In the face of the terrible war and famine in Yemen, Bushra al-Maktari struggles to recall the hopeful beginnings of the revolution. Still, her spiritual retrospective zooms in on a concept that is also central to the Yemeni revolution: dignity.
Dignity has eyes and lips and shoulders. And it has feet, which followed the road of dreams to the very end with no sense of the storm that was coming, never realizing that its calls for freedom would melt away in the fierce heat of all the noons that would fall upon this sad country.
But those feet reclaiming their ground, the shoulders that squared up against tanks before falling to welter in their own blood, the throats that drove away the injustice of their captors, the eyes that saw how they might grow wings in the shadow of the past — it was these alone that gave dignity shape and form, even if the fates of their owners (and the fate of a country now at war) were to take a different road.
I open my eyes and I remember. February 2, 2011, a Wednesday afternoon: A gathering of young men and women—journalists, lawyers, civil society activists—at the office of lawyer Yasmine al-Sabry. The tiny, windowless room seemed to hold the whole world within its four walls. There was the uproar of impassioned debate as the Youth For Change movement discussed plans for the next day’s demonstration—where they would assemble, what their fears and hopes were—while another group busily wrote slogans on cardboard signs. And as I remember, I begin to hear them: the voices of Sana and Yasmine, of Mutlaq and Eiban and Ishraf and Ahmed and Ghazi and Tawfik and Mohammed and Wessam. I see Yassin Abdel Qader hunched over a cardboard sign, listing the revolution’s demands in red, freeing his fingers from the grip of our collective fears. Thin, dark-skinned, from the mountain villages of Jebel Sabir high above the clouds, Yassin’s revolutionary dreams pushed their way towards the light as quickly as it takes a coffee bush to ripen. But Yassin was to learn that sometimes dreams can turn bitter: a few months later he was detained and imprisoned by the regime of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, held in cells in Taiz, only to lose his life in the war that followed. He was in his early thirties and left behind an indelible pain in the hearts of family and friends.
The day after that meeting, Yassin was in the front ranks of the demonstration outside a gas station in the Osifra district of Taiz as they marched, full of trepidation, towards the office of the governor. The glare of the noon sun, and the gleam of sweat on the brows of the young men and women as they reclaimed their selfhood after years imprisoned by fear, are etched in my memory: the bright glow seems to delineate the boundary between freedom and humiliation. Then I remember them standing like another Marib Dam, facing the concrete barricades that surrounded the governor’s building and the soldiers with their levelled guns. I remember Dr. Mohammed Makharesh mounting the barricades, chest bared, defying the soldiers and security officers and the armored car that lurked on the other side.
In my mind’s eye the footsteps sweep like sunlight through the streets and alleys of the city, reflecting off the roofs and office blocks before fading like the autumn wind. These were not the same feet that would fill the city’s streets, marching to Taiz’s Freedom Square and Sanaa’s Change Square to pitch their tents, before the forces of dissent began to turn the country towards war. These feet were still new, callow, yet to learn that the coming storm would cut their dreams short. But at the time, they still dreamed of their right to a country that made room for all.
That day, the marching feet were outstripped by the mocking looks directed at a young woman standing in a street meant only for men. I remember Yasmine al-Sabry standing in the khat market with a small knot of protestors, no more than ten. She had borrowed a microphone from the khat sellers and in her deep, harsh voice was chanting, “Workers of the world rise up! Workers! Peasants!” Her head was thrown back to face heaven, the echo of her voice rising up over the curses of the khat sellers, the muttering of bystanders, the din of traffic.
The memory of the Revolution Bus comes back to me now, like a stab to the heart. This small white van with rusted doors would roam the streets and lanes and dirt tracks of the city, frequently breaking down in the middle of the road. I remember the smoke rising from the ancient engine as demonstrators pushed it through the fish market, past the fishmongers’ tables and knives and their watchful eyes, which were turned on the young men and women who struggled behind the van. It belonged to comrade Ayoub al-Salihi, who would set out every morning to follow the marches around the city, a loudspeaker on its roof blaring out, “This land is my day, I walk in her noon.” The power of this patriotic anthem by Yemeni singer Ayoub Tarish surged through our blood. “All my land’s pride lives in me and all its shame…” As those words echoed in our ears and our heads, we felt ourselves reclaiming our pride in a land that must, we felt, belong to all of us. Now, of course, it belongs to fighters and warring factions, not to its people, but on the day of the march we hardly paid any attention to the security forces that tracked our progress with their watchful eyes, nor to their guns, fully loaded and ready to pick us off, nor to the tank whose barrel swung to follow us down the road.
Every day, Ayoub’s bus traversed the zone of fear to reach its far side, blaring slogans of freedom into the faces of the security forces. On the day of that march, and on many subsequent ones, Ayoub escaped the attention of those security forces by sheer good fortune, only to be disappeared many years later during the current (ongoing) conflict, by authorities claiming to speak on behalf of that same revolution. Those authorities would leave the bus in Freedom Square as a memorial to atrocity while Ayoub himself, his body, would be hidden from view, behind the walls of a prison that remains unidentified to this day.
Dignity finds its power in the bodies that stood face to face with death and did not turn away, defying the snipers whose crosshairs were trained on their dreams.
It was around this time that the journalist Maha al-Sharjabi came into our lives. She was like a morning star. It is impossible to imagine the gains made by dignity in the course of the revolution without picturing Maha with her tiny camera, documenting the daily marches and protests as well as the daily lives of the protestors camped out in Freedom Square. You could watch her making her way through the front ranks of the marches, using her parasol to bat aside the Islamists who had formed a human chain to keep men and women apart. Like a true citizen of Yemen, Maha rose above the gender discrimination and violence of the demonstrators, fighting against all forms of hegemonic and patriarchal oppression.
I remember. The fizz of bullets and crump of shells fired by tanks stationed outside the General Revolutionary Hospital had scattered the demonstrators. One of them was killed. Maha walked towards death and confronted a soldier. I watched her arguing with him, grabbing his gun so he was forced to knock her to the ground. But then he let the demonstrators who were left continue on their way.
I remember another march, where people lay claim to the glory they were owed by their courage. An armored car and a riot van armed with a water cannon and tear gas left their station outside the Radio and Television Building and headed for the demonstrators in Finance Street. The gunfire and gas canisters did not deter these fragile bodies from confronting their tormentors. It was as though they were defying death itself: as soon as injured demonstrators had recovered, they would return to the frontlines. When the security forces fired their third gas canister, dozens of demonstrators lost consciousness. I don’t know how I managed to stumble and roll from the top of the street down the steep slope to the other end. I remember Maha al-Sharjabi’s hand reaching out for me through the smoke and bullets, and then I was by her side along with Riham, Yasmine, Sanaa, and other women demonstrators, standing in Finance Street and chanting against the thuggish swagger of the regime and the brutality of its security forces.
Dignity can bring oppression, too, like when the regime strips its citizens of the right to protest. Or it recedes into the distance altogether, like the time when protestors’ tents were set alight in the square. Yet even amid such injustice, people create dignity with their bodies.
I remember. May 29, 2011, a Sunday. Sunset. The sky over Freedom Square was cloudy with tear gas. I could see neither my own feet nor the heads of those around me as they fled death. Bodies shoved at one another in their bid to escape with their lives, and the screams of panic were deafening. The square had become a battlefield between security forces and the encircled protestors. For the past four months, the protestors had occupied the square, while the armored cars and troops were situated by the square’s southern entrance. There was an unspoken agreement that neither side would cross the line between them. But earlier that day, a group of protestors had been lured to a security station, the first step in a marathon effort to burn them out of the square. Now, bullets were flying in every direction and the acrid reek of tear gas was mixed with smoke from the fires that had already consumed dozens of the protestors’ tents. Then the bulldozers began to roll over them. The Reform Party’s security council fled, followed by the leadership of the other parties who, moments before, had been fighting for control of the microphone on the square’s main stage. Other protestors held firm to the bitter end. I remember one elderly man who stayed put, waving his flag outside the entrance to his tent, refusing to move for the bulldozer or the security forces that were firing live rounds his way. Surrounded by smoke and flames, by the whiz of bullets, screams, and the clatter of fleeing footsteps, he stood there upright and unmoved, like freedom’s last protector.
By the time dawn broke, the square was ashes. The enormous figures of the riot police and anti-terrorism troops roamed the scorched ground while police dogs sniffed at the scent of the fled demonstrators. They surrounded the deserted school where some of the protestors had taken shelter. I saw them tying up one of them, then kicking him repeatedly as he lay trussed on the ground, but the body that buckled and twisted at the blows got back to its feet and chanted against the regime. As he shouted, indifferent to the rifle muzzle aimed at his head, there was a sharp crack as a soldier slapped him.
Dignity can be intense. Unforgiving. It forces feet to press on through fear.
