What's Going on in Yemen?

In Spring of 2010, Haley Sweetland Edwards took us on a tour of Yemen for the Spinning the Globe section of mental_floss magazine. Here's her explanation of the current situation, followed by an excerpt from last year's Yemen feature.

© YAHYA ARHAB/epa/Corbis

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world. It’s economy has flat-lined. It’s facing one of the world’s worst water crises. And for the last seven years, it has been wracked by three separate on-again, off-again civil wars: a Shia rebellion in the north, a separatist insurgency in the south, and a war against al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organization’s scarily powerful Yemen-based branch.

So what exactly is going on in Yemen right now?

Here’s the CliffsNotes version.

After the Egyptian rebellion, a handful of idealistic young men and women took to the streets, calling for the immediate end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. They wanted a new government, a real democracy, anti-corruption measures and, in a place where unemployment levels hover around 40 percent, they wanted a chance at getting a job. This youth movement was, and has continued to be, entirely peaceful. That’s no small fact in a country where there are more than enough guns for every man, woman and child.

© YAHYA ARHAB/epa/Corbis

The violence you’re hearing about on the news this week is the result of three separate, if loosely related, battles. The first is one-sided, and involves Yemeni troops and security forces brutally crushing protesters’ tents and open firing into peaceful demonstrations in cities like the capital, the port city of Aden, and Taiz.

The second is a revenge battle between forces loyal to Saleh and those loyal to the al-Ahmar family, which heads the most powerful tribal confederacy in Yemen. Last week, al-Ahmar tribesmen attacked Saleh’s presidential palace, killing seven and seriously wounding Saleh, who was whisked off to Saudi Arabia last weekend for medical treatment.

The third battle is an uptick in U.S. drone attacks on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen’s mountainous countryside. This is a shadowy, poorly reported war that is hopelessly complicated by the fact that al-Qaeda operatives are taking advantage of the chaos in Yemen right now by mingling with other rebels and anti-government militants.

What happens next in Yemen is anyone’s guess. Saleh is expected to return to Sana’a next week, according the Yemeni Embassy in D.C. If and when he does, the future of Yemen will depend to a large degree on whether or not he’s willing to step down, make peace with the al-Ahmar family, and allow for a transition of power. If he’s not, we may very well watch this beautiful, long-teetering country finally tip.

* * * * *

Yemen: The 50-Cent Tour

NRA Heaven

Yemen is one of the most heavily armed nations in the world. Some studies have indicated that there are as many as 17 million guns in the country and that about 75 percent of the male population packs heat. (Women there don’t generally own guns.) Other studies put that number closer to 60 million, indicating that about 98 percent of Yemeni men own at least one weapon; most own four or five.

Many Yemeni boys receive their first gun as a rite of passage in their teenage years and keep it their entire lives. In the countryside, particularly in places where there are long-standing tribal feuds, men often shop for vegetables, visit neighbors, and drink tea, all with their AK-47s in tow.

Until recently, men could buy weapons easily at massive arms markets scattered around Yemen. But in 2007, the government began a disarmament campaign that required weapons to be registered. This led many arms dealers to move underground. Today, most Yemenis buy their weapons on the black market with relative ease. The government also made it illegal to carry firearms in major cities, such as the capital of Sana’a. Still, it’s common to see young boys playing in the streets of Sana’a with plastic toy AK-47s slung over their backs.

Khat Fancy

Two-thirds of Yemenis chew khat. (Also spelled kat and qat in English, making it a useful Scrabble word.) It’s a mild narcotic that often makes people feel more alert and motivated. Many people chew the leaves every day for about four or five hours after lunch, and it’s not uncommon to see taxi drivers, store keepers, clerks, and policemen with a wad in their cheeks.

At first, the drug acts as a social lubricant. As one Yemeni man put it, “It makes you talk like a teenage girl.” But as the effects of the drug wear on, people tend to become more introspective and goal-oriented. “Every time I chew, I promise myself I’m going to do push-ups every night and finally write a book,” reported another Yemeni man. “I never do.”

While khat remains a major part of Yemeni culture, some believe it should be outlawed. It can cause liver damage and ulcers, and it’s bad for teeth. Khat is also surprisingly expensive to buy and grow, because the trees require tons of water. In fact, khat cultivation is contributing to the nation’s dire water crisis.

Ancient Romans nicknamed Yemen “Happy Arabia,” thanks to the country’s booming trade. Back then, camel caravans delivered more than 3,000 tons of frankincense to Rome and Greece every year.

My Big Fat Yemeni Wedding

If you’re planning to get married in Yemen, the first thing you need to know is that Yemeni weddings are not coed. The men usually convene in a banquet hall, a tent, or a courtyard, where they listen to music, take pictures, and chew khat with other men. The women meet at the groom’s parents’ house, or another house in the neighborhood, where they listen to music, dance, ululate (a kind of celebratory yodeling), and, of course, chew khat.

After three or four days of gender-segregated celebrations, the groom is led into the room where the bride is staying. That’s typically the first time the couple meets, as arranged marriages are still the norm. Then, the guests wait until the bride and groom emerge from the room, signifying that they’ve “sealed the deal.” At this point, the men fire guns and fireworks into the air, and the women ululate some more. A good time is had by all.

Uncle Saddam

Yemenis have a thing for Saddam Hussein. It all started during the first Gulf War, when Yemen sided with Iraq. “He is a Muslim who stood up to the superpower,” explained one storekeeper. Thousands of boys born around that time are named Saddam in his honor. Then, when the United States invaded Iraq again in 2003, Saddam became a national hero. If you’re ever in the market for a canvas bag or a cigarette lighter with Saddam Hussein’s smiling face on it, just head over to downtown Sana’a.

This Old City

The medieval architecture of the Old City of Sana’a, the capital’s historic district, is both magical and dilapidated. It’s like a castle made out of gingerbread that’s been delicately frosted and then rediscovered months later in the back of a cabinet. It’s home to 103 mosques, 14 bathhouses, and more than 6,000 houses built into towers—and much of it was constructed before the 11th century. The entire district has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site, with the hope that it will be protected and renovated carefully. Unfortunately, due to dwindling funds and a bankrupt government, more and more of the old houses are collapsing every year.

Yemen’s port city of Mocha was once famous for its coffee exports. Its java had a distinctive chocolate flavor that made it a hit in Europe—and led to the misnomer of mocha meaning chocolate-flavored coffee. Mocha originally—and more accurately—referred to quality Arabian coffee.

The Meaning of Knife

Lots of Yemeni men wear thick, foot-long curved daggers strapped to their waists, just above their bellybuttons. The daggers, called jambiyas (jam-BEE-yas), have been a part of the traditional Yemeni dress since way back before Islam hit the scene. Historically, a man’s jambiya was his prized possession, passed down from one generation to the next. It was at once a weapon, a status symbol, and an investment, because the daggers often appreciate over time. Nowadays, jambiyas are still highly valued, and many Yemeni men, especially in the north, wear them to work, to school, and just to hang out.

Crude Politics

Yemen’s economy is in a world of hurt. For starters, it’s almost entirely dependent on the waning oil and gas industry, which supplies 70 percent of the government’s revenue and accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s exports. According to a 2008 World Bank report, the oil and gas reserves will dry up over the next decade, and the oil fields could be tapped out as early as 2017.

The other four large sectors of the economy—tourism, fisheries, trade, and agriculture—aren’t doing well, either. Tourism is particularly weak. In 2007, local al-Qaeda operatives began killing Westerners at major tourist attractions, and Spring Break Yemen has been a tough sell ever since. These days, an estimated 35 percent of Yemeni men are unemployed.

Getting Your Bearings

Where is Yemen? Just south of Saudi Arabia, on the heel of the Arabian Peninsula.

Major Industry: Oil and gas.

Capital City: Sana’a. It’s also the country’s largest city, with a population of 1.8 million people.

Kids Rule! Of the roughly 23 million people living in Yemen, about 46 percent of them are under the age of 14. And the baby boom has only just begun. Yemen’s population is expected to double over the next two decades.

How Old is Yemen? Tough question. People have been living in the area for about 5,000 years. The Romans occupied Yemen, as did the Ottomans and the British. But in some ways, Yemen is only 20 years old. During the Cold War, political strife created two separate nations, pro-Western North Yemen and socialist South Yemen. The two states reunified in 1990 to form the modern country, which acts as a parliamentary democracy.

Made in Yemen: Over the past 5,000 years, Yemenis have given the world coffee, honey, the Queen of Sheba, and a hilarious episode of Friends in which Chandler tries to break up with his girlfriend by pretending to move to Yemen. But in December 2009, Yemen also gave the world the Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who made headlines by attempting to detonate explosives hidden in his pants on a flight to Detroit. Although Abdulmutallab is from Nigeria, he received his training from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a freelance reporter living and working in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Her reporting has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, Foreign Policy online, New York Magazine online, The National, New York Times online, Slate, and, of course, mental_floss magazine.

She'll be joining us regularly here on later this month.

Mad Magazine
12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  


MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  


But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.


From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.


Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.


Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  


With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.


MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  


In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.


In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?

GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]


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