Friday, August 3, 2007
You are right about your assumptions and inquiries regarding the masjid’s role in civil society. You are also right about your observation of the state’s systematic incursion into the last sanctuary of free speech and liberty in the Arab world—the masjid. You are also right about the fact that the “appointed” imam’s Kutba at the Tahrir Squire was un-intending to communal issues, thus triggering your legitimate labeling of the state’s behavior as undermining the ‘civic’ nature of these communities.
In the midst of these upright assumptions, we should address your two main points of inquiry: the place of the masjid in civil society, and the repercussions of removing the traditional role of imams in these societies.
Regarding the first point, we have to acknowledge the current Western liberal interests in making civil society the paradigmatic way of thinking about democracy and good governance. At the same time, we have to address a theoretical issue created by this sudden interest in implementing the notion of civil society into the social fabric of developing countries. The issue is that if the concept of civil society is to be successful in the Arab and Muslim world, it has to include fully most dynamic associational life without leaving out major socio-religious institutions. Only then, can the concept of civil society be a legitimate tool for recognizing groups and associations and addressing their issues and interests in the context of a sustainable democracy.
The implication of this theoretical point is that although civil society, by all Western liberal accounts, means the realm of voluntary, independent and autonomous associations in the public sphere between the family and the state, the current working conception/ definition of the term , in which the world’s assistance policy is based, does not include religious institutions, or what is generally termed as “ascriptive associations”. This means in the context of the Muslim world, masjids, which are the core of associational life are outside the periphery of civil society.
I think this raises the question of the legitimacy of the term civil society in Muslim societies, because the main socio-religious institution—the masjid that represents most of associational life, is excluded from the constituency and membership due to the narrowing of the scope of civil society. I should say that this narrowing of the definition of civil society has no base in the Western experience of civil society. It is rather the product of the neo-Tocquevillianism, especially, Robert Putnam’s book on Italy, Making Democracy Work. In this book, he argues that primary grouping, i.e., bloodlines and religious groups, are weak ties in sustaining community cohesion and collective action. Likewise, religious institutions have hindering factors on the existence of civil society. American social scientists of the Clinton years picked up his argument and used it as the blue print for international institutions and multilateral donors. However, if one travels across the Middle East, she will clearly see that Putnam’s assertion has no frame of reference in these regions. As you have seen in Yemen when we traveled to Hadhramout, Manakha, and Kawkeban that the state has a limited presence outside Sana’a. The only sign of social cohesion and communal life is the tribe and the masjid.
In reality, Alexis De Tocqueville, father of the modern conception of civil society, has argued well in his book, Democracy in America, that religious institutions, especially the church, were at the center of good governance and the making of American democracy. If religious institutions were good for America in the 18th century, we should assume they have the same task for the 21 century. De Tocqueville supported his assertion by discussing the major tasks of these religious: they pursuit communal interests, serve equalitarian ideas and represent an alternative form of governance. Aren’t these the same tasks of masjid in Yemen, and throughout the region?
In addition to these noble tasks of the mosque, Yemeni mosques serve as a buffer-zone between individuals of small tribe affiliation or minorities group and the state bureaucracy. In Yemen, if a citizen has a problem with the state bureaucracy, he has to use the tribal affiliation to bargain with the state. If he is from a small tribe or a minority group, such as the Akhdam community, his only hope is the masjid. When I was working with Ella on profiling Yahya Sharafi (Ella’s article is on the blog), we found that the Ministry of Petroleum put him in a precautionary prison because he often goes from masjid to another talking to imams and congregations about his grievances against the Ministry.
I hope this brief survey clarifies my support for the institution of mosque, in this regard all religious institutions, to be admitted into the constituency of civil society. The fascination of IMF, USAID and NDI with NGOs as the sole legitimate representation of civil society does not help consolidate communal values, social participation and individual responsibility, which are at the center of the masjid’s functions.
