Year-end update

As the Yemen Peace Project's first year comes to a close, I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who has been a part of our success thus far. Trying to build a grass-roots organization is difficult work, and we are a long way yet from our goals; but we have made progress, thanks to the hard work of our founders and volunteers and the interest and support of all of our members and friends. We've earned some recognition for our efforts—most notably from the Yemen Times—and we've built meaningful connections between volunteers in the US, Yemen, and elsewhere. The coming year will see a continuation of this work, and the beginning of some exciting new projects. January will bring the much-anticipated re-launch of the Pens for Peace discussion boards, in a more accessible and engaging format, and the launch of YPP's long-awaited Arabic language website, which will make it easier for our friends in Yemen to get involved and stay up to date with our activities. We will also be obtaining non-profit status in 2011, which means we'll be able to receive tax-deductible donations to fund our work.

As we move forward and continue to work for peace in Yemen and the United States, we know we can count on your support. Thank you all.

Why I’m Here (by Aliya)

The first time Yemen crossed my radar was in high school, when I was flipping through channels and inadvertently stumbled on the excellent documentary called The English Sheikh and the Yemeni Gentleman. I was intrigued by author Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s strong attachment to the country despite having no Yemeni background and captivated by the lifestyle so strongly rooted in tradition. For a long time I had a vague hopes of travelling to Yemen, so naturally in my second year of college as an Arabic student, when I heard of an affordable opportunity to study Arabic in Sana’a, I jumped at it. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of visiting Yemen knows what happened next—I fell in love straight away. True, the weather’s beautiful, the aesthetics of the Old City are stunning, and ambling through the best-preserved souks in the Arab world is certainly an experience, what clearly makes Yemen worth visiting, as Tiffany mentioned below, is the people who live there.

There are many things to admire about any culture, but the part of Yemeni culture that struck me the most was the importance placed on personal relationships. Coming from a society that is fast-paced and over-scheduled, where hanging out with friends and family is a thing reserved for weekends and holiday vacations, the amount of time that Yemenis put aside not every week, but every day at qat chews to spend time with friends and family is mind-blowing, to say the least, and made me wonder exactly what we were spending all that time on. As an American I was humbled by the degree of friendliness and total absence of hostility that was shown to us by people who are often portrayed as being violently anti-American, and as a Muslim I was touched by the welcome I received as a sister in faith from another country.

Partially, I am involved in the Yemen Peace Project simply because I love Yemen, and I hate the feeling of helplessness and injustice that I feel when I see a place that gave me such wonderful memories crumbling because of forces outside its control and then on top of that being slandered in the American media as a “terrorist haven” as we ourselves nurture anti-American sentiment there. But I’m also involved in YPP because as an American I love my own country as well, and I would like someday to be proud of the way we conduct ourselves abroad. That day seems a pretty long way off, to be honest, by my hope is that by fostering discussion and relationships between Americans and Yemenis, we can all help make it a little bit closer.

Why I’m here (by Tiffany)

My first visit to Yemen was in 2009. While not my first visit to the Arab world, I had no idea what I was getting into. I went to study Arabic. I expected to engage in a study of culture and language in this forgotten world. I didn’t expect to fall in love with a country and a people whose culture is so different from my own but whose people are very much the same. Yemen is a country of extremes. It has coastlines and plunging mountain ranges. Cities with moderate temperatures year-round and regions where the thermometer climbs wildly into the 120s-130s each summer. Political struggles divide the north and south. Tribal and family ties command stronger allegiance than national identity, causing easy misunderstandings between Yemen and the West. Extreme poverty threatens the tenacity of an already unstable nation.

But as startling as the geographical, political, and economic landscapes may be, there is something else that will capture your attention and refuse to let go:

The Yemeni people.

I was challenged by the landscape. I was captured by the people. Here in this land whose harshness is borne out in its economic poverty, political tensions, and natural difficulty, you find a people who love their land, welcome in the stranger, and dream of a better future for themselves and their families.

Yemen struggles with a lack of infrastructure, lack of adequate water sources, high unemployment, violent political upheavals, and struggling educational opportunities. But despite the hardships, Yemenis love the land they call home. They do whatever it takes to carve out a life, even if it comes with little in the way of material comforts. They are incredibly hospitable, to a point where an American can easily be put to shame. The tensions between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims that are devastating in many parts of the Arab world are much quieter here.

Mostly, Yemenis want to live, to live in peace. They want to have enough, for their families and their neighbors and to share with the poor.

Not so different from America, is it?

One of my fellow YPP directors, Will, got in contact with me and the rest of the directors early this year as events between Yemen and the U.S. began to unfold in a way that seemed destined to produce serious, long-term problems for both countries. We were all getting frustrated, angry even. How we could we turn that frustration into something productive? Will took the reins and began building the foundation for the Yemen Peace Project, and the rest of us piled in to help in our own specialized capacities. We are a small and ever-morphing organization, focused on a specific goal: to build relationships between Yemen and the United States in order to help bring peace to a region that has known far too much in the way of violence. We want our country to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Welcome to the Yemen Peace Project.

I am working on YPP’s advocacy activities. In the weeks to come you will be seeing background information on U.S. Foreign Policy and appropriations as they relate to Yemen. You’ll also be invited to join us in advocating for strategic American policy objectives designed to help prevent Yemen from becoming another place where American troops end up called to war. In addition to political advocacy, one-to-one personal relationships are part of what will build and sustain this movement. I encourage you to get involved in our Pens for Peace exchange, follow our local bloggers and discussion tables, and learn more about Yemeni culture through our Photo of the Week.

