Monday, 24 January 2011

The whole story from Yemen is not bad

Source: Yemen online, By M. Teresa Calkins-USA, 24/01/2011

Al Qaeda, terrorism or family and culture in Yemen. What makes a better read? No question about it, war and mayhem are what the media write about and what we want to read about, even if it is happening on the other side of the world from us.

But what if it isn’t the whole story, or even the greater part of the story? I don’t want our fighting men and women killed here or abroad and I want a safe and peaceful world like most people. But, I want the whole story.

I was working in Sana’a, Yemen, this past month and prior to leaving for this work trip, I was counseled long and hard by both family and friends about the dangers of going to Yemen, such a dangerous country. These warnings were offered, of course, based upon what everyone has read or viewed in the U.S. media. My perspective and my experiences remind me that good journalism covers the whole story.

The real story about the people who live, work, and cherish their culture, their religion, their homes and their families. Is all of that different? Yes, very different and very special. Yes, the media must also cover the bombings, the terrorist acts, and the radicalism being promoted, but where are the stories about the average Yemeni?

My two week work experience in Yemen does not an expert make. However, I have walked the streets of Sana’a and the outlying areas, alone, in the early mornings and at night with my backpack and camera. I only experienced smiles and welcoming comments from children, teens, and adults, all of whom tried out their English on me.

Few speak English, but almost everyone tried a few words as soon as they saw this grey haired older woman walking their streets. And everyone grinned and was very appreciative that I used my 40+ Arabic words on them. Many let me know that their country is, “safe” for people like me. And all wanted my visit and experience to be pleasant.

I visited the souk, or traditional market, several times. The last time, while in the company of an Egyptian co-trainer, I bought some stone beads. Well, I tried to buy them, but I had run out of Rials; so I asked for the owner’s business card so I could return the next day. “NO problem,” said the clerk, in English.

He offered to walk with me back to the hotel, wait while I exchanged US dollars for Rials and then walk the 15 minutes back to his shop. I might add, the clerk packaged the stones up and let me carry them. They were mine even though I hadn’t yet paid.

Yemenis are short people, on average, so I walked way ahead of this clerk, who was babbling rapidly in Arabic with my co-trainer, Hani. NO problem…the clerk met me in the lobby of my hotel, where he waited patiently until I had the money exchanged and in hand. Yes, I am a foreigner and he knew I was good for the money.

The level of customer service, consideration and kindness I experienced, just doesn’t make the pages of our newspapers. Crime is not accepted in Yemen, and in Sana’a, the nation’s capital, I am told that most of the homes do not have a lock on their front doors.

The women’s homes I did visit were not locked and these professional women did not have maids or men at home. It is difficult for a professional woman to find a Yemeni man who will permit their working. While women are not equal to men in so many ways in this culture, women are respected.

Several people, Yemenis and Egyptians, told me of kidnappings which occurred in the north of Yemen where there are issues with safety due to terrorism. Women who were kidnapped were immediately let go. And terrorism is NOT acceptable to these people…terrorists’ photos are on the gates, pasted for all to see and this is discussed openly as a horrible economic, political, religious and cultural violation.

This past Sunday, the TV program, 60 Minutes, focused on Yemen, showing video of Sana’a. Their creative editing painted a picture different than my daily experience in the capital city. Their shots of Bab Al-Yemen, the entrance gate to the local souk, appeared outdated at best and inaccurate at the worst.

They told the story their viewers expect to see and hear, not the whole story. The journalists did not shoot or mention the posters hung prominently and updated daily, offering huge rewards for information leading to the death or capture of these terrorists.

Like in our country, there is much wrong in Yemen. My message…don’t believe everything you read or hear. Like our families, the families in Yemen want a good life: a better life for their children and they want people to visit their country and not be afraid. Yemenis want us to visit and enjoy their food, their culture and their hospitality…and we should. Ask for and demand the whole story.

Will I return? Yes, next month to again work with the Yemeni media who are very interested to learn how to make their media business a profitable and credible one. I would contend, honesty makes a credible company and that means telling the whole story.

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