First things first: I want you to stop trusting the news. And I definitely want you to stop trusting any article that doesn’t end with “Jane Q Awesomesauce reported from Sana’a (or, in rare cases, Taiz, Lahj, etc.).” Because I went to the protests. And I still don’t have a goddamn clue. Yemen is like an infinite onion; there’s always another layer. But at some point, it’s time to stop reading the news.
My Arabic teacher took me on a field trip to the anti-government sit-in/rally. He’s been an invaluable resource in understanding what’s going on in the country. And I’ve watched his perspective change over the last month: at first, he agreed with me when I suggested that the fall of the Yemeni government would benefit no one, including Yemenis. But gradually, I’ve seen his support for the popular protests grow. I’ve seen him speaking the language of change.
Our taxi drove us in circles; the government has blocked a lot of the roads, so we paid a little extra to get right near the protests. A few armed men looked us over as we approached the University, sauntering around near blue-and-white police cars, but they didn’t bother us. For which I was extremely grateful– I had a video camera with me, and a journalist friend told me that some reporters had had their equipment smashed. The student guards, however, asked us a few questions.
“Is this one with you?” One of the young man asked my teacher, nodding towards me. The student guards are anti-government protesters there to make sure that pro-Saleh supporters don’t enter the sit-ins. With big guns. And they look very serious. I read in the Yemeni press today that the student guards in Taiz had stopped a man with a silencer. “Is she a journalist?” the young man continued.
“I’m not a journalist,” I told him (in Arabic). “I live in Sana’a. I wanted to see the protests. But I have a camera.” They waved us through without patting me down. They must not have had any lady patter-downers working that day.
The sit-in was a bit reminiscent of a street fair. Tents took up at least a 4-block square radius, plastered with slogans and signs advertising just who the tents were for. University professors and tribes were both represented, among others. An earnest, thin young man with a long face and a long white thoub came over several times throughout the evening, encouraging me to visit the protestors’ media center. Apparently, they have many resources, including information and translators. That was one of the things that impressed me. Later, I saw a journalist’s center, where young Arab men were sitting around with computers. They looked like they had internet access, though later in the evening, I heard that the government had cut off internet to parts of the city. My internet was out in Haddah (where the oil workers and diplomats live) when I went home that evening.
The protestors have achieved basic organization. In addition to the media center, they’ve got food, water, electricity, and, for better or worse, qat (the ubiquitous national stimulant). You can buy roast corn, shwarma, a Yemeni flag, or an umbrella hat. I’ve always wanted an umbrella hat, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one. But I never did see a toilet, which made me seriously regret the tea and two cups of lemonade I’d drank before going. Before the revolution, always remember to pee.
A wall on one of the streets was plastered with anti-Salih political cartoons. I tried to read a few, but I needed a little more time to digest the arabic. The surrounding tents were plastered with signs in Arabic and English: “We are not sectarian and have no parties: this movement is a youth movement” (in Arabic, that one rhymes, and sounds much nicer.) An older man in traditional dress waved around a wooden cut-out that just said “get out.” And of course, the gem (in English): “Go to the hell, Ali Salih.”
At the center of the protests (honestly, I have no idea where: there’s a big obelisk looking thing that says “Yemen” on it, but I’m a little geographically clueless) there’s a raised platform, where people can make speeches. Young people calling for an end to corruption and tyranny; tribesmen chanting traditional complaint poetry (not totally sure what that is, but I think it’s the traditional poetry used by a tribe to bring it’s grievances to the government– but don’t quote me on that one. Remember the infinite onion).
There were women out too– sitting in a special roped-off section, the vast majority wearing the niqab. But I could see more women’s faces than usual. And kids. Cute kids with facepaint waving tiny Yemeni flags. The protest organizers on the platform had roped in a little boy to give a speech and lead a chant. “Get out, get out. The end of the regime!” One father told me to film his daughter. I told him the light was terrible, so he popped out a cell phone and shined it in her face. She looked terrified. As I was filming a little girl holding a sign above her head (the angle was terrible, and I never did figure out what it said, except for something about the BBC) a little boy strutted up and asked me to film him. “Okay,” I said, and did. He stared unsmiling into the camera.
The protest had a distinct energy, an electricity far removed from the government-issued sticks and free lunches in Tahrir square. And it’s growing. “When I came last week,” my Arabic teacher said, “the tents were over there,” he motioned toward the square. “Now they’re all the way out here.” At one point in the evening, I asked how many protestors (or sit-in-ers) he thought had come. He said he had no idea. He chatted with a young man sitting next to us and they came up with a figure of 30,000. Which might be totally wrong– but remember: it’s just as good as any other number you’re getting.
Yesterday the American government told its citizens to consider leaving Yemen. And honestly, I don’t blame them. We’re not there yet; it’s not time to evacuate. But after visiting the protests, I have a growing sense that things are not dying down. They’re not violent (in Sanaa), but the growing mass of humanity at the University shouldn’t be taken lightly. I get the sense they’re there to stay.
Hopefully, sometime soon, I will post some video. If I can find the stupid cable I need. Stay tuned, and please feel free to comment or ask questions.