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Yemen: A complicated puzzle

Karim Ben Khelifa

Yemen’s profile rose dramatically following a cargo bomb plot on two planes bound for the United States on October 29, 2010. The parcels were intercepted by Dubai and Britain, and several days later the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. The Muslim nation has increasingly gained a reputation as a safe haven for Islamic extremists. Here, men wearing traditional dress stand on a path through cactus trees. Most of the villages in the countryside are made of local stone and surrounded by natural vegetation, making it difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding wilderness.

 

As Yemen is thrust into the American consciousness following last month’s package bomb scares, we’ve been trying to put context around this physically and culturally distant country.

Photographer Karim Ben Khelifa helps shed some light with images from his time living in and visiting Yemen over the past decade.

Khelifa feels like the perception of the country is very different from the situation on the ground and that motivates him. “What is interesting as a photojournalist is to go behind what is assumed by the Western world,” Khelifa says.

It's certainly not the easiest or safest place to work. He points out that like the United States, it’s one of the most armed countries in the world. Cultural differences and a suspicion of Westerners also make it difficult to move freely in some areas. But Khelifa’s background is an asset. He grew up in both Belgium and Tunisia, so he speaks Arabic. Khelifa also grows a beard to help him blend into the society physically.

His other method of immersing himself in the country has been to “get a car, travel around, get stuck and see the country.” And it’s been getting stuck on the side of the road in his old 1977 Toyota Land Cruiser, time and time again, that has shown him the softer side of Yemen. The locals have never allowed him to stay broken down for long. If they can’t fix the car, they invite Khalifa into their homes and shower him with hospitality, he says.

Khelifa calls Yemen “a very complicated puzzle.” There is a widening disparity between rich and poor. Poverty makes people an easy target for al-Qaida recruiters. Water is growing ever scarcer, and there is pressure from being at the crossroads of the Arab world and Africa since the country lies just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Yet it's also what he considers one of the "purest" forms of Arab culture, from the architecture to religious customs.

His goal in continuing to work in Yemen is to try to help people notice the commonalities between East and West. He sees a danger in “people focusing on what puts people apart than what puts people together.”

See the slideshow of Karim's work. 

 

Michael Kamber

Photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa in his 1977 Toyota Land Cruiser as he works in Yemen.