The Ties That Bind

by Stacey Philbrick Yadav
published in MER281

Yemeni-American activist Rabyaah al-Thaibani was born in Ta‘izz, Yemen’s largest city, in 1977. She moved to the United States as a child to join her father, who was working nights cleaning office buildings in Manhattan. She grew up in Brooklyn, attended Columbia University and since has worked in community development in New York City. In 2011, she helped establish the Yemeni-American Coalition for Change, and in February 2017 worked to bridge Yemeni and American concerns by co-organizing the Yemeni bodega strike, mounted in protest of President Donald Trump’s first attempt at a “Muslim ban.” A named plaintiff in New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s effort to challenge the second “Muslim ban” in court, al-Thaibani agreed to talk with MERIP about how her childhood in Yemen and her experience as part of a wide Yemeni diaspora have influenced her activism in the US. She also spoke about what she would like outsiders to appreciate about Yemen and its current conflict. In a wide-ranging conversation of more than two hours with Stacey Philbrick Yadav, associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, al-Thaibani described the connections she sees between her home and her homeland, the optimism she feels about Americans’ “accidental awakening” since Trump’s election, and the ways in which Yemenis are represented in American policy debates. The following is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

Can you speak about your development as an activist? Have you always been politically engaged?

I grew up in a political household. My dad and his brothers were born right after World War II, during the “days of hunger,” as the period is known in Yemen, the last days of the imamate. [1] Food was very scarce, and I grew up hearing stories about this time from my dad. He really shaped me.

My dad came to the US in 1981, and then petitioned to bring us [in 1985]. But in the meantime, we moved from Ta‘izz to my mom’s village for a year and half, and you can imagine me, a city girl! But the mountains, the smells! It’s something that lives in me until today. While we were there, my dad would communicate with us by cassette tape. This is how I came to know that he worked at 505 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Later, when I was in the US, he would take us there, and show me where he worked mopping the floors.

My dad worked really hard, and he invested in real estate in Brooklyn. But in everything he did, in all his spare time, he was immersed in politics. He would go every week to get al-Sharq al-Awsat [newspaper], and everyone who came to the house for a holiday, whenever…the talk was all politics. This is why I am who I am. It’s in my blood.

You grew up politically informed and engaged, but the Yemeni American Coalition for Change was your first move into Yemen-focused activism in the US, yes? Can you tell me more about it, about what got you started?

I was in Yemen about six months before the revolution, in the summer of 2010, for my brother’s wedding. I remember, my God, the intensity…a lot of people were really on edge. And I went to some gatherings, especially with journalists…. This is when I met my husband, Basheer. [2] I had read some of his writings, and he just doesn’t care who he offends. He’s not a sellout—this is what attracted me to him. Anyhow, there was this crazy, intense energy at the time, of people coming together across these huge differences.

Then back in the US, four or five of us started the Yemeni American Coalition for Change [in support of the revolution]. It was one of those times when Yemenis were really united…Islahis, Houthis, it was really magical in Change Square [in Sanaa], but also here in the US, except for a tiny fringe of GPC-ers [loyalists of the former president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih]. I mean, can you believe that unity? 

Then the grassroots were eroded. And I say “were eroded” because it didn’t happen because of the movement itself, but because of external influence. The US, Saudi Arabia, Iran…they fucked us all. They turned this beautiful movement into a nightmare. After Salih was given immunity, and came back, whatever…you know, if they wanted to get rid of him, he would have been gone. But he went back to Yemen [after receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia], and then you know the rest.

After that, a lot of the educated elite left Yemen and settled in the Gulf, the US and Europe. What was left was this super-corrupt high elite and then a huge mass of Yemenis, like the 99 percent. After the failure of the transition period—the National Dialogue—there was an exodus of Yemeni elites who took whatever they could to save themselves.

The people who stayed—a lot of journalists, like Sami Ghaleb and my husband Basheer—they were an intellectual elite who really did believe in Yemen [and] couldn’t imagine leaving it behind. Bushra al-Maqtari, you know, all these intellectuals. Who left? The corrupt elite who looked down on everyone else…. And now you see how barbaric the Saudis are, how the Islahis are holed up in five-star hotels in Saudi Arabia, and [how] a tiny number of people are screwing over millions and millions of Yemenis.

I’m not going to be apologetic. I’m a humanitarian activist. I paid how much to attend Columbia University? I didn’t do it to be politically correct but so that I can call out bullshit. I don’t judge people by who they are: “Oh, you’re Islahi, you’re Houthi.” If I see that you’re doing good work, I don’t have a problem. But if I see you spewing the same bullshit rhetoric, I will call you out. There’s so much that the Houthis and Afash [Salih loyalists] are doing, we can’t deny it.

Is there any underlying issue that drives your activism, from supporting the revolution in Yemen in 2011 to working on the bodega strike this year?

You cannot separate my involvement with politics in the Middle East from what is happening here. We are paying a price for our direct involvement in what’s happening in Yemen, meaning we—you and me—as taxpayers, as US citizens. This goes back at least to the first drones, of course, but US involvement is much deeper now. So yes, of course it’s connected. But also, as a woman, I grew up here thinking I was in a free society. And now? A misogynist is president? Not even a man in a remote village would brag about grabbing a woman by the pussy! You can’t talk about misogyny and not talk about people being killed by Saudi airstrikes, or talk about women’s rights and separate that from poverty and structural racism. It’s all connected. 

Have you also found strategies or practices that carry across the two contexts, Yemen and the United States?

The Yemeni American Coalition here in the US was established to support change in Yemen, so our movement was transnational from the beginning. But I learned a lot in terms of being really diplomatic with different groups, different agendas. At the end of the day, we had a common goal, and we do today—what’s happening in the United States as a whole. We’re all in this together, against this…corrupt establishment that makes the rules for themselves and their buddies.

