Creating music as a means of coping with heartbreak and hardship is a well-treaded road. So is music as rebellion. Those may be the paths through which Yemeni singer-songwriter Methal approaches her art, but her story is anything but ordinary.
For Methal, pursuing music meant breaking down gender barriers in her home country of Yemen, a conservative and poor nation in southern Arabia. Since 2015, a Saudi-led coalition has been trying to topple a militant rebel group, the Houthis, who have refused to cede power. Now the country is ravaged by war, disease, and famine to the point of catastrophe.
Methal fled the country nearly three years ago after Saudi Arabia began bombing her hometown of Sanaa, Yemen's capital. She first lived in Turkey before making it to Canada to claim asylum. Through songwriting, the 27-year-old is processing what it means to be a refugee in her new home, Montreal.
In Sanaa, Methal was one of the first women of her generation to perform music in front of a mixed-gender audience, a major taboo in a country where social scrutiny for not obeying the rules is overt and burdensome. Methal's lyrics are poetic and wistful, her voice a rich tremolo. She sings in English, often about her life in Yemen.
"You know when you love and believe in something so much, and everything else doesn't matter? You just want to achieve that thing that is your passion," she says of pursuing music as a young woman in Yemen. "Either you follow what other people tell you or you fight for something that you believe in."
Methal is featured on Spotify's series #ImWithTheBanned, an initiative launched this summer that spotlights artists from the Muslim-majority countries that have been targeted by the U.S. government's travel ban. The music series is intended "to empower artists and fans from different cultures to come together, and to amplify the voices of people and communities that have been silenced." For #ImWithTheBanned, Methal collaborated with the X Ambassadors to create the song "Cycles," which she has described as "a love story of two people stuck in a toxic relationship." The song is emblematic of her relationship with her home country.
"Since last year, I was uploading songs on social media. Spotify heard my music and they contacted me," Methal tells me. "At first, I didn't know anything about the project. The only thing I knew was that it was against the ban, so I immediately said I would participate.
"I've always dreamed of studying music in the U.S., but when the Trump ban came into effect, Ifelt like all my dreams shattered," she continues. "I was not able to play in my country and not able to study in the U.S. I felt rejected."
Methal was raised in a city along the coast of western Yemen, Hodeidah, where her parents were both doctors. Her proclivity for music was evident at a young age; she would make up her own songs to play on her family's keyboard and harmonica. But when it came time for her to go to college, Methal chose the route her parents had always wanted for her: she left for Sanaa in 2009 to attend medical school.
Pursuing music was considered a low-class activity. In northern Yemen's traditional social structure, musicians were at the bottom of the totem pole. "You wouldn't see Yemeni families encouraging their children to be musicians," Methal explains.
Still, in Sanaa, music crept into Methal's life. She bought a guitar soon after she moved and taught herself to play via YouTube tutorials.
Then, in 2011, anti-government protests broke out across Yemen, just as they had in much of the Arab world. While the Arab Spring led to deadly political upheaval in Yemen, the protests had encouraged a new wave of dissent against the established social order. This made space for incremental shifts in Yemeni society, especially in the arts.
While attending a small concert in early 2012, Methal was pulled onstage by a few of her male friends. She didn't hesitate at the opportunity to perform. But going outside the lines of what Yemeni society deemed as acceptable had its consequences: Methal received threats from strangers "to a traumatizing level," she says. Most told her she must stop playing music; others were more sinister. She tried to keep a low profile and surround herself with friends who believed in her art. "There were people who were really supportive, and there were people who were not. I tried to isolate myself from those who weren't."
In early 2015, Methal dropped out of university to pursue music full-time. A few months later, Saudi Arabia began bombing Sanaa. The war between the rebels and the Saudi-led coalition (which the U.S. supports) continues to this day and has killed nearly 9,000 Yemenis, not including the 2,200 who have died from a cholera epidemic that has been greatly exacerbated by the conflict.
When the war began, her home started to feel "like a prison," Methal explains. "You cannot get out, and you might die at any second. You think, What did I do with my life if I just stay here and die? What did I actually achieve? So I decided to leave."
Along with thousands of other Yemenis escaping the war, Methal fled her country across the Mandeb Strait, an eighteen-hour boat ride, to the tiny nation of Djibouti, in eastern Africa. Because she was traveling alone, she dressed in a niqab, a black face veil, so strangers would be less likely to question her. Methal tells me that fear was the last thing on her mind at that moment: "I felt like I didn't have anything to lose." From Djibouti, she was able to travel to Turkey.
After a year living in Istanbul, a door opened. In November 2016, the University of Ottawa invited Methal to travel to Canada to speak about Yemen's war. Methal stayed in Canada, moved to Montreal, and applied for refugee status. She's still waiting on the final decision for her asylum.
"I was terrified at first because it's a different culture. But what made me love it is how people love art so much," she tells me. "They express it in their daily lives and are proud of it. People have the freedom to express themselves without being persecuted."
In Montreal, Methal attends concerts and music festivals. She's delving into more experimental indie music and is collaborating with local artists for a new album, which she hopes will come out early next year. She hopes to go to college for music production and music theory in the near future.
Yet there's a darker side, too, just as there is for so many refugees whose new lives come at the expense of abandoning their homeland.
"It's really difficult, because you feel guilty at some level that the people you love are there struggling, and you are here. Even if you try to be happy, there is a part missing in you," Methal says. "I feel like I'm still in a dream. I don't consider myself happy."
It is from such a deep well of trauma and sadness that Methal finds room to create. Her lyrics reflect the paradoxical feelings she has for her home. In her song "You're a Nation Without a Poem," she sings, "You're a nation of all talk. And everything I gathered was thrown away … Those people who put me down. Can you tell them who I really am? You know, ideas grow in my head. You can't shut it down."
In the song's music video, Methal sits alone in a warm-hued forest outside Istanbul, flipping through Polaroid photos of destruction in Yemen. The video is solemn, at times melancholic. Yet as the sunlight creeps through the forest's canopy where Methal stands, there is also reason for hope.
"At this point, I don't want to go that fast. Even though it's been painful, it's been beautiful at the same time," she reflects. "I'm going now into the experimental phase. I want to close a chapter and start something new."
Laura Kasinof is a freelance journalist and the author of the reporting memoir Don't Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen.