Thinking Global, Reporting Local
As the whole world watches the conflict in Syria – or, more accurately, as a slogan of the Syrian revolution in France puts it, “The world watches and stands idle” – another Mideast country torn apart by internal conflict remains largely ignored – Yemen.
Very much like Germany, Yemen spent the Cold War divided in two countries, a pro-Western republic in the north and a Soviet Union ally in the south, before reunification finally came in 1990. The then President of North Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, became the first President of unified Yemen and imposed his authoritarian rule until he was ousted in the wake of the Arab revolutions of early 2011. His successor, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, proved incapable of keeping the country together as a southern secessionist movement and a local Al Qaida affiliate challenged the authority of the capital, Sana’a.
In January 2015 Hadi himself relinquished power as the Shia rebel Houthi militia, backed by Iran and supported by former President Saleh, took the presidential palace. In March a coalition of Sunni Muslim nations led by Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, intervened in support of Hadi with no prior mandate from the United Nations Security Council or any other intergovernmental organization.
No better situation than in Syria, for sure. Then, what could a person possibly think who had to deal with the suffering and sorrow of both peoples, Syrian and Yemeni? That question would appropriately be for Maha Assabalani, a native of Yemen currently living in Paris, to answer.
Maha was educated in several countries, including Jordan where she attended college before flying to the United States where she studied at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. After she started supporting the revolution in Syria where she was now living, Maha had no choice but to flee the country, winding up in Paris where she enrolled at the American University and obtained a Master’s Degree in Global Communications.
Now a freelancer and a contributor to the Arab Reform Initiative movement, Maha is active with the Syrian revolution in Paris – and still thinking of her native Yemen, despite a most troubled relationship with her country of birth.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – When did you come to France?
MAHA ASSABALANI – I arrived in March 2012 as I was fleeing the war in Syria.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – What were you in Syria for? Were you working there?
MAHA ASSABALANI – My father was a diplomat, serving at the Yemeni Embassy to Syria. I decided to join him there, initially for a short period, then I fell in love with the country. I decided to work with the Syrian Center for Free Expression, headed by Mazen Darwish, but in February 2012 Syrian regime troops stormed the office. They arrested everyone there but me, for I showed them my Yemeni diplomatic passport and they had no choice but to let me go. That saved my life, and yet I knew I had to leave the country as soon as possible because I knew the Syrian authorities could get back to me anytime.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – How did your father react to these events? Did he help you get out of Syria?
MAHA ASSABALANI – Quite the reverse. When I fled Syria, my father stopped talking to me. He and I haven’t talked for three years.
When I said I was leaving Syria he asked me to make a choice: Either I stopped all activity against the Syrian regime – that was out of political support for the Assad government, not out of fatherly concern for his daughter – or I was on my own. So I left.
I first went to Lebanon where I stayed two weeks, then I came to Paris where I have lived ever since. I’ve been actively supporting the Syrian revolution. Even though I’ve been following the news from Yemen I’ve never tried to intervene.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – Why not?
MAHA ASSABALANI – Maybe I’ve been feeling guilty about my father. Maybe I felt I’d only be hurting him even more and reap only remorse. We haven’t talked for three years, so I guess I didn’t want to make it even worse.
But after all these years, things are getting really bad in Yemen, a small country that no one even supposes exists in the first place. Just say to someone “I’m from Yemen” and the likeliest reply will be “Yaman … What is that? Where might that be?” Someone even said to me once, “’Yaman’ sounds like Japan, so you’ve got to be from that part of Asia.” I replied: “Just look at my eyes, do you think I look like a Japanese woman?
Yet Yemen is a real country, and today it is being destroyed. My family there are feeling hopeless, they always thought that what is happening in Syria could never happen in Yemen.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – It’s true that Yemen is not such a well-known country. People heard about it a little bit in 2011, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down. Today the media are mentioning it again, obviously because of the ongoing war there. As a Yemeni woman, what do you think the world should know and/or understand about Yemen?
MAHA ASSABALANI – First of all, in 2011 President Ali Abdullah Saleh wasn’t forced to step down. He never left Yemen, he’s still living in the country and he’s one of the biggest scourges we’ve had to face as he is largely responsible for what is happening there today.
