Missing Voices in Yemen's Uprising

Missing Voices in Yemen's Uprising

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SAN FRANCISCO—At the forefront of Yemen’s recent government opposition is a 32-year-old woman named Tawakkol Karman, a mother of three and chair of the Yemeni organization, Women Journalists Without Chains

But she is barely part of the coverage of these massive protests in American mainstream media, according to some Yemeni-Americans.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, age 22, said he has been anxiously following the political unrest in Yemen since violence erupted over three weeks ago. While monitoring major U.S. newspapers and television networks, he became concerned with distortions he perceived in mainstream American and Western media.

“I don’t like the way it’s being portrayed,” said Alkhanshali, a student at City College of San Francisco and an active member of the local Yemeni community since high school. “Pundits are just representing themselves as experts, analyzing the situation, but I’m sure they’ve never even been to Yemen themselves,” he said.

Alkhanshali said the role of women in this movement has not been addressed enough in the U.S. media. At the forefront of the Yemeni government opposition, the Islah Party, a woman named Karman is seen as the key protest leader. 

"She is doing so much all by herself," he said, adding that her work has inspired other Yemeni women to play a role in the movement.

Alkhanshali is also worried about the coverage lacking context. He believes a critical part of understanding the current unrest in Yemen is to understand the country’s history.

Yemeni-American Ashwaq Hauter, 24, a recent University of California, Berkeley, graduate, echoed Alkhanshali’s concerns.

“I don’t agree with how it’s being covered,” said Hauter, who completed a year-long anthropological research project in Yemen in 2009.

She continued, “It’s important to understand the past to make sense of the present. They [American media] don’t contextualize and basically say that people in Yemen hate their government. But they don’t understand the history, the conflicts between the north and south. They neglect so many important factors in their reporting.”

Hauter, who came to the U.S. when she was age eight, explained that key elements missing in the coverage include discussions of the disunity among protesters and historical issues regarding the political structure in Yemen’s northern and the southern regions.

According to Hauter, the north established its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and has an enduring history of following tribal culture and politics. It is also where current president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office since 1978, has his family and tribal roots –and the most support.

The south--a British Colony that only became independent in 1967--has less tribal politics and has long been at a substantial economic disadvantage to the more prosperous north. The official Republic of Yemen was founded in 1990, and a three-month-long civil war erupted in 1994, where the weaker south was ultimately defeated.

Khalid Ghaleb, 57, of the San Francisco branch of the United Muslims of America Interfaith Alliance, suggested that this lack of unity is what is keeping Yemen’s protests from reaching the high numbers Egypt or Tunisia saw.

But Ghaleb, Alkhanshali and Hauter all said that the coverage of Yemen’s demonstrations should not be compared to the uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia.

“I want to tell everyone in the U.S., everyone unfamiliar with this situation: Do not homogenize Yemen. People need to understand that Yemen is not Egypt,” Hauter said.

Another concern about U.S. coverage that these Yemeni-Americans have is the negative image that existed in the American media even before the current demonstrations.

Alkhanshali said that he found a January 2010 Steven Colbert Report episode about Yemen especially misguided

In that episode, Colbert’s conservative character stated that “some good has come out of the latest attack on America, we now have a new place to fear.” Colbert’s statement is followed by a montage of various cartoon and television-news interviews suggesting Yemen is tomorrow’s war.
Attempting to mock the tone of a biased Fox News anchor, Colbert’s faux news anchor said, “We have a third country to fill our axis of evil.”

So many Americans watch Colbert for the underlying truth in his over-the-top satire of a right-wing news commentator that Alkhanshali and the other Yeminis interviewed for this article were dismayed by the program’s unsympathetic depiction of the Yemeni situation. Instead of improving American’s understanding of Yemen, they said they saw Colbert as merely reinforcing the comical image of their country as a refuge for comically inept terrorists—an image not much countered by actual news channels.

Colbert’s segment came on the heels of reports of so-called “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was suspected of carrying explosives in his underwear on the Dec.25, 2009, flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Abdulmutallab allegedly had connections with Al-Qaeda members in Yemen and is currently in U.S. custody awaiting trial.

But Alkhanshali said it is not only national media that has misrepresented Yemen and the Yemeni-American community, it is also happening on the local level.

Last April, former San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon suggested that the San Francisco Hall of Justice was susceptible to a terrorist attack by a member of the Middle Eastern community. Later he clarified that he was only referring to the Yemeni and Afghan communities. He publicly apologized shortly thereafter.

The Long History of Yemen and the United States

Hauter said that people don’t understand the Yemeni community or realize that Yemeni’s have a long history in the United States. In Hauter’s case, her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all lived and worked here and held U.S. citizenship.

New York, Michigan and California have among the largest Yemeni American populations. In New York during the early 1900s, Yemenis settled and mainly worked in factories. At the same time, in Michigan, Yemeni immigrants obtained jobs in the automotive industry in Detroit and eventually opened the way for their male relatives in Yemen to get automotive jobs here.

In Central California, Yemeni immigrants have worked as agricultural laborers in the San Joaquin Valley since the 1920s.

But while Yemeni’s say that they are proud of their achievements in the United States, they are not supportive of the role the U.S. government has played in supporting the Yemeni military with weapons.

“I was just in Yemen visiting family a few months ago and I couldn’t believe how many [military officers] I saw with M16s. That has never happened,” Alkhanshali said.

He noted the recent $75 million the U.S. has allocated for Yemeni military training  Alkhanshali called it mismanagement of funding and taxpayer money.

“We need more money to build the infrastructure--for schools, hospitals, strengthening, the economy,” Hauter said.

Ghaleb said that the Yemeni Diaspora supports the protests and recognizes that they will strengthen the movement. He emphasized that a united Yemen and the accompanying positive change continues to be the community’s greatest hope, but that this needs to be achieved by Yemen and no one else.

“It is not and should not be an American situation,” he said. “The conflict is an internal Yemeni conflict. They are organizing, they have Twitter, Facebook--they are trying to educate themselves like everyone else to achieve their goals.”