“Suwar Min Biladi brought Yemenis together.” [Archives:1998/30/Interview]
Mohsen Al-Jabri is one of the senior radio and television announcers in Yemen. His television series “Suwar Min Biladi” (Pictures or Images from My Country) is the longest running program on the Yemeni tube.
From the program, you can quickly note that the man has a message. He feels he has a role to play in building cohesion and national unity. He works hard to make Yemenis wherever they are, appreciate the unique features and qualities that exist in this or that tribe or region. He also encourages domestic tourism by discussing the beauty of the landscape, the opportunities, the folklore, and the various enjoyable sites.
Ismail Al-Ghabry of Yemen Times spoke to Mr. Al-Jabri and filed the following interview.
Q: Could you tell us about your early days in broadcasting?
A: I come from Thulah. I completed my elementary religious schooling at the Shibam mosque, following which I moved to Sanaa to study at the preparatory and secondary schools. One of our teachers was the famous martyred revolutionary leader Ali Abdulmughni.
During preparations for the Revolution of September, we were assigned the task of occupying the Sanaa radio. To employ the radio broadcast to serve the revolution, we started to prepare special propaganda programs to be broadcast in a simple language to be understood by the majority of the uneducated masses.
The first program I presented was called “Ruah Al-Shaab” or the people’s aspirations, which was followed by a number of daily and weekly programs, all presented in simple everyday parlance.
I later worked in the Aden broadcasting station until when President Ali Abdullah Saleh invited me back to Sanaa.
Q: How did you hit upon the idea of your famous program – Suwar Min Biladi?
A: I used to present a daily radio program when the President summoned me for an audience along with the then minister of information, Yahya Al-Arashi, and asked me to start preparing a TV program. I already had the idea for Suwar Min Biladi as a means of making all parts of Yemen known to all Yemenis.
The program also proved to be a good method of documenting Yemen’s unique heritage and culture.
A section of the program is called “Sawt Al-Sha’ab” or voice of the people in which ordinary citizens are given the chance to freely express their opinion and demands. Another section deals with folkloric arts, traditional clothes and handicrafts, popular regional dishes, historic sites, tourist attractions, architecture, handicrafts, etc.
Q: What has been the impact of this program, in your opinion?
A: Following unification, Suwar Min Biladi played a major part in bringing the people of the erstwhile two countries together. I said to the President at the time that there are many people living in remote and deprived areas who will benefit greatly from such a program. They will find a good means of expressing their hopes and grievances.
Most important of all, I asked the minister of culture to instruct the censors not to interfere with our freedom to present the country’s reality. The request was granted.
Q: How many episodes of the program have been recorded up to now? And how many people have worked with you over all those years?
A: During the program’s course, I worked with a large number of TV directors, cameramen, technicians and drivers. The directors include Mohammed Lutf Al-Haleeli, (7 years), Nasser Al-Awlaqi (5 years); while, the cameramen include Ali Al-Amrani, Abdulrahamn Wohaish, and, the longest serving of all, Mohammed Abdullah Al-Absi. The latter has been with me almost everywhere in Yemen.
As for the number of episodes, I am sorry to say that I do not have an exact figure. I believe the number is in the thousands. The TV archives are not very thorough in keeping their records. Many of the program’s episodes were recorded on an old type of film, which is normally used of daily news coverage and is disposed of after a while. Due to bad storage conditions, films have started to disintegrate, literally. Some of the material was salvaged by transferring them onto new tapes.
A more extensive archival system is currently being prepared.
Q: How does the Yemeni information media in the past compare with the present?
A: There is no comparison really. With the advent of satellite TV, the Internet and modern means of communication, the world has become a small village. You can see satellite dishes everywhere in Yemen, even in small and remote villages.
Moreover, democratization and the multi-party system adopted in Yemen have made it possible for many publications to appear, giving people more choice and a plethora of information.
The information media in the past, on the other hand, were put exclusively in the service of individual regimes. A lot has changed after unification.
Q: Can you remember a particular anecdote from the past 20 years of your program’s existence?
A: It happened when I was in the southern governorates before unification. The filming crew were ensconced in a hotel, overlooking the sea. While I was standing on the balcony looking west, I saw the most amazing spectacle – the sun sinking into the horizon. It was a wonderful scene, which I felt it a pity to waste. So I immediately called the cameraman and asked him to film.
We were closely watched by the former regime’s secret police. Two of them rushed into our room. “What do you think you’re doing,” shouted one of them. “I’m only filming the sunset,” I replied innocently. I added: “If you want, we’ll only film the northern part of the sun and mask the southern. Do you also want to divide the sun into two halves, like our country!”
Another anecdote I was doing a program about Yemen’s Jewish community. The plan was to broadcast the program through the Jordanian satellite channel – Yemen had not started its satellite broadcast then. The aim was really to show the Yemeni Jews who immigrated to Israel how their kins live back in Yemen after the revolution’s victory. It was also intended as a response to the lies propagated by the Western media, alleging that Yemen’s Jews are oppressed by the government.
We filmed practically all aspects of life of the Jewish community. A senior Yemeni rabbi said, “During the reign of the Imam, all Yemenis where oppressed, whether Muslim or Jew. When the Yemeni Jews immigrated to Israel, they were made to do menial jobs and were exploited by the Western Jews.”
I remember when we were filming the program, I sat in a main sitting room and people were brought in turn to be interviewed. It happened that whenever a man entered the room with his son, he would order the son to greet me saying, “Shake hands with your uncle Mohsin, boy!” The phrase was repeated so many times, that at the end I laughed and said, “Now I’ve become one of you!”
Q: How successful is Suwar Min Biladi in introducing Yemen to the world?
A: It has of course helped encourage internal cohesion.
Its external influence is limited, although it is visible.
Q: Any last comment?
A: I must emphasize that I never owned a car or was given a car by the government to help me in my filming trips. I have to make do with local transport. Many of the people who worked with me left because they found it difficult to continue with very little financial rewards. We are only given enough money for transport and accommodation. Only the most devoted of the filming crew are kept going on.