Friday, October 21, 2016

Cinema in Yemen: 'Nothing is impossible'

*In a historic Oscars entry, movie by Yemeni director Khadija al-Salami will vie for best foreign language film award. 

*My latest piece published in Aljazeera English

Yemeni film director, Khadija al-Salami. Photo courtesy: L'Express.

For the first time in the country's history, Yemen has entered a film into the Academy Awards competition in the category of best foreign language film.

It was announced last week that the dramatic feature film, I Am Nojoom: Age 10 And Divorced, would be among 85 entries vying for the Oscar.

"I was happy to hear the news, even though I have no expectations whatsoever," director Khadija al-Salami told Al Jazeera over the phone from Canada, where she was promoting the film.

"It is a tough competition, but let's hope this news at least gives war-torn Yemen some positivity and encourages young Yemeni filmmakers to dream big."

Shot in 2013, prior to the ongoing war in Yemen, and released in 2014, I Am Nojoom is Salami's debut drama feature film. She has previously made 25 documentaries about Yemen, with a heavy focus on women's issues.

Salami both wrote and directed the film, inspired by her own personal experience of being forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 11 - which led her to attempt suicide, and ended in divorce - and by the story of Yemen's youngest divorcee, Nujood Ali.

'I Am Nojoom' film trailer. 

"My belief in the importance of empowering our women and enforcing a law that criminalises this practice is what drove me to do this film," said Salami, whose movie has so far earned 18 international awards.

"But mainly, it was important for me to tell a story based on a mix of my own story, Nujood's story and many other girls' stories suffering from this practice. And as I am touring around the world releasing the movie, my initial understanding of how child marriage is a global problem is increasingly being confirmed."

The latest official statistics suggest that more than 50 percent of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 18. There is no law in the country banning the practice - a problem that reaches far beyond Yemen's borders: "Globally, there are around 15 million female children being married every year," Salami noted. "The film speaks to many girls across the world." 

Ironically, I Am Nojoom is making global headlines at a time when Yemen's cinema scene has largely faded.

The country once boasted a vibrant cinematic culture, having gone through many phases since the early 1900s. In 1910, moviegoers in Yemen flocked to mobile cinema shows in Aden, and in the ensuing years, Bollywood films were widely exhibited in the city's cinema halls.

During the 1970s, the film scene gained strength, with around 50 cinema halls emerging in Aden, including Radio Cinema, Popular Cinema and Cinema Hurricane. In Sanaa, severalcinema halls showcased both Arab and Western films.

"In the mid '70s, north Yemen's late president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, had a vision for the art scene to develop - part of his nation-building strategy," Yemeni art critic Ahlam Mohammed told Al Jazeera.

Yemen's cinematic scene peaked after the reunification of northern and southern Yemen in 1990. In the years that followed, several cinema halls opened in major cities, showing foreign and locally made films.

"Despite the early '90s being marked by several conflicts, the unification contributed [to] the film culture of both north and south Yemen in the coming years," Mohammed said, noting that Yemen's culture ministry provided support to local Yemeni filmmakers - particularly to those working on films with an "anti-terrorism" message.

But the growth did not last long. Economic problems bumped the film industry to the bottom of the government's priority list, while the rise of conservative forces further curbed cinematic growth.

"When we, the actors and filmmakers, sought the state's support, government officials used to state clearly that it was not the right time to support films, as they had more important issues to deal with," actor Adnan Alkhadher, a cast member in I Am Nojoom, told Al Jazeera. "We had terrible support in funding cinema, whether in the north or the south."

Amid this backdrop, the outbreak of Yemen's 2011 uprising offered a sign of hope for filmmakers.

Yemeni filmmaker, Sara Ishaq. Photo courtesy: Oscars. 

"The uprising represented a moment of courage for many Yemeni filmmakers and a time when their voices were validated, as Yemen received great attention during the Arab Spring," said Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq. "I was and still am impressed by the rise of art and film in Yemen in the wake of the uprising."

Ishaq directed the first Yemeni film to be nominated for an Oscar, the documentary Karama Has No Walls (2012), which was set during the uprising.

Salami, meanwhile, says that she has made efforts to ensure that residents of war-torn Yemen would be able to see her film, arranging screenings in local forums and community centres.

I Am Nojoom has faced some criticism for portraying stereotypes about Yemen and "exploiting" the issue of child marriages in an effort to please a Western audience - accusations that Salami vehemently rejects.

"This debate is not only another reminder of why, until today, Yemen has no law against child marriage - but it also reflects the status of women's rights in Yemeni society," she said.

As she begins thinking about her next project - a love story that she hopes to shoot inside Yemen once the war comes to an end - Salami says that she is optimistic about the future.

"Nothing is impossible," she said. "If you put your heart into something, the sky is your limit." 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

No Place Like Home: Yemen's Moualleds in Times of War

Photo courtesy:

*Who is a “Moualled”? In Yemeni society, the term is used to designate a person who has a non-Yemeni parent. It can also refer, in the most extreme cases of Yemeni xenophobia, to someone who has any non-Yemeni ethnic roots, even if it was a great grandfather. They would be designated according to those other roots, for instance, an Egyptian Moualled, or an Ethiopian Moualled and so forth. As an Ethiopian Moualled who is well aware of the complexity of such a dual identity, I can't but think of other Moualleds in these times of war in Yemen.

Two years have passed since the war began in Yemen. The vast majority of people are living under a suffocating siege while bombs rain down on them from the sky and an unending armed conflict threatens them from the ground.

Today, Yemen is under siege from the air, land, and sea. As a result, the country is witnessing one of the largest movements of displacement in the world reaching more than 3 million displaced. Yemenis have nowhere to escape to, however. For Moualleds, even if the chance of escaping presents itself, it is extremely difficult and complicated as they are living with a dual identity both culturally and on paper.

Before the war

To understand this complexity, a brief description of a Moualled's life before the war might help. There are no exact statistics about the numbers of Moualleds in Yemen because of the absence of state institutions responsible for this category of people. Furthermore, Moualleds themselves do not usually want to expose their other ethnic roots. This might be related to the complexity of civil laws in the two countries when it comes to carriers of dual passports.

From my personal experience in dealing with Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualleds in particular, I have found that large numbers have tried to hide their dual identity as a way to deal with the racist atmosphere in the country. In Yemen, many having dual citizenship might often lead to discrimination and ridicule.

Yemeni society is generally homogeneous and people tend to prefer a homogeneity. Large parts of society are suspicious of ethnic and cultural plurality and diversity. Moualleds, therefore, find themselves facing one of two hard choices: To expose their other identity and face the racist consequences or to hide it and struggle to prove that they are 100% Yemeni, including using only one passport.

Photo courtesy:

The war begins

Moualleds who decided to only have Yemeni citizenship and hide any other roots fell into a legal trap during the war. Many of them have regretted their choice, especially when several embassies announced that they were repatriating their citizens living in Yemen. Ethiopians quickly headed to their embassy including Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualleds despite the fact that many of them did not have the Ethiopian nationality. They were hoping that their Ethiopian roots would be recognized and that the embassy will repatriate them as well. But the lack of documentation meant that no help was provided.

Yemen: The Arab World's overlooked proxy war

A week ago, I co-discussed Yemen war on France24 tv channel, in the wake of the funeral hall attack in Sana'a. Part 1 & 2 can be watched below.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Yemen: far from war

"In villages perched high on a mountain in western Yemen, residents are a safe distance from a conflict raging through most of the country, but they endure a hardscrabble existence little changed from hundreds of years ago. 
Long used to a livelihood without electricity or running water, they have felt little impact from the 18 months of civil war which have cut those essential services to many of Yemen's 28 million people." –reuters. Photography Courtsey: Abduljabbar Zeyad

Sana'a Funeral Hall Attack

In my fury & frustration to the slow coverage to the atrocities in Yemen, I tweeted this a couple days ago. Usually, my mobile doesn't stop receiving notifications when a natural disaster or a terrorist attack happen anywhere in the world, but the day the funeral hall was hit, my mobile was silent. It's not like a notification about Yemen could solve the problem but it tells you about the indifference to Yemenis' lives by big mainstream media. 

I was angry. When I am angry, it usually means I am right. I objected with a tweet. Then, I slid into a minor depression. But when you are a Yemeni under war, and politically concerned, means you're juggling anger with pain. And when you process the idea that your family and loved ones are the potential targets of the next airstrike which doesn't differentiate between a civilian or military target, you know that depression is a luxury you can't afford. I brushed my depression away and spoke out, even louder.

Just yesterday, I had three radio interviews run in the US. I did not only speak out of the Sana'a funeral hall attack, which my mother in Sana'a lost three of her colleagues at, but of all Yemenis. Yemenis' blood in Sana'a, Taiz, Houdaidah, Aden, and everywhere in Yemen do matter. We lost more than 10 thousand people in this war so far.

You can listen to one interview here and the second here. In the meantime, Yemenis don't need mere condemnation statements, they need action; they need the world's solidarity! Tweet, facebook, write petitions to your politicians, your government representatives, your international aid charity org, Write to them! Tell them, what about Yemen? why is our weapon used there? why are Yemenis dying of hunger in the 21st century? you, in Sweden, UK, USA, Germany, etc... you have the power to contribute in bringing peace!