Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Atlantic Council: Nabeel Khoury in conversation with Afrah Nasser

I had the pleasure of having a conversation with prolific writer, dr. Nabeel A. Khoury at the Atlantic Council in DC last month, during my trip with Committee to Protect Journalists in the U.S. on Yemen, activism and social media. I'd like to stress on my last point; Despite how the internet is a neutral tool, never underestimate the equalization effect it has if you have something meaningful to add to the table.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'From tree to cup': A Yemeni entrepreneur's coffee dream is brewing

Hussein Ahmed , CEO of Mocha Hunters, aims to make high-quality Yemeni coffee
and export it to overseas markets (Photo courtesy of Mocha Hunters).

Hussein Ahmed has been CEO of Mocha Hunters in war-ravaged Yemen for over a year. His goal is to make high-quality Yemeni coffee and export it to overseas markets. This sounds like an impossible task considering the Saudi-led coalition's blockade, but Ahmed has already started to sow the seeds of his endeavours.

“I don’t find my passion unusual. Yemeni coffee is Yemen’s national treasure and that should be any Yemeni’s concern: to pursue fostering this plant no matter what it takes.”

Hussein Ahmed fell in love with coffee as a child, when he would visit coffee
farmers with his father (Photo courtesy of Mocha Hunters).

Yemeni beans are regaining popularity as some of the best in the world. The earliest cultivation of coffee was in Yemen, where it was given the Arabic name qahwa, from which the English words coffee and cafe both derive.

In the 1400s, the first coffee shipments began from Mocha port on Yemen’s Red sea coast, which was named after the tasty variety of coffee bean. The port became the centre of the world’s coffee trade. Coffee was especially favoured by the Sufis in Yemen who drank it to help them concentrate and stay alert, even during their rituals.
Yemeni beans are regaining popularity as some of the best in the world (Photo courtesy of Mocha Hunters).

According to Ahmed, the chocolatey bean includes four varieties - udaini, burai, tofahi and dawairi - which grow at a high altitude in a dry climate, tended to by farmers with vast experience who have been cultivating the beans for centuries.

The 37-year-old's journey in developing Yemeni coffee stems from having been immersed in coffee farming since childhood. Ahmed, who was born and brought up in Sanaa, had many relatives and family friends who owned coffee farms around the capital. As a child, his father would usually take him to visit them and that’s when he started to fall in love with coffee.

Yemeni farmers have vast experience in coffee cultivation as they have been doing it for
centuries (Photo courtesy of Mocha Hunters)

Covering Yemen: Saleh, Saudi and the media - The Listening Post

Dec. 9th - I co-commented last Saturday on "media coverage and Yemen war" segment on The Listening Post program of Al Jazeera English.

Between Despair and Hope: a Yemeni Entrepreneur’s Story in Sana’a

Saeed Alfagieh, 27, founded “Ana Mehani” in Sana’a end 2015,
after winning the first place at a 2014 entrepreneurship contest.

*While the surrealistic and tragic events in Yemen spin us all around, I need to take a moment to tell one story, just one personal story, from Sana’a, about defiance-pain-and-more-pain-despair-and-resilience (yes, just like that, in that order, all linked in a row, because that’s how my family and friends I talk to in Sana’a feel).

* * * *

When Forbes did a few months ago a feature on this inspiring young Yemeni man, Saeed Alfagieh, I believed I had my new hero. Despite a great deal of obstacles, Saeed developed his company “Ana Mehani” midst of the raging war in Sana’a, earning a name among the 100 best Arab startups for 2017 by World Economic Forum.

Saeed Alfagieh, 27, founded “Ana Mehani” in Sana’a end 2015, after winning the first place at a 2014 entrepreneurship contest and obtaining a financial support. Ana Mehani is an off-and-online social labor and marketplace platform that aims to generate jobs opportunities while the country is suffering from about 80% unemployment rate. So far, it covers 6 Yemeni governorates, including Sana’a - it receives daily more than 300 applications and has created more than 40,000 job opportunities.

One of Ana Mehani’s old videos interviewing workers benefiting from their services:

I contacted Saeed once the Forbes feature was published to tell him how he was a hero to me. He told me about the horrific environment he and his team operate in. He had lost many friends under the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Sana’a and yet he refused to give in to despair.

Saeed explained to me how Ana Mehani had to shift its focus and meet the war-related jobs demands; for example, whenever some people’s homes were partially damaged by the shelling, airstrikes and other war-related violence, or whenever some displaced people needed transportation and delivery for their belongings - his team stepped in and linked them with vetted community-based workers. Schools, houses and organizations buildings impacted by the air-strikes all found his services to be a necessity.

With about 10 members, Ana Mehani team aims to find job opportunities midst of the raging war in Yemen.

I wanted to write about Saeed from my own perspective, other than Forbes’ one, so I pitched to my editors. I had an initial green light from my editor at Al Jazeera English. So I wrote the piece. I sent it. My editor kept me waiting for about a month with no feedback. Then, I received a reply of an apology about not publishing the piece. The reply also included a note of how they prefer stories only from “the ground.”

