The Edge of A Precipice [Archives:1999/18/Focus]

May 3 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

Mohamed Abbas

I heard the following conversation on my way to the office taking place between two school boys aged about 15 and 16:
A: Why do you go to school?
B: To study.
A: Why do you study?
B: To get a degree, and then to get a job.
A: But your father has got a degree and not a job!
B: Well, I don’t know why, do you?
The other boy shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.
The two kids were carrying their books-loaded with school bags, and of course they were not alone. Everywhere around them were tens of school boys carrying their heavy bags and going to school. At this moment the same panorama was occurring all over the country, which presents a unique spectacle. Hundreds of thousands of school children, boys and girls, were doing the same thing, and some of them maybe asking the same question: Why do we go to school?
Bewildered by and despondent over the sad uncertainty that was running in the two boys minds, I wished I could find encouraging words to soothe their fear of the unknown tomorrow. But I could not. Instead some one’s ironical observation that “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there” came to my mind. I thought also of my three kids, all of them school age, and found myself in the middle of a prayer asking Him to have mercy on his helpless children, all of them, including mine.
I was interrupted by an annoying sound of western music coming from behind. As I turned to see where it was coming from, a young boy, not very much older than the rest of the boys down in the street, was driving a brand new car at high speed and playing the music at high volume. I beckoned to him to slow down, but he only shouted a four-letter-word and sped away. I smiled despite myself and thought “Well, at least here is someone who knows where he’s heading.”
I sat in a minibus squeezed between two other passengers. In front of me sat another man, smoking and reading the daily official news paper. In fact, he was only reading the page before the last which usually covers the sport events. Therefore I was able to have a look at the main headlines on the front page. Before long, a particular headline captured my interest. It was a statement by a senior official defending the government’s action in lifting the subsidies on basic food commodities. The statement says “In the long run, the lifting of the subsidies is for the good of everyone.” The statement, like any other statement made by any politician, was too general to make any sense and the only important part of it is the phrase “in the long run.” But again, this phrase is too flexible to have one meaning. Ironically, the only meaning it could have is “in the long run every one will be dead!” But to put it this way, which is concrete, would turn the statement into an excuse which is worse than the problem. It is very much like Snowball’s style in Orwell’s famous political satire Animal Farm. In this story, the animals, after their successful rebellion against the human owners of the farm, agreed to run the affairs of the farm, now their own, on the principles of equality and fraternity. However, one night some of them discovered that the milk of the cows and the apples in the orchard which ought to be distributed equally amongst them had disappeared. In the morning, Snowball, one of the leading pigs of the farm, who was known for his ways of reasoning and convincing, came out to clear up the mystery. He told the rest of the animals that the pigs and the dogs had decided to have the milk and the apples all for themselves. Why? Because, as he puts it, “We pigs are brain workers…..The whole management of the farm depends on our brains. It is for your sake (meaning the rest of the animals) that we drink that milk and eat those apples.” The stupid animals swallowed this piece of trash as they will swallow anything he says later in the story. But this is only fiction while the statement in front of me is solid and real. Yet they are very much the same for the only mentality that can produce such statements is the mentality of a domineering pig.
The bus suddenly stopped.
In only a few seconds, the horns of the cars and shouts of drivers were resounding all over the place. In front of our bus was a tall, skinny lunatic blocking the way. He was standing in the middle of the narrow street and appeared to be nailed to the ground. Completely oblivious to the world around him, the poor lunatic was wearing ragged clothes that exposed some sensitive parts in his body. Dirt also covered him from top to toe as he might have forgotten that water has another use beside drinking. The statue-like human kept silent and was gazing into nowhere. Horns of anger and shouts of protest grew louder and noisier, but he ignored them. Behind us was a military jeep. In the front sat a middle age officer. His face was stern and the black spectacles he was wearing intensified the tough look in his face. His elegant and jaunty military uniform, decorated with a variety of medals and badges of honor, indicated that he was a high-ranking officer. We saw him ordering his guards in the back seat to step down and take care of the problem. Two armed soldiers jumped off the car, came around the lunatic and started to push him ahead. But as soon as they left him he instantly returned to his former spot. As he began to hit back at the guards, they finally forced him to their car where they shoved him inside and locked him in amid shouts of laughter and some witty remarks on the funny end of the unusual traffic jam.
The bus stopped again. This time it was only a traffic sign. The last scene of the lunatic kept flashing back and forth causing me to feel tense and restrained. It was really hard to imagine that a living man could be turned into a human heap and be disposed of in such an inhuman way. Between the three scenes I have seen so far, there is one thing in common and that’s poverty. But along with the degrading physical conditions, the three scenes- that of the school boys, the official’s statement and the lunatic- have proven the existence of a more menacing poverty, namely poverty of outlook, poverty of thought and poverty of soul.
In the meantime, two passengers were talking about something and pointing over at a painting on an electric sign. Out of curiosity I looked up and saw the thing. It was a magnificent painting of the president posted on a lofty place on the board. The face in the painting was bright and rosy-cheeked. The look in the eyes was firm and steady as if they were penetrating the future with sanguine hope and confidence.
Several days ago, a very good friend of mine asked for an explanation of the current situation in this country. I wished he was with me to see this for himself. Had he been with me, I think he would have said that the situation in Yemen is already dramatic, and and it would be fantastic were it not so tragic too. Seldom are the three elements of drama, fantasy and tragedy combined together to form such a spectacular scene of absurdity as is the case in the land of the “Arabia Felix,” or the happy Arabia!
I am now at the outside gate of the office of Yemen Times. A vague sense of hope and expectation haunts me as I put my signature on the attendance sheet to start another day of ordinary work.