art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Yemen | 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview.

kayai so what/Then What, painting by Louay Kayali/

An estimated 18.8 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 10.3 million who are in acute need. Escalating conflict since March 2015 has created a vast protection crisis in which millions face risks to their safety and basic rights, and are struggling to survive.

Even before March 25, 2015, when the conflict in Yemen escalated, the country faced enormous levels of humanitarian need, with 15.9 million people requiring some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance in late 2014. These needs stemmed from years of poverty, under-development, environmental decline, intermittent conflict, and weak rule of law – including widespread violations of human rights.

The conduct of hostilities has been brutal. As of 25 October 2016, health facilities had reported almost 44,000 casualties (including nearly 7,100 deaths) – an average of 75 people killed or injured every day. These figures significantly undercount the true extent of casualties given diminished reporting capacity of health facilities after 19 months of war and many people’s inability to access healthcare at all.

Read the full report on Yemen here.

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

(Interview) Judith Brown: Yemen Is A Mess & It’s Getting Worse.

24/photo © Josef Hoflehner/

The war in Yemen, with all of its tragedies, keeps on unravelling far from the media flashlights. In a recent horrific attack in Sana’a, when Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral, more than 200 people were killed, and more than 500 were injured.

A day after the attack in Sana’a, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who easily forgets his own mistakes (from 1978 till today), called for an attack on the enemy – Saudi Arabia. On the same day, the White House issued a statement saying it had begun an “immediate review” of its support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It is hard to believe that there will be such a review, since this is not the first attack by Saudi Arabia, and it will probably not be the last one.

There have been numerous attacks – on schools, hospitals, markets – killing and injuring thousands of civillians. In August, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) withdrew their staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen after a coalition airstrike on a hospital in Hajjah killed 19 people. Countless attacks on health facilities and services all over Yemen, happened despite the fact that MSF has systematically shared the GPS coordinates of hospitals with the parties involved in the conflict.

In the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented 43 airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, which have killed more than 670 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions.

The infrastructure in Yemen has been significantly devasted during the last couple of years, and humanitarian organisations have been sending warnings about the lack of immediate and unhindered access to people who urgently need food assistance. That fact, compounded by a shortage of funding, means that famine is a possibility for millions of people.

We’ve discussed Yemen with Judith Brown, activist and aid worker from United Kingdom, who started the page Yemen News Today, which brings daily news from Yemen in English. Brown worked with refugees in Yemen from 1998 until 2001 and has visited the country every year from 2001 until 2014. She is now seventy years old and retired, but has recently started postdoctoral research into the media coverage of the Yemen war.

You’ve started the page Yemen News Today, trying to bring daily news from Yemen to the wider audiences, in English. How did that idea come to you, was it due to the lack of news from Yemen in the mainstream media?

I began Yemen News Today out of desperation because there was no news of Yemen in the media. I also know that I have a big Yemeni following now. My motivation was to tell as many people in the West as I could about the suffering, with the aim of increasing awareness and political pressure.

You’ve also worked as a manager at Refugee Health Project in Yemen, until 2001. What are your experiences like – how did the situation with refugees change over the last couple of years?

I left the refugee health programme in 2001, and this programme was for international refugees. Although I understand that since the Saada wars the UN had taken some responsibility for the displaced people – something they are not doing now simply because of the lack of resources.

For a time after the start of the war all the international employees were moved out of Yemen and many of the local staff were not able to function because they too were displaced, especially in Aden where the biggest refugee programmes are. I think the UN refugee offices are functioning now in Aden and Sana’a, but I am not sure exactly what their responsibilities are.

85154702_yemen_humanitarian_crisis/photo: BBC, 2015/

In a recent interview with Status Hour, journalist Safa al Ahmad argues that there’s no longer a Yemen, that North and South are completely separate from each other. Would you agree with that?

The north and south are functioning as at least two separate parts for complex reasons. Firstly, Saudi Arabia and UAE have a difficult relationship and different aims due to the war and this has meant they have largely divided their sphere of responsibilities, with Saudi controlling the war in the north and UAE taking little responsibility for the south militarily, but it is developing commercial interests there.

There is also animosity in both parts, but especially Hadramaut governors made statements about a year ago that they would not accept anyone from the old North Yemen, and many people there have developed an intolerant Sunni position, but they also want to keep free of the effects of the Yemen war.

