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.
Don’t forget that you are part of this Kaleidoscope, and sharing your thoughts is important to us. Contact us after each episode on social media, or at [email protected].
“Saghira was aptly named: slight of physique and short in stature. With the first light of morning a helicopter came to take her to Sanaa, where she swore the constitutional oath and became the first woman to take the office of president since the founding of the republic. Within a year, Saghira had issued the three laws that the people of Yemen have all learned by heart:
First: The Law of Cultural Education.
Second: The Law of the Rules of Proper Behavior
Third: The Law of the Ten Sacrosanct Cities”
Mohamed: That was an excerpt from the story Saghira’s Laws, written by the Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal and published on the Yemen Policy Center website earlier this year. I am Mohamed al-Iriani and today we want to talk about this story.
Welcome to the first English-language digest of our Kaleidoscope podcast series. The story we are discussing today deals with a fictional race for the Yemeni presidency. At the end, the race is won by Saghira, and her laws created a new Yemen. At a first glance, the story is a humorous epic that takes the reader on an incredible adventure. At a second glance, the story holds many deep meanings. I am here today with Shaima Bin Othman, my colleague from the Yemen Policy Center, to discuss this story, which was the topic of the first episode of the Kaleidoscope podcast released a week ago. The English translation of the story was written by David Kanbergs.
Shaima: Thank you, that’s right. The story struck my imagination and made me think, ‘What if?’ Many questions come to mind when one reads the story. Mohamed and I sat down with Ziad al-Qahm, the writer, novelist, and editor-in-chief of the Yemeni Story Club magazine, ‘al Maqa’ to analyze the story for the podcast Kaleidoscope.
Mohamed: Yes, the meeting lasted for over an hour and we could have gone on to explore even more interpretations. Ziad provided input from his perspective as an expert of literature.
Ziad/Voiceover: At the outset, let us say that literature – and specifically, narrative writing, to which the story, the novel, and the theater belong – creates other worlds, alternatives to real life. First, it conveys pleasure to the audience. And second, it conveys to them the possibilities of how life can work differently, how there can be solutions to the problems they suffer from.
Shaima: Ziad’s words resonate with me. After so many years of war, it has become difficult to imagine other ways out. It appears that such a radical break from reality that is still somehow rooted in Yemen’s challenges and politics could wake us all up. Let’s listen to another snippet from the story.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference at the beginning of 2014, there appeared in the media an announcement for an open position:
“Man or woman wanted for the position of President of the Republic. Applicant must hold Yemeni citizenship, possess excellent reading and writing skills, and be of good character.”
Shaima: So, in ‘Saghira’s Laws’ Wajdi Al-Ahdal presents a special vision of the concept of the presidency of the republic. Of course we experienced the presidency as something that is held by a single person for several decades. It was unthinkable that there would be a transfer of power, the president was like a king. President for life. In his story, Wajdi al-Ahdal presents the job just like any other job, like a chef in a restaurant or a cashier in the supermarket. To fill the vacancy, the politicians search for a suitable person. This person works in this position for a certain period and then leaves. When we come to compare it with reality, there are many messages that arrive only in an artistic way.
Mohamed: Exactly, Ziad described how the story, in order to lead us to all these ideas, created a special world. Or let’s say it started with a world that is very similar to ours. An ordinary world, the world we live in. But in the course of events, it transitioned into a mystical world very different from ours. But the author forces us with his writing to make comparisons, and that is how the meanings and messages emerge.
I mean, the obstacles in the story seem mystical, nearly impossible, but it shows how impossible the obstacles are that we need to overcome in Yemen today. There are so many references in the story to Yemeni history and society. Interestingly, Ziad believes the author was making a case against traditionalism. He referred to the old Black woman who was killed by the Janabiya because she belongs to a marginalized group. The author, according to Ziad, wants to convey that traditionalism is the killer.
Shaima: At the same time he shows how a member of a group marginalized in Yemen comes to do greatnesses. Saghira, a woman whose name translates to ‘small’ was able to overcome all obstacles. She represents a glimmer of hope. Let’s tune into the story one more time.
“Saghira married a street seller, who continued his profession until the promulgation of the new labor laws, after which he opened up a shop selling household goods. Saghira bore him a daughter, whom she named Amal.
In 2053 Saghira died of a heart attack. The Yemeni people in their entirety turned out for her funeral, and millions cried as they bid her farewell on her final journey.
Perhaps the most eloquent words given on the occasion of her death were spoken by the president who occupied the office after her:
‘She has passed. Her picture is hung in every home, her name engraved on every heart, Saghira has departed, having made of us a mature people’.”
Shaima: Isn’t it interesting that her name is so ordinary, she does not have one of the noble names which one would expect in Yemen to rise up to this level. Instead she comes from the ordinary people. And she is a woman! Of course with Queen Bilkis we have a strong historic figure in our culture representing women leadership. This character alone shows how meaningful this story is. And Ziad also touched upon this.
