Mohammed Alamana is 24 years old. Originally from Iraq, he arrived in Yemen in 2005. As a boy growing up in Baghdad, he marvelled at Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, but it was in Yemen that he got into breakdancing. Alamana spent a few solitary months memorising moves he saw on YouTube and practising in an abandoned carpark behind the president’s mosque in Sana’a before some of his school friends joined him to form Yemen’s first b-boy crew, the Blastboyz.
The group is made up of a motley bunch of Yemenis, refugees and expatriates from Canada, Tanzania, Iran, Somalia and the US. When they’re not rehearsing in the leafy courtyard of the French Cultural Centre (a rarefied environment where the elite take expensive French lessons, it is even equipped with an espresso machine), they’re hanging out in coffee shops, checking Facebook, studying English or listening to local rappers.
“It keeps me sane,” one of the crew’s younger members says. “But I have to hide it from my father. He says it’s un-Islamic.” (Most of the boys are not comfortable being named, anticipating parental and social disapproval.) The Blastboyz respond to the inevitable generational resistance by blending hip-hop and rap with elements from their cultural and religious heritage: they’ll breakdance to remixes of James Brown’s “Sex Machine”, but also to traditional Yemeni music. Sometimes they wear skinny jeans; other days they don the full-length thawb favoured by their fathers. Their primary audience is their peers (they have over 1,000 followers online), but when they have ventured beyond the walls of the FCC, they’ve had an equally enthusiastic reception. “When we danced in front of residents of the old city, the reaction was mixed,” one said. “Some of them were confused and offended, but others were excited and surprised.”
Unfortunately for women, the boundaries of Yemeni culture are not so flexible. Mohammed says that several girls have asked to join the crew, but he has had to turn them down. Instead, he teaches his nieces at home. §
Photography by Tom Finn