Episode 2: Cultural Memory and Peace

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Podcast transcript

Welcome to the English-language digest of the Kaleidoscope podcast, your source for inspiration.

Just like a Kaleidoscope, which creates ever new changing forms and mirroring patterns, in the Kaleidoscope podcast, different viewpoints and perspectives, different thinkers and experts are brought together in new ways. In the English digest, we pick up on some of the ideas, and reflect on them for our non-Yemeni listeners. Our aim is to inspire you to think beyond boundaries, to look at issues from new angles, and to integrate new ideas into inspiring innovative solutions.

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[Jingle from Shahi Haleeb]

Azal: What you just heard is the introductory jingle of the radio programme Shahi Haleeb, a popular call-in show that was aired on Yemen Times radio. During the transitional period after the 2011 uprisings, this show was able to connect with the street like no other. And it inspired the topic of the second episode of the Kaleidoscope podcast. 

Welcome to the English-language digest of the Kaleidoscope podcast, I am your host Azal al-Salafi, and today we will discuss cultural memories and the power of media and art to turn memories into a powerful peace-building tool. 

In our initial discussion in last week’s Arabic Kaleidoscope Podcast, we touched upon so many issues that I want to dive into deeper today. We will discuss the question how entertainment community radio shows can contribute to social cohesion and embed this discussion into the wider context of the role of cultural memory in peace making. For this, we are speaking with the host of the radio show Shay Haleeb, Sara al-Zawqari, as well as the host of the Mulawafa radio show from Seyoun, in Hadhramawt, Sabah Abdullah. To bring in the angle of cultural memory, we have here today, Aziz Morfeq, who is involved with the Basement Cultural Foundation, which is currently working on digitizing the northern heritage of Yemen from the 1960s. 

Such an amazing group of creative people! Sara, share your memories with us. You were the iconic host of this very special radio show. 

Sara: Thank you Azal, you really reminded me of those days. I consider Shahi Haleeb the programme that is the most important and closest to my heart. It connected me to Yemenis from all segments. The show was really able to break the barrier of shame that kept people silent and it created a space for the street to speak and share where the people on the street are at in their minds and hearts. It really cut across classes, regular people listened to the show, in the buses, taxis, cafeterias or their homes. And I also had politicians and businessmen participate in the show. And the show was aired at a time when this kind of space was missing in the media landscape. Everything was politicised, and we captured in a simple and spontaneous manner what was in the hearts of the people at the time. It was here that the difference occurred. People wait for the change to come from above, but real change happens on the street. 

Azal: I have to agree with every word you said Sarah. I mean today’s media is highly politicised globally, let alone the Yemeni media where trust is at an all-time low. People are in need of these kinds of media spaces that allow them not only to participate in a discussion, but a discussion that represents them. I would like to hear your take on this Aziz. Of course, you were in Yemen at the time the show was aired. What do you think made it so special? 

Aziz: Yeah, I listened to this show at the time. Sarah fascinated us with her show! I mean, it was the clarity of the show and its presentation style. The use of the colloquial Adeni dialect and black comedy gave Shay Haleeb a different character and brought it close to the audience. The Adeni dialect has its own humor which is quite uncommon in the North. It spoke to the very daily life of northerners and addressed the common issues there, but of Yemenis in general as well. And although it was broadcast from Sanaa, with the southern dialect, people in the South were also hooked to the show. And Sara won the love of people of different backgrounds and everybody loved it and everybody was waiting to hear the show every time it was broadcast. 

Sara: We know that words are powerful, but we don’t often see or know the real impact. I was lucky that every now and then someone will remind me of this and it’s extremely moving. You feel it when an old lady who has never gone to school calls to ask about elections and how she should choose her perfect candidate when the time comes. When a group of men collectively decide to put their daughters back in school after listening to an episode, which I would have never known if it wasn’t for the mothers who paid me a visit randomly to the radio and told me what happened. And when I reached the blood bank to see a huge number of people coming to donate blood after I said the day before on the radio that I’m going to donate and would love to see some listeners come as well after knowing that the blood bank was in huge need for donations especially for children. When I get called to come and see improvements made in governmental entities after criticizing them on the show. These examples really show how much people are willing to change and how entertainment is an effective tool. 

Azal: These stories you have shared are not only inspiring and powerful, Sara, but also testimonies of the impact you are having with your show. I believe that there is so much to think about when hearing these memories. The first thing that comes in my mind is the question of what potential is there today for radio stations to connect with the people. I mean what sense of “the street” remains there today? Is there still this sentiment of “we are the ordinary people” against the people in power and the parties of the conflict. We always hear that the social fabric is torn. Well, Sabah Abdullah from the Seiyun Radio Station, hosts of the Mlawafah call-in show that has a focus on women’s issues, convinced me otherwise. She says there is a longing for a unified stable state that unifies the people, the dream to finally be able to live in peace with a state again. 

Sabah/voiceover: The situation in general in Yemen is deteriorating, economically. This is a burden on the people, the currency is losing its value, and there are price hikes. People are living in a tragic situation; it is a humanitarian crisis. However, people coexist and understand each other. Their only concern is to stop the war and stabilize the country so that the people can live in security and peace, and access food. Our program does bring people together or else we would not have been able to get people’s trust. Gaining people’s trust is not easy. What is required is honesty. Responses to the people’s concerns have got to be simple and stick to the people’s dialects. Light and simple humor is also required, without exaggerations. People love this. When the host socialises with the people and talks to them, then it is easy to get their trust. 

Aziz: It is similar to Shahi Haleeb. The traditions of the press and the media require the media person to use a sophisticated language that is far from the dialect used by the people in everyday life. The spontaneity and language of the show made the listener feel like they are part of the show. So, the bus owner and the owner of the cafeteria could hear Sarah respond to the caller, respond to the stories shared with compassion, and yet a spontaneity as if she was sitting with them in the bus or the cafeteria. 

Azal: Exactly, Aziz, language is very important. And there are more similarities. Sabah explained to me how her show was able to directly support women who were in some challenging situations. The issues that the show discusses include pending alimony cases at the courts, girls dropping out of school due to early marriage, costs of dowry and polygamy. Let’s tune into the programme. 

[Quote from Sabah’s show]

Azal: This was the introduction to Sabah’s show, this one was aired in celebration of March, the month of women celebrating Mother’s Day and Women’s International Day. And we can see here how much impact this was having. I mean it really just seems that such radio shows are able to deliver what the state is not able to deliver. For example, Sabah was talking about how the program together with the Women’s Union and a group of lawyers went to the court to discuss pending cases involving women that have not been dealt with, some as long as 14 years. Thanks to Sabah’s program, they were able to move forward a large number of cases in that same month. 

I mean these shows connect to the people with a helpful hand. These shows create communities and a sense of belonging. And most of all, they provide a space for creating mutual and collective memories. Of course, radio shows, just like national TV shows, shape the identities of communities and nations. I mean just look at how people look back at the show Shahi Haleeb today. This shows how important art and entertainment is. 

Sara: I get super frustrated when I hear people say that now is not the time for art, now is not the time for culture, we are in the middle of a war, we are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, there is only space for politics. This really annoys me. Everyone has a role to play, the doctor, the politician, the military commander, the artist. We don’t want to look back and say all we had going on was war. There is more to Yemen and more to Yemenis. Weddings and gatherings are still happening. Everything is still going on, there is still life. And both realities are correct and both realities have to be reflected. 

Aziz: Yes, look at the way we recite poems today that were written and orally performed during the civil war in the 1960s, or the music from the time. Look at how it shaped our culture today. 

Azal: So, I am asking what is the potential of such art and culture to contribute to peace-building? The war in Yemen, like any other conflict, is a war of narratives, stories being told, by either of the sides. These stories are told by the media, which we understand is spreading propaganda for the conflict parties. To mobilize supporters, one party to the conflict will highlight memories of its own oppression and by doing this it distorts the historic and cultural memories of the other side. And that is how history and culture are manipulated. But how can we preserve memories in a way that would help peace? 

Aziz: Until today, oral memories were the main instruments of transferring knowledge and wisdom and events of the country, and to memorize you should have an entertaining medium’ which is usually a poem, a song, storytelling performance, gestures, or celebrations and sometimes these all work together. A story of hundreds of years could survive even in an illiterate society of an ancient time. The famous Yemeni poet Al-Baraduni says in his article titled ‘Our literature and social change’ that most of the changes occurring in Yemen was due to one simple yet important factor: reading. Reading is also an entertaining activity which includes meditative behaviours, especially if you’re not forced to it, haha! In the 1950s and 1960s, reading was the main activity for people to learn more about the world, I mean at the time there were only few radios in Yemen possessed by the upper Yemeni caste. People had to rely on whatever came to them, either from the North or through the colony of Aden. During the civil war in the 1960s in Yemen many debates started between republican and Imamite forces, around slogans like “Republic or Death” or “We will never be republicans even if we face death”. These two slogans were tempting and the whole oral heritage of the time was about these two. The war has ended and the physical damage of it has disappeared, but what remains are the oral narratives of those who lived through it as they are reflected in popular songs and poems. 

Azal: In some ways some memories from this period are today revived purposely, to mobilize for the current conflict. Others, of course, are suppressed. Everyday memories from the days of the war that are unrelated to the warring factions may have the power to reshape the way people look back. Interestingly, Sabah mentioned the Hadhrami collective memory on the socialist rule in this context, their memory is very different from the collective memory emphasised by some southern groups. 

Sabah/voiceover: From my observations, people in Wadi Hadhramawt prefer unity over separation. Unity after 1990 brought some improvements for the people of Hadhramawt compared to how they remember the Socialist Party’s rule in the area. Especially when it comes to the land, which under the socialists was taken away and made public property, and in the times of unity, it was privatised again. But still, the Hadhrami identity is strong and is reinforced through popular culture and songs. Of course, many would prefer a Hadhrami state in line with this identity. 

Azal: Of course, this is also related to justice, transitional justice. Transitional justice is always related to memory work, how to deal with the memories of the past and documentation of human rights violations, for example, forcibly disappeared people, cases of torture, lost family members, children traumatized by their recruitment as child soldiers. This will require a lot of healing, individual healing and collective healing. We can see this excellent example in South Africa.

The Yemeni society will have to find ways to turn these conflictive memories into consensual memories, as part of the peace-making process and I believe that art and staying connected as a community, through radio programs like the ones we heard about, is maybe a way this is being done. Art, culture and entertainment can create these spaces in which memories are generated that are not hateful nor divisive and it is important to hold on to these memories for the future. So that we can look back, we can see beyond just the war. 

Thank you for tuning in and listening to the second episode of the Kaleidoscope podcast. I am your host, Azal, signing out with Abu Bakr Salem’s ‘Um al-Yemen’.

*This is a non-verbatim transcript.

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German Federal Foreign Office
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