the city upbringing had softened and cultivated him.
But the very coincidence that a man of Abu Ghani's stature was available to take me regularly to hear the musings and complaints of a lost generation gave me pause; something was amiss. My suspicions were confirmed when he told me of his recent activism. Abu Ghani had gathered a group of university deans and professors and other leading professionals who were loosely affiliated with the state to discuss Yemen's ills and their possible remedies in a frank and open forum. There were certainly plenty of ills to go around ) Yemen has the highest poverty rate, the most rapid population growth rate, the lowest literacy rate, and some of the worst corruption of all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, excluding Sudan.
They discussed ways to empower the state to do more with Yemen's precious few resources ) to raise public sector salaries so that officials would not have to accept bribes to feed their families, to cut out the thousands of workers on payroll who have not shown for work in years, and to improve public accounting methods.
But even over these relatively uncontroversial measures, the fear of Big Brother was palpable ) Abu Ghani often found himself the only one talking. While others nodded their assent, no one else was willing to go on record criticizing the state. Abu Ghani himself had thought his good family name would protect him from state retribution, but after a few subtle hints ) police warrants for trumped up tax evasion charges, random house break-ins, and trouble obtaining an exit visa ) Abu Ghani quickly saw that he had gone as far as he could. The men with pants had been ignored. A fellow qat chewer had explained, “The lowest echelon in the Yemeni political system is not the man on the street, but the tribal sheikh.”

Mohammed the Deputy
The second man of Yemen I came to know was Mohammed, a deputy minister in the state bureaucracy. I labored in his small office through the summer, helping put together and translate the official Annual Economic Report, chronicling Yemen's problems and tentatively suggesting potential growth strategies.
He had worked long days, seeking advice and contributions from the University of Sana'a's economists and from foreign development specialists to draft a special economic report. It was far harsher and more realistic than the annual report in its criticism of government corruption and in the lack of planning for Yemen's economic future once meager oil revenues were expected to dry up in five to ten years.
After working with me to put the final touches on the report, we brought it to the minister for approval, only to be shut down. The report's only failing was its willingness to look Yemen's problems in the eye. “The world does not need to know the extent of our problems. If foreign donors see this, they might be less willing to give us aid,” he was told. Mohammed's office had shrunk to just myself and a secretary, and the salary approval process proceeded so slowly that, after a year as deputy minister, he had still not received a single paycheck. Mohammed was seeking work elsewhere.

From the village to the city
Mohammed would arrive each day to the ministry dressed in an impeccable suit and driving his “Monica Lewinsky” (the affectionate nickname for the Toyota Land Cruiser ) the SUV of choice for Yemenis returning from work in America). But Mohammed seemed most comfortable during the weekend I spent with him as he returned to his home village, dressed in his Jambiyya and robe, and inspecting his father's rows of qat plants.
The deputy minister had come from less noble origins than Abu Ghani, hailing from the mountainous district of al-Hayma. Mohammed took me to his home village for a weekend holiday, and I noticed that few in his district were educated through the high school level, and even fewer had distinguished themselves outside the police and the military.
When Mohammed was young, his father's cousin was a top commander in the military, and brought back aid and privileges to his home village. At the age of 12, the powerful commander was gunned down in front of Mohammed's eyes by the young President Saleh's intelligence services. This marked the final ouster of the people of al-Hayma from the upper echelons of the military. But, by the Yemeni code of honor, and to ensure that the commander's children would not take revenge upon him, Saleh made a peace offering to the commander's family.
Among Saleh's gifts was Mohammed's selection for a scholarship to attend Arizona State University in Tucson, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. He picked Arizona because it had a small Muslim community and its climate was similar to Yemen ) all the better for studying agriculture.
Being thrust from a childhood as a rural goat-herder and agricultural laborer to the wild dormitory life of a famous American party school was certainly traumatic. Mohammed recollected to me, cringing, how the girls would dress for the Arizona weather, leaving little to the imagination. (In Yemen, nearly all women, particularly in the rural, mountainous areas, wear the long black coveralls, abayas, and the full-face veil, niqab.) In the comfort of a community qat chew at his home village, he told me ) as his cousins and nephews stared on wondrously ) of the wild Friday-night parties and of the college girls from his residential hall, trying to seduce him into their dorm rooms, demanding that they “needed a circumcised penis.”
As innocent as he was, Mohammed quickly caught on to what they meant, and, in a desperate bid to staunch America's seduction of his morals, he fled the next summer back to Yemen, where he hastily married a young woman from the neighboring village. The girl's parents were considered liberal and allowed him, under close supervision, to see her face before handing over the marriage dowry. He explained, “If I hadn't gone and married then, Yemen for me would have been lost.” And, though Mohammed would return to Arizona to finish his undergraduate work and then earn his doctorate, the village never left him. Mohammed had not abandoned his conservative views on marriage and dating, nor had he given up his attachment to the land and its traditional ways.
My weekend in the countryside with Mohammed also marked a generational transition. The scattered lands owned by his father were passing on to Mohammed to manage and to collect his share of produce. We visited the impoverished villages where the women worked his father's land as sharecroppers and the husbands searched for work in the city. Mohammed swelled with pride, seeing his new land for the first time ) as its caretakers offered him their simple peasant meal of shafut, Ethiopian bread soaked in fresh buttermilk.
Perhaps, as he studied Yemen's tentative transition to modernity, he saw how easily it could fail. Whatever happens at the ministry, the village will always be there for him.
Yoni Levine, a former newspaper editor, is a second year masters' student studying the Middle East and International Economics at Johns Hopkins University. He was an economic consultant at the Yemen's Ministry of Planning last summer.