Abdullatif Al-Rabee’: a sad-happy Yemeni mural [Archives:2006/946/Culture]

May 15 2006
A sketch of Abdullatif Al-Rabee.
A sketch of Abdullatif Al-Rabee.
By: Atif Awad

Before six years, namely on the 22nd of April 1993, Abdullatif Al-Rabee', the poet, artist and satirist who made people laugh and weep, passed away.

This Yemeni voice ceased. He used to offer harmonious creation – an art-inspired mural whose lines and shades were wrought by the fingers of Fate. The circumstances that traversed Yemenis at those times of the history of the country had colors that by no means had mercy on the generation of Al-Rabee'.

A dreamy voice ceased to exist. He had his place among the chorus of dreamy Yemenis with distinction, originality and patterns filled with Yemeniness and Arabism, and with all that is human, noble and robbed.

This Yemeni mural had its own difference. It could, along with a few other Yemenis, transcend its confines and the geographical frontiers to show off its magnificence, majesty, originality and Arabism all over the national Abdullatif Al-Rabee' introduced himself as a voice bouncing off the wall of imprisoned yet quaint Yemen.

May you rest in peace you who wanted Yemenis and Arabs to have ceaseless tireless voice? May you rest in peace, Abdullatif Al-Rabee', and blessed by Allah as you were born and loved your grandma “Faze'ah”

Is “Faze'ah” the old woman in the village in which you were born and she was the midwife? Is she the old woman who told you the first tales you ever heard? Tell me, Oh Abdullatif!

Poverty and oppression

In the village of Khaw, which is part of Al-Hujariyah district, Taiz province, his grandma “Faze'ah” embedded into his mind a galore tales about the village and its dwellers, about those who died while very young and the women who died leaving their nestlings, those who fell victim to fever and had no cure in incantations. She told him of herbs that failed to cure a young mother on the delivery moment.

Faze'ah related also to her grandson tales about how poverty pervaded the village and other villages in the country and the oppression and depravity of the henchmen of Imam. She told him of those who died of hunger, disease, ignorance and those who immigrated. “Those who immigrated, my son, are the ones who could surely survive but we had no new about them,” she would tell him.

Abdullatif Al-Rabee' quoted the tales of his grandma's tales. “One day, my grandma Faze'ah told me about those who revolted against the tyrant but were annihilated before the very eyes of their families. Their blood was shed.” His father Judge Mohammed Al-Rabee' was killed in the aftermaths of 1948 Revolution.

A modern poet

Mature, Abdullatif Al-Rabee' wrote like someone who writes with the brush of his heart. He used the colors his grandma had inculcated in his consciousness and his mild heart. Abdullatif wrote on his mural saying:

Today, nobody died

Thus did the city's window tell me

On Friday I wash myself away

And perfume my body with the smell of cemetery

With whom should I perform the merriment prayer

I am the wood of sin.

Hit the nails of virtue in my body

My words are like the foils of sadness

And as sharp as the blade of weeping

Yet, Abdullatif died one day. We, his friends and family, buried him in Khuzaimah Cemetery in Sana'a, the city he liked most. For its sake he returned following the completion of his study in Hungary. He came back carrying a major in architectural engineering in 1969 and worked for Sana'a Municipality as an engineer and artist. He adorned the streets and parks of Sana'a with wonderful sculptures that showed the extent of his skill.

He worked also as a journalist for Al-Mustaqbal newspaper. He had a column of the backpage with the pen name Farhan Al Maghmoum (The Happy among the Sad). With curt phrases and high professionalism and a clear view of the target he believed in, his narrow column was the organ of all dreamy people and the dissidents of the manacles and fetters of free thought.

With his “sharp” column, Abdullatif provoked many diehards, those who had not been accustomed to the freedom of expression and thought. Farhan Al Maghmoum became such a name. The column was praised by the public as it bravely tackled thorny issues. In certain arenas, people were criticizing it and its author branding him as blasphemous.

Describing the choice of the title (Shur Al-Baliyah: Arabic for the worst of calamities) and penname (Farhan Al Maghmoum) of the column, Abdullatif said, “We, Arabs and Yemenis are living in the worst of calamities. This ironically invites laughter. Farhan is also the Yemeni-Arab citizen who has no right to laughter due to the misery of his condition. He must live sad and has to do nothing to change this miserable situation.”

A plastic artist

Abdullatif was also a plastic artist who fell in love with visual art without pedantry. In his Sana'a-based house, which he designed, he had an atelier that enshrined many a painting. A plastic art reader would not fail to discern the different stages of his life in the lively energetic paintings that exude beauty and humanness.

I told him once “I think that I see Old Egypt in some of your paintings.” He explained, “I went to Egypt in 1958. My family had arranged my education over there and I did not weep on departure. In the schools of Halwan and Shubra in the city of Cairo, I lived my preparatory and secondary school life. I was a member of the families of my friends both Muslims and Christians. I spent my time with them on holidays and vacations. I lived at the heart and not the margin of Egypt and experienced the intimacy and familiarity of the Egyptian people.”

He added, “I shed no tear when I left my people here but I wept much when I traveled from Cairo to Hungary in 1963 for my university study. My visits to these 'dears' did not discontinue since I returned from Hungary to Yemen.”

Abdullatif draw with words in one of his poetry collections or rather he engraved with words in his poetry collection “The Shroud he Body”:

My ID card shows me not,

I am not the otherness,

The otherness is not they,

A fingerprint is not enough to prove identity.

A question is a bridge to another question.

I am water,

I occupy the basin of tears and the hangman's forest,

And utter words when I utter not

Abdullatif Al-Rabee' died. He died when the city he loved ceased to supply him with what could have perpetuated the rhythm of his breath and pulse.

He died by a heart attack on a Sana'a eve when all hospitals had no oxygen.

The mural of color, word and satirical joke died on the night when the Yemen-Arab city closed its window in order for him not to wash his body, at the moment when the city told him that tonight “Nobody died,” but it was Abdullatif, the Yemeni mural, who died.

That mural was the “woods of sin.” May you rest in peace, oh voice still echoing in poetry, cities and sublime murals.

Atif Awad is an Egyptian journalist and short story writer residing in Yemen.