Voices from the Forgotten War: an interview with Yemeni author Bushra Al Maqtari

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Yemeni journalist and novelist Bushra Al Maqtari was awarded the German Johann-Philipp-Palm-Award on May 16, 2020 for Freedom of Speech and the Press. A private German foundation from the town of Schorndorf grants the prize annually. A German translation of Al Maqtari’s latest book, What You Have Left Behind: Voices from the Land of the Forgotten War, was published by Ullstein Buchverlage, and released in early June 2020 in hard copy. The German language e-book translation has been available on Amazon since March 2019.

Al Maqtari will accept the prize at an awards ceremony scheduled for December 2020.

Al Maqtari was a resounding voice for the people during the 2011 revolution in Yemen as an activist and writer. Before and after the revolution of 2011, she stood publicly and without hesitation for the dignity of the victims and those oppressed by the government and militias. Alongside comrades from various political and social backgrounds, she struggled to reshape political and social life in Yemen, and to place justice, freedom, and human dignity at the center of any future participatory democratic system of governance.

Since the end of 2014, Yemen has hurtled further and further into war. The Yemeni state, which was already weak, has fragmentated into various statelets. Revolutionaries from the public squares have divided themselves into opposing political factions, and many  intellectuals and journalists have allied themselves with different identity groups and regional powers. Too often these intellectuals justify and condone the violent actions of these groups, instead of standing for the collective interests of Yemenis. They have become beneficiaries of the tragedies that the poor people and the victims of the war have experienced.

Al Madaniya Magazine interviewed Bushra Al Maqtari about these issues and concerns at her residence in Sana’a.

You have written novels, news articles, and a book about the history of the socialist party in south Yemen (in dialogue with the Lebanese author Fawwaz Traboulsi). This time, you have published a book of documentary narratives that tells the stories of 43 families affected by the war’s destruction, killing, and displacement. What motivated you to write this book and to give it this form?

First of all, I would like to express my great appreciation for the content that you are publishing on the website of Al Madaniya Magazine. I have been a great admirer and follower of Al Madaniya Magazine since it was first published. Its analytical, cultural, anthropological, and humanitarian work documents Yemeni lives and how they have transformed during this war. It is an important addition for us as Yemenis. Once again, I would like to congratulate you on this unique effort.

When you live through the narrative of the war, with death, destruction, killing, displacement, famine, and humiliation; with your personal life and social space being taken away, including your human right to live a normal life; and you are placed in categories based on your geographic origin, with your identity as a Yemeni being taken away by the parties to the war, you face a real test in trying to face this destruction, which impacts you and those around you. The warring parties have undermined everything, leaving most of us with no choice but to die.

That is why I tried to resist this death through writing, whether as daily journaling or in documenting the lives of the victims of the war. I also wrote about cases of corruption and detention and posts on my personal social media account, and I continued to write articles opposing the warring parties. But these articles could not reveal the gravity of what has been done, and is still being done, to us by the warring parties, who continue to fight without any concern for anything other than power.

This is how I came to the idea of the book. It was a simple attempt to document the narrative of the war and its dark memory based on those affected by it. It contains the memories of victims, whose suffering the warring parties insist on deepening and exploiting, and shows how all of the parties in the conflict, in the end, are murderers.

I started by documenting meetings with the families of victims in the areas of Yemen that I was able to visit. The first phase, the collection phase, took around two years. Then, I selected 43 of the testimonies and concluded with my own testimony about my friend, Reham Al Badr, who joined me on the visits to the families of the victims in Taiz City. She was later killed during the war before being able to see the book she had been so excited about. There is also the bibliography, which covered more than two years of the war. The bibliography was a challenge for me, and it took time to organize and edit it with the help of my husband Sadeq Ali Ghanem. He provided support, and helped edit the book. The review process for the book took another year.

Cover of “What You Have Left Behind: Voices from the Land of the Forgotten War” in Arabic, published by Beirut-based Riad El-Rayyes.

The language of the book is literary, expressive, and emotional, even though it is not a work of fiction. You write in the introduction that the testimonies of the families in the book are, for you, “a finger in the eye of the killers,” and “a memory to prevent them from being forgotten, ignored, or treated with indifference.” Why did you choose to this style of writing? And, on the subject of language, how do you feel when you see the local media use rhetoric that aims to divide people across Yemen into regional or sectarian identities, and to mobilize and recruit followers to each group’s different vision for the country?

