Based on recent coverage in the media, one might conclude life in Yemen to be similar to that on Tatooine. Somewhere under two setting suns, Tusken Raiders fashion explosive cod pieces while their banthas graze on desert brush. That seems to be only partially true, as Sandy Choi pulls back the shroud in her photo essay for Foreign Policy magazine. You can picture Yemen in motion with the videos of singers Ayoob Tarish and Arwa, a virtual A-to-A of the Yemeni music scene.
“Yemen’s Bulbul,” Ayoob Tarish Absi, lives up to his songbird nickname. A poet, singer, and master of the oud, Absi penned the national anthems for the Democratic Republic of Yemen and the unified Republic of Yemen. In the 1990s Absi sung, “Come back to your land, it’s crying for you,” and Yemenis dispersed throughout the Arab world heeded his call. His drummers accompany him via TV in this mildly surreal video, which features dude looking more than a little like Richard Pryor.
Yemen was once a rich, spice port ruled by a rack of empires, including the Sabaeans, the Ottomans, and a century of the British (they repelled a Roman assault). The Brits’ closing of the Suez Canal in 1967 eliminated Yemen’s seafaring trade economy, leaving it to cling to a trickle of oil and few natural resources. Yemen now has a 40% unemployment rate, exponential population growth, and a capital, Sana’a, likely to be the world’s first to run out of water. Its culture incorporates the Bedouins in the east, the Saudis past a growing, uninhabitable desert, and Somalis coming from just beyond its hundreds of islands.
Though Arabi singer Arwa was born and raised in Kuwait, the bad luck of her native Yemen finds her in the video for her single “Eineik (Your Eyes).” When a pack of M-16 toting robbers interrupts girls’ night out at the big box store, we witness Arwa fall victim to an instant case of Stockholm Syndrome. She’s zapped when she again crosses paths with the man who stole her heart, now unmasked, at the club. Arwa’s third run-in with this gangster of love, doing doughnuts in a stolen Ferrari, is too much to bear - she hops in the car just before the police arrive. Girl, are you crazy?! He’s clearly no good for you! Thus, Arwa delivers not only a good pop tune, but a metaphor for Yemen’s seduction by the bad boy next door.