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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 ...

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.

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