From my simple experience in writing a book on the victims of the war, you must first represent their psychological experience, living it and envisioning their private moments, their horror, and their sadness at losing their loved ones. This forces you to listen to them without censoring their emotions. I was unable to remain neutral to their plight, but despite that fact, when I prepared a draft of their testimonies, I tried to ensure that the language toward the warring parties was neutral and objective not to favor any side. The poetic and emotional language of their testimonies was the best way to express the tragedies and pain of the victims and their families, not political rhetoric.

In my own personal testimony on the war, I was expressing my stance towards the war and the warring parties and how they are participating in the killing of Yemenis, regardless of their attempts to justify their violations. My own testimony, which was a condemnation of the war and the warring parties, was filled with emotion, but still, my writing in this section subconsciously became the antithesis of the inciting rhetoric used by politicians and the media.

Of course, I am saddened by the language being used in the Yemeni media, and the severity of the political and regional polarization in the cultural scene and in journalism. This language, however, is a reflection of the political reality, which the war has transformed to bring political forces and militias with transnational loyalties to the forefront. These forces and militias put their own interests above the national interests of Yemenis, but I am optimistic that this fragmented and polarized situation which feeds into the war, into hatred, and divisions based on identities in Yemen, will not continue for long. Yemeni intellectuals, in both the north and the south, oppose this rhetoric in their writings, and instead, side with collective and national Yemeni concerns. Even though they are few, they represent a source of hope that should make us all more optimistic.

In the introduction of your book, however, there is a clear accusation against certain opportunistic Yemeni intellectuals. The ones who, due to various motivations, call anyone opposed to the war or anyone who turns a critical eye towards all of the parties of the conflict, a traitor. What is the status of Yemeni intellectuals after five years of war? How do you assess their different positions? Do these intellectuals, at their core, have any positive vision for Yemen that they are championing?

I think that these intellectuals are one of the biggest examples of the ugliness of war. They have been very unprofessional. They have used the media and their platforms to feed into the war in Yemen and attack anyone opposing them. They have shown a strange ability to switch sides and transform. They accuse those that oppose the war of something. Then, tomorrow, they accuse them of something completely different and contradictory. In my estimation, their stance toward the warring parties and their convoluted positions, which always call for the continuation of the war, come from the fact that the end of the war means an end to their source of income. They will be harmed if the war stops, and that is why they continue to attack any Yemeni voice opposed to the war. I, like hundreds of other Yemeni writers and journalists, was subject to their daily campaigns to silence us and stop us from expressing our suffering as Yemenis from the war.

Unfortunately, and after five bitter years of war, the situation has not changed for those intellectuals fueling the war. Some of them have changed their positions towards some of the regional actors involved in the war in Yemen, but they did not do this because of an understanding of the cost of five years of war on Yemenis. They did not change their position because they understand the real risk of Yemen being fragmented, or the interests of the actors interfering in Yemen. They only changed their positions in response to their regional sponsors changing their position towards the war.

In principle, I believe that being an intellectual means taking a moral stand for the common good. In light of the national collapse that has been made worse by the war, Yemeni intellectuals must adopt and embody the voices, concerns, and interests of Yemenis. They must also defend the rights of Yemenis that have been taken away from them by the warring parties, and not become a voice for these warring parties. A large part of our problem is that local and regional media outlets give some of these intellectuals titles that they are not worthy of and overstate their popularity and credibility.

Cover of “What You Have Left Behind: Voices from the Land of the Forgotten War” in German, published by Beirut-based Riad El-Rayyes.

You told us that this book has not actually reached Yemen. Is that due to the authorities controlling the ports of entry into the country, or is it due to the cultural and intellectual blockade that Yemen has been subjected to since 2015? Arabic language books, periodicals, and magazines, as well as the writings of Yemeni authors published by Arab publishing houses, have not reached Yemeni readers in five years.

This is due, like I said, to the blockade imposed on Yemen, in addition to the deteriorating economic situation in Yemen that has affected all Yemenis. These deteriorating economic conditions have impacted the owners of bookstores and libraries, who cannot risk importing books into Yemen. They would have to pay staggering taxes and customs fees at the hundreds of ports and checkpoints the various warring parties have set up, all without there being a market of readers who will compensate them for their losses. It is impossible for Yemenis, who are facing immense obstacles in providing for their livelihoods on a daily basis, to think about buying a novel or a book. As for importing a book about the victims of the war, I think that there is no possibility of that. None of the militias or the de facto authorities on the ground welcome it.

