Poets against Prejudice: Yemeni Style

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A Film Directed by Faiza Almontaser

Faiza Almontaser is a 17-year-old senior attending the Brooklyn International High School. In 2006 Faiza immigrated with her family to Brooklyn, NY from a small farming town in Yemen. Raised as a religious Muslim, she often struggles to reconcile her cultural background with the realities she meets as a high school student in one of New York City’s most socially dynamic neighborhoods.

At age 10, Faiza enrolled in the sixth grade as the only Muslim in her school. She had high hopes for her new education, but was soon discouraged by her minimal understanding of English and the anti-Islamic fervor she encountered among her classmates. Without the knowledge of language to defend herself, Faiza spent her first few months suffering in silence.

Determined to find her voice, she spent six months learning enough English to begin speaking out against the discrimination faced by Muslims in her community. Now in high school she works as a peer trainer with the Anti-Defamation League, teaching her classmates the dangers and repercussions of racism. Faiza also works to combat her struggle with the written word; through poems and essays she challenges common misconceptions of Islamic culture, and expresses her visions for change and equality.

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Yemen Exchange in Beirut

April 12-16, 2017
Application Deadline I March 15/Deadline II April 1, 2017
35 slots only/Rolling acceptanceThe First Yemen Exchange (convened in Beirut, Lebanon) is co-hosted by the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies (SCSS) and Mideastwire.com. During the five day program, participants from around the world will listen and engage Yemeni politicians, civil society figures and analysts in order to provide direct and intensive insight into Yemen, from several differing perspectives. As such, the Exchange is a fundamental part of SCSS’s attempt to increase the content, space and conversations on Yemen with the hope that increased dialogue and understanding will ultimately help to create the conditions for sustainable peace-building. The five day Yemen Exchange rests on two tracks:

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Burrowes on Dr. Abd al-Karim Al-Eryani

AKI Fragments
by Robert Burrowes

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Dr. Abd al-Karim Al-Eryani (AKI) was diminutive—I mean short, really short.  From time to time, a professor in the PhD program in Yale allegedly would come into class and exclaim: “Can’t believe it, but I just saw a driverless car with no one behind the wheel speeding across the campus.” The car he was alluding to was in fact one being driven by AKI who could only look through and not over the wheel.

If it wasn’t Dr. AKI who told me this tale, it was probably Middle East specialist Michael Hudson who did.  He and AKI were PhD students at Yale at the same time, Mike in political science and AKI in biology.  And this reminds me that it was Mike who facilitated my meeting Dr. AKI, and it also lets me illustrate things about the man.  As the following tale suggests, and regardless of his place in government, society or family, Dr. AKI did not tower over people—and this was not a function of his physical size.  He was by nature a welcoming, open and generous man.

At the urging of a political friend in Taiz, I had come  to Sanaa in spring 1976 in order to meet Dr. AKI, head of the Central Planning Organization.  An unemployed American academic and a refugee from Lebanon’s Civil War, I only made it halfway up the stairs to Dr. AKI’s office before I totally lost confidence, stopped and retreated.  Luckily for me, following me down the stairs was my friend Mike Hudson who had just met with his friend, Dr. AKI.  When Mike told me he was going the next day down to the Tihama with Dr. AKI for three days for a ceremony at the Wadi Zabiid Project, I proclaimed my envy.  Mike said:  “No problem. Show up with your bag at the hotel tomorrow morning.  I will introduce you to Dr. AKI and he will invite you to go along.  And that is precisely what happened.

We had a wonderful three days together, going down to and from the Tihama, in Wadi Zabid and for two nights in a modest hotel in al-Hodeidah.  Over these days, I learned more about the politics and recent political history of Yemen than I had over the previous half year in the country.  This proved to be the beginning of my political education—and nearly forty years of friendship.  He welcomed me with open arms dozens of times.  Some three decades later, not long after the Yemeni unification that he had helped engineer, Abd al-Karim invited me and several others for a week’s stay on an extraordinary island, Socotra.  We had a wonderful time, as did the Yemeni politician with the PhD in biology from Yale.  I think Mike Hudson was with us.

Was Dr. AKI politically naïve?  Yes—and no.  I think he was forever a political optimist, and at times I thought he was too much so.  When exasperated colleagues urged that after decades it was time to be rid of Dr. AKI, President Salih is alleged to have said “No, we need him and are going to work and ride him like a donkey until he drops over dead”.

In his second tour as prime minister, Dr. AKI chose as a main task the reform of a greatly inflated, incompetent and costly civil service that had gotten worse over the decades.  After months of effort, he was able to go before President Salih and announce that he had finally achieved agreement on a plan that would eliminate thousands of “shadow” positions, save lots of money and allow the leadership to focus on creating an effective government work force.  In response, the president announced to Dr. AKI that he had just reinforced tribal support for the regime by creating and financing thousands of “shadow” military jobs for tribal militias.  And so it went.

