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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 ...

Sanaa? That medieval-looking city? As a young gay man still exploring his sexuality, I knew I couldn't spend the rest of my life in a place where hangings were still held in broad daylight as part of sharia law. But I had to go along, and lived there from 1983 to 1985.

It was a jolt to the system: The streets came to a standstill at 9 p.m. - no one went out, and vans carrying uniformed security guards roamed the city as added security. It was too much silence for a teenager used to the bustle of Cairo.

My sisters' adjustment was more complex. Women were now expected to cover their heads and wear the burka in public, and walk a few steps behind their husbands, fathers or brothers. When I was reunited with my cousin Yousra, who had been living in Sanaa for more than a decade, I reached out to give her a hug, but she pushed me away and shook my hand instead, within the bounds of propriety.

In 1985, I left to study in England, and later migrated to Canada, returning periodically to Sanaa for visits that became more distressing as the years passed, as the gap narrowed between my family and Yemen but widened between them and me.

Of migrants and militants: The Saddam Hussein factor

Local events didn't help. One of the turning points in Yemen's recent history came in 1990, shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August. Yemen stood out for its support of Saddam Hussein's invasion, and paid a dear price.

As hundreds of thousands of migrant Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Gulf countries were expelled in retaliation, many of them settled in Sanaa. A small capital city in an impoverished country, already ill equipped to serve its citizens, it cracked under the pressure.

Streets teemed with the unemployed, particularly young men, many of whom succumbed to the Wahabi brand of Islam that the exiled workers had picked up in Saudi Arabia and brought back.

At the co-ed Sanaa University, female students began to complain about harassment from repatriated Yemenis who blamed women's education for the fast-rising unemployment. I don't recall seeing a single beggar in Sanaa during the early 1980s. Now, they stood at virtually every street corner. That medieval but safe city was now gritty - and still medieval.

I paid a visit to my family in the spring of 1992, my first in almost six years, and was shocked to see how just a few years changed us both so dramatically. There was a defeatist quality to their lives, while mine had hopes of a better future. My sisters seemed especially dispirited. Four of them worked for a living, but although their jobs gave them some economic independence, their lives remained limited. Beyond their commute to work, they rarely ventured anywhere other than grocery or clothing stores.

Returning again in the summer of 2001 - my first visit since I had moved to Canada in 1996 - I encountered a family that was a lot closer to the stereotype of regressive Muslim culture than I had ever known.

The veils were in full view. Everybody prayed five times a day. My brothers were unapologetically sexist in their dealings with their wives. Was this the same family that once took turns reading the great works of literature and subscribed to four newspapers daily, three in Arabic and one in English?

One of my brothers was actually suggesting that his eldest daughter need not go to university because education wouldn't help her much as a housewife. One of my sisters, who is in the 1975 beach photo, now works as a librarian at Sanaa University and wears the full niqab, covering her whole face except, just about, the eyes. One day, she followed me around town for half an hour, just for fun, to see if I would recognize her. I never did.

Collectively they have become television addicts. Satellite TV, featuring hundreds of channels from the Arab world and beyond, has taken over from reading and socializing as the main form of entertainment. Why? Because among the many channels you can watch are the more Islamist ones (Hezbollah's Manar TV, for example) that promote a rigid version of the faith.

By the time I visited Sanaa again in 2006, anti-Western and pro-Islamist sympathies intruded on virtually every conversation with friends, neighbours and family. The presence of al-Qaeda is never spoken of as positive, but it's not challenged or condemned either.

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