Dierickx Isabelle, a tourist guide in Yemen to the Yemen Times:Seeing Yemen through foreign eyes! [Archives:2005/842/Community]

May 16 2005

Interviewed by Nadia al-Saqqaf
Yemen Times Staff

Isabelle, is an architect from Belgium. Since she came to Yemen in 1995 she has fallen in love with Yemen and decided to play the mediator role between her people and Yemen and hence acted as a tour guide for many European tourists. She has been to Yemen over 16 times since 1995, and today she is doing a research for the VRT preparing a documentary on daily life in Yemen.

Q: Why Yemen in the first place?

A: To tell you the truth I never knew that a country called Yemen existed before my attention was drawn to it by my friends who were interested in Yemen in 1992. Since I am an architect, from the pictures I saw, this country was like a dream land because of its beautiful architecture and styles of buildings. They invited me to come with them to Yemen at that time, and since I was very curious about this country, I started to search in books and maps, and was very interested to visit Yemen, however, I was only able to do so three years later.

Q: What was your first impression when you came?

A: My friends had told me about the country and its people so you can say I was given an early warning. It's hard to explain my feelings now after all those years but what I remember was the striking feeling that I had gone back centuries in time. It was like living in the past, but today so many things have changed. That time I noticed how dirty the streets were in the city, however, the rural areas were clean and healthy. It is the opposite today, the cities are much cleaner and all the dirt has moved to the villages, which is very sad. When we traveled around Yemen we got to taste the food and see many places. We liked the food and I am so used to it today. The thing that I loved most about Yemen and many other foreigners agree with me, is the hospitality and friendliness of the people.

Q: Did you find the Yemeni dressing style strange to your eyes?

A: I found it was very strange that women wore black all over. I noticed that during the past ten years the number of women who covered their faces and wear black has increased. I don't mind it, and I keep telling the others not to be judgmental and I don't think that this dressing is a barrier against women working or participating in outdoor activities. I don't think it is a sign of suppression the same way I don't think the Jambia (dagger worn by Yemeni men around the waist) is a sign of violence. It's cultural. But I do have a problem with the guns and rifles many Yemeni men carry around. I think it is dangerous and sometimes stupid because it could lead to hurting people. In many of the tours we take around Yemen, the driver or the tour guide wants to impress us by showing how well he can aim and shoots at some target, but I dislike it and I ask them to stop. I think in 1995 weapons were spread much more in the country than they are today, and that is definitely progress.

Q: Was Yemen anything like what you have read about in western media?

A: Actually there is a lot of misjudgments and misconceptions. Most of the information the west has on Yemen is outdated and misleading. However I can't say much about the political news or writings because there are things about Yemen that I still don't know about and they may be right. Yet overall I think Yemen deserves better publicity than it gets. Once I wrote a four page letter to a newspaper in Belgium that had written about Yemen and stated facts that were no longer true, asking them to update their sources. There used to be things written about kidnappings that used to happen in the last century and I thought they were true, they say Yemen is not a safe place to visit. I found out that it is all right to visit Yemen in some places but not in others, I know that there are areas I should not go to. The number of the redline places have decreased these days, for example, I couldn't go to al-Jawf in 1995 but I can today.

Q: What is the impression that people in Europe have about Yemen?

A: I can't tell you about all the people there, but many of them whom I met were shocked when I told them I want to go to Yemen. They thought I was crazy, but when I come back I show them pictures and tell them stories and they change their point of view to some extent, but there are those who don't want to change their conceptions no matter what you tell them. Yemen has changed through the years and I am sure the attitude towards Yemen will also change with more communication.

However, I want to say something about how Yemenis perceive the west. They think that whatever they see on TV and in movies applies to everyone, especially with regards to social relations and sexual affairs. That is not true, we have our social traditions and we are conservative to an extent and is not like how it is portrayed in the media. Of course this is variable between America and Europe and also among European countries but still there is misleading information. Politically, we are not always portrayed through the news and the Eastern anger towards the west without discrimination as equally harmful as the accusations of the west to the Muslim world as being terrorists. There has to be a balance and the people of both sides should put more effort to understand each other.

Q: What do you love most about Yemen?

A: The nature. It combines between all geographical terrains in the world; there is the sea and the dessert, the mountains and the valleys all in one country. Also some times you find all seasons of the year in the same day. It is really exotic. I love tracking in the mountains, and Yemen provides the best tracking environment and has excellent mountains.

Q: Have you seen change since you first came in 1995?

A: Definitely, there have been changes in the infrastructure, and many new buildings have been constructed in the last 10 years. The capital city has become cleaner but unfortunately the suburbs are dirtier. I saw that the number of women wearing veils have increased while the number of men carrying guns have decreased. The numbers of schools in the countryside has increased tremendously and I wonder if education has also improved. But goods are much more expensive today than they were 10 years ago and the people are poorer. They are relatively more depressed today because of the economic factors especially with the latest news of price hikes.

Q: What is your future vision of the country?

A: I am very concerned about the unemployment especially among the youth. I have seen that more schools and educational establishments are there but what happens to the graduates once they complete their education? It is very dangerous for the youth to be idle with the increasing economic and social pressures. There is so much potential in this country but the Yemenis must understand that they have to work for their country in order to improve the conditions. I think that Qat is one of the main reasons why Yemenis are not able to advance as quickly as they could. Democracy in Yemen is very recent, it won its freedom around 1962 and 1963, so, it is still struggling, but my fear is that the efforts made by the people are not sufficient to improve their lives. For example you go to a bank in Belgium and the people are working very hard and very busy all the time, here I saw people in the bank coming late, playing cards on the computer or chatting together and not doing their work. Another thing is that the mentality here is very typical and although people are changing because of exposure, the change is slow.

Economy of this country will not improve unless focus is shifted from the oil sector to the non-oil sector such as tourism, agriculture and fishery. There is so much potential to grow. Good management and efficient strategies and action plans should be sufficient to achieve the desired objectives. People have to be open for change and ready for it to happen.