By Fakhri al-Arashi
Helene Aecherli is a Swiss journalist, who recently visited Yemen. She writes for a women’s magazine in Switzerland and largely focuses on social issues. Despite the challenges and travel warnings, she made it to Yemen to mainly write about women’s issues after the youth revolution. National Yemen sat down with Aecherli to ask her about her views of Yemen during this unprecedented time.
National Yemen: Yemen is described by the international media as the homeland of Al-Qaeda, and a haven for international terrorism. Do you agree with that?
Helene: Well, I basically think, that first of all Yemen is the cradle of civilization. It’s the legendary Arabia Felix and as such the source of Eastern and Western culture. And I like to believe, that Noah’s Arch stranded in the mountains of Sana’a – even though I heard, the Arch stranded somewhere else in Yemen. However, in these times Yemen unfortunately has become a haven for terrorists and kidnappers. As you know, a Swiss woman was recently kidnapped in Yemen, and the Swiss authorities placed an even stricter travel warning for Yemen. Yemen seems to be worse than Pakistan in regards of travelling. Whereas Swiss citizens are advised to travel to Pakistan only if there are in serious need to do so; they are advised not to travel to Yemen at all. However, talking about myself now, I would say, that I am pretty relaxed here. This I have to thank my Yemeni friends for, whom I stay with and who take very good care of me. They are like an extended family to me.
NY: How is Switzerland supporting Yemen during this transition period?
Helene: Switzerland has been a strong supporter of good change in Yemen. Switzerland opened an office here in Sana’a in February last year, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, SDC. Its basic interest is to support and coordinate NGOs and international organizations in order to help refugees and internally displaced people.
NY: I know that the journalists face some difficulties in coming to Yemen. How did you secure your visa?
Helene: The fact is that embassies abroad do not offer any visa services for travellers to Yemen at the time being. Thus the process for any application must be directed towards the authorities in Sana’a. As I consider myself also a visitor and tourist, I applied for a tourist visa through Yemeni friends in Sana’a.
NY: With your tourist visa in hand, how do you see Yemen’s potential for tourism?
Helene: Tourism in Yemen is dead for the moment. But there is a lot of potential, which hopefully can be revived, when the situation gets better. I have been to Yemen a couple of times prior to my current visit and was mesmerized by the beauty of Sana’a’s old city and of the mountains and deserts. I’ve come to believe that Yemen is the source of human kindness – this is why the country is so magical. Also, Yemen has a tremendous history of women, that impresses me deeply. I believe, that the future is promising. I know a lot of people in Switzerland who dream of coming to Yemen. And I am sure, they will – as soon as it is possible to travel safely.
NY: Where have you been in Yemen?
Helene: I have mostly been around Sana’a so far. I went to Marib in 2007, where I visited the sun temple and went to Shibam. I love the architecture of the buildings there – they are breathtaking. Yemenis and the Yemeni government should value the treasures of their country. They are unique. You don’t find anything like that in the entire world.
NY: Let’s focus on you and your profession. When it comes to writing as a journalist, how do you classify Yemen, and what will you write next?
Helene: Well, let me say, that Yemen is a highly complicated issue. Actually, I don’t think there is anybody, who truly knows, what is going on in the political arena. Personally, I try to see beyond the news. Most media focus on Al-Qaeda and tend to ignore all other things that happen here. So I try to discover and to write about these other things, the issues beyond the “veils” of terror and kidnapping. I try to be constructive. So I like to write about projects and ideas, that support the development of civil society and the enhancement of women. Those projects could also deal with art, be it photography, poetry, painting or dance. I care a lot about the water issue and am interested in solutions, that could ease the problem. And furthermore I concentrate on the simple question: How do people live their daily lives? Which are cherished customs and traditions? What do men and women worry about? In how far are Swiss and Yemenis similar? Where do we differ? This I will write about also in the future.
NY: From your point of view, what does Yemen need to do to overcome the current political challenges?
Helene: I think Yemen needs a strong civil society. Yemen has had quite a strong civil society in the near past, and this should be remembered. Also, that women and men worked side to side to advance society. It is crucial though for now, that the country is stabilized and the military is reformed. And it’s crucial, that there is a national dialogue. A true dialogue, that includes all parties and opinions – and it’s crucial, that women are represented. You can’t ignore 50 percent of the population. There are many brilliant people out there. They should be heard. There is great will and passion for a change to the much better. This should be the fuel.
NY: How does the international community see the future of Yemen? What are the expected challenges of the coming two years and how does the international media describe them?
Helene: Unfortunately, there isn’t much coverage about Yemen in international media. Yemen seems to be too far away and overshadowed by the events in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Of course, politicians know, that the next two years will be crucial for the country. And they know, that the new government must find a way to reach an agreement between all the combating parties here. I think, that Federalism could be a good way to get Yemen into balance. But at the time being, it’s frustrating to see that Yemen is rather on they way to destroy itself. Why is there so little will to build the country and to make it a safe and prospering place? There is no need for Yemen to be poor. Yemen could be rich. So, where are the forces to move the country into blossoming?
NY: Since the election of the new president, what has changed in Yemen? Do you see any kind of political movement?
Helene: If you just drive through the streets of Sana’a, you see no change – except for the rubbish growing on the sidewalks and the overall presence of soldiers. However, talking to people, I realize that Yemenis feel, that they are awake now after having been asleep for thirty years. People are truly and passionately reflecting upon their situation. That’s great! And they are sick and tired of the current political situation, the constant electricity cuts, the insecurity in the streets, the powerplay of political parties and persons, who can’t let go of power, and they are tired of the killings in the South and the threats of Al-Qaeda. They want to go on.
NY: If you were elected as president of Yemen, what would be your priorities?
Helene: This is a difficult question. For now, I would build electricity lines to all governorates, so that nobody needs to cut the lines to raise attention, that they live in the dark. Then I would establish troops of street cleaners and pay them well. I would expand school- and working hours till late in the afternoon to keep children busy and men away from chewing Qat. Qat would only be allowed twice a week or on special occasions. I would build gyms and theatres, so that people can develop their talents. I would start a national campaign talking about the Yemeni water issue. I would immediately improve the quality of education and teach the kids how to question things. This would reduce religious extremism. I would raise the age of marriage to 18. I would punish any form of corruption severely and give the Yemeni military an excellent training and good salary. I would build a vision of a state in which everybody can and should participate. This would enhance the sense of a national identity and maybe lead to a federalist nation. And I would strengthen tourism and encourage people to visit the country.
NY: How would you encourage people to come and visit the country?
Helene: Well, before you can encourage people to visit Yemen, you would have to stop the kidnappings. People simply do not come to a country where they risk to be kidnapped. Kidnapping is destroying the image of the country. Also, the infrastructure of the country should meet the needs of visitors as well as those of Yemeni citizens. You could turn old houses into beautiful boutique hotels, for example, let people open small Bed Breakfasts, offer hiking- and desert tours, and above all: attract Arabic students. The Yemeni dialect is very close to classical Arabic. In fact, there is no better country to learn Arabic in than Yemen.
NY: How do you like to conclude this meeting with National Yemen?
Helene: I want to thank you so much for inviting me and to give me insight into your newspaper. You do a great job, and I admire you for the courage to search for the truth. Keep that courage. Yemen needs journalists like you!