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An afternoon at Change Square

September 10, 2011

The combination of recent events in Libya and Syria, an absentee president and a lack of foreign journalists has meant that Yemen has slipped off the radar and back into the shadows. Yemen’s revolt seemed to have reached a crescendo on 3 June when President Saleh was airlifted to Riyadh to be treated for shrapnel wounds after a booby-trap explosion ripped through the mosque of his fortified compound. But the story was far from over. Instead of stepping down Saleh clung to power from his hospital bed, opting to rule the country by proxy through his pariah-like family until he was well enough to return.

Yemen’s protesters meanwhile, dismayed by their President’s stalwart defiance, have stuck to the streets, refusing to budge until their original demand (the fall of the regime) is met. Their iconic slogan (heard across large parts of the Arab World this year) ‘Al Sha’ab yureed eskaat al nazam!’ [The people want the regime to fall!] has now been adapted to ‘Al Sha’ab yureed bina’ Yemen jadid!’ [The people want to build a new Yemen!]. Meanwhile the showdown in Libya seems to have blown new life into Change Square, the sprawling shanty town by Sana’a University whose tent-filled streets stretch for miles into the capital. It’s inhabitants have recently vowed to march every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday to help ‘get their revolution back on track.’ As scheduled, tens of thousands marched the streets of Sana’a this Tuesday. I filmed them. Here’s what it looked like.

Change 360p to 720p to watch it in HD.

Guerilla Journalism: a Yemeni revolution

May 11, 2011

Yemen’s revolution has been a slow burning one. For three months now, Yemen’s youthful protesters have been hounding their President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But as each day goes by and Saleh continues to cling to power, they’re only growing stronger and better organised. This video made by young Yemeni film-maker Sarah Ishaq profiles five young Yemeni activists: a blogger, videographer, actor, social networker and a writer. Incredible stuff.

Follow them:

The blogger – Atiaf – @womanfromyemen

The videographer – Hamza Shargabi – @ichamza

The writer – Shatha Harazi – @ShathaAlHarazi

The social networker – Alaa Jarban – @AlaaAjJarbaa

Shaking the Dust – Yemen style

May 5, 2011

Adam Sjoberg, a budding film-maker from New York, came to Sana’a in March in search of Yemeni break-dancers for a feature documentary he’s making. “Shake the Dust” tells the stories of break-dancers in struggling communities across the globe who, although separated by cultural boundaries and individual struggles, are intrinsically tied to one another through their passion for break-dancing and hip-hop culture.

I followed Adam, the Blast Boyz, and RockinCity (Yemen’s 2 bboy crews) as they toured around the capital dancing everywhere from the rooftops of the ancient Bait Bous ruins to the bustling souks of old Sana’a.

This film tells their story, taking you above and beyond conventional views of Yemen and capturing the beauty of its people and their customs as well as the many struggles they face.

If you want to know more about Yemen’s bboys and the sort of reactions they got when dancing in public then have a read of this story I wrote for Esquire Middle East.

ESQ18_p124-128 yemen breakdancing

In the meantime watch and marvel.

A trip to the heart of Yemen’s youth revolution

April 12, 2011

These two videos take you to the heart of Yemen’s ongoing protests; a movement that started out with a handful of rowdy students  celebrating the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak at the gates of Sana’a University which has now morphed into a sprawling tent city whose tentacles are slowly extending further and further into the dusty streets of the capital.

The first is from Hamza Shargabi, a Yemeni doctor and political activist I profiled along with 4 other Yemeni bloggers last week. Follow him as takes you into the sea of tents at Tagheer (change) square to hear from a lively group of young Yemeni activists who discuss everything from Bloody Friday to Saleh’s broken promises.



The second is an interesting and uplifting video featuring 50 protesters in Tagheer Square all answering the same question – what they will do on the first day after the fall of the regime? Notice their variety, (age, sex, background, appearance)  which is symbolic of the melting pot feel you get at these protests.


