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First footsteps in Yemen, 1947


After military service in India during the Second World War, Major J. S. Hewitt MBE joined the regional headquarters in Cairo of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit. He paid his first visit to Yemen in 1947, and made a further journey there overland from Jedda in 1950. He was later posted to the Aden Protectorate where his field of operations included the southern fringes of the Empty Quarter. His anti-locust work in the area continued until 1954. He returned to Yemen on private visits, accompanied by his wife, in 1982 and 1996.

After a year in northern Arabia as a locust control officer with the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit (MEALU), based in Cairo, I was delighted to be told that I was to visit Yemen in August 1947 to find out whether the Yemeni authorities would agree to an extension of our locust reporting work to include the eastern provinces of Marib and Jauf. Large swarms of locusts had been known to emerge unexpectedly from Yemen’s eastern desert, flying westwards across the Tihama and the Red Sea to Somalia. In 1946, one of MEALU’s senior entomologists, Roger Waterston, accompanied by a medical officer, David Milnes, had paid an exploratory visit to the Tihama. During their reconnaissance they had laid down stocks of locust bait in Hodeidah, Zabid and Bait al-Faqih in preparation for future locust control work in Yemen. They had left their two vehicles and other equipment with the Agricultural Department in Aden, which I was to take over when I arrived. The journey by air from Cairo to Aden in those days was a long and circuitous one, involving stops at Asmara, Jedda and Kamaran island.

The two MEALU vehicles parked in Aden were a somewhat aged wartime Chevrolet 15 cwt box wagon, and an even older Dodge 15 cwt truck. Both were in a very poor state of repair and were to give me constant trouble. I struggled for some weeks to get the vehicles fit for the road and to recruit staff to accompany me. Meanwhile, cables were sent to Sana’a seeking clearance from Imam Yahya for my proposed visit, and I also enlisted the help of the Yemeni government agent in Aden, Ali Muhammad Jabali. By the time the requisite ‘rukhsa’ for my visit arrived, I had assembled a team comprising a Sudanese who had worked with the locust control unit in Saudi Arabia, two local drivers, a garage hand and a cook. I had to take with me large amounts of Maria Theresa dollars which were still the basic currency in Yemen (one dollar was at that time worth about two rupees).

We set off via Shaikh Othman and Lahej, and, after some difficulties in the sandy tracks leading inland, we climbed steadily towards Kirsh and the frontier village of Rahida. We reached Taiz just before sunset, and made our way to the government Guest House (dar al-dhiyafa) above the city, where we were welcomed by its custodian, Ra’is Ghalib Jurmosi who was in charge of arrangements for foreign visitors.

Two days later I had my first meeting with the Crown Prince, Saif al-Islam Ahmad. He was wearing a heavily brocaded robe with a white headdress. He was very welcoming, appeared interested in our work in the Middle East generally, and anxious for me to proceed to the Tihamah as soon as possible to review the situation there. We talked for a time about his own local agricultural project at Usaifirah, a fertile spot about a mile north of the city wall, where a small dam was being built to irrigate some 500 acres of previously barren land. He urged me to go and see it during my stay.

At this time there only two permanent foreign residents in Taiz: Dr Carlo Toffolon, the Crown Prince’s doctor; and Josef Hansen, a German from Hamburg who was supervising the dam project. Toffolon, as Hansen explained to me, was known as ‘Daniel’ because he worked in the ‘Lion’s Den’ (i.e. the Crown Prince’s entourage)! But Toffolon was away in Egypt when I arrived and his place had been temporarily taken by another member of the Italian Medical Mission in Yemen, Dr Luigi Merucci. Merucci, who was to become a good friend of mine, was normally resident in Hodeidah. I duly visited Usaifirah, where a work force of about 600 labourers were building the Crown Prince’s dam entirely by hand. Hansen’s site manager was another German, a splendid character called Karl Schlatholt. Karl had been a merchant navy seaman who had managed to enter Yemen as a refugee early in the War. He later became a Muslim and married a local girl. He was a man of many skills and remained in Yemen for several years before taking up similar work in the Aden Protectorate.

Two days later a party of Arab visitors arrived at the Guest House on their way to Sana’a, led by al-Fudhail al-Wartalani who described himself as ‘Secretary-General of the North African Defence League’. This was his second visit to Yemen, where he was apparently seeking to negotiate the exclusive right to import sugar and kerosene into the country. I later learned that Wartalani was an Algerian member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who used his business activities as a cover to maintain contact between the ‘Free Yemenis’ in Aden and fellow dissidents in Sana’a. I was to meet Wartalani’s party again in Hodeidah and later in Sana’a.1

We finally left Taiz en route to Zabid at the end of August. We had to temporarily abandon the Dodge near Hais when its front wheel brake system failed, and did not reach Zabid until after dark. We were warmly welcomed by the ‘Amil, or local government representative, Shaikh Sa’id Abubakr. Next morning, having checked the locust store established the previous year by Roger Waterston, we went on to Bait al-Faqih where I called on the ‘Amil there, Sayyid Abdullah bin Zaid al-Dailami. He warned me that the Makdasha sands on the road to Hodeidah were likely to prove difficult. He was right, but in the absence of any sort of tarmac road or graded track there was no alternative route. So we spent most of the day getting stuck and digging ourselves out under a hostile sun.

