No more North and South [Archives:2006/952/Opinion]

June 5 2006

By: Yahia Al-Jubaihi

I have an experience I recall at London's Heathrow airport, capital of the former empire where the sun never set. Part of this Britannic empire's domains were the southern area of modern Yemen. Though my passport details were translated into their own mother tongue, the officials at the airport would ask me whether I was from the North or the South. The same question would be repeated in Paris' major airport, Charles de Gaulle. The immigration official would run through my passport several times and then query me: “Are you from Aden or Sana'a?”

The same arrogance, save the accent, would be repeated at John F. Kennedy's airport in New York. As the Americans tend to be a bit more intrusive, they would additionally ask if I knew any one in the South. In Toronto's Pearson airport, the same question would be repeated though in a different same manner. My experiences are not unique, and many Yemenis have dealt with similar hindrances when visiting Western countries where they have experiences with slight differences in immigration offices' dealing with the passports of Aden and Sana'a. Moreover, the same problem would occur in the Eastern Bloc countries.

For people like me, such embarrassing questions were not confined to foreign countries only. It was also common in some Arab countries though the problems took different forms. Additionally, it was not uncommon to encounter dissimilar treatment based on the type of the passport one held, though this did not happen in foreign, non-Arab, countries. Passports were the political expression of separation between the South and the North before 22 May 1990, which the governments in both North and South thought were sufficient enough to create an identity for their regimes. Such recognition was narrowly confined to officialdom and gained scant public currency. We used to exploit such sovereign artifacts to demonstrate the natural unity between the South Yemen and North Yemen. People who examined our passports tended to accept the official status of our passports rather than our explanations. The official perspective seemed stronger than the natural state of affairs.

This was our situation before 22 May 1990. It was only a model. As only truth persists, the official stance corresponded with the public's will and the two sides united. Since May 22, people like me were no longer compelled to explain our citizenship to immigration officials around the world as the question itself ceased to be asked because of the new Yemeni passports. This new passport held the same content typical of all passports and differed from the former North and South passports in a nominal way only. It differed from the previous Yemen Arab Republic and People's Democratic Republic of Yemen passports in that only one official for signed it for those born in Aden or Sana'a, whereas two officials would have previously signed them.

As power means the power of unity rather than that of materials, and as power in today's world recognizes nothing else than strength in unity, I felt a difference in treatment at airports following unification. Thereafter, I expected the American to bow for me in respect, the Brit to tip his hat, the Frenchmen to wave his hand in welcome, and the Canadian to smile in satisfaction. Also, I expected others to apologize in spite of themselves.

May 22 is the day of change for every Yemeni inside or outside the country despite some sour grapes and mistaken understandings. Such differences in interpretations have shown themselves to be crucial as the South's attempt to break away from the union showed in 1994. However, the attempt allowed the union to gain in strength and stabilization. Present-day gripes such as the cancer of corruption and deteriorating economic circumstances are not attributed to unification, though they could be attributed to some persons involved in the achievement of unity. These detractors have failed to realize the importance of unification to the country and the region. Yemeni unification enhanced stability and security in the region. It contributed to the termination of many expected conflicts that had been the result of lack of trust between the two Yemens. Moreover, had it not been for unification, border demarcation with Oman and Saudi Arabia would not have been possible following some sixty years of dispute. Yemeni unification created the necessary political space to enable the borders to be demarcated. What would have happened if the borders had not been demarcated before 9/11? The answer is anyone's guess.

We mark the sixteenth anniversary of re-unification, despite all the nuisances and birth pangs associated with it as a sign of progress. Negative outcomes of unification can be considered as momentary because they are specific to individuals who will eventually leave the political stage. Not all of the deficits in development will affect the greatness of unification. Every Yemeni who now is ignorant of the meaning of South and North is a product of the achievement. Since May 22, each Yemeni chants whether it is overtly, silently, in pleasure or misery, in poverty, in sickness or good health, they repeat no more South and North.

Yahia Al-Jubaihi is Head of Media department at the Ministerial Cabinet