A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Art work courtesy of Ammar al-Awami
In 1971, the Yemeni Writers Union was founded by a group of prominent writers, among them Omar al-Jawi, Abdullah al-Baradouni and Ahmad Qasim Damaj. As the first unified entity under this title, it was greeted with great interest and enthusiasm despite the volatile political situation between the two countries at the time (North Yemen and South Yemen). In 1972, the union opened its first headquarters in Aden with an official ceremony that was well attended by state officials and intellectuals.
At its height, which lasted a few decades, the Yemeni Writers Union worked to create a climate of coexistence, and provided the scene with many distinctive literary voices. During this time, the union played an enlightening role in society, dedicating its efforts towards the protection of writers and the condemnation of censorship and infringement on their human and literary rights. Most importantly, it was committed to publishing the works of its members in a special issue journal, al-Hekma Magazine, as well as other publications. It also organized various local and Arab literary and cultural festivals and events, bringing writers of all orientations together under one roof. Throughout its history, the Yemeni Writers Union supported the unity and belonging of Yemeni people, and believed in contributing to humanity while preserving its own cultural and intellectual heritage.
With the exception of a brief period before the Arab Spring in 2011, when the grip of the police state reached its peak, the union remained a stronghold of intellectual voices, and supported both members and non-members who resisted the totalitarian authorities. The Yemeni Writers Union, in its official position, stands by freedom of expression and the dignity of the Yemeni people.
A call to restore its historical role
Art work courtesy of Ammar al-Awami
However, almost half a century after it was founded, the union is torn apart by institutional conflicts and conflicting visions about the current events in the country. In April 2018, a group of young Yemeni writers stood in front of the union headquarters in Sana’a and held banners that read, ‘Together to restore the national role of the Yemeni Writers Union’, ‘The failure of the union to exercise its cultural activities exposes its headquarters to theft’, and ‘Introducing new blood to the union reinforces national unity’.
Al-Madaniya met a group of Yemeni writers, among them protestors and leaders of the union, to understand the position of the union, the reasons for its silence, the motives behind the protests led by the young writers, and the results of their actions so far.
At the beginning, the writer, poet and one of the leaders of the protest movement, Anwar al-Bukhaiti, stressed that the main objective of the movement of young writers is to restore the union to its historical and national role. Everyone knows the circumstances in which the Yemeni Writers Union was founded; it was the nucleus of Yemeni unity, gathering the diverse voices under one umbrella, and crucially it was the first united civil entity in Yemen.
For the young poet Zain al-Abideen al-Dhabibi, “The Yemeni Writers Union is an institution that defends writers, protects their rights, supports the publication of their output, and organizes literary activities, all in the midst of cultural stagnation across the whole country… For this reason, we presented these demands to the union because it is the main inclusive entity for writers.”
Among the young writers’ demands is that the union presents a peace initiative to stop the war and prepare the country for the post-war period. The protestors argue that this is a national duty, regardless of how the initiative is received.
Amira Shayef is a young writer and critic who participated in the protest, and believes that “It is shameful that writers from other Arab countries have put forward initiatives to stop the war in Yemen, meanwhile the Yemeni writer stands silent waiting for the situation to improve”. Al-Bukhaiti agrees, stating, “The next generation will damn us if we do not do something now”.
In her interview with al-Madaniya, poet Huda Ablan, secretary general of the Yemeni Writers Union, insisted that the union stands with the youth in any peace initiative they would like to present. The union supports peace, stability and respect for political and social diversity in Yemen. “We are against war and destruction and these are the implicit positions of the union regardless of its silence. The union was founded on values f unity, democracy, cultural and intellectual freedom, and is against the ongoing conflict and the violent destruction of life in Yemen with its regional motives”, she added.
One of the leaders of the union, M.M, who asked to be referred to by his initials, explained: “The union cannot offer an initiative to resolve the conflict without the consent of all its members. Eighty per cent of the members of the executive council live in the south and may have a different position towards the current situation. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Will this initiative satisfy all political orientations?’ The union has remained silent in this political climate to avoid internal conflicts that could lead to division. This is the best thing to do to preserve national unity and avoid producing further conflicts.”
Art work courtesy of Ammar al-Awami
Poet Jamil Mufreh, deputy head of the Yemeni Writers Union branch in Sana’a, pointed out that the union includes members from all affiliations and orientations, so it cannot take a one-sided view: “The leadership of the union is in the executive council, and no single decision can be made without collective consent. If I take a step that is not carefully calculated and has not been agreed upon, the union may collapse.”
On the other hand, al-Dhabibi says, “The union will undoubtedly have a significant impact if its leadership realizes the importance of the role it can play in bringing the views of different parties closer together. It has the capacity, through its members, to foster a culture of dialogue and put pressure on the conflicting parties to return to the right path and put the country first. If writers felt safe and protected by an institution, they would not hesitate to put forward their point of view and condemn the parties responsible for the obstruction of peace and the continuation of the war.”
Can new blood revive the union?
As part of their long-term plans, the young protesting writers set a strategy for achieving their goals. Their first step was to demand the acceptance of pending membership requests of more than ten years, in all the branches of the union. They believe that these membership requests were hampered by the bureaucratic procedures that govern the administration of the union, as well as the lack of flexibility and failure to utilize modern technology.
Anwar al-Bukhaiti explained that being accepted as new members allows them to achieve the objectives of the union, to present their initiatives, and to revive the union’s activity. Over the past months, their anger has been tempered by promises to accept membership and review applications, but no further action has been taken. Professor Huda Ablan explained that there are administrative obstacles causing the delay in these applications, but despite these obstacles things are moving forward. The union has elected a new membership committee and submitted the order to the General Secretariat, but because many of the members now no longer reside in Yemen, it has been difficult to hold a meeting with the presence of the 31 members of the Executive Board. The union’s rules require the presence of all board members in order to approve new memberships, and to avoid any challenges or objections that may arise.
Art work courtesy of Ammar al-Awami
Ablan clarified that the responsibility of the union’s General Secretariat is to manage the work of the Executive Council. “The General Secretariat does not have the authority to make an independent decision without the approval of all members of the Executive Board. The reality is that there are 11 branches across Yemen, with board members distributed across these branches, many who have left the country. The current political situation makes the possibility of meeting under these circumstances quite difficult”, she said.
However, al-Bukhaiti wonders, “Is it conceivable that the administration of the union cannot implement these measures through modern means of communication?” In fact, he continued, “If there were sincere intentions to solve the problem by utilizing modern technology, the union could have established an electronic platform in which the communication between the executive bodies of the union could take place. This would facilitate the implementation of the union’s procedures and solve the impasse.” Amira Shayef agrees with al-Bukhaiti, and describes the organizational procedures in the union as outdated. She was surprised that the union still only maintains a paper archive without making any efforts to digitize.
In response to these criticisms, M.M said, “The Yemeni Writers Union has some of the most strict regulations and procedures in comparison to other civil society institutions in Yemen. There is no bureaucracy, but a system that cannot be overruled. Young people must understand the mechanisms and processes of this system. Things are not as simple as they imagine.”
Closed doors and a halted budget
Al-Bukhaiti believes young Yemeni writers today are exceptional. In recent years they have become totally self-reliant in publishing, printing and marketing their works with little institutional or community support or care. Despite the scarcity of possibilities, they have managed to keep cultural work in Yemen alive. They persistently put their personal efforts into reviewing literary activities and participating in events across the country, even though the union has closed its doors to them. “Perhaps the most understandable reason given by the members of the General Secretariat for not opening the doors of the union is their fear of being dragged into the conflict. However, this can be avoided by ensuring a strict adherence to the rules and regulations of the union and promoting the union’s mandate which stands for the public good – as a national entity that brings together all the Yemeni people.”
Once again Ablan explains, “The Yemeni Writers Union headquarters closed its doors in 2013, because the budget of the union had been suspended, like all unions and federations in Yemen. You can confirm this information through the Ministry of Social Affairs. The union is affected by the current situation of the country and is unable to resolve this on its own.”
M.M confirms, saying, “We cannot even afford to pay the guard if we open the doors of the union. Regular meetings cost a large budget. This makes the organization of an Executive Council meeting to take any decision on the union very difficult. It is not subject to personal will and single decisions, even the president of the union himself cannot make this decision alone… We do not guarantee the opening of the headquarters in this volatile political situation and lack of security. We hope that after the end of the war, the dispersed leaders of the union will return and organize a general conference to revive the unions’ activities.”
Finally, Jamil Mufreh concludes, “The union faces three major problems now: the problem of branches and dispersed members, the budget problem, and the problem of a homeland in war”.
The struggle of generations
Is the current conflict between young writers and the old leadership a generation struggle? Or a struggle between stalemate and rebellion? Or a battle to recover what young people see as their right? Or an attempt to gain advantages?
Ablan sees the presence of the youth as a source of hope and diversity, and believes, “Youth are the cornerstone of cultural work in Yemen, and they are the face of the future management of cultural institutions, especially as they are a persevering generation on both literary and organizational levels. The union holds no opposition towards the youth, and hopes to attract more distinguished young and upcoming poets and writers, and calls for diversity… Any activity in the union is inclusive of young writers, however they remain in fear of being excluded. This will not happen at the union, and I assure them that they will not be excluded.” According to M.M, “A writer remains a writer regardless of their age, and many of the current leaders in the union took office when they were young… The new memberships demanded by the protestors includes writers of all ages”.
From their perspective, the young writers expressed their respect for the history of the union, and stressed that their goal is to restore this very history that was initiated by the founders. Al-Bukhaiti added that there are senior and elder writers from the union who support the cause of the protest and that they are proud of the past leaders of the union. However, in consideration of the health conditions of some of the elderly leaders, they have paused their protests, but the possibilities for escalation remain open.
The absence of the union does not mean its disappearance
There are many distinguished Yemeni writers and intellectuals. They have existed in all circumstances over the course of Yemen’s intellectual history. Unions and cultural institutions do not create creativity, but provide support for creative work. This includes fighting for their intellectual rights, providing a platform to share their work, and playing their role in political struggle and enlightenment.
Young protestors aspire to revive the role of writers in contributing to real change. Their goal is to restore the status of the union and its role in creating peace, and hope the union will accept new members without discrimination, regardless of their political, sectarian or regional affiliation, and bring Yemeni literature back to its former status.
From his perspective, Dr. Mubarak Salimain, president of the Union, responded to the protest movement last April in a message on the unions’ Facebook page: “It is easy to theorize, but preserving this national institution is not easy. Do not contribute to dismantling the Yemeni Writers Union. It is an attempt many former successive authorities have failed to achieve.”
In response, al-Bukhaiti wrote, “We believe in our cause and we will achieve it. We are doing what needs to be done.” “The absence of the union does not mean it will disappear”, wrote Ablan. “When the country recovers, the union will return once again.”
Some commentators believe that this polarization within the union carries political and social implications that can be seen in the positions of the writers towards the ongoing war and its participating parties. However, the union must triumph. It is a Yemeni institution that brings creative voices together and includes within it independent voices that cannot be coerced to serve any authority or position dictated by any party who wins in the political arena.