Yemen’s stand

Published February 3, 2024
The writer is a litigator based in Islamabad
The writer is a litigator based in Islamabad

HISTORY and memory are at the very root of our collective thought and actions as a society. The events of history and the trauma and memory stemming from that history live on, intermingling through various stages of progress and continuing to shape not only the future but also the psychology of nations. History in that sense is ever-becoming, undefined, shapeless. Nevertheless, it can provide a definite link between a specific set of people and events.

One such link is evident in the recent bombing of Yemen by the US and the UK. The Western allies took this step because, in their view, an ‘illegitimate’ and ‘terrorist’ government — one that does not trail behind the oil-laden fumes of the Middle Eastern parade — had disrupted international shipping, and was threatening the ‘international community’. But if you ask the Houthis (the de facto rulers of Yemen) they will tell you that their preventing Israeli ships or those bringing goods to Israel from passing through the Bab al-Mandeb strait is an act of service to the ‘international community’ — whose soul bears the wounds and scars of Palestinian suffering.

The Bab al-Mandeb strait is one of those places where geography and history coalesce. It is a narrow channel of water — about 26 kilometres wide — that separates Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. This is the crucial entry point into the Red Sea from where a majority of international shipping passes to the Suez Canal. The historical port of Aden sits right next to this narrow body of water.

The geography of this area has allowed the Houthis to hold captive international shipping since it is at this point where large cargo ships and tankers are at their most vulnerable after passing through Suez. It is also this geography which led the British to advance their imperialistic ambition in the 19th century when they took control of Aden and most of southern Yemen. This is not the first time that British or Western interests in that area have been threatened.

The Yemenis have taken a moral stand against Israel’s genocide.

From 1839 until 1967, the British were the colonial occupiers of south Yemen. The port of Aden oversaw the vital link to India. It is here that the British played the game of colonisation and native subjugation. Now that its ‘illegitimate child’ state follows in its footsteps, they have reverted, in true imperial style, to bombarding its former colony.

History has unmasked the genocidal past of the champions of the ‘international community’, whose knee-jerk reaction was nothing more than muscle memory — for the Yemenis have previously been bombed, terrorised, brutalised and harassed by a colonial power. The British in their attempt to stop an indigenous liberation movement in Yemen, resorted to brutal tactics to suppress the local population especially in Aden and in the Crater region of southern Yemen. Lt-Col Colin Mitchell (‘Mad Mitch’) of the Argyll Battalion imposed the ‘Argyll law’ in Yemen, which included the mass butchering of innocent civilians to terrorise the population. The imperialist British compared the killing of Yemenis to hunting birds for sport. Israel now sees the genocide of men, women and children in much the same way — of those they deem as less than human.

It is the history of that earlier colonisation and genocidal force that has led the Yemenis — the poorest nation in the region, ravaged by a decade-long civil war, faced with famine and disease — to take a moral stand against the Western-backed Israeli genocide to their north. For the Yemenis, it is the moral and religious duty they owe to the Palestinians.

Even after the bombing, thousands gathered in Sana’a, chanting with one voice ‘We do not care! Make it a World War!’. While the Houthis may have internal benefits in angling for such a foreign policy, the outpouring of the mass public behind this sentiment shows that the scars of history can become signs of empathy and strength. Yemenis are living that history and forming it anew by taking a stand against Israel.

The Yemenis are aided, legally, by South Africa — there too the history of apartheid has been the impetus to take action. The memory of trauma can lead to collective moral action. When the chips are down, what matters is how, in our collective spirit, we read our history. Does it compel us to stand, even if alone, or does it terrify us to cower behind power? For a nation born of the flames of colonial history, our answer has been disappointing. Collectively we have failed in our tribute to the Palestinians even on the basis of Islam — a moral force steeped in a glorious past. But Yemen, unlike us, pays homage to its history.

The writer is a litigator based in Islamabad.

mohsin.masood@ajuris.com.pk

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2024

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