Culture and heritage are contested spaces during times of peace, and even more so during times of conflict. We spoke with Aziz Morfeq, Basement Cultural Foundation, about his views on how the current conflict is affecting the cultural scene in Yemen.
1) How would you describe the current state of the culture scene in Yemen?
It is a race against time to collect and to comprehend what has been accumulated over centuries. People who work in the cultural scene have to defy hostile circumstances, especially de facto authorities’ policies towards arts and culture in different parts of the country. Yemen was lucky that after the establishment of the republics of North and South Yemen, there were efforts to systemize cultural practices. Previously, these were often the isolated practices of enlightened rulers, like in Mukalla and Lahj, or by individuals taking this on in Aden. This struggle to enhance the cultural scene was part of the national struggle: it was organic, it had its flaws, but it kept going.
To understand the current state, we have to look at the background. Yemeni cultural infrastructure has always been the first target of any political power. After using it to gain popular acceptance, leaders change it to make it adaptable to their political agendas. For example, look at Yemen’s history since the end of the Ottoman occupation. You see different cultural practices disappear, because political powers think they represent the ancien regime. Imam Yahya kept the same military and administrative structures and titles as the Ottoman Turkish, while destroying or neglecting other types of Ottoman heritage that could otherwise be useful to reconnect to the world. Repression of certain music and musicians led many to flee to the colony of Aden, where Sanaani art flourished. Some practiced arts in secret, fearing arrest or shame based on issues such as caste. The atmosphere created by Imam Yahya tempted regional Islamists of Sunni and Shia backgrounds to make the Mutawaklite Yemen their new religious hub.
Culture was also important after the establishment of the North and South republics, when there was a modernization rush. Elites wanted to erase and to rebuild, consequently destroying aspects of historical cities, such as the walls and gates of Sana’a, Seyun, Ibb, and Taiz. In the North the republic wanted to get rid of aspects that reminded people of the theocratic and caste-ist ancien regime, without full consideration of its legacy and what did not belong to the regime. Meanwhile modernization in the South was linked to the process of nationalization. Many intellectuals who were cultural sector pioneers left, creating diaspora communities around the world. Of course the rise of Islamic religious institutions in the North was also significant, changing socio-cultural life in rural areas, leading to enormous change in gender roles and the popular cultural productions.
Dealing with culture was also hugely influenced by external circumstances, creating a sort of disconnect between people and their culture and the artistic\intellectual class practices. The more superficial, popular cultural practices mould to a very globally or regionally accepted structure to satisfy international tastes, while neglecting the local source of inspiration, and the accumulated knowledge that gave the intellectual and cultural actors and artists their unique form. This disconnection makes the cultural scene, owned mostly by the latter, get destroyed whenever the ruling authority decides to rethink cultural practices and tries to marginalize it as a form of declaring a new era.
Instead of looking for regional and international recognition, Yemenis must concentrate on how deeply they are connected to local cultures. Culture makers and artists must understand the soul of this intangible culture, and drop attempts to make Yemen look prestigious in front of the world by standardizing cultural material. Unfortunately people understand culture in an imported sense of the word. As well as art fairs, museums, and music shows, the cultural values we inherited from our ancestors are also worth examining, not to imitate but rather to understand the reason why they took those cultural decisions and whether they are suitable for our age. For example, we have local eco-cultural practices to preserve semi-tropical woods which are decaying, and these practices are a form of culture that has not been well-preserved. That is also culture.
This war has made things worse. Armed groups are radicalizing the local culture for local recognition, recalling old grievances. At the same time, the elites are relying on modernization as a Western value and not as a local and collaborative process. The elites are unconnected to society. It is necessary to learn from the world, but at the same time we should understand ourselves and our community.
2) What are the key shifts that have been caused by the war? Have you seen a decentralization (or in another sense, fracturing) in the cultural scene like there has been in other facets of Yemeni society?
The radicalization of local culture has created a great shift. People are using history and culture as instruments, so intellectuals are starting to understand from where these grievances appeared. We did not study the history of Yemen at schools properly, for political reasons. So when we reread Yemeni history, we discovered our ignorance about our local culture and that what we are seeing today happened because of that past.
