Sunday, December 11, 2011

Yemen’s heritage under threat: Zabid

Arie Amaya-Akkermans | 11 December 2011
Heir to an ancient culture spanning through several millennia and that goes back to the 3rd millennium BC, time by which it is believed to have been inhabited by a Semitic tribe – the Qahtani, modern Yemen is home to innumerable treasures of history and archaeology, most of which, due to the slow and early modernization of the state, are available to the visitor in plain view, even if not properly taken care of and subject to constant looting, expropriation, demolition and above all, oblivion.
Closed to the Western world for centuries and vastly unexplored, not only because of its difficult topography but also because of a turbulent history, Yemen is today known to be the place where the Arabian Peninsula and Africa met, and the home of the Sabean civilization, a rich and powerful culture distinct from that of mainland Arabia and that rapidly vanished after the arrival of Islam, leaving much to be imagined and some traces in the language and culture of the place that diverse as it is, can still be seen today.
Known to Greek geographer Ptolemy as “Arabia Felix” (Happy Arabia) because of the fertile land, moister climate and great wealth, there seems to be something of irony today in the term: After gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, it was ruled by a monarchy and then followed a brief revolution in the aftermath of which we have witnessed continuous armed strife, civil wars, secession, reunification, and in more recent times two equally unfortunate phenomena: The long-claimed status of the country as the home-base of Al-Qaeda and the Shia insurgency in Sa’adah governorate since 2004. From its ancient status as a place of great wealth, Yemen remains today one of the world’s poorest countries.
In 2011 the Yemeni uprising – part of the Arab Spring – the people demanded the resignation of long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh and after the signature of a power transfer deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, there seem to be some steps pointing in the direction of a possible democratic future for the country.
Yesterday, long-time activist Tawakkul Karman received the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to receive the prestigious award. As little attention as the Yemeni uprising received from the international community, it is possible that Karman’s status as a Nobel laureate will bring her at the forefront of the international scene and help her promote some positive change in the country.
Among the many things that need to be built or re-built and protected in Yemen is its ancient heritage. Three places in the country have been declared UNESCO world heritage sites: The Old Walled City of Shibam – known as the Manhattan of the desert – in 1982, the Old City of Sana’a in 1986 and more recently the historic town of Zabid in 1993.
Other than that, there are dozens of places of archeological interest spread all over the country and the now famous Socotra Archipelago, added by UNESCO in 2008 to the World Heritage Marine Program. The archipelago lies in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden and comprises four islands and two rocky islets which appear as a prolongation of the Horn of Africa; famous for its rich biodiversity and unique flora and fauna.
The iconic Shibam is a 16th century city surrounded by a fortified wall and seems to be the oldest example of vertical construction out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut, from which the governorate where it is located, takes its name. Shibam has been ensured protection through the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY), anchored in the Antiquities Law of 1997 and the Building Law of 2002. A joint-project run since 2000 with the German GTZ has improved the small city’s overall condition.
The Old City of Sana’a – inhabited for over two millennia –on the other hand, even though it has received substantial investment from public and private sector and international organizations is rapidly becoming more and more vulnerable because of social mobility and threatened by modern hotels and telecommunication towers in the surrounding landscape. Other than that it has also been the site of constant gunfire in the course of the Yemeni uprising and has been susceptible to significant damage. The case of Sana’a has received little attention but the UNESCO has requested from the Yemeni government to avoid further deterioration since a great deal of the structures are still intact, however they might be under threat.
The last case and most recent addition to the list – Zabid – remains largely forgotten and of almost impossible resolution: Located on Yemen’s western coastal plain – the Tihama – and named after Wadi Zabid, it was of great importance in the Arab and Muslim worlds for many centuries because of its Islamic university. It was the capital of Yemen during the Rasulid period and its unique and colorful architecture is a mixture of Arabian, East African and Indian styles, nowhere else to be found.
With the establishment of Ottoman rule, Zabid was neglected when the seat of government moved to the capital, Sana’a. In spite of everything, the city enjoyed a reputation among religious scholars of both the Shafi and Hanafi schools of Islam, what came to an abrupt end in 1962 after the republican revolution when many of the religious institutions moved to the regional capital, Hodaida. Similar has been the fate of local commerce, partly due to bad planning in urban and agricultural policies that has significantly impoverished a once more or less wealthy region.
Traditional houses in Zabid evolved around a small courtyard – qabal – and built more and more rooms as were needed, around the “qabal”. They were built with bricks made from local clays and the water used in the indigo tanneries of the city was mixed with the clay, giving it a characteristic bluish color, adorning the facades with different patterns of bricks imitating Cairo arches, Indian floral patterns, African animals and also Arabic calligraphy. The external surface of the facades was covered with layers of lime, adding more and more layers through the years, giving the impression that the houses were part of the local nature.
This unique and particular style changed ironically right after it was declared a world heritage site (1993) and the city suffered a great loss of its historical identity when many emigrants returned during the Gulf War, causing population growth that in turn led to increasing demand of more and more housing. Cheaper materials were sought for and in the total absence of strict protection of the heritage; the distortion of the city began unmolested.
Even though it is the second Yemeni city in number of mosques after Sana’a – some of which are over 14 centuries old – and has about 4000 houses ranging between 200 and 600 years, it was estimated in 2009 by the General Authority of Protecting Historical Cities (GAPHC) that over 40% of the houses had suffered distortions from their original form with the widespread usage of modern materials, and over 60% of the original houses were abandoned or ruined.
Already in 2000 the city was placed in the list of endangered heritage sites and in 2007 a Mission Report of UNESCO’s World Heritage stated that Zabid was then at a critical point of no longer having world heritage value: The degradation of the city was described as on-going and an initial survey revealed than over 50% of the original historic buildings were already completely destroyed. The permanence of Zabid in the list, at least temporarily, was based on the fact that there are still many monuments and areas of national and international value in terms of world heritage. Needless to say, UNESCO consultants became enervated by the inability of the Yemeni authorities to preserve the site.
At the alarming news, a German-sponsored mission – following from the success of Shibam – was established for Zabid in 2009, in order to avoid the removal of the city from the list that would indefinitely harm Yemen’s place in the cultural and touristic map of the world, with devastating effects for an already impoverished economy and that would set the mood for the ultimate destruction of the entire site. According to its director, Omar Hallaj, most of the damage done to the site was reversible and some conservation plans could be put into action.
Two years later, the city is still protected as a world heritage site by UNESCO even though it retains the endangered site status and unless action is taken, it is very probable that it will be removed from the list in the very near future. After several months of unrest in the course of the Yemeni uprising, the plight of the city remains unheard, unemployment and poverty are even more widespread than before and a collapsing state infrastructure has made it impossible to follow up on the different initiatives taken in 2007 and 2009.
There might be still some chance for Zabid not to fall into oblivion if the newly appointed Yemeni authorities and the prominent activists do not forget the great potential that historical sites in Yemen have in bringing revenues from tourism and in establishing the future Yemen as a destination for historical tourism.
There are still dozens of cities and hundreds of scattered sites all over the Yemen, deserving articles of their own, to tell their stories and to call for action in order to prevent further damage. It would be at the same time realistic to think, that Shibam will continue to receive funding from Germany in purview of its apparent success and that any new initiatives would look at the Old City of Sana’a rather than other places.
That goes not without saying that it would be a great loss to the Middle East if such an important – albeit forgotten – place like Zabid would ultimately succumb to terminal destruction and end up having no world heritage value at all, as it has been the case with many sites in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number of issues to be tackled in a post-revolutionary Yemen scenario are too long to be listed in one article or in a dozen, and probably culture and heritage is not even near the top of the list; nevertheless it is important not to forget that heritage is not only a question of tourism, but also one of the most elementary forms of nation-building.

