A Healthy View of the World of Imam Ahmad

Alexandra Skobeleff
Light and Shadows: Memories of Yemen
Portland: Mandaville Associates, 1994, 105 pp. ISBN 0-9642876-0-9

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 36(1995):26-27

"Do you believe in fate?" Someone asked me that a very long time ago as we stopped for a small chat in the streets of Kuwait on a hot, humid day.

"Of course I do; why?" I was a little puzzled, especially as the question came from a very young man.

"Imagine on," he said, "I was to be on my plane to England for my studies, but instead I remain in this devilish heat with a very nice job into the bargain! Isn't it a trick of my fate? What do you say?"

"Well, you might as well call it a happy trick," I said. "You see, Lady Luck is very moody and plays all sorts of tricks on people but, as far as I am concerned, she played on me the trickiest trick of them all. Believe me!"

"What do you mean by that?" he asked.

"Call on us one day and I'll tell you what I mean." but he never came to us and I, having so unexpectedly remembered the story of my tragi-comical stay in Yemen, decided to put it all on paper. And here it is. -- Alexandra Skobeleff

As anyone who has ever seen the gawdy-awful Hollywood musical "Kismet," or considered the amount of sheer bukht autobiographies dote on, the discovery that led to the eventual publication of Alexandra Skobeleff's Light and Shadows: Memories of Yemen (Portland: Mandaville Associates, 1994, 105 pp., ISBN0-9642876-0-9) should come as no surprise. While trekking through Australia in 1991-1992, Jan Mandaville ended up one evening (bukht?) at a quilting group in a small town near Perth. Arather mundane event, it would seem. Then one of the women mentioned to Jan that her mother had worked in Yemen several decades ago as anurse. Normally this would be passing trivia as the real work of getting the quilts done dragged on. But wait. Jan Mandaville had lived in Yemen back in 1978-1979 along with Jon (first resident director of AIYS in Sanaa) and three inquisitive children. So the next day Jan, on her way to catching a plane, rushed to meet the lady, Alexandra Skobeleff, and found her to be "delightful, a tiny vibrant woman full of vigor and humor" (p. 7) and saw a complete draft of the story that enfolds in the present book. In less time than it takes to pronounce the words "quilting bee," Jan was stung by the delightful experiences that Alexandra recalled and set out tohave the results published. Building on the initial "coincidence"(explain how you will how Jan would end up at a quilting bee with the daughter of a nurse who had worked for the household of Imam Ahmad...), some basic perseverance on Jan's part has led to the publication of these memoirs.

First, to the story. [I can tell you at the outset, by the way, that you simply must order this book for yourself, your local library, your local 4-H club and whoever. In the category of books you will not be able to put down, this is somewhere near the top of the list for any Yemenophile.] Alexandra Skobeleff is a Palestinian born in Nazareth in 1908 as Wadia Kanazi. When her mother died in 1910, Alexandra and her two sisters were adopted by a widowed Russian missionary. She spent the next 20 years with her adopted mother and a German governess in Damascus. Her Palestinian father wanted Alex to go with him when he emigrated to Argentina in 1919, but she stayed in Damascus. She later attended a convent school in Beirut and then received a degree from the conservatory of the American University of Beirut. In 1937,at the age of 29, she married a White Russian who was an engineering draftsman. It was in 1952 that she spent several months in Yemen asa nurse and interpreter for Dr. Antonina Moshenetz. Later she joined her husband in Kuwait and by 1962 they ended up in Australia. Theseare the bare bones of a most extraordinary life, but the focus of the book is on Alex's memories of her brief stay in Yemen.

In her introduction to the book, Jan Mandaville quotes Alex, who said up front, "I am not a journalist. These are just stories" (p. 7). Thank God she is not a journalist,especially in light of the atrocious journalistic accounts available these days on Yemen. Stories they are, entertaining and informative,but these are not "just" stories. This is as close as you will getto a conversation with a remarkable woman who has a vivid recollection of mundane events from four decades ago. No sensational revelations here, nor earth-shaking conclusions of a much debated part of Yemen's history. These are stories the way they are meant tobe heard, not edited into formulaic print pablum. Alexandra writes and the result is not unlike a tape recording of a conversation one might have over coffee or while knitting a quilt.

I was especially drawn into the narrative woven here because shortly before reading this memoir I had devoured the translation of a wonderful novel by Zayd Dammaj, The Hostage, recently published by Interlink Books (reviewed on page34 in this issue). Dammaj takes us on a magical tour of the imam's palace from the eyes of the young dawadars, young pages to the imam. Alex knew the world of these young boys, one 14-year old in particular: "Could I ever forget him? That skinny but always gaylad, full of mischief, who knew all the palace secrets &emdash; thewomen's longing for freedom, their sickness, their intrigues" (p. 9). There are memories here of Ahmad's wives; Alex thought he had married about 14 times by the time she knew him. She was especially close to the second wife of Ahmad (at the time) known as Zaynab, a girl whose mother was English and father Yemeni. "She was married at the age of 14 to the 50-year-old King. She was the lonelinest and the unhappiest soul of all, for deep in her heart of hearts she had two secrets: longing for her homeland of England and a craving to become pregnant, both wishes not gratified" (p.10).

There are so many interesting anecdotes that it is difficult to pick out one or two for illustration. Conside rthe attempted seduction, the surgeon who was asked to cut off a prisoner's hands (which he did not and thus saved the hands of these alleged felons), the rain of locusts, the royal lions, and many more. Let two stories suffice. Alex and Antonina were often called to tend to the imam's wives, especially to help them become pregnant. Most had constant complaints, except for Sayidatna, who was a dwarf. The narrative picks up as follows (p.63):

"No complaints at all?" we repeated.

"No, not even headaches. and no scars. I eat very little, drink plenty, and don't chew qat. I read and teach the Qu'ran and go to sleep early and get up early too!"

"Alex, ask her what her mother did to her father; remember she promised to tell us that story the day we met the King."

Shy, blushing a little, Sayidatna told her story. "My mother was a very tall, strong woman like Khadijeh here." She pointed to the slave standing in the corner, the tallest of all the women. "My father was a dwarf like me. Once mother was mad with my father and to teach him a lesson, she took him in her hands and sat him on a high shelf in the room. She told him to sit there until she came back.

"He had no alternative but to wait for someone to help him down. But no one would do it, they were all afraid of my mother. So he remained there almost all the day until she relented and put him down." Here all of us laughed, including the storyteller.

And for those who want to get to the bottom of life with Imam Ahmad, consider this story and imagine yourself in the same position (p. 77):

... Ghaleb came running to our room. "Come quick, the Imam is sick and wants you." Both of us [i.e. Alex and the young queen Zaynab] ran to the salon where the King lay on the sofa, buttocks uncovered and inflamed. To my dismay, I saw several yellow spots of pus surrounded by circles of red. I trembled a bit. How could I treat this bottom just as I would any Yemeni's?"

I suggest that before doing anything else,you dash off a check for $13.50 (or $16 overseas) for your copy of Light and Shadows. You can order the book from: Mandaville Associates, POB 69548, Portland, OR 97201-0548, USA (FAX:503-452-4618). Do it now; before your bukht runs out.

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