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The peacemaker

One man is determined to bring peace to Yemen's warring tribes - even if he dies trying.

Last Modified: 10 Jan 2010 08:33
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Filmmaker Mike Healy travelled to Yemen to gain a unique insight into the tribal feuds and revenge killings that plague the country and to meet the Yemeni sheikh who is determined to bring peace and stability to his homeland - even if he dies trying.

He describes meeting Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Marwani or The Peacemaker.


Tribal conflict and revenge killings are rife in Yemen, where about half the population is illiterate and poverty is widespread.

With war-torn Somalia and Sudan on one side and the Middle East on the other, Yemen's internal problems are becoming a global threat in the form of gun-smuggling and terrorism.

And as with most Islamic countries, the perceived injustices against Muslims in Palestine and elsewhere - the bombing of Gaza took place during my first trip to Yemen - are motivation enough to take up arms.

The growing influence of al-Qaeda in Yemen is likely to lead to further instability. 

Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Marwani is one Yemeni who is determined to change this and expects to die trying. The founder of Dar al-Salam (House of Peace), an organisation that aims to bring feuding tribes together and to end revenge killings, al-Marwani travels around Yemen unarmed acting as a peace negotiator.

Meeting the peacemaker

Sheikh al-Marwani risks his life to achieve  stability and peace for Yemen

From my first meeting with al-Marwani - the peacemaker - it was clear that his work was dangerous. It was also clear that he does not want to survive it.

Fifteen of his colleagues have been killed in the past 12 years as they negotiated peace on the frontlines of the tribal conflicts that cripple Yemen. Many others have been injured.

For us, it all started when my colleague Dug Neilson read an article about al-Marwani and his efforts.

We both agreed that he was a great character who could help us understand an under-reported phenomenon in a fascinating country.

I contacted the sheikh through The Yemen Times, an English-language daily that has covered him before. Almigdad Mojalli, one of their journalists, put me in touch with al-Marwani and then did an excellent job as a fixer for my subsequent trips to Yemen. 

Going to rural Yemen is like stepping into a timeless world.

Much of the culture, traditions and architecture have remained unchanged for centuries, as have the issues of revenge killing and tribal conflict.

I found the Yemeni people, who pride themselves on being the original Arabs, to be friendly, hospitable and curious.

Al-Marwani was immediately welcoming and greeted me with a bear hug. He and the members of his organisation were extremely helpful and he was eager to show off the foreign journalist to other tribal leaders.

He told us that in the past he was an army officer and a lawyer but that he always wanted to do something useful and high-profile for his country.

As a youth he was attracted to extremism and violence, but over time, as he took advice from clerics and read a range of books, including the Bible, his views began to change.

Peace, not death, became his objective - at least for others.

Martyr for peace

It is one of the traditional roles of sheikhs to solve conflicts between hostile tribes

Seeing tribal conflict as Yemen's main problem, al-Marwani started to recruit influential friends on his mission to bring peace to his troubled nation and founded his organisation with the aim of bringing hostile tribes together.

He is an impressive man with a larger-than-life character. Savvy and persuasive, he is ideally suited to his role as peacemaker.

He wants peace and stability for his country and is prepared to look to Western as well as traditional Islamic influences to achieve this.

Unsurprisingly in a country with an al-Qaeda presence, this has gained him some dangerous enemies.

This does not concern al-Marwani who says he wants to become a martyr for peace so that his name will be remembered long after his death.

He is a peacemaker with a deathwish; motivated by the same rewards as the bomber - glory, immortality, entry into paradise and the advancement of a cause.

Tribal system

It is a combination of his commonality with his own people and his understanding of Yemen's place in the world that drives his organisation.
 
His daily work involves negotiating a truce between warring tribes or trying to negotiate the release of a kidnap victim, meeting government or international representatives, organising workshops or plays, and dealing with the administration and promotion of his organisation.

His style is hands-on and if the organisation needs some posters printed, al-Marwani will go to the printers himself.

Usually in the late afternoon heat his energy and enthusiasm starts to fade and he rewards himself with a relaxing session of qat-chewing with his friends before returning home to his two wives and children.

The West may talk about winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world, but actions rarely match the rhetoric.

Although al-Marwani has Western support (he relies on funding from Europe), it is crucial that the ideas and their execution come from Yemenis themselves.

While al-Marwani's message is West-friendly, he understands the status of the gun in his culture and takes care to ensure that his mission does not emasculate the proud Yemeni male.

He demonstrates an effective way of combating a culture of violence; he does not advocate dismantling the ancient tribal system, but reforming it.

Gender inequality

The gun is a symbol of manhood and status in Yemeni society

One of the most noticeable features of Yemeni tribal society is the separation of the genders, which is extreme even by Middle Eastern standards.

Traditionally women are forbidden from even being in the same room as the negotiators, although al-Marwani encourages women, including one of his two wives, to take part behind-the-scenes.

More involvement in the peace process by women may help erode the culture of male pride that so often leads to conflict in the first place, but women are still a long way from any sort of equality.

As one elderly tribesman advised me: "You should have two wives like me: one to make love to while the other pours you a bath."

Although al-Marwani is progressive to an extent, he is still a traditionalist in many ways. If he were to allow a woman to accompany him to a negotiation (even a Western journalist, I am told) the consequences would be extremely serious and dangerous.

The battle for gender equality in Yemen is perhaps even more difficult than the battle for peace.

Challenges

The two biggest challenges we encountered while making the film were the difficulties involved in travelling in some regions outside the capital, Sana'a, and bureaucratic red tape.

Kidnapping is a big problem in Yemen, and several foreigners were kidnapped and killed shortly after my final trip. At one point, a tribal leader invited me to his village, but my fixer advised against it, as kidnapping was the likely outcome.

In most cases, the kidnapped are extremely well-treated and then released unharmed, but the growing influence of al-Qaeda in the country is reducing this likelihood.

The authorities are therefore reluctant to allow foreigners a free rein while in Yemen and, although my filming had been approved in advance via the Yemeni embassy in London, the interior ministry stopped our filming half way through our first trip.

The different ministries seem to act as separate competing authorities and we lost a few days' filming as we met representatives from the interior, foreign and information ministries.

The most sensitive issue was the gun market I filmed outside Sana'a, where one salesman boasted that he could supply any weapon short of planes and tanks. The authorities threatened my fixer and made me delete this tape.

The foreign ministry eventually okayed more filming on the condition that we paid a government minder to accompany us, but by this time al-Marwani had been called away to a distant region and it was clear that I would have to return to Yemen at a later time to continue filming.

A lifetime's work

Al-Marwani organises workshops to encourage peace and tolerance within Yemini society

The film is about war, extremism and violence, so it surprised me that al-Marwani and his team became so embarrassed when violence briefly erupted at the beginning of one of the negotiations we attended. 
 
They may be open about discussing their country's problems but seemed ashamed to show behaviour that contradicts the positive message of their work.

The government minder tried to block my camera at this moment, under the pretence of ensuring my safety.
 
We are still in touch with al-Marwani and he says he is looking forward to seeing the film. His organisation is becoming more influential all the time, acting as a bridge between the Yemeni government and the country's tribes.

Al-Marwani expects to die on a peace mission long before his country sees peace but his young son is preparing to one day take on his father's role - it will probably be a lifetime's work for him too.

Mike Healy is currently working on an hour-long documentary about the warlords of northern Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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