Sheikh Abdulrahman Ahmed Numan: A Memoir [Archives:2004/725/Culture]

April 1 2004
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Irena Knehtl
[email protected]
For the Yemen Times

Lying in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula, traversed by the Indian Ocean monsoon and blessed by high mountains to capture the rainfall borne by these monsoons, much of Yemen is by Arabian standards extremely fertile, fully justifying the name Arabia Felix, given to it by Roman geographers. For much of the period prior 26th September 1962 revolution Yemen was governed in such a way that its trading ties with other countries, even with its neighbors, were at an absolute minimum.
The year is 1980 now and we are on our way to Turba. The Arab Republic of Yemen is at the height of the Al-Hujariyya initiated grass roots development movement. The road to Taiz is worth a few risks. It is a landscape of wild, unspoiled beauty, bathed in light. Some mountains are prodigious sculptures. For hundreds, even thousands of years, Yemeni peasants have terraced entire slopes, making farming possible in this arid, mountainous countryside, and giving the landscape a strange relief, like the altitude lines on a topographical map. Having crossed the first mountain range, we drive over plateau with only sparse vegetation in this season. Nothing but stones, sand and dust, only the bright blue of the sky. But when it rains, all this turns green. Vegetation is still rare, though there is more of it as we approach Taiz. Here and there, amid the vast, arid rocky spaces, we see a miracle in the form of a corn or sorghum field, or a garden of glistening lettuce. From time to time on a strategic hills, the ruins of a Turkish fortress. The Ottoman Empire had stretched its tentacles to here. After crossing another mountain pass at an altitude of 2,000 m we descend toward the marvelous city of Taiz, situated at 1,400 m. The dynasty of the Rasulids (1229 – 1454) had its capital here. It was also the choice of the Imam Ahmed (1948 – 1962).
The district of al-Hujariyya lies in Taiz province and has an area of 2,500 sq kms. It is an agricultural area growing mostly cereals, particularly sorghum, qat and some coffee. The administrative centre of Al-Hujariyya is al-Turba, some 70 kms south-east of Taiz, and only 18 km from the border with the West Aden Protectorate. It is its proximity to Aden that has had the most impact on the development of the area. The light of the busy port of Aden, then and now, could be clearly seen at night from the town of Turba. There Sheikh Abdulrahman Ahmed Numan recalled: “When the Turks left the al-Hujariyya in 1918, men were afraid of being conscripted into the (Zaydi) Imam's army. So they went to Aden. As it is written in the Quran, something that you hate may be good for you”. For another ten years, Sheikh Abdulrahman was to become my foremost teacher on Yemen. .
During the 1930s Aden was a rapidly expanding port providing bunkering facilities for ships heading to and from the Suez Canal and cheap free port facilities for passenger ships traveling from Europe to India and the Far East. As the port of Aden developed, more and more workers were attracted to it from the district of al-Hujariyya, only a good day,s walk away, and by the middle of the 1930s most of Aden's laborers and port workers came from this district. Initially they were short-term migrants to the port, but eventually many of them established themselves in Aden, either as laborers or as merchants taking advantage of the commercial freedom offered by the colony, for commerce in Yemen by the mid-1930 was rapidly being monopolized by the Imam's family and by appointed agents. Sheikh AbdulRahman recalled again: “Our lands were so poor. We could not sit back and relax like other communities that could grow coffee or qat or fruits. So we left. My uncle told me about life under the Turks. He would go to the Turba suq to exchange his excess grain – which was not much – for cloth, kerosene, matches, tea, sugar and other goods. In those days men had only one futta (skirt) and women only one dress. My uncle also told me that there was one nice dress in the village that every bride would borrow to wear on her wedding night, and the village owned three Maria Theresa dollars that would be given to each bride as mahr (gift) but she would have to return them”
The effect of migration to Aden on al-Hujariyya district was dramatic, villagers not only came into contact with a political systems offering a wide range of freedoms not available in the in their own country, but they were also introduced to a secular education system, medial facilities and a host of conveniences ranging from electricity and pumped water to paved roads. The general pattern was that that the men moved down with their eldest sons and established themselves in a house, while the wives and daughters remained at home looking after the family farm, receiving money.