In Aden the secessionist movement is strong – though not supported by everyone by any means – and the secessionists have said they will not accept any people from the north or even southerners that have lived for a long time in the north, and it seems to be that Aden Lahj and Bab al Mandab operate as a separate entity. They are not keen on having people from east and central Yemen move to Aden either because of their fears of the militias from there taking control – such as Al-Qaeda but not limited to Al-Qaeda. Taiz is more or less on its own. And the old north (less Taiz) is under the control of the Houthis and the old Yemen army.

What is happening with the government?

What is true is that in effect there are two systems of government, one in Sana’a and one mostly in Riyadh (with a few of the Riyadh ministers in Aden). There are two Yemen armies – most of the original army support the Houthis, and the new army is paid for by Saudi Arabia and trained by UAE  (KSA are mostly in Aden). There now appear to be two banks as president Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi moved the central Yemen bank to Aden, with new staff, and the remaining central bank staff who were sacked by Hadi are still in Sana’a. So it’s a mess. As in all wars.

You’re constantly trying to bring attention to the issues of starvation and famine in Yemen. With food ships finding it hard to get into Yemen’s ports due to a virtual blockade, over half the country’s 28 million people already do not have enough to eat, according to the United Nations. How does that look like on the ground, how do the people survive?

The famine is everywhere in the north, but worst in Hodeida and the north west. It is getting more and more difficult for families to cope – even middle class families who used to have money don’t know how they can afford food. People have used up their savings and there are few jobs and little humanitarian aid getting in. Those with homes and businesses destroyed are not able to get any compensation.

Some people have family and friends overseas who are helping them to survive. The rich Inside Yemen have been very generous – for example providing most of the free water in cities. But even their resources are strained now because there is so much need. Some are just very hungry and some are starving to death, especially the very young. There are very few resources for the displaced.

Where do we move from now, what can be done in this situation?

It is difficult to see how the situation will change unless USA and UK stop their unconditional support for Saudi Arabia. I really don’t know what can be done and I feel desperate sometimes. It is a situation even more complex than Syria and it is escalating as USA seems to have joined in the war and Iranian warships are now openly stating that they are in Yemeni waters. But this is still not in the Western media. I just feel I have to keep on trying to get the story out and do what I can. But it’s not enough.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

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art of resistance, India, Iran, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia

Five For Friday: Conversations With History.

Conversations With History was conceived in 1982 by Harry Kreisler, as a “way to capture and preserve through conversation and technology the intellectual ferment of our times.” It’s a great series which includes over 500 interviews. Here are five of my favorites concerning various issues related to the Middle East (although there are more than just five great ones, of course).

1. Conversations With History: Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali talks about the creation of Pakistan, issues with India, and the dysfunctionality of the state today. He also talks about Israel, drawing parallels between states with strong religious and ethnic identities and the way that identity cripples them.

2. Conversations With History: Juan Cole

Juan Cole talks about journalism and academia, the way his life changed after the years he spent in Beirut and how he came to do his academic work on Islam.  He also talks about his great blog Informed Comment and the idea behind it.

3. Conversations With History: Amira Hass

Famous Israeli journalist Amira Hass talks about Israeli occupation, Palestinian terrorism, and the consequences of the conflict for the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

4. Conversations With History: Andrew Scott Cooper

Andrew Scott Cooper discusses his book The Oil Kings. Focusing on the geopolitics of the Middle East in the 1970’s, the book centers on the complex relationship between Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah of Iran. Revealing the contradiction between the Shah’s dependence on the rise of oil prices and the need to fund his new military role, Cooper explains how this contradiction resulted in the Shah’s downfall and the implosion of Iran.

5. Conversations With History: John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito, the author of Who speaks for Islam?, talks about the diversity of the Muslim world, extremism, and the complex forces shaping Islam and its relationship with(in) the West.

• • •

Previous Five For Friday:

Iraq War Documentaries

Graphic Novels on Israel & Palestine

Lectures and Interviews on Middle East & Islam

 

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art of resistance, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates

Beyond the architectural text (Middle East).

The Damascene House is beyond the architectural text

The design of our homes…

Is based on an emotional foundation

For every house leans … on the hip of another

And every balcony…

Extends its hand to antoher facing it.