In 2013, you received the Françoise Giroud Award for Defense of Freedom and Liberties in Paris, and now you have been awarded the German Johann-Philipp-Palm-Award in 2020. What do these awards mean to Bushra Al Maqtari, the writer and activist?

First of all, I would like to mention that winning awards is by no means a measure of the importance of a writer, the quality of their work, or their importance in the national context. There are, at the local level, excellent Yemeni writers and activists, who represent the values of humanity and patriotism, who have championed the causes of Yemenis, and who have adopted national causes in the face of the fragmentation that we are living through, but have not received any awards.

I believe that the position of a writer is determined by their social capital, not by the awards that they receive. These awards are granted by institutions that champion freedom of expression and belief. As much as these institutions’ appreciation of my writings and struggles means to me, the awards are meant, first and foremost, to defend the values of human dignity and freedom and condemn oppressive authorities. Personally, I am very honored for the recognition that comes with these awards, and I am happy that this appreciation motivates me to continue working to defend our freedoms.

You are  one of the well-known, civic voices from the events of 2011 and the following transitional dialogue. Do you believe that, after all of this conflict and chaos, there is still hope that Yemenis will win the right to live in a civil state that represents everyone, a functional state that provides justice and protects human dignity and freedom?

The events of 2011, or the 2011 Revolution, were, for me, a social movement that aimed to change the system of political and social oppression in Yemen. They also represented hope to achieve social justice. The “revolution” deviated from its track and was militarized. Then, it changed into the transitional dialogue that did not resolve national problems, but instead increased them. This was a big disappointment for me.

The interference of many local and regional factors, in addition to the political exploitation of the revolution, whether by political or tribal forces or by the youth who were at its forefront, have led to the polarization and divisions that caused the war that we are living through today. However, with all of the failures and the continuation of the war, there is, of course, hope. And Yemenis will definitely come back together, if there are national forces that reject the war and the warring parties, that stand against the idea of “might makes right,” and of taking power through violence, that maintain and protect the national foundation that brings Yemenis together, and that adopt their interests. All that I wish for is that this is not delayed too much, because every day that the war continues causes new and direct suffering for many families and permanently imprints this suffering onto Yemenis.

A still from an interview for Bushra with BBC Arabic

In light of spread of COVID-19 in Yemen, how do you see the situation? Do you believe that the de facto authorities, whether in the south, the north, or the middle areas of the country can, in any way, shape, or form, do anything for Yemenis?

First, I would like to express my solidarity with the victims of COVID-19 all over the world, as well as my condolences for anyone who has lost loved ones during this pandemic. As for the COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen, I believe that we need further solidarity and condolences, because we, in Yemen, are living through a situation that is more complicated than in other countries.

The war has destroyed what remained of the fragile healthcare system, and hospitals all across Yemen are not prepared to receive patients. The economic conditions are also disastrous, and the poverty and lack of income is crushing Yemenis, in addition to the fact that the war authorities have avoided paying the salaries of civil servants. These conditions have made it so Yemenis, as a whole, are unable to secure their daily needs, let alone protect themselves from this pandemic, including by adhering to social distancing. There is no state that will provide their daily needs in exchange for them quarantining themselves at home, and most Yemenis rely on daily labor to stave of starvation because they do not have any other option.

 The de facto authorities and militias controlling people’s lives in north and south Yemen have not showed any concern for their fates, and death and the violation of people’s dignity is the natural result. These authorities lie to the people by concealing the real number of cases, and they do this so that their fighters continue to mobilize to the frontlines of the war and to ensure the continuation of the war economy. These authorities are focused on benefitting from all of the commitments and responsibilities of the people towards the state, many times over, while totally exempting themselves from any responsibilities and commitments as a de facto authority towards the Yemeni people.

We hope everyone stays safe. We have been very happy to talk to you, Bushra Al Maqtari, and thank you very much for your time.

Thank you, and I am grateful for your patience.

Note: Bushra Al Maqtari’s book, What You Have Left Behind: Voices from the Land of the Forgotten War, was first published in Arabic by Dar Riyadh Al Rays in 2018.

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