Ōpōtiki, Utopia, Yemen (Part 2)

Near Ōpōtiki is Opape; a long rectangle of land that stretches from the coast across a slice of farmland and hills and back into the bush. After the murder of Carl Völkner the land of Whakatōhea as a whole was confiscated, and the six hapū forced to live on this reserved block which represented 5% of the land area they had previously controlled.   The man who spoke to us at the Whakatōhea Trust Board grew up on the Opape Native Reservation and went to the local school.  You weren’t, of course, allowed to speak Māori at the local school at that time (the 40s and 50s), but the language stayed alive in the home and at the church.

The church was Ringatū.  Another consequence of the murder of Völkner was a shift away from the Anglican church by many hapū.  Our host described waking as a young boy in the dark at his grandfather’s house and hearing his grandfather sitting on the side of his bed chanting the Ringatū prayers.  At the time it meant nothing to him, and he rolled over, deeper into the warmth of his blankets and went back to sleep, but now it is his turn to wake early and recite the prayers in the dark as the first silver thread of the horizon forms.  There are about 13,000 followers of Ringatū in New Zealand today.  Te Kooti’s religion.  Another faith of resistance.


There was always going to be a response from the government to the murder of Völkner.  The murder of Völkner was horrendous, and murder is murder.  Perhaps establishing martial law, suspending habeaus corpus, and sending 500 soldiers was a little excessive.  Perhaps telling the cavalry to equip itself with Whakatōhea horses, and live off Whakatōhea resources looked a bit like a looting.  Perhaps creating the 1866 Indemnity Act to protect the looters from criminal suits looked a bit unfair.  Perhaps confiscating the entire lands of an iwi for the death of one man – murdered by perhaps four men whose actions were supported by only about two of the six hapū in that iwi – looks a lot like what it actually was: conquest.

From the 1830s until 1865 Whakatōhea clearly demonstrated what New Zealand could have been like.  The hapu in that iwi embraced many elements of modernity.  They turned their land over to cash crops which they harvested and exported to Auckland.  They built and ran their own flour mill, and the various hapū raised money and purchased their own ships which they ran back and forward along the coasts to trade.  There were some missionaries, valued for their knowledge and Christian ideas, and some Europeans, but it was a Māori community, running its own affairs, and proving that Māori culture was an extremely flexible and industrious one that could go in new directions while maintaining its cultural integrity.  The 1865 invasion ended all that.  In the modern index of deprivation Whakatōhea looks like this:




The parents of Chris Harvard, one of the men killed by the drone strike in Yemen last November, describe him as a troubled teenager growing up.  He ended up doing six months in prison for car theft.  When he came out he swore he would never go back in.  It was some time after this that he converted to Islam after meeting some Muslim students at his college.  It’s not an uncommon theme in the stories of western converts to Islam: the youth that ran a bit wild and then converted.  Islam’s clear, practical, daily rules offer discipline and structure, and following those structures offers redemption.  Once you convert to Islam all the past is washed away and you can start again.

It is also not unheard for Western converts to Islam to travel to Yemen.  It has been a Muslim country about as long as there have been Muslim countries, and is seen by many followers of Islam as a bastion of the faith.  The book Undercover Muslim recounts the author’s time in Yemen as a convert to Islam: one of scores of foreigners washing through Sanaa looking for something.  Many of those people seem unhappy with what the west offered them – entertainment and consumption – and were reacting against that, trying to find meaning in their life.

I wanted to know what it was like to live in Sanaa without hearing about terrorists and the AQAP and America and drones, because I suspected life in Yemen was a bit like life everywhere.  Life everywhere is sleeping, and eating, and going to school and work and complaining about the government.  So I went and spoke to a girl whose family is from Yemen, and who visited Yemen for the first time last year.  She stayed there for four months in Sanaa.  We sat in the hall outside her English class while a torrent of information poured out of her.

Stories about the tall buildings made of stone and filled with apartments – houses – and how all the kids all go up to the roof tops where there are wide open spaces to play away from the street and the tangled mess of traffic  (there are no traffic lights in Sanaa).  The old stone buildings which look brown and drab on the outside but where the rooms are laid with beautifully decorated mats, and low floor chairs, and the main meal of the day is lunch: a huge platter to share in the middle on the floor and food to pass about.  The older people sit on the floor – it’s an excuse so they don’t need to get up again: “can you get me a glass of water, dear” – and each house takes three plates of food to each other house in the building so everyone can taste.  Rice, and chicken, naan and sauces.  “When I am at home I can smell my mum’s cooking when I get near the house, but in Sanaa I could smell it everywhere.  I said to my little sister ‘is our mother cooking everywhere?'”


On Friday all the men dress up in white with their ceremonial daggers and go to the mosque to pray in a special service, and the call to prayer in the morning is deafening every morning.  “I don’t wear a headscarf.  It’s just a choice.  Most of the women do, but you don’t have to.  The people there are used to seeing all kinds of people, and they don’t care.”

She told about old people who have to be respected. If an old woman starts shouting about a seat on the bus you have to give it to her because she is older.  “My Aunt does it.  Everyone does it.  They argue over price.  “Come, brother, let’s make it lower.”  Some of them shout – lower the price or you’ll be damned!”  There are lots of old women shouting on TV. Old women swearing, and cursing about the bombing: “why do they think they can come into our country and do this?” The girl tells me she saw a mountain explode. “Far, far off in the distance. Not dangerous.” The country wants to split in half. “They have big arguments about it, and then when people lose they go and cut the power lines to their enemy’s neighbourhood.” She pauses briefly, and smiles: “but it’s ok because you can all sit around with the lamp and tell stories to each other.”

At the end she apologised.  “I’m sorry I don’t know more about the politics, but I don’t care about politics.”



It appears to have been Yemen’s modus operandi to offer a fractured, tribal resistance to foreign powers.  In case the American government feels singled out by any of the resistance there they can take comfort from the fact that Yemen was a querulous and troublesome territory for the Ottomans that never fully came under their power, and that the British also exercised only a limited power there after they acquired Aden and that their soldiers were also attacked, grenades thrown into their houses, and their local leaders assassinated.  It is Aden of course that saw the strike against the USS Cole in 2000 by militants who opposed America’s presence in their country, or in the peninsula at all.

The politics of Yemen appear to be simple and complicated.  Simple because it is hard to imagine there being any really strong national government in a country with little national infrastructure, and powerful tribes living in heavily armed isolation in the blasted hinterlands.  Complicated on a day-to-day basis because the relationships between the tribes and the government has to be constantly manipulated, while the pressures of outside forces create strange internal distortions.  Saudi Arabia funds Sunni communities amid Shia minority enclaves, Al-Queda (on the Arab Peninsula) runs training camps, America flies drones overhead and funds the Yemeni government to tolerate it.

The government… asserts a strange kind of authority but it is an intermittent one, more like trying to keep a violent dream under control than a governing power…. chaos burbling but not overflowing….  rebellious Shia continue to cause problems in the north, along the Saudi border.  Al-Qaeda-style groups flourish in the countryside and fractious tribes, anxious for respect, kidnap tourists, blow up oil pipelines and periodically ambush units of the Yemeni army.

Theo Padnos, Undercover Muslim

What happened at Al Majala is a useful case study of how power works in Yemen, and also because it provides reason to distrust the idea that drone strikes will win any war.  It also establishes the pattern of the official story on drone strikes which is still being used today in the deaths of Chris Harvard and Daryl Jones.

When this strike at Al Majala, the first strike in Yemen by the Americans, was reported in 2009 it was reported as a strike by the Yemeni government against an Al-Qaeda training camp.  When Chris Harvard’s parents were first told of the death of their son they were told that it was a Yemeni government strike on a mosque.  This is official policy between America and the Yemeni government as demonstrated by Wikileaks.  In return for millions of dollars of military aid from the USA the Yemeni government will say that the bombs are theirs and not America’s.  Since Saleh was removed from power this deal has obviously come a little bit unstuck, or perhaps it was just awkward to maintain the lie once the Americans realised they had killed an Australian and a New Zealander.  Based on what I was told about old women screaming on Yemeni TV it also seems a lie the people of Yemen don’t believe.  This uncomfortable lie must be part of the reason that the South has split from the North, and the East wants to break from the West.  The central government benefits financially from America routinely striking targets throughout the rest of the country.

Al Majala also proves the point that America is unlikely to win anything except a propaganda victory for Al-Qaeda with its programme of strikes in Yemen.  Al Majala, which may or may not have contained Al-Qaeda members, also included civilians. It is estimated that of the 41 people killed in that attack 21 were children and 14 women.  The filmed images of the aftermath of this strike are deeply disturbing.  They are, in fact, what happens after an act of terrorism.  If what happened to the USS Cole was “a despicable and cowardly act”, then what happened at Al Majala was worse than that.

There is little likelihood that the people of this tribe at Al Majala will forget.  The people of Rangiaowhia haven’t forgotten the murder of their women and children by British soldiers in 1865 in New Zealand.  When the Anglican church organised a walking pilgrimage around East Cape and into the Waikato recently they were greeted with song by the descendants of Rangiaowhia: “welcome to the people who burnt our people.”  The people of Whakatōhea also do not forget, and the wounds still feel raw there for many, 150 years after the fact.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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