The Yemen President’s Pariah Family

April 9, 2011

Read this on The Daily Beast

After nearly three months of youth-led popular protests, defections by top generals, ambassadors and senior members of his government, Yemen’s longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh looks decidedly beleaguered.

Earlier this week, American officials, who have previously backed him, discreetly admitted his rule is “untenable.” Even his most loyal backers, including members of his own tribe and longtime aid donors, including Saudi Arabia, are now ushering him toward the exit. Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, tightened the screws further late this week, telling the state news agency that a coalition of Gulf States hoped “to reach a deal with the Yemeni president to step down.”

Not that the president hasn’t tried hard to quell the unrest. At first, he tried a charm offensive, slashing income taxes, raising military salaries and promising he’d step down at the end of his term in 2013. Then, he switched to harder tactics, allowing government forces to violently crack down on the protesters. Since neither strategy has worked, one may wonder how he remains in office. One reason can be found in the recent—and so far failed—negotiations between Saleh and the Yemeni opposition, a loose coalition of Islamists, Socialists and Nasserites that Saleh has described at various points as “Houthis”—Shia Muslim insurgents—and “drug dealers.”

One major bone of contention between the two sides concerns not the embattled president himself but the still undecided fate of his family whose tentacles reach into every corner of Yemeni society and business. Having ruled the country for more than three decades, (he came to power when his predecessor was assassinated by way of an exploding suitcase,) Saleh has anointed family members to powerful positions within the army and government institutions.

His eldest son Ahmed, a taller and scrawnier version of his father, commands the U.S.-funded and trained Republican Guard that comprise 30,000 men as well as the country’s Special Forces, which controls all the entrances to the capital Sana’a. His nephews, Amar, Yahya and Tariq are in charge of the country’s national security, central security, counterterrorism units as well as the Presidential Guard. His half-brother Mohammed is head of the Air Force. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A further 32 members of Saleh’s family, many of whom also have mass land holdings and own much of the nation’s businesses, are scattered throughout the upper echelons of the government and the security services.

In one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, where the average annual income hovers around $2,200, and more than a third of the population lives below the national poverty line, the unrest has also meant sharp spikes in prices for food and fuel, raising concerns about a humanitarian disaster.

That Saleh’s family is enriching itself on the backs of the impoverished population is a major part of the continuing political crisis—the “family problem” as one opposition member calls it,

“Saleh knows he’s on his way out but, while still at the negotiating table, wants certain guarantees. Chief among those is that his sons and nephews won’t be shut out of the military and politics after he quits,” says Mohammed Al-Qahdi, a prominent member of Yemen’s ruling party, who resigned 10 days ago and has since survived two assassination attempts.

The opposition demands that Saleh disband his family-run institutions, including the security services, so that they function “according to the constitution and not nepotism.” But Saleh has so far dismissed those demands.

The young protesters on the dusty streets of Sana’a have also protested Saleh’s nepotism. Banners feature the names and faces of 32 officials, all of them the president’s relatives and in-laws, with the word Irhal—go—scrawled in thick red marker across their foreheads.

“It’s not just Ali we’re after—it’s the whole clan,” says Mahmoud Al-Faysi, a 22-year-old protester from the outskirts of Sana’a who is eking out a living by ferrying protesters between Sana’a university and the center of town on the back of his battered motorbike. “That family has pillaged our country for the past three decades. Do they think we’ll just let the others off the hook?”

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has been pressing Saleh to investigate two months of swirling violence which has left at least 125 protesters dead. Nearly half of those died on March 18, dubbed “Bloody Friday,” when baltigiya, plain-clothed government supporters, carried out a co-ordinated rooftop sniper attack on protesters camped in tents outside Sana’a University.

“The strongmen at the top cannot be allowed to just shift quietly into the sidelines,” says Adel Al-Surabi, a 23-year-old medical student, who has become a de facto spokesman for the young demonstrators. “The protesters want to know who killed their fellows … who committed those crimes … They want to know whether the perpetrators were the president, his relatives or any one of Saleh’s officials.”

