Friday, January 26, 2007

Guns And Veils, Hearts And Minds

I've spent the past few days in the mountains west of Sana'a. he landscape is far greener than I had thought possible for this part of the world and is intensively cultivated with terraces, and every craggy outcrop that cannot be farmed hosts an old, fortified village. Walking through the villages is almost like walking back in time, if it wasn't for the pestering children demanding baksheesh! or qalam! (pen); the overhead power lines (every photographers' bane); and the ubiquitous posters of president Saleh, looking more like a nightclub bouncer with his thick neck and stocky physique. During my travels I have come to the conclusion that there is a direct negative correlation between the number of pictures of supposedly elected heads of state and the actual amount of freedom and democracy in a country. Another politician whose pictures are increasingly popular, especially on rear windshields of private cars and in restaurants, is Saddam Hussein. One would have thought that a secular dictator who attacked two neighbouring Muslim countries and butchered his own people would have been an easy figure to demonise, and yet with the catastrophically inept, and not to mention illegal, invasion of Iraq; the farcical trial and subsequent, vicious execution the Americans have managed to turn Saddam into a religious martyr. In fact ask any Arab on the street and the almost universal response is one of admiration and support for Saddam. It just goes to show that any dialogue there might have once been between the Western and Arab worlds has completely fallen apart and that the battle for hearts and minds has been well and truly lost. Similarly, when I pretend to be Iranian, Arabs are shocked when they hear me criticising Ahmadinejad because of his domestic policies because they think that everything America doesn't like must be good, and the way the Iranian government is being demonised by the Bush administration Arabs think that Ahmadinejad is the new Messiah. But such polarisation of political issues only makes things worse: the situation in Northern Ireland, for example, only improved when the British government and Sinn Fein sat down and started talking. It seems to me that politicians aren't good at learning from history. It's little wonder therefore that we have slipped two minutes closer to midnight.

Apart from the children the local Yemenis are generally friendly and welcoming, you just have to look past the fact that they are all armed to the teeth. Almost every male Yemeni considers himself underdressed unless he has his jambiya (traditional dagger) bound in front of his belly, and in the countryside many men have Kalashnikovs casually slung over their shoulders. In fact it is estimated that there are three handguns for every man, woman and child in Yemen, many of which can be heard on the weekends as guns are shot into the air to celebrate marriages. Possibly my most memorable experience was getting invited into a local home for tea as I was traipsing through a village. I was ushered up to the mafraj (reception room) on the top floor which commanded lovely views of the surroundings and given sweet tea flavoured with cardammon and cloves and some pastries. However, what surprised me most was the fact that the wife of my host, despite having her face completely covered by a shawl, was no passive dummy and was actively taking part in our conversation, possibly more so than her husband. It completely exploded the myth that all Muslim women who wear the veil are meek and suppressed.

1 comment:

Ex-Shammickite said...

I think you should gather up all this info and write a travel book when you get back to civilization.... you know, "Asia on a Mouthful of Qat a day"... something like that! Or perhaps you could get a job updating Lonely Planet Guides, you'd be a natural. And it would enable you to continue your addiction to world travel. I'm enjoying your posts, keep 'em coming!