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a yemeni memoir

Kamal Al-Solaylee and family

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.

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.

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.

The real danger is the tacit acceptance - an acceptance that has been building slowly for more than two decades and has claimed even progressive families like mine.

The government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for more than 30 years now, is too busy protecting its own interests from Yemen's relatively small oil wealth - businesses contributing to it include some Alberta oil companies - to show any real interest in the well-being of its middle-class citizens.

Under his watch, Yemen has gone from a poor country to the most destitute in the Arab world. He fortified his stronghold on the country's larger cities in the north (Sanaa, Taiz, Houdeida), but lost control of the vast tribal terrains outside them. The result is a political culture where the cities are riddled with government red tape, while everywhere else is virtually lawless.

Comparisons to Afghanistan are not entirely warmongering on the part of the U.S. media. My family is reasonably well connected, so it keeps surviving one crisis - food and water shortages, health scares - after another. But for how much longer?

Coming down to a photo finish

In a black photo album tucked inside an old filing cabinet, I keep more recent family photographs, from my visits to Sanaa, or ones they send in the mail. I don't believe that even my closest friends have seen them. The rare times I look at them, I see only a family that has betrayed its secular, intellectual history and has either chosen or been forced to accept intolerance instead.

One photograph from April, 2006, particularly infuriates me. My family's penchant for group photos never wavers, but this time my eldest brother voices his concern about my sisters being photographed in their "indoor" clothes.

"What if the men who work at the photo-developing shop get to see your sisters in short sleeves or without a head scarf?" he asks, as if it's something I should have thought about myself. This is the same brother who is standing behind me in that 1975 picture I love so much.

My sisters immediately see his point. I'm stunned. We reach a compromise. I can pose with my sisters and mother if they wear the hijab , or at least long sleeves and skirts. I fake a smile as my heart breaks. The last thing I want is an argument on my last night in Sanaa.

I haven't seen my family since.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is an assistant professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism. He is a former theatre critic for The Globe and Mail.

"Yemen's new notoriety doesn't surprise me; what does is how all the warning signs went unnoticed for so long," wrote Kamal Al-Solaylee in last weekend's Globe and Mail.

"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."

In his article, From bikinis to burkas: A Yemeni memoir, Mr. Al-Solaylee wrote about how his family has changed along with his homeland. Mr. Al-Solaylee was born in Yemen and spent part of his childhood there before his family sought exile in Beirut and Cairo.

Mr. Al-Solaylee joined us on Thursday for an online discussion about his story. He was joined by The Globe's Middle East correspondent, Patrick Martin, who is in Yemen. To leave questions in advance please use the comments function below.

Mr. Martin travelled to Yemen to report on the growing threat of al-Qaeda after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives concealed in his underwear on Dec. 25. Mr. Abdulmutallab trained as a terrorist in Yemen.

Based in Jerusalem, Mr. Martin is serving for the second time as The Globe's Middle East correspondent, the first being from 1991-95. In between postings, the former host of CBC Radio's Sunday Morning program served as The Globe's Foreign Editor and Comment Editor.

Mr. Al-Solaylee is an assistant professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism in Toronto. He was a theatre critic for The Globe and Mail (2003-2007) and a production editor at Report on Business magazine. He holds a PhD in Victorian literature from Nottingham University in England. In addition to The Globe and Mail, his byline has appeared in the National Post, Eye Weekly, Chatelaine, Elle Canada and Canadian Notes & Queries.

Editor's Note: editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

We held a discussion about this article, click on the replay button below to see transcripts

<iframe src="" scrolling="no" height="650px" width="600px" frameBorder ="0" allowTransparency="true" ><a href="" >From bikinis to burkas: An online discussion</a></iframe>

Read a transcript of the discussion:

Thank you for joining us, Kamal and Patrick. This is Jill Mahoney, I'll be moderating our discussion today. Kamal, let me open by asking why you decided to write this article?

12:01 Kamal Al-Solaylee: I've been disturbed by the tone of coverage about Yemen since the Christmas Day failed airline bombing. Part of me wanted to put a human face on the country and part wanted to put its history in some context. I wanted to tell this story for a long time and the timing was right.

