Irena Knehtl to YT:”The best thing in Yemen is its people.” [Archives:2004/721/Culture]

March 18 2004
Irena Knehtl
Irena Knehtl
Ever since she became Yemen Times Person of the Year 2003, many of our readers wanted to know more about Irena Knehtl. They wanted to know of her motives and objectives, her ambitions and ideas, and most important of all, her mission in Yemen. Yemen Times requested the pleasure to talk to Irena and make an interview with her for our readers. Even though we know her quite closely, our readers deserve to know more about this gentle and hardworking person who dedicated a large portion of her life for Yemenis throughout the country.

Here are the excerpts of the interview

Q: Who is Irena Knehtl? Could you introduce yourself from your own perspective?
A: I come from an old merchant family from the town of Maribor , the second largest town in Slovenia and an university town. My father was a hero in Slovene national movement. The Russian literary giant Lev Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi of India were his models. I resemble him virtually, and hold the same values. Both of my parents passed away prior I came to Yemen. I studied economics at university of my home town, business administration at London School for Business Studies in London, international relations at University of Oslo in Norway, and history of Islam and Islamic peoples in Sana'a.
Since 1990 I have been researching the economic cooperation of Indian Ocean and Red sea countries as independent researcher from Yemeni perspective. And I managed to establish myself as a writer.

Q: What was the reason(s) that made you decide to come to Yemen?
A: I came to Yemen with my “Indian father” from Malta on an UNIDO (UN for industrial development) assignment for a feasibility study for steel in foundry industries for then the Yemen Arab Republic. My “Indian father” a noble man, once advisor to the PM Nehru of India for steel and foundry industries inspired, encouraged and stimulated me greatly. He gave me another perspective of issues, and I was willing to learn. After his passing away I am in touch with his daughter who is one of India's top scientists. We plan to meet this year.

Q: OK, but why did you decide to stay, despite the negative image portrayed in the West about it?
A: The situation in 1980 was quite different in the West and in Yemen, then still divided into North and South. The “bridges” still existed, the disappointment over development came much later. Y.A.R. was at the height of cooperative development movement, a grass root development movement, in international affairs non-alignment representing justice in international affairs was dominant.
Our task was to collect data and prepare the feasibility study for steel and foundry industries for then Yemen Arab Republic which would enable Y.A.R. to begin to develop an industrial base. During the same year Y.A.R. established three specialized banks i.e. industrial bank, agricultural and credit bank, and housing and credit bank to channel remittances sent by Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia into investment projects. The Industrial bank was keen to attract young people who would find it challenging to join. I was offered to join, my “Indian father” encouraged the move. At the bank I was responsible for international organizations, like World Bank, IMF, and Arab financial funds. We would design investment packages which the bank would co-finance. In addition, I supervised red brick projects. A challenging time, many times I learned more than I could ever give.

Q: We have heard that you are the first kidnapped foreigner in recent memory? Is it true? How did it happen? Do you still maintain links with the kidnappers?
A: This is true, I had been happened in 1982 in Sirwah. For many years I kept the matter to myself.
But then I wrote it up and published it in Yemen Times in order to clarify the issue of kidnappings in Yemen. Over 250 responses from all over Yemen came in, everybody believed that it goes for a classical issue of development. The main figure, the late Colonel Saleh Saleh Az-Zaydi and the way he handled this issue has become an inspiration. Several fathers offered their sons to be taken care for schooling.

Q: Unlike most foreigners in Yemen, you were able to penetrate into the lives of Yemenis and create sociable links with them. How was this possible?
A: I am being asked all over now more than ever what magic formula I hold to Yemenis in Yemen. I have to say I do not have any. And for me to speak about Yemenis and Yemen is like to speak about myself. I view Yemenis very much as my people I trust and rely upon. No, I am not disappointed. I cannot think differently. See, when I came, Sana'a numbered 120.000 inhabitants and we all knew one another. We went together through everything life so offers, earthquakes, unity, wars, joys, sorrows, etc. Their concerns are also my concerns. Particularly touching were Eid and Ramadhan festivals. My neighbors would go out of their way to make me feel not being left out in any way. Yemenis are exceptionally hospitable and thoughtful people. But Yemenis are also people with strong sense for justice.

