A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
On the meaning of culture
In Yemen, when talking about culture, one often thinks about literature, journalism, music and visual arts, downplaying the meaning of ‘culture’ also as the sum of sophisticated, civilized values. It includes the importance of poetry, novels, storytelling, painting, music and journalism. The notion of ‘culture’ is based on social structures and individual actions, so that the support offered by culture to morality, righteousness, justice and beauty can be achieved. Intellectuals wish to turn their individual activity, which expresses their talent, into a vision, attitude and behaviour. In this sense, culture in Yemen remains an individual effort by a number of people who have cultural aspirations and talents that are expressed through writing or art.
On the Yemeni cultural scene
Yemeni intellectuals are torn between their reality, based on traditions and customs, and their perceptions of being ‘civic’, based on the media, books, magazines and social media, that are neither adopted nor encouraged by the state. Often, these writers (writing is the most they can accomplish) find themselves marginalized. They cannot find cultural institutions that foster talent, and so the writers work on planning cultural policies for the purpose of cultural development, which removes the ritualistic aspect of culture and seminars and introduces the reality of society and its educational, learning and civic institutions.
Official cultural institutions
The official cultural institutions, especially the Ministry of Culture, do not have a budget for cultural activities and do not play a role in the development of culture.
The private sector is also mostly absent from the cultural scene, and there is no investment or support for cultural activity. A little more than a decade ago, the Al-Sa’id Cultural Foundation in Taiz emerged as a cultural phenomenon with its annual awards and prizes allocated in fields including scientific research, but its scope remained restricted and elitist.
The relationship between Yemeni intellectuals and the visual media is still lacking, and Yemenis are unaware of many authors or writers. Indeed, television ignores them and their work, except for the occasional show on official TV channels, such as ‘Cinema Club’, ‘the TV magazine’, ‘Iklil’, ‘Cultural Papers’ and ‘Nawafez’. This is in addition to the ‘Sada’ rhymes program featuring poetry competitions, as well as ‘Forsan al-Meedan’, which consists of competitions in popular folklore, games and songs, providing the public with information about Yemeni cultural traditions in the form of entertainment.
Despite the multiple partisan and private sector channels, cultural programs remain largely absent. More recently, the ‘Bohour’ program included interviews with a number of writers; but generally, there is no cultural media working on spreading culture and information about intellectuals.
Printing and publishing
Yemen lacks publishing houses. Dar Abbadi is the only publishing house that has played a leading role for decades in publishing the works of a number of Yemeni writers. However, the marketing of Yemeni books remains non-existent, and only individual efforts are made to publish books. Authors and writers often resort to publishing their works through Arab publishing houses.
As for a national publishing movement, the Yemeni cultural scene saw in the early 2000s the emergence of the Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers with its Secretary-General, poet Mohamed Hussein Haitham (who died in 2007). Efforts included a series of specialized narratives, poetry and critical writings, as well as a book of the month and book of the week.
Moreover, during Khalid al-Rowaishan’s mandate, the General Book Authority and the Ministry of Culture witnessed many Yemeni poetry books, novels, critical thinking books, and academic theses being published. However, publishing as a whole remained restricted to newspapers and magazines.
Publications in Yemen reflect the limited interest in cultural issues by the wider population, as well as the writing movement.
Magazines, newspapers and cultural sites
Yemeni magazines and newspapers devoted exclusively to cultural affairs focus on literature and very rarely on intellectual and social studies.
Cultural supplements in some official and partisan newspapers have played a role in providing opportunities for literature, critical thinking and art issues, as well as political writings. The cultural supplements of newspapersAl-Thawra, then Al-Jumhuriya, revived literary writings, and Al-Thaqafiya, with its cultural issues weekly supplements, got more people interested in culture. Moreover, a number of newspapers, such as Al-Wahdaand Al-Thawri, have devoted weekly supplements to literary and critical writings, in addition to literary pages in some newspapers such as the 26 September and 14 October newspapers, Al-Wahdawi,Adam and Eve, Al Mar’aand Ra’i. In the specialized press, Al-Barid(literary) and Al-Thaqafiya(cultural) produced good content, but the former encountered financial difficulties as it did not receive additional government or private sector support, forcing it to close.
As for available magazines, they are Al-Thaqafa, preceded by Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, Al-Yemen Al-Jadidand Al-Hikmaissued by the Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers. This is in addition to magazines that were published in thefollowing decades, such as, Aswat, Mu’in, Geyman, Afaq, Al-Yara’, Sayf, Al-Thawabat, Al-Mustaqbal, Al Mawqaf, Inziyahat, The Arab Intellectual, Arab Pensand Al-Ghara. Moreover, there are recently launched online magazines such as Al-Madaniyyaand Nousous Kharij Al-Logha.
With the emergence of social media, Yemeni writings began to appear on Facebook, and the names of young authors became known. There was interaction with the cultural scene in the Arab world through writings in magazines, websites and blogs that broke through the restrictions of communication and acculturation, allowing writers to communicate with their Arab surroundings. Ahmed Salami created the leading Anawin Thaqafiya site that introduces and publishes young authors, in addition to websites such as Fawda and Jadariyya.
TV production attempted to reflect the culture of Yemeni society, including shows dealing with the revolution of September 1962, such as ‘Al-Fajr’, and shows dealing with Yemeni issues including revenge. Some TV series have taken on a social and educational dimension. The month of Ramadan has been the occasion to offer comedy sketches criticizing social behavior and some customs and traditions, such as ‘Dahbash’, ‘Sharr Al-Baliya’, ‘Kini Mini’ and ‘Hami Hamak’, which are popular despite the standards of professionalism in dramatic writing, acting and production.
Novels in Yemen
Novel writing in Yemen began almost 80 years ago with slow and faltering steps but soon grew stronger with the emergence of determined novelists, such as Mohammed Abdul-Wali, Mohammed Muthanna and Yahya al-Eryani. There has been a steady production of novels in Yemen since the 1990s, turning the novel into the most popular art form. The Yemeni novel gained increasing interest locally and regionally, and Yemeni names became known in the Arab world: Zaid Mutai Damaj, Nabila al-Zubair, Wajdi al-Ahdal, Ahmed Zain, Ali al-Maqri, Nadia al-Kawkabani, Mohammad al-Gharbi Omran, Aziza Abdullah and Ilham Mana’. Among the locally known, authors include: Samir Abdel Fattah, Yasser Abdel Baki, Ammar Batwail, Sami al-Shatby, Abbas al-Ariani, Jamal Hassan, Nada Shaalan and Sereen Hassan.
There is almost no interest in translation, and there is no official translation institution. The very few translations that are made are the result of individual initiatives of some translators based on their interests and their desire to share some of their readings in other languages. Abdulwahab al-Maqaleh’s name is known because he has translated more than thirty books and is interested in Eastern literature characterized by humanitarianism. There are also some translations from French by Mohamed Asmin, in addition to translations by Bashir Zendal. Moreover, in recent decades, some books on Yemen were translated by Ali Mohamed Zeid, Mohsen al-Aini and Ahmed al-Wadai.
Yemen’s universities lack the necessary budget for organizing cultural activities. Some of them hold seasonal literary competitions but few other events.
During the tenure of Dr Abdul Aziz al-Maqaleh as the President of the University of Sana’a, a number of events were held and received Arab attention, such as the Arab-German Poetry Conference in 2000 and conferences on critical thinking that featured some of the most prominent Arab names, such as Mohamed Abed al-Jabri, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Jaber Asfour, Kamal Abu Deeb, Salah Fadl, Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Abdulmalek Mortad, Hussein Marwa, Youmna Eid and Suleiman al-Issa.
After some activity in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the city of Aden, the Yemeni theater has been stagnating.
Some youth initiatives later began to produce local plays, some of which received public attention. There were performances in several Yemeni cities before they were recorded for television, such as the play ‘Maak Nazel’. This is in addition to seasonal theater performances on national or religious holidays for entertainment purposes, which helped introduce some young talent to audiences.
Cultural institutions and forums
For decades, the cultural situation in Yemen remained unchanged, managed in afternoon maqayil(gatherings), which is the time for siesta in Yemen. These almost daily routine meetings were held among friends to engage in conversations, and some Yemeni maqayilwere cultural, often held weekly on a specific day, such as the one organized by Dr Abdulaziz al-Maqaleh at his home to discuss political and cultural issues.
There are also some efforts to document the oral folkloric culture. For instance, Arwa Abdo Osman established the Popular Heritage House, working on the documentation of tales, songs, folk songs, customs, rituals and traditional events, such as marriage songs and death rituals.
El Maqah Story Club is a forum, alongside others that have emerged in recent years, such as Al-Bismant forum, Ibda’ Foundation, the Shahrazad Foundation, the Bakthir Cultural Foundation, the Saba Cultural Foundation, the Narrative Club in Aden, and other initiatives that hold meetings from time to time. Such a role, which introduces some of the individual efforts, was previously played by Al-Afif Cultural Foundation, which tried to provide a library for readers in Sana’a.
Almost all of Yemen’s cultural activity is restricted to the capital, Sana’a, though there are several cultural forums around the country. From time to time, new forums are created, and other forums that were active disappear. Recently, the Forum of Modernity and Enlightenment was established and began organizing regular weekly activities.
Writers in Dhamar actively take part in the cultural group that is organized at Al-Bardouni library. Moreover, youth forums in Hodeidah that appear from time to time in the Zabid branch of the Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers or the reading club have recently witnessed active participation. In Taiz, cultural activities came to a halt after some forums had previously been active and after the Saeed Cultural Foundation played a role in the city’s cultural movement. Even though they drew attention when they were established, some forums quickly disappeared, such as Majaz or Wahi forums. In Aden, the narration club recently produced remarkable cultural activity. This forum was established in 2015 after the end of conflict in the city. It has been hosting different events about the novel and short story.
In Sana’a, some forums began to take interest in cinema and organized screenings in an attempt to develop a visual culture, such as the Sheft and Sawt initiatives.
Writing and reading
Despite the remarkable writing momentum, Yemeni literature does not have a reading audience in the country because of widespread illiteracy, the absence of a reading habit in Yemeni society, and the lack of media marketing for culture and intellectuals. Moreover, the government and its media agencies do not give such concerns any importance – an extension of the lack of awareness of the importance of cultural development, cultural industries and investment in culture.
Concerning awards that encourage cultural production, the Yemeni scene is virtually devoid of any prestigious prizes for scientific research, literature or cultural institutions. In 1999, the President of the Republic Award for Young Writers was launched, a symbolic award that crowns an annual competition among Yemeni writers. This is in addition to the Al-Maqaleh Award, which was established by poet Abdulaziz Al-Maqaleh for young poets.
In general, the cultural aspect in Yemen is still subject to individual and literary participation. Should anyone study the cultural movement in Yemen, they would only find instances of occasional participation but no institutional cultural actions carried out by research centers.
Culture in Yemen suffers both at the public and private levels and has not yet become a social choice. It is still restricted to a group of writers, authors, artists and researchers who practice it on an individual level as a talent and hobby that is apart from society.
Mohamed Al-Bakri is aYemeni writer, poet and researcher. He holds a Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University. Mohamed is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the rhetoric of discrimination in Arab proverbs. In addition to published poems and literary, intellectual and political articles in Arab and Yemeni magazines and newspapers, he has produced a number of unpublished studies and poetry collections. He is a member of the Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.