Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

Brothers in Arms: Sanaa Cab Drivers, 8th March 2008
March 8, 2008, 6:35 pm
Filed under: Yemen


Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and often Bobby Sands, follow me wherever I go. Despite having left Ireland years ago, I have not been able to leave the giants of the Irish Republican movement behind. This is because, somehow, they have made it into the liberation lore of the Middle East’s taxi drivers.

Over the past week here in Sanaa, I have been repeatedly congratulated on my kinship with these gentlemen. The frequency of this event seems to increase the further away I get. This is a little uncomfortable. In the bit of Ireland where I grew up, Adams and McGuinness were not heroes. They were murderers.

In Sanaa, however, they have joined the great pantheon in the sky where successful anti-imperialists go when their work is done.

The conversations go a little like this:

Taxi-Driver: So, where are you from.
Me: Ireland.
TD: Oh, really? Which part – North or South.
M: North.
TD: Fantastic! Then we are brothers. Down with the Brits. [or a similar comment.]

This has happened four times in seven days. Now, I like the easy affinity with Sanaa’s cabbies that this identification seems to give. Instant camaraderie: Just add enemies.

The other day, one Qat-chewing, Jambia-wielding chap, as he was weaving through the late-afternoon traffic, announced apropos of this topic that Gerry Adams was one of his personal heroes.

So, as the streets clogged up and progress slowed, I decided to try and add a little nuance to his view of that old, distant conflict. “Adams was a terrorist, who killed civilians”, I declared, in a not very nuanced way. “And there are two communities in Northern Ireland, not just the Irish and an occupying army.”

He chewed his Qat for a bit. “Sure,” he replied, “but in a civil war, everyone is a fighter. It was only when the IRA went to London [conducting a terror campaign on the “mainland” from the 1970s to the 1990s] that they were in the wrong. The campaign in Ireland itself was legitimate.”

His knowledge of the historical detail was impressive – but the Yemenis do have an interest in these things. In 1967, before the British army had even entered Northern Ireland, they were being kicked out of South Yemen.

Conversely, during the 1994 Yemen Civil War, the British Government gave political support to the ‘secessionist’ South that it had previously occupied. Yemen has definitely seen its own version of perfidious Albion.

But my driver’s finely calibrated moral measures made me wonder.

It made me wonder about how in liberation lore the victims of violence get filtered out in the a process of dehumanisation similar to that that led to the imperialist impulse in the first place.

It made me wonder about how killing some people is a good thing while killing other people is a crime against humanity.

My driver expressed no regret when I mentioned the murder of eight Israeli students at a seminary liniked to the religous settler movement, in Jerusalem on the same day. He changed the subject to the simultaneous horror happening in Gaza. I hardly blame him.

I shouldn’t be so naïve.

This is how it works. Pick a side.

But I hate picking sides. So maybe I will adjust my nationality to something less heroic in the minds of Sanaa’s cab drivers.

Or maybe I should just keep quiet, particularly when they ask my name. I found out today that “Jifri” is a Yemeni slang-word for a short-stocked Kalashnikov.


1 Comment so far
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Ya Jifri. I believe you just got nicknamed. And if you dispute its a propos-ness I shall post something here about how you squared off at some demo against that little Egyptian thug with the pistol under his arm. Remember him? Corner of Talat Harb and Bustan, ‘Roid King of Lazoughly? Only a foot and a half taller you than you with a neck like a gamousa thigh. Sawed off shotgun was what I was thinking at the time (as put cammy on motordrive), but a short stocked AK works. Don’t make me remind you!

Comment by MC

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