Yemen battling image problem

March 2, 2004

SANA’A, YEMEN – The Middle East. Quick, what do you think of? Oil? Terrorism? Women wearing head-to-toe burqas? Islam? Script with funny squiggles? Can you honestly think of much good? If you had a free ticket to holiday anywhere, would this region even make your short list?

Of course, it has good things. People here are, well, pretty much like anywhere. Parents raise families. Kids go to school. Folks marry, dance, cook, write poetry, fight, reconcile and so on.

I’ve yet to meet anyone in Yemen, for example, who’s burned a U.S. flag or shouted “Death to America.” Just as London isn’t full of tweed-clad MBA students or white-collared insurance agents, the Middle East — Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east, Turkey in the north to Somalia in the south — has more variety than any silly, monolithic stereotypes we believe.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time you hear some yahoo has blown up a bus or shop in Israel. It simply has nothing to do with the experience of millions here, just like, say, SARS will never be experienced by millions of Canadians.

But then, we live in a world of perceptions. Consider that while terrorism kills thousands yearly, most victims live in Africa, Nepal and Columbia. We don’t hear that, because they have nothing to do with the few hundred Western victims. In truth, more people die of traffic accidents and falling off ladders than from any global terror threat.

But that’s not politically important.

The whole thing comes to mind because if there’s one thing I’ve discovered during my two-year tenure in Yemen, it’s that most acquaintances back home have no appreciation for tourism here.

Sure Yemen has some black eyes from incidents such as the bombings of the American warship USS Cole in 2000 (now back in service after a $250 million repair) and the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. That Yemen is a tribal nation with a weak central government and, in parts, a wild-west mentality, doesn’t help.

But its capital Sana’a, with its historic quarter designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is among the oldest inhabited places on Earth. And for anyone living in this giant, outdoor museum, it’s no surprise that Sana’a is named the Arab cultural capital for 2004.

To help celebrate, the Germans recently came to town for Yemen’s first-ever open-air concert. Believe it or not, the 70-member Europa Philharmonie Orchestra, among Europe’s best, played Mozart and Brahms, Beethoven and Strauss, under the stars, against a stunning backdrop of ancient, mud-brick buildings that look like giant ginger-bread houses.

A thousand VIPs from across the region listened. Hundreds of locals lined the area, some peering out from area windows and rooftops. Your best billing at Roy Thomson Hall wouldn’t compare — and this was free. The only glitch was the crowd, which gave a 10-minute standing ovation, couldn’t control its applause throughout the show.

It shows what exposure can do for an unknown product. Some feel Yemen has antiquities on par with Egypt’s pyramids.

Instead, due to incidents such as the ship blasts, Aden, a port city with the most picturesque beaches in the region, is all but blowing away. Its free-zone shipping terminal, which normally handles goods from around the world, is now bankrupt, bought out for $200 million by Yemen’s government.

The irony is that, rather than hurting any Western commerce, which they like to gloat about, the few bomb-happy extremists are actually hurting their own kin. And, unlike in Canada, Conan or the Rolling Stones won’t bale these folks out. Poor orphan Yemen couldn’t afford their clean-up crew.

The saving grace is that while European tourists — who normally generate more than half of Yemen’s tourists — have fallen, visitors from other Middle Eastern countries are up. Total visitors, about 100,000 a year now, are slowly rising to pre-Cole-blast days.

There are no easy solutions to it all, especially when the truth gets mired in the mud of fear and politics. But, in this town, 2004 promises to bring some pretty good times. If only a few more North Americans would put down the so-called news, and come take a look.

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March 2, 2004 • Posted in ,
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