I swallowed my frustration. And I tried to vent and tweet about it:

Months passed by. Saleh was killed on Monday and the capital, Sana’a continues to be engulfed in flames. The fierce fighting between Houthi forces and pro-Saleh forces is destroying all aspect of life in Sana’a. After calling my mother, relatives and friends in Sana’a to check on them, I was thinking last night of Saeed. So I called.

Saeed greeted me with a tired voice.

“We are hanging on. We are working from home now as our office is right at where the clashes happen and I assume it became destroyed,” tells me Saeed, “no doubt, the current situation is not a reasonable working environment, although there are still high demands for jobs and services.”

Saeed voice becomes more tired when he tells me how he lost many international opportunities, in attending conferences and networks abroad. The blockade imposed on entry points to Yemen has crushed his dreams of enhancing his network and skills. “It kills my soul not being able to realize my dreams,” says Saeed.

We pose for seconds as if we mourn. In a helpless attempt to fill the silence, I ask Saeed, “which period was more difficult to deal with, business-wise? During the Saleh/Houthi vs. Hadi/Saudi fronts or during today’s events?”

“My team and I have a strong will to cope with whatever happens. We can see that there are increasing demands for our work, as the war rages on. However, today, the skyrocketing fuel prices are killing us and the Yemeni money exchange rate to dollars has jumped to 442 YR. This is leading us to … I don’t even have a word for it.”

“Are you still hopeful about the future,” I ask Saeed. “I have to be hopeful because I am alive - and I can’t wait for things to stabilize a little bit so we could scale up our work,” he replies.

*This piece was originally published on the Huffingtonpost on the 8th of Dec. 2017.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Chasing Yemen-Stories

Hello from Cairo!

As I mentioned in my commentary on the Listening Post show, if Yemen story used to be a complicated one, today, it’s absolutely way, way more complicated than ever before. No question that the aftermath of Saleh’s death has a lot to do with that complexity.

While living in Sweden over the past 6 years and a half, the dream of going back to Yemen never ceased to haunt me. I went to Sweden for a two-weeks-long study trip mid-2011, believing that I’d be back to Sana’a, my hometown right away. I didn’t even know where was Sweden located on the map. My only connection to Sweden when I was a kid in Yemen was when my mother used to say whenever she would find good woodish stuff and say, “this is great furniture, it must have come from Sweden.” Now, I know, she must have meant IKEA stuff.


Sweden was a coincidence for me. During my first week in Stockholm in 2011, violence erupted in Sana’a. Airports were shut down. Already, I have been receiving death threats against me and my family for my anti-regime writings with the start of the Uprising. I wanted to go back but my family, out of love and protection, asked me to stop writing if I’d ever go back. And I thought; “to stop writing would be like to stop breathing.” Hence, Sweden was my shelter.

In the following four years, I’d live as a political refugee in Sweden. All this time I was only thinking of the day I’d have the Swedish passport and be able to go back to Yemen or at least visit. But as the country has been in an endless violent rollercoaster, I had to wait, wait and wait. Despite the distance, I managed to continue reporting with a gradually increasing focus on international actors’ role in political events in Yemen. Then, in March 2015, the Saudi-led airstrikes military operation began and I was about to have two major events in my personal life: I was writing my MA dissertation to graduate during summer and I was applying for the Swedish passport.

Seeing Yemen from afar being bombard was so painful that I was so slow in writing my dissertation and I only managed to graduate by August that year. Ironically, my application for the Swedish passport went very quickly. In June 2015, I became a Swedish citizen and I realized I could travel anywhere I want but not Yemen - because of the war and the fact that having a foreign passport will make it impossible to enter the country. I was extremely depressed for awhile.

As I started experiencing living in Sweden by a choice, I no longer saw Sweden from eyes tainted by displacemnt, trauma and pain. I was in the healing process. Nothing I regret living in Sweden - except the horrible dates I had with some Swedish guys and living my first one year without taking vitamine d. Overall, Sweden has been so good to me … but now it’s time to fly away - maybe - for awhile or for good.

When the Committee to Protect Journalists called me end of May this year, announcing that I was awarded the International Press Freedom Award, I made the decision to move from Sweden to somewhere in the Middle East. Why? CPJ has put me in a beautiful trouble. CPJ told me that this year of all the countries in the MENA region, they picked Yemen to bring more attention to it. And I take that so seriously. And I want to bring world’s attention on events in Yemen as much as I could.

Having said that:

I am today in Cairo for sometime, weeks, months, years - can’t confirm. It depends on many things which I’ll save explaining in other blog posts.

For now, I am in Cairo to be closer to Yemen and be part of the growing, forced-to-be-so, Yemeni diaspora community in Egypt - many of them are Yemeni activists, journalists and politicians. Despite the new political reality in Egypt, Cairo has been for many decades a crucial hub for events influencing Yemen.

My plan is to report from here as much as possible whether through Sana’a Review or/and the different media outlets I work with as a freelancer. My aim is to understand, analyze and write as Yemen’s new modern history is unfolding dramatically before our eyes.

As atrocities are committed across Yemen by all warring sides, instead of weeping, I will use my peaceful resistance tool and fight through writing.