"The Houthis are first and foremost a political group," she explained. They belong to the Zaidi sect, whose members make up roughly one-third of Yemen's 25 million people. The Zaidis "are traditionally part and parcel of the Shia sect, but they hold very different beliefs than, say, Shia in Iran," she added.
Unlike Sunnis and Shias, for example, Zaidis believe they have a religious obligation to rise up against unjust rulers. Houthi founder Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed by the Yemeni government in 2004, mixed Zaidi revivalism with anti-imperialism. Hence the "Death to America / Death to Israel" chant, despite the fact that the Houthis, according to Ahmad, are fundamentally a "local group with local grievances."
So just what terms should we be using to discuss the Houthis—and the dramatic splintering of a country they partially control? An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Tanya Basu: What prompted you to start filming this documentary?
Safa al-Ahmad: This is my second documentary in Yemen. I’m a Saudi national, and so I don’t need a visa to go into Yemen. It’s easier for me to get that access than others, so I have always been fascinated with [Yemen] and have people there that I consider like family. I just kept coming back to the country.
I got to know a lot of the Houthis more closely in 2011 when I came to cover their revolution in 2011. I’ve known many of them for a while now. When they came closer and closer to surrounding Sanaa and coming into the capital, I started getting in touch with them and said, “How do you feel about me making this documentary about you guys?” What really helped me was that they already knew who I was. It kind of helped me get in the door that way, even though it was still very difficult once I got into the country.
Basu: There aren’t that many women on the ground making documentaries in areas that are controlled by groups like [the Houthis]. I was wondering about your experiences as a woman.
Ahmad: I would question your question, actually. I think that is no longer correct. A lot of female journalists are out there, who are covering Egypt and Syria and Libya and even Yemen. I think it’s a wrong stereotype to have. Being a woman in the Middle East actually gives you an advantage over men because it gives you access to all sides, especially to other women. I found it to be an asset rather than a detriment to my journalism. I think both men and women as journalists face different challenges, and the Middle East is no exception to that. Ultimately, when I faced hostility, it was hostility to a camera and not to me as a woman; [the Houthis] are very secretive, they’re very paranoid about media in general.
[In] Yemen, they’re sweethearts. They have [a] very advanced civil society. Women have already been in public much more than [in] the rest of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]. They’ve been involved in politics, they were ministers—in no way, shape, or form can you compare [reporting in Yemen] to the other challenges you would have in, let’s say, Saudi Arabia.