Every day, Mohammed Afeef, a native of Aden, skipped out on lunch at school, and saved his daily allowance in order to go to Regal cinema – later named Shahinaz cinema- at the end of the week.
Along with his friend, Mohammed took a bus to watch a film every week. “It was best to arrive early, or else we would have to sit crammed near the ventilators,” he remembered. To go back home they had to walk 10 kilometres because there was no public transportation at night. “It was definitely worth it,” he added with a grin.
Forty years later, Shahinaz cinema, where Mohammed spent some of his best childhood memories, is now closed along with 46 other cinemas nationwide. Only three cinemas remain partially open to young working class men, where they occasionally show live soccer matches, Bollywood or old Hollywood movies from a projector.
Good old days
This went in sharp contrast to the latest Egyptian movies that used to be screened. Famous actors like Farid al-Atrash or Abdulhalim Hafiz appeared on the screens of Aden’s cinemas at the same time they appeared in Cairo. In fact, in the mid-1970s the controversial Egyptian movie “al-Asfour”, censored in Cairo, was screened in a film festival in Aden.
Mohammed Hamood Al-Hashimi is credited with bringing cinema to Aden and to the region. He began this venture in 1910 by screening mobile shows for a “silent” cinema in the Tawahi district, making Charlie Chaplin a popular figure in Aden. His legacy continued and one of his children, Taha Hamood, “Master Hamood” as he was called, is credited with opening the first cinema on the Arabian Peninsula named Hurricane – after a British aircraft – followed by three other cinemas: Radio Cinema with a facade of an old radio; al-Shariqiyah, andal-Jadidah or New Cinema – named after a well-known cinema in India.
Slowly cinemas spread to the rest of Yemen’s southern and eastern provinces, as well as to North Yemen. By the 1950s and 1960s North and South Yemen were home to 49 cinemas. Both men and women used to attend film screenings, and it was a favourite family outing. During this golden era, female artists – such as Sabah Munser, and Fathia Alsagheera – also rose to fame.
By the mid-1990s, most cinemas had closed down. The once packed Hurricane now only has 10 to 15 customers a day, who pay 150 Yemeni Riyals to watch movies from a DVD and a projector. Gone are the days when attending the cinema was an important event, where women and men dressed up as if they were going to a party. Hoping to maintain this cultural hub, Hamood’s family renovated the building to make it suitable for theatre production. It has since shown a number of popular plays.
Once known as “Steamer Point” during Aden’s time as a British colony; today, passing by the district of Tawahi, with its neglected buildings, and closed down shops, it is difficult to imagine this area as a point of entry for merchants, tourists and cultural exchanges. The New cinema still stands strong in the midst of this changing district, but devoid of its spirit and content. It has been transformed into a multi-purpose wedding hall on the second floor, and a shopping centre on the lower floor. While they cater mostly to weddings, they are also happy to rent it out to those interested in showing movies or to show theatre programmes.
Decline of art
There are many reasons for the decline of the cinema: political, economic and social. Politically, the change in governments impacted the promotion of the arts. When the Socialist government came to power in South Yemen, the General Association for Cinema was created, and many cinemas were nationalised. The Association had the role of importing the latest films, and distributing them at a low price. Film festivals were conducted, and a state-led effort to promote the arts began.
After unification of the North and South in 1990, some of the previously nationalised cinemas were returned to the original owners, and others remained part of the state. The owners could no longer afford to buy the movie rights directly, as the association was not active in importing movies. The new government had no interest in promoting the arts, and the role of the association was eliminated. Today, nothing is known about the budget of this association, and where the money is allocated.
In addition, the political conflict in the early 1990s led to the empowerment of conservative elements, emphasising that the genre is incompatible with family values and immediately turned against the art culture of Aden. As writer Abdulqader Sabri said, “In their eyes it is haram [forbidden], in the eyes of the moderates a ‘shame’ and in the best case scenario, it is a waste of money.”
This has led to threats against cinema owners, not only from conservative elements, but also from speculators who wish to take over the land. Hamood’s family wrote an open letter [Ar] to the government in 2012, asking for protection from constant threats by armed men to confiscate cinema Hurricane. The government should not only protect this historic monument, but also encourage the owners to maintain and renovate it. According to local artists, the government has so far provided no aid whatsoever to cinema owners, in fact it has become an obstacle in their way, through corrupt tax collectors, and the constant monitoring of government employees.
Hamood’s grandchild, Lutfi, an elegant man in his 50s, also added another reason for the decline of the cinema industry. “Satellite dishes have ruined us,” he said while sitting in the cinema- turned-wedding hall. “In the past, if one wanted to watch a movie, they had to go to the cinema, today, they can watch any movie from their home and pay very little for it,” he added. The proliferation of electronic media and the internet have also contributed to the disappearances of cinemas in Yemen.
At the same time, some amateur artists believe that the internet has had a reverse impact on them, allowing them to showcase their work to the world. In the absence of proper cinemas, the internet became their arena, and world citizens their audience.
The reality today is that movies, either as institutions of production or as cinema houses, are absent in Yemen’s cultural scene. To fill this gap and thirst for art, groups like Khaleej Aden theatre produces plays; and some NGOs screen movies in their offices. In addition, a group of youth are working on a broad campaign to re-open and reinvigorate Yemen’s public and private movie theaters.
The government needs to encourage such activities, but others should share the responsibility. When cinema is produced solely with government money, it is propaganda, closer to a political statement than art itself. Cinema needs investment, risk, and freedom to thrive. It is, therefore, important for the private sector and civil society to also take an active interest in promoting the arts.
One might argue that it is too early to discuss culture and art in time of conflict, since it appears as an unnecessary luxury. Yet, it is precisely because Yemen is at a transitional period facing a number of conflicts that art becomes important and necessary.
The more tense the political situation becomes, the greater the need for debate, dialogue and reflection. Cinema and art offer that open space.
This article was first published in Aljazeera English