Connecting with the Editor: The Yemen Times

It was, undoubtedly, the nature of the article on the International Women’s Media Forum that I read about her which prompted me to contact her.

I read countless news articles every day: some not to their entirety, and others I find myself reviewing repeatedly. Many of these articles concern the series of revolutionary and utterly astonishing uprisings occurring in the Middle East in recent months.

Not to say that what is happening in other parts of the world is uninteresting. I pay attention to these things as well. Yet the protests and uprisings are infectious mainly because of the long oppression citizens of these societies have found themselves involuntarily subjected to. Who wants to live their entire lives in a tent on the streets? What chronically unemployed adult wants to sit back and observe politicians and officials gaining insurmountable wealth above the rest of the population?  What person wants to be subjected to extensive humiliation by such officials? My point is: I don’t blame the citizens of these countries for their anguish.

One particular quote told to me by another woman interviewed for “50 Women” stands out in my mind when I see these uprisings and speaks for the current circumstances in  societies across the Middle East: “In order to gain wisdom and to be reborn, one must first lose everything”.

Ultimately what I am referring to is that everything must be uprooted in the peace process in order to change. Old world leaders must be ousted, cities overtaken and  the failing systems removed. In theory it sounds like a walk in the park yet the road to positive change is one of hardship, sacrifice and extensive cost. I watched at the beginning of 2011 as the Egyptian revolution unfolded and the protesters held steadfast and determined in Tahrir Square subsequently following brother nation Tunisia.

One such revolution receiving remarkably less news coverage in the United Stateswere protests and uprisings inYemen.

What most don’t realize is that the Yemen uprisings followed the initial stages of the Tunisia uprisings and occurred simultaneously with the Egyptian revolution. Which brings me back to the article that I read on the International Women’s Media Forum.

I discovered it one morning while reviewing their Courage in Journalism Award winners. Scanning the page, I learned of Nadia Al Sakkaf, Editor in Chief of The Yemen Times, the only objective and English speaking newspaper in Yemen; a newspaper acting as a veritable connector of Yemen and the rest of the world. The article was about some of the current hardships and setbacks the newspaper has suffered as a result of the tumultuous political environment in Yemen. In the brief article, Nadia talks about the challenges she and her loyal staff of reporters face daily in the wake of the revolution for change. Moved on many levels by Nadia’s courage and strength in navigating such a stirring sea of political and economical turbulence, I felt an unyielding desire to connect with and interview her.

So I did.

Arising with the sun on a Saturday morning, I checked my world clock to see the time in Amann,Jordan. Noticing it was evening in her local time, I dialed her local number via skype and connected with her voice to voice from half a world away. There we were-  two passionate and persevering female voices joined by a simple internet connection.

Nadia Al Sakkaf is one revolutionary woman. In addition to carrying an MSC in Information Systems Management and a BE in Computer Science, she has also worked for OXFAM GB in their humanitarian Programs and was the first recipient of the Gebran Tunei Award in 2006. Nadia has been Editor in Chief of The Yemen Times since 2005 and is paving the way in a leadership role for other women journalists in Yemen and other countries in the Middle East.

 The Yemen Times is so near and dear to Nadia because it is a family business, started by her father in 1990 and wielded from his vision to be a global citizen and to bridge the gap between Yemen and the rest of the world. Today it is the only independent English newspaper in Yemen reporting on every activity of the country’s current revolution.

Being a revolutionary in the realm of journalism and media has a heavy price tag. Nadia explained that her father was previously abducted and imprisoned for his involvement  and the paper was closed more than three times between 1991 and 1999 when after his tragic passing, Nadia’s brother stepped in and took over until 2005. Smashing stereotypes, Nadia assumed the position of Editor in Chief in 2005.

“Its interesting because Journalism is such a new profession for many Yemeni women. Still the culture does not generally accept women working in public positions but I have seen so much fascination for this profession grow. Women who decide to be journalists in Yemen are still facing the glass ceiling- its very difficult for them to climb up the ladder and become managers”.

Nadia further explained to me the many reservations people had about her becoming the Editor in Chief since she was young . They did not feel that she would be able to handle the job- yet she has with grace and strong determination to keep her father’s legacy alive. Now in one of the most difficult times, Nadia forges on with the belief that if she does not do her job- nobody will.

Currently, the paper faces challenges from power outages to phone and email threats. The objective or unbiased approach of the paper angers members of certain political parties. In Yemen, as Nadia explained, there is biased reporting from both sides, the opposition side and government side.

