Yemen through the looking glass

March 26, 2011

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – It’s the televisions. The bloody televisions. They’re all terrorists. A dangerous and growing threat. This just in from Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s about-to-fall president of 32 years.

“The terrorism of mass media must be avoided,” are his exact words. Throw in Facebook and your phone. Twitter wears the devil’s horns.

Saleh looks reasonable. His hair is short and combed. His gestures, modest. His tone, calm. I watch him on Al-Jazeera from my writing perch in Africa, in front of several widescreens at a Kampala bar. I ask the barman to turn up the sound. He can’t. I ask the waiter what he thinks of Yemen. “Is that a city in Libya?”

I’m left with my own memories of Yemen. There was our ground-level apartment on that street with no name, a large Canadian flag in the doorway; bicycling the dusty and congested streets of Sana’a; work at the Yemen Times; the terrorist murders of our American friends; my wife’s close brush with that.

Saleh is addressing his military council in a national telecast. Everyone’s watching. Yemen must not tear apart, he says. He’ll now resign by year’s end. “We still have the ability to go back to normal.”

I lean forward. No. No, Mr. Saleh. It’s too late. It’s time to retire. Now. Today.

He goes on. I lean into the television. The dead. The blood. The tents and crowds at Sana’a University.

I feel like I’m falling, falling into the screen, wide as the ocean, falling, and now, on the screen of my mind, I’m in front of Saleh in a room of power, a large panelled space with small men in dull uniforms.

“Yes?” the president says, looking at me. “Are you military?”

No, I’m Mennonite. Pacifist.

“Where are you from?”

Africa. Well, Canada. I’m a Canadian in Africa. But I lived in Yemen. I’m a journalist.

“You look familiar.”

I worked at the Yemen Times.

“I remember. You wrote a column, East and West. Jamil Adbul Karim?”

That was my pen name. Your comment, sir, about the mass media?

“You mean about the terror of mass media? The terror of television’s so-called news?”

That’s right.

“What about it?”

For better or worse, sir, isn’t the media a needed window into a country like yours, a window so that you’re not isolated from the outside world?

“Maybe so. But the smaller the screen, the better. Yemen has always had small television screens. Not long ago we didn’t even have any televisions. How did you get here, anyway?”

I fell through a television.

“See what I mean? Had it been smaller, you’d be safe. And I know about televisions in places like Canada. You need bigger houses all the time just to fit them, those giant plasmas. They’ll hang on your wall fine, the new ones, but you’re all so terribly numbed and distracted. Now, I have a country to run.”

How is that going?

“We’re overcoming.”

What about the tanks guarding your palace? And the citizens camped in the streets. They’re willing to die for change. Your top officials have resigned. The south wants to separate. You’ve had war in the north. Your country’s water is running out. al-Qaeda…

“You’re Canadian. You know Marshall McLuhan?”

Of course. “Politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions.”

“‘The medium is the message,'” Jamil. That’s what McLuhan said. You don’t watch a screen. You step into it.”

Like with interactive TV? Like I did?

“That’s right. Some things can take a life of their own. A few hippies camp at a university and throw stones and get bloody and someone has a camera or Godknows- what and sends a little video around the world every 27 seconds. Makes it seem like all hell is loose. That’s not information. That’s disinformation, misleading and irrelevant amusement for the masses, for pleasure-seeking westerners.”

Sir, but all hell here certainly is breaking loose.

“Because of the terrorism of mass media.”

Didn’t you just say that? On Al-Jazeera? Hey, am I on a rerun?

“Jamil, I have a country to save. Now go. Leave your notes and camera with security at the door.”

I’ll leave how I came, thanks.

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March 26, 2011 • Posted in ,
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