“Through its messages, art is strengthening the principles of steadfastness and resistance at home, in the Yemeni citizens, and also abroad.”
An Interview with Yemeni Artist Ahmed Jahaf
Interview & translation from Arabic by Azza Rojbi
Fire This Time: Thank you, Ahmed, for taking the time for this interview with Fire This Time. You are living with your family in Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a, under constant brutal bombing by the Saudi-led coalition. Can you describe a bit daily life under the bombardment in Sana’a?
Ahmed Jahaf: About daily life in Sana'a under bombing. After more than four years living under raids, under shelling, under siege, it has become a normal thing for Yemeni citizens, for me, for adults in general. Hearing the sound of aircraft, hearing the sound of air raids became normal for us, we only worry about children when they hear these sounds, we fear how these sounds will affect the children even if it seems to be coming from an area far away. As for us adults, it became very, very ordinary. Sometimes, when a few days pass by and we do not hear the sound of the planes, we are surprised and find it strange. Imagine the situation, more than four years, if a day passes without hearing the sound of an air raid, then we hear the sound of planes flying over.
Today, for example, there were air raids on Sana’a airport. In the morning and while people were sleeping in Ramadan, it was normal, we got up to the sounds and then I asked in my house “I think I heard the sound of an air raid, I think I heard the sound of flying”, someone said “yes they dropped bombs in the north of the capital Sana'a”. It has become a normal thing to live under air raids, unfortunately. We say unfortunately that it has become such a normal thing, that sometimes even when we hear the sound of air raid and an explosion and realize that it was in a residential area, we take our phones and camera and go to the area targeted even though it is dangerous because during the last four years, fighter jets deliberately returned to bomb the same place again.
This is life under constant air raids. As you may know 14 days ago there were several air raids in the capital Sana'a, one of which targeted the Ministry of Information which is right next to my house. Part of my house was affected, it was a raid on the ministry building and a raid that targeted a densely populated residential area, an area where a lot of people live.
They targeted the president of the Yemeni Media Union, Professor Abdullah al-Sabri, a Yemeni journalist, they bombed his house. At that time, six people from the building where he lives were killed, one of whom was his son. Four days after, his other son died succumbing to his wounds and this morning we attended the funeral of the mother of Professor Abdullah al-Sabri. Yesterday she martyred also succumbing to her wounds because of the coalition’s air raidS.
FTT: How do people manage their daily life considering the lack of supply of basic necessities like food, medicine, gas and oil because of the Saudi-led coalition blockading Yemen by air, land and sea?
Ahmed: The way of life for the Yemeni citizen has become very, very difficult. Especially now, for example, in the month of Ramadan, with prices in the markets very high because of the blockade, because of the shortages in oil and its derivatives, especially in the past few days, there is a crisis of oil. Gas makes it to the neighbourhoods but there is always long lines and distribution is restricted, I need to have a card to get gas. It means that I get one gas cylinder only once every period with these cards distributed to the neighbourhoods. Life has become very difficult. We spend all our time looking for basic life necessities. We spend hours searching for either oil, electricity, solar energy, gas, any way to provide for our basic necessities, a life that is difficult in Sana’a, in rural areas it is even more difficult.
All of these shortages are caused by the blockade. The air blockade caused a major crisis because of the closure of the airport in Sana’a. In recent days flights from Aden airport have been blocked. As you know, travelling from Sana’a to Aden is not easy nor safe. Many patients cannot afford to travel to Aden, endure all that hardship to get there and then be prevented from flying. Most people do not leave here except for emergency situation such as sickness or for studies and education opportunities, basically, all of them are citizens who need to travel. They are prevented from doing so because of the air blockade.
Because of the sea blockade, there is a crisis of a shortage of oil. Seven oil tankers have been held by the coalition for more than two months. They let a ship enter once every so often after a major crisis and shortages are deeply felts in the streets. The land blockade has also caused a lack of products and caused high prices. Now when goods from abroad or from China are imported, for example, we pay ten times more because of transportation costs. All of this because of the coalition’s blockade on our country.
FTT: Lately, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi complained to the UN that the UN special envoy in Hodeidah is siding with Houthis against Hadi’s mercenary forces, can you tell us what is happening in Hodeidah?
Ahmed: As far as Hodeidah is concerned, it is strange that Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his side are complaining about the UN envoy. Well, what happened during the last period is that the Sana'a side, or what some call, the Houthis have taken unilateral action to deliver a message that they are reaching their hands towards peace. They handed over the port, three ports in Hodeidah, according to the Swedish agreement, and they handed it over, waiting for the Hadi side to implement what was agreed upon in the Swedish agreements.
After this, the UN envoy commented positively about the Sana'a side because they took this important step. Unfortunately, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the coalition supporting him did not like such a move. So, what do they want? What do they want? We have taken unilateral action for peace and there is a neutral party monitoring this. Well actually for me I do not consider the United Nations neutral, I kind of consider the United Nations to be standing in the side of the coalition’s forces. It is strange that Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his people complain about the UN envoy only because he praised the positive step taken by the Sana'a side while they are still waiting for the Hadi to take it's agreed on the step. They want the United Nations envoy to be a soldier with them, a soldier who only receives their orders. The reality is that he is with them, in many examples he does not speak the truth. For example, the last United Nations statement issued by the UN coordinator in Sana'a was very weak. When you speak about regrets about the deaths of Yemeni civilians because of an explosion, as it was in the text of the statement, because of an explosion! What explosion? By whom? And then they say we also regret the killing of such and such citizen in Taiz because of an explosion at a station. Explosion? It was an air raid, and we all know who is guilty of this bombardment. Why not condemning real criminals? why describing these attacks so vaguely and anonymously? It is clear to us who is responsible for these explosions and killing, it is directed by the coalition’s bombardment campaign.
FTT: You are a very talented graphic designer and artist and you have been using your talent and art to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the atrocities committed by the U.S. backed Saudi-led coalition on your country. How do you see your art as an act of defiance and resistance?
Ahmed: In talking about art and graphics, I first want to send a special thanks to you personally. Because more than once I see pictures and videos of you holding these images, and this makes me very, very happy and I am honoured by this.
Regarding this message, the message of art, in the beginning, some, especially in Sana’a, were unfortunately uninterested in this aspect of art in many ways, not only in the field of graphic design, for example, even in caricatures, drawing. In the early years of the war, I was trying to create an exhibition or a similar art project about the war, I was looking for colleagues in this area but nothing, I asked about the names of artists but they all prefer to stay neutral, as if it is something that does not concern them, and this was sad to see.
But at the end of the third year of the war, local newspapers, some TV channels started supporting some of the artists, to highlight their talent and guide it in the right direction, in the direction of conveying a message that reflects what is happening in our country. You should not be neutral about what is happening, we do not ask you to stand with a particulars side, all you should do is to talk about the situation, talk about the tragedy, talk about famine, talk about the raids that target civilians, talk about cholera, talk about the blockade. No one is asking you to take a position with one side, all you should do is to stand with yourself and your compatriots, to stand for what is happening in your neighbourhood, this is what is required from us both in art and non-art.
As I just said, the people in Sana'a, the government in Sana'a, have begun to pay more attention to the importance of art. The Ministry of Culture began to take an interest in this field, whether it was painting, whether it was music or songs. Through its messages, art is strengthening the principles of steadfastness and resistance at home, in the Yemeni citizens, and also abroad. Abroad, it was very important to use art to communicate what is happening in Yemen. Art is a message or a language comprehended by everyone around the world, it is a unified language that everyone can understand.
FTT: Your voice has been very important in breaking the media blackout about the war on Yemen. Your art and designs have reached an international audience and some of your designs have been used as posters in different antiwar actions against the war on Yemen around the world. What is the message you want to convey through your art to people of the world?
Ahmed: The message I want to convey through my graphics and designs since day one of the start of this aggression until today is breaking the media siege about what is happening in Yemen. It is true that I used to call it the forgotten war. Because of some changes in foreign policy, I do not claim that they had a change of heart and now suddenly they are all talking for a just cause, no the reality is some that variables have changed, and some started talking about the Yemen issue because it was in their own interests. This is a positive thing, to bring up the Yemen issue for us is something positive even if they have other goals. Then I began to see that the Yemen war is not forgotten, it is mentioned from time to time in the media and in social media sites.
For me, my goal was from the beginning to use art, to use graphics, to use designs to convey what was happening in my country in an unusual way. I mean, there are some people that are distressed by the publication bloody and horrific scenes from the war, so when these scenes are expressed with graphics and cartoons, it is lighter and easier for being shared among people, among activists, among journalists, in the media, in the newspapers. In some way, it is not as painful to see as bloody horrific outrageous images. Through these drawings and graphics, you can sometimes convey a message that can be stronger than the real images and reach a broader audience.
My message also is that everyone can resist in their own way. There is the soldier resisting with his weapon, there is the journalist with a microphone or his voice or his pen, the painter resists with his brush, the farmer is planting his land. Every human being can resist, resist occupation, resist this coalition, resist this aggression on our country. Even the student is resisting by his studying and learning. And that is how we direct our work in a just way.
FTT: What do you think people in the U.S., Canada and around the world can do to help the people of Yemen and stop the war and bombing in Yemen?
Ahmed: There are many activists in the United States, in Britain, in Canada, in France who have been with Yemen since the first day of the war and we thank them, we cannot even express the depth of our thanks and pride. These are a few, but they have managed to send a message to their governments, to organizations in their home country, about what is happening in Yemen. Many activists and organizations have stood against arms deals that supply Saudi Arabia or the UAE with weapons to kill the Yemeni people. Activists that I can count with my fingers have managed to break the silence, to break the media silence, to do what perhaps hundreds couldn’t do. We thank them and wish from them more and more. They are standing with the oppressed, with the Yemeni child, with the Yemeni woman, with the Yemeni citizen, who has been under attack by more than ten countries.
There are countries that are directly involved in the war and other countries indirectly benefiting from what is happening in Yemen in arms deals, logistical support, oil transactions. There are many who are profiting on the blood of Yemenis and there are also heroes abroad who are standing up against this war with demonstrations, rallies, continuous condemnation to denounce their government's support for these atrocities. A big thank to all of those and a special thank to you my dear, thank you from all Yemenis and we wish you more success. Thanks.
FTT: Thank you very much Ahmed for your time. We will support your struggle for freedom and peace.