“Yemen’s heritage is precious and deserves tremendous care” – Elizabeth White [Archives:2008/1136/Culture]

March 10 2008

In an exclusive interview with the Yemen Times, Elizabeth White, director of the British Council in Yemen, talks about the council's activities in Yemen. Elizabeth White is from northern England. After studying English literature at Oxford, she then worked at universities and in education development. For the past 12 years, she has been with the British Council in Ecuador, Russia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Czech Republic and Yemen.

What type of cultural activities does the British Council do?

It depends on how you define cultural activities. Worldwide, the British Council in general works in the field of cultural relations, which can relate to all kinds of activities seeking to enhance relations between two countries in fields not specifically political, economic or commercial, but having to do with how individuals, organizations and institutions in Britain and Yemen can work together in partnership.

For us, cultural relations involves working together in education, in the English language, the arts, sciences and information. Because that's a wide range of potential engagement, we respond by having a very diverse program.

For instance, let me tell you what we're currently doing in the arts. In our arts program, it's important that we're always working in partnership and in response to the interests we find from our networks here. I'll give you a few examples:

One of the biggest projects we're working on at the moment is an important regional exhibit called “My Father's House.” This project isn't just in Yemen, but also in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the Emirates.

In the exhibit, we're looking at the issue of building heritage, involving architecture and more specifically, housing in each of these countries and how people live in and with their building heritage.

We have a dual approach in each country. We first commission an artist from each country to create a portfolio of work on the theme “My Father's House.” At the same time, we bring British artist/photographers to the region to look at the same theme with a different eye.

For example, Yemen's artist is looking at how people live in the houses of the Old City and in the new housing around Hadda, the styles of buildings there and the ways people live.

Opening in October, the exhibit will tour the region and then prestigious venues in the U.K. The British artist who's coming to Yemen to work is Tim Hetherington, who just won the World Press Photo of the Year award for a picture from his work in Afghanistan. It's going to be a major exhibit and I'm looking forward to seeing it here.

We've also been working on a major program involving schools, which is partly educational but with an artistic element. We're working on this with a British photographer who came out to Yemen and the region. He went around to schools, taking pictures in classrooms so that every child in the class is in the photograph.

He also asked the children a standard set of questions, such as “What do you dream about?” “What do you talk about with your friends?” and “What's your favourite food?” He then combined this region's classroom portraits and interviews with portraits and data from British schools and we exhibited them this past December at the National Museum.

It was an incredible success, as thousands of school children came to see their country's classes and the U.K. and compare the experiences of being a student in them. After all, that's one thing we all have in common – the experience of school life and studying.

By using art to illustrate this shared experience – just as with Connecting Classrooms – young people in the U.K. and the Middle East have an unusual and engaging opportunity to discover more about each others' lives, explore different cultures and exchange ideas.

We've also been preparing for the London Book Fair, Europe's second largest book fair. Because the Arab world is this year's honored guest, across the region and in Yemen, we've been looking at who can travel to the fair to promote Arab literature, as well as promote interest in writing in the Arab world and translation of work from the Arab world.

We've spoken with Yemen's Book Authority about the nation's representation at the event, so we hope to have a good delegation from here.

One thing that's particular to Yemen is that its Ministry of Culture has commissioned the Arabic translation and publication of the recent British novel, “Salmon Fishing in Yemen,” which we hope to launch in London.

In general, we hope this book fair will result in a greatly increased British and European interest in and knowledge of Arab literature.

Additionally, over the past two years, the British Council has been working with the Ministry of Water and Environment and a number of NGOs in Yemen, looking at public awareness of climate change.

We held a large exhibit in Mukalla, Aden and at Sana'a University with a program of speakers and workshops examining climate change, how it will affect life in Yemen and how people can adapt to the idea of climate change.

We worked with a large number of young environmentalists and youths interested in journalism. Following the initial seminars, this group of young journalists from Yemen and other countries in the region wrote articles, researched and created programs.

A group of them – including eight Yemenis – are in London right now working with science journalists and observing how science and environmental journalists and lobbyists work in the U.K. We've been very impressed by the quality of their engagement and their passion for this.

Although they're only there for a week, it's very intensive. I hope they'll return with wide open eyes and even more enthusiasm. In fact, if you have any openings at your paper for these bright, young, hopeful Yemeni journalists, we can put you in touch with them!

Can you describe the cultural relations between Britain and Yemen?

I think there's a good deal of interest in cultural relations, in the arts and culture of Britain in Yemen and indeed, in the culture of Yemen in Britain. There's quite a lot going on; for instance, there's currently a big exhibit in Sheffield called, “Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh,” looking at British Yemenis and I believe it's enjoyed strong support from the Yemeni Embassy in London.

However, by and large, there's also a great deal of lack of knowledge, as each of these countries knows little about the cultural riches, diversity and potential for engagement with the other, so there's a lot to do.

In my country, generally most people don't know a great deal about Yemen. For instance, every time we invite British musicians, artists, writers, scientists or teachers to Yemen, unfailingly, they're surprised, dazzled and delighted by what they find here, by the welcome they find, the nation's cultural riches and beauty – which is good, but it shouldn't be a surprise.

I'd like it to be the case that my country knows more about Yemen and knows what treasures Yemen has to offer – and the same in the other direction. Part of our role here is to promote a stronger appreciation and understanding of the achievements and creativity of arts in the U.K. in areas which are or might be of relevance and interest to Yemenis.

We aim to always begin by identifying areas of common ground and shared interests and then work from there, rather than showcasing a piece of art from Britain. This is why we're very keen on partnership, engagement and people working together. It's an important principle for us.

Based on your experiences in Yemen these past three years, how would you describe the nation's cultural treasures?

What's always striking is the richness and history of Yemeni culture. Here, we're dealing with traditions in literature, craftsmanship and architecture that go back centuries and centuries. When my Gulf colleagues come to Yemen, it's this richness that impresses them.

While I don't yet know enough about Yemen's literary culture, Yemeni writers or the importance that literary culture and poetry in particular holds in the Yemeni consciousness, this certainly is one of the cultural treasures we hope to work with.

Then, there's the way Yemen's building heritage fits with its landscape. It's quite remarkable – there's nothing like it. It's a very precious heritage that you have – and one that deserves tremendous care.

Tell us about the British Council's educational activities.

The British Council has always worked in education. We've been in Yemen since 1947, first in Aden and then in Sana'a, so the British Council has been here for more than 60 years, in one form or another, working in education and English language teaching all of that time.

At the moment, our biggest learning projects mainly have to do with teaching English. In one Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) project, we've been working with the Education Ministry for two years now, helping them introduce English into secondary and primary schools from grades four to six. Our role is in training teachers and inspectors and the methodology of teacher trainers.

We now have pilot programs with some 54 schools in Sana'a, Aden and Taiz where schools are trying out the materials and the training, seeing how they work and generally evaluating the program – and fourth graders in these schools are going home speaking English! The ministry is very pleased with this progress and looking to roll out and extend the project nationwide from 2010 onward.

This surely is a very positive move for Yemen at the moment. Although there are many dedicated and talented English teachers, children often complete school, after studying English, still unable to speak it.

However, beginning earlier and having access to good materials and training will provide the next generation of Yemeni schoolchildren better access to English. English now has become essential in the working world – as essential a basic skill as typing or information technology skills – so we want to help the ministry provide this skill to future generations.

Another education program we're running is called Connecting Classrooms, which establishes dialogue between young people in the Middle East and the U.K. in an effort to challenge stereotypes and develop projects in the field of social responsibility. The project develops ties and links between these students through discussion and teamwork across borders.

So far, 24 Sana'a schools have established links and another 16 links will be set up this month. We'll be supporting these links to develop an exchanges of ideas, projects, methodologies – and even exchanges of teachers and students.

Additionally, we provide access to educational opportunities in the U.K. by easily assisting anyone needing reliable information on how to study in the U.K.; for example, how to study English, how to attend a U.K. university.

We also administer Foreign Office scholarships to the U.K., annually sending 10 to 15 students to study for a fully-funded one-year master's degree. It's very strong competition, as we have maybe 200 applicants each year and I have to say that the quality of applicants is extremely high.

I've worked with this scholarship program in many other countries, but in Yemen, we find students who are committed, dedicated, hardworking and do very well.

They generally get into good universities; for example, we've had students at Cambridge, London School of Economics, Warwick University and University College London.

In fact, five of the Yemeni students in last year's group finished with distinctions, so it's a program that does very well indeed and I'm very impressed by the quality of candidates we receive.

What do these students study while in the U.K.?

They study a variety of topics. We don't say we're looking for one economist, one journalist or one politician. Rather, we're looking for individuals and for those we think will make a difference in Yemen's future, who have the scope and potential to be future leaders – and that can be any field.

This year, we have an economist, a commercial lawyer, the head of an NGO and a man working in health policy. However, it's not really about the field, it's about the individual.

How many Yemeni students so far have been sent?

I've been here three years and during that time, we've sent some 32 students. The latest group is waiting now to learn if and when they're going.

What about those students who only want to study English in Britain?

Because so many students would like to study English in Britain, we can and do assist anyone interested in studying English in Britain, helping them choose the school and get information, but we don't have a scholarship program for that.

I think if you ask any Yemeni school child if they'd like to study English in Britain for a few months, they'll probably say yes! But we have to focus our resources, so we concentrate on post-graduate students.

What we hope to do is help develop Yemen's English language teaching capacity so that, ideally, in 10 years time, Yemeni school graduates will have the necessary English skills to take their places in the working world without needing further study.