AL welcomes forming Yemeni government

CAIRO , Dec. 11 (Saba) - Arab League (AL) welcomed on Sunday the formation of the new Yemeni government under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa.
In a press release, AL Secretary General Nabil al-Araby called on all Yemeni sides to unify their visions about the requirements of the current stage, stressing the League's readiness to continue its support for the efforts of the Yemen's government to bring back the national reconciliation on the transitional phase's objectives.
Al-Araby said that the new government may be a beginning of a new phase, in which the Gulf initiative and its executive mechanism would be carried out to ensure peaceful transition of power and stop all acts of violence.

3 Women Accept Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo

December 11, 2011
Two women from Liberia, and one from Yemen who fought injustice, dictatorship, and sexual violence against women were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
At the ceremony in Norway's capital Oslo Saturday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni women's rights advocate Tawakkul Karman, accepted their prize and called on repressed women worldwide to rise up against male supremacy.
Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically elected female president has been widely applauded with her efforts to help her country emerge from a brutal civil war.
A 39-year-old activist, Gbowee, has been credited with campaigning for women's rights and against rape.
And journalist and activist Karman, is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and is credited for fighting for democracy and peace in her country, which has been wracked by demonstrations and violence this year.
The three women will share an award of nearly 1-and-a-half million US dollars.

In chaos, Qaeda recovers: Partisans of Sharia extend influence in Yemen

December 11, 2011
Group linked to Qaeda extends its influence in restive south, hopes to create Islamic emirate that reaches into north.
By Wissam Keyrouz - SANAA
A group linked to Al-Qaeda has profited from Yemen's political turmoil, extending its influence in the restive south and hopes to create an Islamic emirate that reaches into the north, residents and analysts said.
Militants from the group known as Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law) are already imposing Islamist law in a string of southern towns which they control, residents said.
"The members of Al-Qaeda move freely between the four (adjoining) provinces," said analyst Zeid al-Sallami, referring to Abyan and Shabwa in the south, the oil-rich Marib in the east Al-Jawf in the north.
Strengthened by its recent successes against government forces, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a fusion of the group's Yemeni and Saudi branches "is getting ready to proclaim an Islamic emirate in southern Yemen," he said.
The group may then try to extend its influence north, Sallami added.
Residents said that during 11 months of protests against Yemen's veteran leader President Ali Abdullah Saleh, fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliated group filled the vacuum left by retreating government troops.
"After the outbreak of the 'Youth Revolution' the state's presence started to weaken and we were surprised by the withdrawal of the security services," said a local official from the city of Azzan in Shabwa province.
"Al-Qaeda, which already had a clandestine presence in our region, has come out into the light and taken control of the city and two other neighbouring localities," the official, who requested anonymity, added.
"Today, the Partisans of Sharia have taken the place of the state: they control the traffic, are repairing the hospital, and are applying the law," he said.
According to residents, the group's emir, or leader, in Azzan operates out of the police station and judges local disputes.
Those found guilty of theft face punishments that include the amputation of a hand, while those whose behaviour is deemed immoral are flogged, witnesses said.
Although the group applies draconian justice, Abdel Wahed, who asked that his family name be withheld, said the Partisans of Sharia are "trying as much as possible to avoid clashes with the residents and the tribes."
"They are even trying to woo them over," he said.
In addition to Azzan, the Islamist militants have also spread their control over the districts of Huta and Rawda in Shabwa province.
In the neighbouring Abyan province, Islamist fighters have also taken advantage of a weakening central authority, seizing control of several towns, including the provincial capital Zinjibar.
Residents reported that government troops withdrew from parts of the region even before the Islamist fighters arrived.
Some of Saleh's opponents accused the president of deliberately letting the Islamists extend their influence, so that he could present himself as a desperately needed bulwark against the growing Al-Qaeda threat.
But Saleh has now signed a deal securing his exit from power, set for February after 33 years in power, and a transitional national unity government was due to be sworn in on Saturday.
As Yemen strives for political stability, government troops continue to clash with Islamist fighters, but have so far been unable to take back full control of southern towns and cities seized by Al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Demonstrations in Yemen demand trial for president

By Ahmed Al-Haj
Associated Press / December 11, 2011
SANAA, Yemen—Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis are demonstrating to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh face trial for his regime's deadly crackdown on months of protests.
Sunday's rallies are taking place in the capital, Sanaa, and other cities.
After months of pressure, Saleh signed a deal last month to step down as president in exchange for immunity from prosecution. New presidential elections are set for Feb. 21.
The deal has failed to end the protests, which began last February with calls for his ouster. Protesters also rejected a unity government formed over the weekend that includes some ministers from Saleh's administration.
In part of the capital where armed tribesmen have battled Saleh's forces, five explosions were heard early Sunday. A medic said two people were injured.

Protesters flood Yemen’s streets again

Sana'a, Dec 11, 2011
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have flooded the streets of Yemen’s large cities demanding trial for the ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh who stepped down and scheduled new elections for February 21.
However, the protesters want him to face punishment for violent crackdowns on the opposition.
On December 10, Yemen’s new government of national unity led by Muhammd Bassandava was sworn in. Half of the cabinet is represented by the opposition while the rest of the ministers are Assad’s supporters.