A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
In a city known for peace and coexistence, embracing different races, sects and religions, a cruel war raged. People were tyrannized, the city’s infrastructure was destroyed, and its cultural landmarks threatened with extinction. This city is the coastal city of Aden, one of the most important and beautiful cities in Yemen. As for the war, it is the war that erupted in early 2015 and undermined the stability of the entire country, making Aden one of its major theaters. But now, Aden, after being driven out of the nightmare of a terrible war, is slowly restoring itself to its prewar state and building the stability and peace that the city’s residents have long awaited. Still, the war time scenes – people carrying arms, property theft, and the proliferation of extremist groups – remain present.
At the cultural end of the city’s life, people have not had the opportunity to resume or initiate cultural activities that would restore the city, once a cultural capital for Yemenis, to its former multicultural spirit and character. As one of the most important cities in the Arabian Peninsula, over the years Aden witnessed the emergence of an open civil society accompanied by many cultural and literary clubs, cinemas, theaters and more. Today, the continuous assassinations, carried out after the city was liberated from the specter of war, continue to haunt anyone who attempts to stand up against the culture and ideologies of extremism. This fear prevents the inception of a cultural movement worthy of the city and its history, and the aspirations of its young people.
During this time, a group of educated youth experiencing the trauma in the city attempted to find a solution, albeit a simple one. It began in November 2015, when young peace advocates came together and agreed that one of the city’s main strengths lay in its cultural clubs. There was no better place to strengthen civil society and promote peace in the city, and so they embarked on setting up a new cultural club.
The aim of this initiative was to contribute to the restoration of prewar conditions and the revival of civic culture in the city, and to send a message that Aden is still a beacon of science and culture. The club’s priorities were to promote cultural and civic awareness and fight the ideologies of extremism. During their first meeting, the founders discussed the name of the club, and after deliberating over a number of proposed names, decided on ‘Al-Nasieh’. The late Amjad Abdul Rahman, who later became president of the club, proposed the name. After deciding on the club’s goals and membership requirements, the first challenge the founders faced was the logo. It created a controversy among potential funders because it depicted a woman carrying a book in her hands. The club members were asked to change the logo in order to secure funding, but the members refused and decided to start on their own.
photo courtesy of al-Nasieh Club
In January 2016, Al-Nasieh Club held its first book fair. The fair was not intended for profit but aimed at reviving the reading culture among youth. Books were sold for less than 50 per cent of their cost. A few months later, on Arab Library Day, the club organized a larger book fair and hosted an array of literary programs. Their Aden Cultural Fair was held at the Minaret Square in Crater district as part of the project Aden Reads. The fair was organized in partnership with the Jedaria Foundation for Development and Media, the Kalamon Reading Club and Multaqa Al-Alwan Association. The club members were pleasantly surprised that the event was met with plenty of support and enthusiasm from the community. As the Aden Cultural Fair approached the end of its run, the club members decided to extend the fair for a few days in response to unprecedented community requests, and in an effort to broaden the success of its outreach. The parallel program included, among other events, a panel discussion on Granada Trilogy, a novel by Egyptian writer Radwa Ashour, special arts events, and a screening of a documentary film that captures the heart of the city after the war.
Al-Nasieh Club continued to breathe new life into the city through cultural, artistic and awareness activities. In May 2016, the club held an evening of art and poetry at Muswat Library, one of the oldest libraries in the city, in memory of the poet Lutfi Jafar Aman and in celebration of his birthday. Later during the month, the members organized a cultural evening at the Minaret Square on the legacy of Mohammed Ali Luqman, a leading Adeni figure and poet. During Ramadan, the club maintained its activities through artistic and cultural evenings, and also held a Ramadan party at Al-Bara’im Park.
Reflecting on the activities of the club, Amal Abdulrahman, a member, remarked: “We were striving and planning and trying to stay afloat in this swamp that consumed our city after the war. Thankfully we have achieved some success and will continue until our city returns to the cultural city we know it to be.”
Striving to promote coexistence, the club organized a seminar on the importance of accepting the other. The seminar involved various participants, including the journalist Raad Al-Raimi, and various activist groups within the city. Among other ambitions, the club members have been keen to organize their activities in historical sites throughout Aden. Their aim was to revive the disappearing cultural heritage of the city, and send a message to the community about the need to protect monuments and archaeological sites and retain their symbolic cultural value.
photo courtesy of al-Nasieh Club
Two years on, the club set out to draw the community’s attention to the fact that political changes are no more important than cultural change, that society must improve its culture and rid itself of repressive concepts and methods that have dominated in recent decades. With this in mind, the club held a workshop, Political Change First or Cultural Change First?, on 27 January 2017. The event was hosted at the Yemeni Socialist Party headquarters and was attended by the president of the Aden Center for Studies and Research.
Al-Nasieh Club continued to grow and spread moderate ideas that reject racism, fanaticism, religious extremism and social seclusion. It was able to do so through discussions and events organized and supported by its members and through critical topics raised by both male and female participants. Seeing that the position of women is one of the most important measures of society and civil society’s progress, the club’s vision focused on the necessity to address the issue of women in an open public debate that acknowledged the deteriorating situation of women in the country. In this context, the club held a symposium on 22 March 2017, Adeni Women between Past and Present. The seminar was hosted at the Department of Education at the University of Aden, and included women from all generations. Together they discussed the status of women today and the importance of enhancing the role of women in various fields. The main focus was on the most important right, the right of women to choose their life and way of living free of restrictions or conditions, a right that must be sought by the majority of people in Yemen and guaranteed and protected by a civil state.
A high price
This seminar was the last in the life of the club president, founder and young intellectual, Amjad Abdul Rahman. On 15 May 2017, the shocking news of Amjad Abdul Rahman’s assassination shook the city of Aden. He was shot in an Internet cafe in Sheikh Osman, at the center of the city that he carried in his heart. His murderer was keen to target his ingenious head, where he carried hundreds of novels and poems, and his heart, where he carried a great love of people and sought their liberation. The last post that Amjad wrote on his Facebook page was one of love for his fiancée and a promise that she would not fall as long as he is standing. The final words published before Amjad’s murder read, “My love for you is so deep that even at my weakest moments I can support you, and fall”.
In the end Amjad fell as the enemies of peace planned, and the crime, as is often the case, was blamed on an unknown assassin.
Raad Al-Raimi, a journalist who had worked with Amjad, said: “I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar held by the club about accepting the other. These are the ideas that Amjad’s killers do not like, they are enemies of diversity, of the culture of difference and multicultural thought. I remember when Amjad asked me to participate; I was hesitant because frustration had managed to get the best of me. All I saw was a dark future, but the head of Al-Nasieh Club helped me overcome the darkness, and gave me a glimpse of what he saw, and my heart was once again filled with hope. May you rest in glory Amjad.”
photo courtesy of al-Nasieh Club
In spite of the severe trauma facing the club and its members, and despite the challenges that the club may face in the future, the vice president of Al-Nasieh Club confirmed that the initiative will carry on its civic mission and will continue to follow its now famous slogan, ‘Standing Together to Revive Cultural Life’.
In this spirit, the club’s members plan to restart its cultural program activities at the beginning of 2018, after the launch of the club’s website. Upcoming program activities include the return of the book fair, a series of cultural symposia, art events and awareness-raising workshops.