Robert Worth on Yemen in the New York Times
My colleague Chris Stone wrote this to the New York Times Magazine but doubts it will be published. He permitted me to post here:
"Here is a letter a wrote to the NYT about Worth's recent Yemen piece: I'm sure they won't publish the letter because it is too long. Please feel free to post it to your blog if you feel it would be appropriate...
It has been about 20 years since I left Yemen after spending more that 2 years there as a Peace Corps volunteer. I have, unfortunately, not been back since, which means that there is much in Robert Worth's 7/11 NYT Magazine article on Yemen that I am in no position to dispute. What I can say with a great deal of certainty, however, is that he is wrong when he says that the old city of Sana "was the entire city until a few decades ago, its high walls locked every evening at dusk." In the late 1980s Sana was already a booming metropolis, its old city, while very much inhabited, already a bit of a museum. Robert Worth perpetuates the myth of Yemen as some kind of medieval land, only recently joining modernity. A little research in his own paper's archives might have set him straight. Annie Dillard, writing in the NYT magazine about North Yemen in 1986 talks of being bored in Rome "solely because I'd so recently seen Yemen, where the people were so civilized and the cities so beautiful." This construction of Yemen as a backwater is not random, nor is the comparison to Afghanistan in the article's title. It is much easier to attack the "uncivilized." If the roads have yet to be paved, what's the big deal.
The other clichÃƒÂ© that Worth perpetuates is that the plant "khat" (actually pronounced more like "qat") is a "narcotic" or an "opiate." It is nothing of the sort. This mistake is puzzling since by his own admission he spent "day after day" at qat chewing sessions. The consumption of this substance, according to Worth, causes, among other things "Taxi drivers [to] get lost and drive in circles, babbling into their cellphones." The drug, as those who have consumed it or studied it know, is a stimulant. Like extremely strong coffee, it actually aids one remain alert and awake. It is for this reason that high school and college students in Yemen cannot study without it. If Worth is so wrong about such details, how much of what else he writes can we trust? Again, reference to his own paper could have helped him here, both on the word's proper pronunciation and its effect:
Well, at least he/the Times doesn't repeat the old "Yemen is the ancestral home of Ossama bin Laden" canard. Not so fast: in the slide show accompanying the piece Bin Laden's "ancestral" home is mentioned repeatedly. If Bin Laden's Yemeni roots have anything to do with his salafist interpretation of Islam, it is not because such a form of Islam is endemic to Yemen. What I saw with my own eyes in Yemen in the late 80s was the radicalization of Yemen students under the influence of foreign (mostly Egyptian) school teachers funded by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This was happening about 80 years after Bin Laden's father had migrated from Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Blaming Yemen for Bin Laden's politics is as absurd as blaming Cincinnati for the horrific acts Charles Manson committed.
July 13, 2010