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
One of the first weeks in Sana'a, Professor Lo, Andrew, and I came across a traditional Yemeni wedding ceremony while walking through the old city. In Yemen, weddings are divided into men's parties and women's parties. The men's parties are held in the streets and involve singing, dancing, and chewing gat. The celebration is open to all men and western guests are readily welcomed. The groom sits in a throne-esque chair while wedding guests alternate being photographed with the groom while sitting in adjacent chairs. The groom is dressed in his finest clothing, often wearing make-up and carrying a golden sword. The streets are illuminated with strands of light, while loudspeakers blast traditional Yemeni music (in addition to the occasional western song). Dancing starts early in the evening and often lasts until early the next morning.
In contrast, the women's party is a very private event, but much more extravagant. The women all meet in a home or wedding hall for an evening of dance and socializing. They wear extremely flashy clothing, often more lavish than what is seen in the west. Hopefully Isabelle or Ella can follow up with a first hand account of one of these parties.
This photograph shows Professor Lo participating in a traditional Yemeni wedding dance. Andrew and I made a deal with Professor Lo that if he participated in the group dance, we would owe him a similar participation at another Yemeni wedding. Professor Lo argued that Duke students should strive to become Arabists instead of Orientalists. The latter looks into Arab and Muslim cultures from the perspective of the "others", while the former develops an inward approach of the culture. They strive to become a part of the culture, understanding why and how world views are socially and historically constructed. In brief, he argues, "being able to dance with and immerse yourself into a cultural group tells a lot about your psychological readiness to observe continuity and changes within that culture." Hopefully Andrew and I will have a chance to uphold our end of the deal before leaving Yemen.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/22/2007 01:57:00 PM
Son of Dr. Jamal, the director of the Democracy School.
The masterpiece following the drawing contests. As mentioned in my blog, the children drew someone they could trust because you are suppose to speak with a trusted friend if facing abuse.
The children were all smiles throughout the entire day, even off the football field.
This was the tee shirt administered to all of the children before the day began.
Between soccer games and during the workshops, every child was reading the pamphlet on children's rights.
Assembling for my speech before walking over to the playing fields.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/22/2007 09:34:00 AM
Saturday, July 21, 2007
I recently tagged along with Professor Lo as he conducted a workshop on the Challenges and Methodologies of Teaching Arabic. The workshop was organized by two institutions: Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies (CALERS) and Yemen Institute for Arabic Language. About 18 Yemeni professors of Arabic language and Middle Eastern Studies attended the workshop. Professor Lo narrated his journey and experience in teaching and researching on issues related to the Arabic language and culture. He encouraged institutions in Yemen and the Middle East to take the current world interest in Arabic as an opportunity to build cultural bridges and introduce foreign students to the beauty and richness of Arabic and Islamic cultures
He also gave a description of the DukeEngage mission as a cutting edge model of redefining the way and mission of undergraduate students. “We, the Duke Islamic Studies Center will bring our students to the Arab and Muslim world as ambassadors of the Duke community in particular and the American society at large. We want them to observe, learn and share their personal experiences with these societies” he said.
Professor Lo stressed the importance of making the learning process interesting and relevant to a student’s experience. He gave a detailed account of the different reasons that American students have for studying Arabic and suggested that Professors keep in mind the student’s motivations when determining optimal teaching strategies. He argued that unless these motivations are taken into consideration, the process of learning will remain fruitless. Using findings in several surveys, Professor Lo stated that the demand for Arabic language and culture will remain high for at least the next few years, a condition that is both an opportunity and a challenge to those interested in taking the process of teaching the language to a higher level.
In another area, Professor Lo offered a survey of American universities, covering different approaches and methodologies used by different Arabic programs. He argued that diversity is healthy and good for the field, but more research is needed on the acquisition process, heritage speakers, teachers’ preparation and curriculum developments. Most Arabic programs in the United States, he lamented, have trouble moving learners from advanced level to superior.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/21/2007 11:43:00 PM
Today, the 21st of July was the first annual Children’s Soccer Tournament for the Children Parliament Cup. The event was held at a local sporting club offering two, dirt soccer fields within walking distance. There were 6 teams in total with 16 kids on each team, along with a small coaching staff. Each team was provided with T-shirts reading, “Know Your Rights and Protect Them,” in both English and Arabic. The Duke University emblem sits in the upper left corner of the shirt along with “DukeEngage” as the subscript. The Democracy School’s symbol rests in the upper right corner of the shirt. After the children gathered in the gym around 8:40a.m. I was asked to provide a short speech, translated by Professor Lo. In front of the approximately 100 children, all wearing the DukeEngage t-shirts, I described why I came up with this idea and the purpose of the event. Without having prepared a speech beforehand, I said the following:
“Since my stay in Yemen I have attended several workshops discussing children’s rights. However, children were not present at these events. The organizers just addressed the Yemeni Youth in presentations (powerpoints, question and answer sessions, etc). This event is meant for you, the children of Yemen. The information will be placed in your hands directly. I hope you have fun today and I hope you learn something about your rights. I also want you to share with your friends what you have learned today. Thank you.”
Following a short photo session with the children I walked over to the fields with Abdullah, a close friend at Democracy School, and the other Yemeni Youth. On the way over to the fields Abdullah told me an interesting story relative to the tournament’s purpose, alerting children of their rights. He said that on his way to the gym earlier that morning a boy stopped him and asked about the brochures he was carrying. Abdullah explained how the pamphlets were meant to inform children of their rights and what to do if they face any abuse. He then went on to say how there was a football tournament today where the pamphlets would be administered. The child then asked if he could participate, but unfortunately Abdullah explained how all the spots were already full. After hearing the disappointing news the boy then said, “Isn’t it my right to play soccer?” Similar to this child, the Yemeni youth at the tournament and in the workshops quickly gained a grasp on what their rights are in terms of not accepting child abuse, and apparently having the right to play soccer.
After the first round of games all participants were brought back to the initial gym. Here, members of Children’s Parliament and other volunteers from the Democracy School led workshops and films discussing children’s rights. I sat in on both of the films shown, made by the Democracy School, and witnessed the positive reactions of the children. One film presented the children with 10 cases of child abuse while the other cartoon discussed the issue of parental abuse and neglect. After the showing of each film the administrator asked the children what they saw and what they thought about the films. The facilitator then recapped the main message of the viewing. Following the two films the children then rotated with other youth who had been participating in workshops. In the workshops, children parliament members (including the former President) led the children in discussions and readings of the pamphlet and brochure produced by the Democracy School and myself. In addition to the discussions during the workshops, the children parliament members engaged the other children in games. These games included, but were not limited to, writing and drawing contests. For example, at one station the facilitator asked the boys to illustrate what the pamphlet discussed. This included drawing a picture of a person they trusted, because you are suppose to talk to a trustworthy person if you are being abused.
When the workshops finished I sat down with the children before eating lunch, all generously provided by the Democracy School, DukeEngage program, and Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC). At first, the children may have been a little shy talking to me, but once they saw my camera their entire demeanor changed. Within seconds I learned the names of twenty children and their takes on the program today. From their perspective the program ranged from very good to excellent and this opinion was before the food even came out. After the 40-minute lunch break it was back off to the field to play the final championship game. The match was close throughout the first half, until the hosting team eventually pulled away to a hard fought victory. Dr. Jamal, the director of Democracy School, came for the medal ceremony, which was reminiscent of the awards ceremony at the World Cup, at least in the eyes of the children. I was in charge of presenting the bronze medals, Professor Lo presented the silver medals and cup, and the winning coach handed out the gold medals and cup. Once all the awards were handed out everyone began taking photos of the winning team, which had assembled in the middle of the field. The captain of the team is seen kissing the trophy in almost every photo on my camera. Not wanting to interrupt the momentous victory for the gold team, I gave a short speech:
“I want to first thank everyone for coming. I hope you had fun and I hope that you learned something. Once you leave here, do not forget to tell your friends what you have learned and what happened here today. Even though I will be back in America next year, I look forward to hearing good things from next year’s tournament. Thank you.”
Overall, this event was my most memorable experience in Yemen. The organization and planning process was difficult and I could not have accomplished anything without the help of the Democracy School, DukeEngage program, and Duke Islamic Studies Center . Moreover, I want to point out that the Democracy School continues to organize and run events like today on a regular basis, all under the constraint of limited funding. I feel honored to have interned at Democracy School and I look forward to staying in contact with this wonderful NGO in the future.
