Love in the Time of War, Famine and Cholera: Stories from Yemen

In Arabic, only one letter separates war (harb) from love (hob). However, the space between them is the difference between proximity and separation, good and evil, life and death. The senseless wars since 2014 have made peaceful Yemeni citizens resist death with life, war with love, evil with good, greed with cooperation, miserliness with giving, and silence with spoken word. While 20 million are vulnerable to famine, and thousands die of disease, airstrikes, bombs and bullets – love has found its way into the hearts of those who believe in life.

History teaches us that only love can defeat destruction, fear, displacement, famine and disease. In time of war, hunger and cholera, love and passion become a spiritual refuge for the souls of those oppressed. In the time of war, hunger and cholera, love and passion are a soothing balm for wounded citizens, easing their fear and anxiety; for citizens whose homes have been destroyed, forced into displacement, disease and hunger.

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

Unchained love

Love is not defined by time, place or circumstance, as the discourse of souls cannot be stopped. Love is a natural instinct present in all humans. Love existed before war and petty human struggle, and will remain as long as we remain passionate about beauty and life.

In the war perpetrated by Yemenis against Yemenis, stories of love among ordinary citizens refute the destruction and foretell an awaiting age when love permeates all Yemenis, fulfilling their right to life and happiness.

Mohamad Ali, a young man in his late twenties, states that love is not defined by an age or place, and must be spread even during a time of war. “At the start of the war I met a girl and loved her very much”, he says. “I experienced love in its highest form, despite war and desperation.” He adds, “As long as our hearts beat, no obstacles can stop love, and no tragedy can stop us from achieving our dreams. It is true that Yemen is going through some exceptional circumstances due to the war, but we should give weight to the values of love and forgiveness in order to be rid of this catastrophe.”

Speaking of his experiences in the time of war, Ali says, “I am lucky in that my love was reciprocated and not one-sided. I will try hard to live with the one I love, even if we face difficulties in getting married.” “There are many stories of love during the war”, he points out. “I have friends who have loved under these circumstances and have married, and have lived with love instead of bullets – taking in the perfume of love instead of the stink of gunpowder.”

Love as a symbol of life and fertility

The Sufi philosopher Muhii al-Din ibn Arabi (who died in 1240) saw a relationship between love and death. According to ibn Arabi, “love is the little death”. This juxtaposition emphasizes the disassociation of the lover from reality in the presence of the beloved.

However, in reality, love is an expression of the birth of new life. At the end of December 2014, Abduljaleel Ha’el met his other half. He first saw her during al-nathra al-shar’iya, or permitted gaze, where, according to Islamic sharia, men and women have the right to view each other before marriage. For Ha’el, this was his rebirth.

Ha’el calls it his “story of a lifetime”. He recalls this first meeting with joy filling his heart:

Right after seeing my betrothed, I had to go to work. I would remember our meeting, her look and the turquoise dress she wore with a matching headdress – it was like a dream.

On Friday, 30 January 2015, we signed the marriage contract, after which our story began. We started to plan for our lives, to plan our wedding and to buy the furniture for our home.

In April 2015, I rented an apartment and furnished it. We set a date for the wedding, and we had made all the preparations, but we were afraid of the war as it had intensified. My wife was displaced, moving to her family’s village, and my heart was displaced with her. We had difficulty contacting each other because of the war – it was painful.

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

Ramadan of the first year of the war (2015) was the date of our long-awaited meeting. When we finally met, it was as if we had been apart for years. After that, my wife had to return to the city with her family, and my family and I were displaced to our village where we lived for a year. When we met again, I could hardly believe it. We thought it was destined for us to never meet again, and my wife was inconsolable.

However, we didn’t surrender to the war and its horrors. I returned to my job, and we prepared for our wedding that had been delayed for 15 months, setting the date for 7 October 2016. Hope and happiness returned to our hearts.

Ha’el’s story didn’t end there; he recounts when, on 1 October 2016, a Howitzer artillery shell fell just 10 meters from home, only two weeks before his wedding day. Their home was only 500 meters away from the fighting, but it would not ruin their happiness, and only increased his persistence to marry.

Tears of joy and sadness

In times of war, love comes with cascading emotions of caution and optimism, joy in a loved ones’ wedding or grief for the death of a relative or a loved one. This war of two and a half years has caused the needless death of thousands of innocents, who cried out for love and peace.

Marwan Ali, a young man of thirty years, fell in love in mid-2015, a few months after the start of the war. Ali recounts the story with a smile across his face:

Even now, I can’t believe it happened – it’s like a beautiful dream. When I fell in love with Sumaya, we were preparing our graduation project at Sana’a University. Studies under the instability and uncertainty of war were difficult, but love had opened up the possibilities for me, as Sumaya and I planned our future together. We graduated, and we looked for work despite the difficulty of finding employment. Everything seemed beautiful then.

As with many Yemenis whose health failed because of the stress of war, my mother died of a heart clot. The death of a person so dear caused tremendous pain. However, Sumaya helped me deal with my grief.

Ali and Sumaya married a year later, hoping that love like theirs would be a solution to Yemen’s problems.

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

Creating happiness

It is worth noting that weddings continued as they always have in Yemen, even under the conditions of war. Despite high prices caused by the collapse of the economy, and the rise of poverty and unemployment to 85 per cent, many weddings took place during this time.

In an attempt to ease the burden of wedding expenses, which could reach upwards of one million Yemeni Riyals (equivalent to US$2,450), many would marry in group weddings.

Mohamad Naji recounts his experience: “I felt it was the right time to marry. The need to be happy remains, and we continue to live our lives. I was lucky; when I married there were no deaths in our neighborhood, and my neighbors celebrated my wedding, singing for me from inside their homes.”

Naji elaborates that economic conditions are very difficult, causing many youths to delay any thoughts of love or marriage. However, due to the current circumstances, many families are helping the young men who propose to their daughters, and encouraging some to marry. Naji feels that the circumstances in Yemen necessitate love, in order to escape life’s troubles and maintain a more positive outlook. Naji points out that some families exaggerate their demands for the young men proposing to their daughter, and increase their burden. Some young men cannot fulfil their demands, causing them to lose an opportunity for love that could have changed their lives.

Ashjan Abduh Qasem mentions that she celebrated her wedding at home. Her sisters, who had married before the war, had held their weddings at wedding halls. The conflict has made it difficult to celebrate a wedding outside the home. However, she does not mind, and sees that happiness and celebration are not made with grand wedding halls, but by the people that surround you.

Qasem says that many of her friends and neighbors attended the one-year anniversary of her wedding. When asked why so many guests attended the event and other wedding events, she states that women have become imprisoned in their own homes due to the fighting, airstrikes and poor security situation. Weddings and events like it have become the only way they can meet friends and celebrate.

Shaima Amin shares the same opinion – she is now more likely to attend her friends’ and neighbors’ engagement and wedding celebrations. She mentions that it is an opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances away from the conflict and fear of airstrikes.

Amin mentions that many young Yemeni men and women want to experience love. They want to start families built on love, and not the hatred which has torn this society apart. In reality, many young men and women in Yemen prefer not to find love, but rather fall into it as fate would decide.

New traditions

The war has brought about new practices during wedding celebrations. Some are destructive, such as firing live rounds, using sound grenades or including armored vehicles in the celebrations. Many in the community have criticized these practices, due to the danger that it poses to civilians. Some justify these practices, saying “what is important is that we are able to celebrate, and if that achieves it then we will continue to do it, and no one can stop it”. Despite these justifications, continued pressures from the community have reduced these practices, especially due to the presence of security authorities in liberated areas.

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Jaber

There are many stories of love and passion in the time of war, but as Yemeni society is conservative, heroes and heroines often prefer not to share their stories. Is not sharing caused by fear or is it the simple reason of keeping those love stories personal and passionate for a lifetime? At times like this, it’s hard to tell.