From Sana’a to Birmingham [Archives:2006/937/Reportage]

April 13 2006

By: Walid Al-Boks
Ghadir Al-Hakimi, Fattah Al-Khameri, Asil Al-Hawi, Malik Al-Amrawi, Mustafa Al-Sufi and Safa'a Al-Amir were six Yemeni youths chosen to participate in a project called “Citizenship” initiated by the British Council. All are secondary school students, ranging in age from 16-20.

They first received training in journalism principles to start their own magazine entitled, “One World, One Voice.” After attending the journalism training course, the six Yemeni youths headed to Birmingham, England, to join the other participants. They spent a week there, meeting various individuals and organizations working for community action and youth representation.

Eighteen young people participated in the project, representing Yemen, Oman and Bahrain, as well as five British youths. The project aimed to broaden the international and national prospects of youth cultures and backgrounds. It also aimed to train youths to cope with difficulties prevalent in their societies and help them find effective solutions to such difficulties within the framework of their rights and responsibilities. It encouraged the youths to further identify and find solutions to problems and then actually implement them hand in hand with their local societies. According to introductory notes, the project claimed it would help dismantle the stereotyped picture of rights among youths.

After their return from Birmingham, some newspapers and individuals tackled the issue from a different perspective, saying, “Projects such as this aim only to deform the Islamic identity and spread foreign secular-like cultures among youths.”

The Yemeni youths held a press conference last Wednesday to explain their attitudes toward the project, their experiences in Birmingham and their magazine. Numerous journalists and Sana'a University students attended.

During the press conference, the youths were not in a position to answer questions quietly and confidently. Instead, they appeared confused, especially when it turned into controversy between them and some attendees.

Journalists questioned them about their experiences in Birmingham, such as mixing openly with society. Seemingly not accepting such questions, the youths answered intensively and uneasily.

A journalist asked about British youths and how they are cared for and while answering, the youth participant criticized the Yemeni Child Parliament. Thereafter, Bilqis Al-Lahabi, secretary of the Yemeni Child Parliament, rose from her seat, turned to attendees and commented on what the youth had said. It turned out to be a controversial meeting more than a press conference, as the youths considered the questions provoking.

British Council director Elizabeth White delivered a speech on the occasion. “There is a tension among youths, as there is neither multiplicity nor views. Yemeni youths have done well through this communication and/or fruitful dialog. As they came back, they said Britain is very good. Also, as they return home, the British youths would say Yemen is very good,” she noted.

“Before participating in the Birmingham course, I felt I was unable to participate. But now I feel it is important for me to participate. I regained my self-confidence and feel I can participate in society,” Al-Hakimi said. However, he noted, “I saw none of my male friends intending to dispel the distance and get closer to me.”

For his part, 12th grade student Al-Sufi said that although short, his participation was valuable. Clenching her hands and smiling, Al-Amir said, “Our presence in Birmingham coincided with New Year's Eve and we participated in Christmas.” Al-Sufi added, “But we really maintained our special traditions.”

When asked if their ambition is to publish their “One World, One Voice” magazine continuously, Al-Hawi replied, “We hope to.” At approximately 16 pages with photos dominating much of the page space, the magazine illustrates their Birmingham experience. “It looks like reportage illustrated with pictures,” one attendee commented.

Attendees had their own views on the youths' participation in the project and the project itself. Some said the British Council was unsuccessful in selecting project participants, entrusting selection to the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation (CDIS) in Sana'a, which selected unqualified youths. Others criticized the project's secrecy.

“We came to know about the project only after the participants' return,” journalist Saqr Al-Sundaidi said, “There are youths who were qualified enough to represent Yemen. The CDIS should have announced the project via the media, universities and clubs.” Another journalist said the project idea was stolen from a U.S. program called “Arabic Civil Life.”

“The British Council in Sana'a must have chosen the best,” another journalist added sarcastically, meaning the CDIS, which selected the youths arbitrarily and without criteria.

Other attendees considered the project a kernel for cultural disassociation, namely because they are not open to other cultures. For them, the youths' participation in Birmingham seemed no more than fictional, as they noticed a vast difference in their behavior before their going to and returning from Birmingham.

What was more exciting for them was that three males and three females spent seven days together away from their families, which is possibly what their journey to Birmingham will sum up as the most controversial point in Yemeni society. A girl sitting in the back row said, “It's true that girls went with boys to Britain!” with the other girl replying, “What to see and what to hear!”

A documentary film about the youths also lent itself to a bit of controversy, as the Yemeni youths were not as active as compared to other youths. It was noticed that the Yemeni youths scarcely appeared on-camera, while others talked a lot and appeared as if they had an intimate relationship with the camera. A Yemeni girl appeared for only 10 seconds, as did her colleague Al-Amrawi, who appeared riding a wooden horse.

“Birmingham is a city that can influence a visitor at first sight,” one viewer commented, “According to the documentary, the girls were in a position to get rid of their black dress and participate with mates in a course that seemed more entertaining than serious training.”