As for decentralization, it is a yes and no answer. Yes, in a sense, but I think the cultural actors now are more coherent than ever because their mutual fate is common. That always happens in Yemen. Itihad Al-Kutaab (The Union of Writers) was an early, Cold War, example. It was trans-ideological, trans-geographical, and an intellectual response to authoritarian, one-party policies. This made both North and South Yemen governments anxious about Ithad’s statements and political conferences or events between the North and South. Ithad was active with members from both countries – notable names from every ideological background. But after the unification of Yemen in 1990, the role of union was reduced.
Today the cultural scene is not run by the de facto authorities, but rather observed by them, so the scene gives protection to any entity facing violence. However, there is no clear structure for the future. What are we aiming to do with what we have, how can we use it, and how are we going to function, is everything just… changed? We should be more unified when it comes to certain aspects, like continuity, and how to reproduce more initiatives that create abundance in cultural infrastructure to protect the culture from vanishing. This has happened often in our history. Decentralisation is important as a protection tool for cultures and cultural workers.
3) What about the diaspora? Beyond increasing activity abroad, what are some key ways that the flight of many ambitious Yemeni creatives has affected the dynamics of things back in Yemen itself?
The diaspora played an important role introducing Yemen to the global cultural scene and reflecting this scene to an internal local audience. Yemenis for a very long time were pioneers in that sense, especially when it comes to the narrative arts like the novel. But previously, Yemen was living in the Middle Ages, and even the South had only the British colony and three sultanates that were more modernized. So the purpose was to break the historical chain that keeps repeating itself and join the modern century. But attempts by the diaspora have failed to fully break the chain while preserving past accumulated knowledge.
Today the diaspora should pause, collectively, and admit that they do not know what to do. Then learn from the previous lessons of history. After that we can make their role active, with a clear and useful trajectory, instead of campaigns that never leave the elites. The diaspora must ask itself if war stopped, what are the guarantees that the cultural scene would remain the same? How will we make sure that the authorities are not preventing cultural creative acts as they have many times and under many labels? How can art make capital instead of temporary campaigns that die at the end or without funds? There are many questions that need answering.
4) To what extent do cultural spaces in Yemen remain elite-dominated? Have there been many efforts to shift this?
The cultural spaces are less elitist than ever. More people are practicing culture and art than in the 1990s. I hear about women who are actively involved, and this is a promising field for women. Most applicants to Basement open calls are women, and that began in the middle of the last decade. In the 1980s we used to hear of one or two women poets here and one or four women artists there, they were literally numbered. However, these non-elitist faces are becoming elitist with time, and the desire to be internationally recognized makes them less connected to local societies.
The lack of traditional cultural practices and development is problematic here. It shows Yemen as an open living museum of misery and ancient culture, and modernizing processes aren’t clear. I believe there is a disconnect between the purpose of traditions and the (external), superficial shape of traditional practices. People are taking the latter because they can be developed without the responsibility to understand the historical purposes of these practices, while the main purpose of it remains unexplored. Intellectuals must be sensitive when they deal with local cultures.
5) What are a few key ways that various actors inside and outside Yemen can help to support the cultural community in Yemen? What are the most pressing needs?
They could have serious conversations about culture and arts between all the actors, inside and in the diaspora, to understand what should be prioritized and how to enlist them in activities. There needs to be an acknowledgment of previous eras past mistakes to reach better recommendations and cultural policies. They would need to involve the local cultures in the cultural scene by enhancing their understanding of preservation, analysis, and development methods. And finally, they should hold those who commit crimes against culture accountable, crimes that are either tangible, such as bombing historical citadels, or less tangible, such as preventing local cultural and religious practices.
Aziz Morfeq is the monitoring and evaluation officer for Basement Cultural Foundation. Basement is an independent, non-profit cultural institution. It aims to promote human rights principles through art by providing young people free and safe spaces to network, build capacity, and share cultural and artistic performances. In 2015, Basement started to focus on promoting peace and coexistence via art, believing art has a critical role in conflict mitigation.
Adam Baron is a writer and political analyst. He was based in Yemen from 2011–2014. He is also a YPC Board Member.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
An event at the Basement Cultural Foundation, 2016. Credit: Rahman Taha.