Ziad/voiceover: Talking about the problems of art and messages, there is interesting artwork and beautiful narrative writing, but they do not all necessarily create a message. And there are works that carry an important message, but at the expense of creativity. As for ‘Saghira’s Laws’, it is devoted to the idea of creativity and quality of literature to the fullest extent. At the same time, the message comes through smoothly and clearly.
Shaima: That is why we love the story. One of the messages that caught my attention was how the story also beautifully dealt with the idea of the country needing a foreign expert.
Mohamed: Ah, you mean the part of the story when the parliamentarians summoned a foreign mathematician to propose a new selection process for choosing a president, after the three previous presidents had been killed?
Shaima: Exactly, Mohamed. Even though this expert wrote something that is difficult, if not impossible to understand, it was the foreign experts’ suggestions that were adopted without question and which eventually led to this out of this world selection process, filled with riddles and challenges that all candidates had to go through. It seemed, the expert just writes whatever comes to mind, but people welcomed him, perhaps because of some “foreign expert complex”. There appears to be an impression that the foreign experts’ propositions are somehow superior, although they make little sense. Let’s take a look at what the selection process looks like
When the applicants for the position learned that the chance of passing the test, which was given the name “Moses’ Wandering,” was only one in a million, and that failing the test meant certain death, the number of applicants dropped from forty million to only four thousand!
Mohamed: Yeah, so the rest of the story then sees this selection process as proposed by the foreign expert play out. Ziad al-Qahm compared the process with an election. In our conversation he said that any election is the process of choosing someone from a large number of people. However, the story presented, in a fantastical way, strange events in which the candidates reduced in number until Saghira finally arrived and presented her experience in order to rule the country. So how does the selection process continue, how does it affect the candidates?
Thus out of four thousand candidates there remained only two men and one woman. Just a stone’s throw away they saw a man flipped upside down, his head on the earth, his hands on either side supporting him, and his legs raised upward. The woman asked the man what he was doing. He replied that he suffered from a guilt complex, and was therefore punishing himself by staying in this position from sunup to sundown. One of the two men said to him: “Whatever you do you’ll never forgive yourself.” Hardly had he finished his sentence when he suddenly found himself flipped head over heels, his head glued to the earth and his legs raised upward, unable to right himself. He began to weep and begged his two companions to kill him and deliver him from this torture, but they left him and continued on their way.
Shaima: So these obstacles and fantastical events that are part of this selection process are impossible, unreal. Obviously an ordinary person cannot survive them. I am wondering if these descriptions somehow reflect the dynamics and effects of the war itself. Yemenis as a nation are going through impossible situations, families are losing loved ones, trauma, starvation. Yemenis are going through experiences which might feel to them unbelievable, and which could only be described with these fantastical metaphors. Individually, the events in the story make little sense, but maybe collectively they represent the war, which causes pain and trauma that is indescribable and makes no sense to anyone. But let’s see how Saghira won the race and became president.
The man and the woman continued their journey. Suddenly they heard the roar of a torrential flood coming from behind them. The man looked behind him, then took off running to a high hill. But the woman didn’t turn around. Instead, she restrained herself and refused to panic. The mighty current overtook her, but she let it sweep her away, she didn’t fight it. Suddenly she found the wooden ladder in front of her, so she climbed up atop it. The waters took her to the lake of the Marib Dam, and from there she ascended, then walked along in the light of a full moon. She reached the throne of Bilqis just before daybreak, and sat down upon the black stone.
Shaima: But what can we learn from all of this for making peace today? Should we listen to the experts, or not? Do we need a woman as president? Should our traditional structures make way for something new? Frankly, the story makes one aspire and imagine. Can we witness an election in reality, like what happened in the story of ‘Saghira’s Laws’? The competition and selection of candidates?
Mohamed: I think it is also about the possibility of alternatives. Wajdi al-Ahdal dreamed up this alternative reality, and he makes it look so easy to do. It is of course hard to use one’s imagination to that extent, but such stories inspire to think beyond what is apparent, beyond what’s given, and beyond boundaries. This story should inspire peace mediators to imagine beyond the cycle of talks and violence. Let’s try to imagine beyond the contingency of the UN peace process.What else is out there and what other routes to peace exist?
Shaima: Well said Mohamed. And we want to hear what you think after reading the story and hearing the podcast. So get in touch with us via social media or [email protected]. We want to thank you for tuning in and we will hear you for the next episode! And a shout out to Ahmed al-Hagri our Creative Guru and our donor, the German Federal Foreign Office.
[Introduction music comes from: https://artlist.io/artist/611/lalinea]
German Federal Foreign Office