12:02 Globe and Mail: Patrick is experiencing some technical glitches at his hotel in Yemen and may join us a bit later.

12:03 Kamal Al-Solaylee: Interent access in Yemen can be erratic.

12:03 [Comment From Lilith]First, may I say Kamal, I am a huge BIG fan of your work. There is something that has always confused me - how does it happen that a liberal, educated family can (apparently so easily) become the apparent opposite of the values they had previously held? As someone privileged enough to live in Canada all my life, what am I missing, here?

12:07 Kamal Al-Solaylee: Thank you, Lilith. What happened was a gradual process. In the case of my family, there was the move from the more liberal Cairo to the very conservative Sana'a. You can't underestimate the impact of the dominant culture on individuals. Also, so many things happened that hardened previously soft lines: a civial war in 1994, increaing unemployment and poverty. We all live in such privileged and safe socities in Canada that we don't always understand the weight and impact of history on people.

12:07 [Comment From Natalia Cernei-MacLeanNatalia Cernei-MacLean]I loved your article 'From bikinis to burkas'. I would like to hear your opinion on what could improve the situation for Yemenis and Middle East in general. How can this radicalization be stopped? Do you believe that Muslims in Middle East are brainwashed? Is it the poverty that drives people into the arms of radicalism? this is not exactly what is your family experience as they weren't poor. Thank you for your article - just brilliant!

12:11 Kamal Al-Solaylee: I'm touched. Thanks, Natalie. In one of Patrick Martin's excellent reports from Sanaa, he quoted a Yemeni official saying something to the effect of "Give me 2 million jobs and I'll eradicate extremism." In my mind, declining living standards, huge discrepencies in earnings between rich and poor, crumbling infrastructure have left many people in the Arab world -- and I'd say a large majority -- with a sense of hopelessness. Hope is a powerful weapon, cliched as that may sound.

12:12 [Comment From Lamont Cranston]Kamal Al-Solaylee, thanks for joining us. I read your piece a few days ago, and it brought up memories of other op/ed articles in the Globe and Mail. The biggest issue I have is that these articles are appearing in the western liberal press. When do you think we can see articles like yours translated from the Arabic press about people living in Arab/Muslim countries. In other words, is there a publication in Yemen which has picked up your article, translated it, and printed it? Until that happens, do you not feel you are preaching to the converted, etc.?

12:16 Globe and Mail: Read Patrick's story that Kamal mentioned.

12:17 Kamal Al-Solaylee: I don't know if any publication in Yemen or the Arab world picked up my piece. But I would argue that not everyone who read it here in Canada or the US was already converted. Many couldn't even find Yemen on the map before Christmas Day. Again, my goal was not to condemn but to humanize. It was a difficult piece to write because of the emotional content. I hope that readers in North American now at least realize that the people in Yemen are namesless, faceless. There's a story there that they may want to read.

12:18 Kamal Al-Solaylee: Sorry, I meant to say NOT namesless, faceless.

12:18 Globe and Mail: Patrick, you've been in Yemen for more than one week. Can you give us a sense of what it's like there?

12:19 Globe and Mail: Patrick sent in his answer by e-mail:

I'm in Aden at the moment, one of the nicest months to visit, I'm told, and the hotels are empty. The place has a very depressed feeling about it. All a result of the current political tensions over al-Qaeda etc. It's also the case that the people of the South complain a lot about being marginalized. Unemployment is high, and people believe it's because of the capital Sanaa's preference for the northern people and tribes. In Sanaa, there's more activity, but people there feel put upon by the West and resent the idea that the United States has blamed them for its Christmas Day bombing attempt. Having said that, there is a feeling of unreality about this place. There's a lot that doesn't work here as it once did, and that's a recipe for tension between peoples and chaos that allows organizations such as al-Qaeda to take control of certain areas in the country (where journalists are forbidden to go.)

12:21 [Comment From Marion Richards]One question that sprang to mind when I read your article is, what prompted you to leave Yemen, and why were none of the rest of your family struck by the same idea? Especially for the women in your family, I wonder why they chose to stay in a country that would not allow them so many opportunities.

12:26 Kamal Al-Solaylee: Actually, my sisters do work for a living. But you also have to understand that, in that part of the world, men have options that women don't. I doubt it if any one of my sisters were to get up and say "I'm leaving for Canada." It's not an option. On a personal note, I didn't feel safe living there as a young gay man. I had a more urgent reason to move away from a culture that still punishes homosexual acts with 80 lashes. A number of readers commented on that, saying that I took the easy way out. Maybe, but I wanted to be who I am and live in dignity. Neither was possible in Yemen.

12:28 [Comment From Alex MacLean]Kamal and Patrick: I find often the Middle East is conflated into one narrative which tends to obscure regional and cultural diversity in the region. Having said that, and keeping in mind that Yemen is the topic here today, do you see any kind of broader shifts in the Islamic world that are a source of hope? Does what is happening in Iran represent a possibility of change for the region, or is that a unique circumstance based on the history of that nation state? Or is a more conservative Koranic reading going to remain the status quo for some time?

12:29 Globe and Mail: Here's Patrick's answer by e-mail:

I know what you mean, but there's good reason for the narrative. The Arab world is beset with two fundamental trends: the desire of the people for empowerment and betterment (often at the expense of autocratic leaders) and the Islamic trend that provides one avenue of achieving those goals. Within the Islamic trend, the bias remains one of conservtism, sometimes leading to extremism, and that's very much in evidence here in Yemen (as Kamal so wonderfully documented in his Focus piece. 99.9 per cent of women here are covered by burkas. That was not the case 20 years ago. And it wasn't even the case 10 years ago, I'm told. And that's just one indicator. In the capital, Sanaa, religiosity is very high. No husband would hold the hand of his wife in public, let alone hug or kiss her. In Aden, today, I saw some couples holding hands at sunset on the corniche. But is stunned me since i hadn't seen it anywhere else. The political goals here are torn between a secular-oriented government that bows to tribal pressure and a rising group of Wahhabis led by the general who is running the war against the Huthi (a Shia group) in the North. Some say the general has his eye on power.

12:31 Kamal Al-Solaylee: I just want to add that, with the Interent rise, the very young generation (my nephews and nieces) are far more curious intellectually and I see that as a sign of hope and possible change.

12:31 Globe and Mail: Here's a story Patrick wrote on the war against the Huthi.

12:32 [Comment From yaamiin]You say extremism is caused by poverty. However Abu Mutallab...John Walker Lindh...Osama Bin Laden...911 terrorists...British many of them have been wealthy. Isn't it the ideology, more than the poverty that causes extremism?

12:35 Kamal Al-Solaylee: That the leaders of terror networks or the instigators of specific acts are not of the poor masses doesn't surprise me. Margaret Wente wrote a wonderful column in Saturday's Globe about the new face of extremism: Western-educated, well-to-do folks. However, poverty provides the breeding grounds and acts a free recruitment device.

12:37 Globe and Mail: Here's the column that Kamal is referring to.

12:37 [Comment From Victoria Hinchcliffe]Congratulations on a fantastic article Kamal!!! May it be one of many!!

12:37 [Comment From eman]Without meaning to divert the main topic of discussion. I am curious to know if in both your opinions, there is a link between levels of education as we know them conventionally in the west and the rise in radicalism? more so, if there is a link between the growth of this radicalism saudi-fuelled wahabism ? I know both are loaded questions, apologies in advance.

12:40 Kamal Al-Solaylee: It's not just the level of education but the quality of it. Even the more advanced countries in the Middle East (Egypt, Lebanon) use an educational system that emphasizes memorization over questioning. There's little room for dissenting opinions and free thinkers. I'll leave Patrick to address the rest of your question as he's far more qualified as a seasoned foreign reporter.

12:41 [Comment From Natalia Cernei-MacLean]Question for Kamal and Patrick: do you think the media in the West are giving a fair coverage to the event in Middle East, and i mean not only Yemen, but also recent events in Iran, for example. As i heard from a colleague, who is Persian, the news that we read in Canadian media aren't make that much news in the country of origin, is this because people, say in Iran, don't care about the protests in their streets? Also, do you think media in the West is objective about the situation of people in Middle East?

12:44 Globe and Mail: Amna left this question in our comments section: My question is: Do you think the core ideology of Islam is partial to men? If so, would the solution be to rid of that and amend laws that are comparable to progressive, humanitarian values?
Thank you.
Amna Bakhtiar from Toronto.

12:48 Kamal Al-Solaylee: The laws of Islam (which, in its pure forms are not as hostile to women as we generally think) cannot be changed. That's assuming you govern with the Sharia Law. I know a number of Muslim scholars who argue that Islam has in fact raised the position of women and protected their financial and marital rights. It's the radical interpretations of these laws that creates the gender divide you're referring to.

12:49 Globe and Mail: Patrick sends this response to Eman's earlier question.

Thanks, Kamal. Yes, I believe there is a connection between Wahabism and radicalism. Throughout the poorer countries of the Middle East, you'll find Saudi-funded mosques and preachers. The money isn't from the government as much as it is from foundations that seek to spread the message. The message in the hands and minds of well-educated affluent people may be taken for a conservative lifestyle, but in the minds of poorer, less-well educated people it can be interpreted radically.

12:49 [Comment From Guest]I do have hope that Islam will emerge from dark ages and will reform. Few more need the courage of Mr. Al-Solaylee, Irshad Manji, Tareq Fatah, etc..

12:50 Globe and Mail: Kamal, did you tell your family about your article before it was published? Have they read it?

12:52 Kamal Al-Solaylee: I hardly speak to my family but they know that I'm writing something about my life and theirs. I think my nephews may have read it because they go on the Internet all the time.

12:53 Globe and Mail: How does your family view Western culture?

12:54 [Comment From Hume Baugh]Kamal, I found your piece heartbreaking. One thing you didn't discuss was how your family feel about your gayness. Is that something you have discussed with them?

12:54 Kamal Al-Solaylee: With a combination of admiration (rule of law, heath care, good standard of living) and suspicion (godless, unfair to Islam)

12:57 Globe and Mail: Here's Patrick's response to Natalia Cernei-MacLean's earlier question:

Wow, what a question. I'd like to simply say that this Middle East correspondent is scrupulously fair in his coverage, but you've asked about media as a whole. The fact is, that media, like everyone else, is very varied. You have overtly pro-Israel media coming from some U.S. broadcast journalists as well as from some Europeans, and you have some shockingly anti-Israel journalists coming from some quarters, especially from Europe. And that's just one indicator. The range of bias/objectivity in covering the Arab world and Iran also is great. I did not see what Canadians saw in Iran's coverage of events there in the past year, but I did see a group of dedicated journalists trying to convey from Tehran a frank objective message of democracy gone bad. From Iranians I know, that was an apt message.

12:57 Kamal Al-Solaylee: I hope that's the same Hume Baugh, the wonderful TO actor. I think my family has come to accept my sexuality but they just don't wish to talk about it. The "Don't ask, don't tell" approach. I also want to say that the "coming out" narrative doesn't really exist in the Arab World. It's a western model that works here but doesn't translate well over there.

12:57 [Comment From Zaaviyah Hussain]Kamal, your family's view of western culture sounds similar to that of most Muslims living in the west.

12:58 Globe and Mail: Thank you so much for all your questions. Our apologies for not getting to them all today. Kamal, do you have any final comments you'd like to leave us with?

12:59 Kamal Al-Solaylee: I'd just like to thank Carol Toller from the Focus section for her sensitive handling of my story. And thank the many readers who left such wonderful comments when the story was published. I'm truly touched and humbled by their words.

1:00 Globe and Mail: Here are Patrick's closing thoughts:

The biggest problem in Yemen I've discovered is the capacity of the government to deliver services to the people. It doesn't have much, not when there's more than 100,000 communities scattered all over the mountains and desert of this place. That's breeding great tension and resentment, and it won't end without violence, it seems, until the government's capacity improves.

1:01 Globe and Mail: We've got a lot to think about. For the latest coverage, keep reading The Globe's world news page.