The Guest House in Hodeidah faced the harbour which consisted of a small pier enclosing some very shallow water. The two small steamers, ‘Africa’ and ‘Velho’, which were the main users of the harbour and were owned by the Aden shipping firm of Cowasjee Dinshaw, had to anchor some two miles out at sea; all loading and unloading (mainly the export of coffee and the import of fuel) were done by small sanbuqs from the pier. In Hodeidah I managed to find a German mechanic, a refugee like Karl Schlatholt, to send to Hais to repair and recover the Dodge.

The Governor of Hodeida, Qadhi Hussain bin Ali al-Hilali, was indisposed when we arrived but I later had several useful meetings with him; he seemed well aware of the locust threat. Meanwhile, I was fortunate to find the Imam’s Foreign Minister, Qadhi Muhammad Raghib, in town. He had come down from Sana’a to supervise repairs to his wife’s house which had been damaged in a recent storm. Of Turkish origin, he was a delightful man, well educated, cultured, with fluent French in addition to Arabic and his native Turkish.

At this time the only Aden government representative in Yemen was an assistant political officer, Muhammad Ali Murshid, whose movements were restricted to Hodeidah, where he had already spent five years. He was a likeable fellow in his early thirties, whose languid temperament was well suited to his undemanding role and Hodeidah’s enervating climate. There were few Europeans: Dr Luigi Merucci, who had temporarily replaced his Italian counterpart in Taiz; and three Greeks: Lifteri and Tassi who worked for a coffee trading company, Livierato & Co.; and Dmitri who represented the Aden Tobacco Co.

Another visitor who had arrived in Hodeidah at this time was Jamil Jamal, the father of Ra’is Jamal Jamil, an Iraqi artillery officer who was on indefinite secondment to the army in Sana’a. The son was apparently wanted in Baghdad for his involvement in the Golden Carpet revolution in Iraq in 1940. However, Qadhi Muhammad Raghib, the Yemeni Foreign Minister, was said to be doing his best to obtain a pardon for him. On the evening before my departure for Sana’a, Raghib and al-Hilali both came to the Guest House to ask me whether I could give their Iraqi visitor a lift, which I was very happy to do.

On 11 September we set off hopefully on the long road to Sana‘a. But just beyond Bajil the Dodge once again broke down. I had to cable Qadhi Hussain al-Hilali from Bajil to ask for help in getting the vehicle back to Hodeidah. We then pressed on and managed to reach Madinat al-’Abid by nightfall. Next morning we continued to Ma’bar and thence to Sana’a, where Jamil Jamal and his son, Ra’is Jamal Jamil, had an emotional reunion, not having seen each other for the past seven years. Jamal Jamil was later implicated in the attempted coup against the Imam’s regime in February 1948. He and other conspirators were sentenced to death and beheaded. I still have a letter from him written in January 1948, a few weeks before these events, warmly thanking me for sending him photographs which I had taken of his father and two children.2

I was conducted to a comfortable and well-equipped guest house in Bir al-Azab which had previously been the residence of Dr Adnan Tarcici, the Lebanese adviser to Saif al-Islam Abdullah and currently with him in America.

Having obtained a black lambskin ‘kalpak’ which was then the obligatory headgear for visits to His Majesty, I had my first meeting with the Imam at the Raudha Palace on 28 September. He was accompanied by his Prime Minister Qadhi Abdullah al-Amri. Imam Yahya seemed remarkably active for a man of more than 80 years, and kept a series of clerks busy as he answered letters and petitions from all over the country. These ranged from a draft treaty with the Netherlands to a piece of paper from one of the Princes requesting five gallons of petrol! The Imam received me kindly and asked about my journey to Sana’a and my impressions of the capital. I mentioned that we were concerned by reports of locust activity in the eastern provinces and asked him for permission to visit the Marib area. But he refused to countenance the idea, insisting that there were no locusts in the area and that nothing would be gained from a visit. Qadhi Raghib, who came with me for this first meeting, advised me to repeat my request in a letter to the Imam; but this, too, proved unsuccessful although the Imam did promise to send me some bedouin for training in locust control work.

