“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home,” Edward Said, in “Reflections on the Exile”
When we think of migration in Yemen, the most familiar model is that of the male breadwinner who leaves the country to earn an income for his family. This economic migration, so common in the Middle East, leads to a sense of loss and longing for the homeland, known as ghorba in Arabic. For those Yemenis who leave for political reasons, this sense of ghorba is never ending, as return to the homeland is often impossible. Adding to this disconnect, political migrants often cannot speak publicly about their experience for fear of compromising their safety or revealing their whereabouts. Many of these political asylees have fled attempted revenge killing, a tribal practice linked to honors.
Edward Said offers an empowering perspective on the state of exile, including that experienced by those who have left their homes for political reasons. For Said, the refugee is able to critique his homeland in a deeper way as compared to his compatriots inside the country. At the same time, unlike most outsiders, the refugee does not fall victim to the pitfalls of orientalism. In essence, the exile exists between the subjective and the objective, between the speaker and the subject, between culture and imperialism.
The story of Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni woman and refugee, provides an interesting study on the phenomena of political exiles. Unlike most political refugees Afrah’s story has been the subject of public discussion and debate, raising important questions about the nature and import of migration.
Afrah is a blogger, journalist and activist who sought asylum because of her participation in Yemen’s ongoing revolution. Her blog is listed on CNN’s top 10 must read blogs from the Middle East. She studied at the University of Sana’a where she says her “humanitarian consciousness” was born. After graduation she worked at the Yemen Observer where she became aware of her “potential to contribute. Contribution equals action.”
In the following interview, Afrah reflects on migration, how its patterns and nature have changed over the years, and discusses her participation in the Yemeni Revolution:
AS: I understand, that before seeking asylum, you had travelled abroad to Europe, Asia and elsewhere. What were your trips like?
AN: Moving abroad was not really on my agenda before the revolution. I had travelled to various places like Switzerland and Denmark before but was not planning to leave my country. In Yemen, people often used to ask me if I planned to come back and I assumed that I would. When I arrived at my destinations people were always shocked to see a modern Yemeni woman and to be able to speak to her in English. I felt like a bridge to Yemen, I still feel like that.
AS: Tell me about your involvement in the revolution.
AN: The revolution had consumed our everyday lives so what else could I do but write about? My blog was in my name. Family, friends, and strangers warned me to stay away from the revolution. I was so driven I didn’t care about the consequences…. So many were dying. What did it matter if one more life was lost? I had to struggle with my family to be able to stay out at the protest sites past curfew. As a result, there was a double revolution, the one outside the house and the one inside.
AS: Why did you start getting involved in the protests? What drew you to them?
AN: I’ve always wanted drastic change for Yemen. I didn’t know how that would happen until the uprising. Like every other revolutionary, I wanted to topple the regime. Having governed the country for over three decades, Saleh had not intention of giving up the reigns of power and had planned to transfer the presidency to his son. In light of these realities, the only solution was revolution. On top of this, Yemen had deep social and economic problems. It was time for change.
AS: What about the women protestors? Can you describe some of the different views they held on the regime and on the culture of demonstrations?
AN: The women I spoke with were absolutely fed up with the problems their husbands and sons had with the current regime. For instance, one woman told me, “my husband has always faced problems with government officials bothering him about his business. They managed to steal his money and now we are broke. ”
AS: During the protests, you witnessed violence I believe. Was this your first time? How did you feel?
AN: It was indeed my first time to experience such events. It was really intense. There were soldiers everywhere. It felt like walking through a war. It was unreal and made me determined to continue protesting and blogging.
AS: Tell me about the trip that eventually led you to Sweden.
AN: In May 2011, I was invited to Denmark and Sweden. The invitation to Denmark was for a conference on cyber activism – I was invited to talk on a panel of female bloggers from the Middle East. The invitation to Sweden was for a two-week program called “Young Leaders Visitors Program” at the Swedish Institute in Stockholm .
Before leaving, I had received many threats via text message, facebook and email. The facebook messages were from people whose profile pictures had pro-regime slogans on them.
One text message I received read, “there will be a price for your meddling,” and concerned my mother and sister
In Yemen, Blogging became a matter of life and death. For instance, one prominent independent blogger and journalist, Abdel Elah Shaye, was arrested & sentenced to five years in jail for his investigation into anti-government journalism approximately one year earlier. I’ve always thought of the troubles blogging brings.
There was constant news that a lot of independent journalists were being harassed and attacked in Yemen. Security forces stopped many journalists and activists at the airports, as they were en route to regional or international conferences.
After many demonstrations, I felt as if I were being followed. When I was leaving for the airport friends told me to be careful as I might not be allowed to leave the country. Luckily I was able to leave.
After the ‘Al Hasabah battle,’ things in Yemen took a turn for the worse. I was in Stockholm, but my heart and my head were in Yemen. I was glued to my laptop, reading and watching news about my country.
More threats came: “I swear to God Afrah, if you mention the word irhal (the term used to demand that President Saleh step down) again you will be killed.”
I began to wonder if blogging was a blessing or a curse. I matured a great deal in those few days. Five days before my visa would expire Sana’a airport was shut down and the city became a battle zone. Friends and family back home told me ‘It’s like Afghanistan right now’.
Friends in Stockholm told me that I had two options either to extend my visa or to seek asylum. I chose the latter and it was granted.
AS: How have your views on migration changed as a result of your experience?
AN: The bedouin used to travel. Migration is embedded in the history of Yemen. I used to think of migration just as a desire for something. It became about the process rather than the product.
AS: What has your experience been like as an immigrant in Sweden?
AN: I have so much to thank Sweden for, its hospitality and kindness. Personally, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. I am neither Yemeni nor Swedish. There’s this anxiety about what I should do next. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people to feel so disconnected like this. I often feel like a small child trying to find her way around.
The decision to come here has meant sacrificing a lot. I had a scholarship to do a Master’s degree in the UK, but now I will not be able to take it.
As Afrah’s story demonstrates, migration is just as much about where you are as what you have left behind. In Afrah’s words, “migration is also about seeking a better future. But it is not about forgetting where you come from.” Through her blogging, Afrah still tries to participate in the revolution and to stay connected to Yemen. Nevertheless, one cannot help but sense the ghorba she has already begun to feel.