Qadi Isma’il Al-Akwa’ looks back at his life [Archives:2006/952/Culture]

June 5 2006

Kamal Ali Al-Hijri
and Gregory D. Johnson

The Yemen Times is publishing excerpts from a 2004 interview with Qadi (Judge) Isma'il Ali Al-Akwa'. In this interesting interview, Judge Al-Akwa' recalls different stages of his pre- and post-revolution life, shedding light on his cultural contributions.

Qadi Isma'il Al-Akwa' is a prominent figure on the Yemeni scholarship stage, best known for his writings on traditional institutions in Yemeni landscape, history and culture.

His diverse interests can be gauged by a few titles: two volumes of Yemeni Proverbs (Al-Amthal Al-Yamaniyyah, 1968/1984, Beirut) and the five volumes of Refuges and Strongholds of Knowledge in Yemen (Hijar Al-'ilm wa Ma'aqil-hu fi Al-Yaman, xxx). He also has published articles on subjects as diverse as the baths of Sana'a and Turkish words adopted into Yemeni usage.

Al-Akwa' is well-known to a generation of North American historians and archaeologists as the founder and long-time president (1969-1990) of the General Organization for Antiquities and Libraries. In this position, he took great strides toward studying and preserving Yemen's pre-Islamic and Islamic heritage, as well as encouraged new research by Yemeni and foreign scholars.

Less widely known to foreign audiences are his life and activities before he turned his attention to writing and preserving Yemen's cultural heritage. On March 25 and July 15, 2004, Kamal Ali Al-Hijri and Gregory D. Johnson sat down with Qadi Al-Akwa' to talk about his life and times as a Yemeni revolutionary, diplomat and scholar. An edited version of the two interviews, both of which took place at the judge's house, follows.

To begin with, could you tell us where you were born and a little about your childhood, including schools you attended?

I was born in the city of Dhamar in 1338 A.H. (1920). When I was a child, I studied mathematics and calligraphy at the local kuttab. I later studied at the Madrasa Al-Shamsiyya and then at the Amr Mosque, both of which were in Dhamar. I attended both of these because I wanted to study with a particular sheikh and every student may study with the sheikh he likes.

My driving passion was a desire to do well. I was raised in an intellectual and scientific family with a strong tradition of learning. My father was one of the greatest scholars in Dhamar.

I know you've written a book dealing with the history of your family, Al-Akwa', which I'd like to talk about later. But for the moment, I'd like to ask you about the name Al-Akwa'. I've heard that it's a sort of nickname referring to your family's reputation as scholars, since the word akwa' has to do with being bent and many in your family were always bent over a book. Is that correct?

No, the name Al-Akwa' first appeared about 1,000 years ago. The original name was Al-Huwali. Mohammed bin Ibrahim took Al-Akwa' because he had a bent bone in his hand.

OK, let's get back to your own history. Did you complete your education in Dhamar or did you eventually move on to another city?

The next step in my education was to go to Ibb, where I studied under my brother Mohammed. My brother was one of the few in Yemen with a good knowledge of modern science and I was lucky to study under him. He knew people like Sheikh Arslan, Mohammed Abduh and Mohammed Rashid Rida.

Did you only work with your brother or did you study under other teachers as well?

Yes, I also received part of my education from Hasan ibn Zayd Al-Daylami. He lent me a great number of books, as did Ahmed ibn Abdulwahab Al-Warith. I benefited greatly from all the books they lent me. I also borrowed Hafiz's Diwan from Abdullah Ali Al-Shajani and enjoyed that book quite a lot. All these books and all these teachers were part of my education.

While you were in Ibb, you also joined a reform movement your brother led, correct?

Yes, that's correct. My brother Mohammed led a reform movement in Ibb and Taiz. My role in the movement was very small compared to that of others. I delivered pamphlets and newspapers printed in Aden to homes and mosques in Ibb, Taiz and Sana'a.

In addition to transporting these papers, I also sometimes wrote articles for the reform movement that appeared in periodicals and newspapers like Sawt Al-Yemen and Fatat Al-Jazirah. Many of the articles I wrote never made it to Aden to get published.

Eventually, in 1944, I was arrested by the imam for my membership and activities in the group. We wanted justice and we wanted the imam to establish vital projects the country needed, like roads.

What happened after you were arrested?

Well, as I said, I was arrested in 1944 and I spent two years in the imam's prisons in Ibb, Sana'a, Taiz and Hajjah. I spent the greater part of my incarceration in Hajjah prison. About 50 people were in jail with me at the time, including Qadi Al-Iryani, Nu'man, Sallal, Al-Amri and Al-Marwani – all who would play important roles in Yemen's revolution.

There were two chambers in the prison and all of us [prisoners] used to spend a great deal of time talking to one another. We would read, pass books to each other and work together in different study groups. Strangely, there was more freedom – at least intellectually – inside the prison than outside it. One could do things in prison that one never could do outside.

During my final days in prison, some prisoners, including myself, were allowed to receive books from our friends and family. Some of us wrote poetry or essays to pass the time. In Hajjah, I spent most of my time reading and studying [Arabic] grammar. Actually, the time in prison was a little like time spent in a garden. We used to laugh and dance, even though our feet and hands were chained. I could do things in prison I never could do in the outside world.

What did you do after your release, which was in 1946, correct?

Yes, I was released in late 1946, but I was sick, worn out and very scared of being arrested again. I was scared about everything – my life and my safety. I was scared of the imam. I even went into hiding for awhile, traveling between Dhamar, Ibb and Sana'a. I never spent a great deal of time in one particular place during those four years before I traveled to Aden in 1950.

After I'd been out of prison for awhile, I went to Imam Yahya and asked him to release my brother Mohammed. However, as it turned out, Mohammed remained in Hajjah prison until 1950, two years after Imam Yahya was killed.

