Seeking common ground in Yemen

By Giles Fraser
9 Jan 2010

After the discovery that the Christmas Day would-be aeroplane bomber was radicalised in the Yemen, the international spotlight has turned on that wild and magnificent country.

The United States and British embassies closed for fear of attack. General David Petraeus, the US commanding officer for the whole of the Middle East, has just returned from talks with the Yemeni President, seeking to establish greater co-operation in the fight against al-Qaeda, which has set up bases deep within the mountains and in the eastern desert.

In reality, the government of Yemen has little say in how the country runs. I spent several months living in those mountains, and rarely came across any effective officialdom. In the capital, Sana’a, the army might whizz about the streets in impressive-looking jeeps, but none of this carries any weight in the remoter areas.

There, almost every male who can walk is tooled up with some vicious-looking weaponry: AK-47s, hand grenades, and ceremonial knives that don’t look too ceremonial. And they do like to use them. This is where the bin Laden family originates.

Interestingly, being British in Yemen was not too much of a problem back in the 1990s. I remember being shaved with a cut-throat razor in a barber’s shop in Ta’izz, while staring at a large photo of Yasser Arafat. The PLO had bases just outside the town.

Yet it all seemed safe enough. Our driver, a wiry and seemingly gentle soul, had lost his right eye in the Yom Kippur war, fighting the Israelis. I liked him a great deal — but not enough to tell him I had Jewish ancestry. My biggest fears were the wild dogs that came out at night, and the unbearable levels of humidity.

This is the perfect sort of place for a hideout. The tribes that run these astonishingly beautiful hills have repelled outsiders for centuries. No one has ever successfully invaded. The only outside influ­ences seem to be Toyota Land Cruisers — widely nicknamed the Laila Eloui after an Egyptian actress with a large rear — Kalashnikovs, Rothmans cigarettes, and football.

One day we drove into a remote village to sell cigarettes. Most children had not seen a Western face in the flesh. And then out came this little chap in an Aston Villa T-shirt with the thickest Brummie accent I had ever heard. Football is Esperanto. Even in these mountains, my Chelsea top broke down barriers. It’s a real pity the US army doesn’t speak football.

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(c) Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute. This article is adapted from his regular Church Times column with acknowledgements.

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Ekklesia associate and Middle East specialist Dr Michael Marten comments: We are not told why Giles Fraser was in Yemen, but extrapolating from a visit paid in the 1990s and talking about this as if it gave particular insights 10-20 years later, with the football as a key way to approach "ordinary people", strikes me as entirely untenable. This article is full of stereotypes -- the "vicious-looking weaponry" that "they" "do like to use" (mentioning bin Laden, of course), the "cut-throat razor in a barber's shop", and so on. This is so much like 'Kite Runner'/'Kandahar' thinking in relation to Afghanistan. The one or two really valid points that could be made are completely ignored, such as why General Petraeus, a military man, is taking on a role that should surely be handled by a State Department representative? And what about Aden and independence? To properly understand Yemen we need forward-thinking analysis, not Orientalist tourism.

Keywords: football | violence | yemen
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