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Interview with Ali Hussain Saleh Muhammad 

by Peter Welby

Ali Hussain Saleh (AH) won the English Speaking Union (ESU)ís International Public Speaking Competition for 2007. He lives in Sheikh Othman, Aden. Peter Welby (PW) interviewed him on behalf of the British-Yemeni Society in April 2008. Peter has spent six months of his gap year in Aden where he did voluntary work in support of the clinic at Christ Church, Tawahi, and learned Arabic. 
 
Ali Hussain Saleh pictured with Peter Welby in Tawahi, Aden, May 2008.  Courtesy: Peter Welby

PW: Letís start by talking a little bit about the ESU competition, and then move on to your family background, and your hopes for the future. How did you hear about the competition? 

AH: Well, my father read about the competition in the newspaper, and called Shaikh Tariq Abdullah [Chairman of the ESUís Yemen Steering Committee] to ask him for more information about it. That was the first time I entered the competition. I talked about water scarcity, because thatís an issue Iím concerned about. I did my best, that year, but I got third place, unfortunately, and I didnít get to go to London. Two girls were chosen to represent Yemen, but I said hey! I can try again next year! 

PW: And so you did. And you were talking about water scarcity again? 

AH: Thatís right Ė because itís a big problem in Yemen, as well as in the Middle East, and the whole world. Itís an international problem. 

PW: So what are the main causes inYemen? 

AH: Mismanagement of water. For example, here in Yemen we use most of our water on agriculture, but not to produce food. 50% of the water in Yemen is used to grow qat, which is a lot of waste! And every meeting that they have inYemen to talk about the problem, they say the third world war will be over water; so they think about it, and they talk about it, but they donít do anything. Thatís why I chose it for the competition. 

PH: And was your trip to London the first time youíd been abroad? 

AH: No, the second time. The first time, I went to the US on a Youth Exchange Students (YES) programme, through AMIDEAST and the US Department of State. 

PW: Weíll come back to that shortly. But London was the first time youíd been to the UK? 

AH: Yes, the first time. It was my dream, really. I donít know why, it just came out that I had to go there. 

PW: And you enjoyed it? 

AH: Yes, a lot. I liked many things in London; there are many famous places, which was kind of cool. But I liked seeing Big Ben because there is a small version of it here in Aden. And I liked seeing the Houses of Parliament Ė it was great seeing the MPs discussing and debating, and talking about things. I liked the whole idea; it was very interesting. And the funny thing was that when we went to Trafalgar Square, there were only a few pigeons there. When we see it on TV, there are always loads of pigeons! 

PW: And what was it like actually speaking in the competition? It was a much bigger audience than youíd spoken to inYemen. 

AH: Yes. . . Here, eleven of us went to the final of the competition, but in London there were sixty people in the final. The audience was very big too. 

PW: Was that daunting for you? 

AH: It was. But I felt that being one of the eight finalists was a big success for me, so by the end I was giving my speech with much more confidence. I was less stressed. 

PW: And what was it like going back to meet the Duke of Edinburgh? 

AH: It was a great experience for me. I mean, winning the competition was one of my achievements, but then meeting the Duke was another. Going to Buckingham Palace was something unique too. 

PW: Letís talk a little about your background Ė what kind of family do you come from? 

AH: Itís a very traditional family. My fatherís family is very big Ė heís got four brothers and one sister, and all of them are married, and all have one or two children. . . or five or six! And we have this big house in Labíous inYafaí, and when we all go there it is a very big family. But here inAden, you could say that we are not such a big family Ė I have two brothers and two sisters, as well as my parents. 

PW: And what is the age range of your brothers and sisters? 

AH: The oldest [brother] is 24. Then I have a sister who is 20. Then comes me and my twin sister at 19. And then I have a brother whoís 12. 

PW: You said your family comes fromYafaíoriginally. How long have you lived in Sheikh Othman? 

AH: When my parents got married they were both living in Aden, and weíve lived in Aden for a long time. 

PW: As regards your educational background, youíre still at school, are you not? 