If you want to read more about the event there will be an article in the Yemeni Observer this upcoming Saturday.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/21/2007 09:44:00 PM
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Here are the flyers that will be distributed to all of the children this upcoming Saturday, in addition to the banners that will be hung around the fields. We are expecting a large turnout for the event with around 100 children playing soccer and attending children's rights workshops.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/17/2007 10:16:00 PM
You are right about the khutba. It was surprising to hear such fiery oratory from an imam in Sana’a. In his defense, I have to say that he is one of the most popular imams in the city. His mastery of classical Arabic, traditional poetry and his ability to read beyond the scripture has dramatically expanded the size of his congregation.
The manager of our hotel recommended the mosque (we say Jami’h to differentiate between street mosque/ masjid which is for daily prayers, and Jami’h which is often reserved for Friday prayer) because it is in honor of those who died in the revolutionary war. As you already know, I love the institution of the mosque because I believe it to be the most democratic institution in the Arab world. If progress is to come to this part of the world, it has to be through these institutions. The eradication of liberty or political freedom, especially of those imams, is a threat to the consolidation of democratic institutions in the Muslim World. By building on the great potential of the masjid system, it is possible to implement social change, reform and expand human capital in these regions. Indeed, we should modernize masjid’s madrassa systems, promote difference of opinions on its MeHraab, and, of course, tackle its patriarchal disposition. Malaysia and Cape-town, South Africa are a few good models in this regard.
The current policy that considers state-appointed imams to be the best choice of removing factions, or filtering "hate" messages from the community is a dangerous precedent. I harbor a Madisonian attitude in this regard. For, as he argues in the Federalist Papers that there are 2 methods of removing the causes of faction. One by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence. Two by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions and the same interest. Madison argues that it could never be more truly said of the first than that it is worse than the disease.
Curtailing the liberty of imams has never proven to be a successful approach to removing faction, or improving the spritual well-being of a community. A good example in the history of Islam can be learned from the khawarij movement of the earlier ages. This movement was considered by all account of earlier historians as the most perilous, most destructive and most dividing force in the development of Islam. However, Al-mubarrad, a 9th century linguist and historian, has pointed out to what enabled this violent movement to go on for many decades. In his book Al-Kamil, he mentioned that the endurance of the khwarij “kharijites” into the end of the 9th century was primarily due to the fact that Ummayad rulers and their subordinates, as in the case of al- Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi of Iraq, refused to allow Khawarij preachers to use mosques or express their grievances publicly. Most Sunni clergymen of the time condemned the khawarij as "deviated sects and violent Muslims." As a result, the khawarij moved to the peripheries of the Ummayad empire and led a lethal, deadly and protracted rebellion against the Ummayad dynasty.
A similar case can be made for the Muslim community (ies) of the United States. The recent professionlization of mosque administrations, which means giving mosque executive boards the right to oversee and manage imam’s activities and sermons, has made listening to mosque sermons one of the most torturous experiences of worshipers, because these sermons are no longer sparking people’s interests or concerns. A student in one of my previous culture classes has found out via survey that 10 percent of Friday congregation do sleep or doze during Friday khutba. What that entails is the inability of these “managed” imams to address issues that are relevant to their congregations.
Well, let’s go back to the imam of Masjid As-Shuhada. He is a unique case, and particular in the imamhood of the city. You are right; he is “protected somehow.” As a result he will not “soon face whatever legal penalties are invoked against Imams who lead their own congregations.” I think he is protected for many reasons: he is an Egyptian from Al-Azar as-Shareef University; he has been in this particular mosque for many years, and the fact that Al-azar has a particular prestige in the Sunni world of Islam. So, it makes sense for the state to tolerate this popular figure. Furthermore, as a foreign imam, he will never build a social base that can represent a threat to the interest of the state.
His Khutba was exceptional: classic in its structure and content, but modern in its scope and focus. What you consider “the hot button words” does not necessarily represent “taboo for Friday rumination”. I think if he were running for an office in the States, he could be liberal enough to be elected in any blue state, or conservative enough to be elected in any red state. He divided his khutba into three segments: local, national and international. On local issues, he attacked the patriarchal society that took away what he calls “Islamic rights” of women: to marry whom she chooses, rights to property, rights to education etc.. He recalled some cases of young girls in the old city of Sana’s who complaint to him in these matters. He then adorned these points with many Quranic verses and saying (hadith) from the prophet of Islam. On a national level, he attacked the rich and the powerful for not taking care of the poor. He passionately recounted seeing a child eating from the wastebasket in Sana’a. At this point, he was on fire: attacking the wealthy for not sharing their bits and pieces, and the government for not addressing poverty, and finger-pointing to his wealthy neighbors in the Gulf for not sharing their prosperity. Ironically, Thursday was the wedding of the president’s daughter, and he alluded to the imperative of balancing between government extravagance and taking care of those who cannot support themselves.
On the international level, his attitude toward the War in Iraq is similar to the attitudes of most Democrats and many Republicans in the States. He argues against the “un-just war,” to quote his own words, and the needs to stop a war that is “taking many innocent lives of women and children”. In other areas, he characterized the continuation of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine as a shameful mark on the foreheads of mankind.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/17/2007 07:51:00 PM
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Here's Professor Lo with another Imam, this one the Imam of Masjid As-Shuhada, a builiding which is, contrary to grammatical expectation, larger than Masjid al-Kabeer (the big Masjid), where Professor Lo and I went last week. This Masjid is two stories tall and far more grandely adorned than the simpler Masjid al-Kabeer. Golden crystal chandeliers that manage to encompase the size, shape, and majesty of pregnant manatees hover over worshippers, while Qur'anic excerpts are carved into the very substance of the walls. Even more striking than the appearance of the Masjid, was the oratory experience that it offered. To my surprise, and contrary to what I had been led to believe about the structure of Masjids in Sana'a, the Imam of the Masjid delivered the kutba, or the friday sermon, himself, rather than leaving that duty to a state appointed Kaatib. Also, though I lack a command of the Arabic language sufficient enough to understand what the Imam was talking about, I did notice that the kutba lasted almost twice as long as the one at Masjid al-Kabeer, and was delivered in a tone of spit flecked passion rather than with the bovine passivity of the state approved Kaatib. Also, I'm sure that I heard the hot button words "Palestine", "Israel", and "Iraq War", which I thought were pretty much taboo for Friday rumination. Either the Imam was directly breaking the law, in which case he is either protected somehow (maybe has family high up in the government), or will soon face whatever legal penalties are invoked against Imams who lead their own congregations. Whatever the reason, it was certainly the most interesting Friday prayers I've experienced so far in Yemen.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/14/2007 03:50:00 PM
Friday, July 13, 2007
Since arriving in Yemen I have been privileged to work with many people in the Democracy School. So far, I have marched with Yemeni youth to raise the budget expenditures for the schools and I have attended several lectures describing the political climate, freedom of the press, and human rights violations in Sana and surrounding areas. After watching many films produced by the Democracy School and brainstorming on the children sexual abuse proposal (for the Development Group in France) I now want to launch my own personal project. With the guidance and help of the Democracy School I believe this project can be a success and ultimately a vehicle to better change the current human rights violations in Sana, particularly child abuse.
The Event and Purpose:
After witnessing the tremendous number of children at the march I wish to create a similar environment by planning a one-day soccer tournament in a local sports club. This event, however, does not intend to gain government backing or support. The purpose of the event is to raise awareness of human rights violations and most importantly making Yemeni Youth aware of their rights. This will be accomplished by distributing pamphlets and brochures on how to report child abuse and what rights every child should have when dealing with their parents, neighbors, and society. It is important to remember that this event is for the children, not for adults. Most of the workshops I attended have discussed children’s rights by using Powerpoint slides and lengthy presentations, not one child has been present. This soccer tournament will put the information on child abuse directly into the hands of the child.
• The tournament will last one day (morning to evening)
• The tournament will happen on July 26th
• The tournament must be advertised early in order to gain maximum support
• The boy’s tournament will run from morning to noon
• The girl’s tournament will run from noon to afternoon
• Soccer field at a local sports club in Sana
• Although held in Sana, youth from nearby cities are invited
• Targets Yemeni youth from the ages 12-14
• Targets youth with both formal and informal education
• Targets every economic and social class
How will the tournament be promoted?
• Signs posted in store windows and on gates/doors around Sana
• Pamphlets distributed to children in schools by teachers
• Pamphlets given to children in the street
• Article written in a popular Yemeni paper or the Democracy School’s paper
How will the tournament work?
• The teams will consist of 10 kids each
• There will be 100 kids in each tournament (100 boys, 100 girls)
• The teams will enter the tournament free of charge
• Teams must register ahead of time in order to ensure room
• Prizes, such as soccer jerseys, will be given out to the winning team
• Games last for a set amount of time or to a certain number of goals
• The Yemeni Junior National Team will attend the event and run a clinic for the children when they are not actively playing in a game
How will we gather money for the event?
• The event will be sponsored in part by the Democracy School
• Funding may possibly be collected from other NGO’s
• Only NGO’s, the children, directors of the event, and selected media will be allowed to enter (not a political rally like in front of parliament)
• Children must be informed of their rights
• Many children are not aware of their rights
• NGO’s will also distribute DVD’s, CD’s, and the identical brochure on children’s rights (produced by Democracy School)
• I chose soccer because it is a very popular sport that nearly every boy dreams of playing, does play, or wants to play in the future
• Soccer is also very informal and children will come to play on a nice field
Cost Benefit Analysis:
• Cost of renting the fields in the sports club for one day
• Buying soccer jerseys for the winning team
• Promotion of the event (flyers, brochures)
• Approximate budget= to not exceed $1,500
(Proposal was approved by DukeEngage/ DISC). Event will take place on July 21, 2007)
(The sign was developed by the Democracy School, with input by Duke faculty)
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/13/2007 09:21:00 PM
Thursday, July 12, 2007
You are right on the state’s attempt to monopolize public space by appointing Friday khutabaa (preachers). This is a common phenomenon across Muslim countries that are supporting the US war against terrorism. Unfortunately, or fortunately (?), due to the limited legitimacy of these oppressive regimes, this particular policy is not popular among the Yemenis. And in reality, the state cannot afford the associated cost of appointing Khutabaa in each mosque. Therefore, the policy, according Judge El-Hittar, is selective, and mostly exists in urban areas.
By the way, Taimoor, I tend to say “unfortunately” because the mosque, as you have noticed in Yemen, is the only public space that is outside the state’s control. So if democracy is dialectically related to state’s control of public space, we should oppose these anti-democratic moves.
By the way, Taimoor, I tend to say “unfortunately” because the mosque, as you have noticed in Yemen, is the only public space that is outside the state’s control. So if democracy is dialectically related to state’s control of public space, we should oppose these anti-democratic moves.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/12/2007 12:59:00 PM
Friday prayers in Yemen are a little different then in many other parts of the world. Traditionally, the Imam of a Masjid both leads the prayer and delivers the sermon, or the kutba. However, in Yemen, the Minister of Religious affairs typically appoints Katibs (people who deliver the kutba) for Masjids in Yemen. While the Imam leads the prayer, the state appointed Katib is granted a monopoly over the religious public space. This policy is an attempt to curtail the power of religion in the public sphere, a decision that can at once be argued to be either grossly repressive or prudent in light of the current political climate depending on the individual.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/12/2007 12:22:00 PM
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Terrorists Anonymous: Meeting with Judge al-Hittar, the mastermind behind Yemen's Mujahadeen rehabilation program (By Taimoor)
Since September 11, many countries in the Middle East have cracked down on terrorism and religious extremism, partly as a way of appeasing an increasingly critical international community, particularly the United States, and partly as a way of combating internal threats such as destabilization, violence, and, in some cases, the undermining of State hegemony in the public sphere. With the collapse of the Taliban led Afghan regime, expatriates training to be Mujahadeen in Yemen began to flood back into their countries of origin. For many Arab countries, these Mujahadeen, or “Afghan Arabs”, were and remain a security threat as well as somewhat of an international embarrassment, and the common policy is to simply imprison them indefinitely with no trial.
