Is Traditional Mail Out of Fashion? Will Yemeni Sweethearts Send “love e-mail? [Archives:1998/01/Reportage]

January 5 1998

Dr. Salah Haddash & Adel J. Moqbil
With the invention of the telephone, the fax machine, and now the e-mail, the traditional way of communicating through hand-written paper letters seems to be on its way out. For communicating words only, as opposed to sending parcels, the e-mail is faster, cheaper, less cumbersome, and can be done in the privacy and comfort of one’s own house.
Hamam Zajel The earliest references to postal systems are from Egypt at about 2,000 BC and the Chou dynasty in China 1,000 years later. China is also believed to have developed the first post house relay system. Various centralized systems for relaying messages were instituted, culminating in the Roman curus publicus. The Himyarite civilization had its special postal service, as indicated by the Ibraha inscription. The kings of Himyar inscribed their letters on wood using the “zaboor” or minuscule type of calligraphy. During the Middle Ages there were no centralized postal systems, but royal houses, especially during the ascendancy of the Arab and Muslim civilization, maintained corps of messengers. Carrier pigeons (hamam zajel) were very much employed by Muslim caliphs and their “walis” (provincial representatives), especially during times of war. The post of “sahib al-bareed” or post master was introduced and relay post houses were very common along the roads connecting the far flung corners of the Muslim empire. However, this service did not cover ordinary citizens who had to rely on trustworthy travelers and merchants to carry their mail with trade caravans. Known as al-Tabal, such a service continued in Yemen up to the early 1970s. During the European Renaissance, the growth of trade as well as the development of the printing press gave rise to private postal services. The rise of nation-states led to government monopolization of these services and the establishment of national systems.
A penny for your mail A major landmark in postal progress was the idea first proposed by the British educator and tax reformer Rowland Hill in 1837. He called for charging a single uniform rate of delivery based on weight rather than distance, using prepaid adhesive postage stamps. Before that the receiver, not the sender, had to pay the postage fee. This exposed the postman to various unpleasant situations in addition to being the target of highwaymen. So the famous one-penny stamp first appeared on 1 May 1840 in England, showing the head of Queen Victoria. Hill became a celebrity.
International Treaty Until the mid 19th century, there was no real international cooperation . Postal relations between states consisted of bilateral treaties which were further confused by the diversity of currencies and units of weight. In 1875, the Treaty of the General Postal Union was established. Each member country was allowed to retain the postage it collected on international mail while agreeing to treat foreign mail the same way it treated its own. The only major alteration of this convention was made in 1969, when it was decided that redress payments would be made to certain countries where there was an imbalance between incoming and outgoing mail.
Automation The 20th century saw the introduction of mechanical equipment to handle mail in bulk form, cull letters from other mail, face and cancel letters, and code and sort letters. Machines have also been devised to read elements of a letter’s address electronically.
Ottoman Mail From 1849 to 1918, most of Yemen was under Ottoman rule. In 1868, the Turks started postal services, and a network of post offices gradually appeared in major cities. Stamp usage was imposed in 1888, and letters were carried and delivered by special Ottoman officials on horseback through what was known as the “basta” system. Any citizen caught, at a checkpoint, carrying a letter without an official stamp, was liable to be imprisoned or fined. Travelers going from Sanaa to Hodeida, for instance, were searched for unstamped letters. Not enough records have survived to indicate the volume of internal mail during that period. The busiest postal route administered by the Turks was the one stretching between Sanaa and Hodeida, which replaced Mokha as Yemen’s major port due to Turkish improvements. Imam Yahya, a prominent provincial leader then, maintained a royal courier post to carry his own correspondence in confidentiality, a Turkish recognition of his importance.
Half an Imadi for your thoughts? When the Ottoman left Yemen at the end of the First World War, many Turkish civil servants including postal officials remained in Yemen at the request of Imam Yahya. From 1918 to 1926, some form of postal service existed, modeled on the Ottoman system. In 1926, the Imam authorized the creation of two kinds of stamps for public use. The design of the two issues depicts two crossed janbias. Both stamps were printed on white paper and sold without adhesive and unperforated. The print quality was rather poor, some copies had ink spots on them. As for the denomination, it was either 1/2 or 1/8 imadi, a common currency at the time.
Yemen Goes International The Imam who was anxious to gain international recognition for the newly independent Yemen was persuaded that joining the International Postal Union and issuing a set of stamps conforming with Union regulations for worldwide circulation, would do much towards enhancing Yemen’s image abroad. Accordingly, the Ministry of Communication was empowered to study the ways and means of joining the Union and of producing a suitable series of stamps which would replace the then current domestic postage set. In 1930, the first issue of Yemeni stamps to be printed abroad appeared. It consisted of six denominations(in imadi and bogsha), and was printed in Germany. It was reported that this and the other 1931 issue became very scarce in Sanaa that as early as 1933 unused and used stamps were sold for one and a half imadi each. In 1935, the Assistant Post Master General of the Mutawakliat Kingdom of Yemen, Sheikh Kamel Abdulwasi’ wrote that these stamps were selling locally in Sanaa for “two Saudi riyals each.” At the time, the Saudi Arabian currency was vying with the Ethiopian thaler and the Maria Theresa dollars along with the native imadi.