AH: Yes, I study at the Al-Behani school in Crater. I used to be at the Comprehensive International School in Khormaksar. I studied there from Kindergarten until the 11th Grade, apart from the year I spent in the US, and then I switched to the Al-Behani school for the 12th Grade. 

PW: And why did you switch? 

AH: The Al-Behani school is a unique school, one of its own kind. I took the opportunity of winning the ESU competition to apply there. And I went to see the Minister of Education who gave me a letter, so the Principal agreed to allow me to take a test to qualify for admission. But when the time came for me to take the test, I was invited to Sanaía to see the President, so I missed the test. I explained this to the Principal, and he said, Ďlook thatís fine; you went to see the Presidentí. So I got in! 

PW: You said you spent a year in America Ė how did you get there? 

AH: Well, I started learning English at school Ė I learnt the basics: to read and write, but I had a problem with speaking. So I went to AMIDEAST, because they have a focus on speaking and a scholarship programme with the State Department for students to spend a year in the US. 

PW: And where did you stay? 

AH: Houston, Texas. Iíd always wanted to travel abroad, especially to the UK. But suddenly I had this chance to go to the US. We flew through Frankfurt, one of the biggest airports in the world. When I looked out of the plane, being in Germany rather than inYemen was like looking at the difference between a black and white TV and a colour TV! We stayed in Washington for three days Ė they had arranged a lot of activities for us there and then each one went to his host family. I was kind of scared at the beginning, you know, leaving my friends and travelling to the States. I didnít even know my host family. There was going to be a difference between religions, and a difference between a lot of things. I felt worried, and I was remembering my family . . . But then, when I met my host dad there, everything was fine. You could see the person, you could feel what was going to happen to you. 

PW: So you were happy with your host family? 

AH: Yes, very. There were the parents, and they had two girls, but one was working in Washington, and the other was studying away from home. 

PW: And how old were you then? 

AH: I was 16. 

PW: So this was 2004/2005, election year for George Bush . . . 

AH: Yes, I did participate in the election as a volunteer, setting up voting machines. . . It was the first election that they were using machines rather than ballot boxes, so it was a good experience for me Ė setting up the machine and then testing it. . . 

PW: And did you follow the election closely? 

AH: Yes, we stayed up all night. I really wanted John Kerry to win. I donít think anything would have changed much. But maybe he would have done something different. . . 

PW: What was it like studying in an US High School? 

AH: The school was very big, maybe more than 3000 students, and the curriculum was different [compared to Aden]. Iíd get lost at the beginning, because you had to go from class to class, whereas here you stay in the same class, and the teacher comes to you. But regarding the education there, I didnít have any problems; I took Algebra, English Literature, which I hadnít done before, and US history. 

PW: Letís talk a little bit now about your future Ė after your exams this summer. 

AH: I have to take a gap year here in Yemen. But Iíll use that to prepare myself for new tests to get into a college in London. When I met the President he promised that he would get me a scholarship to study in London. But as for the field of study for a bachelor degree, I havenít decided yet. I might do chemical engineering, although as a long term goal, Iím looking to practise law. Of course, I get inspiration from many people, one of them being Shaikh Tariq Abdullah. 

PW: So you donít want to go to University inYemen? 

AH: No, because abroad you have the experience of studying in different cosmopolitan places, and you make friends with people from different backgrounds. I think that makes you more of a man. 

PW: What about your goal of practising law Ė would that be in Yemen, or abroad? 

AH: No, that would be here inYemen. 

PW: Do you see practising law as a launch pad for something more? 

AH: Well, it gives you an opportunity to run for some kind of office. And then there would be opportunities to visit places which Iíve never been to, like Japan or the former USSR. And itís all linked to public speaking. After winning the competition, and making some speeches in Arabic here, I felt as if I have to put it into a career; law is a good thing to do with public speaking. 

PW: And did your political aspirations come after starting the public speaking or before? 

AH: No, before. Having the honour of representing your country in the US, in the White House, that was a very inspiring thing; or inTexas Ė giving presentations about Yemen, about your family, about your school. This all makes you a more responsible person, and being a leader in the future carries a lot of responsibility. 

Vol 16. 2008