East and WestLet the good times roll in Sana’aIf the tourists only knew [Archives:2004/718/Opinion]

March 8 2004

By Jamil Abdul Karim
[email protected]

When Westerners think of the Middle East, what do they think of? Oil? Terrorism? Women wearing head-to-toe burqas? Islam? Script they can't read? Do they honestly think of much good? If a Westerner had a free ticket to holiday anywhere, would this region even make their shortlist?
Of course, we know it has good things. People here are, well, pretty much like anywhere. Parents raise families. Kids go to school. Folks marry, dance, cook, write poetry, fight, reconcile and so on. While some are out there, I've personally yet to meet anyone in Yemen, for example, who's burned a U.S. flag or shouted 'Death to America!'
Just like London, England isn't full of tweed-clad MBA students or white-collared insurance agents, the Middle East – Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east, Turkey in the north to Somalia in the south – has more variety than any silly, monolithic stereotypes we believe.
It's something for Westerners to keep in mind the next time they hear some yahoo has blowing something up over here. It simply has nothing to do with the experience of millions here, just like, say, SARS will never be the experience of millions of Chinese or Canadians.
But then, we live in a world of perceptions.
Consider while terrorism kills thousands yearly, most victims live in Africa, Nepal and Columbia. We don't hear that, because they have nothing to do with the few hundred Western victims. In truth more people die of traffic accidents and falling off ladders than from any global terror threat. But that's not politically important.
The whole thing comes to mind because of the terrible understanding Westerners have of tourism here. Sure Yemen has some black eyes from things like the bombings of the American warship USS Cole in 2000 (now back in service after a $250 million repair) and the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. That Yemen is a tribal country with a weak central government and, in parts, a wild-west mentality, doesn't help.
But those of us who live here that Sana'a, with its historic quarter designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is among the oldest inhabited places on Earth. And for anyone living in this giant, outdoor museum, it's no surprise that Sana'a is named the Arab Cultural Capital for 2004.
Case in point: The Germans who recently came to town for Yemen's first-ever open-air concert. Can you imagine, the 70-member Europa Philharmonie Orchestra, among Europe's best, playing Mozart and Brahms, Beethoven and Strauss, under the stars, against Sana'a's stunning backdrop of ancient, mud-brick buildings that look like giant ginger-bread houses? Who would have thought it possible?
All those VIPs from across the region, plus the locals who lined the area, some peering out from area windows and rooftops: wow. Your best billing at London's Royal Albert Hall wouldn't compare. And this was free.
It shows what exposure can do for an unknown product. Some feel Yemen has antiquities on par with Egypt's pyramids. Instead, thanks to things like the ship blasts, Aden, a port city with the most picturesque beaches in the region, is all but blowing away. Look how its free-zone shipping terminal, which normally handles goods from around the world, has been battered.
The irony is that rather than hurting any western commerce, which they like to gloat about, the few bomb-happy extremists in the Middle East are actually hurting their own kin. And, unlike in North America, some rock-and-roll music group like The Rolling Stones won't bale Yemen out. We couldn't afford their clean-up crew.
The saving grace is that while European tourists – which normally generate more than half of Yemen's tourists – have fallen, visitors from Middle Eastern countries are up. Total visitors, about 100,000 a year now, are slowly rising to pre-Cole-blast days.
There are no easy solutions to it all, especially when the truth gets mired in the mud of fear and politics. But, in this town, 2004 promises to bring some pretty good times. If only a few more Westerners would put down the so-called news, and come take a look.

Jamil Abdul Karim ([email protected]) is a Yemen Times editor.