Revolution in Socotra

A Perspective from Yemen's Periphery

by Nathalie Peutz
published in MER263

At the beginning of 2012, as Egyptians and Syrians marked the second year of their revolts, protesters also took to the streets of Hadiboh, the tumbledown capital of Yemen’s Socotra archipelago (pop. approx. 50,000). Like demonstrators elsewhere, the Socotrans were calling for both local administrative change and national political reform. While the Socotran protests, occurring since March 2011, were small, they were no less significant than the more spectacular rallies in the epicenters of Arab revolution. Indeed, the spread of revolution to Socotra, the largest and most populated of the archipelago’s four islands, shows the extent to which the events of 2011 have resonated even at the very margins of the Arab world. Moreover, it demonstrates how socially and culturally empowering these events have been for a people who have long been politically subjugated, economically marginalized and, unlike many in mainland Yemen, unarmed.

For if revolution has reached Socotra, as many young enthusiasts in Hadiboh would claim, it is manifest not merely in the biweekly gatherings of male protesters marching through the dusty market to the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It is evident also in the way that Socotrans have begun to speak openly and forcefully about their preferences for Socotra’s political future. And it was measurable in the islands’ largest cultural event, a five-day festival during which nine Socotran wordsmiths vied for the title of “poet of the year.” Now in its fourth year, the festival, which began on the eve of 2012, featured poem after poem, in the islanders’ native Suqutri tongue, reflecting on the Arab revolts, the turmoil on the mainland and the fate of the archipelago. Where political discontent long found expression in ruminations on a pastoral past, today it is articulated in contending verses on the prospects for Socotran sovereignty.

Past States

Over the past 15 years, Socotra has been transformed from an obscure and seasonally inaccessible Indian Ocean archipelago to a globally recognized (natural) World Heritage Site open to international ecotourism. The metamorphosis occurred mainly through successive integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs), funded by the UN Development Program, the Global Environment Facility and bilateral donors, between 1997 and 2008. These projects sought to protect the islands’ unique biodiversity through the introduction of a conservation zoning plan, increased environmental awareness, a master plan for development and “sustainable” development initiatives, including tourism. Referred to collectively by Socotrans as “the Environment” (al-bi’a), the ICDPs operated by way of their superior funding and clout as the de facto governance structure on Socotra in the mid-2000s. Thus, when the Socotra Governance and Biodiversity Project (SGBP), the latest joint Yemeni government and UNDP initiative, floated the idea in 2010-2011 of the archipelago being governed by a special, independent “Socotra Authority” -- a condition of its having been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2008 -- many Socotrans opposed this plan. In their view, the Authority would simply be an extension of al-bi’a: a regime of environmental restrictions imposed on Socotrans by foreign experts working hand in glove with ever encroaching Yemeni bureaucrats.

The sense of foreign incursion is not new to the islanders. From the fifteenth century until 1967, the archipelago was part of the Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra ruled by the Banu ‘Afrar dynasty. Although Socotrans today refer to this period as a time of autonomous, sovereign statehood, they also consider the Banu ‘Afrar sultans to have been outsiders originating in al-Mahra (in today’s Yemen, the easternmost governorate) who transferred their administration from Qishn (in al-Mahra) to Hadiboh (then, Tamarida) only during the last 75 years of their reign, by which time the sultanate had become a British protectorate. In 1967, the Mahra Sultanate was abolished and an arriving squadron of the revolutionary National Liberation Front claimed the archipelago for the People’s Republic of South Yemen (later, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), whereupon the islands were placed under the jurisdiction of the Socialists who governed from Aden. In 1990, Socotra was incorporated into the unified Republic of Yemen, and in 2000, it was transferred administratively from the governorate of Aden to the governorate of Hadramawt.

Already, Socotrans spoke of the various regimes -- the sultanate, the Socialists, the unity government and the collective ICDP projects -- as visitant states, coming to their islands from across the sea. But now, with environmental projects suspended since the spring of 2011, and with the Yemeni state in disarray, Socotrans speak of these four different states as past experiences. And with such varied exposure to “past” regimes, many Socotrans are eager to weigh in as impassioned debates take place over the best political system and administrative structure for their islands.

