Yemen in the Eyes of the West

Dr. Abdul-Qawi Hizam Al-Shamiri

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      Yemen was - and will remain - the focus of the world's attention. Archaeologists, tourists, researchers and media people wrote about it to learn about its civilization, culture, traditions, people, history and present.  Several years ago, I read an article published by the British Guardian newspaper entitled “Twenty Things You Should Know About Yemen” by the famous British writer Brian Whitaker, and since then the topic of writing about Yemen from a Western perspective has remained an idea postponed until the opportunity arose to translate this idea on paper through  this window.                  

      Writing about such a large topic in a short article is not easy;  As the West is not a single entity on the intellectual, cultural and political levels, but rather it is a diverse mosaic like the Arab world, united by things and separated by others.  At the same time, we find that the west of the eighteenth century differs from the west of the post-second millennium. When we talk about eyes, then the eyes are numerous;  There is the political eye, the media eye, the tourist eye...etc.  Norway's vision of Yemen, for example, may differ from that of America, and Italy's vision differs from that of Britain.  Likewise, the vision of a politician differs from that of a media person, and the vision of a tourist differs from that of a merchant, for neither the West is one West nor the eyes are one eye.

      In view of the plurality of the “West” and the complexity of the term, it should be defined according to the context in which it is mentioned. According to Mohammad Arkoun, it is a geopolitical and geocultural term, usually given to European and North American countries, which are countries united by similar cultural and ideological thought. Our talk about the West here is a talk about  the common denominators that gather it and the collective mind that it thinks of.  By collective mind, we mean here the set of ideas, values, and ideologies that the Western world believes in about itself (the West) and about the other (the Arabs), which were formed through its educational, religious and intellectual institutions during a long period of time.                             

       Since the media is one of the windows that most reflects the collective thought of a society, the following lines will address the western view of Yemen through the article (Whitker) published in 2011. It should be noted here that what the West writes about the Arabs is a stereotype that may be correct  from a specific angle, and  it may be wrong or inaccurate from other angles.

        Whitaker's article deals with Yemen from a historical, political, and social perspective.  The historical aspect revolved around describing Yemen as “the land of Queen Saba.” This view is usually circulated by academics or Western intellectuals in general, and is inspired by the story of the Prophet Suleiman and Balqees of Yemen mentioned in the Torah.  While the second image revolved around calling Yemen "the land of the happy Yemen", and this label goes back to the writings of orientalists about Yemen, and it is a view limited to Western intellectual elites.  As for the third image  that Whitaker knew of Yemen with, it was "the land of coffee", and he refers here to "Mocha" coffee, which was exported through the port of Mocha.  He also referred to the houses of Hadhramaut, describing them as "mud skyscrapers." Of course, the writer did not overlook the colonial era and Britain's role in the prosperity of Aden;  It is claimed that it has become the third port in the world after New York and the port of Liverpool.    

 

        On the social side, the writer touched on the Yemeni tribe and its negative impact on politics, and the habit of chewing qat at Yemenis, describing it as a drug that most Yemenis usually use on a daily basis. He referred to the term “the right of qat” focusing on the phenomenon of bribery in Yemen.  He touched on the men's wearing of " mawz" and "towels", likening them to "men in skirts", and dealt with the sectarian structure in Yemen, the Salafist incursion, the Jewish community, and the Anglican Church in Aden.                 

        In the political aspect - which is the most discussed aspect - the writer referred to the September 26 revolution, the interference of neighboring and regional countries in its course, and to the unity that he described as taking place between the "Marxist Southerners" and the "Northern Republic", and to the 94 war, which he attributed to the  Southerners grumbled about the regime's "crooked paths" in the north.  He then addressed Yemeni democracy, describing it as "the first democracy in the Arabian Peninsula" that allows for competitive elections in which women ran and won two seats. However, he downplayed that praise for Yemeni democracy when he described those elections as being sham and not real.  Whitaker also touched on the political reality of Yemen, describing Yemen as a weak state governed by tribal custom more than the law, and tossed by destructive waves from every side.  Finally, the writer touched upon Osama bin Laden and his descent from Yemen.                                 

       For a long time, the West has painted the image of the East with its social environment, political systems, Arab-Islamic culture and tribal structure. This brief article reflects part of the West’s vision of Yemen. The writer presented Yemen in the form of stereotypes, most of which are negative - although many of them are realistic - reductive Yemen to a positive history and negative  present.                               

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