By Stan Seiden
Sana’a’s “Death to America” signs are, unfortunately, perhaps the most ubiquitous image of the old city and its environs. They are so prevalent around the city that they almost slip from one’s attention, fading into the backdrop of the rest of the city. But I still find my attention tugged every time I pass another copy of the copied message, stenciled in bright red and green paint on the walls of houses, museums, restaurants and shops. “God is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Death to the Jews.” Blah blah blah.Life in a new city—particularly an international one—is sometimes an overwhelming experience. There is so much to take in, so much to discover. In this traveler’s experience, though, Sana’a has been a surprisingly easy city to adjust to, primarily thanks to the incredibly gracious nature of its residents. The shopowner across the street quizzes me on Arabic names for objects and products around his shop. The Old Sana’a resident who sold us mulberries on our first visit to his street shouts hello to us every time we pass him in the market. Despite its reputation abroad, Sana’a has been an amazingly welcoming place. Even the “death to America” signs are festively colored.
My decision to come to Sana’a to study Arabic and perform research for a graduate thesis was met by skepticism by many of my friends—and mild terror on the part of my family. Yemen is a country poorly represented in the media abroad, where the stories that tend to grab the most headlines are those of violence in the streets, terrorists abroad, and the dire implications of water shortage. My friends and colleagues made grim predictions of my inevitable kidnapping, while my family demanded that I never leave the house without a tracking device
In order to better understand the security situation in Yemen—and in an optimistic attempt to find some positive testimonies to calm my parents’ nerves—I cast a wide net across acquaintances and classmates and commenters on internet message boards in search of recent accounts of life in Yemen. I spoke to embassy employees, students, teachers, Yemenis and Americans and Britons. A few elements were common in everyone’s stories: politically, the country felt more stable than it had been during the revolution two years prior, and the uptick in kidnappings had many feeling more anxious than they had in years past. My embassy contact strongly advised that I avoid the country altogether (although, it was his job to do so). I was struck, though, by one comment in particular I heard from many of the Americans I spoke with. The exact phrasing varied, but most made reference to the phrase “death to Americans” being scrawled on walls all over Sana’a.
I was really disheartened to hear this. First, because I liked to believe that my family, friends, the media were all wrong about Yemen. It was more than a hotbed of terrorists, and it was not full of people who wanted me dead (or people who wanted me tied up and on camera in a remote village somewhere). I was sure that the Yemeni people must be smart enough to know the difference between American policy and the American people—so why were the walls of Sana’a all calling for our death? Was this true, or were my references simply blowing a few stray words of graffiti far out of proportion?
I was surprised—both pleasantly and unpleasantly—to learn almost immediately after my arrival in Sana’a just how ubiquitous the words “death to America” were around the city. On our second day in Sana’a, a classmate who had already been in the city for a number of weeks took us on a walk through the Old City to get tea by Bab al-Yemen. We had finished our tea and were surveying the plaza just inside the gate, talking about conceptions and misconceptions we had had before arriving in Yemen. I brought up the supposed “Death to America” mentioned by my Yemen contacts, and our guide for the day responded with surprise that I had not yet seen a graffito bearing the angry message. “Not yet,” I responded. “But I’m on the lookout.”
“Didn’t you realize?” he asked. “You were sitting right under one.”
I turned around, and sure enough there on the electrical conduit box beside the table where we had enjoyed our tea were stenciled the bold red letters, just below “God is the greatest” and just above “Death to Israel.” I had had no idea. I had seen the festive blocks of texts all over the city, before and during our trek through Old Sana’a, but failure to take the time to read the often fading traces of paint meant that I had not realized just what I was looking at. I had even photographed one of the slogans where it sat on a poster suspended over a shop beside the Bab al-Sabah marketplace.
Understanding just what is meant by this message (despite how clear it sounds) requires looking, at least briefly, at the history of the phrase. It first found its footing in Yemen in January of 2002, when the former leader of Yemen’s Houthi movement, Husayn al-Houthi, spread the phrase as a rallying warcry among his followers. The slogan was taken from revolutionary Iranian groups, and, some say, Hezbollah party members as well. Stephen Day, Yemen scholar and author, writes that the chant was slow to catch on with the followers of al-Houthi despite his enthusiasm for the violent message, largely because they saw no reason to align themselves with groups whose mission was entirely distinct from their own. Nevertheless, al-Houthi successfully planted a seed in the mind of his followers. By the time of, and perhaps even because of, his death at the hands of the Yemeni central government, the phrase would be permanently Houthi, and Houthis everywhere would continue touting the phrase.
As I learned and contemplated these calls for the death of my country all over a city I was growing to know and love, I found it difficult to comprehend. Every single person I had met in Sana’a was warm and welcoming. I had been invited to meals at their homes, given tours of their favorite parts of the city, and granted incredibly gracious gifts for no reason other than charity and hospitality. No one I had encountered had given me so much as a dirty look, and yet these angry signs were splattered block by block throughout Sana’a. Where were the artists, and how had I not managed to run into a single one so far?
As it turned out, I had. My friend was the first notice that the Houthi slogan did not come solely in its wall-side, painted version. It also existed in sticker form, approximately
-What do we remember of a new place?
-Signs all over Sana’a
-Comment of foreigners
-Days before I knew
-Once familiar, the sign is everywhere