The Muslim ban was serious for me. We kind of thought it was all rhetoric [during the presidential campaign], but then we read the leaked version. Even then, we thought the Department of Justice must be giving [President Trump] some advice, and that the ban couldn’t end up like that. But he signed it, like that, at 5:37 on a Friday night. I have thousands of Yemeni bodega owners on my newsfeed, and usually they’re up all night, constantly posting, and I can’t keep up. But that night, there was this eerie silence. I was so shocked, and then saddened, and then defeated. This felt like post-9/11 2.0, like my community was going through PTSD. Not even one word.

I remember telling my husband, “Don’t worry, we’ll see.” And then I talked to my uncle, a refugee in Jordan with his two kids and he said, “Wait, this is the America that you keep telling me about?” I cried myself to asleep that night. Words can’t even explain it. I’m very optimistic and strong, but that night was one of the worst nights.

But then I woke up Saturday morning to a text from Murad Awawdeh, from the New York Immigration Coalition, and he said, “Rabyaah, where are you? [Come to] JFK [Airport], right now.” I said to Salma, my daughter—she’s always involved in my activism—“C’mon, can you write something for me?” And she wrote a simple sign that read, “Refugees Welcome #NoBanNoWall,” and I headed to JFK.

Hundreds of people were already there in the freezing cold. You know New Yorkers—no one wants to go to JFK if they can avoid it. They’d rather give you a kiss, say “bye” and put you in a taxi. But so many were there, and I thought, my community needed to see this, so I went on Facebook Live, said “C’mon out!” The same thing was happening all over the country. By noon, JFK was basically shut down, and the taxi drivers held their strike…. Those two weeks leading up to the Ninth Circuit decision [suspending the ban] were the most exhilarating. Like they said in that New York Times editorial, it was an “accidental awakening” of people who’d never been involved in politics before. Maybe it had to take hate in the ugliest form, at its most open and not even trying to hide, just, “This is who the fuck we are and this is our agenda.” [Trump] ran his campaign in such a disastrous way, and he started his presidency in the same way, and I kind of thank him for it. If people ask, “What do you have to say to Donald Trump?” I say, “Thank you, for inspiring people to wake up and refuse your agenda.” I’m not saying it’s all going to be easy or rosy. There are divisions, but there is also this momentum, and I hope it continues. I’m an optimist. 

With the Trump administration increasing direct US military engagement in Yemen, a lot of people will be writing about Yemen for American audiences who haven’t spent much time on this issue before. What do you want to say to “newcomers” to the war in Yemen?

Think about your children and your family, when you think about Yemeni children and families. Before you write a word, make sure you know what you’re writing about because these are real lives that you’re dealing with. In March alone, we had more than 1,000 deaths in airstrikes by outside powers. Think about that, as if it were happening here in your towns and the bars where you drink with colleagues, as if your backyard burned and your children were running from the bombs. It’s no longer talk…. To policymakers, writers, please do your research, be objective and do what’s right in the name of your own humanity.

What would you say to people who have been writing and thinking about Yemen for a long time? What do we need to pay attention to that we are not noticing?

You need to look at both sides. I know I have sometimes ignored certain aspects of Yemen, too, but you have to look at all sides. Yes, the Saudis are a poison in the region, as are the Iranians. But it’s not so black and white with regard to the politics on the ground. There is a long history in Yemen where the Hashemites [descendants of the Prophet Muhammad] ruled for 1,000 years—I remember my dad telling me that if a Hashemite was walking down the road, he would have to move over and make room for him so he could pass by. I remember my dad telling me that no one was allowed an education except the children of Hashemite families.

It’s in this context that the word “indigenous” is sometimes used in a political way. It means something different to those from the far north than it does when you’ve grown up in Ta‘izz, and you’re educated, and you come from the regions where most of the resources exist, where people are darker, and you hear this racist rhetoric about Yemen’s “original inhabitants,” as if some Yemenis are more authentic than others.

You know Yemen’s political history in depth. But the policymakers in Washington don’t know anything about these long-standing dynamics, and still they make life-and-death decisions. I worry that when they hear the Houthis described as indigenous in the New York Times, or by an “expert” at an event, they wrongly think, “Oh, they must be the original inhabitants of Yemen.” They think of it like the Native Americans, as the people who were there first, but that’s not correct.

But isn’t it possible that people use the term “indigenous” to mean “from Yemen,” as opposed to, say, from Iran? To emphasize that the conflict is domestic, and cannot be reduced to proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Perhaps, but instead of “indigenous” you could say, “These are Yemenis like any other Yemenis,” which is what you really mean. I expect from you, and people like you who write about Yemen and have an influence on what policymakers think, that you take the historical perspective and think carefully about how these words and concepts sound among Yemenis on the ground. Be cautious about what gets lost in translation, because there’s a lot of politics in words.

Endnotes

[1] In the context of Yemen, this reference is to a system of hereditary rule organized under a Zaydi Shi‘i imam drawn from among the sada (sing. sayyid), or Hashemites, descendants of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Zaydi Muslims are denominationally distinct from other Shi‘i Muslims and are territorially concentrated in northern highlands of Yemen. The last of the Zaydi imams was overthrown in 1962, initiating a civil war that was eventually resolved through the consolidation of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen). Al-Thaibani was born in that country, which formally merged with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) to form a single state in 1990, after her family had relocated to the US.
[2] Al-Thaibani is a plaintiff in the New York case against the second “Muslim ban” because it prevents her husband from joining her in the US. The global media and Amnesty International have covered the details.

Filed under: