Saturday, 30 July 2011

Yemen - Allah, al-Watan, ath-Thawrah, al-Wahdah!

It's more than 3,000 miles from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang/Uyghuristan to Sana'a, the capital of  الجمهورية اليمنية (Al Jumhūriyyah al Yamaniyyah - ie. the Republic of Yemen), the next place on my list!

The basics

At around 204,000 square miles (or 555,000 square kilometres), Yemen is slightly larger than Spain, more than six times bigger than Scotland and slightly smaller than the Canadian province of Manitoba.  It has an estimated population of 24 million people and 43% of the population is less than 14 years old (CIA World Factbook). The capital city, Sana'a, located in the country's highlands, is about 90 miles from the Red Sea and 185 miles north of Aden, a port city which will probably be more well-known to my British and European readers.

A bridge between the Arab world and East Africa
Young girl in Sana'a by kebnekaise

I think I know as little about Yemen, at this point, as most people in Europe.  I did touch on Yemeni culture and the diaspora in the Gulf states, when I was researching my blog posts for Saudi Arabia. One thing I learned about Yemen during this research is how different it is to the other states in Arabia.  Yemen is much poorer than Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates and lots of Yemeni men travel to the Gulf states for work.  The local economy, as in many poor countries, depends on the remittances being sent home by these workers.  Interestingly, whilst Yemen's relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states has been pretty tense in the past, Yemen has had a much closer relationship with Egypt and countries like Somalia and Ethiopia, that are culturally linked (putting Yemen at the centre of a Semitic cultural sphere, rather than at the edge of the Arab world).

A tale of two Yemens

It can't be nice, being looked upon as some kind of poor relation and I'm beginning to sense the complexity of the Yemeni identity.  Steeped in history, with a capital city that is a UNESCO world heritage site and such amazing potential for tourism, Yemen's recent history, unfortunately, has left most Westerners with the impression that it's a haven for kidnappers, pirates, revolutionaries and Islamic extremists.  An additional factor in researching the history and culture of Yemen is trying to get my head around the two Yemens, North and South.

The North -  الشمال

First, there is the culturally and politically dominant northern part of Yemen, containing the capital and a large chunk of the country's population, this is the Yemen that was part of the Ottoman Empire, gaining independence after the First World war, as the Kingdom of Yemen and in the 60's, after an Egyptian-style revolution, the Yemen Arab Republic.

The South -  الجنوب

Then there is the South, with its capital at Aden, which came under British influence, as a convenient stopping point on the route to India.  When the north gained its independence in 1918, Britain continued to govern the southern part of Yemen, as part of British India, until 1937, when the status of Aden was changed to 'Crown Colony'.  British rule in Aden became increasingly unpopular and the short-lived Federation of South Arabia in the 60's was quickly replaced by the socialist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Unity - الوحدة
Sana'a by kebnekaise

Despite numerous attempts to reunite the two parts of Yemen, it wasn't until the 22nd of May 1990 that North and South Yemen were finally reunited to form the modern-day Republic of Yemen.  I must hold my hand up at this point and admit that I have no recollection whatsoever of the re-unification of Yemen.  Germany, yes, Yemen . . .uhm, I guess I was busy studying for my Inter Cert (an Irish exam, that comes halfways through secondary school, sort of like GCSE's in the UK).  Mind you, I don't remember other important things that happened on May 22nd 1990, like the launch of Windows 3.0, although possibly the significance of this (digital) revolution wasn't recognised by most of us at the time! 

Yemen's flag is typical of flags in the Middle East and North Africa, ie. with red, white and black stripes, it looks very similar to the flags of Egypt and Syria.  The former flags of North and South Yemen included symbols that represented the political nature of each of these countries, whereas the flag adopted after 1990, leaves the white stripe, rather neutrally, blank. 

Motto of the Republic of Yemen

In the opening title of this blog post, I've given a transcription in Roman letters of the country's motto:

لله، الوطن، الثورة، الوحدة
I was struck by how simple and direct the motto is and it seems to capture the essence of Yemeni political life very well!
The skyscrapers of Shibam by kebnekaise

لله، 'Allah' 
الوطن، 'al-Watan' (home/country)
الثورة، 'ath-Thawrah' (revolution)
الوحدة  'al-Wahdah' (unity)

Yemeni themes

I've just started researching possible themes for Yemen and I've already come up with some areas that I would like to look into further, such as the Queen of Sheba, the use of qat, the history of the coffee trade, the trade in frankincense and the island of Socotra.  I've bought some classical Yemeni music, Mohammad al-Harithi's L'Heure de Salomon recorded on CD for the Institut du Monde Arab.  I've been listening to this all morning and it's very transcendental, like the Indian Bhajan (devotional music) I blogged about in May 2010.  I'm also going to try my hand at the Yemeni national dish, Saltah and I've got a few books lined up, including a well-known Yemeni novel.
The peasant of Hadramawt by kebnekaise

I hope you'll join me, as I learn about Yemen.  Comments etc are much appreciated, as long as they aren't intentionally offensive to Yemeni people or culture.  

Image credits:

It's always exciting finding images on that illustrate the places I'm blogging about.  My research for Yemen has brought me to the work of kebnekaise aka Davide, who is from Trento in the north of Italy.  He seems to have travelled a lot in the north of Europe, Svalbard, Iceland etc., but the photos I've used to illustrate this blog post come from a trip he did to Yemen in 2000.  

I couldn't put all of the photos here, but you can see the rest of the Yemeni set on his photostream.  You can also see his images on his website.   

Thanks Davide for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

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