Two days ago one of my students went into a small grocery store to buy tissues after class. As she was about to leave, the storekeeper said sharply, “No, stay!” He pointed out the door, and she could see the whole street filled with men on motorcycles, many with masks on their faces, some with the old flag of southern Yemen draped over their shoulders. Down the street came a truck with a soldier on it, swinging his gun and yelling while trying to maintain his balance on the swerving, speeding vehicle. The motorcycle riders headed off down the road, the army truck following. My student was about to go on her way when the storekeeper again stopped her. The government truck came into view, backing up, the protesters on motorcycles chasing it along.
It sounds a little like a farce, a scene from an old British comedy–but what is going on here in this medium-sized Yemeni village is anything but amusing. The day before this motorcycle protest, a government agent was shot and killed in the marketplace. From what I understand, he was not offering any violence to the protesters or attempting to stop them; yet he was murdered, just for being there.
The people of south Yemen overwhelmingly want to break away from northern Yemen, wanting to go back to the socialist/communist government they had before the country united under a democratic government led by Ali Abdullah Saalih. They have many grievances, many of which, honestly, are quite valid; however, splitting the country into two and driving a wedge between the two areas would be a big mistake. One of the tribal elders was quoted in a newspaper saying, “It’s the young people who want this–they don’t know what it was like under communist rule…you would get beaten for wanting to pray, no time off for prayer.”
To a Muslim, such a thing is devastating, as we are commanded to pray five times a
day–and the men are commanded to make these prayers in the masjid. There are numerous sects of Islam practiced here in Yemen–from my house one can hear the calls to prayer from shi’ite masaajid, sufi masaajid, and sunni masaajid. I see the storekeepers close their doors to attend the prayers and there is no law forcing them to do this, no “religious police” patrolling the streets. This makes me think that the old tribal chief was right the young people just don’t understand what it would
really mean to be separate and under communist rule once again.
I have lived in many different regions during the eight years of our residence in Yemen, and I can see why the people are upset. What wealth there is, is unevenly distributed so some people in the capital city are living like kings off of southern oil money, while many more are struggling to get enough food to feed their families each day. The majority of people in the country are desperately poor, making as little
as a dollar or two a day, and it is understandable that they want change, a more even distribution of wealth, a piece of the pie. But a change in leadership will most likely not cause this monumental change to take place. There are too many factors, too much ingrained corruption, too much outside interest in the status quo. The whole
country is in upheaval, from the young college kids in Sana’a, to the Houthi rebels in the north, to the southerners who want their own government. And because of this, my life has been turned upside down.