The Yemeni renaissance in Change Square By:Shatha Al-Harazi
Before the revolution, there was no functioning cinema in the country. But in many of the bigger tents, news channels are being projected for the masses. Protesters listen carefully to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s speeches, regularly setting aside time in their day so as to hear his words. They will then exchange ideas regarding his possible next steps, on the basis of points highlighted in his statements.
Mutee’a Dammaj is a cultured pro-democracy protester who belongs to a well-known family that has a tradition of supporting Yemeni literature. He told the Yemen Times in February that the longer President Saleh’s ouster takes, the better. This will allow the new culture in Change Square to become strong and eventually spread to the rest of the country.
Dammaj regularly coordinates seminars in some of the square’s tents.
“At the beginning,” said Dammaj, “it was only one or two tents that held such seminars. We’ve since found more.”
Dammaj thinks that the role of youth in Yemeni politics has been greatly influenced by the new culture in the square.
Afrah Nasser, a journalist and blogger whose site was recently deemed one of the “Top 10 Must-Read Blogs” by CNN, said that she wouldn’t call what’s happening in Change Square a cultural resistance. Instead, it should be considered a cultural awakening.
“I absolutely think that Yemen is entering a new chapter in its history,” said Nasser. “It’s a brand new experience for all Yemenis, both inside and outside of Yemen. The uprising didn’t only happen in the political sphere – it has also happened in the social and cultural spheres. Today, there are more intellectual people in Yemen than ever. The continuing seminars on politics at the square are the proof.”
“There is also a strong sense of equality between women and men at the square,” continued Nasser. “They protest together, they hold rallies and make speeches on stage together. This is the proof of social change. This factor was hard to find before the uprising.”
Tents specifically designated for cultural forums, conferences, discussions and seminars have begun hosting specialists in various topics. The cultural misunderstanding that many protesters claim was fomented by the regime has begun to melt as people get together and discuss their problems openly.
For example, Intisar Snan, an activist from Aden, regularly holds discussions in which the southern separatist issue is explained. She believes that the resolution of this conflict should be one of the top priorities of the revolution after the withdrawal of the regime.
Snan came to the conclusion that people in the north have been misled by official media. As such, they cannot necessarily be blamed for their anti-southern views.
Near the end of one of Snan’s discussions, one protester from the north said, “I believe that we are one people, even though Saleh’s injustices made some of you seek separation. We will support your choices and go with whatever you want.”
Artists at Change Square have also found ways to show off their talents. Many exhibitions are being held in the square, each with its own distinct aims. One, for example, highlights traditional Yemeni handicrafts, while others showcase clothes and other accessories.
“The aim of this exhibition is to help finance single mothers and poor women,” said a protester responsible for one of the square’s art shows, where simple works are sold for slightly inflated prices so as to serve a charitable purpose.
“We receive the price set by the maker of the piece and then we add around YR 200 to 400,” he said.
Some of this money will be directed towards the Sana’a University field hospital: “We are planning to help fund the hospital, but in the meantime, the profits are used to buy more goods.”
An art exhibition in yet another tent shows off sculptures and paintings. Although many of the pieces are quite simple and made by children, it’s a way for protesters to express their different feelings and opinions. Most of the paintings in this particular exhibition were done in Yemen’s national colors: red, white and black. Indeed, one painting showed a map of Yemen illustrated in the colors of the Yemeni flag, so as to express national unity.
Spontaneous football tournaments, which seem to take place whenever a crowd gathers, have been one of Change Square’s main leisure activities. Other sports are also practiced and daily chess tournaments have been organized by the protesters.
Younger protesters have shown a passion for billiards, which they play constantly within the shops surrounding the square.
“We come whenever we have the time to play [billiards],” said Ahmed Monsour. “Some of us didn’t even know how to play before the revolution!”
In addition to all this, poems are frequently read in some of the tents – revolutionary poems or love poems that the protesters themselves wrote or that have been plucked from Arabic literature.
One of the most remarkable cultural transformations at Change Square, however, can be summarized by a sentence that was recently painted in big letters on a piece of pavement: “NO TO QAT”. Although the majority of protesters still chew qat, it appears as if even this message is slowly finding its way into their minds.
Lastly, Yemeni tribesmen are also actively participating in the square’s cultural renaissance. While many tribesmen have long considered cleaning to be a woman’s task, they are now tidying the square by themselves, in addition to the tents and the streets.