This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! WONDERMENT & HOSPITALITY [Archives:1997/52/Focus]
By Paul Findley*
Lingering in memory from a week ago is the appreciation the Findley family felt during every moment of a fascinating agenda in far-away Yemen. Lying between the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia, Yemen has climate, altitude and scenery that vary greatly, but the hospitality of its people is uniform in its warmth. Yemen is not an old-rich state, but its government provided airfare and accommodations for myself, Mrs. Findley and our two children, Craig of Jacksonville and Diane McLaughlin of Ft. Collins, Colorado. This enabled all four of us to tour the nation which, in a few short years, has moved from near-isolation to become one of the most progressively democratic states in the Arab world. It also let my family attend the ceremony on December 2nd in which Sana’a University, one of the largest in the world, granted me an honorary doctorate degree — its first to a foreigner. Although illiteracy remains over 60%, Yemen’s progress in education is phenomenal. In 1970 the country had only four small high schools and no colleges or universities. Now elementary and secondary schools are within reach of the entire countryside and fourteen universities – seven of them government-financed are bursting with enrollments aggregating over 200,000. Sana’a University alone has a staff of over 3,000 and a student population exceeding 85,000. Female students outnumber male in some fields. Pleasant surprises began even before we landed at Sana’a, the nation’s capital. Four Yemeni citizens aboard the Yemenia Airlines airbus recognized me and said they had read my books about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Our reception at the large, handsome new campus of Sana’a University — it long ago outgrew its downtown campus — exceeded my wildest expectations. Above the exterior door of the beautiful limestone building, where the ceremony occurred and on the wall behind the podium in the auditorium, were cloth signs about thirty feet wide that welcomed me in both English and Arabic. They applauded me for “continuous and invaluable support for . . . the rights of Arabs in general and the Palestinian people in particular.” Gathered in the auditorium and clad in green academic robes were ambassadors from several countries, four ministers, university leaders and students, and Sulaiman al-Issa, one of the literary greats of the Arab World, best known for poetry for children. (On an earlier visit Sulaiman wrote a poem in Mrs. Findley’s honor). The audience watched as University Rector Abdulaziz al-Makalah granted me the degree, then listened as I accepted it on behalf of the thousands of other US citizens who, like myself, have tried to advance the human rights of Arabs. I expressed my embarrassment at the anti-Arab bias in US policies and regret that our efforts at reform had not been more productive. At 5 the next morning, our small caravan began a three-day tour of the southern governorates of Yemen, heading first for Taiz, once the capital of Yemen and considered the country’s most beautiful city. Despite the swift pace of our drivers and the excellence of the highway through rough but gorgeous terrain, the 250-mile journey from Sana’a to Taiz required more than six hours. We were told that thirty years ago the trip required two weeks, partly on mules. Congestion at a traffic accident midway on the journey caused us to be an hour late at Taiz University. Still, to my astonishment, more than 1,300 students, some standing, were waiting patiently in a large hall. A blown fuse on one of the limousines that ferried our party contributed to late arrival the next morning at the university in tropical Aden. The electrical failure silenced the horn on the limousine in which I rode, a significant shortcoming as the driver needed — and used — the horn to sound frequent warnings while negotiating at high speed the many hairpin turns in the mountainous terrain. The Aden visit, like the others, was short, but it contained two interviews of personal interest. Waiting for our arrival at an Aden hotel was Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Lakko, now a lecturer in law at the University of Aden. Although I had not met him previously, he had been aware of my endeavors in Yemen when they first began. Lakko was a judge in Aden. In March 1974 when, with great trepidation, I traveled alone to Aden to seek the release of a constituent who had been imprisoned on an espionage charge. At the time, Yemen was still divided. Lakko told me that Salim Rubayya’ Ali, president of South Yemen at the time, who became the victim of a military coup four years later, had directed him to draft legal papers that effected the release of the constituent to my custody. Late in the evening of our one day in Aden, a journalist interviewed me for a Sana’a based newspaper mentioned that in March 1974 he worked in the protocol office of the South Yemen government, helped in the preparations for my visit to Aden, and met me in the hilltop guest house where I was quartered during my rescue mission. Another name is linked to that experience. Abdullah Al-Ashtal, still Yemen’s ambassador at the United Nations, was the first Yemeni I ever met. He was serving as South Yemen’s UN Ambassador when I called at his office before my rescue mission in Aden. In the intervening years we have become close friends. After my lecture at Aden University, Lakko took our party to the beach area I had visited 23 years ago. Like much of Aden itself, it has been developed extensively in the intervening years. Coastal Aden’s shops and port facilities, all but abandoned in 1974, are now bustling and expending rapidly. Aden is the fastest growing city in Yemen, and some citizens believe it will eventually surpass even Sana’a in importance. Late the following Saturday, students in political science filled a large classroom on the original university campus in the center of Sana’a for my final lecture and peppered me with questions after I had outlined the formidable groups that buttress the work of Israel’s US lobby in Washington. In all the lectures, I sensed a deep hunger to learn about the American political system and why US Middle East policy is generally biased against Arabs. Despite its serious challenges, Yemen is making astonishing progress in democratic structure. For example, Yemen just completed the (second) direct election of its members of parliament. For another, press freedom flourishes. The day of our arrival, a Sanaa-based newspaper (Yemen Times) published an account of police brutality in a private girls’ school. The editor, a young man I had first met two years ago, told me the president of the country personally telephoned him the day after publication to promise punishment of those responsible. Yemen is both an ancient and a modern land, with brilliant landscapes, countless antiquities, fascinating villages all in stone, gorgeous beaches and gracious, hospitable people. In time, it will become a center of tourism. It already has several four-star hotels and more are under construction. Once called Felix Arabia (Happy Arabia), it still merits the name.
* It is hard to introduce Paul Findley. The former US congressman, is mostly known for his courage to stand up against the Israeli lobby which forbids American politicians to express their minds on the Palestinian issue. US politicians generally acquiesce, but a statesman like Findley, could not. The fact that he lost the battle is actually a shameful episode on the record of the US political system. He continues to fight and speak out through his many books and lectures which defy the taboos placed by the Israeli lobby in the USA.