Thursday, June 6, 2019

It’s Sweden’s National Day. And this is how Sweden Keeps me Un-Swedish.

On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.

Before you keep on reading, please do understand that I am not aiming to bash or glorify Sweden. I am simply sharing my experience of living in Sweden since mid-2011. As a journalist from Yemen, I have seen how it’s been difficult to convince the world that there are good things about Yemen beside the bad; same problem I find when I try to convince the world that there are bad things about Sweden beside the good. So, please put all the stereotypes aside for a moment.

Sweden is a great country, and like anywhere else, it has the good and the bad. It’s never perfect, just like nowhere else is perfect. There are many issues about Sweden that are so true but we never talk about, especially among the international media; such as racism, discrimination, poverty, Sweden’s Arms Industry, etc. I tried a couple of times to write about Sweden in English and Arabic. I was shocked by the level of hatred and threats I received online by Sweden’s far-right wing.

“Go back to your home in Yemen”, “You should have been in Yemen and married off when you were a child”, “Go back to your Al Qaeda country, you terrorist”, these are some of the comments or messages I used to receive when I “dared” to speak about Sweden.

So, I kept quiet, while knowing that my silence won’t protect me, as Audre Lorde once said.

I was very inspired when a group of Swedish writers and journalists made an online campaign denouncing the hateful and death-threats they were receiving online. I recognized that the problem was massive.

After being a political refugee in Sweden for about four years, by July 2015, I became a Swedish citizen. It was the same time the war broke out in my home country, Yemen. I had a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness. I was dying for that moment to come - of having the Swedish passport so I could fly to Yemen to see my family, but I couldn’t because of the war and the blockade imposed on the country. I had to postpone my plan indefinitely. Meanwhile, I was happy that I was a Swedish citizen and finally can vote. On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.
Google celebrating the National Day of Sweden, today.

The far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats political party has been gaining popularity over the years. When I first arrived in Sweden, they used to be a small group. Today, they are the third-biggest party in the Swedish parliament. I used to underestimate the rising climate of racism in Sweden until I saw how one of my own close friends from Yemen, who came to Sweden seeking refuge, has joined the white-supremacist Sweden Democrats. He’s been promoting all their fascist propaganda without reflecting of how he himself is everything that group doesn’t want to see in Sweden.

The rise of white-supremacist, far-right, populist, fascist tends is global.

Sweden is part of the globe.

I appreciate all the friendships I have made in Sweden with Swedish, Ethiopian, Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, Turkish, Somalian, French, Serbian, German, Iranian, Roman, Eritrean, El Salvador, Spanish, Portuguese, Afghani, Egyptian, Palestinian and many other nationalities. It’s like the whole world lives in Sweden. Statistically, about 25% of Sweden’s 10 million population has a total or partial birth-connection with another country besides Sweden, but I would go as far and estimate that it’s almost half of the country.

Sweden is so diverse culturally and I love it!

Then, there’s the problem of integration vs. assimilation. I try not to care much about that — all I care about is to live in Sweden in the way I want to live, with freedom and dignity. I am experienced in that, as I had my Ethiopian roots with me while growing up in Yemen.

Naturally, anywhere you live in, you’d need to speak the language of the place. So I was enrolled in the free-of-charge Swedish language class, what we call in Sweden as “SFI”. The SFI class is an interesting experience for many expats, immigrants and others. Since day one, I noticed how ill-structured the classes were. From putting students with widely different academic backgrounds (like B.A. degree holders and illiterate individuals) to teachers wasting time on things irrelevant to teaching Swedish language. During my four years in the SFI school, I only had one excellent teacher who focused on teaching us pedagogically the Swedish language. The rest were somehow obsessed with assimilation topics. For instance, we had one teacher who kept asking us about feminism and women’s issues in the Arab and Muslim world.

“You do hit women in your region, but we don’t do that in Sweden,” she would tell us in the class.

Well, I am a feminist but I don’t see the use of taking a pedagogic session time about the Swedish language to lecture us about feminism.

Most importantly, the teacher’s attitude was so condescending.

I have learnt more Swedish language from reading Tove Jansson’s children books, speaking to drunk old men at bus stations or TV and radio, than at the SFI classes.

Believe it or not, it is difficult to speak Swedish with Swedes. Once they notice you speak broken Swedish, they switch to English which they love to do as it allows them to practice their English. They think English is so cool. They speak English fluently. However, at job interviews, Swedes don’t find the English language so cool.

It is so difficult to find a job in Sweden — with basic or even advanced Swedish, it doesn’t matter really. What matters is how much working experience you have in Sweden. But how am I going to have working experience if you, Sweden, doesn’t allow me to have an opportunity to get that experience in the first place?

I have submitted countless job applications and almost all the time I don’t even hear back from them with any feedback — even the rejection. I remember one woman taxi driver from Iran who drove me once to a TV interview I made in the Swedish TV building. She told me how she has a degree in engineering from Iran but taxi driving was the only job she could find in Sweden. This made me remove from my CV all the details about all the Swedish and international awards I’ve received for my journalism work. I even started to consider working as a taxi driver or waitress. I have tremendous respect for all taxi drivers and waitresses — and, surely, these jobs are nothing to be ashamed of.

I know my potential and I keep asking myself, why in Sweden am I feeling this unworthiness? Why am I constantly economically struggling? Why the Swedish system doesn’t allow me to fulfil my fullest potentials, find a job and feel settled? Something about the system keeps you as an outsider. Dating in Sweden? I've given up a long time ago.

One of my last attempts to feel that I fit in Sweden, I contacted the Swedish public service, SVT, inquiring if they’d be interested in an op-ed by me about my experience with the Swedish language. They politely told me they weren’t interested.

It is my fourth time to celebrate the Swedish National Day as a Swedish citizen and I am still struggling to fit in and feel Swedish and, most importantly, be seen as a full Swedish citizen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Yemeni Journalist Denied Entry to US to Receive Pulitzer Prize: I am Disappointed yet Defiant

Maad al-Zekri, Yemen’s first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize tells me what happened to him over a phone call from Egypt:

Yesterday was a big day for me and my colleagues, Maggie Michael, and Nariman El-Mofty. It was the award ceremony for us to receive the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, in New York City in the United States. As a team of Associated Press journalists, Michael, El-Mofty and I have done about 14 stories from Yemen, covering a wide range of issues; like the U.S. drone strikes on Yemen and the UAE’s secret prions in Yemen, among many other stories.

We actually won other awards as well for our reporting, not only the Pulitzer Prize.

Maad al-Zekri with Maggie Michael, Yemen 2018. 

I wasn’t able to join my colleagues in NYC and celebrate this important achievement because I was denied entry to the United States. As all embassies are shut down in Yemen, I had to travel to the closest country to Yemen and apply for the visa in a U.S. embassy. So, two months ago, I visited Egypt and applied for the visa. My application was supported by so many letters from high-ranked institutions, including the Associated Press Agency. And yet, my application was rejected.

The embassy told me that the reason was that Yemen was ranked as a place that has terrorism. AP exerted the fullest pressure on the embassy and we planned that I apply again. My second application required that I meet an American Counselor. I explained that Yemen wasn’t a terrorist country and I asked, “Does the U.S. embassy think that a Yemeni investigative journalist doing reporting for AP is a terrorist? Are you saying that I am a terrorist?”

It was baffling to me. As a Yemeni citizen, I know how we Yemenis are the first victims of terrorism. Terrorists in Yemen are foreigners who come from outside. They exploit the deteriorating security situation in Yemen and use that for their own interests.

I was told by the American Counselor that they would work on my application and I should expect the visa anytime - even one day before the award ceremony. So, I waited and waited - and waited. And till now, I heard nothing from them.

Last night, I had a beautiful surprise when my colleagues Michael and El-Mofty video-called me on Facetime as they were receiving the award on stage. Somehow, seeing Michael and El-Mofty and the audience's standing ovation made me feel like I was there with them. It was a delightful surprise! So grateful that I am working with these ladies.

I don’t know what to say about the wonderful messages I’ve been receiving from relatives, friends, journalists (and especially American journalists) and people from Yemen and around the world. So heartwarming! Not being able to travel to the U.S. and receive the award in person was disappointing to me but it also made me realize all this solidarity I have as a Yemeni journalist and citizen. I do journalism not expecting to get awards, rather to shed light on this impoverished land, my country, Yemen. The love and support I’ve been receiving give me more energy to keep up my work.

My message to the U.S. administration is that it has to rethink its policies against Yemen and Yemenis. One of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in the tragic condition it has reached to today is the U.S. administration's mass punishment on Yemen. They must rethink that. The rift has been immense.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Jacobinmag Podcast: Empire and the War in Yemen

The Dig, Jacobinmag Podcast:

The US has played a major role in fomenting violence across Yemen, backing the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led forces attacking the country while also conducting a direct war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula under the guise of counterterrorism. But while it’s understandable that US involvement is the top focus for the American left, understanding the war in Yemen requires a much broader analysis. The Yemeni conflict not only includes multiple outside actors but also multiple groups of Yemenis pursuing different outcomes, rooted in a complex history that a few outside of Yemen understands. 

Explaining that context is what this show, in partnership with the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), is all about. This special episode includes two interviews with contributors to the Middle East Report, MERIP’s print publication. First, up is Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser and political scientist Stacey Philbrick Yadav; and then, Dan speaks with political-economist Adam Hanieh.

You may listen to the interviews here

Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization

Despite advances gained from women’s strong participation in the 2011 uprisings against the dictatorship of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Salih, and despite the fact that they continue to play an essential role in the day-to-day survival of their communities, three years of war and militarization have resulted in a significant setback for Yemeni women and increased their marginalization from formal political and conflict-resolution channels. Yet they continue to struggle for their rights and representation.

