Young Yemeni female artists are flourishing despite war in their country
For the past few years, Yemen has been experiencing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. In 2015, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia formed a coalition that began “Operation Decisive Storm,” a conflict waged against opposing forces in Yemen. Ever since, the country has been wrought with a number of problems, including rising war casualties — of which women and children are the majority affected — a declining economy, increasing rates of unemployment, temporary or permanent displacement of millions of families, and a staggering increase in gender-based violence and inequality due to the direct or indirect threats to their lives.
Young Yemenis have been particularly affected by this conflict. Even before the rise of the war, young people had to fight to get an education or even a simple job. The country’s social services had already been crushed by a harsh economic decline that, by 2012, resulted in an unemployment rate of over 60 percent. Now, thanks to the conflict, unemployment rates have doubled, if not tripled. Many young people are trying to leave the country, often through dangerous routes, to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. The young people who are still in Yemen have resorted to either scraping together their own businesses or finding odd side jobs to provide for their families and to be able to afford an education.
This situation was especially challenging for young women, as they have long faced gender discrimination and oppression in Yemen. The escalation of conflict resulted in an even further decline in their socioeconomic status and human rights.
Despite this troubling situation, however, a portion of Yemeni youth still dream of a better future. Among those who remain hopeful and productive are artists — a large number of whom are women.
Halla Taha is one such artist. Taha is a Palestinian artist/singer/songwriter who lives in Yemen. She describes her journey as follows:
“I found my talent when I was just four years old. Older students at my school told me I had a beautiful voice and that encouraged me to participate in school activities and sometimes in small competitions and festivals. The mindset of the community did not make it easy for me, as the Middle East is a difficult place to be an artistically talented person. There is a connection between art and politics in this society: Talented young people who deliver messages through their work, who teach people how to think or show people different parts of the big picture that they have not yet seen on their own, are not accepted. I personally voice my opinion through my songs and my message is always about love and peace.
Being a female was also a whole challenge on its own, as people kept reminding me every opportunity they got that it’s a shame to sing because I am a girl. But I fought to prove my talent. I kept singing, and I kept making sure my voice was heard. Now I have started to officially sing covers and publish them. My first cover is about love for one’s own land and patriotism. The war has definitely affected me, but I make sure that I channel my feelings and I deliver much more now because people need art much more now than they ever did before. I am still underground and unknown to most, but I hope that changes very soon.
Art is something out of this world, almost from heaven. It’s the only thing in which we can all find common ground. I hope someday artists get to deliver our messages of love and peace without the interruption of inhumane acts.”
Safa Alyafei is another young artist affected by the threats of war. Her brothers and father were in danger, so the family fled to Aden from Sana’a, and only recently returned. Alyafei has found a unique way of expressing herself, though: She makes drawings out of coffee and coffee grounds. Here she is in her own words:
My talent started in middle school. I loved drawing caricatures of my teachers and friends, which I still secretly draw, as well as public figures like singers, poets, and authors. I have not really faced any financial problems as my work depends on simple, easily available things, like coffee. But of course I have faced other problems. Living in an Arab society has its challenges. Artists in general are not really supported. We do not have recreational centers where artists can learn from each other, nor do we have institutes that teach art. The ones that were once open closed down after the start of the war.
The war affected us all. I stopped drawing for a very long time after the start of the war — the circumstances were just not in my favor. But I found my way. I found that the war gives us artists motivation to express our opinions, voices, and points of view. I also realized that artists cannot carry their name honorably if they don’t stand with humanity or use their talent to draw the whole picture from a wider, bigger angle. Art is a witness and a weapon during war.
Everyone has their own way of voicing their opinion and expressing themself, and it’s not necessarily through words. I draw public figures who have made change in the world. I drew Che Guevara to express the revolution my country was going through. Every artist has their own approach. The power of art is just like the power of words: It can start or end wars. Leaders may rise and fall because of art. Finally, I draw the public figures who I want to be someday.
While Taha and Alyafei find art helps them express their feelings about war, other artists have found art helps them personally cope with these difficult, unfolding events. Salsabeel Mohamed is one such artist.
My talent is more of a passion that started when I was a child. I enjoyed drawing on everything — paper, walls, and even my bed. I never shared my drawings or my passion with anyone until recently. I got positive feedback, which encouraged me to continue. I did face a lot of difficulties but I never let them lower my passion. For one, electricity was a problem, but I used candles. Some materials were unavailable, so I used other ones that were similar to them. Surprisingly social networkers were quite helpful. Like everyone, I was emotionally affected [by the conflict] and I stopped drawing for a very long time … but social networks helped fill the absence of such [artistic] spaces. I realized that where there is art, there is always life.
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