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  Book review

Tears of Sheba: Tales of Survival and Intrigue in Arabia 

by Khadija Al-Salami with Charles Hoots, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2003. Pp. viii + 386. Illus. Chronology. Glossary. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £16.99. ISBN 0-470-86725-6.

This is the inspirational account of a remarkable woman, who has survived all odds to educate herself and pursue a career in the media, which has led to her current position as the Press and Cultural Attaché at the Yemen Embassy in Paris. The story of her life is set against the background of civil war and family strife in Yemen. Her earliest memory is of the siege of Sana’a by Royalist forces in 1968. There followed family tragedy when her father who had served with the Republican Army as a medical officer returned home deeply disturbed by ‘shell shock’ from which he never really recovered. Her parents were divorced and her mother remarried. At a tender age she witnessed a public execution outside her school and was married at the age of eleven against her will, She attempted suicide, but in spite of her traumatic early life she resolved to study hard, She obtained work at the local television station and earned enough not only to keep her family but also to study in America, where she met her husband, Charles Hoots, who encouraged her to write about herself

Khadija writes not only about her immediate family but also about three key figures in the Republican movement, Muhammad Abu Lahum, Mujahid Abu Shawareb and Yahya al-Mutawakkil (whose obituary appeared in the Society’s Journal in 2003). She describes the influence they had upon her and the encouragement they gave her in her career. It must have been painful for her to tell her story in such vivid and intimate detail. In the Arab World it is unusual to lay bare one’s family life in conversation with strangers let alone publish a book about it. No doubt some will criticise her for doing so, but she has shown great courage and determination to project a new face for Yemen where democracy and human rights are now being accepted by much of society as an integral part of nation building.

The past cannot be ignored and the major political and historical events are skilfully woven into her personal life with many interesting anecdotes. Those readers, who are already familiar with the ancient history of Yemen, may wish to omit the first chapter and move on to her ‘Earliest Memories’. The family background in the following chapters is fascinating but to some extent gets in the way of the narrative. Moreover it is quite difficult to follow who‘s who, but the reader can refer to a family tree and cast of characters at the beginning of the book. Their relationships bring out the importance of the family background in the Arab world and show how it influences the lives of individuals. There is a simple map for those unfamiliar with the geography of Yemen and copious interesting footnotes and a glossary. The sixteen pages of black and white photographs, which are taken from the collections of family and friends, provide an interesting record of personalities over the last forty years.

The final chapter of the book describes the efforts to ward off the conflict between North and South, which resulted in the war of secession in 1994. At the time Khadija was handling press relations in the embassy in Paris, where the staff were divided by the war. In the epilogue she describes her present work as very enjoyable and ends on a note of optimism: ‘While I carry many painful memories of my childhood, I have come to see the positive aspects of these hardships… overcoming the barriers put in place by tradition and contributing to, even to a tiny extent, to the notion that a person can be both different and accepted at the same time are what I believe I will look back on as the most worthwhile in my life.’

Julian Paxton