January 26, 2011, was just another cold winter day in Sweden, where I attend graduate school. I returned to my office from a coffee break to dozens of e-mails saying that the websites of Facebook and Twitter had been blocked in Egypt, apparently in response to massive demonstrations the day before in Tahrir Square, calling for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The activists there desperately needed a way to bypass censorship. I sat down at my computer and did my best to get the word out about software programs that would help them, including my own.
This was a long way from where I began, but in a sense, I’d also come full circle. When I graduated from Middle East Technical University in Ankara in 1998 I’d returned home to Yemen, eager to start a career as a software developer. But my father had other plans for me.
The man others referred to as Professor Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf (1952-1999) had just marked the eighth anniversary of his founding of the Yemen Times, the country’s first English-language newspaper. He launched the paper the same year North and South Yemen joined to form a single country, led by the fearsome Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Saddam Hussein crony who was the longtime leader of the north.
My father and I did not have much in common. A Harvard alumnus, my dad had remarkable communication skills and a vast network of contacts across the globe; I wasn’t very sociable. He courageously exposed corruption and injustice, while I tended to distance myself from politics. As much as I hate to admit it, I was scared of confronting anyone in uniform. I did admire his bravery—yet I also felt he was constantly putting himself and the paper at risk. I was selfishly set on a career in Silicon Valley, while he was struggling to help his people.
I respected my dad’s love for journalism, but to me, it seemed boring, dull, and low-paying. One night, he suggested I work beside him in the Yemen Times editorial department for a year. I remember storming out, saying, “Sorry, Dad, I can’t do it!” But after a chat with my mother, I apologized and agreed to be an assistant editor and network administrator—at least until October 1999, when I would be leaving for the US to study computer engineering. I thought to myself, Why not just help Dad out? After all, it’s just temporary. Or at least that’s what I thought.
A change in priorities
On June 2, 1999, I got the news that after leaving a lunch meeting with Abubakr Al-Qirbi (now foreign minister) and others, my father had been hit by a speeding Mercedes on Hadda Street in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital. I had always seen him as strong and invincible, refusing to back down from even the most ruthless political foes, including President Saleh, who had threatened him on more than one occasion. Seeing his body in the morgue was simply unbearable.
Being the eldest son, I had to take charge of the family business, and so I became the editor in chief and publisher of Yemen Times at the age of 26. A few weeks after my father’s death, a letter arrived that he’d been anxiously waiting for: I had been granted a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of California, Davis. I asked for a one-year deferment.
A year later, still clinging to my personal dream, I left the newspaper in the hands of my sister, Nadia, who had since graduated from college, and my mother, an English-language teacher, and set off for UC Davis with my pregnant wife to start my graduate work. But then came the second shock: Just three months later, in December 2000, my mother died of a brain hemorrhage. Despite my protestations of independence, I did not hesitate to return home. I realized it was my destiny to resume the journalism career that I tried to avoid so desperately. I had to surrender to my fate and say farewell to my Silicon Valley ambitions.
Fast forwarding to 2005, I confess that I am glad I did. It was a steep learning curve, but I realized why my father loved what he was doing: It was because of the inner satisfaction one gets from giving people a voice, exposing injustice, and promoting human values. Those were things that a geek behind a keyboard could not have done.
While editing the paper, I faced no direct censorship. But there was constant self-censorship, due to the strict press laws. Many topics involving religion, the military, foreign relations, and government officials were taboo.