You mentioned that you moved to Aden in 1950. What did you do there?

The first thing I did in Aden was get medical treatment for some health problems that had bothered me since my release from prison. More importantly, I was able to continue helping Yemeni reformers. Even though I played a very small role, I was able to work with those like Mohammed Mahmoud Al-Zubairi. We did a number of things in Aden connected with reformist activities, like holding meetings and writing articles. I also worked as a school teacher during my years in Aden.

At that time, the early 1950s, Aden was under British rule and Yemen was under the rule of Imam Ahmed. What differences did you notice between the two places?

Yes, there was a huge difference between Aden and Yemen. In Aden, there was absolute freedom. One could do anything one wanted in Aden. In fact, there was a saying in Yemen then: “If you get bored, go to Aden.” One could find complete freedom to live any way one wanted in Aden at that time. However, the exact opposite was the case in Sana'a and that's why great liberals like Al-Zubairi and Nu'man fled to Aden.

You said you stayed in Aden for about four years. Where did you go after that?

In 1954, I took my son Mohammed and went to Cairo. I studied for awhile in Cairo and even joined Dar Al-Ulum, but I didn't study there. My son spent his time at an elementary school there. I stayed in Cairo until 1958, when I traveled to Syria.

And then you returned to Yemen?

No, actually I returned to Egypt in 1959 and left from Cairo to go on the Hajj. It meant a great deal to me, not only because it was the first time I had gone on the Hajj, but also because I met my brother Mohammed in Mecca and he brought my wife and daughter. After the end of the Hajj season, I returned to Egypt for a short time and then returned to Yemen.

So you returned to Yemen in 1959?

Yes, in late 1959. My brother Mohammed had taken a position as a judge in Ibb.

Did you work with your brother again in Ibb?

Well, eventually Imam Ahmed asked me and Ahmed Al-Amri to travel to the Soviet Union to establish a Yemeni mission there because the Soviets recently had opened one in Taiz. This was in 1961. I ended up staying in Russia until just after the revolution. I returned to Yemen in late 1962 or early 1963; I can't remember exactly when.

So you heard about the 1962 Revolution when you were in Moscow? How did you find out and what was your reaction?

Yes, I heard about the revolution while I was in Moscow. Words fail me to describe how extremely happy I was when I heard the news of the revolution.

You then returned to Yemen soon after the revolution. Did you join the government? What role did you take on?

I only ended up staying in Yemen for a very short time after I returned from the Soviet Union. In 1963, I traveled back to Egypt to take up a position as cultural adviser to the Yemeni Embassy in Cairo. I spent most of my time in Cairo reading and writing at Dar Al-Kutub – that's where I worked on Al-Amthal Al-Yamaniyyah.

In Egypt, I also was able to meet a number of important international scholars like Ahmed Fakhri, Dr. Shougi Dhayf and Dr. Hussein Al-Hamadani, all of whom contributed a great deal to my intellectual development.

At some point during the war, you returned to Yemen and took up the position of Minister of Information for the Yemeni government, correct?

Yes, I believe I returned to Yemen sometime in late 1967 and I was in that position during the 70-day siege (The Siege of Sana'a). My role essentially was to announce republican victories and welcome and host friends and brothers like visiting delegations from other nations. However, there weren't many foreign reporters in Yemen at that time. I was Minister of Information until May 1969, I believe.

What did you do after you ended your time as Minister of Information?

Well, President Al-Iryani initially asked me to serve as Yemen's ambassador to Ethiopia – yes, I think it was Ethiopia – but I turned him down. I didn't want to leave Yemen. After having spent so much time in foreign countries, I wanted to stay in Yemen. I eventually told him I'd like to establish an institution to preserve and collect Yemen's intellectual treasures such as manuscripts, cultural artifacts and antiquities. The government later issued a decree establishing this institution to collect manuscripts and antiquities.

You started this institute?

Yes, Dar Al-Kutub. The idea was modeled on the one I visited in Egypt, but it eventually was established as part of the General Organization for Antiquities and Libraries (GOAL). I wanted to do something like this to collect and preserve Yemen's rich heritage. I was president of GOAL from March 1969 until 1990. I didn't ask for the position, but it was given to me since I had established the organization.

I'd like to talk a bit about all the books you've written. When did you find the time to write during your extremely busy life?

I did most of my writing when I was the director of the institute. During my life, I have benefited a great deal from libraries and from scholarly personalities I've met. For instance, while I was in the United States, I made a number of photocopies at the Library of Congress. I've used the books I've read as a guide and a reference for my own work.

Many of your books, like Al-Amthal Al-Yamaniyyah, are extremely extensive. Can you talk about some of the work that goes into a book like that?

Yes, Al-Amthal Al-Yamaniyyah was the first book to compare Yemeni sayings and proverbs with those of Syria, Egypt, Iraq and other Arab countries. After the book was published, some friends recommended I limit my writings to only Yemeni proverbs and not deal with those of other countries. I did this in a later book, wherein I focused solely on Yemeni proverbs and their origins. The book turned out to be a two-volume work more than 1,000 pages long. Afterward, I began work on subjects like Yemen's language, customs, traditions and history.

What about the book you wrote on your family's history? From where did you get the idea?

The idea of writing a book about my family came to my mind after I read other books of family histories, like the one on the Al-Iryani family.

Do you think your children or grandchildren will follow in your footsteps, becoming scholars?

My sons and grandsons are many things, each with their own interests, but I'm sure some of them will be scholars.

How would you like Yemenis to remember you after you've passed away?

I'll leave that for those who remember.

Kamal Ali Al-Hijri and Gregory D. Johnson are researchers at the American Institute for Yemeni Studies