Artwork As Resistance: A Conversation With Ahmed Jahaf, Whose Work Pushes for Peace in Yemen

Ahmed Jahaf BELatina
Courtesy Ahmed Jahaf

Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, has been devastated by civil war. The roots of the conflict are in the failure of a transition to stability in Yemen after the Arab Spring uprising forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand power over to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in 2011.

Mr. Hadi struggled to deal with a variety of problems, including attacks by jihadists, a separatist movement in the south, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.

The Houthi movement, which champions Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority and fought against Saleh during the previous decade, jumped on the new president’s weakness and took control of the northern heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas.

Disillusioned with the transition, many ordinary Yemenis — including Sunnis — supported the Houthis, and in late 2014 and early 2015 the rebels gradually took over the capital Sana’a.

BELatina interviewed Ahmed Jahaf, a 28-year-old Yemeni graphic designer and artist whose artwork is inspired by the war. We spoke to Jahaf about what it is to live under a Saudi-led military siege.

Ahmed Jahaf lives in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a; we spoke via email.

Your work is very powerful. It reminds me of the Cuban Revolution and Vietnam; of the art that came out of these two conflicts. Can you tell me why art is resistance and why it has such a global impact? 

Art is the best way to resist; art in war, art in spite of war, art because of war, art against war. I try, through art, to depict our conditions during the war and at the same time give a concrete form to the role of art in the current war in my country, because if art cannot be present to speak for the people during war conditions, when should it appear then?

I made art (graphic designs) against the war because I wanted to show the world what’s happening in Yemen. I feel that art delivers the message to others faster. Art has become a talent for me because of the war, the fear, and the suffering. I’m just trying to show the ugliness of war, this is what happens in war while the world is watching in silence. This is my way to protest against the injustice of this forgotten war,

Many people, especially in the West, like to see art better than normal pictures. I got huge moral support and encouragement from many activities from the U.K., France, Germany, Spain and the U.S. in the beginning and still until today.

I dedicate most of my artworks to those who are defending their homeland in battlefields with pride and honour. It’s something simple for what a tremendous sacrifice they did, and to all who refused this brutal barbaric aggression, who defends the independence of their homeland and resists with their voices, writings, poems, and arts and many other ways.

BELatina Latinx Ahmed Jahaf
Courtesy of Ahmed Jahaf

Why is art still important in such an interconnected, digital world?

The arts have become very important in all work and events, especially that the community became very interested in social networking sites and became the source of everyone to access information, and also as everyone knows that any media work requires a graphic designer (artist) in television or newspapers or even on the Internet. The world has become aware of the importance of designs and arts in all fields and businesses.

With one artwork, you can explain a message that hundreds of words could not explain. And when you publish this artwork online, you reach millions of people anywhere in the world.

Yemen is in an ongoing humanitarian crisis, funded by the United States with the backing of other Western nations. What would you want people to know about what is happening at present in Yemen? 

I want the people to know that what’s happening in Yemen is not the forgotten war, it’s the dirty war. Yemen itself never destroyed (anything) as Saudi-led invasion of Yemen did with U.S. and U.K. support. There is no reason that any nation has the right to destroy my country, whatever happened. The only need is peace; we need to live our own life as other humans do.

We in Yemen believe that not only the Saudi-led coalition is bombing us, but also the U.S., the U.K, France, Germany and other countries are partners of the war crimes because they (are still) selling arms to Saudi and U.A.E., they support the blockade and keep silent about what is happening in Yemen. The war on Yemen was announced on the night of March 26, 2015, from Washington, and this war is one the U.S. doesn’t want people to know about.

So please speak loudly to stop this war and lift the blockade. We need you to send our voices to your government to stop the war and stop arming Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Can you tell us what a day in the life of a Yemeni is like, in the capital where you live? This seems like a silly question, but I would like people to know, to read, to connect with your life.

I live in the capital Sana’a, Sanaa, which the coalition has been trying to break into for more than five years. Sana’a, the city, has opened its doors to all Yemenis from the north and from the south and from all sects to live there safely. In Sana’a, you can find all the Yemenis — those who support Houthis and those who support the Saudi-led coalition.

This war took everything from Yemen⁩. The situation in Sana’a is not good at all. There are many troubles here because of the war and the blockade. I can see the pain everywhere in my city. Buildings targeted, jets hovering every day, and sometimes bombing. People are exhausted from the war and without salary and jobs. Many people don’t have homes and they sleep in the streets. Imagine you live in a place without any services — for example, the electricity has been damaged since 2015. People are using solar power but this is too expensive! These days, there is an oil derivatives crisis because the Saudi-led coalition prevented the entry of oil ships.

Ahmed Jahaf BELatina Latinx
Courtesy of Ahmed Jahaf

When you look at what is happening in the United States, what are your thoughts?

I pray for the American people to be safe. Whatever happens, there are many Americans in solidarity with the Yemeni people. I believe that the recent events in the United States are part of the upcoming presidential campaign plan, and the goal is to remove President Donald Trump as a candidate for a new presidential term. I think Trump is the worst president of the United States.

Will the end of the Trump administration, and his administration’s backing of the Saudis, help Yemen?

I am not much interested if Trump is removed from the presidency or continues as President of the United States because this will not change anything in the United States’s support for Saudi Arabia, the war, and the blockade of Yemen. The war started with (President Barack) Obama’s blessing and continues with Trump’s blessing and it will continue with the blessing of the next president.

What would you say influenced your art?

Many activists have been affected by my artwork, especially those that talk about arms deals and the cessation of coalition support. My artwork has been used in several events in London, France and the United States.

What art catches your attention at the moment?

Simple artwork that contains few and brief elements. I also love sensitive arts or nudity arts, but society here does not accept this kind of art.

My last message for your readers is a plea for peace. The war has affected everyone both negatively and positively. On the negative side — an artist who some see as being biased towards a specific party only because he designed something critical and specific. The artist/designer has a role in society, an important role, using his skills to act as a national and political voice. This is as important as any political, media or human personality.

My hope is peace and a wish that they leave us alone, stop the airstrikes and the blockade. Do I have the right to live normally in peace? Do I deserve to live without fear? I dream to live, study, sleep in peace. I don’t want to hear the sound of Saudi-led coalition jets destroying my country, Yemen.

People can do many things for us. They can ask their governments to stop the war and stop supporting the Saudi-led coalition. Please stand for Yemenis who simply dream of peace. What kind of future is there for their children?