American officials, already anxious over what Yemen might look like post-Saleh, are no doubt pondering the fate of his relatives, especially his nephew Yahya, who heads Yemen’s highly trained counterterrorism unit, a force they’ve been funding and training for the past five years in the fight against al Qaeda in the country.

“President Saleh’s immediate family has played a leading role in the campaign against the terrorist organization, and, for most of this spring, the U.S. has been worried that any change in power at the top would allow [Al Qaeda] more room to operate,” says Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen. “In the coming months, the U.S. is going to be forced to re-evaluate how it is pursuing its war.”

American rhetoric, meanwhile, is catching up to the possibility of a Yemen without Saleh or his cronies. Earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “Our position with regards to working with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism efforts is that it is not—and has not been—focused on one person. Nor should it be.”

The revolution ate my homework – 5 Yemeni bloggers you should be following

April 5, 2011

Much of the West’s knowledge of what’s happening in Yemen at the moment is coming from a handful (I can count them on one hand) of foreign journalists based in the capital Sana’a. As brilliant as those guys are 😉 they’re no substitute for local Yemeni journalists who know both the language, the people and the ins and outs of Yemeni politics far better than any ajnabi ever will.

In the past couple of weeks a number of young Yemeni bloggers and youth activists have sprung up on the web. Armed with twitter, facebook accounts and blogs, they’re doing an invaluable service in disseminating timely, on-the-ground updates as well as a much needed Yemeni perspective on what’s happening here.

Here’s my selection of young Yemeni journalists/bloggers/photographers who I think you should be following.

Let me know if there are others who think deserve a place on the list.

Hamza Shargabi

Hamza is a Yemeni doctor and a political activist. He runs a fascinating blog called Late Night Surgery where he discusses everything from Islam’s view on software piracy to swine flu.

He’s recently set up a vblog called revolutionary updates where he posts on-the-ground face-to-camera videos from the protests at Sana’a university. Follow him on twitter: @ichamza

Watch his latest video shoot from the roof of a house above the Sana’a sit-in where he tells the American ambassador what Yemen’s protesters want.

Afrah Nasser

Afrah describes herself a ‘A young Yemeni woman who was born to be a writer.’ She’s a journalist at the The Yemen Observer and was recently interviewed by IWPR to discuss Yemeni women’s role in the demonstrations. Her blog gives you snapshots into the lives of protesters as well as her own views on what’s happening. Twitter: @Afrahnasser

Nasser Arraybee

I think its safe to say that Nasser is Yemen’s most well established (English-speaking) journalist. He writes for The Yemen Observer, Al Ahram Weekly, Gulf News. His blog gives balanced, independent reports with details you won’t find in the mainstream western media. He’s recently started tweeting, follow him: @narrabyee

Alaa El-Aghbari

Alaa is an amazing source of information for those who want to know what’s going on in Yemen’s volatile port city of Aden.  He gathers mobile videos of attacks on protesters as well as the latest statements from youth protest organizations and posts them on his blog Opinions.

His tweets are regular and invaluable: @AlaaIsam

Osama Al-Eryani

Two weeks ago Osama, a budding photojournalist, flew back to Sana’a from New York in order to ‘witness his country’s revolution.’

He’s set up a blog called the revolution ate my homework, in order to document his trip. Every day he posts a photo or a story giving a behind-the-scenes, personal and moving account of what he’s seeing. On day 6 his father, Yemen’s Minister of Water and Environment, resigned from the government in response to the killing of peaceful protesters. On day 13 he joins a group of youth activists who are trying to get political representation by distancing themselves from the opposition parties.

Here are a few of his photos, his flikr account is well worth a look too.

