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Engaged Anthropology in and about Yemen

By Marina de Regt. The aim of my Talma Lecture, which I gave on 12 January at VU University Amsterdam, was to discuss the implications of the war in Yemen on my work as an anthropologist and, in a broader sense, talk about the role of engaged scholarship in times of war and conflict.    

Every two or three weeks I receive a phone call or text message from Noura, one of my closest Yemeni friends. “Marina, can you send me the money for my medication?” is her standard question. Noura has heart problems and diabetes and needs daily medication. The price of the drugs has multiplied since the start of the war and now cost 60.000 YR, which is around 200 euro, per month. Just like many of my other Yemeni friends Noura had a relatively secure and stable life prior to the war: she had a job in the public sector, working as a cashier in the Central Bank of Yemen which secured her income for life, she owned a small house in a lower middle class area in the port town Hodeidah, and her three children were going to school.

Yet, her life changed dramatically since the outbreak of the war, and so did the lives of my other friends. They are part of the 20 million Yemenis who are in need of humanitarian aid, but the aid given by humanitarian organizations is not sufficient to help such a large group of people. This is why Noura is calling me, and why many other Yemeni friends are suddenly in need of financial help. The shops are full but the prices of groceries, water, gas, petrol, medication and whatever else is needed in daily life have skyrocketed, in particular since airports have been bombed or are closed, and Saudi Arabia is blocking the port in Hodeidah.

Yemen has become a no-go area, not only for researchers but even for humanitarian aid workers, who often have to wait long before they can enter the country. The last time I visited Yemen is almost five years ago, in March 2013. Since March 2015, the war in Yemen has made tens of thousands of victims, more than 90 per cent of the population is in need of any form of humanitarian aid and the destruction of the infrastructure is beyond imagination. Yet, international attention has been very minimal and the situation has often been described as a “silent war”. Whereas the war in Syria receives a lot of attention, Yemen seems forgotten.

This changed a bit last December. Floortje Dessing, famous for her televised travels to faraway places, got stuck in Yemen while fierce fighting broke out in the capital Sana’a. Around the same time, the Dutch branch of the development NGO CARE launched the campaign “Yemen: Bruised but Never Broken” in which many known and unknown Dutch citizens recorded video messages to show their solidarity with the people in Yemen, using #Wecare4Yemen. Matthijs van Nieuwkerk, Humberto Tan, and Peter R. de Vries are just a few names of public figures that supported the campaign. Around the same time, an international petition has gone around the world, #Yemencantwait, directed at President Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May and President Macron. Signatories are public figures from the entertainment industry (such as Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Rampling, Angelique Kidjo, and Peter Gabriel), the media, sports, business leaders, religious leaders, lawyers and many more.

I  went to Yemen at the end of 1991 as a development worker, and fell in love with the country and its people. The mesmerizing architecture, the hospitality and authenticity of the Yemeni population, and the beautiful landscapes are unforgettable. Yet, in the past 26 years I also witnessed the many changes and turbulent recent history that the country went through. I have seen the situation deteriorate, but I never expected that the country would become a warzone in which more than 10.000 people have been killed, 3 million have been internally displaced and 80 per cent is in need of humanitarian aid, not to speak of the damage done to schools, hospitals, roads, ports, and cultural heritage. The current war has a long background, which is too complicated to explain in a blog, but I want to say a few things about it.

First of all, it is not a religious war between Sunnis and Shi’ites. The war has its roots in long-standing political tensions and conflicts between various parties in Yemen and beyond. Secondly, the unprecedented explosion of violence is due to the involvement of Saudi Arabia, which tries to increase its influence in the region. Third, the international community and especially the USA, France and the UK have great political and economic interests in supporting the Saudi Led Coalition, not in the least because of the interests of the arms industry.

One of the main reasons that the situation in Yemen has exploded is the fact that Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978, who was forced to step down in 2011 after 33 years of presidency, was allowed to stay in the country and received amnesty for all his crimes against the Yemeni population during his presidency and especially during the Yemeni episode of Arab Spring, during which many people who demonstrated peacefully were killed. Behind the scenes Ali Abdullah Saleh has been sabotaging the National Dialogue in which the most important political parties and social movements, of youth and women, were preparing a new constitution for Yemen. He struck a deal with the Houthis, a group he had been fighting against for years, and hoped that in this way he himself, or his son, could get back in power.

The Houthis are a minority group of Shi’ites who had been ruling Yemen during the Imamate (Yemen was for centuries ruled by an Imam, who was both religious and political leader), and who felt marginalized politically and economically since that regime ended. They made use of the Arab Spring upheaval to increase their power, and could never have achieved their military successes without the support of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The alliance broke early December 2017 when Ali Abdullah Saleh suddenly turned against the Houthis and said that he was willing to negotiate with Saudi Arabia to end the war. The fighting that subsequently broke out in Sana’a was unprecedented and led to the killing of Saleh on December 4. The end of Yemen’s war is now further away than ever, and the disastrous situation in the country has deteriorated to such an extent that some predict a Somali-like civil war which will continue for decades.

Here I come back to the discussion on how to do research when fieldwork is not possible? One of the strategies I used is to shift the geographical focus of my work from Yemen to a neighbouring country, namely to Ethiopia. I studied migrant domestic workers in Yemen, many of whom are Somali or Ethiopian. While I collected my main body of data in Yemen, mainly by interviewing migrant domestic workers, I also went to Ethiopia to interview family members about their daughter/sister/wife’s migration, and later to follow women who had returned from Yemen and study the impact of migration on their lives back home (and/or their new migration aspirations). While very few young women still migrate to Yemen, the number of Ethiopian men who come to Yemen has increased a lot despite the war, and maybe even as a result of the war. In 2016 more than 100.000 Ethiopians arrived in Yemen hoping to travel on to Saudi Arabia. In the same year more than 150.000 Yemenis fled Yemen and sought refuge in neighbouring countries (Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan).

Another way to do research is to move back in time. Historically there have been close relations between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, with substantial migration/population movements from both sides of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In the years that I lived in Yemen I met many people who were of mixed descent and I developed interest in their family histories. I interviewed Ethiopian women who had migrated with their Yemeni husbands to Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s, and their daughters of mixed descent, in order to analyze the impact of migration on gender, work and social status. Hence, by doing historical research it is possible to still contribute to knowledge and understanding about development in, around, and affecting Yemen, without having to travel to areas where one’s safety is constantly at risk.

And then, last but not least, doing engaged anthropology, which we could also call valorization if we want to use a fashionable word, or dissemination of research results to a wider audience. Speaking to the media is just one way of breaking the silence. Writing blogs, posting articles about Yemen on Facebook, and giving lectures to lay people are some of the other ways in which I try to get attention for Yemen. In our department we have made “engaged anthropology” one of our flagship maxims. We are all convinced of the importance of an anthropological perspective on societal issues and believe that this knowledge can make a difference for our own societies and for the people we study. Instead of generalizations, we shed light on the (daily) lives of individual people and show how their lives are. We tell the story behind statistical numbers, which do not need to be wrong but, in our opinion, do not show the picture that is necessary to understand the phenomenon better. Yet, in addition to that, we want to do research that benefits those people we study. We hope to improve their living conditions, support their struggles, assist them in their efforts to change their lives and share our insights with them, so that the knowledge that we generate contributes to a better world.


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