(Isabelle asking questions)
Yemen, which has the largest population of Afghan Arabs, has implemented an alternative strategy of rehabilitation that is, by most accounts, highly effective. The Duke Engage Team (Ella Lipin, Isabelle Figaro, Andrew Simon, Tyler Huffman, Professor Mbaye Lo, and I) were able to get an interview with Minister al-Hittar, the mastermind behind the Yemeni Mujahadeen rehabilitation program and the current Minister of Awkaaf (Endowments or Trusts). Minister al-Hittar was formerly a Judge and the Minister of Human Rights in Yemen. The Ministry of Awkaaf is one of the most powerful Ministries in Yemen and it has jurisdiction over all matters of religion as well as property rights. The question of what to do with homegrown terrorists is poignant in the current political climate, but particularly so in the aftermath of the recent Marib bombings that took place in Yemen and that was caused by an escaped convict and terrorist. This interview took place before the Marib bombings. Here on the Duke Engage Blog, I present for your reading pleasure the Duke Engage in Yemen (DEY? Am I allowed to say that Professors Lo, cooke, and/or Lawrence?) team’s interview with Minister of Awkaaf, Minister al-Hittar, translation into English courtesy of Professor Lo.
Minister al-Hittar : Welcome!
Duke Engage Team: (various assortments of thank yous, pleased to meet yous, and Asslamu-alaikums, followed by introductions. After the formalities the first questions begin.) Our professor told us about your Afghan Arab program. Talk about it. (this was asked in Arabic)
The idea of dialogue with the people from Afghanistan and others who are radical in their beliefs. (pause for rumination) Dialogue is an integral part of the Qur’an( note: I will be spelling the Qur’an in this way rather than as “Quran” or “Koran” just in case Professor Lawrence reads this article and is tempted to retroactively flunk me from his class for my gross butchering of that word). It is the message you have in the Torah and the Bible. Dialogue is a part of human nature. The first step in the creation of human beings was dialogue.
The Qur’an addresses the idea of dialogue with people we don’t agree with. The Pharaoh called himself a god. He said that he was the creator of Mankind. And even then, God granted a dialogue with the Pharaoh. This is an example for us to talk with people, regardless of how bad they are. No matter how much we agree or disagree with them, we should not avoid talking with them.
It is under this principle, that we dialogue with the people from Afghanistan. In the tradition found in all religious scriptures, as transmitted by Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Jonas, etc. Dialogue is a necessity.
There was a group of Yemeni kids that came back from Afghanistan, and they were arrested by security. They committed no crime, except where they came from. The Judge has supreme authority in this situation, and as I was a Judge at that time, (not what was actually said, just what I think was meant) I decided that we should let them go, or bring some case against them or else we would be oppressors. And those kids had their views and they didn’t want to change them.
If my friend Andrew (gently grabs hold of Andrews arm) wanted to attack someone, can I say that I am going to keep him by me and not let him go? Or should I just talk to him and convince him not to do what he wanted to do?
If I were to hold him back, he might try to fight back. But if I have a rational argument with him, he might change his mind. That is why I saw dialogue as the best way to make people change their views and their manners in a very self motivated way.
The problems of cultures and ideas can only be addressed through dialogue. If you have an idea, Isabelle, you have to implement it. If I use force to prevent you, maybe you will feel antagonized and pursue what you wanted to do.
But if I try to convince you of the logic of my argument, you might change your mind. We may agree and disagree, but dialogue is the best way to reach a compromise. It is a necessity amongst human beings. I believe that through dialogue we can change their minds and their convictions. The pen and the tongue are the most powerful tools. Tools that can change anything.
(Judge al-Hittar Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments)
I am glad that, through dialogue, we were able to make a lot of change. To successfully find jobs for them (the Arab Afghans). And let them live peacefully in society. The only condition was that they had to give up violence.
We help them get jobs, because a job puts a person in a situation where he has options. When you are living a violent life, you have two options: either you are a killer or you are dead. By giving them jobs, we offer them the ability to reject both options. When they decide to not be either, they can choose a third option, to be peaceful in society.
In addition to jobs, we attempt to address specific ideological issues. Because it (terrorism) is not only offensive to Muslims, it is offensive to Islam. This is because it gives a wrong picture of Islam. Islam is a religion of Freedom, Justice, Equality, Mercy, Peace. These people when they come back from Afghanistan, didn’t have this understanding. As the Judge, I said that we had to address the root cause of this disease.