Q: Why do you think foreigners in diplomatic and other missions in Yemen fear getting involved with Yemeni citizens?
A: The recent international situation has greatly distributed to distrust and fear. I am getting a lot of mails from everywhere, young Europeans, students, researchers or just ordinary people who are interested to experience Yemen in the same manner I do. Perhaps we should find a way together that all such initiatives find responses.
It is difficult to imagine living in Sana'a and not go for shopping to Bab Al-Yemen, or walk through the Old city of Sana'a. Or to Shaibani restaurant for fish, or a Friday 'tafrita' (evening visits). Or for example for a Friday afternoon to Wadi Dahr. During grape season to Beni Hushaish. Also attend some of the interesting lectures and events at Afif cultural foundation and meet Yemeni intellectuals. The Yemeni capital Sana'a is an exceptional interesting city. Even after so many years for me still holds attraction, as does Yemen in general. The best thing in Yemen is its people.

Q: What type of advice do you have for them to abolish this fear and hesitation?
A: I may sound to much a “Gandhian” that fear creates more fear, hate creates more hate, and eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Everybody should make effort.
The rewards will be enormous. We do not have but ourselves together, humans in one world.

Q: How did you find Yemeni civilians, especially those in rural areas you visited?
A: Over the years I have mixed with Yemenis from all walks of life. The dreams,
hopes and aspirations, concerns are the same. Let me tell you about the other day, I was on a bus to Tahrir Square. The bus driver asked an incoming traffic policeman for advice, that I may not know where I was going, and what he could do to help. The traffic policeman immediately clarified the matter saying that he remembered me when he was still going to school. That I know Sana'a very well; know perfectly well where I was going, and that there is really nothing to worry about.
My most memorable moments, however are from Yemeni rural areas. I went everywhere, even to far and distant places. Many times I spend my holidays in Hogerijah, or Hocha, Urj or Barat. My “relatives” are from all over Yemen. We constantly worry about one another, send greetings and wishes, seek advices. Of course, I have my favorites, places such as Barat and Wadi Kabb, the beautiful valley of tropical gardens in north- east. There I have my favorite “aunt” who is an excellent story teller, and a poetess in her own right. We admire each other very much. There certainly are social and other cultural differences. But we have something important in common that is humanity. To feel simply human

Q: What are your ambitions and hopes for yourself and your career in Yemen?
A: It would be perhaps too ambitious to speak in terms of career, no I'm not at all thinking along those lines; a quieter life with sunny days and good rainy season. Over the past years I began to write. Some time last year I published my correspondence with the Maldivian Royal in search for his Yemeni roots. The response was overwhelming. After I received an invitation from the Maldivian writers and poets for a contribution. A group of young people who in wide Indian Ocean wish to make difference in terms of culture. Since then I regularly contribute as “Visiting poet”. After each contribution a big “thank you” mail arrives. View: In all my writings professional or literary the main figure is man, human being, human being who hopes and fears, who loves and expects.

Q: Have you thought of returning to Slovenia, which is now considered a member of the European Union? When and why?
A: Life is a “journey” which purpose is some day to return “home” wherever that it.
All stages of “my journey” follow some logical manner. Slovenia, the country of my birth and youth, Malta, the island of oleanders in the wind and rebellion, Yemen the country of my working life. Right I very much live life. Besides, all my “relatives” are in Yemen, I would miss them too much. It is not worth going anywhere. But I'm still very much in contact with Slovenia. Although Slovenians have reached their statehood only in 1990, they are one of the oldest European nations. The principles of their 7th century, Principality of Karantania, a democracy based on land, was adopted in American Constitution. Slovenia presents a good example of a small country with limited natural resources that heavily invested into human resources. The concerns now are very different as to what extend Slovenians will be able to preserve their language, culture and traditions. My renewed thanks to Yemen for being the second Arab country after Egypt to have recognized independent Slovenia.

