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  Book review

Abu Bakr bin Sheikh Al-Kaff: al-za’im al-hakim 

by Ja’far bin Muhammad al-Saqqaf and Ali bin Anis bin Hassan al-Kaff. 

Arabic. Published by Tarim lil-dirasat wa al-nishr, Hadhramaut, 2007 (tel: 418888). Pp. 302. lllus. Appendices. Pb. 

This book celebrates the life and achievements of Sayyid Abu Bakr bin Sheikh al- Kaff (1887–1965) whose personal prestige and influence greatly assisted the efforts of a British Political Officer, W. H. Ingrams, and the rulers of the Qu’aiti and Kathiri States of Hadhramaut to bring peace and security to the region in the late 1930s. Sayyid Abu Bakr spent most of his share of the al-Kaff family’s fortune (derived from trade and property in Singapore and Java) on charitable projects in and beyond Wadi Hadhramaut. His reputation as a public benefactor, coupled with his financial ability to reward compliance, proved indispensable in persuading a myriad predatory and warring tribes to shelve their differences and sign a truce. The truce, sometimes known as Ingrams’ Peace, brought to an end the anarchy which for many years had bedevilled the social and economic life of the Hadhrami hinterland. 

The book is divided into five chapters. The first three cover Sayyid Abu Bakr’s life and career and his relations with the Kathiri and Qu’aiti Sultans. The fourth chapter cites comments on Sayyid Abu Bakr made by contemporary Arab historians and observers, and by European visitors. The latter, in addition to Harold Ingrams, include travellers to Hadhramaut such as Daniel Van Der Meulen, Freya Stark, Hans Helfritz and H. St. J. Philby, all of whom enjoyed Sayyid Abu Bakr’s proverbial hospitality. The fifth chapter comprises poems written in praise of Sayyid Abu Bakr’s statesmanship and philanthropy. The final chapter consists of copies of documents largely relating to Sayyid Abu Bakr’s efforts as peace-maker, and numerous photographs of him either alone or in the company of relations, other Arab personalities, and British officials. 

No one is better qualified than Ja’far al-Saqqaf, himself a well-known Hadhrami historian and writer, to introduce the reader to the life and work of Sayyid Abu Bakr. As a young man, Ja’far acted as Abu Bakr’s personal secretary and aide, and he has had access to al-Kaff files and family papers. This book, a festschrift of prose and poetry as much as a biographical memoir, has been in gestation for many years. It is fortunate indeed that Ja’far, now in his late eighties, was able to find a younger scholar in Ali bin Anis al-Kaff to help him complete the project. 

In 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary of Sayyid Abu Bakr’s investiture in Aden as a Knight of the British Empire by HM Queen Elizabeth, this Journal published a special tribute to his memory. It is gratifying to see that an Arabic translation of the text has been included in chapter four of the book. 

Recognition of Sayyid Abu Bakr’s great contribution to the welfare of his homeland (a taboo subject during the revisionist era of Marxist rule in South Yemen) is long overdue in the Arabic historiography of Yemen. With the publication of this book, Ja’far al-Saqqaf and Ali bin Anis al-Kaff have laid the foundation for a detailed study of Sayyid Abu Bakr’s life and times. Let us hope that their initiative will inspire other Yemeni scholars to undertake such a study. 

John Shipman