Sunday, January 03, 2010
Fun Facts About Yemen!
On Christmas Day an apparently inept spoiled brat from a rich Nigerian family attempted to blow up an airplane in Detroit. According to all sources, including officially now according to President Obama, the would-be assassin was trained by "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," the local affiliate of the Al Qaeda network of fundamentalist militants. Obama announced that government and military officials were meeting with the Yemeni government to coordinate action against the "terrorists." While I'm sympathetic to preventing criminal attacks on innocent civilians, these developments should be of great concern to peace-loving people worried about the widening scope of military confrontation in the Middle East.
Here's a few things I know about Yemen.
Yemen was an isolated kingdom under the nominal rule of the Ottoman Empire until the First World War. Its ruling kings--called imams--were corrupt. In 1962, military officers under the influence of Egyptian nationalist Gamal Nasser overthrew the kingdom, and established the Yemen Arab Republic. A civil war ensued, the royalist faction appealing to Western, Saudi and, allegedly, Israeli help against the republicans, who were heavily backed by Egypt. In some circles Yemen was called Egypt's Vietnam, as Egyptian troops were widely involved in the fighting. Above is a royalist propaganda postage stamp showing royalist fighters attacking an hammer-and-sickle-bearing Egyptian tank. Do click on it to see it bigger; it's epic.
By the end of the 1960s the civil war was over, the royalists defeated. The Yemen Arab Republic -- commonly called "North Yemen" -- was a more or less secular, more or less authoritarian entity more or less in the model of Egypt and Syria. By all accounts the country is very poor. I've read the country's state blamed on the national addiction to qat, a mildy narcotic leaf the chewing of which inspires the entire nation to while away their afternoons chewing and spitting and getting slightly stoned. It sounds lovely, if a little disgusting. It also sounds a little condescending on the part of the writers who have made this claim; I have no way to judge.
Meanwhile, to the south of Yemen, the British colonialists who had seized control of Aden and some neighboring tribal realms, granted independence to "South Arabia," under the leadership of some docile locals including local princes. Who were promptly overthrown by radical nationalists widely believed to be aided by the Chinese communists. Eventually these nationalists established the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen--commonly called South Yemen, and after many internecine factional struggles, established a one-party state under the Yemeni Socialist Party. It was the Arab world's only avowedly communist state (we'll set aside, for the moment, any discussion of whether this was "real" socialism: it certainly wasn't a "workers" state). Here's a stamp issued by the PDR Yemen honoring the Soviet Union.
When the USSR collapsed, the PDR Yemen merged with North Yemen. This act of reunification involved more civil war, and among the winners of that war was today's President Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to the awesome Angry Arab Website, "Relying on the Yemeni dictator to fight terrorism is like relying on Hamid Karzai to fight corruption." Today Yemen is involved in another civil war with rebels in its north, and there is renewed discontent in the south of the country.
During the first Gulf war, when Iraq seized Kuwait and the US counter-attacked, many of the small groceries in my Prospect Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn were owned by Yemeni emigres. All had portraits of Saddam Hussen pinned behind the cash registers. One is reminded that Saddam Hussein had quite a bit of support in the Arab world: his overthrow of the Kuwaiti royals and his militancy against Israel made him many friends, and Palestinians in post-Saddam Iraq have suffered for that friendship from what I hear. Anyway, the weakness and corruption of the Yemeni government seems to have made the place fertile ground for the Salafists. Well, kind of like how Israel and its carte blanche from the United States have made the Middle East fertile ground for general outrage against the US. The failure of leadership among secular Arab nationalist revolutionaries has had its consequences. The interwoven webs of fifty years of misery in Yemen should be evidence, like the decades of misery in Afghanistan, that perhaps military solutions aren't really solutions after all. One can only hope, probably futilely, that cooler heads will prevail in searching for a solution to the problem of criminals who would murder innocents, whether they call themselves religious freedom fighters or democratic nation builders.
Well, now that we're acquainted with the next target of US military attention, here's one last fun fact about Yemen: it's the perfect place to go to get out of bad relationship! Chandler Bing (played by Matthew Perry), from the "Friends" TV show announced he was being transferred to Yemen to get away from the ever-annoying Janice. She followed him to the airport which meant he actually had to get on a plane. Which gives us the perfect thing to say when we find out about what will happen in Yemen next: "Ohhh Myyy God!"
Update: I recommend the article "Obama in Aden" on Lenin's Tomb for spelling all of this out in greater detail than I knew when I wrote this post.