Women at the Forefront of Preserving Culture Heritage in Yemen
Her homeland seemed foreign, despite walking down its allies every day. Reminiscing over how Yemen used to look, Nuha Albaqal, a 24-year-old Yemeni, dreamt of building her country again.
While witnessing the consequences of the ongoing conflict in her city, Albaqal decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. In 2016, she enrolled at the University of Science and Technology in Sana’a, despite her family’s opposition. Her mother and extended family feared Albaqal entering a dominantly male field because of the conservative society.
“The only one who supported me was my father,” said Albaqal. “[my relatives] would always question my major and my future plans. Some would say I should not work because I am a woman,” she said. However, her father would always encourage Albaqal to ignore their words and focus on her goal.
Four years have passed, and Albaqal graduated as the first in her batch. Her father, who pushed her to continue, left her disheartened after passing away a week before her graduation ceremony. After a month and a half of mourning his death, she started looking at her previous projects and remembered how far she had come.
While job hunting to support her family, Albaqal heard about an architectural center in Old Sana’a hiring young Yemenis to rebuild the city. As part of the UNESCO/EU project, Cash for Work: Promoting Livelihood Opportunities aims at providing economic relief to vulnerable youth through employment in urban rehabilitation programs in four historic cities: Sana’a, Shibam, Zabid, and Aden. The project also supports cultural development initiatives in Yemen that enhance professional opportunities for the youth.
As of May 2021, the project surveyed over 8000 historical buildings, stabilized/repaired 150 buildings, and enrolled over 2500 young workers across the four cities. The project also engaged over 500 youth in cash-based cultural programming and services, organized consultative workshops for 50 culture operators, and disbursed small grants to eight cultural CSOs.
Albaqal is now among the thousands of young Yemenis working to repair the city. Soon after applying, she received training in the conservation and restoration of historical and cultural property. During university, we only studied traditional building techniques briefly and theoretically, but during the training, I witnessed young Yemenis rebuilding historical houses, she said.
After gaining practical skills, the center recommended Albaqal to the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY) to assess buildings in Old Sana’a. Albaqal, along with the other young Yemenis, as of May 2021, assessed 2918 damaged buildings in the city as part of the Cash for Work project.
Most buildings had their roofs and windows damaged, while others were on the verge of collapse, she said. To document and assess the houses, Albaqal and young Yemenis measured the level of damages and created 3D drawings of damaged buildings using computer software. After two months of assessing private houses, Albaqal began supervising the restoration of five damaged buildings.
The thing that affected me the most is the life of the people who live inside these houses, the amount of destruction is not visible from the outside. One more push and the houses can completely collapse.
Albaqal recalled one of the houses she supervised. The house was completely damaged from the inside, and it was a miracle that it sheltered a family of 12, she said. The house’s condition affected the children’s mental health, and as a result, none completed their education.
To rehabilitate a historical building, workers first demolish the damaged parts and then rebuild them. In 2012, an organization promised the family to restore their home, but the organization stopped construction midway after destroying a section of the house. As a result, their home was left severely damaged, but under Albaqal’s supervision, the building was restored to its original status.
I still remember the family’s reaction after fixing the house, their joy, how the mother and young daughter cried. No one can comprehend the feeling; no matter how much I describe it, I still cannot convey how it felt that day.
Albaqal was also given additional seven houses to supervise in Old Sana’a, which she recently completed. In total, as of May 2021, young Yemenis restored 64 private homes in the old city as part of the UNESCO/EU joint project.
“I hope that all of Old Sana’a can be restored, similar to the houses we rebuilt. The current situation is disastrous,” she said. The Cash for Work Project completed the restoration of the AlQassimi district in Old Sana’a and is currently restoring private houses, the city wall, and the national museum. Albaqal hopes to continue working with the program until Old Sana’a is rehabilitated, and dreams of visiting other cities in Yemen to contribute to its restoration.