Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Mon, Jan 9th, 2017

Faith, Hope and Charity

As a child growing up in northern Ohio, I was nurtured on the beguiling rhetoric of the King James Version of the Bible. Archaic and obscure as this early 17th century translation has become, there are certain phrases that have been embedded in my mind. One of these is a passage from I Corinthians 13:13: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” More contemporary versions routinely replace charity with love in deference to the original Greek agape. Yet in my mind it is “charity” which still stands out as a stand-in for love.

Last week there were many who died in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. If you examine the competing media accounts, you will learn of soldiers, old men, women and children who were living a week ago and now are dead. This tale of death has been going on at a frantic pace since the start of the Saudi-led bombing campaign almost two years ago, amplified by local sectarian conflict on the ground. A report on the pro-Huthi Saba News Agency for January 6 noted the murder of a son of a “Saudi-paid mercenary officer,” in Marib when unknown assailants fired on his car.

In the flood of makeshift obituaries none struck me more this past week than the assassination of Amat al-Aleem al-Asbahi on Christmas Day in the war-ravaged city of Taiz. The report in the British newspaper The Independent began as follows: “A charity worker who campaigned for female emancipation in Yemen has been shot dead in an assassination attempt that has left other activists in the city of Taiz fearing for their own safety.” A dedicated campaigner for women’s and human rights, she was not an accidental victim, like the son murdered in Marib. Clearly no charity was shown to a woman who devoted her young life to being a charity worker.

When I lived in Yemen in 1978 this kind of open murder in broad daylight on a major city street would never have happened. In the tribal area where I was doing ethnographic research, northwest of Sanaa, there were values that transcended politics. Harming, let alone killing, a woman would have been anathema to the code of conduct known as qabyala. The cowardice of this killing, which has become all too common place in Yemen, would not have been tolerated. But the civil society that once united communities in the absence throughout history of a strong central state has been eroded by several decades of autocratic rule and a sectarian conflict imposed on Yemen from the outside.

The biblical verse also refers to faith and hope, even if charity is the greatest gift. Despite all the turmoil, I still have faith in the resilience of Yemeni society to survive the current onslaught. Centuries of values are seldom destroyed overnight and there is always the hope that the seeds of such values will eventually sprout in a better climate. I have no faith in the political operatives, who all seem willing to destroy that which they say they are fighting for. But I hope that the fever of fighting, which becomes an end in itself, will run its course. The desire for peace, to be able to live a normal life, will always trump violence in the end. History reminds us that our species has been at war since the beginning of recorded time. Regimes and empires have come and gone but new generations pick up the pieces and move on.

Given the current state of the conflict in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis which continues to worsen and receives so little attention in the news media, my faith is overshadowed by a hope that 2017 will see at least a mitigation, if not a resolution, of the fighting that has bred a destructive hatred, the kind that would lead two men on motorcycles to gun down a young woman simply on an ideological whim. She was not the only victim in that senseless attack. It is charity itself which is now being murdered.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.