Yemen is hitting the headlines once again, and once again it’s for all the wrong reasons. Yemen is apparently a hotbed of international terrorism, home to the theatrically named ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’. This new villain in the arena strikes fear into the hearts of the civilised world. Yet how many people had even heard of Yemen a couple of years ago? Thanks to the events of the past year, Yemen has been thrust into the international spotlight. Quite frankly, Yemenis are not too happy about being in the news, it only means one thing. Problems.
If Yemenis have become accustomed to expect one thing, it was our invisibility to the outside world. It may surprise many people to find that Yemen is roughly the size of France, with a population of around 23 million people. Far from receiving international recognition for its rich and vivid culture, Yemen garnered more publicity, thanks to a ‘Friends’ episode, from the line “Yemen even sounds like a real country,” than being responsible for giving the world coffee and algebra.
In the UK, the Yemeni community goes largely unnoticed. Despite being probably the oldest Muslim community in the UK, we are not an assertive group by any means. We tend to disappear into the wider ethnic mix of the major industrial cities, passing off as slightly different looking Asians, with the occasional realisation from the layman that we were Arab, just not the rich kind. For myself, growing up in Birmingham, a city which incidentally has around 10,000 people of Yemeni origin, I have spent the best part of my 20 years trying to explain where Yemen is on a map, and attempting to prove it’s existence to my increasingly skeptical group of friends.
Now everyone has heard of Yemen. Seeing Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh satirised on the hit American show ‘Saturday Night Live’ was a moment I never pictured happening. Years of hiding in the corner of the Arab world, and now our cover has been blown.
The name of Yemen, a country with a civilisation that spans millennia, is being dragged through the dirt thanks to a couple of hundred militants, and an international media which is all too keen to follow any mention of Yemen with the line “the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden”. There is a serious lack of understanding surrounding anything to do with Yemen, with so-called experts failing to comprehend why anyone would wish to visit Yemen, and therefore being inherently suspicious of anyone who has been there.
Yemen has always suffered from internal problems, however, these have never affected the outside world much, and have therefore gone unnoticed. This neglect has now come back to bite the international community, the latest form being the ink jet bomb plot. Yemenis have come to learn that publicity is not always good. In fact, in most cases it is terrible. Unfortunately the only news to ever emerge out of Yemen is negative, alarms go off in every Yemeni’s head whenever we hear the name of our country in the headlines.
It should not be like this. There are many positives to Yemen, things that will never be highlighted due to the way the international media operates, and the type of story that is likely to hit the headlines.
Yemen, to put it simply, is a beautiful country. A traveller would be hard pressed to find a country bursting with so much culture and history, and yet still seemingly untouched by the outside world. To step through the ancient city gates of Bab Al-Yemen, and enter into the old city of Sana’a is like stepping through a portal and walking into a living, breathing, Arabian Nights tale. The green valleys of Ibb defy the stereotype of the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. The ancient town of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to the world’s first ‘skyscrapers’, and dubbed the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’. Visit the isolated island of Soqotra, and you will be exploring the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.
Yemenis are prouder of their claim to boxing legend, and Sheffield-born, Naseem Hamed, than the supposed claim to Bin Laden.
We would infinitely prefer to be known for our proud history as Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia), rather than our modern image as an exporter of ‘jihadis’. Alas, this now seems impossible for Yemen. Yemenis much preferred the days when to hear the mention of Yemen in the international media was a rare occurrence. Personally, I would take the days of obscurity, away from the glare of the media, over the recent exposure. The majority of Yemenis would definitely agree.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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