SANA’A, YEMEN – It’s Ramadan here, time to party all night, sleep all day, pray with gusto and shop, shop, shop. Yes, in Holy Month, after sunrise- to-sundown fasting, you get in all the eating and drinking and merriment you can muster, at least under the circumstances. Shopping without enough money isn’t easy, especially for food that’s often overpriced and outdated.
And it’s hard to smile knowing that kin in Palestine remain without a home, while the Yanks continue to trample with their muddy boots all over Iraq.
Westerners here don’t have it entirely easy either. Unless you’re highly connected, you can’t get a simple brew.
Mohammed banned alcoholic refreshments in this region 1,400 years ago. There are other drinks, however, and casual observation shows Coca-Cola and Canada Dry are in a dead heat for Yemen’s most popular beverage.
Before you salute the Maple Leaf, though, understand that Canada Dry in Yemen is not ginger ale, but cola. Bottled in Yemen’s port city of Aden, this Canada Dry also falls under Coke’s trademark.
Yes, Coke, the 19th century nerve tonic that now generates about $15 billion in annual revenue — 80 per cent from foreign markets — is using the type of corporate slickness we’d expect.
Indeed, the suits at Coke are so clever, I haven’t seen a single Yemeni even taste one particular competitor called Mecca Cola. It’s an alternative now in some 45 countries. Tawfik Mathlouthi, a businessman from, naturally, France, launched it last Ramadan with the motto, “No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment!” He says it’s time to fight “American imperialism and Zionism by providing a substitute for American goods.”
Still, stupid drinking of the world-famous beverage from the smart Coke people continues everywhere.
Even Pakistan, a country created as the ideal Islamic state, gives Mecca Cola only 5 per cent of its market. It seems the stuff simply tastes bad. Which, to me, is instructive for folks wringing their hands over the evils of American cultural imperialism.
You know: Planet Hollywood and MTV and Big Macs from Belgrade to Bangkok, all signs of the Yanks’ desire to Coca-Colonize everyone. Really, don’t people accept the cultural trappings they want, without coercion? As an American told European film-makers: “If you made movies as good as your cheese, people would watch them, too.”
In this region, it’s particularly strange when some Muslims rant that the U.S. is going to hell, then turn on U.S. shows. Saddam Hussein’s son Uday launched Youth TV, using pirated Hollywood movies. His radio station had DJs blast George Bush as a criminal before giving a snappy intro to Madonna. Even North Korea’s despot Kim Jong-Il idolized Michael Jordan, while heir Kim Jong-Nam loves Mickey Mouse.
And why wouldn’t he? I recently saw Mickey in a Yemeni supermarket. Apparently some sensible store manager realized the Disney icon is not just American, but a universal figure that can bring a smile to even the most difficult of days. Sure, this may be soft American power. But such dominance is hardly new. Before satellites could beam anyone’s propaganda or immorality anywhere, countries were miffed over U.S. brand bullies like Kodak cameras, Heinz ketchup and Colgate tooth powder.
That doesn’t make everything coming from the U.S. good. But let’s keep perspective. The U.S. empire isn’t entertaining the masses by rounding up folks to throw to the lions in coliseums. Some even argue that soft imperial power, rather than adding to global tension, enhances peace. Unlike hard power — that is, military domination — it promotes stability through commerce. Numbers since the mid-20th century support this: Liberal democracies virtually never go to war with each other because they’d rather line up for burgers — that is, become economic allies — than fight.
Small wonder there’s no McDonald’s in Iraq, Iran or North Korea, the trio branded by Washington as an axis of evil. Come to think of it, Yemen doesn’t have a McDonald’s either. So let the protesters rage. I say bring in the Golden Arches.
Mickey Mouse is a start. But I need a Big Mac. And all indications here suggest others would enjoy one, too. With an extra large Coke.