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← Admitting you're an atheist while travelling in the Middle East

gordon's Avatar Jump to comment 14 by gordon

Jon, The flippant answers on here miss the fact that it can be very dangerous, particularly in Sana’a, to admit to being an atheist. To most in the country it is unheard of to not believe in a God. I spent eight years working in Yemen as a Brit and have been shot at, just missed car being blown up and had a near miss on two kidnappings. The clerics are very conservative in Yemen and are also very stupid. Last time I was there Sheikh Zindani announced a cure for aids but decided to keep it to his ‘university’ as it only affects the infidels. In Yemen, every Thursday afternoon, most Sheikhs have a qat meeting, where many tribal figures attend the Sheikh and chew qat. Whilst chewing, they mull over tribal and local business, set the world to rights and sort out quarrels etc. A little like going to the pub and chatting with your mates, only without any women allowed and quite often over life or death issues. At some stage during the afternoon, a religious leader will call to prayer and all leave the room to pray, leaving me and a few non partakers to carry on chewing. I would sit and draw people in the room or write stuff in my notebooks that later translate to canvas. During the afternoon there would be a lull in conversation during which one of the religious leaders would take it upon him to give a sermon, usually sparked off by something in the general discussion in the diwan. Everyone else would have to silence and listen for up to two hours whilst this chap would rail against the US, women, bad men, bad Sheikhs, bad governance, bad health or bad anything, the dangers of drink, the dangers of the west, the dangers of loose women (again), all wound up nicely with a solution in Allah and in particular, the mosque, with the implicit threat of the punishment for disobedience.

I once got so tired (and angry due to being constantly harangued as the token Westerner) of listening to one sermon by a chap called Sheikh Mohammed (a Hamas representative in Yemen) that I intervened and started a long argument during which time the rest of the sitters were amazed that someone had questioned the Sheikh’s wisdom on these matters (that the West was the root of evil, the great Satan and devoid of belief etc). After defending my position for two hours during a more or less constant tirade, the Sheikh got up, picked up his Kalashnikov (on which he had been sitting) and stormed out of the chew, followed by his entourage. With hindsight it was a dumb thing to have done as it later emerged that he was expelled from Yemen after a shooting incident and after one of his sons had beheaded someone in a rage (the Lord’s apostle’s move in mysterious ways). Anyway, one such scribble emerged during such a long sermon that some of the chewers fell asleep. At home I finished it and it became the script for ‘Behold, I Give You the Celestial Teapot (BBIL**). I dread to think how it would have turned out if I had made the point that I was a ‘strident’ atheist.

So. In answer to your question. Keep quiet. It is far too dangerous to be an atheist in Yemen as you are directly challenging the clerics who are not constrained on how they react.

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 07:30:46 UTC | #937147