At this time there were about twenty foreigners in the capital. There was a French Medical Mission which included Surgeon-Colonel Ribollet, Dr Pierre Fevrier, who had recently arrived with his family from a tour of duty in Tangier, and a lady doctor named Lansoy. An Italian Medical Mission, which had been in Sana’a for some years, was led by Dr Rossi assisted by Colonel Audisio, and, as already mentioned, was represented in Taiz and Hodeidah by Drs Toffolon and Merucci. The expatriate community included several eccentrics, not least of whom was Marcus Danzzker, the self-styled ‘Ingénieur en Chef au Gouvernement Yemenite’. Little was known of his origins as he appeared to change his nationality with each new foreign visitor. A few weeks after we first met, his professional status came under challenge when a party of Egyptian engineers arrived who reckoned that they were all ‘Ingénieurs en Chef’. But Danzzker managed to preserve his position – at least to his own satisfaction – by re-styling himself ‘Chef des Ingénieurs en Chef’! He lived in the Bir al-Azab quarter and, astonishingly, had in his small, mud-walled garden a high wing monoplane of Polish manufacture. He told me that he couldn’t fly but had an instruction book which had come with the plane. He said that he hoped to be able to make use of the plane in the event of a major emergency. But this was pure fantasy: not only was the aircraft walled up inside his garden, there was no open space nearby which could conceivably have been used as a runway! 3

Other expatriates included a Lebanese Dr Mirouwa with his family, a Lebanese pharmacist, Albert Hatem, two Italian mechanics and a mysterious Frenchman, Alphonse Lippman, who had spent many years in the Red Sea area. Alphonse had been an associate of the celebrated French adventurer (and arms smuggler) Henri de Monfreid, and was now in Sana’a chasing a contract.4 We all met regularly and were kept going by gossip from either Danzzker or Hatem.

The Dodge which had broken down near Bajil was repaired and eventually arrived in Sana’a. Meanwhile, I had been waiting patiently for the promised bedouin trainees from Marib when, during my second week in the capital, a party from Ghail in the Jauf turned up: Ali Sa’id Sirman, Sharif Aboud bin Abdullah, Sharif Yahya bin Muhammad Namiz, Shaikh Hassan bin Hadi Musallam and Shaikh Hussain Haidar. They had been sent by the Imam principally to confirm that there were no locusts in their area; but they were very interested in the possibility of locust control work and promised to let me know if any swarms appeared. In due course some bedouin trainees did arrive, sent by the Governor of Marib, Saif al-Islam Hussain, who later visited me in Sana’a.

During this period I had a number of meetings with Qadhi Muhammad Raghib. He had had a remarkable career spent mainly in the Ottoman diplomatic service. Starting as a junior secretary in Vienna, he later served in consular posts in Constanza and Montenegro before transfer to more senior appointments at the Ottoman Legations in Bucharest and St Petersburg; he next served in the Vilayets of Basra and Hejaz (where he was deputy to Hussain Hilmy Pasha) and was later appointed Governor of Tripoli. After the War he entered the service of Imam Yahya as the latter’s de facto Foreign Minister, and his wide experience and understanding of the world outside Yemen made him a great asset to the government.

At this time Yemen had begun a weekly radio programme each Thursday on the 20-metre band, which was very popular. At the invitation of Prince Qasim who was then Minister of Health and Communications, I attended one of these broadcasts. The programme’s operational scope was hampered by the fact that there was only one microphone which had to be moved from room to room. But it was a welcome development, and the Director, Ahmad al-Marwani, later came to visit me to discuss future plans for the radio station and its broadcasts.

At the beginning of October Dr Pierre Fevrier fell ill, but the necessary drugs to treat him were not available and he died at the end of that month. He was buried at a site on the edge of the old aerodrome where two German pilots and a British nurse from Dr Petrie’s medical team were said to have been previously buried. 5

It was now almost time for me to return to my Cairo headquarters. On 1 November 1947 I had a final glimpse of the Imam during the ‘Id celebrations held on the lower slopes of Jebel Nuqum, where, having disembarked from his carriage and taken his seat, he threw sweet limes to the assembled crowd. Three and a half months later Imam Yahya, who had been on the throne since 1904, was to be assassinated in the short-lived uprising led by Sayyid Abdullah al-Wazir.

Rumours of a locust swarm near Zaidiyah in the northern Tihamah hastened my departure to Hodeidah; but the rumours turned out to be false, so I and my team went straight on to Taiz, negotiating the Makdasha sands, this time, without mishap. Dr Toffolon had now returned to Taiz from Egypt, where an epidemic of cholera had broken out, and he kindly gave me an injection to facilitate my passage back to Cairo.

My four months in Yemen had been a fascinating experience; but I little realised at the time that I was witnessing the beginning of a period of major change.


1 At the end of 1947 Wartalani helped to draft the Yemeni Opposition’s ‘Sacred National Pact’ which stipulated that Sayyid Abdullah Al-Wazir should succeed Imam Yahya as a ‘constitutional and consultative’ ruler.

2 Jamal Jamil’s family remained in Yemen and were well treated. The writer visited Jamal’s widow in Sana’a in 1982.

3 See also A French Doctor in Yemen by Claudie Fayein, Robert Hale, 1957, pp. 43–44. Oddly, Fayein only refers to Danzzker as ‘D’, but identifies him by function.

4 A book by Lippmann, Guerriers et Sorciers en Somalie, was published by Librairie Hachette in 1953. Born in 1899, he served in the colonial administration of French Somaliland 1921–30.

5 See also Lucile Fevrier’s Yemen: Evenements Vecus, Editions de la Dyle, 2002. Dr Petrie headed a British medical team in Sana’a 1937–43, on secondment from the Church of Scotland Medical Mission at Shaikh Othman, Aden.

August 2005