When Khairunnisa Intiar was 15, her family moved to Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen. Her father was working as a diplomat in the Indonesian Embassy. They stayed in the country until Intiar was almost 18. She experienced Yemen before the revolution and protests, known as the Arab Spring movement, began just over a year ago.
Behind the rusty iron gates of the Jordanian Club in Sanaa, Yemen, young people gathered. In the tent beside the main building, a DJ played hip-hop music. Almost everyone I knew was there. Girls and boys were talking and dancing. Rappers showcased their talent in Arabic, English and Spanish; and break dancers took over the dance floor.
The lights went out. It was one of those almost daily power outages. But the youth were determined to keep the party going. Somebody took his car and parked it in the yard of the club. He turned on the headlights, played hip-hop from his car stereo as loud as he could and everybody continued dancing.
That was about three years ago. Yemen’s youth, just as determined as that day, have since taken on the streets, starting their own uprising.
The so-called Arab Spring movement, which started in December 2010, moved like a virus throughout the Arab world. It was a wave of protests that swept through the area, starting in Tunisia, and spreading to Egypt and Yemen in January of 2011. In both countries, the movement was started and carried out by the youth, who were fed up with corruption and authoritarian regimes. They demanded their rights, their basic necessities and the ability to live in a liberal and democratic society. Social media played a big part in the start of the revolution, but it wasn’t just the online world that helped.
During my two-and-a-half year stay in Yemen, I watched the youth develop a hip-hop and rap scene as a way to express themselves. They held big events across the capital city. The songs weren’t about the usual youth woes, but about being Arab, being a Yemeni, their culture and the pride that comes with that.
Zaid Salah Al-Mokhtar is a Yemeni citizen of Iraqi origin. He was one of the six boys who started the rap and hip-hop movement in Sanaa, trying to make something of their free time. Today, there are about 60 to 70 rappers, at least 100 break dancers and a few rock bands who entertain similar messages.
“In Yemen there’s not much to do. So when they rap, and they start writing them down, they just start expressing themselves. They would just sit down and write about the situation in Yemen or the situation in Palestine, or anything. They just want their voices to be heard. They want their opinions to be taken into consideration. They want people to know that they have a voice, that they have power. And they want to be creative with it and they want to be artistic with it.”
Mohanned Mohammed, a Yemeni student in Fredericton, said music helped the protesters psychologically too.
“Of course this plays a big part in the revolution. Poems, music, and things like that, you know, they motivate the people. And these are young people making [the poems and music].”
The uprising in Yemen came as a surprise to me. One afternoon, four years ago, Zaid and I were talking about music in a cafe in Sanaa. We’d always been hopeful for a good change in Yemen, but we never thought it would come in the form of a massive, national uprising. I thought change was going to come in a smoother, easier way. I thought the youth were already making changes by sending positive messages through their music and art.
Life was not as safe, easy or free as it is here in Fredericton. School was cancelled a few times because of bomb threats around the area I lived in. I couldn’t walk out in shorts and a t-shirt even on a very hot day. Electricity went out at least once every day. We had to buy water for showering and cleaning every one or two weeks.
I never hated it, though. The food was great in Sanaa, especially the small corner diners where construction workers usually took a break. I remember Sanaa being filled with kind and helpful people who always smiled. We had a neighbor who lived with his family in a tiny house across from ours. He was only a taxi driver who didn’t make much. But he’d always offer to drive us to and from the corner store or the supermarket two blocks away.
Yet, Sanaa is a traditional place where most men and women, rich and poor, still wear their traditional clothes at least once a week – on Fridays. There wasn’t much to do for girls. There were private parties in a booked venue or somebody’s house on weekends, if you knew the right people. There were school events, international bazaars and cafes to hang out in too, but for the most part, there was only home and school. My brother and I spent much of our time playing music with a few friends, including Hosam Omran.
Hosam was in Sanaa last summer. He told me life there was still rather normal then.
“Electricity goes off for long at times, but people managed to be okay. There are some new cafés for the cool people and Qat [leaves chewed as a stimulant] is still an everyday routine for many,” he said.
Hosam and I lived 10 minutes away from each other. He said one of his neighbours got shot outside while looking for his son. An apartment in the building next to his was burnt. We often walked around and hung out there. It will remain the most familiar street to us, even if it was no longer the same, even if it has more opposition and military borders and armed men.
But Luai Ahmed Tarbosh, an 18-year-old high school graduate in Sanaa, said that area is safer now. Only the downtown areas close to Tahrir square and around Sanaa University are most unsafe as they are occupied with protesters and armed men.
Luai actively participates in the protests. And he said the music brings happiness to the protesters.
“After the revolution started, about 100 songs were written about the revolution. Whenever people are out [on the streets], there are always cars and huge trucks with speakers playing revolution songs and people sing along,” he said. “When Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned, they bring huge trucks with speakers and they just dance all night.”
In Egypt, the protests began two days before those in Yemen. The road to Mubarak’s resignation wasn’t easy. Mishel Saad, a business administration student at the University of New Brunswick who’s from Egypt, said music played a big part in keeping the movement going.
“I believe it plays a really important role in that revolution. Bands and artists start coming out in the streets and playing for people and start encouraging them. They actually help in making people think that they did something, and how amazing Egyptians are, and how far they’ve reached right now,” Saad said. “From what I see, just seeing people making songs about the revolution and seeing bands start playing in the street, that’s helped motivate the people. Even in the darkest time, when people were getting killed, [the people on the streets] still can have a smile. It does matter that [the music industry] actually added to the situation and encouraged the people.”
So, it is music that has become a builder of confidence and pushed people to be persistent and to fight. You can hear the persistence in Egyptian rapper Ahmed Mekky’s “Egyptian’s Dignity” for example, which talks about the protests as a way for Egyptians to take back their dignity by making changes.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years, signed an agreement in November of 2011, effective this February. Transition of power will happen in the near future. In Egypt, the protesters got what they wanted. President Mubarak stepped down and an election is ongoing. People are starting to be more involved in their country’s political systems.
But a true revolution doesn’t take days, or months or a few years.
“After 30 or 40 years of corruption, you cannot change, turn the table in just a couple of months or years. It will take time and people have to be patient and we have to know where we’re going. But at the same time, we can’t calm down and just go with the flow and lose control again,” Mishel Saad said.
And if social media sparked these uprisings, then music helped push the people to keep fighting for their beliefs.
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