“The Basil Revolution” a short story by Yemeni writer Wajdi al-Ahdal

Translated by William M Hutchins

 

February 2011

Wajdi al-Ahdal

The evening of Friday, February 25, I finally made up my mind to join the ranks of the protest movement demanding the departure of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

I finished drinking my tea with milk, left the coffeehouse and Restaurants Street, and walked toward Sahat al-Taghyir (Change Square). Ten minutes before I reached it, I heard a clamor and turned to see a column of Central Security vehicles. They were carrying dozens of heavily armed soldiers and drove through the street rapidly and recklessly, treating civilian vehicles with arrogant disdain. I told myself there were going to be confrontations. I quickened my pace and reached the front lines around 8 p.m. Soldiers had created a wall with their shields to separate us from the demonstrators and had closed the southern entrance to the road . We were on the other side with dozens of citizens, standing on tiptoe to watch the clashes. The demonstrators formed a human wave that began to press gradually toward the soldiers as they called for the regime to fall. The traffic all around us had been disrupted. Drivers sensed the tension and immediately wanted to get away. So they ignored the traffic lights, and that blocked vehicles coming from the three directions that were still open. Chaos erupted, and some people started panicking and cursing

No one there supported the regime, and so we stayed where we were, without any feeling of fear. On the other side, tension between the protestors and the security forces was mounting. We did not know what had caused this confrontation. A man standing beside me said that the protestors had wanted to take control of Jawlat al-Qadisiya (Qadisiya Roundabout), where we were standing, and that the security forces had stopped them. I was suspicious of this rumor, because I thought it wouldn’t be in the protestors’ interest to extend their control to an area greater than this street. I suspected that the police, instead, had perhaps wished to reduce the area the protestors had been able to seize from the regime’s control. Perhaps the police thought that a large number of protestors had gone home and that this would be a favorable opportunity to push the opposition supporters back and confine them to Sahat al-Taghyir.

Some hours earlier, more than fifty thousand demonstrators had performed the Friday Prayer in this square. After the prayer service they had chanted for the president to leave.

I saw a soldier withdraw to the rear. Then an officer rushed over to him, and they stood there talking. Not long after that, another soldier followed the first and then another. It seemed that the protestors’ forceful shouts had struck terror into the soldiers’ hearts and caused them to lose their nerve. The line of soldiers swayed, and then they retreated like a wall that was about to fall. The protestors continued to advance, slowly but steadily.

Orders were issued to withdraw and the soldiers rushed to their vehicles, abandoning their imposing façade. Even the civilian vehicles did not cede the right of way to them – contrary to the norm. So they were stuck in the stifling traffic jam and only able to leave the area with great difficulty.

I noticed that numerous young people were heading toward an alley behind me and I followed them. This alleyway was actually a corridor teeming with activity. A large number of people were leaving and a smaller number entering. Three rows of young men had established checkpoints at the alley’s end. They smiled and welcomed us. After they searched me three times, I reached – in a few steps – the Ring Road, which together with University Square had become the headquarters for the protests. With each step I took, I felt a light glow inside me and a cheerful, melodic tune hum in every cell of my nervous system. My fatigue vanished, and I forgot who I was. I felt I had been born anew.

To my right, I saw hundreds of young people standing, like closely abutting structures, at the end of the street. They were chanting slogans, flush from their victory in the hour-long confrontation that had culminated in the army’s failure and its disappointed return to barracks.

To my left, I saw countless human beings surging back and forth. I seemed to have entered a festival of delight and happiness. I sensed I had been transported to another world, which resembled a rose-colored dream, a beautiful world where the human spirit felt at home and reassured.

There were masses of people – I estimated at least twenty thousand. Most were young men in their prime. Some were doing the Bara‘a dance, waving daggers in the air. Others listened as a male vocalist sang revolutionary songs on a raised dais decorated with a large color picture of the famous guerrilla leader Che Guevara. Some groups of young men were debating amongst themselves, while others were reciting poems in literary Arabic, in colloquial Arabic, and in Humayni – a kind of literary dialect. The restaurants were packed with young men, and tents had been erected on the sidewalks and the open asphalt of the street. Young people could be seen inside doing their homework or reading books, while others were playing checkers or chess.