From Authority to Autonomy?

When, in early 2011, Socotrans expressed their opposition to the proposed Socotra Authority, they did so largely out of the conviction that the archipelago should become more integrated into the mainland’s administrative structure, not less. What they wanted instead, these pastoralists with little patience for expert-driven conservation or the mainland’s endemic corruption, was for Socotra to be elevated from its current division into two local districts under the governorate of Hadramawt to a single governorate in its own right. In that event, they reasoned, all of the monies allocated to Socotra would reach its two elected local councils directly instead of being channeled through Hadramawt and embezzled, or simply divided among that province’s 28 other districts, along the way. Notably, this streamlining was one of the rationales behind the proposed Authority, in addition to its oversight of conservation and development activities on the islands. Yet for Socotrans eager for government jobs, services and regulations, the Authority seemed like one more project standing between Socotrans and the central state.

Enter the Arab revolts. In Hadiboh, as in some of the smaller coastal towns with electricity, Socotrans followed the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and mainland Yemen on television at home or in juice shops, where pastoralists visiting from the countryside receive their news. Fortuitously, it was in 2011 that Socotrans gained increased and accelerated (DSL) Internet access; not only have Hadiboh youth been following these events online, but they are also on Facebook communicating with Socotrans living or studying in the Arabian Peninsula and further afield. Online, in person and in poetry, Socotrans are debating how the archipelago should be governed and administered. Instead of simply arguing for or against the merits of the proposed Authority, as they had before, Socotrans now spell out a variety of options, including Socotra becoming a governorate, a special administrative zone, an autonomous district and an independent state.

These separate positions can be identified, to a certain extent, with different coalitions that have emerged in the wake of the Arab revolts. In May 2011, several of Hadiboh’s youth established a national council (the Majlis al-Watani, also called Majlis al-Shabab) to counter what one of its members considered the “failed system” represented by the local council (al-majlis al-mahalli) and its president, the general director, who is the top state official in Socotra. Fahmi ‘Ali Ibrahim, president of the Majlis al-Watani, claims that nearly all of Hadiboh’s youth support his council, but cannot cite their number as they do not record names, in order not to appear like a party. If the council’s followers share one position, it would be that Socotra become an autonomous entity with a special status, not separated from Yemen, but governed by Socotrans, “like Kurdistan,” one member suggested, sharing with the Yemen Republic only “its currency and the flag.” Fahmi ‘Ali, who happens to be the grandson of the vizier of Socotra’s last sultan, is busy mobilizing people outside of Hadiboh as well; when I spoke with him, he had just returned from meetings in Qalansiya (the administrative seat of Socotra’s western district) and, prior to that, he had traveled with seven other Socotrans to al-Mahra to explore possibilities for future cooperation, political and charitable. “We were well received there,” another delegate said, speaking of Socotra’s historical connection to al-Mahra during the time that al-Mahra and Socotra had been an independent state. Although reunification with al-Mahra is implausible, even in the most hypothetical sense, and would hardly profit Socotra, which has a wealth of natural resources (including its World Heritage status), some Socotrans find themselves entertaining a renewed political connection with al-Mahra as their geopolitical way out. “Socotra without land access is a prison,” noted Isma‘il Muhammad Ahmad, an organizer of the poetry festival.

Shortly after the establishment of the Majlis al-Watani, another Hadiboh-based group formed a people’s council (the Majlis al-Ahli), which advocates for Socotra to be redistricted as a governorate of Yemen. Supporters of the Majlis al-Watani state that the Majlis al-Ahli is simply an arm of Islah, Yemen’s main opposition party, created in response to the Majlis al-Watani gaining the support of former members of the General People’s Congress, Yemen’s ruling party. If they are correct, then Socotra’s two seemingly novel councils may represent party politics as usual, but dressed in new clothes. Fahd Salim Kafayin, a 35-year old lecturer in Arabic at the Hadiboh branch of Hadramawt University, a well-respected mosque preacher, the general director of the Socotra branch of Islah (albeit not a card-carrying member), and the general director and founder of the Majlis al-Ahli, argues otherwise. Fahd Salim explains that he founded the Majlis al-Ahli based on other peoples’ councils on the mainland; the difference, he stresses, is that the Socotran council is not under the authority of its namesake in Hadramawt and, as such, is concerned with local matters, namely acting as “a point of cooperation between the authorities and the people regarding common issues such as [food] prices and [the price of] fuel” and developing a political vision for a less bureaucratic administration of the islands. Fahd Salim would like the archipelago to achieve independence, but he sees that project taking 20 to 30 years. In his opinion, Socotrans are not ready.

Salim Dahaq ‘Ali, the general director of the Socotra archipelago -- and former director of the Environment Protection Agency, the Yemeni partner to the ICDPs -- is well apprised of these “unofficial” positions, as he called them. Appointed to his position in December, he has met with leaders of the Majlis al-Watani and Majlis al-Ahli to listen to their visions. In the past, he explained, the general director would have told such people to mind their own business, but now “we [the government] have to listen to everyone who has an opinion, and then we say, ‘Thank you.’” “Now one has to meet with others; now one has to listen…. This is a good thing,” he said. Dahaq pointed out that since mid-2011 the Socotra archipelago has been promoted from a local district (mudiriyya) to an intermediate authority (wakala) -- a fact few Socotrans seem to know -- and is already in the process of becoming a governorate. But he, too, believes that Socotra should have some special status within Yemen and would like to see the revival of the Authority proposal. That designation, he thinks, would best facilitate the implementation of the ICDP-drafted zoning and master plans.

Not Just Talk

The authorities in Socotra have not just had to listen to these opinions; they have had to respond to popular actions as well. The emergence of what one demonstrator (referring to himself and his fellows) called “revolutionaries,” along with these unofficial councils, has mobilized Hadiboh residents in unprecedented ways. In addition to demanding President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s resignation, Hadiboh’s revolutionaries have won the resignations of several local leaders whom they considered to be ineffective or corrupt. “Now the reins of power are in the hands of the people,” Muhammad ‘Uthman Talib, a Socotran of African descent, stated proudly, explaining the efforts to “purify” the local government. “We’ll go after any sign of corruption, any director who doesn’t work out, who creates problems with his workers, whose work is not excellent…. And then, that’s it, he goes, he goes (yirhal). We have benefited from this Arab spring. Yirhal, isqat al-nizam…these are new words we didn’t know before. The revolutions brought this talk and, thank God, Socotran society is beginning to understand, to acquire civilization, to change by itself.” The resignation of the hospital director after disgruntled employees locked him out of his office was another piece of evidence for demonstrators that, at last, their voices matter.

Other successes have been counted. In the summer of 2011, when the price of petrol rose from 75 Yemeni riyals per liter to 125, a group of revolutionaries bolted the door to the Hadiboh petrol station. When the police were called in, the men voiced their indignation -- “We are poor, and what do we have? We don’t have anything but the sea!” -- and the former price was restored. Likewise, when the price of butane was raised from 1,000 riyals per cylinder to 1,500, men protested outside the station until the owners lowered the price to 1,200 riyals. Although such activism in Socotra is entirely local, its form of expression, as well as its language, reverberates with the tenor of Tahrir Squares in Cairo and Sanaa. A “revolutionary tent” was erected next to the soccer pitch in central Hadiboh. In October, just before ‘Id al-Adha, supporters of the Majlis al-Watani and other demonstrators took it upon themselves to pick up the plastic bags, cartons and other garbage layering the streets of Hadiboh -- accomplishing in one day, pointed out Fahmi ‘Ali, what “the Environment” had failed to do in a decade. (One of the ICDPs did sponsor a trash removal project in the mid-2000s, which worked somewhat effectively, and did encourage several Hadiboh cleanup events, carried out primarily by its own staff and the army. The difference is that, then, Hadiboh residents watched as “foreigners” cleaned their streets; this time, the youth and shopkeepers participated more fully and the streets remained relatively garbage-free for three months.) Most notable, however, is that the same youth, using the rhetoric of cleansing, pushed the qat sellers out of Hadiboh and Qalansiya. Qat, a leafy shrub grown in mainland Yemen, is considered by many Socotrans -- although more and more of them chew it -- to be a disgusting habit imported from the “north.” Tempting as it may be to interpret the banishment of qat (and the plastic bags it comes in) as a symbolic purge of northern (Yemeni) influence, the youth framed their action as one of (self-)care: “Do not spoil Socotra.”