The third part of our program was the relationship between the police and these kids. We asked the police to not follow them (the kids) illegally. They have to give them their rights. And we of course had to ask the kids to stop any terrorist acts.
I believed that this would help Yemen pacify itself: no civil wars, no strife. Since December, 2002, Yemen has no witnessed any terrorist attacks, even though everyone in the world thought that Yemen would be the next Afghanistan, the most traumatic country. And I have to say proudly, that if we ignore two events that took place in the last two years, we can say that no terrorist act took place in Yemen at all. (This was of course, prior to the recent Marib bombings, so I suppose that we must assume that three events did not take place to say that no terrorist act has ever taken place in Yemen.)
Another benefit of this policy is that we were able to release hundred of people who were arrested with no legal case against them. Because if they commited a crime, it is a civil issue, but if they did not commit a crime, we let them go. This was at a national level in Yemen.
On an international level, this dialogue became the cutting edge of debate and showed people that Yemen is a civil country. Many people came to Yemen to learn about dialogue. If you look at the Internet now, you will see that this issue is covered in 800 pages!
Yemen used a non-military option which was more effective than a military option in this situation. We have shown the World that dialogue is the right way to handle these kinds of situations.
Duke Engage Team:
How do these conversations work? (This question was asked in Arabic)
Dialogue is an art and a science. You have to diagnose the ideological diseases first. You have to determine your goals, as well as your points of reference. You must define your objectives, as well as create a time frame in which you will work.
You must also give the other people an idea of what you are planning to do, and give them absolute freedom to express their views and feelings. You must follow a scientific methodology when running these kinds of programs.
We need to sit with them as equals, as I am right now sitting with you. We must give them the choice to say what they want to say. After this framework, we divided them up into groups of six or less.
Duke Engage Team:
How did you divide them up? (This question was asked in English)
We divided them according to level. Some are more intellectually challenged and some are more radical. We start with the more radical and then we go from there.
Duke Engage Team:
What happens when the program fails? (This question was asked in English)
Psychologists say that it is possible for every individual to respond to you positively. If he doesn’t react well to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he disagrees with your message or that he will continue to do so in the future. Maybe you were not successful in conveying your message, such as when you ask Isabelle to post on Blackboard. (The later half of this sentence was courtesy of Professor Lo) We believe, therefore, that everyone is conducive to change.
And if he does not respond, we assume that there may have been something wrong with our strategy.
Our response from our dialogue with people from Al-Qaeda has been about 90% positive.
The more radical people have strong viewpoints and a strong belief in God. We know from an ideological viewpoint that some of their beliefs are wrong, and then we know that our priorities should be how to correct this issue. (We are told that we only have five minutes left)
Why are students, and in particular women, not allowed to visit Masjids (Mosques) here?
Nothing should prevent students from visiting Masjids here. After all, we hope that one day you will all become Muslims. (nervous laughter from the room. Isabelle says Inshallah) We would be glad to allow women in Masjids. Maybe if people visit Masjids, they will have a positive view of Muslims. But if you happen to become Muslims, don’t be radical. Be Moderate. (more laughter)
What is the role of the Ministry of Endowments?
We deal with Public and Private issues with equal footing for all citizens. This ministry represents the largest part of non-profit organizations in Yemen. What we mean by Endowments (Awkaaf) in Islam, are the endowments and rights of humans and animals. The idea is that humans and animals have rights. We also have to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, such as the elderly.
The need of human beings in Yemen has some space in our work. This is what is meant by Awkaaf or Endowments. Our responsibility is to teach people their religious responsibilities.
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/11/2007 04:22:00 PM
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
The tall clay buildings (fondly referred to as the world’s first skyscrapers by our guides) densely packed within the city walls are so drastic in the landscape of the Hawdramout that the city of Shibam is now known by its nickname “the Manhattan of the desert.” Shibam dates back to the 16th century and the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we climbed the mountain opposite Shibam, we were able to see just how densely packed it is and just how good the urban planning was
Posted by DukeEngage Yemen 2007 at 7/04/2007 11:31:00 AM