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Return to Yemen

by DAVID SMILEY

During the civil war in Yemen in the 1960s, Colonel Smiley, LVO MC OBE, served as military adviser to Imam Al-Badr and senior members of the Yemeni royal family. Before retiring from the British Army in 1961 he spent three years in Oman as Commander of the Sultan’s Armed Forces. He published an account of his experiences in Oman and Yemen in his book, ‘Arabian Assignment’ (1975). He returned to Yemen, after an absence of thirty-five years, in late February 2003.

When I left Yemen in 1968, I never expected to go there again. Imagine my surprise when in October last year I received a note from the Yemeni Ambassador, Dr Mutahar Alsaeedi, asking me to contact him as he had a letter for me. It was from his government inviting me to go out to Yemen, an invitation which I knew I would find hard to resist.

In due course, over lunch with the Ambassador, I learned that the invitation had come from two very distinguished Yemenis: Dr Abdul Karim Al-Iryani, the former Prime Minister, now Presidential Adviser and Secretary-General of the ruling GPC party; and Dr Hussein Al-Amri, the previous Yemeni Ambassador in London and now a member of Yemen’s Majlis al-Shura. However, the reason for their invitation only became clear to me later: a number of Yemeni historians were engaged in writing an official history of the revolution; they required my help in telling them all I could about the civil war which raged between the Royalist forces of the Imam and the Republican forces led by Colonel Sallal and heavily supported by the Egyptians. Following the military coup against Imam Al-Badr in September 1962 and his flight from Sana’a to a cave in the mountains of northern Yemen, I was appointed to serve as his Military Adviser, and continued in this capacity until 1968 when the Imam finally left the country. During this period I paid thirteen visits to Yemen and was therefore in a position to give an eye-witness account of events from the Imam’s side.

I was very keen to accept the invitation conveyed to me by Dr Mutahar, but a number of people were against my going. Some thought that I was too old (I am 87) and too disabled (being deaf and lame) and probably senile! Others stressed the potential security dangers, citing Foreign Office advice against travel to Yemen. However, both my wife and my doctor approved of the idea, provided that I had a companion to help me. A young volunteer was found in Alexander Brittain-Catlin who throughout the trip proved an excellent companion and ADC. Meanwhile, the Ambassador and his staff did everything possible to facilitate our journey.

On 26 February, Alex and I set off from Heathrow on a Yemenia flight, arriving at Sana’a airport the following morning. There we were met by Colonel Mohsin Khosroof and Derhim Assaidi, a Yemeni diplomat, who were both English speakers and were to accompany us on all our visits and expeditions. From the airport they whisked us to the Taj Sheba Hotel. We were shown into pleasant rooms with views of the mountains from where, in 1966,1 had looked down on Sana’a which the Royalists were then bombarding.

It was perfect weather, and, after we had enjoyed a good sleep, Colonel Mohsin and Derhim took us on a tour of the old city. We walked down narrow streets, between tall, tapering buildings of stone and brick, their windows framed in a tracery of white stucco, into a labyrinth of alleys with stalls selling spices, qat, jambiyyas, shawls, shoes, jewellery ... The desire to capture something of this vibrant, tumultuous world kept our cameras in constant motion.

The following day, being the Friday weekend, was also spent sightseeing; we drove to Wadi Dhahr to see the Imam’s multi-storeyed summer palace, Dar al-Hajr, spectacularly perched on a rocky outcrop. While Alex, Mohsin and Derhim climbed to the top, I sat in the car and watched the passers-by. Every man and boy had a jambiyya in his belt, but I was surprised to see the number of men who also carried a rifle - usually a Kalashnikov - which, apparently, is quite legal. On the way back to the hotel we called at the home of Dr Abdul Karim Al-Iryani who gave us a warm welcome and questioned me about my past in Yemen. With him I met Dr Abdulla Abdul Wali Nasher, Chairman both of the International Bank of Yemen and of the Yemeni-British Association in Sana’a. Dr Abdul Karim told me that he had arranged a meeting for me the next day to discuss the civil war; and I mentioned that I had brought with me from London, as a present for him, an album with some of the many photographs which I had taken in Yemen during the 1960s. Next morning I was driven to the Moral Guidance Department of the Ministry

of Defence and taken to the office of Brigadier-General Ali Hassan Al-Shater. With him were four other officers and Dr Muhammad Qubati, Chairman of the Political and Foreign Relations Committee of the GPC, who spoken excellent English and acted as interpreter. I was shown an Arabic translation of my book, Arabian Assignment, and warned that the next day I would be expected to attend a round table conference.