I saw two parked cars – a white Mercedes and a Peugeot taxi – that supporters of the regime had used to frighten demonstrators by threatening to run them down. The demonstrators, however, had been able to seize both vehicles and were now demanding an independent inquiry as to their owners’ identity. On the other side of the street there was a Hyundai Santa Fe SUV that had been set on fire and overturned, like a dead cockroach. The demonstrators had hung a placard on it to explain that the burned-out vehicle had been driven wildly straight toward them as the driver spun right and left, chasing the young people until they were able to force it to a halt and detain him. They said that he had firearms and other weapons in the vehicle, as well as electric prods and a walkie-talkie. The other people with him caught the demonstrators off guard and torched the vehicle and its contents. The vehicle was said to belong to some army agency.

From the metal railings of an abandoned car showroom, the young people had hung caricatures of the ruler. Most of these images had been digitally altered to feature sarcastic comments, and I could not control my laughter. This new art form played a significant role in the revolution. At the heart of the square, thousands of people were sitting on the ground watching a live feed of the Yemeni TV channel “Suhail” projected on a screen that had been created by hanging a thick, white oilcloth over a huge metal billboard on the roof of a two-storey building.

At the other side of the square, to the north, there was an even bigger gathering of demonstrators. They were listening to religious singers who, in honor of the occasion, were lending their mellow voices to fiery political hymns that ignited people’s zeal and kindled the revolution’s flames.

I could scarcely make my way through the crowd or find a place to stand. The congestion was unimaginable. The gateway to the university and its wide entrance were concealed behind rows of tents – as if we were in the encampment of one of the Islamic armies in the days of the Muslim conquests. On each tent was a sign indicating its residents: Tent of the University Professors, Attorneys’ Tent, and tents with the names of Yemen’s districts. Young men from the tribes of each province had come to join the occupiers and support their brothers in the capital.

The number of people increased as new arrivals entered by the square’s various entrances. Although the most recent confrontation with the security forces had not reached the level of a clash, it seemed to have resulted in the demonstrators preparing for any eventuality. So they had sent out appeals and text messages to ask for reinforcements. They were concerned that security forces might surprise them with an attack in the small hours of the night. The young men were organized into different committees. Each of these carried out its work in the best possible way – as if we now had self-government in a mini-state that had just been liberated from the tyrants’ grip.

We were surrounded by a truly festive atmosphere in which everyone felt an indescribable, overwhelming happiness. Our morale was sky high, and eyes gleamed with optimism and hope – two things that Yemenis had missed bitterly for the past thirty years. I caught this infectious delight, which coursed through my spirit. For the first time in my life, I felt I was standing on free Yemeni soil.

 

February 2012

 

I had vowed not to leave Change Square until the regime fell. On February 25, 2012, a new president became Yemen’s ruler. Since I had fulfilled my vow, I left Sahat al-Taghyir and the first place I headed for was Restaurants Street, which I longed for after an absence of an entire year. I reached it close to sunset, hungry for eggs and tomatoes cooked Adeni style – there is nothing like it anywhere else in the city. Because my soul had almost rebelled against me for this dish, I begged the cook to fix it for me, even though he had not started work. The elderly cook remembered me and kindheartedly honored my request.

I escaped death three times. The first time I was trapped between Republican Guard forces supporting the regime and army forces supporting the revolution at Jawlat Kentucky (Kentucky Roundabout). When shots broke out, the other demonstrators scattered and evaporated into thin air. The Guards stormed the alley where I had sought refuge. Luckily for me, I found two heavy bags of tomatoes, potatoes, and assorted vegetables that someone had abandoned on a stone bench. So I picked them up and pretended I lived in the alley. I started knocking on the door of a house. The Guards approached me, and one aimed his rifle at my head. After some toing and froing, a man, who seemed to be the group’s leader, said: “Leave him alone. He’s someone who lives in the alley, not one of them.” So they left me and went off to comb the other alleys.

There is no doubt that I was born anew that night. I even started telling people who asked where I was born that I was a native son of Kentucky Roundabout! The second time, a shell landed at the doorway of a dwelling that had been locked since the start of the revolution. A minute before it landed, I had been standing by the door talking to a friend. One person was killed, and others were wounded by shrapnel. That iron door burnt for fifteen minutes as flames shot from it. After the fire went out, the door continued to release dense black smoke for an hour.

I will relate what happened the third time, even if no one believes me. We had embarked on a long march that day, starting from 60 Meter Road. When we approached Asr Roundabout, snipers began shooting at us. We advanced courageously, ignoring the bullets. To my right was a white-haired man who had held hands with me throughout the march, showing great affection for me. When the bullets started to whizz past, he told me: “When you hear bullets, son, bow your head.” Our lines became disordered, and we heard shrieks and shouts for help. We realized that the firing was not intended to scare us; the snipers were aiming directly at people. Our hearts were in our throats as we marched forward chanting, “Leave!” We heard sustained firing, and the white-haired man seized my head to lower it. He said: “Didn’t I tell you to bow your head whe . . .”

A bullet whizzed past my ear, striking the temple of the white-haired man, who died instantly. May God show him mercy. He saved my life. If he had waited a second more before lowering my head, I would not have lived to see this memorable day in the history of my country.

The revolutionary government raised my pay grade, and I was assigned to the Broadcast and Television Division of the Ministry of Information. In other words, my ambition was finally realized and I began working in my area of specialization, as I had graduated from the Faculty of Communications in the Department of Broadcasting and Television. After I graduated in 2006, I remained unemployed for five years. I could barely meet my living expenses by working for small newspapers that covered the opposition parties back then. I had set up a website to defend the oppressed people – whose lands were being seized by the army and the sheikhs – they were being driven from those lands. Because of my site, where I posted the names of people who had illegally seized lands, I was put on a black list and became a persona non grata. All my efforts to advance were blocked, and they slammed all the doors to opportunity and a decent living in my face. They sent my name to all the official newspapers and government agencies, forbidding them to have anything to do with me. When I went anywhere or tried to make any type of contact, I encountered a façade of politeness and fake smiles. The moment I turned my back, however, they threw my papers, projects, and dreams in the bin. Back in that time, my one achievement – in addition to setting up that website – was to release – through an independent publisher a book that collected together all my essays on cinema and photography.

 

February 2013

 

I produced my first program on TV. It was a weekly half-hour show on culture. I got the chance to do it because most of the seasoned veterans in the television agency avoided producing such programs since it was rare that business sponsors could be found for them. Alas! The revolution succeeded, but culture did not.

 

February 2014

 

Congratulate me, congratulate me! I have married the girl of my dreams. She is a beauty queen, a honey from Aden. Yes, she is Adeni, but don’t you laugh and suggest that I married her so she could make my favorite dish of eggs and tomatoes cooked Adeni style! What happened is that we became friends on Facebook and chatted beneath its shady arbors. Before that, I had read her articles in cultural supplements. She had also been following my essays. After two years of following each other on Facebook, we arranged a date and met face to face in a modern coffeehouse frequented by the elite. It bore no resemblance to Restaurant Street’s dives, which even a cat would shun. This was a respectable place for women to sit and meet with men. I gave her some expensive perfume and she gave me a book on Egyptian cinema that was considered an important reference. Some months later, we married and spent three weeks in Aden, the Bride of the Seas.

 

February 2015

 

Congratulate me on the birth of my handsome son! I named him Abdullah in honor of my best friend. My wife, Sally, is fine and has returned to her work in journalism.

 

February 2016

 

Because my income and Sally’s have increased, we have taken the most important step in life. We have bought an apartment and taken out a mortgage. It is spacious and consists of three rooms, not to mention the bathroom and kitchen. It has a splendid view of the largest park in Sanaa. Fortunately for us, the revolutionary government finished refurbishing it at the end of last year. Our warm nest is located on the seventh floor.

 

February 2017

 

I have directed my first film, an hour-long feature. Its title is “The Basil Revolution,” and it is a documentary about the blessed revolution of change that toppled the former regime. The film won an international award at a Dutch film festival.

 

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