SANAA, Yemen — Perhaps it was the spandex shorts.
When a group of about 200 young people gathered to watch two-dozen or so foreigners rollerblading their way down the road, joint pads and shiny black helmets glinting in the afternoon sun — and yes, an occasional glimpse of spandex — the looks on Yemeni faces ranged from delighted to quizzical to astonished.
Of course, given the group — students and the disabled — had been bussed into the capital for the occasion, there was much cheering and waving of Yemeni flags, too.
“This is exactly the goal. We want to show people things they have never seen before!” said Claire Leonard, the effusive president of Planet Roller — the eccentric Paris-based organization responsible for bringing the rollerbladers to Yemen recently.
The quirky band of enthusiasts, among them teenagers and sexagenarians, spent a little more than a week in Yemen, teaching local kids how to rollerblade, handing out extra pairs of skates and exploring a new culture. Their visit continued a trend toward youth-focused activities — encouraged by the Yemeni authorities — promoting tolerance as a “soft,” yet vital, form of international aid.
The French Cultural Center in Sanaa — funded by the French government — has launched a small theater program for local university students, with weekly break-dancing practice sessions and regular exhibits and symposiums where locals can display artwork, listen to lectures and speak their mind. Last fall, the German and French cultural centers in Sanaa partnered up to put on a concert featuring teenage boys performing a mixture of traditional Yemeni dance, hip-hop and rap, and some American aid groups have expressed interest in supporting a climbing and hiking club for young Yemenis to explore their own land.
“The idea is to give [young people] a place to start. Give them something that they can then take away and do on their own,” said Cloe Vaniscotte, who heads the cultural mission at the French Cultural Center. She estimates that although relatively small numbers of young people participate — usually between 20 and 25 kids — the “ripple effect” is greater. “They tell their friends and their families, and it spreads,” she said.
In a place like Yemen, where anti-Western — and particularly anti-American — sentiment runs high, both international actors and some Yemeni politicians have recognized that changing young people’s perspectives is an important part of establishing peace in Yemen’s future.
Yemen is a chronically impoverished nation, where an estimated 40 percent of the population is unemployed, even more are illiterate, and many have been steeped in a very conservative, often intolerant, strain of Islam.
“There is a prevailing culture of jihad” in Yemen said Hassan Zaid, president of Yemen’s parliamentary opposition coalition was quoted by local press as saying last month. He said state educational curriculum, thousands of Saudi-funded Salafi religious schools, and some Yemeni media "combine to spread the belief that anyone who is unlike you can be killed. Let’s just say that if Osama bin Laden was watching, he would be very, very happy.”
While hip-hop concerts and French rollerbladers aren’t going to solve the problem of extremism or youth unemployment, it’s a step in the right direction, say the French participants.
“The other night when we were rollerblading through the Old City, there was an exchange between the locals and us,” said Romain Nicolas, 34, with a day job as a computer scientist back in Paris. “We were not just tourists or foreigners to them — we were people having fun, doing something new. The rollerblades completely change everyone’s perspective.”
Muriel Renard, who works as an audiologist in Paris, said that while she hoped Planet Roller had helped break a few stereotypes Yemenis held of Westerners, the trip was equally important in demonstrating to French people that Yemen is “more than just Al Qaeda.”
“It’s true. All people hear about Yemen in France is that there is Al Qaeda here, there are terrorists, or that it’s dangerous,” said Khadija al-Salami, a Yemeni author-cum-“French” rollerblader, who works in the Yemeni Embassy in Paris and who accompanied the rollerbladers to the country. That was especially true earlier after a Yemen-based Al Qaeda affiliate took responsibility for the attempted bombing of an airline landing in Detroit on Christmas Day. Many rollerbladers who were supposed to make the trip dropped out, said to Leonard, the president.
“But there are misconceptions on both sides of the line,” said al-Salami. “Before I [went to college] in America, the people here told me to be careful. They said, ‘Don’t wear jewelry, they will cut off your fingers to get your rings.’ It’s true: People need to meet each other to understand each other.”
Planet Roller brought a team to Yemen once before, in 2006. Since it was founded in 1999, the organization has brought hundreds of rollerbladers to dozens of countries, including Cuba, Tunisia, Tahiti and Senegal.
On the street beside the presidential mosque, two of the French rollerbladers helped a Yemeni woman, dressed head to toe in a black abaya, with nothing but her eyes showing, into a pair of skates. She was wobbly at first, like a foal on new legs, but after a few halting steps began to roll, then slide, then glide off over the pavement, her eyes smiling beneath her veil.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.