That’s why I’m here. I’m not sure what brought you to this site, but I hope you’ll stick around.

Why I’m here (by Dana)

In an effort to explain our motivations behind the founding of the Yemen Peace Project, each co-director will be blogging about why we’re here this month. I’ll do my best to follow Will’s compelling blog entry with my own perspective about why peace in Yemen is imperative for me. William and I were high school friends when he spent the summer in Yemen in 1999. The experience clearly had a profound impact on him. In an effort to learn more about Yemen, I read Tim Macintosh-Smith’s Yemen: An Unknown Arabia a dozen times, and hoped that I too would get to experience it for myself.  In 2009, Will and I were fortunate enough to spend 7 weeks in the capital studying Arabic.  I felt both in awe of the place and instantly at home there.  The country itself is gorgeous, unlike anything I could have imagined.  The 14,000 foot-terraced mountains, the 7th-century mosques, the 2,500 year-old heart of Sana‘a… a traveler’s dream!

The people were also the kindest I had ever met abroad.  At first, I was startled that complete strangers were inviting us into their shops for tea and conversation, but I quickly realized that this hospitality was the Yemeni way.  We talked about politics, culture, poverty, the high birth rate, the serious water shortage, and the steep decline in tourism.  Why don’t they come? We love Americans! they insisted.  Despite these problems, all Yemenis I met lauded Obama's then-recent election as a relief, and as a promise of improvements to come.

I also learned that the Yemeni people are brave.  Women and men march on the streets, run non-profit organizations, publish newspapers, and risk (or bear) imprisonment or torture for expressing their opinions and exposing corruption in Yemen. Despite the ruling regime’s war on political pluralism and human rights, the people continue to take a stand. However, the efforts of activists and journalists have grown even riskier with the bolstering of the Yemeni government by the West, who are pouring military resources into the country without regard for civilian casualties. When Will and I returned to Sana‘a during the summer of 2010, the optimism about President Obama had deflated.  Ordinary Yemenis were not hopeless about the U.S. government's potential, but their faith was waning rapidly.

As the U.S. “Pursues a Wider Role in Yemen,” (as reported today by The Wall Street Journal), we urge you to learn about the consequences of war in Yemen, and to support us in our efforts for peace and cross-cultural understanding.  Thank you for reading!  For more information, visit our media page and our Pens for Peace page!

Why I’m here (by Will)

I first visited Yemen in 1999. I don't think I knew what to expect when I arrived, but I know I didn't expect to love the place so much. I left after three weeks, having seen the towers and the qamariyahs of San'a, the crows and the fishing shacks of 'Aden, the mosques of Thula, the fortress of at-Tawilah. But I knew as soon as I left that Yemen would not leave my mind or my heart as easily. It wasn't just the other-worldly sights, the mountain views and ancient stones, that stayed with me; mostly it was the people. I could close my eyes and see everyone I had met: the qat seller in the Saylah, the children shepherds by the road, the wedding party at the Egyptian monument, the fishermen, the soldiers, the beggars, the family that had housed and cared for me. I kept every one of them with me. Westerners who care about Yemen are used to indulging an obscure interest. Between 1999 and 2009 it was extremely rare for events in Yemen to make headlines in Western newspapers, or to provide fodder for dinner-party conversation. I always followed the news from Yemen, but that news rarely involved my own country, and rarely interested the people in it. So the feeling I had upon opening the newspaper in December of 2009 to see that the United States had killed dozens of innocent Yemeni women, men, and children, was a visceral one. No other single event has ever aroused in me such anger and sorrow.

It was these deaths—between forty-nine and sixty-four depending on who you ask—that finally woke me to the need to do something. I didn't really choose to start this effort that became the Yemen Peace Project. I don't feel a choice, I feel a compulsion, a need, to do whatever I can to reverse the deadly course of American policy in Yemen.

I suspect that many of those who visit this website share my feelings. Anger is the impetus for my involvement, but hope is what keeps me here. I know that America is not intrinsically evil; no nation is. I have hope, despite the weight of my anger, that informed and enlightened Americans can eventually make their country's role in the world a positive one. Nearly everyone I've talked to in Yemen shares this hope, which is why I'm able to sustain it in myself. So that's why I'm here: to inform, to enlighten, to challenge, and to change. Thank you for joining me.

Why we’re here

Last summer we spent some time in San'a, during which we met with a large group of Yemeni students who study English at a school run by AMIDEAST. We'd already been talking about the Yemen Peace Project for quite a while when one of the students raised her hand and asked a question that, for some reason, I had not expected. She asked us why we were doing this. It seemed strange to her—maybe even suspicious—that a bunch of young Americans would build an organization focused on the challenges facing Yemen, that we would travel all the way to San'a to talk to young people like her about the future of her country. So we felt it would be useful to address that question here. Over the next few days, all four of the directors of the Yemen Peace Project will be using this space to tell all of our friends and readers why it is that we've undertaken this project. Hopefully this will allow you all to get to know us a bit better. We also invite all of you to use the comments section to share your own reasons for wanting to get involved. Stay tuned....

Welcome to the Directors' blog!

Thank you for visiting the Yemen Peace Project. On this blog, our four co-directors -- Aliya, Dana, Tiffany, and Will -- will share updates about our activities, as well as our thoughts and observations about developments in Yemen. We will try to post updates at least once a week, so please bookmark this page and check back regularly. We hope this blog will help encourage and facilitate an informed conversation about Yemen, and US foreign policy, and we look forward to receiving your feedback in the comments section. This month we are recruiting volunteers for our Pens for Peace initiative, which aims to foster direct communication between Americans and Yemenis. Click here to learn more.