The Unknown Face of Yemen: A Conversation with Mariam Al-Dhubani

The Unknown Face of Yemen: A Conversation with Mariam Al-Dhubani
Yemeni woman playing the traditional oud, 1970 circa. Photographer: Abdulrahman Al Ghabri

TNGo contributor Greta Di Mattia explores the local dynamics of the war in Yemen throughout an interview with Mariam Al-Dhubani, an award-winning film-maker and journalist.


Yemen appears to be a borderland in Western knowledge of the Middle East, where just a few scholars dare to go. Thus, before losing ourselves in this TNGO Human Story, it is worthwhile to start with a brief historical narration. Then, through Mariam’s eyes, we will look beyond the veil of the everlasting conflict between Shiites and Sunnites – the most common interpretation of the war – and glimpse the unknown face of Yemen with its enigmatic expression stemming from the intertwining of several, complex stories.

Located in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, the green uplands of Yemen mark the end of the large Rub’ al-Khali Desert. From the ancient Romans’ astonishment facing such a vision, stems the old name of the country, Arabia Felix (Fertile, Happy Arabia), in contrast with Arabia Desertica, that is nowadays Saudi Arabia.

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Hutaib Village, Manakhah District, Yemen. Photo credits: Alarabiya.net

Why was Yemen relegated into one of the darkest corners of the Western historical narrative of the Middle East?

Well, first of all, the territories which form the country nowadays never fell under complete, prolonged domination by The Ottoman Empire. Its collapse at the end of the First World War led its provinces to make their hasty debut in the system of Nation States as protectorates, administered by the Winning Powers. While Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon’s violent reactions to the imposition of alien socio-political models brought their histories to the international community’s attention, the mountainous territories of northern Yemen were unified under the rule of Imam Yaḥyā ibn Muḥammad who founded the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.

During the 1960s, the austere and isolated northern Imamate was overthrown following a Nasser-inspired revolution that established the Yemen Arab Republic. In the south-east, the Democratic Republic of Yemen, a British colony since the beginning of the eighteenth century, became the only territory in Arab history to be considered a socialist state. Nevertheless, the Arabic Peninsula never turned into a Cold War conflict theatre. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, these two states were unified under the autocratic rule of Ali Abd Allah Saleh who had ruled the northern republic since 1978. The multi-party system of the new Republic of Yemen granted it the support of Western countries.

Mariam al-Dhubhani was born in 1990, the Year of Yemeni Unification

A talented, award-winning filmmaker and journalist, Mariam al-Dhubhani has lived in Doha, the Capital of Qatar, since 2015 after she left Yemen to seek a better life, far away from the war which had just erupted. While attending the Journalism and Strategic Communication Programme at the Northwestern University in Qatar, she joined the Doha Film Institute. There, she began creating powerful short films that expressed her will to live and told the story of her homeland. In this way, a new hope arose from Mariam’s nightmares, made of painful memories and a constant, latent sorrow from being separated from her family

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Mariam filming in Yemen, November 2020

Mariam’s father is from Taiz, a city in south-western Yemen that was once known for its lively cultural scene. Her mother is from Krasnodar, a large industrial city in southern Russia, not far from the coast of the Black Sea. They met in Kyiv, then-Soviet Ukraine, where they were both studying engineering. After completing their programs, they moved to Sana’a, the Capital of Yemen where Mariam and her siblings were born and raised. That said, when asked where she is from, Mariam smiles and says that she is from Taiz:

My father’s family is quabili (tribal) and although tribal identity is not that important in Taiz, it is in Sana’a. Thus, despite the fact that I was born and raised in the capital, people there still consider me and my family to be from Taiz.

Arabs Have Been Living in Organized Tribes Since the Beginning of Time.

Their establishment also predates this people’s surrender to the will of God, the literal meaning of the Arabic term Islam. But tribes’ antiquity has nothing to do with the Eurocentric concept that is usually employed to label non-Western customs: primitiveness.

As scholar Marieke Brandt explains in her book Tribes and Politics in Yemen, Yemeni tribes are very complex polities. They are characterized by juridical and administrative structures, written laws, and stable political alliances and represent the main models of social representation in northern Yemen and, to some extent, in the central part of the Country, where a large plain surrounded by mountains is said to be the place chosen by Shem, son of Noah, to found a new city: Sana’a.

Sana’a is a city made up of magnificent, unique buildings that struck Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and led him to define Yemen as the most beautiful country in the world, calling for UNESCO to grant international protection for such an invaluable cultural heritage facing the danger of destruction. Unfortunately, his prophetic concern was well-founded.

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Old Sana’a, Yemen. Photo Credits: Jean Jaques Gelbart, UNESCO

The Origin of the War in Yemen

The first civil war broke out in the north of Yemen in 2004, between the Saleh government and the Houthis, the armed group from the northern Sada’a governorate which today controls one-third of the country where 70 percent of the population live. The Saudi Arabia military first intervened in 2009, then again in 2015, at the head of a coalition, initiating an international conflict which, according to the United Nations, caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Thorough analyses aimed at identifying the local roots of the war and building a durable peace process are rare. Plus, international mediation efforts have been addressing the crisis from a mere humanitarian perspective, failing to deal with the original motives that are tied to a word by which oppressed peoples in history have often called their hopes: change.

The Hope Dissolved in a Spring Breeze

When civil unrest broke out in Yemen in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring; Mariam was in Sana’a, watching her homeland plummet into escalating violence. Saleh tried to hold his power through any means necessary against thousands of protesters calling for tagheer (change). Amongst them stood his foes, the Houthis, whose identity and specific objectives – that will soon be outlined – meddled with the general discontent towards the regime. This generated large approval towards the rebels, notwithstanding social and tribal divisions.

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Yemeni anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Feb. 23, 2011. Credit: Ahmad Gharabli
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Thousands of protesters celebrating in the Yemeni Capital Sana’a, after Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment for wounds he suffered in a rocket attack on his compound. June 5, 2011 (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Who Gave You the Right to Kill?

This is the opening verse of a song that Mariam wrote in 2014 addressed to former President Saleh and his reckless power grab at the expense of his own people. This song later became the quiet but powerful theme song of her short movie Just Another Memory which was produced by Academy Award-nominated director and winner of the 2018 Ajyal Film Festival for Best Documentary, Rithy Panh.

In 2012, Abd Rabbih Mansour Hadi replaced Saleh. Today, he still acts as the head of the internationally recognized government that was brokered by the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is upon Hadi’s invitation that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition undertook a military intervention against the Houthis in 2015 after the armed group had taken complete control of Sana’a, forcing Hadi to flee to the southern city of Aden – the current, temporary capital of Yemen – and then to Ryadh. There are many reasons why the rebels do not accept Hadi’s authority. For instance, Hadi had been Saleh’s vice-President since 1994, thus he is not exactly a homo novus opening a path towards Tagheer. Nevertheless, the media overlooks the socio-political roots of the war in Yemen. The complex dynamics of the conflict are oftenreduced to a proxy war between Saudi Arabian Sunnites and Iranian Shiites, with the Houthis being the latter’s proxy.

The Misleading Proxy War Interpretation Stems from Two Main Factors

The first one is the prejudice –  still rooted in Western culture – relegating non-Western countries to what Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty calls an imaginary waiting room of history. There is an expected transition from a ‘backward’ reality to a forward-looking one that shares the values of Western civilization, such as secularism. For this reason, external observers often disregard societies in which religion still plays an important role and tend to connect a conflict originating from such societies to purely religious motives. As a result, these motives are simply obscure facets that are not worth a proper, rational examination.

From the Ashes of Such a Mindset, Rises the Spirit of Mariam’s Movies

The imaginary waiting room causes detachment when external audiences hear about conflicts afflicting the so-called Third World. With this in mind, Mariam created her second short film In the Middle, which was the winner of the Ajyal Film Festival for Best Documentary in 2019 and was screened in prestigious festivals all around the world. The protagonist, Ali, is a young man from Aden who is forced to serve at a checkpoint as a soldier in order to protect his family, despite holding a degree in civil engineering. To make his burden a little less heavy, he manages to find brief moments to play with the children of his village or to chew some qat – a mind-altering flowering plant – with one of his friends.

Every viewer can sympathize with the struggles of a young person whose dreams are taken away by war, fulfilling the director’s ultimate purpose:

The mainstream media narrative portrays Yemen as nothing but a land of misery and destruction. It is necessary to denounce the desperate humanitarian situation in Yemen, but the risk of addressing just one side of the crisis without paying proper attention to its roots is to imply that such destruction is somehow inherent in Yemen and the Middle East in general, as if peace in this land was a fantasy. We are just currently living through a horrible war like every country in the world did in its history, we have known much more in our lives and we have much more to show to the world than death and misery. We are not without hope.

Mariam receiving her Postgraduate Diploma in Museum and Gallery Practice, December 2020.

Fueling the Proxy War Narrative: the Religious Character of the Believing Youth Movement

The second factor fueling the proxy war narrative is the originally religious character of the Believing Youth movement, created back in the 1990s by Muhammad and Hussein al-Huthi, members of the Sadah family al-Houthi. The Sadah people are those who are believed to descend from Prophet Muhammad. They make up the religious aristocracy in every Muslim country and represent one of the social classes composing Yemeni complex society.

The Believing Youth movement’s purpose was to preserve the Zaydi doctrine, a branch of Shi’a Islam, facing what was perceived as an intrusive neighborhood policy by Saudi Arabia. The latter tried to spread Salafism (a branch of Sunni Islam) in the northern Sada’a governorate, as scholar Helen Lackner explains in her book Yemen in Crisis.

However, the motives that triggered the general social unrest at the foundation of the civil war, go far beyond religion.

Yemen: The Poorest Country in the Middle East and North Africa

One motive behind the civil war, in particular, is worth mentioning: widespread poverty. While Saleh was, in Mariam’s words, treating Yemen as his own backyard, gathering a massive wealth through a corrupt patronage system forged in 33 years of power, his people have been living in one of the poorest countries in the world. The northern governorates were the most marginalized. With the accusation of uneven resource distribution, the Houthis – along with the Southern separatists – rejected the regional boundaries traced in the Hadi-backed project of the new State federal configuration. The latter ignored the rebels’ demands marking the failure of the National Dialogue Conference back in 2014. Further, it pushed the northern insurgent movement towards Saleh. Thanks to this opportunistic alliance – which ended in 2017 with the former President’s assassination – the Houthis took control of Sana’a.

The Sharp Differences between Zaydi Shi’a and Twelver Shi’a

Twelvers – who represent the predominant school of Shi’a Islam and the State religion of Iran – believe that the only legitimate Imam, the twelfth in Muhammad’ lineage, is hiding. While waiting for him to reveal himself, they entrust power to the jurist (velayat-e-faqui) whose role represents the core principle of Ayatollah Khomeini’s thought and the foundation of the Islamic Republic model. On the other hand, Zaydis think that every sadah can claim the role of Imam, based on one’s qualities, hence the Islamic Imamate could still be established as it did in 1918 with the foundation of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen.

Although restoring the Imamate doesn’t seem to be on the Houthi agenda, it is clear that such a concept is definitely at odds with the Twelvers’ doctrine. This could potentially represent a threat not only for Saudi Arabia but also for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Houthis are just the lesser evil for Iran and its support for them facing Saudi Arabia doesn’t qualify the Yemeni insurgent group as a proxy, but rather brands it as an equal ally in a battle against a common enemy.

In the end, while Twelvers consider Sunnites to be heretics Zaydis think that they simply are in error for not having recognized Ali’, Muhammad’s son-in-law, as his legitimate heir. Therefore, Zaydis and Shafi Sunnites – who represent around 40 and 60 percent of the Yemeni population respectively –  have always lived in harmony in Yemen, praying together in their everyday lives.

Nevertheless, the war changed everything. Distinguished Yemen scholars like Helen Lackner and Marieke Brandt have observed how years of violence and failed peace-building measures have further radicalized the Houthi movement and exacerbated the conflict.

The Path Towards Peace

Considering the long-standing international awareness of the effects of conventional arms proliferation, which can often represent the cause of a conflict and not only a consequence (see, e.g. UN document NC.J/4717, paragraph 17) Biden’s stop to US support for Saudi-led military offensive operations in Yemen is a first, fundamental step towards the end of the catastrophic war in Yemen and to finally shedding a light on a country which has too long been ignored by the international community.

Nevertheless, no peace-building effort will be truly effective if international organizations don’t overcome the superficial portrayals of Yemen and the Middle East in general. In order build a durable mediation strategy, it has to involve not only regional powers but also relevant local stakeholders. Further, it needs to take into account the dynamics of radicalization of which isolation and violence are usually the cause, rather than a consequence.

The war in Yemen is undoubtedly linked to broader regional interests as well as, to some extent, religious quarrels. But its roots are essentially plunged in Yemenis’ thirst for change in civil and political rights, education, opportunities, and equality.

When asked which Islamic branch she belongs to, Mariam smiles and answers:

My dad is Muslim, my mom is Christian and we all believe in God. That is also why I am sure that this war will come to an end and Yemen will rise again, Inshallah.

Mariam also believes in the power of journalism and communication, as do we here at TNGO. That is why we thank all the readers who took the time to read this story aimed at opening a little breach in the grim blanket of indifference that, for too long, has been surrounding the war-torn, but still magnificent, walls of Sana’a.


This interview is part of TNGO’s Human Stories rubric.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The New Global Order. Any content provided by our authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company or individual.

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