Sanaa, Yemen – The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen – riven by security concerns, political uncertainty and a mounting humanitarian crisis – at first glance seems an unlikely host for TED talks: slickly produced conferences first held in the US where speakers present “ideas worth spreading”.
But that’s exactly what happened last week. Riding a wave of success from Yemen’s inaugural TEDx conference in December, the second gathering was triple the size of the first.
“This year we decided to make it bigger,” said Samed Ahmed, a pharmacist by day and TEDx co-organiser the rest of the time. “It will be shown all over the world that Yemeni people can do something big.”
TEDx events are independently organised offshoots of the twice-a-year TED conference. The format – speakers have roughly 15 minutes to convey an idea that does not have an explicitly political or religious agenda – is the same around the world. But there is no doubt that this was a distinctly Yemeni affair.
Passing by guards armed with Kalashnikovs, men entered the auditorium through one door and women through another. After collecting their gift bags, the more than 600 attendees went to their seats. The 600 people were pre-selected in a process that drew criticism, but which organisers have defended as ensuring a diverse audience.
As the first speaker on stage, Abduljaleel Heidar set the tone for this conference’s “Actions Matter” theme. Using a story about how giving up qat – a mild narcotic chewed by many Yemenis – helped a taxi driver improve his lot in life, Heidar made an impassioned plea for Yemen to become a “qat-free nation”. The cost of qat, he pointed out, is staggering.
In a country where almost half the population lives below the poverty line, it’s not uncommon for people to spend 1,000 riyals ($4.65) per day on qat. That adds up, Heidar said, drawing a hearty round of applause. “With 30,000 riyals ($140) [extra per month], a person can change their life.”
While TED talks run the risk of being abstract, the 17 speakers in Sanaa almost unanimously provided a humbling dose of reality and a look at the unique hardships facing Yemen. Instead of calling for regulating investments, Mohammed Mahdi called for investment in the nation, period. Rather than demanding better literature, Eithah al-Maghafi promoted basic literacy through the I Love My Book campaign. “People are not aware of the importance of reading, especially for kids,” she said. “We don’t have any libraries in Yemen for kids.”
Other talks were more light-hearted. A dentist encouraged the audience to smile more, another speaker wanted to expand the domestic cinema industry, and one woman described how she turned a micro-finance loan into a booming cake-making business.
The equally entertaining musical interlude featured Guns N’ Roses, with a twist. The unlikely trio playing “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” included an electric guitarist, a traditional Arab Oud player, and a lead singer wearing a hijab, or headscarf.
There were also the requisite flops. One man proposed using old jet engines as a power source, drawing a tepid and confused reaction from the audience. Another speaker literally fell flat: He tripped coming on stage.
Endearing miscues aside – one speaker’s hijab slowly slipped off her head and the mics cut out countless times – the event went as smoothly as could have been expected. The fact that TEDx came to Yemen at all still seemed novel to many.
“I’m proud of the organisers,” said Ali al-Marrani, who spoke at the 2012 conference in Sanaa and has attended other TEDx events in Saudi Arabia. “I know the difficulties and challenges they are facing.”
Two years ago, heavy fighting raged only blocks away from where the conference was held. Indeed, during the tumult wrought by the Arab Spring, nobody imagined hosting such an event would be possible. Organiser Samed Ahmed explained that the idea originated in June 2012, after the former president had stepped down, as a way to help lift people’s spirits. Even the mayor of Sanaa got on board.
“After the revolution and the situation that happened here in Yemen, many people maybe lost hope. That’s why we made [last year’s theme] ‘Inspiring Hope,'” he said. This time around, the theme “Actions Matter” was chosen as a logical progression. “Now you are inspired, then go make some action for this country.”
If last year’s event was any indication, TEDxSanaa 2013 is likely to have an impact outside of Yemen, too. “TEDx is something that changed my life,” said Marrani. His talk about beating the odds by thriving in the wake of a near-fatal gun accident that cost him his eye was posted to YouTube and quickly went viral. With 1.2 million views, it is the most popular TEDx video from the Middle East and the ninth-most-watched ever.
That said, the image of Yemen that TEDxSanaa presents to the world remains largely an aspirational one. The disproportionately well-educated, English-speaking, and well-off crowd included unemployed youth but also doctors, businessmen and politicians. And, though free for attendees, Samed Ahmed said sponsors are footing the bill for an event that will ultimately cost around $100,000. Overall, the production represented a relatively narrow (yet growing) cross-section of Yemeni society.
Nonetheless, TEDx puts Yemen on the map in a way that poverty, terrorism or instability hasn’t, and momentum continues to build. Organisers announced that in coming months they will expand TEDx to two other major Yemeni cities, Aden and Taiz.
The events seem to be welcomed by most – including Ahmed Bin Mubarak, a prominent politician deeply involved in the country’s ongoing post-Arab Spring transition.
“This is the new Yemen,” he declared.