Roisin Taylor (Scotland/Ireland AC 07-09)
“We advise against all but essential travel to Yemen. There have been a series of recent terrorist attacks both inside and outside the capital, Sana’a, including against the US embassy on 18 March, There is a high threat from terrorism in general in Yemen, including against Western, and British, interests. You should be particularly vigilant in public places frequented by expatriates and foreigner travellers. We believe that terrorists continue to plan attacks.”, The British and Foreign Commonwealth Office website, 11th April 2008.
In February of this year, a group of eleven students including myself travelled to Yemen and we would tell you that we experienced a completely different side to Yemen to that which is quoted above.
The trip to Yemen organised for teachers and students was part of ‘project week’, an initiative that runs at Atlantic College every year, giving students the opportunity to broaden their cultural understanding and give back to the community. What we discovered, was that views like the one above are the sort of thing that reflect, sadly, negatively on a country due to the acts of a select few individuals. The experiences that I had during project week were amazing and I would like to give you an account of the colourful journey.
Previous to my trip to Yemen, all I knew of the Arab world was what I had read or seen in the media, and stories from the Arabs I had met at Atlantic College, or people who had stayed in that part of the world. So it is not unsuspecting that I was surprised by some of the things that I witnessed there.
We went to an event for International Woman’s day and I saw a woman in a veil showing only her eyes, stand up and talk passionately about human rights. In the west (here is my attempt at not making a generalisation) we tend to think that the wearing of veils (and sometimes the hijab – a head scarf- too) is something that infringes the rights of the woman. But this woman was standing up there saying that this was what she wanted, and that she found it liberating. For the duration of the trip, the other girls and I each wore the Habaia (a long black dress) and Hijab. This was not something which we had to do, but something that we wanted to. I don’t think I would have had half of the experiences, had I not worn it. People seemed to be intrigued by why we were wearing it, and others flattered. I had a small girl in a village outside of Sana’a tell me I was beautiful when I wore it. She was wrong, but it’s the thought that counts! Not once wearing it did I feel suppressed or that my human rights were infringed or even trapped. But I do not know if I would have felt the same if I had been made to wear a veil showing only my eyes.
It was as if we were seeing the other side of the argument wherever we went. I was in a restaurant and there was a picture of Saddam Hussein up on the wall, and it took me a long time to realise who it was, because the poster seemed to be supporting him. I asked one of the ambassadors who had shown us around, why there would be a picture of a dictator up on the wall of a public place and he said: “Well, Yemen was on Iraq’s side for the First Gulf War. They don’t tell you the good things Saddam did.” Pieces of information like this showed me more than I could ever have possibly imagined.
This trip opened up windows into a world which is so different to my own, but that I want to explore until I have seen all of it. The man who ran the college and language centre that we were staying in told us to visit everywhere that the media told us not to- Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. He told us that only by doing this would we be able to see the real countries behind the headlines, the Arab world in reality, not in the media.
– United World College Student Magazine –