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  Book review

Fifty Years in Shifting Sands: My story and the building of the modern state in Yemen

by Muhsin al-Aini

Dar al-Nahar, Beirut, 2000. Arabic. Pp. 367. Illus. Pb. £16. 90 (available from Al Saqi Bookshop, 26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 SRH). ISBN 2-84289-296-8.

Muhsin al-Aini, born in 1932 in a village a few miles from Sana’a and orphaned at the age of seven, rose from humble beginnings to be Prime Minister of the Yemen Arab Republic during the first decade of its history. He later served as Yemeni Ambassador in Paris, Bonn, London and Moscow before his transfer to the UN; he spent the final years of his diplomatic career in Washington during the presidencies of Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

Before the 1962 revolution he was closely involved with the Free Yemenis, with links to the Arab Nationalist Movement, and as Foreign and Prime Minister he was on terms with most Arab leaders and eminent figures of the time. Evidence of his wide range of contacts lies not only in the anecdotal text but in the many photographs which illustrate it.

As a student in Paris in the late 1950s, al-Aini met and was befriended by a Marxist intellectual, Claudie Fayein, whose book, A French Doctor in Yemen (1957), be soon embarked on translating into Arabic. He did so because he felt that Fayein’s portrayal of conditions of life under Imam Ahmad would help to sensitise Arab opinion to Yemen’s plight.

Al-Aini deprecates the notion that his book is the story of the Yemeni national movement, or of the revolution and republic; or of Yemeni relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Eastern Bloc and the West; or of Yemeni and Arab unity; or the Gulf war. But his disclaimer is partly rhetorical for his memoir is interwoven with all these issues.

Few incidents seem to have ruffled his composure, but he appears not to have forgiven Ali Salim al-Bidh, when Vice-President of recently unified Yemen, for slipping into Washington, making appointments with the State Department behind his back, and then accusing him of dereliction of duty. Al-Aini writes well and with a light touch; his assessment of US- Yemeni relations in a letter to President Saleh dated 1986 (pp. 342-7) is a model of clarity. His story ends in 1993 but on the last page he promises a further instalment. Readers of this elder statesman’s memoir will look forward to his next.