Yemen's Fragile Unity

Yemen was a divided country until 1990. Yet the country's unity is fragile. The Goethe Institut in Sana'a has brought artists from both parts of the country together. Klaus Heymach reports

photo: Klaus Heymach
A total of eight Yemeni artists took part in the Goethe Institut's Journey of the Wall project. Their wall artworks will be on display at the Sana'a National Museum until 25 June

​​ In the courtyard of the Sana'a National Museum, North and South mix as if the Yemeni union were perfectly harmonious. The setting is unmistakably part of the North: tall buildings made of fired clay bricks, the windows intricately decorated with white plasterwork.

The folklore music playing on the cassette recorder on the other hand is from the South: the singer and lute-player comes from close to Aden. The artists painting their canvases here with acrylic and oils are working hand in hand: the black-veiled woman painter from Sana'a side by side with the male sculptor from Aden.

"We have a lot in common – we were united in the same year," says the painter Kamal al-Makrami from Aden. The project is particularly exciting for him as he has been to Germany himself and knows the country's divided history.

Across the borders - Journey of the Wall project

The Goethe Institut has brought eight artists together in Sana'a: four from the formerly socialist South and four from the North. Their job is to decorate giant bricks. The polystyrene blocks with canvas covers are symbolic of the Berlin Wall. On 9 November, the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, they will be toppled like dominoes at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

Kamal al-Makrami (photo: DW/Klaus Heymach)
The painter Kamal al-Makrami relates his design for the block to Yemen's past – there were checkpoints in Yemen too, he says

​​ Makrami paints a fist holding a German flag on his block. On the back, he adds two oil barrels. "They're to commemorate Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin," the painter (48) explains. "But they're also part of Yemen's past, as there were checkpoints here too."

In the same year as East and West Germany, two completely different states in the south of the Arab peninsula also came together to form the Republic of Yemen: the formerly socialist South with its capital of Aden and the Republic in the mountainous North, dominated by conservative Islamic tribes and with its own capital, Sana'a.

"Godless beer-drinkers" and "backwards tribal warriors"

Just as the East and West Germans have their differences, the Yemenis also criticise each other. The socialists in the South are "Godless beer-drinkers" for the Northerners, while the people of the South complain about the "backwards tribal warriors" in the North.

The painter Makrami too still often feels like an outsider in the tribal-dominated city of Sana'a. "There are huge differences between Aden and Sana'a," he says.

photo: DW/Klaus Heymach
Many of the tribal traditions, the role of religion and the position of women in the North are completely alien to al-Makrami, who comes from Aden. But the artist now often travels to Sana'a

​​ "Before unity, they were the capitals of two different countries. I travelled around Europe a great deal at the time, but I never went to North Yemen." But Makrami doesn't only feel like an outsider. He also feels discriminated against. Since the union, the North has had the dominant role, he complains.

"We in the South had to abandon our traditions, women have to wear the veil now; there have been many changes for us."

Yemen has never really melded into a single nation. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office for the past three decades, may have held the country together to date by handing out money and offices. But this is getting ever more difficult as Yemen's resources come to an end.

Tough times for Yemen's socialists

Yemen is one of the world's poorest countries, with its oil and water sources rapidly drying up. This is causing unrest in the South in particular, where the last reserves are sited but where little of the oil income trickles down.

15 years ago, this combination of economic crisis and mistrust led to the socialists declaring secession – the overture to a civil war in which the North finally gained military victory over the South.

Any visitor to the socialists' headquarters in Sana'a can tell how little power the party now has. The building is dilapidated, the large meeting hall abandoned. Secession is no longer on the party's agenda, says the parliamentary party leader Aiderus an-Nagib.

photo: DW/Klaus Heymach
Decades of regression: "The powers that be have long regarded the South as their property" - Aden, the former capital of socialist South Yemen

​​ His party, he claims, has no control over the protests in the South, where hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to date. He calls for urgent action from the government. "The powers that be have long regarded the South as their property," he says.

"They've grabbed land and properties and driven the people away. This injustice has to end now."

The government must return the offices, land and property to those they belong to, Nagib demands. More than 200,000 civil servants and soldiers, he says, have not been allowed to return to work since the civil war.

Anti-unity protests

"They have to get their jobs back and receive compensation for the past 15 years." President Saleh has been ignoring these demands for years now. But the protests in the South are getting louder and louder, with the military firing live ammunition at demonstrators. Now even Saleh himself has warned that the country could disintegrate into tribes and clans if Aden really should secede.

While the artists are painting their bricks for the Berlin Wall in Sana'a, thousands of people are protesting against unity on the streets of Aden. The 20th anniversary of Yemeni unification in the coming year is not a happy occasion for all, says even the painter Makrami as he sketches out the fist on his canvas.

"Some people will celebrate and other won't, I'm sure of that." But is there a way out of the crisis? "The people in power have to think of their country," says Makrami. "All they have to do is ask themselves: What we're doing – is it good for our country or only good for us? Then they'll find a solution," says the painter.

Klaus Heymach

© 2009

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