By THE NEW YORK TIMES
June 16, 2011
SANA, Yemen — After more than four months of insurrection, this tormented country may seem to be more divided than ever, with rival rallies still seizing the capital every week and fierce gun battles raging in the north and south.
But the protest sit-ins occupying Yemen’s major cities have brought Yemenis together in remarkable new ways, creating makeshift communities in which the old barriers of tribe, region, clan and gender are crumbling.
In the sprawling tent city outside of Sana University, rival tribesmen have forsworn their vendettas to sit, eat and dance together. College students talk to Zaydi rebels from the north and discover they are not, in fact, the devils portrayed in government newspapers. Women who have spent their lives indoors give impassioned speeches to amazed crowds. Four daily newspapers are now published in “Change Square,” as it is called, and about 20 weeklies.
The very length of Yemen’s protests — far longer than the 18 days of Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising — may be helping to forge new bonds and overcome this country’s deep fissures, even if the country’s political elite (and their henchmen) continue to shoot and kill one another in the near term.
“In a sense I’m happy the revolution is taking a long time, because these meetings and arguments are healthy,” said Atiaf al-Wazir, a blogger and activist. “We can’t say everything has changed, but the seeds of change are there.”
The sit-ins are taking place across Yemen, and in some areas elaborate deals have been made to allow tribesmen to join the protest without fear of being ambushed by their rivals. Many people have abandoned their jobs, adding to the economic collapse that now threatens the country.
In Sana, the protest area is virtually its own city, complete with restaurants, medical clinics, auditoriums and gardens. In addition to the newspapers, there are numerous art galleries and exhibits, and an endless series of seminars and lectures.
Unlike Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Sana protest area is not a central plaza. It is a dense network of streets running alongside the walls of Sana University — with pre-existing shops, homes and offices — and is therefore more sustainable as a community. Almost every tent has televisions and Internet, with wires and cords snaking over the canvas to the buildings nearby.
The numbers in the square have dwindled somewhat in recent weeks, with the summer heat, fighting in the capital and fuel shortages. Some protesters may have been discouraged by the long wait, and by Yemen’s uneasy political void. The president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is recovering in Saudi Arabia from burns and shrapnel wounds sustained during an attack on his palace mosque, and the capital is abuzz with constant rumors: the president is dead, the president is returning in an hour to seek revenge on his rivals.
Still, the square remains amazingly vibrant, a carnival-like city within the city. Tribesmen with daggers in their belts strut through the crowd, singing antigovernment “zamils,” or tribal chants. (“God burned your face, oh Ali,” one of them went, in a derisive reference to the president.) Vendors wheel wooden trays of glistening red tomatoes and cucumbers, while others sell fruit juices, popcorn and fried foods.
Banners bearing the names of countless political factions hang between buildings, and the faces of martyrs killed during government crackdowns decorate the tents. Underfoot is a slurry of mud, plastic bags, fliers, food and leaves of qat — the plant Yemenis chew in the afternoons for its stimulant effect.
“There are new values forming here,” said Dughesh Abdel Dughesh, a sociologist. “You can see a big sheik sweeping the street, nuclear physicists taking away garbage.”
Mr. Dughesh moved to a tent in the square early on in the protest along with his wife, two sons and three daughters. He began giving lectures on sociology and arranging for seminars on other subjects.
Not all the encounters are positive. On Tuesday, two protest factions clashed after disagreeing over a planned march, and more than a dozen protesters were beaten, some of them hospitalized.
The fighting served as a warning that Yemen remains a deeply divided country, and that the protesters’ spirit of reconciliation may turn sour — much as it did in Egypt after the revolution there — if the uprising gives way to more violence, or fails to achieve substantial change.
Mr. Dughesh, a liberal, said hard-line Islamists began stealing chairs from his tent after he taught co-ed seminars. Islamists have also intimidated women who spoke or sang in the square. Yemen’s main Islamist party, Islah, became a dominant influence early on in the protest, taking over from the politically independent youths who were the pioneers. Many protesters lament that, saying the harder-line Islah members are intolerant of the square’s diversity.
Others say the frequent confrontations between Islamists and liberals are healthy, like those between all the factions and currents represented in the square. Yemeni society is deeply conservative, and any changes to the place of religion or the role of women will come slowly. But some women say the square has changed their lives forever.
“Before, we were sitting at home like pigeons trapped in a cage,” said Jamila Ali Ahmed, a passionate 29-year-old who wore a full black niqab covering all but her eyes, like most Yemeni women. “When we arrived to the square, we felt the beauty of freedom. We feel proud now and we want a dignified life.”
On Monday evening, as a light rain fell, several dozen Yemenis crowded into a tent known as the Academic Forum. A Sana University hydrologist, dressed in a natty blue suit, was delivering a lecture on Yemen’s dire water problems.
Across the alley, a white-turbaned Zaydi imam, his face illuminated by a yellow lamp in the gathering darkness, spoke to a crowd of young men about the religious duty to expel unjust rulers. In the distance, a song was played by Muhammad al-Adra’ee, a celebrated figure in the square who entertains crowds with his dead-on mimicry of the Yemeni president.
Nearby, Abdel Raghib Ghaylan, a 32-year-old teacher, was beaming as he handed out copies of a survey on how to improve Yemen’s educational system.
“This is the real Yemen — the Yemen we’d like to see,” Mr. Ghaylan said.
Later in the evening, tribesmen from the provinces of Bayda and Marib formed two lines and began performing an athletic dance full of leaps and shouts. A poet arrived — there are countless poets in the square — and began singing verses that the tribesmen repeated in unison.
“Our people made a revolution peacefully,” the men sang, as a drummer beat a rhythm on a drum held between his knees. “No airplanes, no guns, we have just our faith, our strong faith.”