Internal political fighting fed by external powers like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran has heavily damaged Yemen’s educational system, and the lives of those in academia.
Najat Sayim Khalil, a retired Yemeni professor of the Sanaa University, believes art and culture deserves better coverage, and is tired of politics always taking precedence over it.
“People don’t like politics because it brings death and misery,” Khalil says without directly mentioning Yemen, where political turbulence has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN.
Despite her disregard for it, politics has dictated the direction of Khalil’s life from the very beginning. It was her grandfather’s role as a public servant in the Ottoman Empire which saw him deployed to Yemen during World War I. But just as politics altered her family’s life’s course a century ago, it has also turned academia - as she has always known it - into a nightmare.
“When the Ottoman rule ended after World War I, Yemeni authorities demanded from the new Turkish Republic, [replacing the empire] to leave some of its public servants in Yemen to help the country run its state institutions. My grandfather was one of them, doing engineering work for the governor’s palace in Sanaa,” Khalil tells TRT World.
As a result, Khalil’s grandfather, Khalil Mustafa, stayed in Yemen, establishing his family there. Najat Khalil was born and grew up along with her three sisters and one brother in Yemen for mainly political reasons. “I am originally Turkish,” she reminds me.
Almost exactly a century after her grandfather’s deployment to Yemen, another political incident, a civil war, triggered by the uprisings across the Arab world, forced her to leave her beloved university for Turkey. The ‘Arab Spring’ protests began first at her university. She recalls how the institution was divided during the 2011 protests into two camps - one supporting the ‘Arab Spring’, with the other opposing.
In March 2015, when the war in Yemen escalated between Iran-backed Houthis, a political coalition of northern Shia tribes, and the Saudi-backed Yemen government, Khalil, a social psychologist, was in Turkey as one of the co-organisers of a conference titled, “Yemen under the Ottoman Rule”.
Following the four day-long conference, she could not return to Yemen. Tensions escalated in the capital Sanaa, which was under severe Saudi bombardment, closing down its airport to civilian flights. Since then, the airport has remained closed to civilian flights. On March 26, her airplane was rerouted to Turkey. She has been living in Turkey ever since.
Politics strikes, once again.
The impact of Yemen’s chaotic politics on Khalil’s life is echoed in what it has done to the previously peaceful campus life of Sanaa University. Its academics have suffered without salaries or adequate health care for years, she explains. The deadly pandemic has made things worse.
The total number of deaths of academics at the university from the lack of access to medicine and health treatment are enormous, she says. But the world’s continuing “focus is on the political aspects while the humanitarian situation has become very dangerous,” she says.
“One of my colleagues was just recently kicked out from his apartment because he could not pay his rent. He and his family are now in danger of living in the streets,” the 57-year-old scholar explains. Most of her colleagues also moved to their relatives’ and friends’ houses because they could not afford to pay their own rents.
The Sanaa University, located in the capital, is Yemen’s first and primary high educational institute. It’s the biggest university across the country and boasts several faculties. It has developed projects with international partners like the University of Minnesota, the University of Tennessee and the Goethe University of Germany on issues like khat usage by Yemenis. From the 1990s until 2011, Khalil had been involved in the khat project. Khat is a flowering plant, containing elements that causes euphoria and is often used as a recreational drug. It is highly addictive.
She is in contact with most of her colleagues and they tell her how grave the situation has become at the university. But fearing local retaliation, they chose not to speak to TRT World, she adds.
“Ten of my colleagues at the Sanaa University passed away last year due to inadequate health care. They died from blood pressure, diabetes and other reasons because they don’t have money to buy their medicine. All academics at the university have not received their salaries since 2016 due to the civil war escalation,” she says.
While the Houthis claimed the capital in September 2014, the central bank, which pays public servant salaries, had stayed in Sanaa until 2016, when the Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi moved it to Aden, a southern port city.
Due to the central bank’s shift to Aden, public servants including academics at the Sanaa University could not receive their salaries, Khalil says, giving university staff serious financial difficulties.
“They use all of their sources to survive. First, they spent all their money. Then, they sold their valuable things [like golden bracelets women have]. After that, they basically began selling their furniture and other goods,” she says.
