Covering Yemen

By ERIN WOOD MILLER '09 and KAREN CROWLEY METZINGER, MA '97

Photography by MIRA BAZ, MA'99

MIRA BAZ, MA ’99 knew little about Yemen when she moved there in 2001. She’d heard about it on the news and read an article in National Geographic, but the recurring question she has always had to answer is, “Why?”

Mia Baz in Yemen

Mira Baz in Yemen

Why live in this country of more than 23 million people in southern Arabia that struggles with poverty, women’s rights, and political discord — this country where men carry AK-47s and terrorists have found a safe haven?

“It’s a question that I always have to answer and that I never have a good short answer for,” Baz said.

“It’s mysterious,” she posted on her blog, The Bohemian and the Bulbul: Journeys in the Middle East, last July. “Yemen is sometimes misunderstood. Its troubles often overshadow its beauty, its architecture, its history, and its people’s hospitality and friendliness. … Yemen doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but the journey’s worth it.”

Embracing Yemen

Being a woman and speaking Lebanese Arabic as her native language allowed Baz to tell the untold stories of Yemen — stories about the fight for women’s equality, the reality of human trafficking and child marriage, and the personal struggles of American-Yemenis caught between their Yemeni identity and their sense of belonging to the United States.

Online

Blog: mirabaz.com
Videos of Yemen's Hip-Hop Culture: bradley.edu/hilltopics/go/baz-hiphop

Published Stories

Baz’s stories have been published in GlobalPost.com, The Daily Star in Lebanon, and the Yemeni monthly magazine Yemen Today. She also taught English as a foreign language and spent much of her free time photographing the daily lives of Yemenis.

“I found that I couldn’t tell Yemen’s story with words alone. I had to take photos to share my fascination with it. Yemen adopted me for most of the last decade and was generous to me in so many ways. It was very challenging, but just as equally rewarding,” Baz said. “I will always carry with me the ruggedness of its landscape and the goodness of its people, who give so much even when they have so little to give.”

A decorated truck with patriotic music playing on its speakers paraded through Sanaa, Yemen, to commemorate the unity of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990.

A decorated truck with patriotic music playing on its speakers paraded through Sanaa, Yemen, to commemorate the unity of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990. When this photo was taken in May 2010, tensions were rising as Yemenis in the North supported the country’s unity, but many in the South wanted more rights and political representation.

In early 2011 as political unrest grew, Baz began to question her safety in the country she had grown to love. Turn on CNN or open the New York Times, and photos of fires in Yemen’s streets and headlines reporting protester deaths are hard to miss.

Angered by widespread corruption and poverty and inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis throughout the country have taken to the streets to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh after more than 30 years in office. He was injured in an attack on his compound on June 3 and flown to Saudi Arabia for medical care.

Baz reluctantly left Yemen for home in Beirut, Lebanon, in March, then left for Bangkok where she is working on publishing a book of photos detailing her time in Yemen. “It was a sentimental departure from the country that was my home for nearly a decade,” she said. “But it keeps pulling me back, so I’m sure I’ll visit again. I’ll always carry with me fond memories of the generosity of Yemen and Yemenis wherever I go, and hope the country overcomes the rocky road ahead.”

Bradley beginnings

Baz, who earned her undergraduate degree at the American University of Beirut, said her decision to attend graduate school in the United States was a difficult one because of the uncertainties of facing a new culture and because of her parents’ hesitation. “They feared what society might think of a woman living on her own. After all, during their youth, it was unheard of for a woman to live alone, much less to do so in another country.”

Baz took some comfort in reading on the Internet about Peoria’s Lebanese community, but upon arrival, she was surprised by their American ways. “Those I met did not even speak Arabic. I was on my own,” she remembers. “’I can always transfer out if I’m not happy,’ I consoled myself in a brief moment of hesitation.”

But Baz soon found a home on the Hilltop, welcomed by professors and classmates and inspired to thrive at a university founded by Lydia Moss Bradley, whom Baz calls, “a progressive and brave woman who was ahead of her time.”

“I loved the personal relationships one could develop at BU, the sense that it was a place where everybody knows your name,” she said. “Although less urban than Beirut, Peoria had its down-home quality that Arabs in America usually miss.”

Thankful for the guidance of Dr. Jim Ballowe, professor emeritus of English, and Dr. Robert Prescott, chairman of the English department, Baz is reassured that attending Bradley — and later taking her writing skills to Yemen — were the right decisions. “I tell myself maybe these places have actually chosen me because they had lessons to teach me,” she said. “The soul of a place is always its people, and in Peoria, as in Yemen — as unexpected as this may seem — the people I have met have been most generous in their friendships. … It was truly special to learn in Peoria that we, Arabs or Lebanese or American, can be quite similar on a human level.”

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City of Sanaa is believed to have been founded by Shem, Noah’s son.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City of Sanaa is believed to have been founded by Shem, Noah’s son. Many of its tower houses were built 200 to 300 years ago and were designed to maintain a constant internal temperature, though the weather fluctuates significantly. Sanaa, once a walled city that is now home to about 2.2 million people, was Baz’s favorite place in Yemen.

 

Slideshow

The Socotra Archipelago is known for its landscape, as seen along this scenic road to the fishing town of Qalansiya. Like the Old City of Sanaa, Socotra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that boasts unique flora and fauna and vibrant marine life. Dragon’s Blood trees, named for their blood-red sap, are unique to the Socotra Archipelago, located in the Indian Ocean southeast of Yemen. Locally, it is called the Dam al-Akhawain, or blood of the two brothers. Though Yemen has a reputation as a dangerous place, Yemenis are generally laid-back, good-natured people and hospitable to guests, Baz said. Many Yemeni men chew qat, a mildly narcotic leaf. They also wear traditional daggers, called jambiyas, in holsters on their waists. Yemeni women in the villages work in their households and in the fields. Their beautiful and resilient spirit truly comes through. This woman sells chickens in a market in Dhamar. Similar to her, Baz initially wore the black balto that Yemeni women wear — but without covering her hair or face. She soon discovered that Yemenis tolerated her when she dressed as she would in Lebanon or America, as long as it was modest; however, she still drew attention. Depending on the area, her clothes either generated stares or conversations about Lebanese culture, which is much more liberal than Yemeni culture. Regardless, Baz said she felt safe because she was never physically harassed, as could have been the case in some other Arab countries. Yemeni students studying English as a foreign language wear American T-shirts,  as hip-hop grows as a subculture among Sanaa’s urban youth. Young Yemenis are motivated to learn English, not only because they love Hollywood movies and pop music, but also because English opens up more opportunities for them.