Lasting Impressions

By William Picard[1] 

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Al-Tawilah lies along a minor highway west of Yemen’s capital, Sanaʻa, halfway between Kawkaban and al-Mahweet. The modern town is a sprawl of nondescript structures built around the popular market, but the old village of al-Tawilah is the exemplar of a traditional Yemeni mountain fastness: a monument to the spirit of highland Yemen, defined paradoxically by both prideful insularity and generous hospitality. The village is built into and on top of a rocky peak, with endless flights of stone steps running between buildings which blend into the mountain itself. 

I found myself at the gate of the old village on a summer day in 1999. I was seventeen years old when I saw al-Tawilah and the Yemeni countryside for the first time. It was one of the early days of what would be a three-week stay in Yemen for me; for the first few days I was accompanied by my father, an attorney who represented clients in Yemen; after that, I stayed with a Yemeni family that he knew well. At the gate of al-Tawilah, my father and I waited by the car while our friend and guide Nedhal spoke with a young man who blocked the entrance. After they exchanged greetings, the young man explained that no one was permitted to visit the old village without the permission of the Shaykh.

“But,” Nedhal bluffed, “my guests have permission from the president.”

“What president?” the young man asked.

“The president of the Republic.”

“So what? He’s not the president of al-Tawilah.”

At that point, the young man—the shaykh’s nephew as it happened, asked Nedhal for his name. A typical Yemeni exchange of patronymics and genealogies followed until the guardian of the gate seized upon the name of one of Nedhal’s grandfathers.

“Ah! He was a great man—a legend!” the shaykh’s nephew said. “He fought the Turks and the Imam! Wallah[2] I heard he was a giant.”

“Well, people say he was quite tall,” Nedhal conceded.

“Come in, you and the Americans! You are my guests. I’ll show you the cannon we took from the Turks when they tried to pass here!”

In Yemen, and especially in a place like al-Tawilah, history feels fluid. The shaykh’s nephew, who couldn’t have been more than 30-years-old, gave more weight to the reputation of my friend’s long-dead relative than to the (supposed) authority of the president. The young man, Ahmad, spoke of nineteenth-century battles against the Ottoman invaders as if he had fought them himself. But he had modern sensibilities as well. When my father and I introduced ourselves, Ahmad was thrilled to learn that he had invited an attorney into the village. 

“You must stay here,” he urged, “we need a lawyer. You see that next mountain? We’re at war with the people there; they don’t respect our boundary. You should be our lawyer. And William,” he turned to me, sweetening the pitch, “he can stay here, too. He will learn Arabic much better than in Sana’a.” 

We toured the village, trekking up and down the steep stone steps, past homes, and mosques and other places of interest. Pointing to one massive stone structure that looked much like the others, Ahmad said, “This is our jail. We have two men from the other mountain there now.” Near the peak of the mountain was a flat stone platform overlooking the valley below and the neighboring mountains, including al-Tawilah’s current rival. “From here,” Ahmad said, “we shot down a helicopter during the war,” referring to the civil war of the 1960s. Reliving past glories and reinforcing the conflict of the moment, Ahmad shouldered his Kalashnikov and fired a round toward the next mountain. 

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I first became aware of Yemen’s existence in the early 1990s. During the 1991 Gulf War—the first war to be commercially packaged and sold to the American people as a spectator sport, complete with colorful trading cards—my brother and I had a glossy map of Arabia and the Gulf.  In the same way the sports section of the weekend newspaper would list statistics for each football team and star player, the map listed figures for each country’s military assets, population, and annual oil production. Yemen, of course, was at the bottom of each of those rankings except population; it was also the only state on the map aside from Iraq that was not “on our side.” Our map did not mention how the United States and its Gulf allies had devastated Yemen’s economy in retaliation for that position.

Not long after the war, my father started traveling to Yemen for his work, bringing back with him strange souvenirs and fascinating descriptions of the people and places he’d seen. My father had been to many places for work over the years, but the exceptional hospitality of his new Yemeni friends meant that he was always bringing something beautiful and surprising back from these trips. After a few years, our house boasted a respectable collection of Yemeni artifacts. In one corner of the living room was a large, bulb-shaped chicken coop made of dried reeds; on a bookshelf sat a leather water vessel. My mother’s dresser filled with filigree silver and amber jewelry. Goat-hair rugs hung here and there. And most importantly, from an adolescent boy’s perspective, daggers of various shapes and sizes sat on desks and hung on our walls.

The experiences and stories my father shared with me fueled a growing interest in Yemen and the wider region. As a teenager, I jumped at the first chance to see Yemen for myself. During that first trip in 1999, I made a friend—a Yemeni who had lived in the US—who told me that it had changed every foreigner she knew who had come to Yemen in some way. That was indeed the case for me; my time in Sanaʻa, my travels through the northern highlands and to the southern coast, transformed my active interest into an obsession. It would be ten years before I had another chance to visit Yemen, but the country never left my mind. I followed the news from Yemen eagerly in the years that followed, incorporated my independent study of Yemeni culture and politics into my university studies, and eventually built a career around my obsession. In 2009, I was able to return to Sanaʻa with my wife, who has come to be just as passionate about the country as I am. With each visit since then, our love of and commitment to Yemen has only grown.

In 2010, my colleagues and I founded the Yemen Peace Project with the hope that by sharing our experiences with other Americans, we might change the nature of the relationship between the two nations. At that time, America’s involvement in Yemen was becoming increasingly militarized. Though the two countries are officially allies, the impact of American policies on the Yemeni populace is anything but peaceful. In their dealings with Yemen—not to mention the rest of the region—America’s leaders have proven themselves experts at fostering fear, distrust, anger, and violence. We believe that by finding ways to bring Yemenis and Americans together, we can learn how to promote peace instead. 

Whenever I talk to people about my work, they inevitably ask how I came to be interested in a country so remote from the lives of most Americans. Invariably I think back to my first experiences in Yemen, to the people I met in al-Tawilah, Thula, Sanaʻa, Ta’izz, ‘Aden, and elsewhere, and to all of the personal interactions that formed my first understandings of Yemen. I hold onto those early memories because they shaped so much of what I know and love about Yemen, the things that make it both difficult and wonderful: the kindness of its people, at once welcoming and defiant; the harshness and beauty of its landscape; the nation’s divisions and challenges, its pride and potential. Those memories also remind me of how I hope and aspire to approach Yemen and the world, in large part following the example of my father, who even after several decades of travel and experience, is always curious, always ready to listen and learn. Fourteen years after my first trip to Yemen, I still learn something new about the country and its people everyday, and every day I strive to find new ways to share what I learn and to inspire in others the same fascination and love that drives my work.


[1] William Picard  founded the Yemen Peace Project (YPP) in 2010. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied the history, politics, and cultures of Southwest Asia. He has conducted extensive research on Yemen's 20th- and 21st-century conflicts, and on the rise of anti-state social movements.  Will directs the YPP’s day-to-day operations, manages the organization’s website and Twitter account, writes for the Blog, and hosts the Mafraj Radio podcast.

[2] Arabic, literally means “by God”, and its use is meant to emphasize honesty or the truth.