Nizar Qabbani

Peter Gould is an Australian artist. In 2002, he began traveling around Middle East and was inspired by cities like Fes, Damascus, Istanbul and Mecca, with his work resulting in a great visual fusion of classical Islamic design elements with his vibrant, fresh graphic styles.

His photography is maybe best described by one of his curators:

Peter’s photography is as much about the spiritual as it is about the visual, offering no questions or answers but rather affording the viewer to simply being in that moment and that moment at first glance seems to curiously exist without time or consequence.”

010-Beirut-2Beirut.

015-MeccaMecca.

025-JerusalemJerusalem.

029-IstanbulIstanbul.

033-DamascusDamascus.

037-MuscatMuscat.

038-MuscatMuscat.

039-NizwaNizwa.

040-NizwaNizwa.

043-AbuDhabiAbu Dhabi.

fesFes.

marrakeshMarrakesh.

/all photos © Peter Gould/

For more on Gould and his work, visit his official website.

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Cities of Salt.

Abdulrahman Munif was a Saudi writer, famous for his novels parodying the Middle Eastern elite, and examining the changes oil business brought to Arabian deserts. Munif was born a Saudi national and brought up in Amman, Jordan to Saudi parents and an Iraqi grandmother.

He started to write in his thirties and quickly became known for his scathing parodies of Middle Eastern elites, especially those of Saudi Arabia, a country which banned many of his books and stripped him of Saudi citizenship. His most famous work is The Cities of Salt quintet, which followed the evolution of the Arabian peninsula as its traditional Bedouin culture is transformed by the oil boom. The novels create a history of a broad region, evoking comparisons to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

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The first novel is Mudun Al Milh (Cities of Salt), one I read and very much liked. The novel creates the great landscape of disruption and change with the coming of the oil age as the Anglo-American technical world begins to move into the rural Arabic world of small oasis towns, caravans and trade.  The swift transformation of the tiny, forgotten village in the sands into a modern town for the Americans, and the waves of new arrivals from unknown lands, brought with it problems and situations that were unrecognizable to them. The wadi is transformed.  Families are told they have to move.  The young men no longer long to go out on the caravans but to work with the machines.

Stone by tone, we constructed,

Inch by inch, we built the pipe,

Now that we have build and raised, 

What do you say, o company, o God!

The oil wealth, instead of modernizing Arabian society, enthroned and perpetuated backward monarchies allied with primitive religious establishments as well as Western governments. And nobody knows how it will change, and will it change at all.

“Ours is a long story, Abu Othman.”

“Long.  How much longer?”

“Trust in God. man.  All is well with the world.”

“God only knows.  He laughed sadly.  

”Hope for the best.  No one can read the future.”

While Munif’s works were never particularly successful in the west, throughout the Middle East they are critically acclaimed and extremely popular. Cities of Salt was described by Edward Said as the “only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country.”

Four other novels of the trilogy are The Trench, Variations on Night and Day, The uprooted, The desert of Darkness (the last two not translated in English).

Munif was one of the biggest critics of Saddam Hussein and his regime, but he was utterly opposed to the American invasion of Iraq and spent the last two years of his life working on non-fiction projects to oppose what he saw as renewed imperialism.

Read Munif, he’s great and his work very much applicable today too.

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Filming on the Fringe – Saudia Arabia’s and Yemen’s first female filmmakers.

Author: Natalie Shooter / Reorient

In the midst of a nascent film industry, a handful of female filmmakers have emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, pioneering film in the region and using it as a tool to fight for change. Saudi Arabia and Yemen both present volatile environments for any director; in the former, cinemas are illegal, and in both, authorisation from the government prior to shooting is obligatory. However, in these conservative, patriarchal societies, the challenges for female filmmakers are even greater.

As Yemeni documentary filmmaker Khadija Al-Salami was witnessing the 2011 revolution against the now-ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh on television, the presence of women amongst the crowds of protesters came as a shock. Segregated from men in many areas of public life, their boldness inspired her to leave her diplomatic job at the Yemeni embassy in Paris and document the movement. ‘For me, this was a true revolution – all this oppression had been lingering for so long’ Al-Salami says. ‘To see these women uncovered and not shy of the camera was unbelievable. They just wanted to be a part of this; they were just saying “we exist”’.

