A New Jersey soccer mom's Yemeni crusade



 
A 46-year-old housewife from New Jersey has become a household name in Yemen because of her unrelenting campaigning for press freedom there. MENASSAT spoke with Jane Novak or simply 'Jane,' as she is known in Yemen.
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
usa yemen
R.R.

BEIRUT, May 29, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Jane Novak, 46, is a stay-at-home mom from New Jersey. She has never visited Yemen nor does she speak Arabic.  And yet she has become so famous in Yemen that newspaper editors there say they sell more copies if her photograph is on the cover.

For the past four years Novak has been running a blog called Armies of Liberation, an unapologetically American website, adorned with stars and stripes, which through a quirk of fate has become the main platform for opposition activists and whistle-blowers in far-flung Yemen, who provide Novak with the latest news on Yemeni affairs via email or text messages.


Jane Novak © Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey

Novak's interest in Arab world and Yemen came as a result of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

"I felt the urge to learn more about the Arab world and to talk to the people in the region", she told MENASSAT in a phone interview.

With neither journalistic nor regional experience, she began writing articles on issues such as press freedom and equality in the Middle East, "subjects we could all agree on."

Soon, she found her writings appearing in newspapers in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

"I remember my first article was published in the Middle East Times. It was about Israelis and Palestinians and the issue of civilian immunity during conflict," said Novak. 

Taking a stand

Novak eventually came across Yemen, a country she thought at the time was enjoying a certain level of democratic prosperity and free speech efforts.

When she discovered that the South Arabian country was releasing convicted terrorists under a special "pentiti" program on the one hand, and jailing journalists on the other, she had found her cause.

Her tireless online campaigning quickly centered on Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, a renowned Yemeni journalist who is facing charges of "insulting the president" and "demoralizing the military" because of his coverage of the secret Shia rebellion in the South.

If convicted, Al-Khaiwani may face the death penalty. The sentencing was scheduled for May 21 but was postponed without a new date being set by the court.

To Novak, Al-Khaiwani has served as an inspiration and a beacon of free speech.

"He was so heroic. He was taking a stand," she said.

When she wrote her first article on Al-Khaiwani’s case, calling for his acquittal, the journalist was provided with an Arabic translation of her article. Soon after they established contact. 

"I had never thought in a million years that he would know what I wrote. We have emailed and we can manage to understand each other if we keep it in simple words," said Novak. 

Not surprisingly, Novak's online activism has not pleased the Yemeni authorities. Her blog was blocked from access within Yemen more than a year ago and the national government has gone to great efforts in order to stain the soccer mom from New Jersey.

"They’ve done everything they can to discredit me," Novak said. "Everyone in Yemen was reading my blog. That's why the blocked it. They even blocked the proxies. I mean, it's like an iron curtain. The government wants the people of Yemen to stay disconnected from the world."

Novak said she "can't even remember all the bad things I've been called. There are just too many."

'Zionist'

After she wrote an article in which she had argued that Yemeni state media are being used as "a tool for personal destruction," a government-run newspaper in Yemen responded by saying that Novak had an "Abu Ghraib mentality."

"The article roughly said that I had the same culture as the U.S. military who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib [prison in Iraq.] If I had valor, I would trash my own government instead, it said."

She was also accused of being a "Zionist" member of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Novak, who is a novice in Middle Eastern affairs, had to get Google it to find out what she was being accused of.

The criticism has only strengthened Novak's resolve.

"While they block my blog, the Jihadi Al-Qaeda web sites are working just fine in Yemen. The release the USS Cole bombers and throw journalists and even comedians in jail. It leaves me speechless. This is supposed to be a U.S. ally. I feel I have an obligation to let people know," she said.

Novak's campaigning for Al-Khaiwani has already succeeded in attracting international attention for his case. More than 1,200 people have signed the online petition, and last week U.S. congressman Trent Franks sent a letter to the Yemeni ambassador in Washington, DC, urging the release of Al-Khaiwani.

Meanwhile, Novak hopes in the future to boost her Arabic skills. "I've only learned a few words. Like hello and bread."

But a trip to Yemen is however not on her to-do list anytime soon.

"We have this joke that I'd never even get out of the airport in Yemen alive," she giggled.

But she feels confident that she has supporters in Yemen too. She claims to have received more than two-thousand letters from Yemenis – most of them supportive of her work.

"Your very up to date article reflects the reality of suffering in Yemen. As you see, people under the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh get killed from either hunger or from gunshots. I have a great hope that the dark tunnel of the bloody path will end soon," read one letter.

Some readers are more skeptical.

"I don't know if I am happy or not for you knowing all these facts about my betrayed country," said another letter. "But anyway, thanks for writing on Yemen and for thinking about it."


(The online petition for Al-Khaiwani is at http://campaigns.aicongress.)