Yemeni Clerk Concerned About Protests and His Future
A short, stocky man sporting a leather jacket and wearing a Keffiyeh danced through the crowd and slipped behind the store’s sandwich counter, shouting orders in Arabic to the bodega’s nighttime sandwich clerk on the way to his register. Pausing between a faded plexiglass counter and an encyclopedic backdrop of cigarettes and scratch tickets, he reached down and fumbled with a laptop. A recording of the Koran erupted through the strained speakers. He wiped his face and greeted a waiting customer with an impish grin.
Adel Alnaham has spent every night on his feet for the last seven months working the graveyard shift at the Knickerbocker Food Corp I on the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Troutman Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. By night he rings up beer and cigarettes for drunk college students and neighborhood vagabonds, and pours coffee for blue collar workers in the morning. But now much of his attention is turned toward home, reluctantly.
“It’s a very sensitive time right now,” he said, speaking of the political chaos gripping his homeland of Yemen. “The timeline is moving fast. A lot of things are going too fast.”
Since late January, Yemen has been subject to mass protests against the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the aftermath of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year. On February 2, 2011 Saleh announced he would step down in 2013, but protests continue.
At least 45 protesters were killed on March 18, when government supporters opened fire on demonstrators, according to the New York Times, prompting President Saleh to declare a state of emergency.
Alnaham feels that the protests have negatively affected his country by freezing the economy and bringing everyday life to a standstill.
“Students can’t go to college any more, all the business places closed,” he stressed. “You’re stopping the whole city!”
Alnaham came to America when he was 17, from his home in Sana’a, Yemen, to work. His older brother needed help buying a plane ticket to Yemen to see his wife and child, and Alnaham’s father had connections in the city.
“My father used to have three bakeries and a store,” he said. “Most store owners [in New York City] are from Yemen, so it’s not that hard.”
The United States Census reported that 12,000 Yemenis lived in America in 2000, tripling from 4,000 in 1990. According to additional Census data, 70,000 Arabs lived in New York City in 2000, making it the city with the highest concentration of Arabs in the United States.
Now 22 years old, Alnaham has worked in bodegas throughout New York’s outer boroughs for varying periods of time — some of which proved to be dangerous. Once, while working in a store in Crown Heights, he was held at gunpoint by an undercover police officer. He later learned the bodega was stockpiling and trafficking illegal drugs.
He worries that protests in Yemen have the potential to become excessively violent, much like the current conflict in Libya, where clashes between anti-government protesters and the forces of leader Muammar al-Gadhafi have left scores dead.
“In Yemen everybody has got weapons,” he said. “It could get really bloody. Everybody is going to grab his gun and go straight to start killing.”
Alnaham, along with the rest of his family in Sana’a, who are actively avoiding the protests, do not support Yemen’s contested leader, Saleh, but feel that his decision to step down in 2013 is appropriate and should not warrant further conflict.
“If [Saleh] said, ‘I’m not going down,’ I would have been with [the demonstrators]; that’s not his place,” he explained. “But he said, ‘Okay, I’m leaving.’ It doesn’t make any sense to keep pushing it.”
Alnaham recently enrolled at “ASA – The College of Excellence” for a degree in computer science. He plans to return to Yemen within a year to marry and start a family, provided the protests subside.
“It’s like a disease of revolution,” he reflected. “A changing point in history, either for the better or the worse.”