Lights and Shadow: Memories from Yemen

by Janet H. Mandaville

Yemen Update 33 (1993):3

During an extended visit to Australia in 1991-1992, one thing led to another and I visited a quilting group one evening in York, a town near Perth in Western Australia. We all chatted; somehow it surfaced that I'd spent time in Yemen. Another woman exclaimed that her mother had been in Yemen, many decades before, as a nurse. I was intrigued, and followed up on this tantalizing bit of information, racing to a suburb of Perth to meet Alexandra Skobeleff on my way to catching a plane the next day. She was gracious enough to rearrange her life to fit me in on extremely short notice.

I found her delightful, a tiny vibrant woman full of vigor and humor . . . and surprises. Among them, a completed draft&emdash;and photos&emdash;of a book describing her experiences in Yemen working with a select few foreign medical personnel for the Imam’s household.

John Peterson, Jon Mandaville, and Robert Burrowes&emdash;all associated with the American Institute of Yemeni Studies&emdash;have kindly contributed help in checking some of the material and transliterations. However, the content is Alex's alone, her memories, her interpretations, her observations.

"I am not a journalist," she told me when I visited her. "These are just stories." The range of those stories is broad&emdash;flying in the Imam's airplane from Aden to Ta’izz; working with the Italian medical personnel of the era and becoming a surgical nurse in the operating theater of the newly constructed Ta'izz hospital; going into surrounding villages to treat women and families; living in the Imam's palace and consorting with his queens and entourage; meeting the few other foreigners in the country at the time; wavering between admiration and dismay over the people and customs she encountered.

She had a camera with her and the volume will include those photos.

Her experiences are surely of interest, as a foreign woman in a country largely closed to foreigners of any gender. She writes, not from any feminist stance nor from within an academic discipline, but merely as a storyteller whose own background uniquely prepared her for this adventure.

Palestinian born in Nazareth as Wadia Kanazi, her biological mother died in 1910 when Alex was two years old. She and her two sisters, aged four and six, were adopted by a widowed Russian missionary and went to Petrograd to visit. Her adoptive mother was then transferred to Damascus, where she taught for the next 20 years. Alex thus accumulated Arabic, Russian, French, and English with equal facility. A German governess added a substantial amount of that language to her repertoire.

At 16, Alex went to Beirut to attend a convent school and obtain her baccalaureate, followed by a degree in violin from the conservatory of the American University of Beirut. She returned to Damascus to teach, then returned to Beirut seven years later. In 1937, aged 29, Alex married a White Russian, an engineering draftsman ten years older. In 1938 and 1947, Alex had her daughter Helen and her son Nicky.

In 1952, she went to Yemen for several months as the nurse and interpreter for a Russian woman doctor, picking up more than a smattering of Italian during her stay, and finding it somewhat of an adjustment to deal with Yemeni dialect and idioms. She details the circumstances in the early chapters of this volume. Her husband took work in Kuwait, where their family was eventually reunited. At age 63, in 1961, her husband obtained a job with the Australian Petroleum Company and the family migrated again. He worked until age 70 and has since died, but Alex and her children have all settled in Australia, she quite contentedly with her enormously sized, enormously spoiled cat.

The volume, which we may self publish or which may be picked up by a small press we've contacted, will probably be available in the spring of 1994.

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