Al-Salami’s 2012 documentary, The Scream, follows the women of that revolution. Originally in search of Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman – the human rights activist considered the ‘mother’ of the Yemeni revolution – Al-Salami came across thousands of other women fighting not just for the collapse of the regime, but also for their place in society. Accordingly, Al-Salami followed journalist Rahma Hugira, human rights activist Balqis Al-Lahabi, and poet Huda Al-Attas, all of whom were fighting for the liberation of Yemen. ‘The presence of women in the revolution is a message’, says one of the women in the documentary. ‘I want to be present, and my presence will be prolonged throughout and beyond the revolution’.

640x392_44318_255618Khadija Al-Salami

In The Scream, Al-Salami explores how much has actually changed for women in post-revolution Yemen; barely anything seems to be the general consensus. ‘There’s change, but there are still a lot of restrictions and oppression from families’, says Al-Salami. ‘I now see thousands of girls that have awareness of their rights. They have to keep their courage and continue to fight for change’.

The tradition of child marriage in Yemen presents a hotly debated topic with respect to the situation of women therein. According to a 2012 UNFPA report, 32% of 20 – 24 year-old Yemeni women in 2011 were previously married under legal age. In Al-Salami’s adaption of I Am Nujood, the memoir of a ten year-old Yemeni girl married to a man 20 years her senior, it’s the focus of the film – a fact made more poignant by Al-Salami’s own story. Married at 11 and disowned by the male side of her family after fighting for divorce, she had to juggle a job at her local television station with school to support herself and her mother.

Desperate to leave Yemen to study abroad after being exposed to the outside world through her job at the station, Al-Salami was awarded a scholarship at 16, and left shortly afterwards for the United States. Now based in Paris, her documentary work has been almost entirely dedicated to highlighting the plight of Yemeni women. ‘Since I was a kid [I’ve been] fighting for my rights’, she remarks. ‘I fulfilled my dream in liberating myself, but I needed to go back to try and help these women’. With the illiteracy rate among women in Yemen currently at around 70%, Al-Salami set up the My Future Foundation in Sana’a, which helps provide young girls with an education. ‘My grandmother used to say a girl was only born to be buried or married. She and my mother never went to school, and I decided to go back and fight for that’.

Working within an almost nonexistent film industry is not without its challenges, but filming in a country where one cannot freely express themselves also involves courage and persistence. Nobody believed Al-Salami would get the go-ahead to film a female prisoner inside a cell for her 2006 film, Amina, but the director not only received permission to interview the woman who was given a death sentence at 14, but was also able to temporarily live with her in her cell. At other times, her filming was suspended by the authorities, and she risked the penalties of illegally filming in the street with hidden cameras.

Haifaa-Al-MansourHaifaa Al Mansour

For Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, getting authorisation to shoot her film, Wadjda – the first feature film short entirely in the country – wasn’t so much a problem as filming within a conservative society. Her 2012 film, recently released in European cinemas, follows Wadjda, a rebellious ten year-old girl, who challenges her country’s rigid laws in a quest to purchase a bicycle and race against her friend Abdullah; not exactly a thrilling subject for Hollywood’s standards, but in Saudi Arabia, it’s the stuff of revolution. Filmed in Riyadh, Al Mansour had to direct her actors via walkie-talkies from the back of a van in the city’s more conservative areas.

Al Mansour’s realist drama highlights the marginalisation of women in Saudi society through the character of Converse-clad Wadjda. Though the director plays it safe in the subtlety with which she tackles the subject of women’s rights, the more trying aspects of the situation of women in Saudi Arabia are clearly highlighted throughout the film, in which the desert surroundings under a stifling blue sky are devoid of any trace of womanhood. As Al Mansour’s film provides a rare glimpse into a relatively insular and misunderstood society, it’s no wonder why Wadjda has received so much international attention since its release.

