Dr Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf As I Knew Him [Archives:2001/23/Focus]

June 4 2001

Dr Murari Prasad
Faculty of Education, Sa’adah
[email protected]
On the second death anniversary of Dr Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf I am filled with warm memories of his friendly, decent and affectionate voice. I am not among the privileged mortals in Yemen who knew him closely or met him frequently. My personal contact with him was limited to four phone calls but I have treasured the intimate and endearing bits of conversation as memorable moments during my stay in Yemen.
Having freelanced for a decade and dealt with the media fairly closely, I knew of Yemen Times before my arrival in the country in December 1998, but I had no knowledge of the master hand who had midwifed its birth and growth. After reading his cogent, crisp and incisive pieces I took a liking to him. Sometime later, in April 1999, I went to the newspaper’s office to meet the editor and turn in a hastily written rejoinder to an article by a friend and colleague of mine who puts together the Yemen Times Education Supplement these days. I was shy of handing in a handwritten manuscript. I was more interested in sounding him out on the details of contribution than in submitting a crumpled copy. Much to my disappointment, he had left for lunch before I reached his workstation. The gatekeeper suggested that I phone him. No sooner did I diffidently mumbled my name and whereabouts than he gushed in with affable pleasantries-casting an invisible spell as it were. On his promptings I left the write-up at reception.
After a few days, following the publication of the piece, I called him again from my workplace, about 4 hours away from Sana’a, regarding inadvertent omissions and irritating blitches in the published item. He instantly warmed to my point and appreciated my reactions, making no bones about the deficiencies in production. “It is high time we stopped making light work of the tidying up,” he admitted. What impressed me most were his self-effacing, brisk but cordial manners as well as a penchant for the never-ending pursuit of excellence which segued Yemen Times into an articulate outfit and foremost news weekly even though it was like making bricks without straw in the beginning. I felt increasingly drawn towards him.
About three weeks later before his untimely end I read his beautifully written piece titled “Life with My Teenager: Talking to Ray”. I rang him to convey my remarks on his chiseled and polished use of the English language. “Why don’t you try your hand at fiction, too, given the unmistakable gift for the language,” I enthused. “Oh no, I don’t think I’ve a talent for that. Don’t read too much into it– journalism is literature in a hurry,” he reflected modestly. Despite his unassuming self-appraisal, I imagine, he was a keen observer of human and social behavior as well as a smooth slider behind the wall of words.
Our last talk–I didn’t know the terrible wrench would come so very soon-centered round my enquiries about updated and concise accounts of Yemen’s economy, society and polity for a project of mine, still in gestation. He sounded immensely knowledgeable. Offhand, he reeled off many useful references, and finally, we looked forward to meeting each other sooner. But it was sadly undone. He snuffed it too quickly. I couldn’t snap out of the emotional blow for long.
As I begin to shore up the fragments of our delightful chats, his amiable voice comes bouncing down the memory lane. I have read the accounts of legions of his fans , friends and admirers , and they sseem to be as wide as Mediterranean. I have read up the details of his life and activities; I have seen him in his pictures in clean glow of health with his age and face far apart, to alter Auden’s phrase. The people of Yemen including the staff at Yemen Times should consider themselves singularly fortunate in having had him as an intellectual lodestar; he was endlessly generous with his encouragement. Every time I find my own perception of the man peculiarly personal, though based on tenuous links. His attributes stand out prominently. Here was a man spurred by a specific insight, brimming with brio and brilliance and giving off the aroma of modernity. His self-affirming flame of firm ethical convictions didn’t peter out into empty flourishes. A strong disdain for status quoism forged his talent. Gifted with a wide sweep of perspectives, he didn’t want to end up an ink-stained wretch. Nothing less than the role of a crusty crusader for the rooting of democracy in Yemen could have fulfilled his mission; and predictably enough, he was more than willing to give an extra nudge to the initiatives of justice and fairplay. ” Yemen is a promising tortoise, but it is not destined to remain so for ever; it must leapfrog into the next millennium,” he remarked in one conversation. And there was enough lilt in his optimism. His strength was ideas and he could discern deficiencies in all that went around him. A stickler for many-sided social morality, he set up before him an array of challenging objectives. Foremost among these was fortifying a fragile conjunction of forward-looking forces. To that end he fashioned Yemen Times-a vibrant channel of communication. His hopes remain valid today and his bequest has gone from strength to strength. His successor is continuing where Dr Saqqaf left off along the lines that he laid down.

In the end, one could say he was arguably one of the tallest Yemenis in recent times, and that’s right. But that doesn’t say enough. There’s nothing one could call him that doesn’t sell him short. Except Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf.