REFLECTIONS ON STUDYING IN YEMEN by Mike Makara
On September 17, 2008, Yemen appeared in the news for yet another bombing on a U.S. embassy, and I fear that this latest attack may solidify what many Americans have come to assume about this small country at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula. News highlights about al-Qaida’s attack on the USS Cole, as well as about similar incidents against Western interests in the country over the past decade, provide the sole information on Yemen most Americans receive. Correspondingly, many people I spoke with before my trip there this sum- mer conflated Yemen with Iraq, warning me to take care of myself amid the daily violence that they believed I would surely encounter. It often seems as though many Westerners believe that they have the Middle East figured out. Many Americans stereotype Middle Easterners as anti-Western, religiously fanatical, and close- minded, and they assume that these “traits” vary little across countries, populations, and cultures.
Yet the nearly three months I spent in Yemen studying Arabic told a rather different story. I was warned that I would not be welcomed in a Middle Eastern country, yet the vast majority of people whom I met were eager to befriend myself and the other Western students. But even if they warmly greeted me and appeared to be friendly, they would still disparage the way I lived at home, right? How surprised my friends were to hear that many people I met loved American television programs (Friends and The Moment of Truth seemed to be favorites) and that the local Pizza Hut and KFC are just as popular in the heart of Sana’a as they are at home in the United States! No one I met viewed the United States as monolithic or blurred the distinction between the American government and its population, and the informed understandings of international politics among the people I met would put many Americans to shame.
Just as I do not imply that my overwhelmingly positive interactions with Yemenis this summer can be neces- sarily generalized to the entire population of the country, I also do not mean to downplay the very real and se- rious problems confronting Yemen today. Indeed, extreme poverty and a growing water crisis are only some items on the list of problems facing the country, and their concerns over the security situation are certainly understandable. Pronounced cultural differences exist as well, guaranteeing that no one would ever mistake the streets of Sana’a for New York City. Rather, I simply wish to make good on a promise that I made to a number of my Yemeni friends who asked that I do what I could to challenge stereotypes of the Middle East among my peers at home. Consider this brief article to be a small step in that regard.