While such initiatives espouse a collective, local responsibility and a self-governance of sorts, in other actions -- and precisely through the act of taking on the government -- Socotrans are professing and performing their national (Yemeni) identity and citizenship. Around the new year, activists staged demonstrations in front of the Hadiboh office of Yemenia, Yemen’s national airline, in protest of its discontinuation of Socotra routes. Since March 2011 Socotra has been serviced only by Felix Airways, a private company that has steadily increased its fares in the absence of competition. Holding Yemeni flags and signs stating, “Yemeni Socotra is in need of the return of Yemenia Airlines” and “We demand a reduction in airline fares,” the demonstrators argued not for political independence, but rather for their “rights” as Yemeni citizens. Fahd Salim spoke ardently before the roughly 70 men -- in Hadiboh, a large crowd -- about Yemenia’s cessation of Socotra flights as a “crime against humanity.” He explained in a later interview why the return of Yemenia and its cheaper ticketing scheme is such a vital, and political, matter. “It’s a question of life,” Salim said. “There are people who will die if not treated outside [in mainland hospitals]; there are people whose educational future will end; there are others whose livelihoods are connected with places outside. The return of Yemenia is more of a humanitarian issue than a business matter, as they [Yemenia’s directors] think.... If Yemen thinks it has authority over Socotra then it has the responsibility to provide the service of Yemenia, a national company.” While Salim is not an advocate of immediate political autonomy, his frustrations point to Socotrans’ conflicted relationship with the Yemeni state. In decrying their marginalization, Socotrans not only protest against the regime, but they also interrogate, even if obliquely, the Yemen Republic’s very right to sovereignty over the archipelago.

The Art of Becoming Sovereign

On the morning of December 31, 2011, nine poet contestants, a three-member jury and several members of the Socotra Society for Heritage and History met in the courtyard of a sparsely furnished house rented by the association. The jury had called together the competing poets hailing from all regions of the main island, many of them illiterate pastoralists, and all of them men, to vet their entries. Fahd Salim, one of the jury, had just arrived from the Yemenia demonstration to welcome them. He described living through a period in which “the system” was able to convince Socotrans that use of their language -- Suqutri, one of six pre-literate modern South Arabian languages -- was shameful. Hence the significance of the Society’s fourth annual festival of Suqutri-language poetry called tenowtir (pl. tentiru): “We have been able to convince Socotrans that they have a language; they have a culture; they have heritage; they have poetry; they have poets, all of which have to be preserved. To treat them with value, just like the value of the rest of the poets who have their own language and culture and poetry,” he said. “Because people without a history and without an identity and without a language and without a culture, these are a people who do not exist, who are not present. Those who do not own their past do not have a present and cannot create a future.” Citing the partisanship of the various local councils, Salim declared the festival a unifying event in which “the ultimate winner is Socotra.” When commended later for having organized a demonstration in the morning and a poetry festival that same evening, Salim responded, “It’s all part of the same work.”

Salim’s bromide about a people without a past sounds similar to celebrated quotations from the late Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayan, founder of the United Arab Emirates. And indeed the Socotran festival was inspired by an effort to showcase and revive traditional culture in the UAE, “The Million’s Poet.” Beginning in 2006, this competition, often glossed in the press as an Arab version of “American Idol,” was conceived by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) to promote vernacular Arabic (nabati) poetry in the Arab world. In “The Million’s Poet,” 48 poets selected from Arab nations compete live and in front of a jury; the winner, selected by the jury, the live audience, SMS voting by viewers and, as of 2012, a “professional psychologist,” is awarded 5 million dirhams ($1,361,000). On its website, ADACH presents this wildly popular reality show as “a way of uniting modernization with tradition, as espoused by the late Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayan.” When a young Socotran-Emirati visiting the islands suggested a similar contest of tenowtir, Salim considered the idea crazy. Nevertheless, with financial backing from Socotrans living in Arab Gulf states, the Society wound up replicating the UAE show’s very form: a geographically diverse body of contestants; a seated jury of experts; an audience seated on the ground of the Hadiboh public schoolyard; a grand prize of 100,000 Yemeni riyals ($450); and a glass trophy.

But whereas ADACH’s initiatives to promote Arab heritage are government-driven, the efforts of the Society and other heritage preservers in Socotra are entirely grassroots. Moreover, they have been conceived largely in response to the government’s focus on environment and Socotra’s branding as a “natural” World Heritage Site. A pivotal moment in Salim’s thinking occurred when, together with Isma‘il Muhammad, a former employee of the Socotra Conservation and Development Program (SCDP), the ICDP that was active in Socotra from 2003 to 2008, he was called upon by the SCDP to translate Suqutri poetry for visiting Nobel Prize-winning author Günther Grass in one of Socotra’s fledgling protected areas. Grass’ interest in these translations of translations (from Suqutri to Arabic to English) convinced Salim that it was Suqutri poetry that could best be “the ambassador of that which distinguishes Socotra” on a global scale. Through his involvement in a Darwin Initiative-funded project to introduce Suqutri vocabulary about the environment into the secondary-school curriculum -- a project ultimately rejected by the Yemeni Ministry of Education -- Salim concluded that Socotran language and culture would only be preserved through “popular” initiatives.

In 2008-2010, concerned about government opposition, the Society advised contestants to adhere to topics of culture and tradition. This admonishment, and the jury’s ferocious critique of any tenowtir containing Arabic, now the predominant language in the mosque, marketplace and schools, led most of the contenders to focus nostalgically on the past. (After 40 years of the islands’ integration into the Yemeni nation-state, the Socotran linguistic present is infused with and largely defined by an Arabic lexicon: “The state,” “the environment,” “heritage” and “employment,” for example, have no Suqutri equivalents.) Thus, elegies of Palestinian suffering and odes to President Salih lost out -- in 2008, 2009 and 2010 -- to compositions about the sultanate. “Shall I tell you, or not, what Socotra once was?” the winning poem of 2008, by ‘Abdallah ‘Uthman ‘Abdallah, began. The past he went on to describe was a period of hardship but limitless generosity. True Socotran-ness, the audience was reminded then, and again in 2009 and 2010, is determined if not bound by this professedly pre-modern temporality and presumably apolitical temperament.

Enter, again, the Arab uprisings. Of the 79 poems recited in 2011, more than one third were explicitly political. Of the 24 poems presented by the contestants themselves, ten zeroed in on the uprisings, the Yemeni revolution or the political fate of Socotra. And the critiques were not timid. Arab leaders were condemned for the deaths of protesters and portrayed, by one poet, as being worse than “Benjamin” (Netanyahu), who kills only in small numbers. President Salih and his supporters were likened to a countrywide infestation of fleas requiring extermination; to travelers on a ship at port, which, when it finally departs, will sink under the weight of its cargo (i.e., everything that was taken from Yemen); and to a lumbering camel that has irritated otherwise harmless bees, causing them to swarm and attack. Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for “return” to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. (Most of these poems seem to have been composed in the early 1990s, and were recited for their renewed relevancy, and because it is now considered safe to assert such views in public.) Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the “colors” (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the “fires” or “dark rain clouds” of the present.

But it was not the content of these poems that mattered as much as the event itself. Addressing the all-Socotran, all-male audience of all ages on opening night, Fahd Salim gave a rousing speech -- speaking, as he always does publicly, in Arabic -- as to why these festivals represent the first step toward reclaiming the islanders’ cultural, if not political, sovereignty:

We suffered more than 40 years before reaching this place, this gathering. With this celebration, we are not simply celebrating a person, listening to some poems and then returning to our homes. There is a great deal of work in front of us. There is a great future ahead of us. Socotra needs us in the cultural sphere; it needs us in the economic sphere; it needs us in the political sphere; it needs us in the social sphere. It needs us to build these together. Building them begins now; it begins from this place. We have lived through many periods and factors and authorities. Regrettably, they were able to place in our souls the notion that our past is shameful, that our language, customs and traditions are shameful. And it was forbidden to speak Suqutri inside official buildings. “You’re speaking Suqutri! Shame on you! Speak Arabic!” That’s what they said to you. Why? Is our language shameful? Are our customs shameful? Are our traditions shameful? Is our heritage shameful? Today, we hold our celebration. We have been able to reach the point where it is our right to celebrate the values of Socotra alone, without denying those of others. We hope to God that we will be able to celebrate a time when the Suqutri language and customs have a place in the school curriculum, in the university curriculum and in all the foundations that deal with preserving Socotran heritage.

On the third night, Salim returned to this vision of the transformative -- indeed, revolutionary -- nature of heritage. Noting that all of the “texts” presented to date had been redolent with the discontent of the Arab uprisings, Salim stressed, “I hope that the revolution here is also a cultural one, and includes literature, poetry and stories, and produces new values along with a rejection of the old ones. This is a worthy project.” And a difficult one: Midway through each evening’s recitals, several youths ducked out to catch the Arabic-dubbed Turkish television serial “Valley of the Wolves” on Abu Dhabi TV -- a striking portent of the Suqutri tongue’s chances against the global media onslaught. Sulayman Saad Ahmad, now the reigning “poet of the year,” evoked this sentiment in his final composition: “We have been struck by powerful storms and we have only [motorless] wooden logboats.”

A Revolution in Spirit

On January 3, after speeches at the revolutionary tent, a procession snaked its way through Hadiboh’s central market, pulling in vegetable vendors, children, a man riding a donkey and a lone woman, who grabbed onto my arm. Taking cues from a man on a land cruiser-powered megaphone, the demonstrators shouted out slogans. One they returned to over and over: “Revolution, revolution in all of Yemen, from Socotra to ‘Amran!” In Hadiboh, so removed from Yemen in so many ways, this vow of unity was electrifying.

The spirit of revolution has arrived in Socotra, and many Socotrans are swept up by it. Still, the majority struggle with more immediate and, to them, far greater, concerns. This statement holds especially true for pastoralists living in Hadiboh’s hinterlands, that is, in Socotra’s own “periphery.” The 2011 drought, one of the worst in memory, forced already impoverished pastoralists to purchase feed for their animals from their meager life savings. Tourism, the former avenue to “sustainable development,” has all but dried up, too. And now, because of the Arab uprisings, the SGBP and various international NGOs have suspended their work -- and thus, the employment they offer -- on the islands. “Revolution? What revolution?” scoffed a Bedouin from the drought-stricken east. Many Socotrans continue to feel marginal, not least those of African descent, many of whom are children of former slaves (slavery was abolished on the islands by the Socialist regime). And yet the effects of the political ferment are palpable. Muhammad ‘Uthman, the “revolutionary” of African descent, described its impact in these words:

Now, thank God, now I feel as if I am a free citizen. I feel inside that I am a citizen who is free! Noble! I don’t have fear like I did before. I speak from a source of strength and I press my demands until they are realized. And I’ll shout and shout and shout and shout until they carry out our demands. And this is what we teach them -- the brothers who sit and look at us [bystanders] -- we teach them that the revolution, it realized a lot of their demands, this revolution…. And we say to them, “O watchers, o watchers, come with us, come join us.”

In February, Yemenia resumed one of its weekly flights between Sanaa and Hadiboh. That same month, demonstrators began calling for the resignation of the archipelago’s general director, Salim Dahaq, who, having mobilized counter-demonstrations, has managed to hold on to his position. Demonstrations continue on a biweekly basis with the revolutionaries and the now increasingly active supporters of Yemen’s southern separatist movement (al-Hirak) vying for influence. This contest has been mapped onto the physical landscape, where images of Yemen’s new president, ‘Abid Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, compete with flags of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) that have been painted prominently in public places.

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