My job used to take me to Yemen once or twice a year. I haven’t been there since 2009, and I miss the place and the people. I miss Yemen though it is incredibly poor, misgoverned and many of its citizens follow a version of Islam that repudiates every value I hold dear. If that’s not enough, Yemen is running out of water. It is also one of the most intensely beautiful places I have ever seen, both the cities and the wild countryside which is never really wild since it seems that wherever there is a trace of rainfall, Yemenis have terraced and planted clear up the knife sharp mountainsides.
I miss Yemen despite the brutal aspects of what is essentially a conservative tribal society. I always come away from Yemen with a sadness for the victims of that society, particularly women and girls. Yemen is a country that allows men to marry children. A quarter of girls are married before they are fifteen, and 12 year olds die in childbirth. In 2009, the international furor over the story of a nine-year old girl seeking a divorce, embarrassed the government into establishing a minimum age for marriage. However, the law was rescinded in the face of popular opposition.
I miss Yemen because there are men and women there of astonishing bravery and greatness of soul who are trying, against enormous adds, to change their society . To be an honest journalist in the Middle East is dangerous, and Yemen is no exception. Nevertheless there is a band of young men and women journalists who challenge the regime and risk prison or worse. I am proud to call one of those journalists my friend. Mohammed Al-Asaadi is a man who has gone to jail for his journalism, and he is a Muslim who has shown me the tolerant, humane face of his religion. I have had the honor to meet Amal Basha of the Arab Sisters Forum, an activist who risks her life not just with her words against the misogyny of Yemeni society but by her refusal to cover her head and face like 99.9% of Yemeni women. When I am in Yemen, I am among heroes, the Rosa Parks and Freedom Riders of our time.
On Saturday, the spirit of Tunisia arrived in Yemen with a demonstration at Sana’a University against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to reports, the demonstrators were inspired by the successful overthrow of a corrupt dictatorial President in Tunisia. I guess they figured if one bad President could be deposed, maybe they could do the same with their own spectacularly awful President. I wish those Yemeni demonstrators luck. They will need it. The list of those arrested by the security police is growing.