Dancing men inside a tent, with big loudspeakers, singing and cheering.
A wedding in Sanaa, February 2019. All photos: Nezar Moqbel.  
Life

Stunning Camera Phone Photos of Joy Amid the War in Yemen

Photographer Nezar Mokbel's work aims to "revive the idea of happier times" in his homeland.
March 18, 2021, 8:45am

This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.

Photographer Nezar Mokbel, 23, grew up in the country he knows as “Al Yemen Al Saeed”, meaning “happy Yemen”. But for seven years, Yemen has been torn apart by a brutal civil war that has claimed over 233,000 lives and left over 20 million people – or nearly two-thirds of the population – food insecure.

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In 2014, a group of rebels known as the Houthis took over the country’s official government. Since then, they have been fighting against an international coalition – which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and is supported by the United States – to maintain control of the country. But experts believe the conflict is actually a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia over influence across the Arabian peninsula.

Either way, Yemeni cities have been heavily bombed, and both sides stand accused of war crimes. But even between the destruction of homes, hospitals and schools, life goes on in the streets of Yemen – scenes Mokbel captures on his phone camera. His photos reflect the heavy emotion of people struggling just to make a living, but also joyous celebrations like wedding parties blasting music over the sounds of explosions.

I asked Mokbel what prompted the project, and what it means to him.

SANAA, YEMEN 2020 – SMILING TEENAGER SELLING FRUITS AT THE MARKET.

A MARKET SELLER IN THE OLD CITY OF SANAA, NOVEMBER 2020.

VICE: Hey, Nezar. When you talk about Yemen, you often refer to the bright side of the country’s history. Why is that?
Nezar Mokbel:
I grew up here, with the notion that Yemen was a happy place engraved in my mind. Then the war broke out. After all this time, its beauty is starting to vanish from my memories. The media participated in erasing this too – they’re only showing the most terrible war scenes. No one remembers anything except the war anymore. 

Is that why you decided to start taking photos?
For the first four years, I just got used to the war. I was passively watching what was happening. In February of 2019, I decided to do something about it. I started taking photos to try to capture the details of daily life in Yemen, to revive this idea of happier times.

SANAA, YEMEN 2019 – Woman wearing highly-decorated red veil, sitting in front of an old door with two young children.

A woman with her grandchildren. Sanaa, May 2019.

Why do you take your pictures with your smartphone?
In this time of political turmoil, carrying a camera around and taking people’s photos can be very dangerous. But I don’t let this stop me. I take photos with my phone, even if it’s still risky sometimes. In Yemen, artists and photographers don’t have many opportunities to exhibit their work, but we create our own opportunities. I found that my phone’s images can still show the world that we are trying to be OK. 

How do you choose the subjects of your images?
Every photographer has his own vision. For me, it’s quite spontaneous – I capture moments that personally touch me, especially things you might miss with the blink of an eye.

SANAA, YEMEN 2019 – Close-up of three kids smiling and talking to each other, all wearing blazers.

Children on a break from work. May 2019.

One of my favourite pictures was taken during the holy month of Ramadan last year in the market of the Old City of Sanaa [Sanaa is Yemen’s capital, currently under Houthi control], where children were taking a break from work. These kids work every day from noon to 6PM, carrying goods from the market to the main street. They earn 100 Yemeni rials [about €0.30] from each client. Despite their tough life, they still joke around and have a laugh together, like regular kids from anywhere else in the world.

But not all your images are happy, are they?
They’re a mix of everything – some are happy, some tragic, some photos reflect people’s numbness towards the violence, others what the future of Yemen could look like after the war.

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Scroll down to see more photos:

SANAA, YEMEN 2019 - picture of the whole group of kids, 9 in total. They're sitting on steps or in their wheelbarrows.

Children taking a break from work. May 2019.

SANAA, YEMEN 2019 – Bird's eye view of people gathered on a street lit up by string lights.

A "Zaffa" – a musical procession with drums typical of Arab weddings held in front of the groom's house. Sanaa, October 2019.

SANAA, YEMEN 2020. A man dressed in brown, carrying a bottle of water and lying on the street on top of a trash bag, in front of a bright green and yellow wall.

A man who spent Eid al-Adha – one of the most important celebrations in Islam, marking the end of Ramadan – sleeping rough on the streets. SANAA, AUGUST 2020.

SANAA, YEMEN 2020 – Child leaning against a wall next to a wheelbarrow full of garlic.

A CHILD SELLING GARLIC. SANAA, NOVEMBER 2020.

Taiz, 2021 – A colourful store front at the bottom of a completely destroyed building.

A shop owner reopened their toy store even though their building was bombed. TAIZ GOVERNORATE, JANUARY 2021.

SANAA, YEMEN 2019 - Man sleeping on steps in front of the Arab Bank.

The air raids have left many people homeless. Sanaa, December 2019.

SANAA, YEMEN 2019 – a young boy wearing a Messi football jersey hugging a girl with a veil. Two other boys hug and talk in the background.

Friends hugging in the alleys of the Old City. SANAA, JULY 2019.

SANAA, YEMEN 2020 – Old man carrying a large bag over his shoulder.

This old man was carrying a load so heavy he had to take a break at every step. Sanaa, July 2020.