A co-production between Saudi Arabia and Germany, Al Mansour’s real challenge came in finding a young actress to play the leading role. ‘A lot of parents don’t want to have their girls appear in cinema’ says Al Mansour. ‘We had many girls come to casting, and then at the last minute, they would dissapear’. Waad Mohammed came to casting only one week before the movie was set to be shot. ‘She was wearing jeans and an 80s-style jacket with loose curly hair, listening to Justin Bieber. It was exactly this global youth culture I wanted to capture’.

wadjdaWadjda, still from the movie

Though many restrictions remain in place for women in the Kingdom, progress, some might say, has been made there in the last few years: female athletes competed in last year’s Olympic games, and women were appointed to the government’s advisory council last January. ‘[Those among] the new generation in Saudi are different’, Al Mansour says. ‘They have access to information and the internet, and want to live like everybody else’. However, real change for Al Mansour will come only from the bottom up. ‘It’s not about making one big change; it’s about breaking it down and making it more tangible for our own lives’.

Both Al-Salami and Al Mansour are confident about cinema’s role and ability with respect to social reform. Though Yemeni intellectuals initially predicted a violent public reaction to Al-Salami’s Amina, screenings in rural areas of the country were received in a positive light. ‘After that film,’ remarks Al-Salami, ‘journalists were encouraged to tackle subjects they considered sensitive. Expose your problems, and you’re forced to find a solution’. Al Mansour is also hopeful that the wheels of change are slowly being set in motion. ‘There’s a debate going on now about cinema’, she says, hoping a national dialogue will bring new opportunities for herself and others. ‘For women, sharing something [about yourself] was considered ayb’, (lit. ‘wrongdoing’) says Al-Salami. ‘Now, you see how eager they are to express themselves. Al Mansour, while optimistic, is more of a realist. ‘Cinema is a tough place to be. There is no funding, no system’. The solution? ‘You need to be individual [and] persistent, find your voice, and carry on’.

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Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria

On Saudi Arabia’s special treatment (despite being the key source of funding for growing jihadi militarism in Middle East).

Despite Saudi Arabia’s funding and arming of militants in Syria, Iraq and beyond, President Obama is set to visit the kingdom this week to meet with King Abdullah. It’s the only Middle Eastern or Gulf nation on Obama’s overseas itinerary. Saudi Arabia is a crucial US partner for decades now.

Many analysts say the conflict in Syria has grown into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s links to jihadist groups go back decades. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi. The 9/11 Commission Report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qaeda financing (but there was nothing in the mainstream media about it). And in 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups.

Members of Congress and human rights organizations have also been calling on Obama to address the kingdom’s treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists. There’s a great interview with Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent on Democracy Now. I just saw it. Cockburn wrote The Independent’s recent five-part series examining the resurgence of jihadists across the Middle East, “Al-Qa’ida’s Second Act: Why the Global ‘War on Terror’ Went Wrong.”

Cockburn stated, among other things, that:

It’s pretty extraordinary, given that so much of what happened on 9/11 can be traced back to Saudi Arabia. Why hasn’t there been a greater reaction in the U.S. and the rest of the world? Well, the Saudis have cultivated people in Washington, government in Washington. There are enormous arms sales by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. The arms on orders—on order at the moment are worth a total of $86 billion—fighter aircraft, helicopters, everything else. And they’ve also spent money cultivating former diplomats, officials, academics and so forth. And therefore, there hasn’t been—though I find this rather amazing—more pressure on Saudi Arabia or on the U.S. government to stop Saudi Arabia supporting jihadi movements. It’s not just money. It’s, I mean, a lot of it, propaganda of a satellite television, which is anti-Shia, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, hate propaganda. So long as they have these methods of propaganda, they can probably raise men and money to send to Syria and Iraq and elsewhere.

Washington draws too great a distinction between people who have a direct operational link to the remains of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in Pakistan and other groups that have the same ideology, operate in the same way, have the same methods. And you could see that in Libya, when—where the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was killed by jihadis, who were not, in fact, al-Qaeda, and he seems to have thought, and the people around him thought, were not as dangerous as al-Qaeda. And tragically, he and they were proved wrong. You can see that in Syria at the moment, that the largest group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is not in fact part of al-Qaeda—it used to be. There’s a new group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official representative, but there isn’t much difference between these groups. They’re all pretty well the same. They are extraordinarily bigoted. They’re extraordinarily brutal. They kill Shia or any other nonfundamentalist Muslims who fall into their hands. So, pretending that one group, simply because it’s funded by Saudi Arabia, is not the equivalent of al-Qaeda, I think, is self-deception—and self-deception which may well have disastrous results, you know, as happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which eventually produced the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

Watch the full interview at Democracy Now.

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