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  Book review

50 Years In Shifting Sands: Personal Experience in the Building of a Modern State in Yemen 

by Mohsin A. Alaini, former Prime Minister of Yemen

Dar An-Nahar, Beirut, 2004. Translated from the original Arabic edition (2000) by Hassan al-Haifi. Pp.384. Illus. Map. Notes. Pb. ISBN 9953-74-002-X.

Muhsin al-Aini first heard of his appointment as Foreign Minister of the Yemen Arab Republic in September 1962, from a Sana’a Radio announcement while visiting Baghdad. He was later, without a great deal more ceremony or explanation, appointed, dismissed and variously transferred among ambassadorial posts (the US, UN, USSR, UK, Germany, also briefly France); and he served four times as Prime Minister.

His start in life was through the Orphans’ School (madrasat al-aytam) set up by Imam Yahya. The memoir ends in 1993, with Muhsin again in Washington as ambassador.

The sands shifted constantly. We are given inside views of the Khamir conference in 1965, the (bloodless) coup of November 1970 which sent Abdullah al-Sallal into exile, the abortive ‘unity’ agreement with Aden in 1972, and the blunder (by others) of deposing Qadhi Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani in 1974. The account of gaining Saudi recognition for the Republic (pp.169ff.) is of particular interest. Many characters recur; others cross the stage fleetingly. A certain Ali al-Sa’adi, for instance, intercepts al-Aini on his way to Baghdad airport in 1962 to urge him to talk to the Arab media about the objectives of the Yemeni Revolution. Al-Aini comments that he never saw al-Sa’adi again, but, despite indicating that al-Sa’adi was on the run, leaves the reader none the wiser as to who he was and the significance of their encounter.

On the diplomatic circuit our author meets the great ones of the world. Chou En-lai, for whom Yemen cannot have been a high priority, showed an impressive grasp of his brief (p.233). But there are few character sketches. The most human touches are at the start, when al-Aini was first sent abroad with the ‘famous forty’, the Yemeni students packed off from Sana‘a in 1947 to encounter the larger world. Their wish in Aden to be issued with the fez or tarbush as a symbol of modernity (p.24) is touching and revealing. But for an idea of what Yemen itself may have felt like to a young man, one does better to read Husayn al-Maqbali’s Mudhakkirat (1986). One reason for lack of local texture is that the author spent so much of his time abroad. In a brief lull between Moscow and the post of Prime Minister at the start of 1970, he lived in Taizz:

Since childhood, I have been deprived of living among the people whom I served… Every morning of that month at Jabal Sabir I would meditate, walking up the mountain and back. I met soldiers and farmers, talked with ordinary people, listened to their complaints… (p.154).

His wish to wander the rest of Yemen ‘and acquire first-hand knowledge of the people’ was thwarted by political duty. None of this makes the author less a Yemeni. Indeed, much of Yemeni politics was conducted abroad, and Yemeni circles in Beirut (p.83) were important throughout the Civil War. At the end of the work, just before the author, as ambassador in Washington, is slighted by Ali Salim al-Bidh (then Vice-President of Yemen), comes an insert on Sayyid Ahmad al-Shami, once Royalist Foreign Minister and thus the author’s main opponent at the UN, but plainly a well-liked friend (pp.372–5). Al-Shami’s poem celebrating al-Aini’s 60th birthday in 1992 is a highlight of al-Aini’s memoir.

Egyptian boorishness towards Yemen’s Republicans is documented yet again, and President Abd al-Nasir comes across as paranoid and consumed by dangerous self-importance (pp.62, 108–10); his functionaries are still grimmer (pp.101, 114, 125). Our author treats the results as regrettable but not worth analysis. Certain of his own problems, with Egypt and others, came from having joined the Ba’th Party during his student days in Cairo (p.46) but he is careful to stress that after embarking on his career in Yemeni government service he ceased to be an active member of it.

Al-Aini reflects later on his bruising experience in Yemen as Prime Minister: ‘When the Prime Minister or one of his ministers dares take a decision that even slightly challenges the authority of those in power (be it tribal, religious, military or economic), his own position is threatened. Mediators may even have to intervene for him to be forgiven and pardoned (p.200)’. Though the villains are identified with surprising bluntness, the basis of their power is left obscure. What was the political reality in which, early in the 1970s, it seemed sensible for three ministers and other notables of the Consultative Council to involve themselves in a squabble among students in Taizz (pp. 314–5)? When al-Aini, out of office and visiting the United Arab Emirates in 1978, was warned that a Yemeni hit-squad was on its way to harm him at the behest of President Ahmad al-Ghashmi, and thus decamped to Baghdad for the next two years (pp.331–2), he makes no attempt to explain what may have prompted al-Ghashmi’s move.

The present work is a translation of the Arabic memoir published, also by Dar an-Nahar, in 2000. Readers with a knowledge of Arabic will prefer the original. The translator has done an honest but less than fluent job (often dictionary choices are not the right ones), and somehow grand statements about, for instance, Arab unity read more easily in Arabic. For readers whose experience was mainly of South Yemen and for whom the North remains less familiar, Shifting Sands will be particularly useful. No doubt all will salute an intelligent and transparently decent man grappling in a good cause with problems that few are willing to describe or analyse. God grant that there be another volume.

Paul Dresch