Change Square: The heart of Yemen's creative revolution

Art tent in Sanaa's Change Square An art tent has popped up in Sanaa's Change Square

For the past four months, a square in Yemen's capital Sanaa has been transformed into a sea of tents, flags and banners.

Protesters who oppose the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have gathered outside Sanaa University in an area they have dubbed Change Square.

There they sleep, eat, chat and chant together, all the while peacefully calling for the end of a regime they view as corrupt and oppressive.

And the site has become a centre for artistic and creative expression on a scale rarely seen before the uprising.

Art for the people

Fadi Alharby is a painter who, like many other artists in Yemen, worked in isolation under the strict regime.

Protesters in Sanaa, Yemen Anti-government protesters in Sanaa

He has come here to find other like-minded creatives and to take part in a revolutionary movement inspired in part by freedom of expression.

"Many people think the revolution in Yemen is based on violence," he says, "but for me it is based on art, because art is a human right, it is freedom."

The uprising has in fact been marred by violence. After months of largely peaceful protest, the country was pushed to the brink of civil war in late May, when fighting erupted between government forces and tribal leaders, reducing parts of Sanaa to ruin and killing hundreds of people.

But this is in sharp contrast to the peaceful scenes at Change Square, where art helps to bring people together.

"Art has really taken a central role in the square, especially since the revolution has taken over three months", says activist Atiaf Alwazir, who has become a voice of the revolution through her English-language blog, Woman from Yemen.

"The people need entertainment, people need motivation and that is what the art is giving to them. It's inspiring them to stay, to do more," she told the BBC World Service's The Strand programme.

Whereas in the past, art exhibits were rare, the few that were held only attracted affluent Yemenis or foreigners. Now artists of all types have come forward to exhibit their work on the street.

'Enough injustice'
Children singing in Change Square Families have gathered to join the demonstration

The tented community has become a centre not just for drawing and painting, but for music, dance and theatre too.

One group of youth toured the campsite to interview protesters about their experiences in the square and their feelings on the problems facing Yemen.

They then wrote a play - called Enough Injustice - and performed it inside a tent packed full of people. It was an instant hit, and they have been asked to repeat the performance again and again.

In a daring move, one young actor imitates the voice of the president - the significance of which is not lost on Alwazir.

"Normally this is a very red line," she says, "but in the square he felt safe to do that."

The Strand

  • The Strand is the daily global arts programme broadcast by the BBC World Service

The movement at Change Square is not the only gathering of people in the city.

While the protesters there set off fireworks and danced to celebrate the departure of the president to Saudi Arabia - where he went to seek medical treatment after being wounded in attack on his compound - his supporters also staged a rally, calling for his return.

Which movement will win in the end is hard to determine, but Alwazir has no doubt that the tide of freedom flowing through Change Square will be difficult to reverse.

"There is no comparison between before the revolution and now," she says.

"People feel empowered."

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