As I saw in Egypt, Morocco and, to some extent, the Sudan, most NGOs display little interest in promoting these social values. They are replacing communal participation with advocacy politics. In a different sense, they are eradicating traditional values of solidarity and individual responsibility through their exclusive focus on procedural democracy. The mosque’s role centers on social connectedness and communal solidarity that prioritize group interest over individual ones. In the masjd’s community, individuals act out of moral pressure and social responsibility to support the welfare of the community or to oppose the tyranny of the state bureaucracy. If we are to look for the greater good for a sustainable democracy, NGOs should not be supported at the expense of the masjid.
For you second point, it is a sad story. The concept of “civil” in the Arab and Muslim history has a long connotation with the institution of the masjid and its imam. Al-jahiz, has used the masjid in his Bayan wa-t-tabyin as a symbol of change and progress, where both imams and individuals express new ideas, and protest against the old ones. Ibn Khaldun, in the Muqadima, expresses the dialectical relationship between the two live styles of haDar ‘civil’ and badwu ‘Bedouin’. The former he argues is the source of progress and stability, while the latter is the source of backward thinking and destabilization. Ibn Khaldoun’s views go back to the earlier writers such as As-shahrastani in his Milal wa-n-nihal, and Al-jahiz in his many works. They both considered the difference between the two life styles embodied in the fact that that one evolves from a mosque community, while the other is unable to set its sphere due to the absence of a mosque community. The common point in these classic works is that communities developed around mosques, where high cultures and civility are protected. Forces outside the mosque, whether from the ‘palaces’ or the ‘Sahara’, have often been a symbol of destruction and fitna.
What has been happening with the ‘appointed’ imams is the destruction of the community that evolves around the institutions of the mosque. As you have described it well, the ‘appointed imam acts like a bureaucrat,’ who is paid to do his job with little or no interest to ‘indigenous, community’s needs. If you noticed at the Friday prayer at the Tahrir mosque, only a couple of people came to congratulate the imam after the prayer, and the mosque was empty within five minutes following the service. Unlike the other mosques, where we had to wait in line to get into the imam, where a sense of community bosomed after the service as people congratulated one another, exchanged wishes and inviting others to mid-day meals. The imam symbolizes this belonging to the community, he is at the center of communal affairs.
When I was an undergrad. I took a course in Islamic Jurisprudence and Popular Culture. The professor was a Sudanese of Darfurian background. A tall gentlemen with an eternal smile on his face. A mastermind of classical Arabic, with a golden rule in his lectures “if you cannot speak the language correctly, you should not bother to speak in my class.” The argument of the class was that ordinary Muslims do not take their religious views from the five main schools of Islamic jurisprudence/ figh. They rather deal with the imam, who often uses common sense to offer edicts rather than discriminating for a particular school of thought. Since I was one of the ardent critiques of his argument, he encouraged me to travel across communities and find out. That summer I traveled from Port Sudan, that is East of Sudan, to Uswan, Southern Egypt. I visited 38 or 39 mosques, I don’t recall the exact number. What I learned was that my Professor was right, as I talked to individuals and imams, I found out that the latter is the protector of ‘the religion and community,’ the community act rationally by depending wholly on the imam’s judgment.
The relevance of this story is that, ‘appointed’ imams destroy the cohesiveness of a community by alienating themselves from the congregation and the local community. Thus creating a décalage in worshipers’ lives. As a result, many community members, especially, the youth look for ‘cyber imams’ and ‘online communities’ in faraway places. The danger here is that these faraway imams and communities do not address local issues or communal interests. They often espouse global agenda and regional tasks, which often put them at the quagmire of regional politics.
