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Euphrates Spotlight

April 10, 2014

Under the Surface: Yemen Inside Out

Euphrates WC YemenSana’a, Yemen. Photo credit: Rooj Alwazir

“We are Yemeni women and men and we are capable, strong, proud human beings, and we need to be represented, by ourselves, as such. We come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. We have stories and histories.” -Yemen Inside Out

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Yemen”? If the news is any indicator, you may think of Al Qaeda havens, drone strikes, tribal warfare, and poverty. Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country, and consistently finds itself in the lowest global rankings for corruption, human rights, and economic development. But like every society, there is much more to this Gulf nation of 24 million than what you see on the surface. Last month, young Yemeni activists set out to prove just that by launching Yemen Inside Out, a photography project aimed at breaking outside conceptions of Yemen and revealing the true nature of the country’s youth, hopes, and dreams.

The open-air exhibition was completed in early March, with a total of 233 portraits of Yemeni men and women from all walks of life and varying social, economic, and political backgrounds. The portraits are displayed all over the walls and bridges of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Asked to express themselves as they pleased, the individuals in the pictures deliver a powerful message. The project’s vision statement says, “Inside Out Yemen is about using the power of photography as a way to create an alternative space in which counter narratives can be told and shared. The Yemeni people who have been forced to live under a narrative of terrorism and hopelessness which has been destroying our families, communities and this land. We are here to say that we are worth so much more than these misrepresentations and misconceptions.”

Baraa Shiban, my friend and former colleague, helped produce Yemen Inside Out—his face is among those now illuminating Sana’a’s walls. He was involved in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution, playing a significant role in peaceful demonstrations against longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh and running a media center in Sana’a’s Change Square. A longtime activist for political change, Baraa is now the Yemen Project Coordinator at London-based NGO Reprieve and is a youth representative in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference. Thanks to Baraa, I was able to interview his colleague, Rooj Alwazir, a Yemeni-American activist who helped lead this campaign and who pioneered the hastag #SupportYemen. #SupportYemen is now an independent collective of filmmakers, web designers, and bloggers who work to document the struggles of a country in transition. Here, Rooj talks about her activism, the inspiration for Yemen Inside Out, and her hopes for Yemen’s future.

How long have you been working as an activist for change in Yemen? 

I’d like to say I’ve been an activist ever since I can remember, but I really began organizing right after the Iraq war. In Yemen, it was recent because I was born and raised in the U.S. and only moved to Yemen about a year ago. I had, however, been doing some solidarity organizing during the Yemen youth revolution in Washington D.C.

Who came up with Yemen Inside Out, and where did the support come from?

A group of us activists and artists came together and asked ourselves what was an issue we all cared deeply about that we felt didn’t get any or enough recognition. The answer was simple: “the U.S. Drone war” and “Yemeni misrepresentation”, so we decided what better way to show who we are as people and what we stood for than through portraits. Each of us have beautiful stories to share. Each one of us are different and unique in our passions, hobbies, emotions, etc. And with a country with so little we felt we had to show how amazingly optimistic, joyful and generous we still were despite all of that. What is especially beautiful about this project was that it wasn’t just important for the community to support us after the project, but that they were central to the whole process to begin with.

How did you decide who would be photographed?

We organized three events and invited people in schools, coffee shops, parks, and via Facebook. Then we just took to the streets and started asking people if they wanted to be photographed. Most of the time people just came up to us once they saw our big backdrop.

What has been the reception toward the portraits inside Yemen?

Lots of love, support and interest. The reaction was amazing and it also fuelled dialogue about the role of art in “politics”.

What are some positive developments happening in Yemen right now that you would like people in other countries to know about?

Families of drone victims have formed a union to stand up against this illegal and unjust drone war and to share their stories. The Yemeni Parliament and National Dialogue have also criminalized airstrikes.

What are your hopes for Yemen’s future, and what do you think must be done by Yemenis to achieve this?

I hope that Yemen will move beyond power struggles and towards a practice of collective liberation.  What we need to do is organize in our communities.

What do you think must be done by the international community to help Yemen achieve its goals?

Solidarity, not charity.

The Inside Out project has taken off in a number of countries around the globe, where people are transforming messages of personal identity into art. Thousands more portraits have been unveiled in the US, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Germany, Taiwan, France, New Zealand, Mexico, and beyond, raising awareness for issues like identity, freedom of expression, LGBT rights, HIV/AIDS, political unity, and more. Check out the Inside Out Project Yemen on Facebook and follow Rooj and Baraa on Twitter for more news on positive activism in Yemen.

“We are not terrorism or hopelessness. We are dreamers.”

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