Culture

Resisting the War With the Written Word

Not everything in Yemen is war; in the city of Ta’izz, writers and poets encourage dialogue, understanding and unity through arts

Resisting the War with the Written Word

Ta’izz is a city dreamt up by writers. Its old quarters of brown-brick houses and whitewashed mosques, overlooked by Al-Qahira Castle, are all surrounded by a landscape of mocha coffee fields and mango and pomegranate orchards. Over centuries, this Yemeni city cropped up in many stories by renowned writers and poets, from Al-Iklil (The Wreath) by Nashwan bin Saeed Al Humery (written in the tenth century) to the more contemporary The Handsome Jew by Ali al-Muqri, which won the Arabic Booker Prize in 2011. 

Throughout history, Ta’izz produced a myriad of writers. Even the difficult years prior to the ‘Arab Spring’ and war in Yemen, many artists say, was a particularly bountiful period for the arts. New private gallery spaces opened, the publication of Yemeni novels increased as did the writing and production of contemporary Yemeni theater, and all-female artists emerged.

Ta’izz was the cultural capital of Yemen – a vibrant artistic and musical hub – until the civil war almost destroyed all the arts. 

Wedged between Sana’a, which is controlled by the Houthis, and the port city of Aden, controlled by the internationally recognized, UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), the Governorate of Ta’izz has been split in half since the civil war broke out in 2014. The front line between the two enemies runs literally through the city from east to west, and journeys across the frontline that once took 5 minutes now take 5 hours.

Cultural centers, cinemas, and art galleries were closed, and armed groups imposed strict censorship on cultural production, stifling freedom of expression and forcing artists, writers, and musicians to flee the city for safety.

Among the cultural victims of the war was the Ta’izz Theater Festival, the country’s most prominent theater festival held annually since 1982, which was forced to cease its activities in 2015. The office of the Union of Writers and Poets has also permanently closed after being looted in 2016.

Although the building of Al-Sa‘id Foundation for Science and Culture, one of the largest private cultural institutions in Yemen, has been recently restored, “the fire caused significant damage to the library, which housed over 300,000 books,” says Mokhtar Shaddad, a journalist and writer in Tai’zz.

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One of the gatherings of Meyun Literary Salon in Ta’izz, Yemen / Photos courtesy of Meyun Literary Salon

“The space given to cultural content is very narrow, and there is dwindling interest in reading and books,” adds Salah Al-Wasai, another writer and critic in Tai’zz. “The war has overshadowed everything. The discourse of war, the culture of war, and the tragic situation have pronounced cultural life clinically dead.”

But writer and journalist Sam El-Beheri was determined to reverse the damage. “If we can nurture an artist or an intellectual, we can save society from extremism,” he tells me when we meet in Ta’izz.

In 2021, he founded the non-profit Meyun Literary Salon in downtown Ta’izz that twice a month resuscitates the city’s arts scene from the lethargy of war in Yemen. It brings together about 40 female and male writers like Shaddad and Al-Wasai from diverse social backgrounds and even from other governorates in the country.

El-Beheri stepped in to fill a gap left by the closure of the more traditional arts institutions, and has been working painstakingly to create an environment that encourages dialogue and understanding and foster cultural unity in Ta’izz.

Sometimes they meet in the foothills of the colossal Jebel Sabir, Yemen’s highest mountain that affords panoramic views over Ta’izz. Despite the extreme disruption that war constantly confers, this location at more than 3,000 meters high (1.9 miles), sends a clear, symbolic message to the group: the sky’s the limit.

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Founder of Meyun Literary Salon, Sam El-Beheri / Photo courtesy of Meyun Literary Salon

The name of the initiative, Meyun Literary Salon, also is one of intention, and was carefully chosen.  Meyun is an island with ancient heritage sites dating back to the Ottoman era; it is strategically located between Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula on the Red Sea, and serves as a haven of inspiration. And the word “Salon” evokes the social and intellectual gatherings of the same name in early modern France that acted as incubators for the cultural development of the country. 

In this spirit, the Meyun Literary Salon organizes cultural activities, poetry readings, plays and other performances, and empowers members to express their ideas and opinions. The group further supports young talent by publishing the work of first-time authors, and creating a network of artists from across the country. 

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Sam Al-Beheiri’s journey began in a village in the Governorate of Ta’izz. When he was in elementary school, his father would bring home “The Little Intellectual,” a supplement of the Al-Jumhuriya newspaper in Ta’izz, “and I would devour every page,” he says.

But his main inspiration was Yemen’s most famous poet Abdallah Albardony (1929-1999) who lost his eyesight when he was a child, but went on to become a respected Arabic literature professor. Albardony advocated for democracy and women’s rights and also practiced law, specializing in arguing the cases of divorced women, earning himself the name “the divorcees’ lawyer.” His critical writing often landed him in jail.

Following in his footsteps, Al-Beheiri earned a law degree in 2018, but the instability in Yemen thwarted his dreams of practicing law. Undeterred, he pivoted to journalism, enrolling in the Faculty of Arts at Ta’izz University in 2019. “Journalism was my way of fighting back,” he says. “It was a means to document and resist the chaos around me.”

His foray into writing was not just academic. The same year, he began working with the Sama Foundation for Literature and Arts, contributing to various literary projects and publications. In 2021, he became the editor of the publication of the Journalism and Media department at Ta’izz University, with its opportunity, as he describes, “ to give voice to the voiceless.”

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Photo courtesy of Meyun Literary Salon, Ta’izz, Yemen

Al-Beheiri explains how the idea of the Salon came “as a desperate need for an oasis of greenery amid the desert of war.”  “I wanted to create a space where creativity could thrive despite the surrounding devastation,” he insists.

Over the years, the number of participants ballooned from just a handful to hundreds of people participating and attending events, and 11,000 followers on Facebook. The events launched by the Salon came both through word of mouth and through collaborations with the Yemeni Writers Union in other cities. 

“Seeing the enthusiasm and support from the community was overwhelming,” Al-Beheiri says. “It reinforced my belief in the power of collective effort.”

This expansion led to the development of special programs during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Most recently the Salon has launched the Ta’izz Reading Month, an initiative which encourages reading throughout the month of June by organizing panel discussions on books, poetry evenings and reading awards. 

The impact of the Salon has been profound, providing a much-needed outlet for creative expression. One of the Salon’s members, novelist and poet Salah Al-Warafi, claims that “The Meyun salon is crucial to protect the flame of culture and literature from extinction. It elevates the voice of reason and logic amidst the chaos.” 

“The salon enriches our cultural landscape, which has suffered so much due to the war,” adds Al-Wasai, supporting Al-Beheiri’s conception of the group as a haven for intellectuals, writers, and artists. 

Yet the road has not been easy. Meyun faces numerous challenges, including limited resources, constraints to the freedom of expression and the constant threat of violence. Producing arts without being labeled as serving the agenda of a particular conflict actor in the Yemen war has become extremely challenging, and renders the threat of violence especially palpable. “Finding safe meeting places was a struggle,” admits Al-Beheiri. “But our belief in the importance of our work kept us going. Our goal is to create a generation that values peace and love over hatred and destruction. The youth of Ta’izz need art and culture now more than ever,” he insists.

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One of the gatherings of Meyun Literary Salon in Ta’izz, Yemen (Translation from Arabic on the paper: “Alphabet for Peace” / Photo courtesy of Meyun Literary Salon

Amidst the ongoing economic hardship and violence, artistic and cultural creativity lifts the soul from the bitter reality. Art confronts extremist ideology, embodying values that are the antithesis of aggression and extremism. Over time, Meyun has helped guide youth away from extremism and war by giving young people in Yemen the opportunity to express themselves through arts.

Al-Beheiri’s work has extended beyond writing. He also oversees visual media projects to advocate for cultural preservation and support young talent in Ta’izz. He founded the “Be With Them” initiative, which collected and redistributed textbooks to students in need, easing the financial burden on families. “Education is a right, not a privilege,” he insists. “Especially in times of war.”

Shared by all members of Meyun, Al-Beheiri’s vision for a peaceful and culturally vibrant Yemen is deeply personal. “Culture is our path to peace,” he asserts. “It fosters creativity, tolerance, and respect.”

When asked about leaving Yemen, his response is poignant: “Leaving would be a betrayal. Our duty is to stay and fight for our homeland through culture and art.” His conviction resonates deeply with many in Ta’izz, who see him as an aspirational symbol of hope.

This article was produced in collaboration with Egab

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