Herein lies the demise of the ‘civic’ mission of the masjid. The masjid becomes another bureaucratic institution, where the ‘appointed’ imam comes and goes, repeating his ‘stamped’ khutba, and where community members feel violated by the ever escalating state bureacracy.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 8/03/2007 07:26:00 AM
Monday, July 30, 2007
(from left to right: member of The Children's Parliament, employee at Democracy School, member of The Children's Parliament)
Yesterday, the 29th of July I traveled to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior with the Children’s Parliament and Democracy School Director, Dr. Jamal. The purpose of both meetings was to ask questions concerning specific youth in prisons and how the police conduct arrests in Sana’a. The number of boys and girls in attendance was equal with approximately 20 youth in total.
After a series of round table introductions in the Ministry of Justice, several members of the Children’s Parliament stated the purpose of the meeting and engaged the Minister in open dialogue concerning one youth in a prison that we visited a few days earlier. During this discussion, I witnessed the minister jotting down note, which he would later use as a reference point in his answers. Also, two media cameras continued to circle the table throughout the entire meeting. Personally, I was surprised that the cameraman did not serve as a distraction to the children, most of whom were only in high school or younger. However, the youth remained focused on the task at hand, having the minister answer each and every question they posed. The minister responded to the questions in approximately 30 minutes as the students wrote down notes; the pen and paper provided by the ministry. Since there was no translator I am not positive on the content of the questions and answers, but I could see that the youth were not completely content with the answers provided.
Overall, both meetings took place in very formal settings. The children were seated at a long table and the minister sat at the head of the table in a suit. There was a visible, physical distance between the youth and the minister, but also a distance between the questions asked and the answers provided. It appeared that every answer by the minister simultaneously provoked another set of varying questions. Since each meeting only lasted only an hour not every question could possibly be answered.
Even though the youth may have been expecting more out of the two visits, I was very impressed by the way they handled themselves and the opportunities granted to them by the Democracy School. As far as I am aware, there is no group similar to the Children’s Parliament in the United States. These chosen youth representatives routinely attend government functions, discuss controversial issues, and all the while maintain stellar grades in school. During my stay in Yemen I have seen several films and newspapers documenting human right’s violations. However, I strongly believe that the youth in the Children’s Parliament will one-day become the leaders of this country and not address these problems through merely words, but fix them.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/30/2007 12:39:00 AM
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Here is Professor Lo with yet another Imam, this one the Imam of Masjid Meidan Tahrir (Tahrir or Independence Square). Meidan Tahrir is the area where both our Arabic school and hotel (Hotel Hilltown) reside and so, naturally, we Duke Engagers often spend a lot of time in this area. That being said, I knew nothing about this Masjid until Professor Lo recommended it for his last Friday prayer in Yemen.
This is the first Masjid that I visited in Yemen that is 100% government. Masjid as-Shuhada is independent of the government having been financed by and run by Egyptians, while Masjid al-Kabeer, though following the Yemeni law that only State appointed Kaatibs can give the Friday sermon instead of the Imam as traditional in Muslim societies, is much older than the state itself, having been built by the second Caliph, Umar around 1400 years ago. Masjid Meidan Tahrir was built by the government and is essentially a municipal utility, like roads or rest areas in the U.S.
From afar, the Masjid appears to be a mass of bleached domes exuding, in the very blunt way of government construction world-wide, the purpose of the building. Professor Lo and I were actually late for this prayer, so we sprinted across Meidan Tahrir as the Kutba (Friday sermon) blared across the Mosque loudspeakers. We entered the Masjid and passed through the masses of droopy eyed congregants as we approached the front of the Masjid, where the Imam and the State appointed Kaatib resided.
The difference between Meidan Tahrir and the other two Masjids that I visited was palpable. While the Imam of Masjid as-Shuhada seemed to electrify the very air around his congregants with his impassioned and impressive oratory skills and the Kaatib of Masjid al-Kabeer managed to at least pique their interest with his interesting, if decidedly neutered speech, the Kaatib of Masjid Meidan Tahrir made his congregants fight for consciousness with what appears to have been a soporific sermon. Of course, I couldn’t actually understand the actually kutba, as it was in Arabic, so this is merely conjecture on my part.