That afternoon we were taken on another tour, driving for a while along the road running east of Sana’a towards Marib. I was struck by the number of qat plantations; and throughout the whole journey our driver, while steering with his left hand, kept scooping fresh leaves of qat into his mouth with his right! I had previously tried chewing but did not like it, nor did Alex when he tried. Most foreigners disapprove of this nation-wide habit, mainly on economic grounds, but it does mean that Yemen, unlike other societies in the West and elsewhere, has no serious drug problem.

The following morning’s round table conference at the Department of Moral Guidance was chaired by Dr Hussein Al-Amri who introduced me there to Dr Abdullah Barakat and Mahmoud Ibrahim Al-Saghiry. I was asked to give a resume of my time in Yemen in the 1960s, and then answered questions, mainly on details in my book. It was a friendly meeting despite the fact that I had been in the service of the Republicans’ enemy; but I emphasised that our real enemy at the time had been Egypt’s quasi-colonial military presence.

During my week in Sana’a I had two evenings out, The first was at the home of Dr Abdul Karim Al-Iryani, a most charming host, where I also met the author and Arabist, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, and, once again, Dr Abdulla Abdul Wali Nasher the second was at the residence of the British Ambassador, Frances Guy. She kindly arranged a dinner for me, which was truly gallant of her, considering that I had visited Yemen against Foreign Office advice! The other guests included Dr Hussein Al-Amri, Dr Nasher and his delightful wife, Ilham, and Professor Yusuf Abdullah the Deputy Minister of Culture. Earlier that day Alex and I were taken to the Military Museum whose diverse array of exhibits includes the car said to have been used by the last British High Commissioner in Aden. The Museum is a handsome example of Ottoman architecture and well maintained, but its interpretation of Yemen’s revolutionary past struck me as more than a little tendentious. We were also taken on a shopping expedition to the suq in the old city where Derhim and Mohsin, ever helpful and generous, insisted on buying presents for my wife, including scarves and jewellery of silver and agate, the locally mined semi-precious stone.

During our last afternoon, General Al-Shater and Dr Abdulla Abdul Wali Nasher called at the hotel to say that they had a present for me from President Saleh who regretted being unable to receive me because of his absence at an Arab Conference. They then produced a wonderful collection of presents for Alex and myself which included a silver jambiyya, boxes of jewellery for my wife, and about six kilos of Yemeni coffee; we felt overwhelmed by this generosity.

Our return flight to London went via Aden, which I had last visited some forty years ago!

Before leaving Sana’a I promised my Yemeni hosts that I would gather together and send them as much material as possible - from my own personal records and from public archives - relevant to our discussions on the civil war. This absorbing task has included reproducing and annotating the nearly seven hundred photographs which I took during my visits to Yemen in the 1960s.

I am proud to think that this material, dormant for so many years, may make a useful contribution to the historiography of modern Yemen.

I look back on my week in Sana’a with immense gratitude for the kindness and hospitality which I received there. It was a moving and invigorating experience. At no time did I have any doubts about my security, and can only confirm the truth of the Yemeni proverb that ‘Sana’a is a must, however long it takes to get there’!

August 2003
 
The author with Royalist Prime Minister, Prince al-Hassan bin Yahya, at his mountain headquarters near Sa'ada, 1963.
 
The author with Dr Abdul Karim al-Iryani (centre), Dr Abdullah Abdul Wali Nasher and Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Sana'a, 2003.
 
The author and Alexander Brittain-Catlin in the old city of Sana'a.