By Francis Baril
Having some knowledge about Yemen after having traveled there and accompanied “Nouvelles Frontières” groups for ten years and having worked there for 3 years as a teacher in the French department at the University of Dhamar, I never understood why so little was known about Yemen and why it was so badly portrayed in the international public opinion.
Of course, the United States has considered it for many years as one of the hotspots of terrorism. But long before that, when I started coming to Yemen in the 90s, att best people did not know where this country was located, at worst they had the image of a closed and wild country, where people used to kidnap tourists. This image still persists, there is not an article in the Western press that ends without this reminder. Only a few friends who had traveled to North Yemen (note: until 1990, Yemen was divided between the North and the South) in the 70s – South Yemen was then closed to tourists – were talking to me about it with such enthusiasm that it made me want to come.
And it was love at first sight. So I traveled a lot in this Arabia Felix, from north to south, east to west, from Saada to Aden and Socotra, from Tarim to Hodeidah, from Harraz to the Rub Al Khali, from Mareb to Shahare, and always by car never by plane. My passion for this country has never wavered, and the people I brought on trips to Yemen have all been subjected to this same spell, this same passion, all telling me that they did not know any country as beautiful among all those they had already visited.
It is a country of breathtaking landscapes: you ought to walk around Al-Mahweet, for example: at every turn of the path, lie before you these countless rocky peaks topped by a village of a stunning architecture, unique in the world. The view of the Old City of Sana’a, day and night, leaves speechless all those tourists who just landed in Yemen. You also ought to spend a few days in the soothing tranquility of the Moka Marine hotel’s bungalows, in Khokha by the Red Sea, or to be at 7am in the fish market of Hodeidah’s port, with its colorful boats. The list of these places where you would like to stay longer is endless. Writing this, so many pictures come back to my mind and the emotion overtakes me.
Added to this, and this is one of the reasons of my love for this country, is the warm, simple and natural welcome of Yemenis, with whom one feels immediately at ease. I lived 3 years in an individual house, harat Al Tabari, on the edge of the Saila, and I was feeking like from the neighborhood. I was doing my shopping in the small shops, I was eating in the small restaurants, I was going to the hammam every week, I was having tea at the edge of Saila, I was often walking through the Old City, in the souq, I was moving around in dabbab, sometimes in taxis or motorcycle; I loved the motorcycle and the freedom it gives. I still remember myself in the bus that the University of Dhamar was chartering for teachers who were coming from Sana’a, which was picking me up on Saturday at 6am at Bab Al Sabah and was making me go around Sana’a still asleep. I will never forget these moments. Nor shall I forget these moments of waiting for the dabbab of Taiz street that was taking me to Dhamar to be full.
How also could I forget these male and female students, in much bigger numbers, eager to discover this French language that they called “the language of the birds” and with whom I spent these three years of teaching: the literature classes, the breaks in the cafeteria, the discussions around the final year dissertation.
However, I did not manage to learn Arabic beyond the few words necessary for daily life, it is a regret and I’m trying to fill this gap by taking classes since my return to France. I did not manage to chew qat either, and here, I’m not trying to fill this gap! But I could tell you about the countless afternoons of discussion at Aziz’s, with my friends and colleagues from Dhamar, where I was surrounded by the smoke of cigarettes or shisha, around his delicious teas, listening to these endless bilingual conversations (Arabic/French), whose tone was gradually lowering as the afternoon was passing and the qat doing its effect.
Yemen is all this for me, and I am furious to read or hear all these stereotypes, these summaries about a country that so few know, and certainly not, with a few exceptions, our diplomats or other manufacturers who only leave their bunkerised homes to go to work or to an expat reception, and who completely miss out on this so beautiful country.
Having left the country for 4 years, I only dream of one thing: to go back! I do not know if the current political events will one day give me this opportunity. It is true that I do not have direct news anymore. Apart from La Voix du Yémen whose activity is more and more reserved, I only hear about Yemen through the international media who continue to spread the stereotypes of Yemen with “its weapons twice as numerous as its people” or “its dangerous capital and its kidnappings of westerners.” Here is how starts, for example, a recent report broadcast on television. I get enraged me to still hear these simplistic and continuously conveyed clichés.
Francis Baril is a French language teacher who has lived and worked in Yemen from 2006 to 2009, before leaving the country in 2010.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect La Voix du Yémen’s editorial policy.Français