I remember. June 3, 2011, a Friday. A morning as if the world had ended. No signs of life: the shops all closed, the marketplaces empty, the roads and streets blocked off. The city was a ghost town, the only sounds the howl of dogs and the voices of anti-terrorism forces amplified by loudspeakers, ordering residents to remain in their houses and inform on demonstrators. The armored cars, the trucks with their water cannons and tear gas and bleach, were stationed along the main thoroughfares and at the entrances to alleys. Troops were scattered through the streets. A pair of armored cars was parked by the entrance to Freedom Square, and a squad of anti-terrorism troopers prevented residents of those buildings that overlooked the square from leaving their homes. As I left my sister’s apartment along with a handful of other demonstrators, a trooper stopped us and asked where we were going. Somehow, I found the wit to trick my way past him, then past all the subsequent checkpoints and troops and armored cars and barricades, until we came to the Deluxe Hotel at the very center of town and joined a protest against the regime’s ban of the right to demonstrate. It was an awe-inspiring sight. The number of women at the hotel far outstripped the friends and fellow activists we had invited. Every one of them had brought someone with them—mother or neighbor or friend or daughter or relative—and they were standing next to the Canadian Language Institute in the company of armored cars, a detachment of police, and a truck equipped with tear gas and a water cannon. Just ten meters separated the two sides.
The women began chanting against the regime and the troopers responded by opening fire. But the women weren’t cowed, and their refusal to submit to intimidation, especially in the wake of the burning of the protestors’ tents, encouraged a few young men to join them. Then the security forces began to shoot in earnest, live rounds as well as tear gas, and I remember bodies running for alleyways and nearby buildings, fleeing death. More than a dozen women, young and old, crossed the road and took shelter in the building next to Restaurant Aden. The bang of gunfire, barking dogs, and the screams of demonstrators come back to me now like a scene from a horror film. The security forces and anti-terrorism troops surrounded the building and for the next three hours us women hiding inside were under siege. From a loudspeaker mounted on a police van, an officer ordered the women to open the door, then threatened to break it down. While the troops battered on the door with their clubs, we held it shut from within. Eventually, after one of the women had secured an assurance that none of the demonstrators would be arrested, the door swung open. The women formed a human shield, preventing the soldiers from entering and searching the building, which gave the male demonstrators time to escape over neighboring rooftops. I remember the sexual insults they directed our way: “You’re hiding them, you whores…” I remember the abuse pouring over the heads of us women and us standing there, unbowed.
Dignity can have a fierce glow when miracles are allowed to express themselves.
I remember. The afternoon of the next day. Shellfire shaking the city. In the distance, the sound of exchanges between Saleh’s soldiers, tribal fighters, and revolutionaries. Armored cars and the pickup trucks of the anti-terrorism force spread through the city.
The revolution had deviated from its non-violent course and engaged in armed conflict, and a group of more than twenty women decided to hold a peaceful protest. They assembled in Wadi al-Qadi Street, in defiance of the security forces and soldiers who opened fire on them. Sabrine stood in front of a tank, preventing it from advancing on the demonstrators. When the tank began to drive straight at her, she responded by sitting on the ground, hands raised over her head like a Greek goddess, defying death. Confronted by her power, the tank retreated.
Then they sent in a detachment of policewomen to break them up. The bullets of the security forces and the policewomen’s clubs sent us running for shelter in mosques and internet cafes and nearby residential buildings. I remember running down a street that seemed to have no end, looking behind me to see another protestor, and just a few paces behind her, a policewoman. “Run!” the other protestor screamed at me, and I ran. A local resident pointed to a building where other protestors were hiding. Just as I turned left, the policewoman caught up with the other protestor. A few moments later, she reappeared in the alley outside the building where we were hiding. Her hijab was missing and the buttons were torn off her robe. Her underwear was showing, her hair was in disarray, and she was screaming like a crazy person. After the other women managed to calm her down and straighten out her clothes, she went back out onto the street to chant against the regime.
Dignity has its losses and grief, as when those people who called for freedom fell before they could see their dream realized, leaving the horror of their deaths etched in the memories of those who witnessed it.
