Documenting History on Instagram with “Yemen Used to Be”

Mohammed Ali Mahroos
While studying electronic media and communication at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Ahmed Alhagri, 26, produced a short film on ancient Yemeni customs in 2019. Its warm reception inspired him to look for a virtual venue to share more content. This led to the launch of "Yemen Used to Be," a platform that documents Yemeni cultural heritage and aims to break down Yemeni stereotypes. Alhagri, who runs the site from Kuala Lumpur with staff based in Yemen, Europe and the United Arab Emirates, discussed his venture with our magazine staff.
© Image courtesy of “Yemen Used to Be”.

Arabia Felix: What is the purpose of “Yemen Used to Be?”

Ahmed Alhagri: Despite the name, our work does not only look at the past. Our aim is to introduce people to Yemeni culture through songs, poetry and literature. When we become acquainted with this cultural legacy, we can learn from it. 

Archiving material is our main objective, along with raising awareness about Yemeni heritage. Many Yemenis, especially young people, have been affected by the war. Our platform spotlights many aspects of our culture by addressing issues that affect youth. Our interactive content offers them a sense of belonging. It’s important for us to raise awareness and not abandon our heritage, even amid deteriorating conditions. Our content employs simple language, content and designs that are easily accessible. We also publish in English because we have a large non-Yemeni audience following us as well. 


AF: When and how did you start working on “Yemen Used to Be?”

Alhagri: At the end of 2018, I published an invitation on Instagram for volunteers to participate in my platform. Out of about 35 responses from young Yemenis both in and outside the country, we chose 17 people to form the main team.


AF: Tell us more about the team.

Alhagri: Diversity is our top criterion since we address various subjects in several governorates. We strive to ensure high-quality content and a plurality of sources. We provide accurate, well-researched material, developing our stories through information gathering, investigation, and source confirmation, followed by writing and editing. We’ve collaborated with friends who have the technical skills to establish the platform’s visual presence. The Yemeni character comes through colours, our logo, and visual templates for videos, archival material, photos, and short articles. Women with proven capabilities make up the majority of our team.

Coexistence for me is homeland, love, and the social relationships that bind us.”


AF: How does your audience react to what you publish?

Alhagri: Our platform has drawn large numbers of followers over the past two years, reaching about 50,000 followers across all social media. The heaviest traffic is on Instagram, then Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The roughly 300 messages per month we receive help us assess reactions to our output and give a sense of what our audience would like to see. Interaction with our audience is the prime motivation for us to keep going. We all work for free, but with real passion. Knowing that people are engaging with our content and that we’re making an impact gives us a great morale boost. We feel we’ve created a kind of bond with our audience.


AF: What kind of difficulties did you face?

Alhagri: Finances are always an issue, as is the unavailability of some material. It’s a challenge to find visual content from the 1970s and ’80s, so we’re trying to devise other ways to present such stories despite a shortage of resources.


AF: What do you think Yemenis need to make coexistence a reality?

Alhagri: We need a space for expression, with room for a wide range of ideas and a language of discourse that brings us all together. We need to open our hearts, listen to each other, and learn from our past experiences that were full of disputes. As Yemenis, we can debate politics, economics, and social issues, but we come together at a cultural, artistic level. I’ve always felt that artistic discourse is a unifying force. It creates a single tone of coexistence among people. Coexistence for me is homeland, love, and the social relationships that bind us.

Diversity is our top criterion.”


AF: How can virtual platforms and social media help Yemenis find and nurture common ground?

Alhagri: I think social media is the only element that can truly unite people. As content creators, we’re committed to creating a discourse with ideas that inspire people to reflect on the present and the future. We present ideas collectively and from different perspectives, which broadens people’s horizons and gets them thinking. This underscores the importance of media platforms and their impact on individuals and society. Narratives and storytelling are the most important tools we have to share ideas that serve the public and raise awareness today.


AF: What are you working on at the moment?

Alhagri: We’ve produced about a third of the content we want to publish online. It’s an expensive undertaking. We look forward to more visual output in the next two years, and we need specialised designers for that. Right now, we’re working on three documentaries, all with volunteers, about personalities who’ve had a significant impact on Yemen. We feel it’s important to make them known to other Yemenis. These films should be finished in the next six months. We’re hoping for lots of feedback once we stream them. 

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