Q: How do you evaluate your role in bridging gaps between Europe and Yemen?
A: The role, if any, has invented itself. I would like to see that Yemen gets a more proper credit for its constant efforts in all fields. If I can be to Yemen of any assistance in this respect it would be a privilege to do so. See, western and Islamic civilizations are not so different, they form one whole. Through the history their relationship has been all between good to brutal. The best it is when we try to learn from one another, the worst when we try to dominate one another. For example the situation we have now.
As far as Yemen is concerned one now can speak of “Yemeni model” for fighting terrorism. Judging from case to case, a mix of education, dialogue and tough measures. Mind you it is not perfect. Yemen has succeeded a great deal. Yemen deserves a better credit for it.
Further, Yemen has also successfully embarked on democratization. One of the essential features of democracy is that its citizens keep a watchful eye of their government. Take Yemen Times, for example. I can well imagine your sharp editorials not always come down well but it is of utmost importance to have this opportunity and to be able to say so. Yemen Times today is an important “safety valve”, a “democracy brigade” in its own right. Shortcomings and mistakes are only normal. To make mistakes is only human. Yemen is open and is conducting its affairs in front of the whole world. Everybody is immediately opposition, everything is immediately talked over. This is quite remarkable, I should say.
A return to justice in international affairs is the key to the future in the Middle East. The legitimate rights of Palestinians are on the top of any agenda.
The present “crisis: has opened the philosophical question in both ends, how much freedom to human being, in general. The other day I was listening to an interesting programme on Radio Sana'a. The question was “what is freedom” Do you mean the freedom like freedom of Sinbad the sailor, was asked further. No, came the reply, freedom needs to be responsible. Freedom like freedom of Sinbad the sailor is not enough.

Q: How do you assess the future of the country according to your long experience here?
A: All events in Yemen follow a well thought plan, starting with Yemen divided, Yemen united, Yemen exploring regional cooperation, like Indian Ocean dialogue. You will remember that Republic of Yemen is the founding member of this regional integration.
Further possible cooperation among Red sea countries. Internally building of infrastructure (roads, electricity etc.) and completion of business infrastructure, like the Aden Free Zone, and industrial productive zones. Further decentralization and already indicated release initiative and creativity, further diversification in economic field, to reduce dependence on oil exports.
Let's say in simple words the “Yemeni house”, the building is ready. But we have to see now, do we have enough “rooms” for all to live in this Yemeni house. Perhaps somebody would want to have red furniture, the other one a balcony, the third one more than one room-furnishings of “Yemen house”. And we have the World bank at the door telling us this and that. Our plan, if I may say so, involves a “time bomb”. Meaning the results should be the day before yesterday, but they will be only the day after tomorrow.
Over the Indian Ocean dialogue I had the privilege to cooperate with Mr. Ba Jammal, then Minister of the Development, the current Prime Minister of Yemen. Mr. Ba Jammal is not only very competent, but also very well informed about all events. He has, for example, widely credited the use of internet in Yemen among other things.
Having the situation like we have with the “time bomb” and an international scenario that has dramatically shifted priorities, perhaps it would be wise to consider a timely release of initiative and creativity, and to work out a “social safety net” for those most in need; a more careful monitoring of expenses in general. I would think that the Prime Minister needs some urgent emotional support to carefully choose the proper mix of “medicine” and timing.
As far as development models, i.e. our furnishings is concerned, there are quite a few interesting ideas on the table. The whole exercise of development is that in process one learns, succeeds or fails. The Chinese, for example, explain the word “crises” as crises and opportunity. An opportunity to think again. India, for example, has been advocating a “second agricultural revolution”, from cities to villages with electronic connexion. This is an exciting and challenging time.

Q: Any wishes that you want to convey to the Yemeni government or society?
Any final comments you may have?
A: A country that has so many well-wishers as Yemen has to succeed no matter what.