Foreign Policy: Yemeni Idol

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Ahmed Asery, a Yemeni medical student, practices guitar by candlelight. Due to frequent power interruptions and brownouts, the band often practices with the lights out. i i

Ahmed Asery, a Yemeni medical student, practices guitar by candlelight. Due to frequent power interruptions and brownouts, the band often practices with the lights out. Gaar Adams/Foreign Policy hide caption

itoggle caption Gaar Adams/Foreign Policy
Ahmed Asery, a Yemeni medical student, practices guitar by candlelight. Due to frequent power interruptions and brownouts, the band often practices with the lights out.

Ahmed Asery, a Yemeni medical student, practices guitar by candlelight. Due to frequent power interruptions and brownouts, the band often practices with the lights out.

Gaar Adams/Foreign Policy

In the waning days of 2010, a bookish medical student stood with me on an unswept street in the heart of Yemen's capital. I had just finished touring the medical NGO where he worked, and I recall chatting briefly with him about his upcoming exams and struggling to keep up with the archaic Arabic biology vocabulary that he peppered into our small talk. This nerdiness seemed especially striking later when he confessed — crammed with me in the backseat of a rusted-out Peugeot 405 shared taxi — that his parents had just kicked him out of their house for trying to start a rock band.

As we wandered between the poorly lit offices of the NGO talking about medical licensing, Ahmed Asery, a gaunt kid with close-cropped hair and a meticulously tucked collared shirt, seemed a far cry from an aspiring rock star. But on that short taxi ride, whipping through the narrow streets in the capital of one of the most conservative countries in the world, Ahmed spoke only of the excitement of learning to pluck away at his second-hand guitar. With that, he jumped out of the taxi — medical textbooks in hand — and was gone.

That is, until a few weeks later, when I saw him all over the Internet strumming that same guitar in front of crowds large enough to make an arena tour manager envious.

Sanaa, an ancient city of 2 million cradled high among the craggy rocks of the Haraz Mountains, tends to feel more like a small, hospitable town than a bustling capital. But despite all of the warmth, friendliness, and inescapable invitations to tea one finds here, I didn't necessarily expect to see Ahmed again after he hopped out of that taxi last December. I certainly did not expect to see him splashed all across YouTube.

But then a little thing called the Arab Spring changed everything.

The protests transformed the pedantic medical student from Sanaa University into a dreadlocked revolutionary, jamming in front of hundreds of thousands of people in Change Square. And the band over which Ahmed lost his family — 3 Meters Away — became Yemen's first and only activist music group, playing shows at the very heart of Yemen's protest movement.

Between my first meeting with him and my return to Yemen in January 2012, Ahmed went from a scrawny college kid one semester away from a medical license to being introduced as "the artist of the revolution" in front of mobs of his adoring countrymen.

The Arab Spring, needless to say, has yet to solve Yemen's looming problems. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen with a combination of guile and brute force for more than three decades, may have resigned, but his allies remain entrenched in the country's most sensitive security positions. Yemen's new leader was not drawn from the protesters' ranks — he is Saleh's own former vice president, Field Marshal Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, whose rule was confirmed in a presidential election in February, where he was the only candidate on the ballot. And no one among Yemen's many feuding power centers seems to have an answer to the ills plaguing the country — widespread electricity shortages, a depleting water supply, a moribund economy, and sky-high unemployment.

Yemen's turmoil has conspired to create a set of problems that, it is fair to say, rock stars like Mick Jagger were never forced to contend with on their rise to fame. And today, almost a year after our first meeting, Ahmed is taking a short break from his own attempts to repair his battered country one rock 'n' roll song at a time in the pursuit of something that seems to unify musicians from around the world: narcotics. Pushing me through throngs of shouting protesters in Change Square, we begin our increasingly desperate quest to locate qat, a popular local stimulant for us to chew.

"I never used to do qat," Ahmed confesses sheepishly, picking up speed as we skirt past gruesome pictures of dead protesters tacked onto the sides of tents that have stood in defiant protest of the Yemeni government for almost a year. The photographs were all enlarged to highlight each corpse's fatal gunshot wound from the sniper rifles of armed Saleh loyalists and security forces. "That is, until four months ago. We were playing a show in Djibouti, and some diplomats saw us. They invited me back to chew with them and talk about our perspective on Yemen."

Ahmed leans down to join a group of eager men rifling through bags of qat and inspects one handed to him by a wrinkly, toothless man. Ahmed scowls at the wilting leaves, hands back the bag, and bids farewell to the vendor. "How could I say no to an opportunity like that to talk about Yemen?" Deeper into the mass of protesters, the search continues. His dreadlocks and light blue T-shirt — a fading picture of Gandhi screened on the front — stand in marked contrast to the dusty thobes and red-and-white checkered keffiyehs of the men around him.

"Isn't that the man from television?" a young woman in full niqab whispers to her friend, motioning slightly to Ahmed with one black gloved hand as we walk past them. I smile at Ahmed in acknowledgment of his admirer, and quickly realize that she is not the only one — whispers, handshakes, and invitations to dinner greet him at every turn.

Continued At Foreign Policy

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