On the other hand, Dr. AKI often revealed a strong sense of political insight and awareness. Introduced to the Arab world in the late 1950s, I was for decades a disciple of Gamal Abdul Nasser, and coming to Yemen in 1975, a year after Ibrahim al-Hamdi seized power, I quickly became something of a disciple to the person many hailed as “the little Nasser”. Early on, I noticed in Dr. AKI a lack of enthusiasm for President al-Hamdi, and at some point I questioned him on this. He answered with a story: “On one of the few times I met alone with Ibrahim he drew close to me, tapped me on my knee, and softly said this:  “‘Abd al-Karim, I have one great weakness—I don’t trust anyone.’  Quickly, Ibrahim’s distrust poisoned his regime and spread to everyone.  And, in the end, his colleagues in the military got him before he got them.”  Clearly, Dr. AKI’s take on al-Hamdi was much better than mine.

Another story told to me by Dr. AKI or someone else in the Al-Eryani family relates to the above.  When the rare military member of the family, the one who had previously advised President Abd al-Rahman al-Eryani on military affairs, returned to Yemen from exile, he told members of the family that the distribution of troops around Sanaa could only mean that the military was positioned to overthrow al-Hamdi.  When he asked family leaders whether he should warn al-Hamdi of the danger, he was told by Dr. AKI that the president, long suspicious and distrustful of the al-Eryani family, would reject the warning, accuse the family of sowing discord, and punish the al-Eryanis.

To donate to the Memorial Fellowship Fund for Yemeni Scholars in honor of Dr. Al-Eryani, click here.

 

 

Ahmed Qasim Dammaj: Obituary

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The poet Ahmed Qasim Dammaj (center) with Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqaleh (right)

Obituary : Ahmed Qasim Dammaj

by Salwa Dammaj, his daughter

The genius poet and much respected activist Ahmed Qasim Dammaj died aged 77. He passed way Tuesday morning January 4, 2017 in the Military Hospital in the capital Sana’a. His body was laid down in his final rest in the graveyard of the “Friday Dignity Martyrs” in Sana’a. In a huge funeral held Wednesday hundreds of  mourners paid tribute. The mourners included high rank Yemeni officials, writers, authors, journalists, academics, politicians, activists, social dignitaries and ordinary people.

Yemen’s great poet and intellectual Dr Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh took part in the funeral. Dr Al-Maqaleh was Dammaj’s intimate friend and long standing fellow. He described Dammaj’s death as “a grave lose for creativity during these circumstances”. He had been a veteran freedom fighter who participated in the revolution of the 26 of September and 14 of October”, said Dr Al-Maqaleh.‬

Official authorities, political parties and trade unions all paid tributes to the late Ahmed Qasim Dammaj. Both the incumbent president Abd Rabu Hadi and the former president Ali Saleh mourned him in cables of condolences in which they highly praised the role Dammaj played in building up the political and trade union organizations in the country. Hadi’s statement read: “Ahmed Qasim Dammaj was a great patriotic figure, with noble values, virtues and very good track record. Our thoughts with his family”.‬ For his part, the former president Saleh considered Dammaj a man of principles. “Few Yemeni intellectuals, like Ahmed Qasim Dammaj, had really held unalterable national convictions and principles. Dammaj had already set a good example as a patriotic activist and NGO leader. Our sympathy with his family”, Saleh said in his  statement.‬

‬The Union of Yemeni Writers and Authors gave high praise to the departed Dammaj.  A mourning statement issued by the union read:  “With the death of the great poet and veteran freedom fighter, Ahmed Qasim Dammaj, Yemen has missed one of the most influential patriotic persons who had actively and effectively contributed toward establishing the NGO’s, on top of all the Union of the Yemeni Writers and Authors. The Union’s mourning statement went on saying: “Dammaj was one of the founders who played a key role in promoting Civil Society organizations and he had  heralded the notion of the country’s reunion. The statement added: “It is a grave lose to miss the wisdom of this great man and it is saddening to miss his patriotic voice at this critical moment.”
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Yemen’s displaced women and girls

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Grandmother Aliah complains about the scarcity of food, water and health care. She relies on her son-in-law’s earnings of $4 (£3) per day to support three generations of the family who have all fled from Hudaydah province. An estimated 14 million people are considered food insecure and seven million severely food insecure, with malnutrition widespread.

The BBC has posted a gallery of photos of displaced Yemeni women and girls due to the current conflict.  This can be seen at http://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-38305875.

AIYS at MESA

AIYS held two well-attended panels at MESA in Boston last week.  Here are some of the photos from the panel organized by Dan Mahoney on the destruction of Yemen’s cultural heritage:

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Dr. Lamya Khalidi, Dr. Krista Lewis and Dr. Dan Mahoney at MESA

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Dr. McGuire Gibson at the heritage panel.  Dr. Gibson was the founder of AIYS in 1978.

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Dr. Lamya Khalidi, who also provided a video of Dr. al-Sayani, the current Director of the General Organization of Antiquities  and Museums in Yemen.

And here are photos from the panel organized by Dr. Marieke Brandt:

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