What Is There to Celebrate [Archives:2000/16/Focus]

April 17 2000

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
Anniversaries are great occasions that give continuous prominence to important moments in our lives Ð as individuals, families communities and societies. On the other hand, there are anniversaries of religious significance that relate us to those in the past who helped shape our spiritual heritage and gave us the causes for which we give our time, dedicate our souls and sometimes give our lives. Throughout most of man’s presence on this planet religious anniversaries were the predominant festivities enjoyed by human beings on a collective basis Ð beyond the family. More often than not these were tied to the occupation that most people engaged in Ð agriculture and providing their own means of livelihood. Thus seasonal feasts were concocted to motivate people towards harder work and to have a greater affinity with the Earth and the elements surrounding them. There were also feasts tied to harvests as occasions to celebrate the results of man’s achievements. As nationalism became a significant form of affiliation for people to band together into, celebrations were also established to remind the population of their national heritage, most of which were tied to important victories for the assertion of the nationalist pride. As people became cultured, cosmopolitan and urban life took over the inertia of mass popular activities; celebrations became more institutionalized and, to a large degree, commercialized, as corporate entrepreneurship and the media took over the role of clergies and other prominent social dignitaries to guide the people as to the proper enjoyment to pursue in these festivities. Moreover, specific forms have taken the more spontaneous and almost free form expression of joy and creativity that prevailed in the festivities enjoyed by our forebearers.
In Yemen, until recently most festivities were tied to religious occasions. Even during the rule of the last Imams (the Imamic or Kingdom State ended with the 26 September 1962 Revolution), Yemen had basically two holidays which were the Feast of Ramadhan and the Feast of Sacrifice. Perhaps the Imam Ahmed (who died one week before the Revolution) was the first to introduce non-religious reasons for the nation to celebrate and added the date of his accession to the throne, when his countercoup toppled the short lived 1948 Revolution that ousted his father, as a reason for the nation to celebrate. After 1962, national holidays took on greater significance and were more widely encouraged by the government to instill nationalist pride and to remind the people of the struggle that ensued against both the Imamic regime and British rule of the South. Though the two struggles took on different forms, nevertheless Yemenis in what was North Yemen and South Yemen (the Northern and Southern Governorates respectively) consider both struggles as important steps towards the freedom and independent of all Yemen. Thus, when both former independent states became the Republic of Yemen, new national holidays were added to the 26 September Revolution (northern), the 14th of October Revolution (Southern) and the 30th November Evacuation Day of the British (Southern). Incidentally the two former Yemen’s had already unified the celebrations of the three holidays even prior to unification. In fact that was the only thing the two former independent states could agree on prior to 30 November 1989, when the two Presidents of the two Yemen’s then decided to break the long-standing deadlock in the ongoing discussions on unification from the time that the British had left, which never went beyond the agreement on the holidays. Thanks to international developments with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fears of both sides that the other was going to do better in a new world order, President Ali Abdullah Saleh went to Aden and sensibly coaxed the leaders of the then People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, lead by Ali Salim Al-Beidh, that the New World Order calls for only one Yemen to exist. Perhaps Al-Beidh had counted on the democratic platform he insisted upon in the unification agreement to insure his regimes political presence in the new Yemen for a long time to come, but it seems that he underestimated the Northerners’ ability to manipulate popular support, and the lack of political awareness among the Yemeni population in general. In any case, initially unification was viewed as a new dawn for Yemen and the exuberance was exhilarating then. Because of the popular support unification was greeted with at start, the unification date was moved up six months from 30th November 1990 to 22 May 1990. No one is exactly sure why the move was made, but some chroniclers, in retrospect, believe it may have been in view of the oncoming Gulf Crisis that may have been foreseen by some of the Yemeni leaders, who may have had an idea of what was about to occur in the Northern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Whatever the case nobody complained and 22 May 1990 was indeed the most festive day Yemen has seen in a long time.
That was 10 years ago and many of the players of that fateful day had gone out of the political arena and many had been forced into exile. Moreover conditions in the country are far from being anywhere near comparable to what they were then, politically, economically and socially. Of course, the democratic atmosphere envisioned by its sponsors and the many people who on all ends of the political and geographical spectrums cheered and applauded their appreciation for, has become nothing more than some token elements of democracy that lacks any real appreciation of popular political will and detriment. It seems clearer now that democracy is just not something that can be spoon fed to people; people have to appreciate it, want it, and strive for it. Otherwise, the guarantees for upholding democracy vanish into thin air and it becomes nothing more than a faade that polishes the image of a quasi-totalitarian state that is almost out of touch with the people it professes to govern by the will of the people. But that is another issue. The issue now at hand is that 22 May has now approached its tenth turn and the mood of the people is not in parallel with that of the government, and for sure not with that same feeling of exuberance felt ten years before.
In getting a feel of popular reactions to the big festivities that the government is planning for the anniversary of Year No. 10 of the Republic of Yemen, one senses that there seems to be two separate directions now meted out for the country: that of the government and that of the people.
While it is not exactly for certain public wise what the government intends to do, the overwhelming feeling is that it is going to be big and more important it is going to be expensive. Most people tend to question the wisdom of the government in laying out so much money and carrying on so extravagantly, for celebrating 10 years of a general decline in just about every facet of the lives of the general population of the country, in addition to the political instability, that eventually had to be resolved violently and expensively, the economic depression and the general state of lawlessness that seems to prevail throughout the country. There are many who would suggest that this money would be better exploited if channeled to areas of greater priority than to satisfy the egos of the senior elements in the regime and to fill the pockets of all those who will be involved in managing various aspects of the boisterous event. Of course, most people have a fairly good idea that the whole event is geared to maximize the benefits of those who will “work night and day to insure that the festivities project the best that Yemen can do”. When you ask people in the street their views, the overriding impression gets is that “it is their holiday and their money”, what difference does it make to us, even if all the world’s leaders converge on Sana’a to “share the Yemeni people’s joy”. For the Yemeni people, there will not be joy this 22nd of May, but an increasing feeling of see nothing but let-downs and disregard for the overall welfare of the people, in just about everything that the government is doing, whether for holidays or for any other day. So they tell you: “What is there to celebrate? How pathetic the state of the nation is in? Give us a break!”