“This month has been particularly very bad for them until now,” Khalil says. “Out of hope, some of them moved to Aden to find jobs there.” Universities under Houthi control have suffered more than other Yemeni universities due to the control of the central bank by Aden, she says.
Between the 2014 Houthi seizure of Sanaa, an ancient city declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding universal value, and the 2016 central bank’s move to Aden, Yemen’s suffering has skyrocketed.
2015: a turning point
2015 was a critical year for both Khalil and Yemen.
In 2015, Hadi left Sanaa for Riyadh after the Houthis laid siege to the presidential palace, dismantling his government triggering the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen war.
“In fact, the UAE-Saudi coalition's intervention in the Yemen war did not achieve any of its declared goals for its war on Yemen. On the contrary of those goals, the Houthis became more powerful and took control of the ground,” Khalil views.
“The President of the Republic of Yemen (Hadi) is still living in a Saudi hotel with his government ministers and cannot return to Yemen. The UAE-Saudi coalition, as well as the Houthi forces, have achieved one goal, which is to destroy the land and people in Yemen,” Khalil adds.
For Khalil, the year was also extraordinary.
While a brutal war raged across both Sanaa and Yemen, Khalil and her colleagues were just carrying out their academic duties for the University. After a two-year sabbatical, which she used in Turkey, she returned to Sanaa in June 2014.
“In the summer of 2014, we started preparing a conference on the Ottoman rule in Yemen in the Sanaa University. We wanted to encourage ourselves to do something in the middle of the war,” she says.
But the deteriorating political situation in Sanaa forced them to move the conference to the Hodeidah University in Hodeidah, a western port city along the Red Sea. “Then, because the situation also got worse there, we changed the conference’s location to the Taiz University [in Taiz, a southwestern city],” she recalls.
Politics continued to haunt her and her colleagues as the Yemen war escalated in 2015.
“In February 2015, things got really untenable,” she says. The same month also witnessed the shifting of most embassies except some including Russian, Iranian and Chinese diplomatic posts to Saudi Arabia.
“I asked the then-Turkish ambassador Fazli Corman what we would do for the conference. He said we would do it in Turkey,” Khalil remembers. The conference had been held for four days in Turkey’s Usak University with the attendance of many academics including 17 Yemeni scholars from different universities in mid-March.
“I came to Istanbul on March 11,” she says. She was relentlessly pursuing her task to organise the conference, which fatefully brought her to Turkey again as if it were her inevitable destiny.
“It was a very very good conference,” she says.
Politics was to intervene again: UN imposed a no-fly zone over the country on March 28, two days before her return flight to Sanaa from Istanbul was scheduled.
“I saw Sanaa in the dark in the morning [like 2:00 AM] from the Turkish Airlines airplane. I thought our airplane would land soon,” she recalls. But suddenly her airplane was rerouted to Turkey through Saudi Arabia as the airport was under bombardment.
After three “difficult” months wandering in Jordan, Khalil and her sister Hana, who travelled to Turkey with her for the conference, decided to settle down in Turkey because she has a Turkish passport. Due to her Turkish origin, her request to receive a passport was approved by Ankara in 2012 in the early stages of the Yemeni unrest that was triggered by the Arab Spring protests.
“There was no way to return to Yemen. Also my friends told me that the Houthis took over the Sanaa University. The university also stopped paying my salaries,” she says. Khalil, who used to lead the university’s Gender and Development department, retired from the university in late 2016.
She remembers two people, Halit Eren, a Turkish academic, and Mehmet Bayraktar, a businessman, helping her settle in Turkey.
In early 2016, she was able to find an academic position in Istanbul as an expert on women issues for the IRCICA, a research centre for Islamic history, art and culture, which functions under the Organisation of Islamic Conference. She continues to work for the IRCICA.
She remains still worried about her fellow academics and students back in Sanaa.
“Can you imagine Sanaa University students who have no money to get their food? Some of them walk a lot of kilometres to go to their schools because there is no public transportation and no money to afford to use any vehicles,” she says.
When the airport is reopened to civilian flights, she wants to go back there.
“I want to work for Yemeni people, really.”