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Remembering Leigh Douglas (1952-1986) 

John Peterson writes:

My first contact with Leigh Douglas came as I was preparing to conduct fieldwork in Yemen on a study of political change during the reigns of Imams Yahya and Ahmad. Knowing that we had common interests, Leigh contacted me and we met in London.

More particularly, Leigh was doing his doctoral thesis on the Free Yemeni movement. The Free Yemenis represented one of the first attempts to create a constitutional monarchy in Yemen. In 1948, Free Yemeni intellectuals, such as Muhammad al-Zubayri and Ahmad Muhammad Nu’man, had made common cause with the al-Wazir family to unseat Imam Yahya and to replace him with an al-Wazir contender and an effective parliament. The Free Yemenis were aghast when Imam Yahya and some of his sons were killed. Within a few weeks the first attempt at a revolution in an independent Arab state ended badly when Yahya’s son, Ahmad, captured Sana’a, and either beheaded or imprisoned the erstwhile regime’s principals.

Although the Free Yemenis had figured in many contemporary and scholarly accounts, Leigh was the first scholar to focus on the movement. His assiduous research drew on British and Yemeni archives, on thorough study of the Free Yemeni organ, Sawt al-Yaman, and on numerous interviews with Yemenis both inside and outside Yemen. From his doctoral thesis derived his book The Free Yemeni Movement 1935–1962, edited by Giovanni Chimienti, which was published (1987), after Leigh’s death, by the American University of Beirut where Leigh was teaching. This followed his stint as resident director of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies in Sana’a.

My last contact with Leigh was a Christmas card from him in Beirut. Shortly afterwards, he was dead, a victim of an apparent reprisal for the American bombing of Tripoli. There are those scholars who begin with a flash, often provoked by the careful work required to produce a doctoral thesis, but who either never live up to their potential or fail to publish. The tragedy of Leigh Douglas is that he never had the opportunity to grow and produce academically. Leigh’s work on the Free Yemenis was path-breaking, and we will never know where his intellectual interest and promise would have taken him next.

Peter Kemp writes:

At the time of his death in Lebanon twenty years ago in April 1986, Leigh Douglas was one of a handful of Westerners still living in Beirut, most of whom were journalists, teachers, diplomats or ageing retirees who had settled in Lebanon in happier times. There had been previous abductions of US and French citizens who were held hostage for lengthy periods, but Leigh and Philip Padfield, a fellow teacher and neighbour, who was walking home with Leigh on that fatal evening, were among the first British citizens to go missing.

It was their misfortune to fall into the hands of a group set on revenge in a manner that has since become all too familiar. On this occasion, the US bombing of Libya a few weeks earlier was the proximate cause.

Many more foreign hostages were to be taken in the following months, including Brian Keenan, Jackie Mann, John McCarthy and Terry Waite. They were lucky to regain their freedom after years of popular campaigning and intense diplomacy on their behalf. Leigh and Philip were not so fortunate.

Leigh had first gone to Beirut to track down documents in the course of research for his doctoral thesis on the Free Yemeni movement. Like many visitors before him he fell in love with the seductive charm of the cosmopolitan city nestled between the turquoise sea and the soaring mass of Mount Lebanon. Its magical blend of the Arab East with the easy ways of the Mediterranean belies the horrors which it has witnessed over decades of intermittent conflict.

From afar, Leigh’s decision to take a job teaching politics at the American University of Beirut (AUB) may have looked like folly. But the picture of a country in complete turmoil conveyed in the news at the time gave a misleading impression. The reality in Beirut was a relative calm that prevailed for much of the time, punctuated by outbursts of extreme violence that made more headlines around the world. Foreigners were not party to the country’s sectarian conflicts, and for the most part felt safe, their presence even offering some assurance to the Lebanese that their country was still habitable.

In many respects the historic campus of the AUB was a perfect base for an aspiring Middle East scholar. The university was largely untouched by the civil war, and its intellectual life still vibrant. Leigh was also in Lebanon at a time of great hopes. The country had been getting back on its feet after the devastation of the Israeli invasion in 1982. Sectarian militias no longer ruled the streets as the state reasserted its authority; the rebuilding of the former battle zone downtown had begun.

The Lebanese dream of peaceful co-existence was returning after a period of brutal conflict, and there were visions of Lebanon reclaiming its former role as a commercial, intellectual and recreational hub for the Middle East. On the lush, tranquil campus of AUB, it was possible to believe in Lebanon’s renaissance.

For Leigh, AUB offered the opportunity to teach at a world-class university that had educated generations of the region’s intellectual elite. He imparted his passion for the Middle East and the study of its politics to a new generation of students.

The reward for Leigh and others who hung on in Beirut, despite the difficulties, was the appreciation of Lebanese students, colleagues and parents for whom the continued presence of the tiny foreign community encouraged them to believe that Beirut would thrive once again. However, the epidemic of hostage taking in 1986 was a precursor of worse to come. In the four years that followed, the country descended into some of the worst fighting in 15 years of intermittent civil war. It was the tragedy of Leigh Douglas and Philip Padfield to be among the thousands who were to die violently in those awful years.

The Leigh Douglas Memorial Fund (LDMF)

The fund was established with donations from Leigh’s family and friends to support continued scholarship on the Middle East. It is a charity, and has distributed more than £18,000 since 1990 to assist scholars and experts pursuing research, mostly on Yemen, in fields as varied as archaeology, social anthropology, folk tales, history, geography, linguistics, public health, and marine archaeology. Small grants have enabled scholars to travel, conduct field research or attend conferences, which otherwise would not have been possible.

The LDMF has also funded an annual memorial prize in Leigh’s name, in association with the British Society for Middle East Studies (BRISMES), for the best doctoral thesis on a Middle East topic presented at a UK university.

The LDMF helped to organise and supported a successful three-day conference on Contemporary Yemen at SOAS in London, and on the tenth anniversary of Leigh’s death in 1996 it organised an evening of talks and music in his memory at the Museum of Mankind in London.

Recipients of direct financial support from the fund have included: 

Youssef Abdullah (Director of Antiquities, Sana’a), Huda Alwan (Cartography in Yemen), Bernard Haykel (Zaidi/Wahabi conflict), Geoffrey King (Islamic archaeology), Nahida Coussonet (Zaidi power in the Middle Ages), Carl Phillips (Excavation at Al-Ham id, Bajil, Yemen), Edward Prados (Marine archaeology), Joseph Kostiner (Yemen unificaton), W. Flagg Miller (Arabic language), Shelagh Weir/Ahmad Muhammad Jibran (Tribes in Razih), Janet Watson (Sana’a dialect), Robert Hoyland (Islamic Arabia), Ingrid Hehmeyer (Architectural restoration), Ahmad Almas (Water use study), Carolyn Han (Yemeni Folklore), Hafiz al-Noodi (Sickle cell gene in Yemen), Julian van Rensburg (Traditional boats in Socotra), S. A. Buckley (Mummification in ancient Yemen), Ian Philp (Civil society and human rights), Sebastian Prange (Medieval Yemen), Dominique de Moulins (Utilization of the doum palm, Tihama) 

Brismes Prize Winners:

M. Mohamed Ali, William Donaldson, Francine Stone, Anthony Toth, Ahmad Abdul-Kareem Saif, James Onley, Recep Cigdem, Nicola Pratt, Paul Newson and Konrad Hirschler 

Conferences and organizations supported by the fund:

World Circuit Arts, Seminar for South Arabian Studies, Society for Arabian Studies 

Any enquiries, please contact Venetia Porter, Secretary of the Leigh Douglas Memorial Fund (

Vol 14. 2006