To continue reading this article, please subscribe with MERIP here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Yemen: A tragic battleground will get bloodier amid US-Iran tensions

Iran is likely to use the Houthis to give Saudi Arabia and by extension the US, a bloody nose - ruining any chance for peace in the process.

*Last week witnessed a significant escalation between the Saudi-UAE coalition and the Houthi rebels, eroding around six months of discussions in Yemen following the Yemen Peace Talks in Sweden at the end of 2018.

The latest deadly episode in the four-year conflict was a Saudi-UAE airstrike attack on Sanaa, in retaliation for Houthi drone strikes on Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the UAE, near the Straits of Hormuz, and drone attacks on two Saudi oil pumping stations west of the capital Riyadh.

The Houthi Defence Ministry stated that the recent drone strikes came as the first shot of a military operation which includes a list of 300 targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Even the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who is known to be optimistic, expressed serious concerns about the Houthi attack on Saudi oil facilities, and admitted that recent developments “affect the political process".

“Affect” seems too soft a word to describe the potential fallout from the recent military confrontations, especially when one places it within the context of the war of words raging between the United States and Iran, and Washington’s efforts to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero.

Recent developments have severely undermined all peace efforts following the talks in Sweden, and have revealed the true nature of the military sophistication of the Houthis.

The huge focus on resolving the conflict in Hodeidah has only posed as a distraction from the other major emerging conflict in the country. The UN recently announced that the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa ports has begun and in parallel both the Houthis and the Yemeni government have initiated discussions over the economic provisions of the Hodeida Agreement.

These steps would seem positive ones only if new major fighting fronts did not emerge; such as the Houthi drone strikes against Saudi Arabia, the ground fighting in Hajjah, Taiz and Al Dhale, among other areas in Yemen, causing more civilian casualties, and the fact that the fight against famine and cholera is still not over.

The failure to completely resolve the Hodeidah battle means that we are now back to square one. UN peace efforts will remain limited in what they can achieve because international dynamics tend to play a more decisive role in the trajectory of the conflict and its resolution.

We have seen that with the Qatar Crisis and Al Jazeera, unshackled from Saudi-UAE pressure, broadcasting nonstop coverage on the atrocities in Yemen, eventually influencing public opinion.

The Jamal Khashoggi killing and the international movement and sentiment that followed has played a significant role, along with many other matters, bringing about peace talks in Sweden.

Nothing enhances or undermines peace efforts in Yemen as much as external factors do.

Evolved military capacity

While UN peace efforts have been impeded, there has been an opportunity for the Houthis to reposition themselves and improve their ballistic missile technology - primarily obtained from assassinated former president Saleh’s air munitions.

In other words, crippling peace efforts helped the Houthis buy time to enhance their military force.

In November 2017, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia’s capital, which was intercepted. In July last year, Houthis attacked two Saudi ships near the Red Sea’s Bab al Mandeb strait without inflicting significant damage. Then, in January this year, the Houthis launched drone strikes attacking a military parade run by the Yemeni government in Yemen’s southern province of Lahaj, killing several military officials.

Recent Houthi drone strikes, however, are different. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of 'ordering' the attack, something the Saudis didn’t do in the previous incidents. The geopolitical dimension in this war is slowly coming to the fore.

Stuck between the US and Iran

Amidst the economic, proxy, and information wars between the US (and its close allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE) and Iran, Yemen is a battleground for them all. Iran’s desire not to go into a direct military confrontation with the US or Saudi Arabia has only meant that it has a desire to confront through proxy, with Yemen and the Houthis as its trump card.

With little or no evidence that Iran was militarily supporting the Houthis, the Saudis imposed themselves in this war. As it raged on, the Saudi claim has come true.

Iran’s influence throughout the war has dramatically increased - which is crucial to understanding the conflict’s direction. An investigation by Conflict Armament Research points out that some “Iranian technology transfers to Houthi rebels”.

In his first interview with his channel, al Masirah TV, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al Houthi last month did not deny or confirm direct military support. He asserted, however, that Houthis receive 'how-to' military teaching from some friends.

Objectively, whether militarily or diplomatically, the Saudi-UAE coalition enjoys global goodwill and support while the Houthis have only the support of Iran and Hezbollah. Attacking Saudi oil facilities – claimed by Houthis – and the Iran-US crisis is connected. It's impossible to believe the timing is coincidental.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are “highly likely” to have facilitated the attacks, as a Norwegian insurers’ report indicates. For Iran’s convenience and in line with its cautious strategy, it wants to show a military operation which is strong enough to shock but not pull them into a full-scale military confrontation. There is no better tool for that than Yemen and the Houthis.

The logical conclusion is that the higher the tensions between the US and Iran, the more Iran will use Yemen as a battleground to antagonise the US and its partner, Saudi Arabia.

All UN diplomatic efforts seem futile, as international actors involved in the conflict continue to shape it through their rivalries. Unless we witness a drastic shift in these states, greater violence is coming.

*This aricle was first written for/published on TRT World website, 21st of May, 2019.