A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
We grew up listening to our parents’ stories, told with pride, about a beautiful past. According to them, Hadhramout has always been open both to African, Asian and European cultural influences due to Hadhramis migration and return since ancient times and to cultural influences under the Qu’aiti sultanate and the British colonization era when Africans, Asians and Europeans lived in Hadhramout.
I was stunned by some of the photos I found in my family’s old albums. They showed a life that is completely different from the one I grew up with. I was further astonished when my father told me about forms of art that existed then. My generation finds it difficult to believe that theater had a significant presence since the first play, ‘al-Mulhal Ibn Rabea’a’, in the Sultan’s palace yard in 1938. Theater performances, including Shakespeare, were performed in Ghail Bawazir’s Middle School under the supervision of Hadhrami and Sudanese teachers. Those teachers produced a high standard of education in both Arabic and English and taught students who became important actors and directors. Imagine, the first play performed in Mukalla was written by the Sultan himself. Now however, theatre has retreated, and this deep form of human art has become almost nonexistent, with a few humble exceptions.
In a recent call, Dr. Said al-Jariri, the former head of the Yemeni Writers Union subnational branch, spoke with sad nostalgia: “We had cinemas in Mukalla!” He was referring to Bin Kwir Film Theater and al-Ahlia Film Theater, which were established with a share system by Hadhramis. The first show in al-Ahlia Film Theater was in 1966. At the time, families would go together to watch films. Dr. al-Jariri adds: “Back then, we considered art and entertainment as life priorities. Forty years later, these two film theaters were closed and one of them became a wedding hall while the other turned into a vegetable market. This was followed by closing down Mohammed Joma’a Khan’s Institute of Arts in the aftermath of the 1994 war that also resulted in looting the institute’s archives, music instruments and curriculum material and books.” This was the only institute of its kind in Hadhramout that specialized and taught generations of musicians and painters.
We, the 1990s generation, were deprived of basic art and music classes in our education. In exceptional cases, there were simple drawing classes, but nothing more. We were born at a time when the colors of the arts had gone pale, leaving us with distant traces that appear only on special occasions and national holidays.
Art now has vicious enemies. Artists who believe in its importance are captives of silence and frustration. This overwhelming hate speech that targets life and art has not been fought enough. People are caught in the unjust cycle of livelihoods under extreme dire conditions that our country is forced to face. All of this has made art a luxury that many refuse to prioritize.
Memories and Passion
When I was in the sixth grade, I once looked into our small home library. I was shocked to see an elementary school curriculum that teaches students how to read music sheets. It was a small cheerful book full of imagination and colors. Year after year, I asked why they stopped teaching us this at school? School experience would have definitely been more joyful if this had not been the case. As a child, I was passionate about learning how to play the oud, and I spent hours in front of the television watching musicians play this instrument. This was all I could do, since there was no music school available for me to join.
Hadhramout, which had pioneering painters in the past, does not even have a tiny isolated room in any cultural center for those who are creative with lines and colors. They end up pursuing their passion in their houses and going through endless trouble to find the simplest opportunity to share their work with the world. It breaks my heart to see my artist friends fight the economic situation and rising cost of materials to pursue their art, which they continue without support or appreciation.
I know many young women with angelic voices and a passion for singing. None of them would dare to express any intention of becoming a professional singer. Even those who have supportive families end up being restricted to performing in limited private spaces because of their families’ fears for their daughters’ reputation. While it is slightly easier for young men, it still remains difficult. With financial burdens, most families view art as a waste of time, and think in the best interests of their children that art cannot grant them decent livelihoods.
Whether it is the state’s neglect of the arts, imposing fundamentalist views of art, or the severe economic situation that makes people stick to a cycle of basic needs provision, people cannot really live without art. Art is an integral part of human existence, and this is why we have begun to see glimpses of the return of art to Hadhramout.
Meemz Arts Initiative in Hadhramout aims to discover and build the capacities of young artists, as well as support their right to express their art and make a difference in their communities through their artwork. The Initiative aspires to create a safe space and economy based on arts in Hadhramout.
Well, we are a group of seven young women and men who are passionate about art and art management. We started a WhatsApp group and after six months, building knowledge on global art practices and conducting focus group discussions to learn the best way to go about this, we created a strategy and a management body. When we were finalizing everything, the time came to choose a name that reflected the identity of the initiative and helped us speak to our community. After several discussions, we came up with ‘Meemz’ – it consists of the Arabic letter Meem ‘M’ and the ‘Z’ refers to the plural in slang English. The Arabic letter Meem is the first letter of Arabic words like Masrah (theater), Marsam (atelier), Ma’ahad (institute), Museeqa (music), Microphone, Makan (place), Masaha (space), and so on. They are some of many Meemz!
Meemz focuses on leading an art movement to revive Hadhramout as one of the hubs for arts in the Arab region. This could become a reality if we can revive the cultural and art scene through art projects and activities, including training, exhibitions, performances, music, film screenings, dialogue with artists and other art events that address people from all backgrounds.
Meemz launched its first project, Fanona Salam (Our Art is Peace), where we trained 30 talented young women and men in using arts in social advocacy. It was a massive challenge. We wondered if we could find young women and men who are talented and passionate enough to present artwork that would capture the audience’s attention. The surprise that cultivated hope and encouraged us to continue was the six pieces of art they produced. Their work varied between plays, musicals, a short film and dance. They addressed issues that concern young people and, despite the humble resources, they showed their best. In the grand finale, both the sultan’s palace yard and Hadhramout’s Artists Association’s Theater were full of audience members. The scene brought history to life. So many people attended that there were not enough chairs and people sat on the floor to continue watching performances. We did not expect these numbers!
I was the project officer, and I will never forget what one of the participants told me. I was overwhelmed with hope and responsibility when he said: “Please continue what you are doing. We need you. This finally made me feel that I belong somewhere.”
After that, Meemz continued to organize free events and to train on script writing, visual design, freestyle design and music basics. Everytime we release a registration form, we end up with greater numbers than expected and what we can afford to work with. It brings mixed feelings – of joy, but also of sadness for not being able to take all these passionate artists that are looking for any tiny window for their passion to see the light.
I cannot describe the triumph we felt when we hosted the first music training in 25 years in Mukalla. The training was led by the oud player Haitham al-Hadhrami, in partnership with the Artists Association in Hadhramout. During the training, the palace’s yard was full of passionate music fans who came to watch trainees play their instruments. When the training was concluded, the trainees, led by Haitham al-Hadhrami, played the first concert Mukalla had witnessed in decades.
In each of our activities, we attempt to bring life back to the palace yard stage. We try to sweep the dust off the stage and the years of drought it has lived through, after it was cut off from light, tunes, scripts and the souls of those who performed on its steps.
Meem ‘M’ for Makan ‘place’
What does one need to succeed? Will? Strive? Passion? Pursuit?… What is next?
Artists need makan, a place, to be able to pursue their passion in a supportive environment. This is what many artists cannot find. For instance, the hip-hop dance group Wax on Crew went through the impossible to reach people’s hearts to practice their choreographies on a remote mountain top, under harsh conditions. They do not mind the place as long as they see people enjoying what they do when they perform.
A while ago, Wax on Crew and other dancers were arrested by the local authorities under the claim that what they do is “intruding on social traditions”. This vague claim subjected these young men to humiliation and forced them to sign written pledges to never dance hip-hop ever again. Meemz led a community-based advocacy to demand support for the dancers. The campaign received a lot of social support in the community and reached several local and international news outlets. With all the social support and efforts from people in Hadhramout, the hip-hop group now dances everywhere including in events hosted by the local authority council.
Artists are the civil core of society. All they need is a space that guarantees their safety and accepts them. We in Meemz send our call out to marginalized artists and to all those with true interest in supporting our cause to seriously stand with us to activate cultural and artistic outlets in Hadhramout. We aspire to cultivate a community that embraces differences and celebrates them as a valuable source of life. This year, Meemz turned one, and it is now approaching the second half of its second year. This year Meemz grew with those who found a place to belong to in this initiative, those who have faith in art movements. What we did in a year and a half was fueled by passion for change. We worked with almost no budget using the same banner 15 times. Our financial supporters were the very young artists who joined us and chipped in to find a place after all the violence they faced for years. Others who contributed financially were people and entities that felt the importance of supporting a sustainable place for young artists. Yet the biggest support of all has been from the massive audience that attended one event after the other with profound joy.
We started with an idea that came from a dream that visits the people of Hadhramout all the time, a dream of the return of art, joy and a better life. What we do might be a simple attempt. Regardless of how simple this attempt is, those who lived it and saw the love and passion in the eyes of all those young women and men in addition to the significant change in their life during this short period, those who saw all of this can understand. We, in Meemz, are asking local authorities, intellectuals and those who can contribute financially to support young artists. We call for real support – and not in the form of empty words politicians sell on television. We demand the return of art classes in basic education. We strongly demand the protection of artists from hate speech so we can return to our civil peace foundations and to productivity. We demand all of this so that our generation finds its rebirth and extends the art Hadhramout has missed since Balfaqih, Mirsal and others.
Shaima Bin Othman is a global citizen, Yemeni, and a culture, peace and human rights activist.