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Kamal Al-Solaylee and family (Kamal Al-Solaylee)
Kamal Al-Solaylee and family (Kamal Al-Solaylee)

A Yemeni memoir

From bikinis to burkas Add to ...

Shopping for bikinis with my four sisters in the summer of 1975 brought out the fashion beast in me, an 11-year-old living in exile with his family in Egypt.

"The colour on this brown two-piece makes you look darker," I tell my sister Raja. She picks a lime-green bikini instead. "I love this one so much, I want to wear it myself," I blurt out to Ferial, clinching her choice of a black-and-white striped swimsuit.

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The fruit of that shopping trip hangs on the office wall of my Toronto apartment - a photograph taken a few days later of myself, my four sisters and three brothers on a beach in Alexandria.

The photo captures a moment of bourgeois life in the Middle East, before the region became associated in the Western collective psyche with exporting terror or the subjugation of women. It's an image of a large and admittedly privileged family, led by enlightened, secular parents from southern Yemen.

Yes, the same Yemen that, since Christmas Day, has been reintroduced to the world as a second Afghanistan or the third front in the war on terror - where my family still lives, in the capital, Sanaa. But the Yemen of today is nothing like the one where my older siblings came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. And when I speak to my family now, they have changed so much that it's hard to believe we are even related.

Yemen's new notoriety doesn't surprise me; what does is how all the warning signs went unnoticed for so long. I saw it in my own flesh and blood: An open-minded family defined by its love of arts and culture embraced hard-line interpretations of Islam and turned its back on social progress and intellectual freedom.

Whatever happens next in Yemen, my family there, and no doubt millions of other middle-class Middle Eastern families, has been losing the war against extremism.

Goodbye, Ringo Starr. Hello, street curfew

Our Camelot was the ancient port city of Aden. There in 1945 my father, Mohamed, then 19, wed the 14-year-old Safia, a shepherdess from Hadramut, a part of Yemen now known as the birthplace of the bin Laden family. With his high-school education and some support from my grandparents, my father started a small real-estate business in what we would call flipping today: He would buy old buildings, renovate and sell them at a profit, as well as renting some units to the British expatriates who "managed" Aden as a colony.

His properties multiplied in number almost as fast as his progeny, 11 in all, born from 1946 to 1964 - the Yemeni version of the boomer generation. The youngest is me.

Today, Aden is home to a growing, violent southern secession movement, and the place where al-Qaeda hit the USS Cole with explosives in 2000 while it was in the harbour. But, according to my family, it was once a model of peace and harmony.

"The Brits brought order," my father used to tell us. My sister Faiza talks of a cosmopolitan port where European ships would stop on the way from Europe to the Indian subcontinent, often bringing with them such coveted merchandise as the latest fashions or, more thrillingly for my then-teenage sisters and brother, early Beatles albums. For some reason, Yemenis especially liked Ringo Starr.

But that security was rocked by guerrilla uprisings in the mid-1960s, and came to an end in the fall of 1967 when the nascent nationalist movement declared independence from the British.

That November, rebels kidnapped my father for two days and released him for a large sum of money, under one condition: We were to pack and leave Aden in 24 hours. Imagine having to find a new home for a family of 11 children in less than a day. Decades later, my sisters would still ask an aunt if she ever found the Beatles records my mother made them leave behind.

What followed were 15 years of exile between Beirut and Cairo. By the late 1970s, though, neither of those tension-filled cities felt safe or welcoming any more, and my father decided there was no choice but to return to Yemen - not to socialist Aden, but to pro-business Sanaa in the north, which was slowly making contact with the outside world after decades of insular, caste-based pseudo-monarchy.

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