A visit to ousted Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh’s new presidential museum.
- By Adam BaronAdam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was based in Yemen from 2011-2014.
SANAA – I hadn’t even finished reading the first sentence of the first report on Yemen’s most written-about museum, but I already knew I’d have to visit.
It wasn’t the elephant tusks, the decorative swords, or the Swedish health-food products — I would only learn that these were some of the items on display later. No, the first thing I learned about the museum that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh had built to commemorate his rule was that it showcased a pair of pants. But not just any pants: These were the pants Saleh had donned that fateful day when a bomb blast nearly killed him.
I needed to see Yemen’s most infamous pair of trousers. To my mind, the display seemed an odd combination of politics, kitsch, and conflicted nostalgia over the recent past — an Arab Spring equivalent of the National Museum of American History’s exhibit featuring Archie Bunker’s chair.
But the museum was still not open to the public. Unwilling to wait, I decided to mine my contacts to get in. The gatekeeper, it seemed, was one of Saleh’s secretaries; a friend passed on the number of his assistant, and a call to him yielded a meeting with the secretary the next day.
I assumed his aim was to vet me. This being Yemen, the word "meeting" was actually a euphemism for qat chew, meaning he had a full afternoon to do so. We mostly talked politics — the museum barely figured into our conversation. I did confess the sartorially rooted purpose of my visit to his assistant. That didn’t appear to be a problem: I made it to the museum, housed inside the 4-year-old, $60 million Saleh Mosque, two days later.
As I descended a staircase in the sumptuously decorated compound and entered the exhibition, I discovered I wasn’t the only visitor. Oddly, there was a group of Asian tourists milling about.
The museum is tastefully decorated — more akin to an American presidential library than anything else. The items on display, mostly gifts given to Saleh by foreign dignitaries, were almost comically dissimilar. An impressive assortment of decorative swords sat a few yards away from a display case dominated by metal "Central Intelligence Agency" and "House of Representatives" plates, which struck me as the kind of souvenirs a Midwestern grandmother would purchase on a visit to Washington.
Pride of place was rightfully given to the charred article of clothing I’d come here to see. The bottom half of a mannequin, placed in a glass display case in the center of the larger of the museum’s two rooms, sported the black dress pants. A decent portion of the front of the pants, it appeared, had evaporated in the explosion that nearly killed Saleh. His black Montblanc belt, however, remained intact.
Staring blankly at the display, I flashed back to June 3, 2011. I don’t recall hearing the sound of the fateful blast, but as word spread of an explosion at the mosque where Saleh was praying, I was jolted from yet another Friday of mass protests, spurred to push through the crowd in pursuit of a TV.
At that point, no one knew where the country was headed. Despite assurances otherwise, Saleh seemed dead set against signing an internationally backed agreement that would have him cede power. Twelve days before the fateful explosion, clashes ignited between pro-Saleh troops and fighters loyal to one of the most powerful tribal leaders in the country, who had broken with the former president two months prior. As parts of Sanaa descended into urban warfare, the hopes and aspirations of those who had taken to the streets with the aim of toppling Saleh by peaceful means were all but drowned out by the sound of shelling. Saleh’s near-death experience, everybody knew, would be a game changer — though at the time, no one knew exactly how.
Government officials were claiming that Saleh had only suffered minor injuries, but his failure to appear on television that night seemed to confirm suspicions that things were far more serious. Staring out at a blackout-darkened Sanaa from the roof of a friend’s apartment building, I was seized with a sense of foreboding. Heading back to my house exhausted, my cab driver was moved to ask me if things were this bad in "my country," apparently mistakenly assuming I was Pakistani.
In the heat of the moment, Saleh’s subsequent flight to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment seemed to provide a way out of the country’s political crisis. Here, citizens were hoping, was a Yemeni deus ex machina.
"It would be absurd for Saleh to return," a Yemeni analyst told me the next day, speaking with infectious optimism. Three months later, of course, return he did.
Face to face with Saleh’s totaled trousers, it was hard to feel anything other than sympathy with and — dare I say — admiration for the controversial leader, who rose from humble beginnings to rule Yemen for longer than any leader since the fall of the country’s monarchy. Say what you will about the former president, but he still did something that every other leader targeted by the Arab Spring refused to do: He ceded power. It might have been months late and it may have been on his terms, but he managed to retain his reputation as a survivor in the process.
Leaving the building, rather self-conscious about being swayed by a charred article of clothing, I ultimately concluded the museum has done its job. Whatever you say about Saleh’s PR team, they’re still able to get the message out.
But would Yemenis feel the same way? Checking in with a friend and his father the next afternoon, I showed them my photos from the museum, curious to gauge their reactions. They’re a dissimilar pair — a deeply pragmatic tribal sheikh and his idealistic, college-educated son — and I’d never known either to hide his disdain for Saleh.
But uncharacteristically, this time they didn’t say much. My friend, noting the locations of the pants’ burn damage, did make a joke that was racy enough that he felt compelled to say it in English so his father wouldn’t understand. But in place of seething anger directed at Saleh, they seemed mainly to be subsumed by a passive, broadly directed malaise.
My friend, whom I’d met during the protests, had risked everything to join the revolution. It was one of his only significant acts of filial rebellion: Upon discovering that my friend had joined the demonstrations in secret, his father, enraged by fear, dragged him to their village and shackled him in the basement. He remained defiant, refusing food and drink for days until his father, moved by the show of commitment, relented and gave his blessing.
But the discrepancy between Yemen’s political reality and what many hoped the protests would achieve had transformed him into a pessimist. "My father was right, and I was wrong," he said, each syllable dripping with emotion. "It was all pointless. Nothing changed."
The weight of his words rendered both of us silent for a good 10 minutes.
Many cast the negotiated nature of Saleh’s departure as a necessary, if far from ideal, step that saved Yemen from being engulfed in a civil war. Still, the goal of 2011’s protests, as those taking part stressed even at the time, was not solely the end of Saleh’s time in office — it was the fall of the regime. But today, there’s a new man at the head — Saleh’s longtime Vice President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was elected, so to speak, in a vote where he was the sole candidate.
But if Hadi’s steps toward reform have garnered cautious support from many of his predecessor’s fiercest opponents, few shy away from noting that the previous regime lingers on. The ultimate fate of Yemen’s most divisive military leaders — Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, and Saleh ally-turned-defector Ali Mohsen — remains unclear. Even the political rhetoric of the factions in the current unity government has remained strikingly similar to the Saleh era.
p> For Yemenis like my friend, it’s hard to get very worked up over something like the Saleh museum. He may no longer be president, but Saleh still heads one of Yemen’s most powerful political parties, still makes periodic speeches, and still resides in a well-protected home in central Sanaa.
Even those who continue to fight the good fight have largely responded to the museum’s opening with little more than mild bemusement. Meeting with a bunch of activist friends the day before my visit, I barely elicited a reaction when I announced my plan to visit the museum. The real offense to the revolution, one seethed, are the presumptuous gestures toward "youth inclusion" in a transitional process presided over by most of the same people Yemeni youths had taken to the streets to overthrow.
These activists hoped that the events of 2011 would truly change the country — that they’d spawn some new political force. And for a few moments, it did seem that Yemen was entering a new era. But recalling the hundreds of hours I logged listening to the aspirations and anxieties of the remarkably diverse array of Yemenis camped in Change Square — Sanaa’s once-sprawling, now all but abandoned anti-government sit-in — it is hard not to sympathize with those demoralized by the lack of change.
The old order lives on: Two years later, Yemenis are still talking about most of the same people they were talking about before the protests even began. It may take an "ousted" leader opening a museum dedicated to his rule for the rest of the world to be alerted to this. But the vast majority of Yemenis need no reminder.