I remember. November 11, 2011, a Friday morning. Mortar shells were raining down on the Health Sciences building overlooking Freedom Square. The crackle of gunfire could be heard around the city, which was almost empty of demonstrators after two days of non-stop mortar fire on the square. But now a few of them began to trickle back into the square to perform the Friday prayer, defying the regime’s bombardment. Worried about shrapnel, some of the men crept into the square behind low walls while others approached it through a maze of back alleys. I reached the space that the Islamists would subsequently set aside for women protestors. The tattered blue canvas dividers trembled in the cold November breeze that moaned through the square. There were around a dozen women gathered. Tuffaha al-Antari, Zeinab al-Udaini, and Yasmine al-Asbahi were in their usual places on the front steps of the Sinan Hotel, which had become part of the women’s prayer room. They seemed unbothered by the falling shells and the screams of the demonstrators outside. Zeinab leaned back against the hotel wall and beside her, Yasmine did the same, while Tuffaha called on the other women to stand firm. At this moment, a mortar shell punched through the roof of the hotel and the air was suddenly full of shrapnel and smoke. People began to run and the imam, who had begun his sermon on steadfastness, leapt to his feet, but Tuffaha and Zeinab and Yasmine soon returned to their seats on the hotel steps. I was talking to my friend Ibtisam, walking slowly away from the hotel. I had gone no more than a few paces when a second mortar struck the hotel. This time, it landed directly on the women in their prayer room. Turning around, I saw the bodies of Tuffaha, Zeinab, and Yasmine sprawled over the steps and the flag that Tuffaha had been waving moments before now lying on the ground, covered in her blood.
Dignity has strength. Like when, with its last gasp, it attempts to snatch back its dream and raise its voice against those who conspire to steal the revolution and divert its course. Even when it fails.
I remember. December 20, 2011. A Saturday morning. I remember the demonstrators, led by Mohammed Sabr, setting out on the six-day march from Taiz to Sanaa, their thin bodies battling cold and hunger and the troops of Saleh’s regime, positioned on mountaintops, in valleys, and at police stations in the towns along the way. Thousands of women and men, young and old, as well as children, treading these rocky paths and calling for freedom. Their voices still echo through the years, the ghost of the ember that once burned in our breasts.
The marching crowds were joined by protestors and tribesmen from other cities and regions. Women walked ahead of the men, unforgettable scenes in which they re-inscribed life’s course with their footsteps. As the protestors marched peacefully through the district of Hiziz, bordering Sanaa, a torrent of lead and gas rained down. The march broke up briefly, but soon reassembled and pressed on. Dozens were killed that day, hundreds wounded. Among their number was a young man who had walked barefoot for six days through the December cold in pursuit of his dream. His cracked feet will stay in my memory, as enduring as a tattoo.
Dignity takes innumerable forms. But ten years on from the start of the Yemeni revolution, I taste an acid tang in my mouth just remembering the light that went out, all the bodies that fell trying to attain that dignity.
The memories are soured, not only because the revolution achieved none of its goals, and not only because we are left with war to claim more Yemeni lives, but also because so many of the revolutionaries who once called for freedom are now members of the elite. Remade by war, they are now merchants and thieves, mouthpieces for warring factions and regional powers competing for influence.
But despite the disappointments of the fledgling revolution’s eventual fate, the dream of those days, which I recall here as though trying to grasp a handful of air, retains the integrity and purity of those who hold to their principles without ever reaping their reward.
Author: Bushra al-Maktari (* 1979) is a Yemeni writer who lives in Sanaa. In 2013 she received the François Giroud Prize for defending freedom of speech and the press as well as the Leadership in Democracy Award. In 2020 she was awarded the Johann Philip Palm Prize for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Translation from Arabic: Suneela Mubayi earned her Ph.D. in Arabic literature at NYU where she completed a thesis on the vagabond and marginal poets between classical and modern Arabic poetry. She also taught Arabic literature at Cambridge University. She has translated prose and verse between Arabic, English, and Urdu, which have been published in Banipal, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Jadaliyya, and elsewhere. She wishes to re-establish the position of Arabic as a vehicular language of the global South.
Kuration: Sandra Hetzl (* 1980 in Munich) translates literary texts from Arabic, among others by Rasha Abbas, Mohammad Al Attar, Kadhem Khanjar, Bushra al-Maktari, Aref Hamza, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi, and sometimes she writes too. She holds a Masters in Visual Culture Studies from the University of the Arts in Berlin, is the founder of the literary collective 10/11 for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina .
This essay is part of our series "Reminiscence of the future". To commemorate ten years of revolution in North Africa and West Asia, the authors share their hopes, dreams, questions and doubts. The essays indicate how important such personal engagement is in developing political alternatives and what has been achieved despite the violent setbacks.
In addition to the series we also address the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, for human dignity and political reforms in various multimedia projects: For example, our digital scroll story "Giving up has no future" presents three activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria who show that the revolutions are going on.