People here are literally bursting with war

March 27, 2011

Stumbled across this video. Reminded me a bit of how the Western media are treating Yemen at the moment…


Tawakul Karman, a thorn in Saleh’s side

March 25, 2011

Article for the guardian

Tawakul Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, may seem an unlikely leader of the fight to overthrow the president of Yemen.

But the outspoken journalist and human rights activist has long been a thorn in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s side, agitating for press freedoms and staging weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners from jail – a place she has been several times herself.

Now inspired by the uprising in Tunisia and the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, she finds herself at the head of a popular protest movement which is shaking the Yemeni regime to its core.

“With two civil wars, an al-Qaida presence and 40% unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office now,” she says, claiming that Yemen, like Tunisia and Egypt, needs an end to a dictatorship in the guise of a presidency.

“This revolution is inevitable, the people have endured dictatorship, corruption, poverty and unemployment for years and now the whole thing is exploding,” she says.

Karman has many grievances against her government but it was a sheikh’s tyranny against villagers in Ibb, a governorate south of the capital, that ignited her activism. “I watched as families were thrown off their land by a corrupt tribal leader. They were a symbol to me of the injustice faced by so many in Yemen,” she says. “It dawned on me that nothing could change this regime, only protest.”

While she identifies herself first and foremost as a campaigner for Yemen’s alienated youth, she is also a member of Yemen’s leading Islamic opposition party, the Islah, a group that has caused alarm in the west, mainly because of its most notorious member, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a former Osama bin Laden adviser considered a terrorist by the Americans.

Karman has a mixed relationship with the Islah. She says it was the best party in Yemen for supporting female members but last October she ran into trouble after publishing a paper condemning ultra-conservative party members for blocking a bill that would make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17.

“The extremist people hate me. They speak about me in the mosques and pass round leaflets condemning me as un-Islamic. They say I’m trying to take women away from their houses.”

Some of the student protest leaders have accused her and her party of trying to hijack their movement to make personal bids for power.

Karman says: “Our party needs the youth but the youth also need the parties to help them organise. Neither will succeed in overthrowing this regime without the other. We don’t want the international community to label our revolution an Islamic one.”

At the protests, her husband, Mohammed, can be seen at by her side, patiently answering her phone while she gives interviews to al-Jazeera television and shakes the hands of tribesmen.

“You can’t imagine the respect people give me when I’m outside,” she says. “All the people respect me, even tribes and soldiers. They stop and salute me. I faced many obstacles but I overcame them,” she says.

Last year, a woman tried to stab her with a jambiya, a traditional Yemeni dagger, at one of the demonstrations. Karman says her crowds of supporters helped her survive the attack.

Like most Yemeni women, Karman used to wear the full face-covering niqab but she dropped it a few years ago when it began “getting in the way” of her activism. She remembers unveiling in public for the first time, minutes before stepping up to deliver a speech at a human rights conference in Washington.

“I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain,” she says.

“People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion to wear the veil; it is a traditional practice so I took it off.”

Now Karman wears just a headscarf. Today, she wears a long plain black abaya with beaded cuffs and a pink, flowered scarf. On other days, she dresses head to toe in bright pink.

Her advice for women is not to wait for permission before demanding rights: “If you go to the protests now, you will see something you never saw before: hundreds of women. They shout and sing, they even sleep there in tents. This is not just a political revolution, it’s a social revolution.”

Her tireless campaigning has earned her international acclaim and devoted admirers around the world. Her seven Facebook pages (she claims six were created by the government) are filled with messages of support and admiration, many from exiled Yemenis. In 2010, she was nominated for a US state department woman of courage award.

The government has used a carrot and stick approach to try to tame her. She was promised a position in government as well as financial compensation last year, but when she said no, death threats started arriving.

“I was threatened through phone calls, letters, even text messages. They said I’d be imprisoned or even killed if I did not stop causing inconvenience. But I consider taking my right to expression away far worse than any form of physical violence,” she says.

