A Living-Room Crusade via Blogging


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Jane Novak, a 46-year-old stay-at-home mother of two in New Jersey, has never been to Yemen. She speaks no Arabic, and freely admits that until a few years ago, she knew nothing about that strife-torn south Arabian country.

And yet Ms. Novak has become so well known in Yemen that newspaper editors say they sell more copies if her photograph — blond and smiling — is on the cover. Her blog, an outspoken news bulletin on Yemeni affairs, is banned there. The government’s allies routinely vilify her in print as an American agent, a Shiite monarchist, a member of Al Qaeda, or “the Zionist Novak.”

The worst of her many offenses is her dogged campaign on behalf of a Yemeni journalist, Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani, who incurred his government’s wrath by writing about a bloody rebellion in the far north of the country. He is on trial on sedition charges that could bring the death penalty, with a verdict expected Wednesday.

Ms. Novak, working from a laptop in her Monmouth County living room “while the kids are at school,” has started an Internet petition to free Mr. Khaiwani. She has enlisted Yemeni politicians, journalists, human rights activists and others around the globe. Her blog goes well beyond the Khaiwani case and has become a crucial outlet for opposition journalists and political figures, who feed her tips on Yemeni political intrigue by e-mail or text message.

She says her campaign is a matter of basic principle. “This is a country that lets Al Qaeda people go free, and they’re putting a journalist on trial for doing his job?” she said. “It’s just completely crazy.”

But Ms. Novak does admit to a personal interest in the case. She and Mr. Khaiwani have become close friends, though they have never met, and neither speaks the other’s language. One of the charges against him is receiving a cellphone text message from her, as part of an alleged plot (which he denies) to aid the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen.

“The penalty for this crime is usually death,” Mr. Khaiwani said during an interview at his home in the Yemeni capital, Sana, in January. A lanky 42-year-old with large, piercing eyes and a dark sense of humor, he has already been jailed four times by the authorities in connection with his journalism. Last year he was kidnapped and beaten by men he says were plainclothes police officers.

Mr. Khaiwani added, with a broad smile: “If you add to this my relationship with Jane Novak, it means the death penalty for sure.”

Ms. Novak does not fit the profile of a dilettante in exotic causes. A former sales manager for a textile company, she speaks with a distinct Brooklyn accent, having grown up in Flatbush. When a Yemeni government minister visited the United States last year and invited the notorious “Jane,” as she is known throughout Yemen, to go to Washington for a meeting, she turned him down. “It was too much, the money, the kids, all for a one-day trip,” she said.

Nor does she have any background in Middle East studies. One of her opponents in Yemen accused her of being a Zionist member of Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I had to Google it,” Ms. Novak said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know what it was.”

It was after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that Ms. Novak, who used to work not far from the World Trade Center, first took an interest in the Arab world. “I thought it would be a good idea to write in the English-language Arabic press on subjects we could all agree on, freedom of the press, equality, stuff like that,” she said.

In 2004, she started her blog, www.armiesofliberation.com, adorned with a Stars and Stripes logo, and soon wrote an article defending Mr. Khaiwani, who was in prison. He wrote her a letter of thanks, addressing it to “Jane Novak, the American journalist and political analyst.”

“Leaders in our region transform into gods,” he wrote. “They even come to believe in their fake holiness, which we aim to shatter, as they know they are humans just like us. Democracy and freedom are not granted by a leader of a regime. It is a worldwide human achievement of all the free people on earth.”

Moved by the letter, Ms. Novak started her first petition campaign on Mr. Khaiwani’s behalf. Through translators, the two began corresponding.

“He’s just such a nice guy,” Ms. Novak said. “He really believes in democracy, and he’s paying the price for it.”

It was months after their first letters before Ms. Novak could bring herself to tell Mr. Khaiwani that she was not, in fact, a journalist and political analyst, but a homemaker blogging on a laptop at home. “I didn’t want to tell you before, because I didn’t want you to lose hope,” she wrote.

Mr. Khaiwani wrote back to say that the news made him even prouder of her and her work.

Since then, she has written numerous articles defending him in the Yemeni press.

By taking up Mr. Khaiwani’s cause, Ms. Novak was wading into one of the most obscure and complex conflicts in the Arab world. The Houthi rebellion began in 2004 when rebels began fighting with government soldiers in Saada Province, northwest of the capital near the border with Saudi Arabia. The government accuses Iran of aiding the rebels, a charge Iran denies. Thousands of people have died in the fighting.

For Ms. Novak, the basic issue was freedom of speech. The Yemeni government has banned journalists from traveling to Saada and has tried to suppress coverage of the conflict.

Mr. Khaiwani, almost alone among Yemeni journalists, managed to get vivid photographs and accounts of the bloodshed in Saada, which he published on his Web site, now defunct. His reports have helped spread a sense of outrage at the government’s raids, which appear to have extended the fighting by provoking Saada residents who did not initially side with the Houthi rebels.

“I have a very deep relationship with people in Saada,” Mr. Khaiwani said during the interview in January. “Many citizens in Saada wanted to show a real image of what is happening in the war there.”

The Yemeni government considers the Houthis terrorists and accuse Mr. Khaiwani of abetting their cause. He is being tried in Yemen’s State Security Court, which is used for terrorism cases.

Ms. Novak, whose blog includes a strong counterterrorism focus, says that is a bitter irony. Yemen has a long history as a refuge for jihadists, and the Yemeni government has released numerous men convicted of terrorism charges. One of them, Jamal al-Badawi, is wanted by the F.B.I. for his role in Al Qaeda’s bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed. Mr. Badawi was apparently returned to prison last fall after American officials protested.

Ms. Nowak’s perpetual harping on these themes appears to infuriate the Yemeni authorities. In late 2005, Al Jazeera included her as a guest on a special about Yemen, along with a former United States ambassador, a leader of the Yemeni opposition, and a spokesman for the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. As soon as the spokesman came onto the line, he began a tirade, ignoring the moderator’s pleas to let others speak.

“She doesn’t speak Arabic, she’s never visited Yemen, and she’s not a real journalist!” the spokesman shouted. “She just has a Web site that she uses to attack Yemen!”

Some professional Arabists speak a little disdainfully of Ms. Novak’s blog and seem to consider her an amateur with a jingoistic American attitude and no real knowledge of the Arab world.

Ms. Novak readily admits that she is no expert, and that she cannot pronounce Arabic words properly. But she estimates that more than 2,000 Yemenis have contacted her since she began writing articles in 2004. She receives dozens of letters every month. Some are just a few words — “Thank you Novak don’t stop” — and some are long narratives of grief and anger.

Reaching out to people like Mr. Khaiwani, who are struggling thousands of miles away with Yemen’s poverty, injustice and corruption, has given her a new vocation, she said.

“Some say there’s no progress in the Middle East,” she said. “But if they could just see these people — they’re really modern heroes.”


Comments are closed.


Discover more from Middle East Transparent

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading