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Selma al-Radi: an appreciation

by Anderson Bakewell with Francine Stone

Selma al-Radi (23 July 1939 – 7 October 2010)

'All is well here, life carries on as normal with chaos reigning supreme... the laying down of the water system, holes everywhere, streets torn up, traffic chaos and Yemenis and sundries falling into the trenches. Drought was upon us, then the deluge with my ceilings leaking like the day of judgement, locusts breeding in the Jawf, presidents being blown up, and tribals in all shapes and colours rushing around in flashy Toyotas with plastic interiors gay with flowers and machine guns.' (Letter from Sana'a, 13 July 1978) 

The Iraqi archaeologist Selma al-Radi found herself in her element when she arrived in Yemen in 1977 to become special adviser to the National Museum in Sana'a. The intelligence and humour of the Yemenis, the energy and optimism that was in the air of their post-revolution country, the rich heritage that expressed itself in exuberant language and architecture, the promise of countless important ancient sites with insights into the civilisations of South Arabian antiquity; all conspired to create the perfect setting in which to live her artful life to the full and, ultimately, make her greatest contribution.

Selma's original role was to organise and display South Arabian antiquities in the first National Museum "a challenging task in itself, still her storeroom full of fakes seemed to amuse her as much as the genuine statues on display. She also was charged with surveying sites around the country, but her brief soon expanded to include Yemen's cultural heritage generally. She was involved in an early campaign to save the Ashrafiyah mosque in Ta 'izz, but discovered her true metier, that of a conservatrix, after she encountered the early 16th century 'Amiriya madrasa and mosque in Rada 'a. Appalled by the near derelict state of this exceptional building, she pitched herself into what was to become a personal crusade devoted to not only making the building structurally sound, but restoring it both externally and internally to its former glory. She recounted hilariously how she was on the rickety roof when the catastrophic earthquake of 1982 hit and she was forced to cling on to one of the domes for dear life as it swayed wildly against her.

The project – danger, frustrations and all – offered Selma the opportunity to engage her refined aesthetic and organisational capabilities, and allowed, or even demanded, the full exploitation of her considerable skills of persuasion. She managed to convince all responsible that the restoration of the 'Amiriya was not only necessary, but essential to keep alive indigenous Yemeni skills that were in danger of being lost.

Selma worked tirelessly, repairing stucco decorations and restoring thousands of square metres of tempera wall paintings. She took the most pride in working alongside a master stonemason and builders to revive traditional skills and materials, applying herself to the rediscovery of the recipe and application of the pliant but waterproof plaster, qudad, to which she developed an almost mystical attachment.

She dedicated herself to the project for the next 24 years and her efforts were handsomely acknowledged in 2007 by an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in the restoration and conservation category.

The restoration of the 'Amiriya was in a sense a fulfilment of destiny, for Selma was really its embodiment. Rather like this expression of the prolific Tahirid dynasty, she was a rare jewel, an harmonious amalgam of diverse cultural influences from Anatolia, Syria and Iraq to Egypt and, especially, India, with Beirut, France and Manhattan thrown into her personal mix.

She was born in Baghdad to Muhammad Salim al-Radi, a diplomat, and Su'ad Abbas, whose family, though ethnically Kurdish, were Ottomans through and through (her Baghdad-born great uncle, Mahmud Sevket Pasha, was one of last Grand Viziers of the Ottoman empire). Many of Selma's formative early years were spent abroad, in Iran and India, where she attended the Loreto Convent in Simla and acquired her precise, clipped English. She was subsequently sent to Alexandria ( 'to learn Arabic' as she put it) and went on to Girton College, Cambridge and subsequently for graduate studies in archaeology of the ancient Near East at Columbia University and the University of Amsterdam.

As a professional Selma was involved in Nimrud, Nippur and Abu Salabikh (Iraq), Mendes (Egypt), Phlamoudhi (Cyprus), Failaka (Kuwait) and Shams al-din (Syria) as well as numerous surveys in Yemen (undertaken in her notoriously uncooperative Series I Landrover, 'Bilius'). The scope of her archaeological interests was reflected in a foundation course she offered while lecturer at the American University of Beirut, notoriously entitled 'From the Stone Age to Christianity'.

As a private person she was renowned for her friendships, her hospitality, her unrivalled collection of Yemeni silver jewellery, her way with words, her cooking and her love of melody. Selma's life was lived against the background of music (she professed to detest anything contemporary from Ravel onward, or 'ethnic'), and it was opera with which she was most temperamentally aligned. The image endures of her in her decorative home in Sana'a, singing along to arias from 'Fidelio' or 'Aida' at full blast as she prepares an Indo-Middle Eastern feast for her many friends and admirers.
Her quick mind expressed itself in highly entertaining and skilful storytelling, one of the best loved being the saga of the absconding hyena brought to the Museum by a tribesman who thought she was assembling a zoo. Selma's wit could disarm anyone from ministers to farmers but none so utterly as soldiers at irksome checkpoints when her trenchant streams of Arabic invective would reduce them to fits of giggles and the barrier would swing open. But what so impressed all who came into contact with her was an unpretentious directness that was infused with a warmth and compassion which somehow turned even an insult into a compliment.

Selma's joie de vivre was maintained through what to many would have been unbearable upheavals: revolution in Iraq had meant exile in Beirut, civil war in Lebanon led to relocation to New York, where the United States then proceeded to wage war on her beloved Iraq not once, but twice.
A late postcard ended with a searching question, tinged with exasperation, 'Do you think one can keep this up for ever'? With great sadness, not.

Special thanks to Liz Davis, Qais al-Awqati, John Nankivell, Antonin and Christiane Besse and colleagues Rémy Audouin and Marylène Barret for their reminiscences and heartfelt tribute to a dear friend and companion who became a part of Yemen and a part of their lives.

Vol 19. 2011