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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Yemen

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, May 16, 2003
From the Field
York Geoffrey


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Pictures from Yemen

A Yemeni qat seller chews the plant as he packs leaves in plastic bags.
Photo: AFP

A view of Sanaa, Yemen.
Photo: Glen Allison/AFP

Yemenis walk under a campaign billboard in Sanaa.
Photo: Khaled Fazaa/AFP

Trucks covered with pictures of election candidates make their way through the streets of Sanaa.
Photo: Bryant MacDougall/AP


SANAA, Yemen -- The taxi drivers at Yemen's main airport gave me a rowdy welcome. Ever since the murder of three Americans at a Yemeni hospital last December, virtually no tourists have dared to venture to this stunningly beautiful and impoverished Arab country, and the cabbies were excited by the prospect of a few dollars from a rare foreign visitor.

It was 5 p.m. and their nerves had been sharpened by hours of chewing qat, a narcotic leaf from a mountain bush with the same adrenaline-boosting effect as amphetamines. Yemeni men are addicted to the leafy stimulant, and late afternoon is the peak time for qat consumption.

When I walked out of the airport, the cabbies pounced. There was almost a brawl. After much shouting and arguing, they directed me into a battered old taxi. We tried to drive away, but the mob stopped the car, yelled and argued some more, came close to violence, and finally put me into another equally ancient sedan.

It was all a little unnerving. None of the taxi drivers was actually carrying a gun (although men in Yemen's rural districts routinely carry AK-47s when they go out for a walk), but everyone was armed with a jambiya, a ceremonial dagger that Yemeni men wear in their belts.

The airport brawl was a good foreshadowing of Yemen's political scene. Election season was in full swing, the first parliamentary election in six years was about to be held, and emotions were running high.

I've covered elections in a dozen countries around the world, but this was definitely the strangest one I've ever seen. Guns, daggers, narcotics and politics are not a good mix.

To its credit, Yemen does allow more democracy than most other Middle Eastern regimes. Opposition parties are free to hold rallies and campaign against the government, even though they have little chance of winning.

A few days before the election, I asked a local journalist to take me to an election rally. After two days of inquiries, he eventually said he had found a meeting. Off we went, through the back streets of Sanaa, the ancient walled capital with its mud-and-stone "skyscrapers", until we arrived at an unmarked building. I walked into a room and found 20 men slumped incoherently on the floor, heads lolling, chewing qat.

They assured me it was an election meeting. All of the qat-chewers were volunteer workers for a local election candidate. Much of the electioneering in Yemen, they told me, was conducted in exactly this way: in marathon four-hour qat-chewing sessions, where issues were debated, voters were recruited and loyalties were forged.

The next day, on the eve of the election, I finally found two campaign rallies -- one by the governing party and one by the main Islamic opposition party.

In a nation of high illiteracy and low education levels, election rallies are a form of entertainment for the masses. Both meetings began with a satirical skit to ridicule their election rivals. The audiences loved it. It was a mocking form of political theatre that would never be allowed on state television here.

The ruling party presented a skit with men in fake beards, pretending to be mullahs from the opposition party. The mullahs were portrayed as militant, backward, anti-woman and anti-development.

The opposition party had its own skits to mock the government. Men wearing fake bloated bellies pretended to be pro-government politicians, fattened by corruption and greed.

After the skits, there was a short speech by the candidate. But most of the rallies were devoted to political entertainment: skits, songs, poems and flag-waving displays. There was even a posse of horsemen at the ruling party's rally (the horse is the official symbol of the governing party).

On the final day of the election campaign, I drove out to the mountain villages near Sanaa. By then, the campaign was a frenzy of activity. Convoys of trucks and cars were racing through the mountains, each vehicle crowded with mobs of passengers waving flags, pounding drums and singing songs as they tore along the dusty roads.

But it was easy enough to predict that the ruling party would be re-elected. It was hardly a fair contest. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is such a dominant figure that even the opposition rally -- like every other public meeting in Yemen -- was required to display several large portraits of him. Entire mountains were painted with huge portraits of the ruling party's symbol.

On election day, the qat and the guns were a combustible combination. Ten people were killed and 35 wounded in election-day clashes.

A newspaper editor in Sanaa tried to explain it all to me. He said the poverty of the country had often forced Yemenis to make a living by hiring themselves out as fighters and mercenaries. "Yemen was always the battleground for others," he told me. "Yemenis were always the fighters, the heroes. They're still very passionate people. They're warriors. Even when they don't have enough money for dinner, they're proud and arrogant."

If they are warriors, the proof is in the departure lounge of the airport, where ceremonial daggers are cheerfully sold to departing passengers. Apparently in Yemen it is perfectly acceptable to carry a large dagger onto an airplane.

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