The self-authored bio on Yumna Al Arashi’s website reads: “I am a photographer, writer, filmmaker and human being.” I remember feeling struck by the inclusion of that final category, and wondered what had occasioned its inclusion. Surely Al Arashi’s status as a member of the human species was plainly visible and uncontroversial, I thought, not least to her colleagues, clients, and forty-two-thousand-strong Instagram fanbase. The earnest, searching character of her work, much of it portraiture that explores the euphoria of the unclothed body, also was not suggestive of one who went in for rhetorical gimmicks. It was not until I stumbled upon her 2016 photo series Northern Yemen that I realized her self-description might be a defensive, preemptive response to intimations of the contrary—that Al Arashi, a young Yemeni-American, may well have witnessed her share of dehumanizing experiences.
Such dehumanization is too ubiquitous, in our day and age, not to be either witnessed or produced firsthand by anyone with a pulse and an Internet connection. For all the diversity in media outlets, platforms for self-expression, and anti-discrimination laws that have burgeoned in our lifetime, we continue, as human beings, to traffic in reductionist categories, tropes, and narratives that eviscerate complexity. Among those most aggressively dehumanized is the enigmatic figure of the Arab Muslim woman. It is she who stands, hovers, and blithely asserts her unspectacular personhood in Al Arashi’s Northern Yemen series.
‘Northern Yemen’ names a place that has become notorious as the political stronghold of the Houthis, an aggrieved separatist faction, and as the backdrop of a war that has left over two million displaced, twenty-two million in need of assistance, and eight million threatened by famine. It is as battlefield, then, that the place-name Northern Yemen has come to be understood. While sharing its grammatical function with such toponyms as Northern Wales, South Korea and Tuscaloosa, however, Northern Yemen does not quite encapsulate the possibilities of place that its counterparts call to mind—as home, unremarkable destination, or setting for one’s first illicitly driven car.
It is this reality that Yumna seeks to challenge. In the most striking of her portraits, several featuring a woman almost entirely obscured by a black abaya and burqa, Al Arashi’s model stands in the middle of a winding road, awkwardly tilted in the manner of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The posture is reminiscent of a sudden apparition in a cartoon—a frightening but friendly ghoul, perhaps, popping up to squeal, “Hi, it’s me!”. The stark contrast of a seemingly two-dimensional black figure against a contoured mountainous landscape of high-saturation cyans and magentas also echoes the aesthetic of lo-fi tourist advertisements in which the same cut-and-pasted stewardess cheerfully presents, hand in air, every corner of the globe represented by her airline. Al Arashi’s ghost is not only a friendly one, then, but welcoming, too, politely requesting that her viewers pay no heed to the eventuality of a Houthi rocket-launching some five miles to the north of her home. Enjoy the ride, she appears to be saying.
Whoever Al Arashi’s subject may be, she is not the cowering, weather-beaten victim of institutionalized misogyny that the mainstream media, however well-meaning, frequently make her out to be, even if her country’s alarming rates of child marriage and less than satisfactory legal protection for daughters and wives occasionally rob her of sleep. The women of Northern Yemen, like their counterparts in Northern Wales, have their share of patriarchal woes to deal with, but the burden neither defines nor delimits them. They are human beings: sometimes brooding, sometimes playful. Their choice of dress – or indeed lack thereof – does not impinge upon their affinity for flaunting their sleek black fabric in photo-ops. For all their facelessness, the female subjects in Al Arashi’s series exhibit a familiar but endearing sense of vanity, translating the self-assurance of folded arms and pouting lips into pillar-rigid posture and a serenity that is only accentuated by the severe setting.
Al Arashi’s photographs, as mesmerizing in their repetition of silhouetted motifs as they are mundane, insist that Yemen is, first and foremost, a human place populated by human beings. That revelation proves to be as tantalizing a headline as any.