A collection of the portraits
© Eleanor Zafra Weber-Ballard, Your Middle East
A collection of the portraits
Last updated: June 2, 2014

These photos take you up close with daily life in Yemen

Banner Icon Photo Essay In this series of black and white portraits, Eleanor Zafra Weber-Ballard brings you behind the sensationalist headlines, into a country that indeed has a lot of fixing to do.

2014 is a critical year for Yemen’s political transition. With the recent conclusion of the 10-month National Dialogue Conference, the country now looks forward to a new constitution, upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, and the proposed division of the country into a six-region federation. However, violence continues to plague the country and Yemen still faces an unstable and uncertain future.

As Yemen crosses this important threshold, we look back at some of the country’s characteristics, challenges and elements of daily life via a series of intimate black and white portraits.

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At the entrance to Sana’a’s Old City, a Yemeni man welcomes a group of foreign visitors. While Yemen has huge tourist potential and is home to three classified UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one UNESCO Natural Heritage Site, visitor numbers have dropped since the 2011 revolution. With ongoing violence, the threat of kidnapping, and the rise of extremism and militant groups causing fear among potential international visitors, ambitious tourism expansion projects have been curtailed. 

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In the Old City, a woman approached and embraced me spontaneously. She then asked me to take her photograph, for which she posed with a large kitchen knife.

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An old man poses for his portrait.

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At the market in Sana’a’s Old City, or Souk Bab al-Yemen, a local character sits and observes passer-bys.

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An elderly man takes a break from a busy Friday morning at the market. In his belt he wears a short, curved dagger known as a jambiya. An essential part of traditional male dress in Yemen and a symbol of social status, the jambiya mainly serves a ceremonial function, only raised while performing traditional dances at weddings or other events.

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Islam pervades all elements of daily life: down a maze of narrow alleyways, and oblivious to the noise and chaos of the surrounding market, a man finds a quiet corner in which to study the Qur’an.

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In a residential area of the Old City, a young girl collects water for her family. Yemen is suffering from a severe water shortage, with some experts predicting that within a little over 10 years, the capital may run completely dry. Poor access to water and sanitation is a chronic problem across the country.

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With a tell-tale bulge in his cheek, a young man whiles away the afternoon chewing qat leaves. A mild stimulant, qat acts as a unifier to Yemen’s geographic, cultural, religious, and tribal differences and is critical to social interaction – as much as 90% of men chew while women, teenagers and children are often daily consumers. However, for a country in which 45% of the population lives below the poverty line, qat is an expensive habit. Cultivation of the plant across vast areas of irrigated land pushes out cash crops and uses up huge amounts of water, exacerbating Yemen’s water shortage.

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Wearing a white face mask to protect him from the dust, a young man takes a break from a cash-for-work initiative. With nearly 70% of Yemen’s population under the age of 25, and youth unemployment estimated at approximately 40%, finding gainful work is rare. There are fears that the nation’s growing ‘youth bulge’ will result in increased violence and social unrest as disaffected and jobless youths become more susceptible to radicalization.

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Tyres burn as a small group of anti-government protestors build an impromptu roadblock on one of the roads leading into the nation’s capital.

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A young Yemeni boy.

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On the outskirts of Sana’a, a boy holds a toy gun, while family members – carrying real weapons – wait nearby. After the United States, Yemen has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.

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A young girl stands outside her home in a small village outside the capital. Child marriage – often to much older men - is a major problem in Yemen. According to data issued by the Yemeni Government and UNICEF, 52% of girls are married before the age of 18, and 14% before age 15. While there is currently no legally-sanctioned minimum age for marriage, the issue has been discussed in talks on the country’s new constitution, which is being founded in advance of the 2014 general elections.

It is anticipated that the government may soon propose a draft clause to end child marriage and make the minimum age 18. However, powerful traditional elements within society remain opposed to this move.

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A group of five sisters sit outside their home in a small hilltop village outside Sana’a. Yemen has an extremely high population growth rate – early marriage, high adolescent fertility rates, limited education for girls, high female illiteracy, and the low use of contraception all contribute to the country’s high total fertility rate. The rising population is putting additional pressure on Yemen’s already scarce resources.

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A man waits for his wife outside a brand new reproductive health clinic.

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A Yemeni woman and her child. The World Economic Forum has rated Yemen as the ‘worst place to be a woman’ due to the lack of access to education, healthcare, economic opportunity, and political and cultural rights. Despite these barriers, women played a prominent role in the demonstrations which helped remove former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, and in 2011 the Yemeni women’s rights activist, Tawakul Karman, received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work during the Arab Spring. However, the lives of most Yemeni women have changed little and they continue to face enormous challenges. 

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Two boys from Yemen’s persecuted African community look into the camera. The youths, who live in a segregated slum on the outskirts of Sana’a, come from a social group called Al-Akhdam, or ‘the servants’. This minority, also known as Al Muhamasheen or ‘the marginalized ones’, are persistently discriminated against and continue to lie at the very bottom of Yemen’s social hierarchy despite ongoing efforts to improve their standards of living. 

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An Al Muhamasheen woman.

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A soldier keeps watch in the volatile southern seaport city of Aden. Prior to the 1990 unification of northern and southern Yemen by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Aden was the capital of the independent, socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Due to the subsequent civil war and an ongoing dissatisfaction with unification, a strong secessionist movement continues to push for a separate South Yemen, despite continued and renewed efforts to preserve national unity under new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

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In the southern governorate of Aden with the Arabian Sea as a backdrop, a man poses for a portrait, betraying a possible Indian ancestry. Indian and Yemen share deep-rooted historical, cultural and trade relations. Between 1839 and 1937, Aden was governed from Bombay (now Mumbai) as part of British India. During this rule, thousands of Indians were forcibly moved to Aden to serve as soldiers or servants under the British Army; Aden even maintained the British Indian Rupee at its currency until shortly after India gained independence in 1947.

The influence of the original Indian community is still evident in Aden today, whether via the city’s distinctive architecture; the customs, food and traditions that continue to permeate local society; or the Yemenis of Indian descent who yield significant economic and financial influence upon the city’s trades. There is now an estimated 100,000 people of Indian origin concentrated across southern Yemen.

Eleanor Zafra Weber-Ballard
Eleanor is a media and communications director operating within the international development sector. With a particular interest in the Islamic world, she has spent several years living and working in Afghanistan and Yemen. She has also conducted consultancies in Kenya, Nigeria and Europe. Eleanor recently contributed to an Oxford University project on terrorism and insecurity in Afghanistan.
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