"History repeats itself"; This saying is almost literally applicable to what Yemen is experiencing in our current time, comparing to what it witnessed in the middle of the last twentieth century, with few differences and levels of severity in the political, social, economic and educational crises...etc.
This is not what we, the third millennium generation, say, but what one of the most prominent revolutionists of September 26 revolution says. He experienced the last two decades of the "Imamate" regime in the north and the English colonization in the south of the country, and was an active participant in the twin revolutions, September and October, and the republican regime that was born in the early sixties.
The veteran militant and politician Yahya Muhammad Ash-Shami, a member of the Political Bureau of the Yemeni Socialist Party, was born in 1933 in “Al-Misqaya” village in As-Saddah District of Ibb Governorate. He started his education at the Scientific School in Sana'a in the early forties, then moved to study in Jiblah city. In 1956, he travelled to Cairo to study law.
In the circumstances of the war that has been ravaging Yemen, north and south, and in order for we take lessons from the recent and distant history, “Khuyout” platform publishes this series of his memoirs filled with events that have shaped modern Yemen over nearly 75 years, all the way to its current situation. These talk memoirs will be published in episodes on a weekly basis.
Welcome Mr. Yahya, and thank you for your kind acceptance for us to travel with you to the past of your roles and stands in the national memory. Let us start a trip with you down memory lane from the time of your first interest in politics, joining the National Movement and the groundwork of the September 26 revolution, about which we hope you talk at length.
Actually, my first interest in politics and public affairs goes back to the period before 1948, when the news of the freemen opposing the Imam Yahya would frequently leak to us. I happened to travel to Sana’a to attend the scientific school, and my interest in politics increased. I would visit some of the national figures from the central regions, such as the martyr Hussein Al-Kibsi, one of the martyrs of the 1948 movement, who lived in his house in Bustan Al-Sultan area, where sometimes Arab figures visited him, including Al-Fadil Al-Wartilani.
As students in the scientific school, we lived difficult living conditions. Every student had five Kedems [Yemeni bread] a day. We expressed our indignation over the living conditions to whoever passed by of princes, especially the affluent ones, as there were also poor princes.
For example, the children of Al-Hussein were with us living the same poor living conditions. They used to feel happy whenever they get the Kedems. The affluent princes would pass by us while we were sitting on the rocks near the scientific school (Saif Bin Thi Yazan School) in At-Tahrir area, initiating the greetings to us while on their vehicles or horses, and we refuse to greet them back, as a kind of expression of our indignation at the bad conditions.
Did the students of the scientific school have a role in the 1948 movement?
I joined the 1948 movement, and I took up arms with a group of students. I remember when a very important person visited us at the school, urging us to take up arms. I remember that his name was Muhammad or Ahmad al-Muta’a. He was an old man leaning on a stick. Yes, the martyr Ahmed Al-Muta’a. He was fat with a slightly big belly. There were members of my family who stood against the movement while one of them cared about us, I and some orphans in the school, so he told us not to take up arms and ordered us to leave Sana’a to the village, and so we did.
After the failure of the movement, many executions were carried out against freemen from all social groups and classes. This is an important issue that we should not forget, although there were some isolationist sentiments as is going on now.
I met Hameed Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar in Taiz, and it was the first time to read a book with him in the house of Judge Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani, who was living in Sala area. The book was titled “Social Justice in Islam” by Sayyid Qutb, which we did not finish reading it.
Do you mean to be self-centered isolation?
No, I mean dynastic, sectarian and regional tendencies, which were, however, mild and less severe than they are nowatodays. Therefore, when Imam Ahmad returned after his victory over the 1948 movement, he executed many figures, including Hussein Al-Kibsi, Al-Wazir, Ahmed Al-Muta’a and Jamal Jamil (Iraqi), whose name was given to Jamal street, in recognition of his role in the movement, in addition to many others I do not remember now. However, the number of those executed was large.
What do you remember about the killing of Imam Yahya, and about the martyr Jamal Jamil?
I remember that I and a group of my school mates were outside the school, walking down near Khuzaymah Cemetery heading to the Old Sana’a city, specificly, near the mosque located in Al-Shawkani Street. We saw a car coming out from Bab Al-Yaman followed by a large truck “covered with tarpaulin” (the truck back was covered). Later on, we knew that the car was the Imam Yahya's, and the truck followed it was carrying the people who shot him, (Al-Qardei and others), in Sawad Haziz area.
On our way back to school, we saw Jamal Jamil going out from the Military College (Al-Ordhi). We were walking under the shadow of the Old Sana’a Wall that used to be extended to the area where the central bank is located now (this wall is no longer exist). We were expecting him to greet us. I remember that he greeted us with all equanimity, though he knew what was happening in those moments. He was walking down from the Military School with someone behind him leading the horse to his house in Jamal Street. He greeted us, and we felt very happy that the Iraqi Jamal Jamil greeted us.
