Yemen's own Edward Snowden

On Sunday evening, just as I was about to post my interview with Yemeni activist Alaa Jarban, I saw the news about Edward Snowden. Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, had decided to reveal that he was the source of leaks about American government surveillance.

What Snowden did took a great deal of nerve and it's also of great political significance. I wouldn't want to belittle that in any way – and yet, my thoughts keep coming back to the case of Alaa Jarban.

There are many like him, all over the world. People who decide to make a stand about something and speak out. Unlike Snowden, though, they don't always make headlines or attract the public sympathy that Snowden has been getting.

What 23-year-old Jarban did was no less courageous and, now that he has done it, he has to face the consequences. For a start, he may never see his family or home again – just like Snowden.

Jarban had achieved some prominence as a youth activist in Yemen during the uprising that toppled President Saleh. But there was something else he had been keeping quiet about: his sexuality. That changed at the end of May when he announced on his blog for all to see: "I'm Queer".

In many countries coming-out stories are two a penny, but not in Yemen. In theory, gay sex in Yemen carries the death penalty, though in practice relatives and neighbours are more likely to take matters into their own hands. Either way, the result could easily be the same.

In 2008, for example, three young men were killed by militants in Shabwa province on suspicion of being gay. One of them, 22-year-old Said Abdullah Hannan, was shot dead in the street in front of the main market in Jaar.

Even public discussion of homosexuality can be a sensitive matter in Yemen. In 2010, the country's only serious cultural magazine, al-Thaqafiya, was forced to close following complaints from religious elements and some members of parliament. 

The magazine had published a review of an Egyptian film which included a lesbian scene and the reviewer – a Yemeni living in Paris – had unwisely (if accurately) described homosexuality as "part and parcel of our society".

Last year Yemeni-born Kamal al-Solaylee published a book about his experiences growing up gay in the Middle East, but his book was written many years later, and from the safety of Canada.

Alaa Jarban

As far as can be established, Alaa Jarban is the first Yemeni to openly declare his homosexuality (and defend it) while actually living in the country – though he too has since left for Canada on a three-week training course. His future after that remains uncertain.

Several other Yemenis have now followed Jarban's example by coming out on his website, but without disclosing their real names. Perhaps the most intriguing of them is the man who calls himself "K" and claims to come from a prominent family. "K" writes:

"My father is a famous governmental guy, and if people find out his son is gay he would probably disown me before people found out and killed his reputation and threw him out of his position.

"I was raped by my uncle when i was 8, and growing up i started realising that my sexuality is misplaced and I do not fancy women."

The mystery surrounding "K" may yet prove helpful to Jarban. He hopes it will make Yemeni politicians pause and ask themselves if any of their relatives might be gay before they jump on the homophobic bandwagon.

Meanwhile, Jarban is out on his own with only a small group of friends supporting him. It's likely to be a long and lonely battle.

He was asked on Twitter:

"What can western Tweeps and contacts do to help you, given claims in Yemen that LGBT agenda is a western conspiracy?

His answer:

"Not much actually, the work has to come from us. Media can help mainstream the topic and ensure our safety, thanks."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 11 June 2013