The call to prayer booms out over the old city of Sana’a on my last day in Yemen. I gather my things, showered and fed, and walk down the steps of my hotel to the curbside, ready to begin the next stage of my journey.
The hotel is full of Houthi rebels, recent arrivals from the Shi’a north. There have been rumblings in the capital of late and riding the momentum of a highly-successful insurgency, the militants had taken up residence in the various luxury haunts of Sana’a – passing their time between their hotel rooms and the checkpoints they man around the old city. They’d occupied many of the government buildings as well. Around the ministries for agriculture and health and finance, RPGs could be seen bristling on the walltops – modern-day, shoulder-fired (and high-explosive) akontia for a rabble of unorganised Shiban peltasts.
With the Houthi new to town, there was some doubt about the future of security in the capital – if one could say that there was any “security” left at all. Tanzim Al-Qaeda had let off a bomb in the main square, casting the first of many stones in the war to come. On the way in, my driver points out the burnt-out carapace of an exploded gas truck, first destroyed by war and then swept aside in the cleanup.
The president’s compound – he refers to it as “Beit Al-Abeyd” (the White House) – resembles a multi-tiered maximum security facility – guard towers, tempest-hardened concrete-and-hessian walls, soldiers on the battlements, IMVs behind the barriers – what one expects to find in a US military exclusion zone where they’re keeping extraterrestrial spaceships.
The battlefield was laid out, the city divvied up according to a game of shatranj – the white squares (and the White House) for the incumbents, the black squares for the insurgents. The game was not yet a stalemate by any reckoning but there was no time limit on this round and it was uncertain whose move it was.
Despite the omnipotence of the rifle, the rocket launcher and the retro-fitted infantry mobility vehicle however, there were no bullets flying just yet. In the hotel lobby, the Houthi waft in and out with their Chinese-made Kalashnikovs – checking them in at reception like a woman checks a handbag at a ballet cloakroom.
Before coming here, I’d read a report that seemed to suggest that the “Houthi” rebels might be nothing more than opportunistic locals riding the coat tails of a sure-to-win uprising in the North. But now, after chatting with the hotel staff about their clientele there was no doubt about it – these men were not locals. Out-of-towners. They slouched around in looser-fitting clothing than the well-dressed Sana’a cosmopolite, tatty sandals on dirty feet, faecal brown military parkas two sizes too big and a dish-dash wrapped sloppily on their heads.
Sure, there were lots of vaguely-militant-looking indivudals lingering around the steets near the hotels, but only an out-of-towner enters the hotel, checks his AK at the concierge and wafts upstairs for a nap. These men seemed to be neither on a war path nor to constitute much of a threat to anyone. Except perhaps an annoyance to motorists with the periodic burning-tyre-road-blocks they were known to set up around town. Nowhere was the indolent momentum of the Houthi’s movement more evident than in the fact that the barrels of many of their weapons were plugged with the end of a sheet – a piece of linen and a few circlets of iron-tied tape serving as a makeshift dust-cover.
It reminded me of the tanks I’d seen parked at all the entrances to Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab “Spring” (didn’t the moniker “Spring” seem a riot now?), gun-tubes plugged up as they idled next to the Egyptian Museum. The Ramses II battle tanks were never there to be used, of course. I’m sure the various generals, and Mubarak himself, realised that firing 105mm shells in downtown Cairo was a bad idea. But the tanks, like these Houthi and their rifles were there to give the illusion of violence – power through presence. And it was potentially enough to sway a swing-voting local.
Mao once wrote that “political power comes out of the barrel of a gun”… I don’t know whether he wrote anything about the implications on political power if the gun-barrel is plugged up with a dust-cover but maybe he should have. On the one hand the locals I spoke with thought the young fighters of the Houthi movement naive, belligerent, simple – their scrappy demeanour, like their detritus-free rifle barrels, the butt of a joke. But on the other hand, they respected these men – for with a firearm and a few magazines of 7.62mm round comes immediate respect.
The new mandarins of the American military talk about things like “saturation patrolling” in counter-insurgency operations and that was exactly what the Houthi were trying to do now – saturate Sana’a with their presence – the irony perhaps being that they were the insurgent and not the incumbent force.
Despite all this – the guns, the grimaces, the sporadic gunshots which sent birds flying over the rooftops – I couldn’t help but think that while things looked tense, they were much less so… even if for me as a Westerner, the threat of kidnapping was always clear and present.
I spent the afternoon in the Old City. A Houthi militant stands at the entrance to Bab Al-Yemen – a young man, perhaps seventeen. He waves the cars through the city gates, checking neither identity or cargo, the function of his standing guard unclear other than, as usual, to remind the Sana’aite that the Houthi are here and the Houthi are strong.
Inside the city walls, the souq, as ever in the Arab world, goes on, ad infinitum. The market is the centre of the Arab cultural life, and in Yemen, in Sana’a, it is no different. It is a scene familiar to me – the usual marvels of the Orientalist imagining. The bustle of a bevvy of black-clad women, faces obscured by niqab, the shouts of hawkers holding gilt jambiyyas (the ceremonial dagger worn by all Yemeni males) aloft for all to buy. The spice shops, carts selling sweets – rounded polished ringlets of dough and cinnamon. A baker and his roaring oven, churning out kidm, the hard-crusted breadbun on which Yemeni cuisine is founded. And above this, the architecture of an ancient city – an “old old city” as one man describes it to me – qedeemet qedeemet.
The architecture seems surreal, unfeasibly artistic. The window-panes like plates of glassy toffee kneaded into gingerbread walls, the plaster holding it all together like cake icing spread with a knife. The browns, the blacks, the whites, all the shades, garnished by a pale blue shutter or a ribbon of green triangular flags arching across the street.
And now, in a mix of old and new, the slogan of the Houthi movement, spray-painted in reds and greens on the gingerbread walls as though in keeping with the holiday theme currently doing the rounds in other shopping centres around the world. Christmas (or Eid Al-Milad Issa), the feast of Jesus’ birth, being but days away of course.
The slogan appears at first threatening, ominous words graffitied onto city walls hundreds of years old and backed up by the barrel of a gun. But then, the words themselves seem laughable – the empty threat of a mountain-born movement seeking to whip up support through generic discontent against faceless, never-before-seen external aggressors (for how many Yemenis have really ever met a Jew?).
“God is great,” The slogan reads.
“Death to America, death to Israel, curses on the Jews, victory to Islam.”
Somehow, I can’t imagine the Houthi teenagers swarming Sana’a, conquering both the US and Israel in a final cataclysmic battle – but maybe that’s just an idiot talking.
And “victory to Islam” eh? This is what the green flags all over the street supposedly decry. All the standard crooning of a Arab political movement in foment. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar… Victory to Islam.
The Houthis are in town. And they want everyone to be reminded of it. A “predatory periphery” come down to roost in the urban core. I leave Yemen – not for the last time I hope and a short flight brings me to Addis Ababa and a long, sleepless transit in a “sleeper lounge”. And then a take-off, an in-flight movie, a measly meal and a less-than-halal-touchdown later and I am in Africa… in Mali… I have some unfinished business here from a year-and-a-half ago. Unfinished business in the North. In the desert.