Anyway, during that period there was a large number of students of the Scientific School, who joined or showed their support for the revolution and took up arms. The last to withdrew from the walls of Sana’a were some students of the Scientific School. I remember that one of them was named Saleh Al-Ashwal [ ] from “Al-Saddah” area, he is no longer alive.
What do you know about the 1955 movement?
I went to Taiz to help my brother, who had a case in court. This visit allowed me to get a closer look at the situation in Taiz. At the time, I got to know Ahmed Al-Thulaya, the leader of the 1955 movement. He was a humble man with tendency to talk to young men if they stopped him for handshake or for a question. He had a great willingness to stand and talk to them.
I also got to know Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar in Taiz prior the establishment of Al-Thulaya movement, but I my relationship with his brother Hamid was stronger. One of my brothers was responsible for paving the road that connects Taiz, Dimnat Khadir and Al Rahida. He had a room in a building of several rooms attached to Sala Palace. Those rooms were dwelled by figures from different regions, including Hussein Al-Ahmar, the father of Hamid and Abdullah. Once, a conversation took place between me and him while we were standing in a queue in front of the rooms, and it became clear to me that they did not participate in the 1948 Movement. When I asked him why they did not participate, he answered, “No one told us." Then I got to know Hamid more, and for the first time I read a book with him at the Judge Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani, who was living in Sala. The book was titled “Social Justice in Islam” by Sayyid Qutb, which we did not finish reading it. This was approximately during the late 1955 and early 1956. Whenever Hamid wanted to seek the Imam’s permission to go to "Hashid", he would put his brother Abdullah as a hostage in his place until his return, as the Imam feared of their rebellion.
When was your visit to Taiz?
My visit to Taiz might be in 1954, (I don't really remember). However, it was prior the establishment of Al-Thulaya Movement which was an uprising of soldiers. I remember well that a group of soldiers went to "Al-Hawban" to fetch firewood, and some of them took sheep from some of the peasants who got angry and complained that to the Imam.
I remember that I and a group of young men walked into the military barracks to talk to the soldiers and discuss what happened. We told them in a kind of instigation, we asked them, “Why do you clash with poor peasants and take their sheep?! What made you do this is the status quo in the country because of the Imam and his injustice." They told Al-Thulaya that they were planning an uprising against the Imam, and they chose him to be their leader. Al-Thulaya accepted that and showed his willingness to lead the movement, as he had a prominent position in the Imamate regime.
After the 1955 Movement, I learned by one of the Iryani’s family members, not the well-known politician Abdulkarim Al-Iryani, that there was a possibility to travel and study abroad. This man was having a resolution from the Imam to go abroad for study. I and some of my relative colleagues kept writing letters to the Imam to send us abroad for study.
Finally, the Imam replied with (approved), and sent a telegraph to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that “There is no objection, but without sponsorship”, i.e. we support ourselves financially. Then, we moved to Cairo, and met the late Muhammad Jubari who helped us there. We knew Jubari from the city of Jiblah, where we studied together for a year. He went before us to study in Cairo.
In what year did you study in Jibla?
A year after the Al-Thulaya Movement, that is, in 1956. I remember that that was during the tripartite aggression against Egypt, while we were getting ourselves and our papers ready to travel.
In Cairo, I began to perceive ideological trends that presented themselves to Yemeni students, including the Arab Socialist Baath, the Arab Nationalist Movement, and the Marxist Movement. I thought of these three political movements, looked at them carefully and gave myself an opportunity. In fact, I found my ideas very close to the Arab Socialist Baath Movement, because, on one hand, it is a Nationalist Movement, although it was facing some difficulties by then, and on the other hand, it carries a social orientation with a socialist nature, regardless of the fact that it was not a radical socialist (Scientific Socialism). At Cairo University, I came into contact with the members of the Arab and Yemeni Nationalist Movement who were in the university.
In 1958, I received a verbal message from Saleh al-Hibshi saying, “We will make a revolution, please follow up on the matter.” I conveyed the message to Mohsen Al-Aini, who said, “I hope we will not have Thi Yazan complex.” He meant seeking help from abroad.
Do you remember the names of some of them?
For example; from among the Yemenis, I remember Muhsin al-Ayni, who was a figure of interest to me because he was expelled from Aden when returned to it from France after completing his studies there; from among the members of the Arab Nationalists Movement, who tried to come into contact with me, I remember Faisal Abdul-Latif al-Shaabi and Sultan Ahmed Omar Al-Absi; and from the Marxist Movement I remember Abu Bakr Al-Saqqaf and Muhammad Omar Hassan, who is from "Al-Waht" and was one of the most prominent Marxists, and Muhammad Mayas, from Dhamar, and also there was a young but intelligent man (from my region), his name is Ahmed Al-Kherbi. He was very active. He is still alive and lives in Sana’a.
