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Yemen: Art, Love, Bombs And Bans

By Dorian Geiger

17 February 2017

They call him the Banksy of Yemen. But Murad Subay, a 29-year-old street artist based in the capital Sanaa, shrugs off such comparisons.

Subay has transformed the streets of an active war zone into his own vibrant gallery. His canvases are often the ruins of war - crumbling, abandoned houses with gaping holes caused by mortar explosions.

"It is three letters only: W-A-R," said Subay of his work, which continually shines a light on Yemen's horrific humanitarian situation. 

"It's just to show the ugliness of war - this is what happens by war. This is my way to to protest against the injustice of this war and for peace."

Subay's work also focuses on Yemen's dire economic situation, political corruption, disappeared persons, and US drone strikes.

Yemen's revolution, which unfolded on streets across the country on the heels of the Arab Spring just over six years ago, largely inspired his brand of artistic activism. Subay was there with the people, protesting in the streets of Sanaa. Those blissful but fleeting moments were short-lived, as the revolution would soon turn into a full-blown civil war.

"Yemenis were united in every part of Yemen," said Subay. "It was a great moment. We loved it. When the revolution came, it never stops and it will continue."

Unlike many street artists, who often work in the shadows, Subay's work is a collaborative effort. Subay's artistic campaigns invite everyday Yemenis to pick up a paintbrush or a can of spray paint and participate in his art. It's an artistic approach he says is for the people, by the people.

"It's a voice of [the people]," he described. "I'm a Yemeni. When I discuss something, I first [ask] what people should care about, what they are afraid of, and what [are] the issues that concern them? People are longing to end this war."

His open-sourced style of art is what led him to his wife Hadil Almowafak. Almowafak, then in high school, had learned of one of Subay's campaigns on social media. It was 2012, shortly after Yemen's revolution and the ousting of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

She was mixing colours when Subay first approached her.

"When we arrived we saw people painting on the walls," she recalled. "Everyone was there. That was something new. People in the streets were standing by watching or [were] taking the brush and started painting. He wants to make the whole society part of his work."

From then on, Almowafak was hooked - on both Subay and his art.

"Even if I had school, many times I would skip school just to go paint with them," she added.

Three years later, in October 2015, the pair celebrated their wedding. By that time, civil war had broken out in Yemen.

Today, Houthi rebels and loyalists to former president Saleh are still engaged in a bloody battle against the current government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition - aligned with Hadi, and supported by the US - bombs the country routinely. It's a fertile breeding ground for al-Qaeda, which the US frequently targets with drone strikes, and there's an ISIL presence, too. But more often than not it seems, it is everyday Yemenis who pay the cost, often with their lives.

Earlier this month, a botched Navy Seals raid targeting al-Qaeda killed roughly 30 people, many of them civilians and some of them children, in President Donald Trump's first attempt at military intervention in the country.

Tens of thousands have died in the fighting, many of them regular citizens. Hospitals and schools and have been bombed to bits, starvation is rampant and UNICEF has reported that a child dies every 10 minutes.

"Every day you hear of civilians being killed," said Almowafak, now 21.

"When you hear air strikes, especially if it's nearby, the whole house will be shaking. At night, you don't know where they're going to hit, especially [if] you've been hearing they're targeting civilians. You're always in this uncertainty. You don't know if you're going to be next, if your neighbour's going to be next. It was insane. They will be firing at each other. The shelling, you've got mortars, you've got snipers killing people. It's just crazy."

Then, last year, the couple received life-changing news: Almowafak had been accepted to Stanford University in California, where she is currently studying. Conditions in Yemen had deteriorated at such a swift and deadly pace that it was impossible for Almowafak to pursue a serious education at home.

The acceptance offer from such a prominent US university was a life-preserver amid a sea of death and destruction. It was a way out and a bridge to achieving her dreams. Almowafak had dreamed of coming to America since she was a child. 

But under Trump's immigration ban that prohibits citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, from entering the US for 90 days, Almowafak's academic future has been cast into doubt.

"It's really unfair," said Almowafak, who wants to be a human rights lawyer.

Although a federal judge in Seattle has temporarily blocked the ban, it is unclear if this will stick.

"I am disappointed to see America take this road. I do feel like I'm trapped, like when I was in Yemen and the airport was closed and people wouldn't be able to travel. I felt trapped there, as well, but at least there was war. The war was unfair to us. But here in US, in the land of freedom, and this happens, I just couldn't believe it."

The US only granted her a 12-month visa for her studies, as opposed to a four-year permit, which Almowafak would need to continue studying. If the block on Trump's ban doesn't hold, Almowafak will probably be forced to abandon her studies and return to Yemen indefinitely.

"You're at Stanford, that's a good place to be trapped in," said Almowafak. "It's like it's a golden cage. I can't visit my husband. He cannot come here, as well. I cannot visit my family. I can't study abroad. I came here to study and I cannot do that and in a year I won't be able to if the ban continues. I'm holding on to hope because I don't want to think about what's going to happen next."

Almowafak had planned to return to Yemen this summer to be with Subay, but now those plans are in jeopardy.

"The first time [I heard about the ban], I thought it was a joke actually," said Subay. "[The US] is the country of opportunities, the country of democracy and in the 21st century, you ban people according to their race, their religion for their nationality? This is stupidity. This law is racist. It's unbelievable. [It's] like putting honest, innocent people in a prison."

Though the odds are stacked against them, Subay refuses to believe that his wife must give up on her dreams. 

"She's been following this chance to have a scholarship for two years. I know, I was there every step," he said.

"Our country is what they call the third world. Our chances [are] not a lot. It sometimes comes once. So such a chance, to prove yourself in such a respectable university, it is really important and [precious] so she must and she will stay there to continue her studies. She is very brilliant."


Dorian Geiger is a Canadian journalist, award-winning filmmaker, and a social video producer at Al Jazeera English.