Alongside such experience, it was natural that someone should try to establish a school in al-Hujariyya, offering the same sort of education as that offered in Aden. That man was Ahmed Numan, Abdulrahman's father, who became known as ustadh (the teacher) Ahmed Numan. With Zubayri he became the leader of the Free Yemeni Movement, which would bring the end to the isolation that kept Yemen a mystery to the rest of the world and pave the way for 26th September 1962 revolution. After the revolution Numan served briefly also as Y.A.R. Prime Minister.
It is possible today to travel throughout Yemen and meet a variety of government officials, businessmen, tribesmen, peasant farmers and laborers, who consider themselves to have been members of Harakat al-Ahrar, the Free Yemeni Movement, which should be seen as closest approximation to a national movement that Yemen ever experienced.
The Numans were large landowners and among the most important families of Shaykhs in al-Hujariyya. Ahmed Numan, born in 1909 was educated under the traditional kuttab system which he came to recognize as limited and anachronistic in the twentieth century. AbdulRahman later recalled: “Encouraged by his father, Ahmed made the four-day journey by foot to attend university at Zabid, spending seven years at the ancient Shafi centre of learning. When in 1930 Numan returned to Dhubhan, and when his father died, it was he rather than his elder brother who took over his father's responsibilities as head of the household. Since Yemenis lacked the opportunity of obtaining “modern” qualifications, how they could ever break out of the traditional systems imposed upon them by the Imam's policy of isolationism was the challenge. But the collapse of the 1948 coup signaled the temporary end of the Free Yemeni Movement. The leadership of the Movement was ruptured by the execution of al-Ansi, al-Hawrash, al-Muta and al-Mawshki, and by imprisonment of Numan, al-Shami, al-Akwa, al-Iriyani, and al-Muallimi and the exile of Zubayri.
Imprisoned alongside his father in Hajja, AbdulRahman recalled the “Hajja Days”:
Chains and fetters weighed down their bodies, sapping their strength and making life unbearable. Then there were the appalling condition of the place itself, filth, overcrowding, vermin and bad food, conditions no different from a stinking sewer teaming with worms. It was an atmosphere of overwhelming despair which made death seem preferable to staying alive. Forbidden to read or write, allowed only to suffer silently in the darkness, only prayers were allowed. So we had a chance to kneel to Allah. We sat to recite the Quran from memory and tried hard to remember the words.
Oh, how much a human being holds in his depth. And how much more his mind can store!
After 26th September 1962 revolution the Free Yemeni Movement came close to presenting a “practical” analysis of Yemeni situation, and specifically recognized the necessity of decentralized government to meet the needs of Yemen's myriad of communities. The efforts went to improve the development infrastructure. Devastated by the assassination of his older brother Muhammed in 1974, who served as Y.A.R. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Abdulrahman centered all is energies on the Local Development Association (LDA – development co-operatives), a grass roots development movement which he founded in his home area, the Turba area. There he became known as Abdurahman water, Abdulrahman electricity, and Abdulrahman roads. Subsequently he was elected to the LDS national organization. During 1980 Sheikh Abdulrahman also served as Secretary General of Y.A.R. Industries. Abdulrahman recalled that time:
That time has come! Something great was coming toward us. There was a huge, cleansing storm that should sweep away all the laziness, apathy, idle dreams, and corrupt hostility from society.
After Yemeni reunification, Sheikh Abdulrahman served also as a Member of Parliament.
But time is like a sword – strike it, or it strikes you. And the world is a wheel – one day up, and tomorrow at the bottom. His longing was brought on by the tales told at night, songs of home, dreams of his childhood, and that fertility engendered by the union of the sea and the shore. The world, the whole world, in that quaking era, so full of anticipation and possibilities, looked around as slow as a tortoise, as swift as a bolt of lighting, to question, to listen carefully for distant thunder watching the dread for the approaching morrow. When he passed away in the middle March 2004 – may God bless his soul – Sheikh Abdulrahman Ahmed Numan was disappointed and disillusioned with life.
As it is, we won't share that life we are living today. We work and suffer in creating it. This alone is the purpose of our existence, and, if you wish, our happiness. That which we imagine might be, sometimes, a glimmer of the possible, and it is in probing the possible that the power and possibilities of future life lies. I must not forget telling him that.