“Memory does not kill. It, perhaps, brings unbearable ache. Yet, once we manage to bear it, ache alters from a whirl pulling us to drown into a sea that we swim in. We cross distances. We master it and dictate our will on it.”
―Radwa Ashuor, Al Tantouriah, 2010.
My grandmother, Fatima, is a Yemeni woman like most women of her generation who never learned how to read and write. Even though she spent her whole life investing in her eight children’s education, the fact that she never wrote or read made the form of knowledge she transmits the most invaluable of all. That form of knowledge has always been different from anything I ever read in books. Her oral memory is a precise, neat and vivid archive. My grandmother’s memory also possesses an art of narration that is passed from one generation of women to another in my family. My mother, who never missed a single book fair since I turned 3, making books on top of my priorities, still passed me oral memory side by side with the written one. Oral narration is women’s most essential art of survival and resistance. It is the art of autonomous narration of the public and the private, women’s most priceless archive.
During the fall of 2016, after a year and a half of war in Yemen, I was working as a consultant researcher on a needs assessment for the Springboard program that was managed by the British Council in Yemen. The program aimed at including internally displaced women for that year. As a result, I conducted in-depth interviews with the prospect participants in order to understand their particular needs out of the program and provide recommendations to tailor the program accordingly. For over a decade, I have conducted hundreds of interviews throughout my work as a researcher. However, something was different this time, since the moment these women stepped into my office.
I was personally going through years of an excruciating writer’s block. The rapidity of events around me hindered what was my means of salvation for most of my life: personal creative writing. When each one of these women walked into my office, I saw one thing in common regardless of their various experiences and backgrounds. It was memory and precise autonomous narratives of a multitude of events and details. It seemed like an unbearable burden at the time. A space was needed for the bulk of events in the past years that piled details of fear, hope, loss, triumph, despair, love, and bitterness as well as intersections of oppression in parallel with small and big wins. Each one of us needed that space. This is how the idea was born.
#SupportYemen is Yemen’s first arts collective. It was and still is an incubator of thoughts and emotions for its family. It is a place where small ideas become a reality. It happens slowly at times, but it always happens with passion. This time another exceptional woman embraced this passion, Rowaida al-Khulaidi, the British Council, Yemen, Country Director. This is not the first time Rowaida places her faith in our message, the potential of our #SupportYemen family and the autonomous arts movement in Yemen. We have had plenty of previous partnerships. This project, however, is different. It is the first of its kind in Yemen. In certain aspects, it is also the first in the region. This project required depth, vision and passion from any management in order to grant it the support it needed with no prior evidence of success.
The idea was born during the beginning of 2017, a training titled “Creative Writing for Women: Self Expression Through Fiction and Nonfiction” that aims to:
- Build trust and establish a safe space for opening up and expressing feelings and thoughts through mediums of speaking, writing and drawing.
- Begin self expression through creative writing and establish a habit of self expression to tackle trauma, gain focus and ability to overcome daily personal and displacement related distress through the art of fiction and non-fiction writing
- Get to know experiences of tackling trauma through art and writing.
- Establish the essential techniques and standard steps to develop a comic story.
- Have a collection of scraps and bits of personal writings that can either be publicly shared or reserved for personal purposes later on.
- Produce a comic story that is developed, written and drawn from scratch by the participants.
In September 2017, the British Council brought me together in a regional workshop with Lucy Hannah, a British creative writing consultant trainer. The workshop focused on bringing ideas together and utilizing different experiences in order to have a first draft plan for this project. The plan was to work on a comprehensive program once I go back to Yemen.
Between July and August, 2018, the nine women and I who named ourselves “Magnet” later on, came together under the umbrella of #SupportYemen in partnership with the British Council. During six days a week for an entire month, we worked on turning the 6 objectives of this training into reality with a bulk of daily details. Zainab, Zumorodah, Jawhra, Omairah, Samah, Manal, Fadia and Ghadir are the women of “Magnet”, they are the 9 invincible women and I am the tenth who is the luckiest for having had the honor to work with them after they captivated me with their power of narrative when I first met them in 2016. Fate wanted that meeting to be more than a one-time interview. It was all extended to a journey that recreated what Vietnamese literary theorist and filmmaker, Trinh T. Min-Ha wrote about in her book “The Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics”:
The world’s earliest archives or libraries were the memories of women. In the process of storytelling, speaking and listening refer to realities that do not involve just the imagination… The speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. It destroys, brings to life, nurtures. Every woman partakes in the chain of guardianship and of transmission. (Minh-Ha, 1989, 121).
“Magnet” is the group’s name that was chosen by our nine women writers. The name reflects the power this group has to attract a field of autonomous written, spoken and drawn thoughts and gather them in the form of comics as well as fiction and non-fiction collective writing. This magnet derives its force from both the collectivity and the individuality of each one of these extraordinary nine women. The most significant accomplishment, in my opinion, is our realization and acknowledgment of this strength we have within, the strength we brought to paper during an entire month through the art of narration. Each one of us inspired the other in forms that cannot be described in one text. What you see here on this online space, however, may reflect a tiny bit of the endless flow produced on daily basis by nine exceptional women.
“Folanyia and Alanyia” is a 5-episode fictional comic story. Through organized exercises and from scratch, the participants created the characters, the general plot as well as each episode’s plot and arc. The events of the story, which you see here, were written and drawn by Magnet’s women and out of there sheer imagination. Only pens, pencils and paper were used without any electronic intervention in the writing or drawing process. In the translated English version, Photoshop was used to place the translated dialogues from Arabic instead of the original handwritten ones. I wrote the introduction to each episode and edited the dialogues using the thematic areas and lines that came from the collective work. In addition to the comic story, by clicking on the images Magnet’s women chose to draw of themselves, you will be able to access selections from their personal writings that they worked on during the training.
I am beyond grateful to my colleague and Yemeni filmmaker, Hamza Shiban, one of #SupportYemen’s co-founders, who worked so hard to make this online version available. I am also grateful to the Syrian journalist and comics writer Yazan al-Saadi, who did not think twice when he accepted to join one of our sessions online to share the dream and the experience of reclaiming narrative and memory despite all what has happened and is still happening. My sincere gratitude goes to writer and trainer Lucy Hannah for her invaluable assistance and support when the idea was a dream more than a year ago. What you see here today would not have become a reality without the British Council’s Yemen team. Thank you Hana’a and Raja’a for your constant patience and support. Thank you Rowaida for having faith in the dream, the details and women’s lives and stories, our stories. Thank you, #SupportYemen, our home for 8 years and for the rest of our lives. Thank you Hana and Osamah for allowing all possible spaces for #SupportYemen’s work.
All my thanks go to the nine women of Magnet, the creators of the narrative, the owners of memory, passion and ability to stand stronger on ruins every single time. You are an inspiration. You invite light wherever you stand.
Sarah Jamal Ahmed
Yemeni Writer, Researcher and #SupportYemen Co-founder