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Beyond Terrorism: Seeing Another Side Of Yemen

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Beyond Terrorism: Seeing Another Side Of Yemen


Beyond Terrorism: Seeing Another Side Of Yemen

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Over the past few weeks, we've heard a lot about Yemen, the country where a young Nigerian man studied before the attempted Christmas Day attack on a U.S.-bound jetliner. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab spent time in Yemen studying Arabic.

Five years earlier, Sandy Choi also went to language school there. She's now a photographer and a contributor to Foreign Policy magazine. The magazine's Web site is showcasing her photos of daily life in Yemen. You can see some of those photos at our Web site as well.

These are pictures of a Yemen we haven't seen much of since the attempted attack. And Sandy Choi joins me now in the studio.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. SANDY CHOI (Photographer, Foreign Policy Magazine): Thanks for having me, Guy.

RAZ: So you were a graduate student...

Ms. CHOI: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...when you traveled to the capital city...

Ms. CHOI: Yes.

RAZ: ...Sana'a. Do you recognize the Yemen that's been portrayed in the media?

Ms. CHOI: No, to be perfectly honest. It was really a shock to me. I mean, it was a little shocking just to see Yemen all over the news in the first place. But it would be like seeing the neighborhood you grew up in on the news and described as a dot on a map and a terrorist haven with sort of no regard to it actually being a living, breathing place.

RAZ: Now, you took some incredible photographs of this beautiful...

Ms. CHOI: Thank you.

RAZ: ...beautiful city - the old city of Sana'a. And this is, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ms. CHOI: Yes.

RAZ: There are four in Yemen.

Ms. CHOI: What we're looking at right now is the old city. And in fact, it's...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHOI: ...the view from the roof of the house I lived in.

RAZ: This was your view...

Ms. CHOI: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...looking out at these sort of gingerbread...

Ms. CHOI: Yeah.

RAZ: How would you describe this architecture?

Ms. CHOI: That's exactly what it looks like. It's kind of like a life-size gingerbread house, if you can imagine.

RAZ: Gingerbread city.

Ms. CHOI: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, the house that I lived in was one of those buildings, sort of the...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHOI: ...four or five stories tall, dirt brick with white trim around the windows. And at night, it's really kind of magical to see the stained glass windows lit up and the white trim illuminated. It's very special.

RAZ: You also traveled in parts of the country, and there's a beautiful photograph of the city of Shibam.

Ms. CHOI: Shibam, yeah.

RAZ: Shibam. And if you were to drive past this photo, you would just think that this was modern apartment buildings, these sort of cheap-looking tenements. They're actually 16th century skyscrapers.

Ms. CHOI: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHOI: Very often, they'll refer to it as the Manhattan of the desert.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHOI: And it really is sort of what it looks like from a distance as you're driving by. They're just these tall, smooth skyscraper-like buildings. But when you get closer to them, you can actually get a good look at what the construction looks like. And it really is just - it's mud and clay and straw and very basic materials.

RAZ: And people live in them.

Ms. CHOI: Absolutely.

RAZ: I mean, they are still living, breathing...

Ms. CHOI: Absolutely.

RAZ: ...houses.

Ms. CHOI: When you enter into Shibam, actually, you realize very quickly that you've just stumbled into someone's town. You know, there are schools. There are shops. There are people coming and going from home. It's very much just a town or city.

RAZ: I'm clicking through these photographs of Sana'a...

Ms. CHOI: Yes.

RAZ: ...and there's a picture of three old men...

Ms. CHOI: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...just sort of chatting in the town square.

Ms. CHOI: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: That was a kind of a daily ritual for you.

Ms. CHOI: It absolutely was, and that's actually one of my favorite pictures. And I remember, I just - I loved these three old men. They were obviously very close friends and had known each other for a long time. And when I would come through that particular square, there was a juice shop and a little restaurant and a tea shop, and you would just see people coming through, maybe on their way to the market or on their way to work and stopping to chat with one another, and they were sort of a fixture in the neighborhood.

RAZ: Do you plan to go back anytime soon?

Ms. CHOI: I would absolutely love to go back. I actually had spent some more time after this in other parts of the Middle East and spent a year and a half living in Cairo.

I'd very much like to go back to Yemen and just see what's happening in my neighborhood, if the people I remember are still there and what sorts of things have changed. But it's someplace I do hope to get back to.

RAZ: That's Sandy Choi. She's a photographer and a contributor to Foreign Policy magazine. You can see a selection of her photos from Yemen at our Web site. That's

Sandy Choi, thanks so much.

Ms. CHOI: Thanks, Guy.

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