What really happened when he left office is that, when the presidential palace was attacked by demonstrators and he received burns on his body, they placed him under protection, took him to hospital for medical treatment and eventually detained him so he wouldn’t be claimed by the International Criminal Court, forbidding him in so doing to leave the country.
Please remember Yemen is not America or France. Saleh was not taken to power in a free and fair election, nor did he leave once his term theoretically ended. He was in control of Yemen ever since the country was reunified in 1990. It’s like, since 1978, he had viewed Yemen like something he owns.
He never left Yemen, he’s still among us.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – Besides political issues, what should the world know about the suffering of the Yemeni people in the current war?
MAHA ASSABALANI – Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s the poorest country in the region. We have the largest number of child soldiers, uneducated people, and girls who get married before they turn 12.
In Yemen, it is just as usual and common to carry a weapon as it is to draw water from the faucet. Everybody carries a weapon, both men and women. It’s considered as natural as breathing the air.
Weapons are sold on open-air markets, it’s easy to get one. It’s like each and every Yemeni is armed.
The reason we are being destroyed is that this government let khat[i] destroy the whole economy of the country, the energy of our youth, and our future altogether. It’s like a drug to them.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – Now what do you think intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and the League of Arab States, could and should do about Yemen?
MAHA ASSABALANI – First of all, I believe they need to stop the attack.
I’m not saying the Houthis are not to blame for the violence. They’re targeting civilians, destroying the country. As a militia, they’re even worse than a foreign army that would be attacking Yemen.
But violence, whoever it comes from, is the first problem to be solved. For now, there’s a ceasefire holding, at least when it comes to letting in humanitarian convoys. But this is only a short-term solution. What is really needed is an end to the war.
The United Nations actually authorized the “coalition” led by Saudi Arabia to attack Yemen. Based on what? How does it think the “coalition” is going to prevail over the huge Houthi militia and then keep it under control? A militia is not like an organized army whose units you can easily trace and attack.
What is Saudi Arabia trying to coerce us Yemenis into? Does it want us, say, to enjoy “democracy” and “human rights” while Saudi Arabia itself plainly shuns both within its own national borders? How does that make sense?
Maybe even “women’s rights”? It all sounds like a joke, albeit so heavily dumb I can’t understand it, let alone laugh at it. Do they want me to die so that they can claim they’re defending my rights, when your own Saudi nationals have no rights at all?
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – You’re not coping with all of this so well, are you?
MAHA ASSABALANI – The Yemeni people have no voice. All of this brings mixed feelings to me.
I feel I’m both Yemeni and Syrian, I feel the anger of both peoples in me, although it obviously grows stronger thinking of Yemen because we are basically powerless. My family is there, the situation is really hard.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – You care about your country, it’s all too natural, especially in wartime.
MAHA ASSABALANI – You know, Yemen is a country I’ve never really been in love with and never will be.
I’m concerned about the war but before this, I had never felt any personal connection with Yemen. Why should I care for a country where, as a woman, I have no rights? I have always hated the way things get done there, and today I feel cheated, thinking I’ve got to care about Yemen and defend it against foreign aggression.
All those men in power back in Sana’a are now asking me to stand up for a country that has never defended me. It’s really hard, you know. The saddest thing is that it seems no solution can come from the inside, only the big powers can decide, as is the case with the war in Syria.
MY GLOBAL SUBURBIA – In a general manner, wouldn’t it help if women had greater rights in Yemen?
MAHA ASSABALANI – Of course it would. We must keep fighting to survive, for even if the decision that is made in the end is not ours, that doesn’t mean we have to give up. Politicians want to turn this into a Shia-versus-Sunni issue, but that truly makes no sense. This is not about religion.
We don’t have a Christian community in Yemen, but we do have a Jewish one; the late famous Israeli singer Ofra Haza was born to Yemeni Jewish parents. Thus, we’re not buying any religious hate speech.
None of this is about religion. Never has been.
French version available here.
[i] A flowering plant whose leaves many Yemeni people consume as a drug of abuse.