Even coverage of the protests have produced insurmountable challenges to reporters on staff. As protests escalate, so do the weapons used in clashes with security. Nadia explained that past protesters have used sticks or knives until recently progressing to the use of live bullets. The danger to reporters in these situation is they cannot act as a bystander to the effects of the situation. In doing their jobs, they become part of the action. When a reporter stands to cover a protest, he or she can become shot directly or victim of bullet ricochet. Thus, it is becoming more difficult for media to hide from attacks during such events.

“Once one of my reporters was there and said that a man next to him was shot. He was a bit traumatized because it could have been him. Its true and we all know that its true. Anytime I send another one of my reporters out my hand is on my heart waiting until they come back to the office so that I know they are safe. The problem is we cannot NOT send them. Its like, if we don’t tell the story who will?”

Sympathizing with her concerns, I asked Nadia how she gets through each day in this environment. She explained to me much of her strength comes from the international community and the many people who responded to her previousIWMF article offering to help.

“You know Jessica, I feel that the international community believes in us. For example, those emails and you calling me now, we share those and we talk about those in our meetings. Some of them we even print out and say ‘Look. There is a person who is praying for us’. I received an email from someone in Japan and it said ‘I am praying for you’ and that was amazing!”

I asked Nadia several questions about the revolution in Yemen and its significance to the Yemenis society. I felt strongly about hearing her perspective on the situation- as a citizen of Yemen, as a journalist, as a woman and as a mother.

Poverty, Nadia emphasized, is the reason many Yemenis are disgruntled. Over forty percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. In fact,Yemen ranks 152 of 177 countries listed on the Human Development Index and of all the Arab states,Yemen has the lowest HDI rank. An alarming ten percent of the current work force are children who are often forced to drop out of school in order to support their families. Perhaps this is one explanation of the looming amount of illiteracy in the Arab nation- an astonishing 54 percent of the population age 15 or older according to the World Bank.  ( note: figures are different depending on the source or report)

In Yemen, Nadia explained articulately, there are a lot of injustices. Not only are large amount of citizens poor, but they also live under corruption and humiliation. Politics also until this year, was mainly the business of the elite and intellectuals not the layperson. As of 2011, this has drastically changed.

We discussed the Mohammed Bouazizi incident as the trigger to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Bouazizi was a Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself on fire in protest when his goods, which he allegedly purchased on credit due to poverty, were taken and he was harassed by a municipal official. Nadia pointed out to me that many people in Yemen are similar to Bouazizi in that they do not have much to live for and thus have nothing to loose which, in turn, lends strong legitimacy to the current revolution.

I know so many Yemenis who would sell a kidney just to go abroad- I am dreaming of the day where the Yemenis don’t even think like that because they want to stay in their own country and they feel appreciated” Nadia explained. “This is a very unbelievable time in history. It is much turmoil now, but I hope that the turmoil results in something much more prosperous in the end. I often explain it as a delivery- like we are giving birth and we are in the delivery room. It’s a long labor but I can’t wait for the baby to come out and take care of it and for it to become an important person”.

Nadia believes she would not be strong without the loyal and dedicated team atThe Yemen Times. Perhaps she does not realize what I see in her, but I see an enduring progressive soul, who genuinely and sincerely cares for the betterment of her country and its people. Her commitment and belief reveals itself in her reporting, her advocacy and her dedication to The Yemen Times and its mission.

It was a gift to speak with Nadia. I will never forget our conversation for the rest of my life. Here I was connecting with another person from across the world, whose country has been in my thoughts and prayers. It is my sincere hope that Yemen and the other Arab nations can finally attain for their citizens the change they deserve. Noone wants to live the way some of these citizens are forced to sustain. Noone wants to be subjected to the same humiliation Bouazizi was- a humiliation so deep and severe it forced him to self-immolate. I understand the anger which leaks from poverty and oppression. Now their voices are heard around the world just as I heard Nadia’s through that simple article. For Nadia’s voice is one beyond what we read in news reports- she is an influential part of Yemen’s media and part of the present activity in the country. She is the woman in charge of the greatest link between Yemen and the rest of the world.

“This revolution, although it is a defining moment for Yemen, it’s also an opportunity to unveil the other faces of Yemen and to break all the stereotypes. I am glad in a way that this has happened, even if it has happened this way. I am glad that the world knows more about Yemen and other Arab countries. You are hearing the names of cities that you never would have heard in your life had this not happened so it’s brought the world together”…

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