Yemen's Revolutionaries The Tent-Dwellers of Sana'a

While President Salih licks his wounds abroad, Yemen's protest movement is establishing its presence in the capital city, hoping to bridge the country's divide. The revolutionaries -- for now -- live in tents.


What started as a sit-in has turned into an experment in democratic society. In the last four months, between 3,000 and 4,000 tents have been pitched in the streets of the university district in the Yemeni capital Sana'a. The tent city includes pharmacies and a makeshift hospital, four daily newspapers, auditoriums, a garden and hastily constructed cement memorials for the martyrs.

It is a city of citizens, a taste of what Yemen could become, a concrete utopia made of tarps, pallets, satellite dishes and a hodgepodge of power cables the protesters have audaciously connected to the grid in the ancient city. There is a "diplomats' tent" and a tent for actors; there are daily poetry readings and demonstrations; there is even a prison.

The prison is a bone of contention. Riem al-Gaifi is a 22-year-old computer science student who has been living in the tent city with her mother and her four sisters from the very start. "Does our revolution need a prison?" she asks. Robespierre, Trotsky and Fidel Castro once faced the same question.

"No," says Riem al-Gaifi. To voice her disapproval, she intends to stage a protest today against the security committee of her own protest movement.

Soldiers who had joined the revolution arrested some of her friends. "This is the old Yemen," she says. "There are groups in our midst that are very well-organized and want to control everything. But we are the future." She pastes a flyer to a wall. It reads: "Our tribe is called Yemen. Our party is called Yemen. Our faith is called Yemen."

A Capital on Standby

For the past three weeks, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in a military hospital in Saudi Arabia, recovering from the wounds he sustained in a bomb attack. No one knows when he will return, or whether he will return at all.

The political situation hangs in the balance. The most recent street fighting between pro-regime units and militias loyal to tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar left its mark in the burned-out government buildings and walls pockmarked with gunshots, and everyone is scared stiff that it could have been a sign of a looming civil war. Sana'a residents are said to have half a million Kalashnikovs tucked away in their closets, and yet the city is surprisingly calm. Many shops are closed; so are the schools. Everything is on standby, now that much of the city's public activity has shifted to the streets around the university.

The tent city on Tahrir Square in Cairo lasted five weeks. The tent city in Sana'a has been up for almost five months, long enough to have its own street names: "Tunisia Street," "Cairo Street," "Street of Justice."

"Tell him it was predetermined!" a soldier, his left cheek filled with khat leaves, the mild narcotic commonly chewed in Yemen, says to the interpreter. Then he takes a sip of water and spits a stream of greenish liquid into a metal bucket.

Pictures of the fallen, drawn in white paint, caricatures of the president and posters by newly formed groups are everywhere, groups with names like "Revolution English Club" and "Happy Yemen." Every larger tent seems to have an Internet hookup. Apple vendors push carts through the crowd, while other vendors sell revolutionary souvenirs and khat leaves in plastic bags. Two men hold each other's hands, dancing to a cheerful melody and singing: "We give every drop of blood / We give our sons…"

The scene is a mixture of partying and adult-education events, outdoor festivals and religious meetings. Signs reading "Islam loves cleanliness" are affixed to some tents. A macabre-looking puppet, headless and dressed in a suit, dangles high above the tent city.

A group of women wearing full-body veils walks onto a stage. One woman holds a microphone and speaks through her niqab, a piece of thin material covering her mouth, about labor laws in the provincial cities. Her voice can be heard throughout the neighborhood.

The tent city is also a city of women. Aisha al-Sanit, a teacher at the Turkish school, says she has found the courage to speak on a stage for the first time in her life, and that she feels respected. "I felt freedom here with my feet," she says.

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