Karman smiles when asked if she would consider running for president once Saleh stepped down.

“My aim for now is to lead a peaceful revolution to remove this regime,” she says. “I think if I can be in the street with the people I can achieve more than if I am the president.”

Blood on the streets of Sana’a

March 19, 2011

Photograph: Muhammed Muheisen/AP

Read this on the Guardian

Yasir Saeed was the first casualty dragged into the mosque. Blood was still trickling from the gaping bullet wound in the back of the 32-year-old English teacher’s head as doctors lowered his mangled body on to a blanket, muttering a short prayer before closing the lids of his eyes.

Gradually, his corpse was joined by others lined up in a row alongside him. One by one, miniature Qur’ans were placed on their chests as their blood soaked through the carpet beneath them.

The scene was desperate and chaotic. It followed the worst day of violence in Yemen since protests against president Ali Abdullah Saleh began in earnest over a month ago. At least 45 people were killed and hundreds of others wounded as security forces and plainclothes government loyalists opened fire on protesters trying to march through the capital, Sana’a.

Parliamentary opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri accused the regime of a massacre and said: “These killings will not help keep Ali Abdullah Saleh in power.” Saleh responded by calling for a state of emergency, saying this meant that ordinary citizens would not be able to carry weapons.

But it was not immediately clear if Saleh has the military power to impose such an order, with the Arabian peninsula nation deeply divided and racked by weeks of civil disturbance that have left well over 70 people dead. “What happened today was very regrettable, the death of our children,” the president said. Last week he had ordered his security forces to ensure the safety of protesters.

Saleh went on to describe the victims as “martyrs of democracy” and accused those responsible of trying to undermine a peace initiative backed by Saudi Arabia.

Friday’s protests had started peacefully. More than 100,000 Yemenis filled a mile-long stretch of road by Sana’a University for a midday prayer ceremony mourning the loss of seven protesters killed in clashes with riot police last weekend.

As the prayers came to an end, however, the sight of billowing black smoke from a burning car caught the attention of protesters who began surging en masse towards it. Witnesses say security forces fired six shots into the air before turning their weapons on those charging towards them. As violence flared, plainclothes men appeared on the roofs of nearby houses and began firing down on the demonstrators with Kalashnikovs.

Sana’a University, the scene of the bloodshed, is next door to the mosque where many of the dead and dying were taken, the deafening sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer intermixed with the noise of gunfire echoing off the walls. Medics scrambled to reach the wounded as the wheels of decrepit ambulances, trying to escort them to a proper hospital, spun hopelessly in the mud.

Inside the mosque a throng of veiled women wailed with grief and tried to force their way past a line of students who had linked arms to ensure only medics and those in need of their help made it over the threshold. Meanwhile injured men, most in their early 20s, writhed in agony on shabby mattresses on the ground.

“The most common injuries were bullet wounds to the chest and the head, although some are suffering from exposure to teargas,” said one doctor who did not wish to be named.

“They shot people in the back of the head as they were running away,” said Mohammed al-Jamil, an Indian doctor treating the wounded with specks of blood on his hands and face.

“Whoever did this wanted these people to die,” he added, tearing open a box of syringes.

Witnesses said children were among the dozens wounded by gunfire. “My brother is 12 years old, they shot him twice, once in the arm and once in the leg,” shouted a young man through a crackling microphone to a roaring crowd of thousands outside the mosque.

“Saleh would rather shoot us all before stepping down.”

Until now government forces have largely been using water cannon, rubber bullets and teargas to disperse anti-regime rallies, but live rounds were fired on Friday in what appeared be the beginning of an increasingly violent crackdown on nationwide protests.

Yemen, the youngest and poorest country in the Arab world neighbouring Saudi Arabia, has been hit by weeks of protests set in motion by uprisings in north Africa that toppled long-serving leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and spread to the Gulf states of Bahrain and Oman, as well as Saudi Arabia itself.

Saleh has maintained a firm grip on power for over three decades and has rejected calls to step down, saying he will only do so when his current term of office expires in 2013.

“We condemn these crimes against humanity,” said Mohammed al-Qadhi, a prominent member of Yemen’s ruling party who resigned last week and has since survived two assassination attempts. “Even if it’s plainclothes men firing on the protesters it is still the government’s responsibility to protect them.”

The intensification of force used against demonstrators has led to concern that protesters will retaliate, threatening the possibility of a broad war that could engulf the country.

“In Yemen, violence is almost always met with more violence. If the regime does not stop these crackdowns immediately then we will soon find ourselves in the throngs of a bloody civil war,” said Mohammed al-Faqih, professor of politics at Sana’a University.

I also did radio interviews for Voice of America and BBC Radio 4.

Doctors say poisonous gas used on Yemeni protesters

March 14, 2011

Article and video for the Globalpost

Doctors from the scene of violent anti-government protests in Yemen’s capital Tuesday night said that what was originally thought to be tear gas fired by government forces on demonstrators might instead have been a form of nerve gas, which is forbidden under international law.

Military personnel opened fire and used what was originally assumed to be tear gas to disperse a group of demonstrators who were trying to bring additional tents into the protest area outside Sanaa University.

According to witnesses, the soldiers fired warning shots into the air before shooting gas — and in some cases live bullets — into the crowd, killing one and injuring at least 50.

Earlier reports indicated that the gas used was tear gas, but doctors who have been treating the wounded refuted that claim today.

“The material in this gas makes people convulse for hours. It paralyzes them. They couldn’t move at all. We tried to give them oxygen but it didn’t work,” said Amaar Nujaim, a field doctor who works for Islamic Relief.

“We are seeing symptoms in the patient’s nerves, not in their respiratory systems. I’m 90 percent sure its nerve gas and not tear gas that was used,” said Sami Zaid, a doctor at the Science and Technology Hospital in Sanaa.

Mohammad Al-Sheikh, a pathologist at the same hospital, said that some of the victims had lost their muscular control and were forced to wear diapers.

“We have never seen tear gas cause these symptoms. We fear it may be a dangerous gas that is internationally forbidden,” Al-Sheikh said.

One of the protest organizers, Rabie Al-Zuraiqi, 23, said he was struck by rubber bullets and gas during the attack.

“They say it’s tear gas, though it’s not. I can’t move my body. I went into a coma for more than four hours and I can’t see well now. I also have internal bleeding after being exposed to the gas,” he told GlobalPost.

Whether or not an illegal substance was used to gas protesters, Tuesday’s violence marked what appears to be a turning point for the country’s protest movement, which has dragged on for months.

Although there had been previous instances of violence, it had always been between plainclothed government supporters and anti-government protesters. The attack Tuesday was the first by uniformed police.

In a makeshift hospital at the grounds of a mosque next to the university, volunteer doctors administered IV drips and treated bullet wounds on Tuesday night.

A surgeon probed a leg wound with forceps, while the man screamed, pulling out a fragment of metal.

“See this?” the doctor said, holding it up. “Do you see this? They are shooting people with live rounds.” Another volunteer brought over a handful of empty shell casings.

In a corner of the mosque, a younger man screamed as a doctor poured coca-cola over his face to ease the pain from the gas.

After opening his eyes, the young man, Majid Al-Awaj, a protester from the northern province of Hajja, said the attack would only increase the strength of the revolt.

“We demand that Saleh be tried by the International Criminal Court,” Al-Awaj said.

At the university on Wednesday morning, protesters cleaned up from the previous night. A woman, crying, searched for her son, who she had sent to take food to the protesters but had never returned.

There have been daily anti-government demonstrations in Sanaa and other cities around the country since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11. During the past few weeks, 29 people have been killed in the unrest, according to international human rights groups.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has said he will step down when his term ends in 2013 but has vowed to defend his government “with every drop of blood.”