Dr. Mario Livadiotti Imam Badr Private Physician [Archives:2000/42/Culture]

October 16 2000

Dr. Mario Livadiotti was the personal physician of Imam Badr and came to Sanaa in 1961. He worked at Mutawakel Hospital, later Republican Hospital in Sanaa from 1961-1965 and 1967-71. He tells us of his first impressions upon arriving in Yemen and his life under the Imamate and later the Republic.

It was in March 1961 when I first landed on the shores of Aden with my young wife and my two sons, Mario and Maximo. A month before I had received an offer from the Yemeni government to work in the only hospital in Sanaa, the Mutawakel hospital and to attend to the needs of Imam Badr, Crown Prince at the time, and the royal court. From Aden we were driven up to Taiz on a bumpy road covered with rocks, gravel and sand.We arrived in Taiz after sunset, and as was the custom at the time, the city gates had already been closed. After much arguing and deliberating, our driver managed to convince the guard that I was the Italian physician who had come on orders of Imam Ahmad. The gates were finally thrown open and we were taken to a guest house, Dar El Diafa. At the time there were no hotels in Yemen. The main cities had guesthouses, which were run by the government and were only open to special guests, officials of the government and dignitaries. Next morning we were taken to the airport to continue our journey by plane to Sanaa, but we were dumbfounded when we were turned back. We tried to board the plane the following day to Sanaa with the same result. Nobody was able to give us an explanation. This went on for about two weeks. Every day we would get ready: children, luggage and all and make our way to the airport only to be turned back. When we finally did manage to get on board we were told that there had been an attempt on the life of Imam Ahmad in Hodeidah and that was what had caused the delay in flight permission. Yemeni internal flights in those days served very much as a means of transportation for the mass of the people, as the road network was very inadequate, and I found it very amusing to see goats and sheep in the back of the plane and fish dangling from the ceiling happily moving right and left, back and forth, in communion with the planes movements.In Sanaa we were settled in a beautiful villa in the proximity of the hospital. Our two young boys adapted very quickly to their new life. I still remember how excited they were when years later they got two horses as a gift from Sheikh Abdallah al Ahmar. Marco and Maximo joined the Italian school, which in reality was nothing more than an Italian teacher brought in from Eritrea to tutor the few children of the Italian community. Later on the school expanded to take in Yemeni children who intended to continue their studies in Italy.In Sanaa my main means of transportation to the hospital was the horse. At the entrance a guard used to greet me ceremoniously with a trumpet and in response to the resounding sound of the instrument, the gates were immediately thrown wide open. Some time later I used the bicycle and then we acquired a second-hand car that was shipped from Italy. My wife, a stunning beautiful young woman, caused quite a stir in town by being the first woman to drive a car in Sanaa. I still have a letter from a US news agency asking me for a photo of my wife driving in Yemen. We were a rather diverse group of doctors working at the Mutawakel hospital then; there were Russians, Yugoslav, East German and Iraqi doctors among others. It was a rather nice working environment except for the thieves. There were so many crows in Sanaa in those days. The kitchen of the hospital was in an annex, so that the staff had to carry the food through the garden, and it was not uncommon that one of these birds would seize the opportunity to dive into the tray and fly off with a chicken leg.Italy had always had good relations with Yemen, being the first country that recognized it after it broke away from the Ottoman Empire. The Imams on the other hand always valued Italian friendship as they saw it essential to counter British policy in the south. In September 62, Imam Ahmad died and it was just a few days before the revolution that two Ministers of Legation came from Italy, the former Minister and his successor to present their condolences to Imam Badr on the death of his father and extend their support to the new Imam. At the time, it must be said, there was no Italian Embassy in Sanaa, only an office which was called the Ministry of Legation. It was on the night of the 25th of September, when we were at a party of the Italian community that there was a blackout all of the sudden and gunfire could be heard all over town. Imam Badr fled that same night through the garden of his palace. The coup had started. I had been very lucky, as I was supposed to have in the palace that night to examine the wife of the Imam who had been ill. Fortunately, the car that was supposed to pick me up never came from the palace and so I escaped the ill fate of being caught up in the midst of it all. The coming weeks were not very pleasant as the revolutionaries were hunting down all supporters of the Imam and killing was common. Many bodies were hung from Bab el Yemen and thrown in the streets of the city. I saw many of my close acquaintances dead. The Imam still made several attempts to regain power, which culminated in the siege of 1969. There were some shortages of food, but otherwise we lived through it rather well and bravely. As a physician working for the government hospital I was not personally touched by the revolution and continued my work unaffectedly. It was only stressful at times when I was the only doctor in town.It was during those months that something very bizarre happened. We woke up one morning with Sanaa covered in snow. The locals reacted to it in a very curious way. They asked, they watched, they inquired, they walked on it barefoot, but they couldnt figure out what that white, fluffy substance was. When I asked some of the older people, they told me that they had never ever seen this is their lives before.
I left Yemen in 1965, worked in Tanzania for two years and returned to work here for another period of time between 1967-71. When the time came to leave, my children and wife were very unhappy and attempted to undermine the eminent move in every possible way. Marco and Maximo schemed and amused themselves with stealing my mail when they thought it could contain a potentially threatening job offer. It took me quite a while until I realized what they were plotting.
Since we left, I have returned quite frequently to Yemen and observing things around me, now in the year 2000, I must say that progress and change came very quickly to this country. I do sometimes get very sad when I see old palaces and houses destroyed or inadequately renovated. The architecture of this city is so unique that I think it should be preserved at all costs. Sanaa is a world heritage. Today when I passed in front of the big building, which is now the Republican hospital, I still saw reflected in my mind the one story Mutawakel Hospital where I saw so many patients almost four decades ago. I found it funny when the guard at the entrance barred my way pompously asking me what I wanted. The image of the guard blowing the trumpet when I arrived every morning on my horse and the gate being flung wide open to welcome me, came back to my mind. In front of me, cars were busily hooting and honking and racing up and down Zubeiri Street.