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Glimpses of republican Yemen, 1962-63


The author first visited Yemen as a photojournalist in late October 1962. She covered the arrival in Taiz and Mocha of Abdullah Sallal as President of Republican Yemen after the September Revolution. In Sana ‘a, in early November, she interviewed President Sallal, Vice-President Beidhani and the senior Egyptian envoy, Anwar Sadat. After returning to Aden , she visited Marib, in Royalist-held territory, via Beihan. She returned to Sana’a on a short private visit in February 2005.  

In 1962 I was living in London as a photojournalist. John Malcolm, whom I later married, was at that time an executive with the Shell Oil Company, based in Aden . He had visited northern Yemen on business shortly before the death of Imam Ahmad, and thought that the landscape and the people would be just right for my work. Before the end of October 1962, I found myself landing at Taiz with a letter from an Adeni merchant recommending me to the new Republican regime. I was taken to the government guest house, where a group of Russian advisers, who did not fraternise, and an Egyptian television crew and some Egyptian pilots, who did fraternise, were accommodated. I contacted the British Minister to Yemen , Christopher Gandy, but as Britain was trying to decide whether or not to recognise the new republican regime, he had more important problems to worry about than the needs of a young female photojournalist. The Yemeni authorities had assigned Muhammad Ashmawi, an English-speaking member of their public relations staff, to deal with the requirements of the foreign media. The Egyptian TV crew and I instantly formed an alliance of convenience, which might not have pleased our respective governments. A team of West German agricultural experts also proved a mine of information and practical help.

In Taiz on 2 November 1962 the mood was euphoric as huge crowds gathered to greet the arrival of Abdullah Sallal, President of the fledgling Yemen Arab Republic : men on camels and horses, women ululating from the rooftops. Sallal stood in an open jeep, and went first to the 13th century Mudhaffar mosque. The next day there was a tremendous parade on Free Yemen Square , where the former Imam and members of his family had watched executions after the 1948 and 1955 uprisings.

Ever helpful, Muhammad Ashmawi arranged for the Egyptian TV crew and me to go to Mocha on 4 November. We arrived in the middle of a sandstorm. A banner read: ‘Our situation is black, but our hearts are white; our country is green but our swords are red’- a line from the pre-Islamic poet, Amr bin Ma’adi Karib. As we sat out the sandstorm, ordinary soldiers recited Yemeni poetry and passages from the Quran, capping each other’s lines; Muhammad and the Egyptians did their best to translate for me.

The rough track to Jibla and Ibb was in strong contrast to the American-funded road between Taiz and Mocha. Celebrations there were equally exciting, both places being architectural and scenic delights for the photographer. To avoid being diverted from photography, I declined the invitation to ride a white stallion in the procession.

At roadside stops we had target practice, and my familiarity with the .303 rifle was a passport to respect. As a South African of Afrikaans extraction, stories of the Boer War were the legends of my childhood, and some of my family were crack shots. A charming surprise was the perfect English of one of the newly-appointed military governors, Abdul Hafidh Baharan. He had learnt his English, so he told me, from listening to the BBC; just as I, whose first language was Afrikaans, had learnt mine. We discussed the merits of the BBC and Radio Cairo. ‘But the Cairo news is just propaganda’, I suggested. ‘So is the BBC’, he replied, ‘and today it says that the Royalists are holding the road between Taiz and Ibb. Are they? You have travelled it’.

Permission came to go to Sana’a. The Egyptians were flying there in an Egyptian plane and offered me a seat, but I had the more interesting option of going with the West German agricultural team, across Tihama to Zabid and Hodeidah, then up the Chinese-built road via Manakha to Sana’a. They were going in a ‘Unimog’, a vehicle built a bit like an amphibious tractor. In Tihama there was no road at all for some stretches, but the ‘Unimog’ could go anywhere. The Egyptians agreed to take my suitcase, mostly full of film – irreplaceable and not worth risking, I thought, in the heat and sandstorms. We agreed to meet again at the government guest house in Sana’a.

The journey through Tihama was a window into a peaceful Yemen ; far away from the Revolution. Who could forget coming over the top of the Manakha pass to the first sight of Sana’a, still a walled city, the great gates locked at night, with only gardens and the airport and military installations outside. The Germans dropped me at the guest house, where I found myself in the company of more Russians – men and women equally unwilling to chat – but no Egyptian TV crew. They had been diverted to Cairo . And my suitcase? My films? I was distraught.

I was taken to see President Sallal at the former Royal Palace , with its ‘Louis Farouk’ style furniture, and everyone smoking. He allowed me to wander freely around his mafraj, photographing. I was an oddity, but in surroundings where hospitality ruled. My marksmanship with a rifle was known. There were a few jokes – my 200mm lens had been called a ‘lady’s model bazooka’. Sallal and Abdul Rahman Beidhani, the Vice-President, were negotiating with various tribal leaders, who were switching from Royalist to Republican and back again, depending on the inducements offered. Later on, the President asked if there was anything he could do for me. ‘Find my suitcase?’ He regretted that he had no power over Cairo airport. Perhaps I should see the top Egyptian envoy – Anwar Sadat. I was taken to another palace, and there was Sadat, smoking through his long cigarette holder, charming, urbane – but helpless. A lost suitcase at Cairo airport? Only Allah could help, he said.

Two Yugoslav journalists arrived at the guest house. They spoke good English and we soon became allies. The long-suffering Muhammad Ashmawi arranged a room for me, but the Yugoslavs were put in with the Pravda correspondent, to the great annoyance of both parties. When they left for Belgrade via Cairo , the Yugoslavs promised to scour every nook and cranny of Cairo airport for my suitcase. Weeks later, back in Aden , I received a telephone call from Aden airport. There was a suitcase from Cairo ; could I clear it from Customs. It was perfectly intact – all the film, some crumpled clothes, and notes.

In January 1963 I travelled from Aden via Beihan to Marib, held at that time by the Royalists. The Egyptian Air Force in Sana’a was bombing the area by day, so convoys set out at night, driving with some care as routes could be mined. My convoy got lost, trying to avoid a dangerous track. We got stuck in impassable sand dunes. I thought what sitting ducks we would be for the morning bombing. Luckily another convoy, from the direction of Saudi Arabia , was passing, so we managed to extricate ourselves and to reach the safety of the Marib Dam valley by daybreak. Marib proved to be a photographer’s dream. I read now of women correspondents in war zones, in a much crueller world than the Yemen I knew. I can only say that I was always treated with courtesy, kindness and good humour, and was allowed more freedom to roam than a male journalist would probably have been during a civil war. I wore desert boots, sensible khaki trousers and a loose shirt, a hat and/or headscarf; I carried two Nikons and three lenses openly, and did my best to be a fly on the wall, part of the scenery. So much easier and more rewarding to be alone than in a team jostling for position.

August 2005