I couldn’t help thinking, while I pretended to listen to the kutba, what the position of such a Masjid was in the civil society of Yemen, or whether there even was a position for it in the civil society. Most Masjids that I have been to in my life are reflexive of the societies in which they live. They are usually paid for by local funds, run by and Imam who lives in, is heavily involved with, and delivers kutbas that have at least some relevance for the local community, and shaped by the different demographics that make up the community itself. A Masjid is like water in a sense: it takes the shape of whatever its container (a.e. its community) takes. Though the nature of the debate in a Masjid may often times involve international issues, the Masjid is essentially a very parochial institution.
To be honest, I found Masjid Meidan Tahrir a little disconcerting. Built and controlled by the Yemeni government, the Masjid felt like the incursion of a foreign power (the State) into the affairs of a local area. Admittedly, part of my discomfort can be because of my natural anti-authoritarian mindset, my distrust of the Yemeni government in general, or even because the experience of visiting Masjid Meidan Tahrir was eerily reminiscent of going to the DMV back home. However, I remember the Masjids I have seen in my life and I wonder if the administrators of this Masjid really have the needs of its community, the community of Meidan Tahrir, at its heart. The State Kaatib travels through communities and gives the speeches that the State pays him to give and then leaves, never permanently attaching himself to a community. The Imam leads the prayers, but has no real administrative or influential role in the community, reducing this traditionally crucial position to essentially that of a minor bureaucrat. What then, if any, purpose will an Imam and the institution of the Masjid have in Sana’a’s civil society, and that of any other area of the Muslim world where such a policy is enacted?
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/25/2007 09:52:00 PM
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Yesterday, Isabel and I accompanied the Democracy School and several Children Parliament members to three juvenile centers in Sana’a. Our trip was documented by Al-Jazeera for Children and only the cameraman was allowed to take photos inside the centers’ walls. On the way to the first juvenile center, one of my fellow employees from the Democracy School cautioned me to speak and take notes only in Arabic while inside the holding cells. This disclaimer was necessary because the center’s guards would not be fond of foreigners coming in and documenting everything, only to be written about later. I was also handed a survey with questions to ask the children, but I had already prepared many questions of my own that I wanted to be answered. Thus, I left the survey for the Children Parliament members to ask and went on to record the answers to my different questions. In order to write this post I am translating my Arabic notes back into English. Also, all information is directly from the mouths’ of the Yemeni children inside the three juvenile centers.
Before discussing my experiences inside the juvenile centers I first want to clarify how these centers differ from prisons. The juvenile centers only hold children temporarily until the verdict of their case has been rendered. However, based on my interviews this temporary timeframe may last as short as a week or as long as a year.
The first juvenile center was a short drive by bus from the Democracy School. This center cared for 30 Yemeni youth ranging in age from 15 to 18 years old. All 30 children were housed in one room. This room served as both the sleeping area, the walls lined with pillows, and eating area. Before speaking to any children in the holding room, one leading member of children’s parliament alerted the juveniles of our purpose and what organization we represented. Also, newspapers printed by the Democracy School were distributed to every child to read. According to my interviews with the youth here, their lives appeared very regimented. Every child woke up at 9:00a.m. and went to sleep by 10:00p.m. Three meals were served in a day and there was no time set aside for football or other games. The first youth I spoke with, whose name will remain anonymous, had been in the center for one month. Before being charged with a crime, he was a student in Sana’a. His brothers and sisters no longer live in Sana’a and his parents have both passed away; he is only 16 years old.
The second youth I sat down with was 16 years old and had been in the center for six months. Unlike the first case, his father, mother, and brothers all live in Sana’a. Thus, he at least has the opportunity to have guests on a regular basis, or know that there are people supporting his release from the outside. This interview, however, was cut short due to time constraints in the holding room. Upon leaving the center I asked if I could come back and speak with the children for a duration longer than 20 minutes. The Democracy School representative said that would unfortunately not be possible.
The third juvenile center resembled more of a prison than the first two juvenile centers. Several windows were blocked out with rusting, metal plates. Thus, sunlight was prevented from going through the hallway down to the holding cell. Also, the atmosphere was completely different than my two prior visits. The guards from the third center were very strict about our entrance and would not accept anything less than verbal authorization (our printed authorization was not valid in their eyes). Once acquiring authorization to enter, we were led into a small room and every door leading out was locked behind us. Thus, the only way to go was into hall leading down to the holding cell. The room resembled the other two holding cells, except this one had several bunk beds positioned on one side. Although the room appeared dreary it was truly a remarkable sight to see the children’s parliament interacting with the Yemeni juveniles. After a few minutes all the surveys were filled out and the cooperation on both sides of the coin was mutual. The juveniles knew that the Democracy School would try to further research into their charges to see whether or not they were valid.
I was not able to go to the fourth juvenile center because of Arabic class but I went to another juvenile center today with the Democracy School. According to one of the employees at my NGO, this juvenile center has teachers to instruct the students and also sets aside time for games and other fun activities. Either way, a holding cell is a holding cell and the fact that many children may have been convicted on false accusations is disturbing.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/24/2007 12:28:00 PM
Monday, July 23, 2007
Over the past couple of weeks I have become closely acquainted with a group
of young women in Sana'a, Yemen. These young women happen to be of a
community of minorities here in Yemen colloquially known as "akdam." By
spending numerous hours speaking with them and members of their community,
it became quite clear that this Yemeni racial minority faces problems of
discrimination and socioeconomic inequality that black Americans have fought
against and continue to tackle to this day. This discrimination, like in
America, leads to social disparities that can most easily be seen through
examining the members of the work force. The professional jobs as doctors,
lawyers, and even secretaries, in various offices are filled mostly by the
high class high school and university graduates. The majority of the
thousands of shops and market stalls are owned and operated by the "lighter
skinned" Yemenis—only a handful are owned or worked by the racial "akdam."
The "akdam" are treated as second class citizens and instead, fill the
majority of continuous street cleaning jobs. Though statistics are vague, if
even available, it is apparent that unemployment also runs rampant through
Accompanying these inequalities, the majority of Sana'anians hold a harmful
set of stereotypes towards these people that perpetuate and entrench the
social ramifications of discrimination, isolation, and repression. In
addition, in Yemen, due to social norms it is especially difficult for women
to advance independently. Thus, not only do the young women of the "akdam"
community have to overcome the stereotypes pinned on them for being
minorities, but they also have to overcome the universal struggle of being a
woman in Yemen.
Though these social troubles exist, there are also ways in order to overcome
some of the stereotypes that work against these women. It is my opinion
that the most powerful tool against this discrimination is education. With
education these women can gain self confidence in everyday life and
marketability in the workplace. One of the most valuable educational skills
here in Yemen is a working knowledge of the English language. I understand
that the reason that English is so important in the world is because of
America's overbearing cultural hegemony and the possibility to find an
untainted culture is shrinking faster each day. However, I also know that
with all odds working against them, it is the least I can do to give these
women and head start in forging their own way by teaching them an
increasingly valuable skill and tool: English. Though we have been working
on these lessons for the past month and, despite the stereotypes of laziness
and unintelligence, this class of about 16 has been learning faster than any
class I've taught, I realize that my time in Yemen is coming to a close. Not
having used any formal textbooks, the classes were useful and practical, yet
when I'm gone, these women will have no way to continue.
Therefore, I have taken a shift in priority from covering material in useful
doses to setting up a structure and providing them with the materials
(books, notebooks, writing utensils, etc…) necessary for a couple of the
more advanced students to continue the lessons and satisfy the ladies'
thirst for knowledge. Inshallah (God willing), I will be successful in at
Since the third week I was here, I have spent virtually all of my free time
with these girls and have seen them grow in courage in their knowledge from
the time we first met until now. We have bonded not only as friends, but as
sisters. I feel like I have helped them marginally by giving them a useful
skill that I possess, but they have helped me even more. I have rarely in
my life felt more appreciated for who I am than with these young women. They
have opened their home to me, fed me, showed me how to dress like a Yemenia
and pray like a Muslim. They have let me into their personal experiences,
sharing stories or pain and happiness, engagement parties, shopping, and
sleepovers. They have made sacrifices to their daily standard of life to
make me feel comfortable and accepted. I have grown to love these young
women and girls dearly and will miss them more than any experience I've had
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/23/2007 08:33:00 AM
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Ah Anees, everyone’s favorite Yemeni based Cheetos knockoff brand. Anees is essentially identical to the Puffy Cheetos snack so familiar to Americans with its cornalicious flavor and its Dangerously’ (at least for your heart, colon, and cholesterol level) Cheesy flavor, though while Cheetos is saturated in and practically oozing with their much vaunted cheese flavored slime, Anees is actually only lightly brushed with a smattering of that same flavor. The snack is relatively popular here and sold in many of the little roadside stands that dot the corners of Sana’a’s streets for approximately five U.S. cents.
Two of its more unlikely fans are apparently Bert and Ernie, stars of the American television series Sesame Street, and the spokesmen for Anees in Yemen, if their pictures on the cover are any indication. The first problem with this endorsement is, of course, that Bert and Ernie are puppets and therefore unable to verify the quality of food. But then the American advertising market is flooded with tigers hawking sweetened corn flakes, elves selling cookies, polar bears selling coke, mermaids selling tuna, giants selling vegetables, and even anthropomorphic peanuts selling their own kind, so perhaps a little suspension of disbelief is appropriate in this situation.
The second problem is, of course, that this is an illegal appropriation of copyrighted American intellectual property and not sanctioned or most likely even known about by Sesame Street. Copyright infringement is common enough in most developing countries, both because local entrepreneurs see the opportunity in copying and undercutting the cost of already popular products and because local governments usually lack the resources and/or the motivation to crack down on violators. For one thing, such violators stimulate local economies by providing jobs and infrastructure. It is significant to note that while the vast majority of goods I’ve encountered in Yemen have been foreign exports from China, South Korea, Japan, or Malaysia, Anees is the first packaged product that I’ve seen to have actually been made in Yemen. Yemen is a developing country that suffers from a dearth of foreign and domestic investment due to the government’s rampant corruption, Byzantine bureaucratic system for starting up a business, perennial energy crisis, and of course the plethora of cheaper and safer alternatives around the world, such as China, South Korea, or Malaysia from whom the Yemeni buy most of their manufactured goods.
Enforcing copyright laws in Yemen would only serve to drive out one of the rare surviving Yemeni factories and result in lost jobs, tax money, and bribe money for officials. China, currently the fastest growing large economy in the world, has a similar and much publicized problem with piracy. Ted Fishman says in his book China Inc. that contrary to the stance of the central government, local Chinese officials often turn a blind eye to, or even encourage local counterfeiting industries, the products of which circulate throughout China and are even exported around the world including, most likely, Yemen. (Fishman 238)
Even China though, is a member of the World Trade Organization and so copyright infringement is technically illegal in the country. However half-hearted the government’s attempts to enforce compliance with international law may be, some action is taken, and the occasional flagrant violator is caught.
Yemen, on the other hand, is not a member of the World Trade Organization (though it is petitioning for membership) and therefore not legally obligated to respect copyrights at all, and while Carratu International , a leading British corporate investigations firm focusing on the violation of international copyrights, states that around 9% of world trade today is counterfeit, that number is most likely significantly higher in Yemen. (Fishman 235) While Bert and Ernie sell lightly cheese flavored snacks on the streets, Spider-man hawks roller skates, Mickey Mouse sells genuine Yemeni honey, and Pikachu really wants you to buy your ice-cream from that particular store. Street vendors here sell Folexs, and fake Folexs, Versace sunglass knockoffs, shoes that may or may not be Pumas for a tenth the U.S. price, and what are essentially Chinese imitations of Japanese electronics. Perhaps one of the most bizarre examples of copyright infringement that I’ve seen so far are WinShoes XP 2007, a shoe company that uses the Windows computer logo, and that, presumably, runs about as fast as and crashes about as often as its namesake. So far, I’ve chosen to wait for some Mac shoes.
U.S. and Bollywood movies are also a big hit. You can get an internet cd burn for a dollar, or you can go to the somewhat wealthier area of hada street and purchase DVDs about equal to U.S. quality, even movies that have just arrived in theaters recently such the new Fantastic Four and Transformers movies, and some that, technically, aren’t even in theaters yet. Presumably, this is part of the 8 billion dollars that Hollywood claims it is losing yearly worldwide due to movie piracy. Currently Hollywood and American drug companies are the staunchest supporters of keeping adherence to international copyright laws a requirement for membership in the World Trade Organization.
Yemen is currently petitioning to become a member of the World Trade Organization, hoping that membership will help to bolster investment in the country. But is it really worth it? The biggest barrier to international trade and investment in Yemen is not a lack of trade negotiations, but once again the nations crippling corruption, crushing bureaucracy, lack of infrastructure, and the great number of better international alternatives. Would being a member of the World Trade Organization help all that much? The downside of membership, as protestors in Washington D.C. yearly shout behind handmade signs with somewhat pithy slogans, is that membership would require the government to crack down on cheaper pirated goods.
The people of Yemen live in what is easily one of the poorest countries in the world. Not only would adherence to copyright laws destroy many local businesses like Anees, it would force Yemeni’s to pay much higher prices for everyday goods, thereby drastically decreasing their standard of living. In a country where a decent yearly salary is $1400 U.S. dollars, paying legal prices for non-pirated goods would seriously cut into the cost of living.
To give you an idea of just how much, consider that while new Playstation 2 video games cost around $50 in the U.S are about $2.50 here. DVDs are around $1.50, a large, sturdily built suitcase by “Polo Classio” can be bought for around $25, sports jerseys are about $5, books are, as a general rule, around a tenth the U.S. price, and bags of chip like snacks are around 5 cents. Legal international goods in Yemen, on the other hand, cost around the same as their U.S. counterpart. Some are sold everywhere, such as a can of Coca-Cola which is around 30 cents, and a candy bar, which is around 50 cents (ten bags of Anees). Others are sold in specialized Super markets catering to the Yemeni upperclass. Here, we find our real Cheetos for ten times the price of Anees, a box of Frosted Flakes cereal for the price of four full Yemeni restaurant dinners or three DVDs, or a wedge of Dutch cheese for around the price of five full roast chickens in Yemen plus ten salads and 10 cups of tea. Currently, these exorbitant prices are paid by wealthy and upper middle class Yemenis who essentially form the same niche as U.S. consumers who only shop at organic food stores.
Though the benefits of international trade are considerable, they take a while to manifest and are by no means certain, while the poverty caused by increased prices are immediate, devastating, and highly unpopular. I wonder if Yemen, a country that has consistently poled as favoring stability with stagnation over progress with a drop in the standard of living would be willing to accept such a trade off. (Yemenis have poled as preferring an existing in power leader, like Ali Abdullah Saleh, if there is a chance he can be reformed over a new, untested leader, and they prefer to keep oil subsidies, even though it wastes the economic potential of Yemen’s greatest natural resource) Most likely the government will try to avoid enforcing copyright laws as much as they can as China has done. However, lacking the economic clout of China as well as its propensity for fast economic development, the Yemen government may not be up to the task of juggling international scrutiny and domestic outcry. The economic future of Yemen is, like much of the rest of the country, up in the air. The trade off between initial standard of living and international trade is the cost of doing business, though not one that the Yemeni people may be willing to pay.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/22/2007 08:36:00 PM