Fighting to retain a national identity

War has been raging in Yemen since 2015. Now some fear that Yemeni culture is also being hijacked by the warring parties. Whether it's coffee, particular species of bird or dragon trees, Yemenis have a lot to lose. By Dunja Ramadan

By Dunja Ramadan

A fine chocolate note, subtle acidity, plus a hint of dried dates – that's roughly how Yousra Ishaq would describe her favourite Khawlani coffee. The beans are said to make some of the best coffee in the world. Only, who knows that anymore? When you think of Yemen, you think of war, drones, poverty, emaciated children with big, sad eyes. Yet Yemen is so much more, says the 34-year-old filmmaker from the Yemeni capital Sanaa on the phone. Take red coffee cherries, for instance, as sweet as over-ripe bananas.

During the conversation, the connection keeps breaking up. Turn on the camera? I wish, she laughs, her Internet connection can't take it. For the filmmaker, all this is everyday warfare; she has got used to it. She is preoccupied with something else: "Yemen after the war. What will be left of it?" she asks. "Most Yemenis are busy right now finding food and water. But there is something else that deserves our attention: we have to preserve our cultural identity," says the young woman and talks about coffee, traditional Yemeni clothing and dragon trees.

Since the Houthi rebels captured her home city of Sanaa in September 2014, a violent conflict has raged in Yemen over political power and access to resources. Saudi Arabia joined forces with a coalition of Sunni-ruled Arab states to side with President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2015 and has been fighting the Shia rebel militia ever since. But it is mainly the civilians who are suffering from the war: more than 370,000 people have been killed so far, millions have had to flee. The United Nations classifies the war and its consequences as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Salha Mattar is one of more than one million coffee farmers in Yemen (photo: private)
Protecting ancient ways of life: Yousra Ishaq's latest project is a film about Salha Mattar, a 60-year-old coffee farmer from north-western Yemen who has spent her life picking, sorting and drying coffee beans, a tradition now being carried on by her children and grandchildren. The latest Saudi initiative to appropriate the Khawlani coffee bean is seen by many as an economic threat to the Yemeni coffee industry. "It cannot be," exclaims Ishaq. "If anything, it is our common heritage"

Yousra Ishaq makes films that aim to show another side of Yemen, beyond the suffering. With her production company Comra Films, she works on documentaries and offers workshops for young filmmakers. She is currently working on a film about Salha Mattar, a 60-year-old coffee farmer from north-western Yemen who has spent her life picking, sorting and drying coffee beans, a tradition now being carried on by her children and grandchildren. For her research, the filmmaker travelled to the Houthi stronghold of Sa'ada. "Using simple means, the family tries to produce the best coffee possible". The young filmmaker even managed to win over the militiamen, who see the latest Saudi initiative as an economic threat to the Yemeni coffee industry.

For some years now, Saudi Arabia has been trying to have Khawlani coffee beans entered on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. So far without success. At the end of January, the Saudi ministry of commerce announced that instead of Arabic mocha, only Saudi mocha would now be served in restaurants, cafes and supermarkets nationwide. The announcement was timed to coincide with an initiative by the Saudi ministry of culture, which has declared 2022 the "Year of Saudi Coffee". The beans are celebrated as a national treasure and a means of preserving Saudi heritage and cultural identity. Saudi coffee is also being promoted at the expo in Dubai.

"If anything, it is our common heritage. Now coffee is to be named after a single royal family, al-Saud. This cannot be," says Yousra Ishaq. Khawlani coffee actually comes from the border area between Saudi Arabia and Yemen; for centuries the ancient Khawlan bin Amir tribe lived between the Saudi city of Jizan and northwestern Yemen. The two countries share a 1300-kilometre border.

Hashtag: "No to the theft of Yemeni heritage"

Many Yemenis consider this announcement to be another border violation: after their cities, their coffee is now being hijacked. Some users posted screenshots of studies concluding that the origins of Arabic coffee culture are in Yemen. They pointed to the birthplace of coffee: arabica beans were shipped to the wider world from the Yemeni port city of Al Mocha – hence the name 'mocha'. Originally, coffee made its way to Yemen from Ethiopia about 500 years ago. According to legend, Yemeni Sufis in particular drank coffee during their meditative exercises in order to achieve a state of spiritual ecstasy. More examples are listed under the hashtag "No to the theft of Yemeni heritage".

#لا #لسرقه #تراث #اليمن

— Misha (@Misha98315639) May 18, 2020


It's a cultural conflict that has been simmering for a long time. When the Arabic edition of National Geographic called on its readers to send in special snapshots in 2020, Yemenis were quick to point out that the images were of their cultural heritage, not Saudi. One picture of a girl from the Saudi Arabian city of Abha showed her wearing the traditional 'quftan' and 'bussani' silver jewellery of Yemeni Jews, holding a basil bush in her hands, with which the inhabitants of the Yemeni city of Ta'iz use to adorn themselves. Or the portrait of a boy holding red coffee cherries in his hands. One user wrote: "The boy's face screams Yemen, the coffee screams Yemen".

Unique species of trees and birds have also aroused covetousness among the warring parties. On the Yemeni island of Socotra, a natural paradise in the Indian Ocean, the United Arab Emirates flag can be seen flying on many buildings. The island, which is often called the "Galapagos of the Indian Ocean", has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. The branches of the dragon trees, sometimes more than 1000 years old, spread out like an umbrella. These otherworldly expressions of nature are what the island is famous for.

Visitors from the United Arab Emirates can fly direct from Dubai to Socotra. Last year, the Yemeni ministry of tourism accused the Emirates of issuing illegal visas for foreign tourists without Yemeni authorisation. While the UAE provided humanitarian aid to the island following severe cyclones in 2015, as well as helping supply electricity – and there are also the scholarships for talented young islanders – what the Emiratis see in Socotra is principally strategic advantage: the island overlooks the Bab-al-Mandab Strait, a main shipping route. In centuries past, the island was held by the Portuguese, the British and the Soviets, respectively.

Dragon tree on the Yemeni island of Socotra (photo: Boris Khvostichenko(User:Boriskhv), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons))
The Galapagos of the Indian Ocean: a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008, Socotra is particularly famous for its dragon trees and rare species of bird. Last year, the Yemeni ministry of tourism accused the Emirates of issuing illegal visas for foreign tourists flying direct to Socotra from Dubai without Yemeni authorisation. Yemenis fear the UAE's ambitious property development projects could impact the island's unique ecosystem

Saving Socotra

Yemenis fear the UAE's ambitious property development projects could drive away many species of birds and trees on the island. UNESCO is also alarmed and plans to send a delegation to Socotra to check the state of conservation on the World Heritage site, confirmed press spokesman of the German UNESCO Commission, Timm Nikolaus Schulze. One option, he says, would be for the island to be added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites. "This would draw attention to current grievances with the aim of preserving the island's natural environment long term."

Yousra Ishaq has never been to Socotra; she hopes to once the war is over. She is currently planning the media coverage of the first Yemeni coffee auction in June. The idea came from Mokhtar Alkhansali, the American with Yemeni roots who became world famous when the American writer Dave Eggers wrote down his life story in the book "The Monk of Mokha" in 2018. As a then 24-year-old from San Francisco, Alkhansali travelled to his homeland to learn about the ancient Yemeni coffee tradition and market it in the USA.

These young people are looking to instil a little hope into the Yemen narrative, keen to show the rest of the world that things of beauty can also come out of their homeland. "I believe in the power of coffee, we want to introduce local sellers to the outside world," says Alkhansali. Salha Mattar also wants to travel, with her beloved coffee beans in her case.

Dunja Ramadan

© Suddeutsche Zeitung/ 2022