By the summer of 1935, the lower values of a new set of stamps replaced the 1930 issue. “The postal service then, however, did not cover all Yemen,” said Mr. Saleh Al-Sindi, the Deputy General Director for Regional Affairs at the Post and Postal Saving Corporation. “Remote areas such as Hareeb and Mareb, for example, were out of reach of the national postal service.” Mr. Al-Sindi further explained; “in the 1950s, mail used to be taken abroad from the old Hodeida airport via Ethiopia by the Ethiopian airlines. A decade later, Yemeni post to Europe was first taken to Rome, Italy, and distributed from there.”
Something to Remember Yemen’s first commemorative set of stamps in Yemen was issued in 1939 to commemorate the second anniversary of the Arab Alliance of April 25th, 1937, between Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. National occasions and anniversaries and patriotic figures On 28th of April, 1939, a lithographed set of six-value “bogsha” stamps were issued. “We now issue stamp sets commemorating such occasions as the ring victories of the world champion boxer Naseem Hamed, or depicting Yemeni fauna and flora, etc,” Mr. Al-Sindi pointed out.
Cancellation The local Yemeni cancellation (post office stamping) used on domestic mail in the 1920s came in two general types. Both types were circular with an outer ring of uncolored inscriptions and an inner circle of black lettering.
Aden’s Different Story The Aden Camp Post Office was opened in 1939, the year British forces occupied the area. It was directly run by three British officers and four Arab assistants. Aden’s postal service was later placed under the India post authority. In 1868, this post office was moved to Al-Tawahi. Stamp cancellation was used for the first time in 1840, and in 1854 Indian adhesive stamps came into circulation in Aden. When Aden became a proper colony in 1937, the postal service in the area came under the direct administration of the British government, and more post offices were opened in Sheikh Othman, Khormaksar, and Mualla. The first set of Aden stamps was issued in 1937 at 12 different Indian currency denominations. The centennial anniversary of the British presence in Aden was commemorated by issuing new ordinary stamps showing the head of King George VI and several Aden landmarks. Other commemorative stamps depicted the allies victory in the 2nd World War, the marriage and coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1949 and 1953, respectively. In 1951, the Indian currency was replaced by the East Africa currency of cent and shilling, changing the stamps denominations accordingly. In time, more post offices were opened including the architecturally beautiful Crater post office, which was opened in 1959. In 1963, with the formation of the South Arabia Federation (17 protectorates plus Aden), the post office authority, transportation and other media and communication organs came under one ministry.
Is Yemeni Mail Volume Diminishing? Following the revolutions in northern and southern Yemen, big changes took place in the postal services. “We now have the express and electronic mail which is gradually becoming more widespread,” said Mr. Yahya Abbas Amer, the Director of the Commercial Department at the Post and Postal Savings Corporation. “But this does not entirely abolish the role of the ordinary mail service.” However, many of the services that used to be provided by the post office are now the provided by banks and private courier companies. “We can say that the present volume of mail going in and out of Yemen is about 10% of what it used to be in the early 1970s.” “Other factors that led to the decrease in Yemeni mail volume include the return of Yemeni migrant workers following the Gulf War and the reduction in the numbers of Arab teachers working Yemen,” explained Mr. Amer.
A Matter of Customs Duty Is it true that letters and parcels are opened by postal security officials? “No, only in the presence of the person to whom the parcel is addressed,” indicated Mr. Fayiz Saif Abdu, the director of Postal Investment. “This is primarily done for customs reasons, not security.” If a person is to send a parcel out of Yemen he or she has to bring it open so that post office officials would see its contents and later have it sealed in their presence.” Have there ever been any prohibited material sent by post? “Yes, alcohol, video tapes, English and French clothes labels and empty medicine packets, which were all officially destroyed,” announced Mr. Abdu. Qat sent by Yemenis to their relatives living abroad is also strictly prohibited. As for drugs and firearms, “we rarely get them sent through the post.”
Tariffs Fluctuate “Since mail is sent abroad by airplanes, we are charged in dollars which makes that tariff levied locally change with rise in the dollar exchange,” explained Mr. Khalid Al-Da’ari, the Director of Public Relations at the Post and Postal Savings Corporation. “However, the last reviewing of postal tariffs took place towards the end of 1995.” It is now calculated as YR100 to the dollar.
Future Prospects With the postal service now covering all parts of Yemen, including faraway islands, what will its future be? “We still need to raise public awareness concerning the postal service. Many people still try to send strange material such as honey, dangerous liquids, etc,” said Mr. Al-Da’ari. “The Postal Corporation has to work hard now to provide swift services for its customers. Gone are the days when a person can wait for two or three weeks to get a letter.” Teams of postal security are being formed in all governorates to ensure the safe and honest handling of people’s mail,” announced Mr. Al-Da’ari. Future plans include opening new post offices and connecting them with a wide computer network. ý