The Arab Spring marked the point at which Yemeni blogger and human rights advocate Afrah Nasser, along with many other young people in the region, began to ‘think loudly’, as she described it in her first blog post at the beginning of 2010.
When Yemen’s uprising took root in February 2011, she wrote about it. ‘I was critical of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s violent crackdown on demonstrators,’ Nasser explains, which ‘disturbed’ some supporters of the 33-year-long regime. She began to receive hate mail and death threats, which she describes as being ‘very natural at that time’. Meanwhile, CNN was celebrating her blog as one of the 10 must-reads from the Middle East.
The growing unrest in Yemen coincided with Nasser travelling to Sweden in May 2011 to take part in a leadership programme. While in Sweden, armed clashes broke out in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a. ‘I called my family and they were internally displaced,’ says the 29-year-old. ‘They were fleeing the violence inside the city and had to move from one place to another.’ The airport in Sana’a shut down and it became increasingly difficult, and dangerous, for Yemenis and ex-pats to leave or return to the country.
A new journey
‘Yemen was all over the news. It was a very severe time; I can’t even describe how difficult it was. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t comprehend what was going on.’ Faced with an expiring tourist visa and no guarantee of safety back home, Nasser applied for political asylum. ‘Staying in Sweden was the best decision that I could think of,’ she says. She gained residency and is now applying for citizenship in order to travel.
Yemeni writers and journalists inside Yemen are challenging those in the Diaspora to become advocates for their home country, to ‘break down misconceptions’
Living in Sweden has been ‘a new journey that I did not plan for’. How has it changed her identity? ‘I need to write a book about that. It has been an adventure’, she says. There have been ‘ups and downs’ but Nasser feels closer to Yemen and to the Middle East now than ever before. ‘There are many events about the Middle East in Sweden and I have met public figures from Yemen and the region whom I wouldn’t have met elsewhere.’ She also has a large network of Yemeni Twitter and Facebook friends ‘whom I never met while I was in Yemen. I wish to live enough to meet them.’
Nasser is co-founder of Yemeni Salon, ‘a meeting place where we discuss Yemen’s political and social affairs.’ It has been open for two years and the response by the Swedish public has been encouraging. ‘We started the Yemeni Salon because we were thirsty for discussions about the country. We run seminars and invite Yemenis to speak: we try to bring a little piece of Yemen to cold and freezing Sweden!’
Adapting to a different culture has not been without its challenges. ‘After three years in Sweden I discovered that I needed to take vitamin D pills to cope with the winter,’ Nasser laughs. ‘Because of a doctor’s prescription, I got the vitamin D and my life changed. Just last night I was telling my mother in Sana’a that I needed to take my pill and she was, like, “what pill?” I told her it’s like how people chew Qat [a mild narcotic] to forget the violence in Yemen: I take Vitamin D to forget the sun.’
Nasser started blogging because she believed there was a lack of English-language coverage of the country by Yemenis. This has now changed, she says. And Yemeni writers and journalists she keeps in contact with inside Yemen are challenging those in the Diaspora to become advocates for their home country, to ‘break down misconceptions’. Living abroad has given her a new role and purpose as a blogger: ‘My stories may be more interesting with different analogies and I can name-and-shame media outlets that publish misleading information about Yemen.’
Blogging in Sweden has also kept Nasser connected to her home country. ‘It has helped me to feel like my feet are on the ground, that I’m not far away and that my identity is not in crisis.’ Studying for a Masters in Communications, she is able to understand how the internet – which she sees as a neutral force – has affected her life in exile.
Threatened with censorship
Ironically, after refusing to be silenced by death threats in Yemen, it was in Sweden where Nasser’s blog was threatened with censorship. While interning at the Arabic section of Swedish Radio International she was advised to keep her political opinions to herself, both on and off the radio. After taking to Twitter to air her concerns and meeting with a legal advisor, she reached a compromise with her bosses, in which she agreed not to talk about Yemen on the radio but would keep speaking freely on her blog.
‘It was a learning experience. I prefer to use my journalistic skills to stand with the vulnerable and the weak – the voiceless,’ she says. ‘I cannot bring the two sides of the story together because sometimes, especially in the Middle East where there are many important or historical times, you cannot stand with the authoritarian government.’
‘I am optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. This is a new attitude that I have. I am optimistic because I want to be optimistic but when I consider all the factual stuff I become pessimistic’
Censorship has a long history in Yemen. The targeting of journalists may have been highlighted during the revolution, but it came on the back of three decades of media repression. In 2014, with Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, running the country, Yemen was ranked 167 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index – marginally better than the year before. As the Houthi rebel party asserts control over Yemen’s government, it stands accused of assaulting and detaining journalists at recent demonstrations. ‘I think it’s a great indication of the type of democracy or freedoms al-Houthi are preaching about when they target journalists,’ says Nasser.
In the middle of another political catastrophe four years after the hopeful beginnings of revolution, how can people around the world support Yemen? ‘What the country desperately needs is the support of leaders who want to get it out of this chaos. If the international committee were sitting in front of me, I would tell them to go to Yemen with a learning mind because Yemenis have the resources, the potential. We need to co-ordinate this according to Yemeni standards and reality and not bring a strategy that does not suit the country’s social structure or politics.’
Regarding the future of the beleaguered nation, Nasser is pragmatic. ‘I am optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. This is a new attitude that I have. I am optimistic because I want to be optimistic but when I consider all the factual stuff I become pessimistic.’
Nasser’s hopes for her future include a Swedish passport. She is planning to go back to visit or to live in Yemen soon. ‘It’s been almost four years now but I’m nearly there,’ she says. Will it be safe for her? ‘Thanks to interviews such as this, yes. I think the more high profile you are, the less targeted you are. But I don’t know really. I’ll do what feels right and I think that will be to return to Yemen.’