Mr. Muhsin Al-Aini offered me to join the Arab Socialist Baath Party and I agreed. The first session brought me together with AbdulRahman An-Numan, the son of Mr. Ahmed An-Numan, was in 1958. The most prominent Yemeni students belonged to this political mainstream were Fathi Al-Aswadi and another person (from Baadan), I forgot his name, unfortunately. Anyway, that it was the first session that brought us together, (Later, when we met in the house of Mujahid Abu Shawareb in Sana’a, Abdul-Rahman An-Nu’man corrected for me the date we first met. I told him that the first session was in 1957, he said “No”, it was in 1958). The third person was from Hadhramaut, his name is Rabie or Munif, I do not remember his name. My activity in the session continued under the organizational leadership of someone from Lebanon. And another time under the leadership of someone from Bahrain. Without boasting and slandering, I can say that the leaders of the session would prefer me to run the session. The one of the Yemenis who bore the organizational responsibility was Saleh Al-Hibshi, and he is still alive. He was an amazing man. He studied in Syria and later in Cairo before returning to Sana’a. I also remember that a verbal message of partisan nature was conveyed to me from him through Abu Jalal Al-Absi, who was leading the People's Organization during the October 14 Revolution, saying, “We will make a revolution, please follow up on the matter.”
I carried this message to Mohsen Al-Aini in his office at the headquarters of the Arab Workers Union. He was then working in Aden and the Labour Conference sent him as its representative to the Arab Workers' Union. I don't know if he had any idea about the revolution in Sana'a at the time, but then he commented by saying, “I hope we will not have Thi Yazan Complex.” He meant seeking help from abroad.
I relied on the late Othman Abdul-Jabbar Rashid, who owned a radio station, to follow up on the news coming from Yemen. Othman - may God have mercy on him - was a patriotic figure who held a number of positions and was a member of the Central Committee of the Yemeni Socialist Party.
One day, our session was held in my apartment in Al-Manial neighborhood. The doorkeeper of the apartment building came to us saying, "Oh, Yemenis, this is a situation in Sana’a; a revolution or something like this." Immediately, I and a group of our party members moved and occupied the Yemeni embassy in Cairo, where we declared our support for the revolution of September 26, 1962. The declaration was broadcasted on Sawt Al Arab (Voice of the Arabs) Radio Station. Then, we set up communication committees.
Do you remember the names of the students who broke into the embassy?
No, I don't. However, all the students who were in Cairo participated in breaking into the embassy. The Baath Party was involved in the revolution in Sana'a, and was strongly present in the Student Movement in Cairo. I remember Qasim Salam, Saif Ahmed Haider, Abduljaleel Salman, Zain As-Saqaf and others.
After that, Mohsen Al-Aini was appointed a Minister of Foreign Affairs. We called for volunteers to go to Sana'a to support the revolution, because we knew that the September 26 revolution was depending on a limited number of officers and soldiers. Coincidently, there was a private plane to take Mohsin Al-Aini, who was a member in Baath Party that time, so I, Saif Ahmed Haider, Abduljaleel Salman, Qasim Salam and Saleh Al-Awlaqi – the son of Sultan Aidarous, who was a patriotic figure carried out a movement in Al-Awaliq against the UK colonization – and I flew with him to Sana’a. I remember that Muhammed Ar-Raadi and Abdulmajeed Az-Zandani were among the nine students who returned with us. During that period, I got to know Abdulmajeed Az-Zindani and his Brotherhood tendencies.
We held a meeting for students in Al-Qanater Al-Khairiya that is located on the north of Cairo, and wrote a letter to Abdul Nasser complaining about Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Baydani’s speeches that incited “Shafi’is” against “Zaydis” and “Qahtanis” against “Adnanis”, explaining that the Imam would take the advantage of such speeches.
When did you return?
We returned on October 3, 1962, a few days after the revolution. When we arrived in Sana'a, Ahmed Al-Marouni had been appointed a Minister of Information. He managed to get a resolution from President As-Sallal to appoint me as a Director of Sana'a Radio Station. Thus, I held the position, while my colleagues volunteered in the National Guards Forces.
During that period, Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Baydani felt overwhelmed by us, the students who came from Cairo, because of the arguments occurred between us and him before the September 26 revolution regarding his speeches on Sawt Al Arab radio station. “He is not a sectarian nor is he a dynastic, as he grew up in Egypt), but he was influenced by some ideas of Yemeni freemen having different tendencies.
Do you remember their names?
No, I don't remember, he had connections (I assume).
Going back to the point of our “arguments” with Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Baydani, we held a meeting for students in Al-Qanater Al-Khairiya that is located on the north of Cairo, and wrote a letter to Abdul Nasser complaining about Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Baydani’s speeches that incited “Shafi’is” against “Zaydis” and “Qahtanis” against “Adnanis”, explaining that the Imam would take the advantage of such speeches, and that the "Zayedis" and “Adnanis” would be to the side of Imam. When Dr. Abdul Rahman knew about this meeting, he requested to meet me. I went to speak to him knowing that he was neither regional nor sectarian, as he was born and raised in Egypt, but he was influenced by some ideas of some of the opponents of the Imam.
Can you give us example of who they were?
Most of them were influenced by such ideas, not out of conviction, but as a political tactic to use against the Imam.
Anyway, I told him, “Doctor, we, as students with various nationalist political mainstreams, Baathist and Leftist, are against the approach you are following, and do not believe in these isolationist ideas”. I remember that he was living in Al Manial neighborhood and I was living there as well. He said, “Let’s make an alliance with each other.” I said, “What alliance? You are a leader and I am just a student, Doctor.” Then, I asked permission to leave, and walked out of his house after I thanked him for his request to meet me.
Dr. Al-Baydani did not forget what happened between me and him. I remember that after we came back to Yemen and my work at the Radio Station, I met Muhammad Mahmoud Az-Zubayri one day and he asked me, “Do you know what we discussed today at the Cabinet?” I answered, “No. I do not. I work at the Radio Station, and I do not know what was discussed in the Cabinet”. He told me that Dr. Al-Baydani said in the meeting that the students who came from Egypt want to take over the revolution. Then, I realized that Dr. Al-Baydani did not forget our arguments with him in Egypt before the revolution.
I remember at the time that we managed to get a resolution from Al-Sallal to bring back the senior students from the various regions of Yemen - north and south - to support the revolution. Yet, Dr. Al-Baydani repealed the resolution, and issued another one requiring the students who came from Egypt to return to Egypt to complete their studies, and so it was.
Before we left for Cairo, we met President Al-Sallal - may his soul rest in peace - and he told us, "Go and complete your studies. Do not worry about the revolution, for it is in safe hands." Then, we left his office in the Republican Palace.
His office room was in the middle. We walked out through a side door. It was the door we would always go through to another room in the lobby. In that room there was Dr. Al-Baydani. One of the presidential palace personnel - I don't remember his name, Al-Ahmadi or Shaalan - asked us to meet Dr. Al-Baydani. Indeed, we met him, and he told us, “How about we make a deal and I guarantee you stay and not return to Cairo." But, we rejected his offer because, according to our understanding, he wanted to keep us subordinate to him.
Was there no interference by any third party between you and Dr. Abdul Rahman?
Abdullah Jizaylan - may his soul rest in peace – had started to feel that there was a problem between us (Students) and Dr. Al-Baydani when I met him.
The September 26 Revolution went through the same challenges, and faced the same powers that fight to control over Yemen now (February Revolution), but the difference is that the September 26 Revolution took place in the existence of positive features in the national, regional and international political life.
When was your first meeting with the Free Officers?
When I arrived from Cairo. I went to visit President Al-Sallal at the Military School in Al-Oridy. On his left was Abdul Latif Dhaif Allah, and on his right was Abdallah Jizaylan - for the record, Jizaylan was independent. There was a young skinny man standing in front of them. The person standing next to me asked me, “Do you know this young man?” I told him, “Off course, he is Ali Abdul-Mughni” I heard about him. He was taking permission to go back to the frontline in Serwah Marib when we entered. Unfortunately, I got to know him a few moments before he left. I heard about him as a leader of the Free Officers Organization. I thought he was Baathi, but after many years I discovered that he had a good relationship with all the modern national organizations at the time. He also had personal relationships with all the leaders of those organizations, which is why many organizations used to say that he was with them.
Years after he was martyred, I asked Ahmed Daifallah, who was at the time an undersecretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about Ali Abdul-Mughni's political affiliation. He told me that he had not joined any political organization, and that his personal relationship with everyone was good and strong, and he was very close to Mr. Ahmad Jaber Afif, our ambassador to Beirut at the time.
What is your assessment of what happened and of the revolution in its beginnings?
The September 26 Revolution went through the same challenges, and faced the same powers that fight to control over Yemen now (February Revolution), but the difference is that the September 26 Revolution took place in the existence of positive features in the national, regional and international political life. Egypt, Abdul Nasser, the Soviet Union and socialism were there. The people here in Yemen were enthusiastic about the revolution, although it depended on a limited number of officers, but it was popularly embraced.
How do we conclude our first episode, Mr. Yahya?
In general, I joined the Arab Socialist Baath early and practiced my political activities through it, whether in contributing in setting up the propaganda against the Imam and preparing for the revolution or in defending the September 26 revolution during the period from 1958 to 1972.