May 22: Exhuming Memory

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Photo Courtesy of Abdulrahman Alghabri

Many are the  moments in history that aspired to re-establish unity, some of which led to further divisions. The problem does not lie with a lack of will or lack of awareness of the importance of restoring unity; the problem in short is the confiscation of national sovereignty. In terms of our country, the decision about the fate of Yemen is not in Yemeni hands.



Since the great partition and border mapping of 1904 undertaken by the two major empires – the Ottoman as it neared its end, and the British in their aspiration to be the empire on which the sun never sets – wars did not stop in the region. To the contrary, war continues to find its way into the region and thrives on new battlegrounds. It is hard to comprehend that some think that engaging in a war between two sides of the country, while each side struggles with internal conflicts, is a national decision. Whether there are one or two Yemens, the decision cannot be a sovereign one unless the state is economically and politically independent. No country, without exception, can claim its sovereignty without the presence of an independent economy and strong governance. This is what Yemen failed to achieve, both divided and united.

A group of artists, from North Yemen, attending South Yemen’s 10th anniversary of Independence from the British in Aden, 30th Nov, 1977. Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Alghabri

The rulers of both sides failed to meet the minimum requirements of a republic and a democracy. On the ground, they betrayed the aspirations of the revolution that erupted in the North and South, and hijacked their slogans for the regime that followed.

There was no partnership in governance; no political pluralism, with declared parties, no opposition newspapers nor an active civil society.



The Yemenis were no exception to the mass momentum witnessed by the region during and after the revolutions of liberation and independence in the middle of the last century. This momentum in Yemen continued to grow after the 1962 and 1963 revolutions of September and October, and expanded towards a demand for reunification. These demands led to further pressure on the decision makers of Yemeni affairs, both nationally and internationally.

The ruling regimes on both sides, with their police capabilities, intelligence and support, were not able to suppress the people’s desire for a unity that had manifested itself in public opinion, despite the border barricades.

Women Gymnastic performances in Aden, mid 70s. Photo Courtesy of Abdulrahman Alghabri

In fact, the barricades had taken another form in popular memory and imagination, which led to a different orientation and behavior towards them. They were perceived as resembling a prison door or the face of a prison guard. The idea of unification was simply and shortly those hands that exchange a warm handshake, because they know that they belonged to a person who had crossed the barricades.

Cultural elites embodied the aspiration of the masses and moved towards the path of unification, announcing the establishment of the Yemeni Writers’ Union that represented an undivided Yemen. The Union drafted its statute in May 1971 and declared its headquarters in Aden in September 1972. During the same period, war raged between ruling elites on both sides.

As a matter of fact, I had the honor of winning the 1993 Union election as the first female writer to be a member of its governing body. Unfortunately, it was only a few months later that I had to resign. This came after the occupation of the headquarters by sit-ins that were held, especially in Sana’a and Aden, against the establishment of the Union and the struggles of its founders. The climax of this political and moral crisis was the summer war of 1994, which produced a dark reality in which unification became a pretext. Like other moments of momentum, such as revolutions and democracy, it became a pretext for a corrupt elite taking control, which has led the country to where it is today.

Sana’ni traditional dance in Sana’a, mid 70s. Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Alghabri

It  was painful to witness the Union and its writers become subject to polarization, after it had once been above these powers, stronger than war, and bigger than its trenches.



Between the 1972 Cairo Convention and the 1979 Convention in Kuwait and their promise to establish unification, there was the Qataba Convention in February 1977. This was the last convention that would mark the path towards unification on the ground, and perhaps the moment that would turn its back to international and regional intervention – only to end with the assassination of its leaders Al-Hamdi and Salmeen. 

From February 1977, national conferences were held on both sides, becoming the main landmarks on the road towards unification.

In building the state, the strength of  equal and just citizenship, in particular, is in itself vital to the building of a free and independent sovereignty.


Hadramout band for Folk Dances, 1980s. Photo Courtesy of Abdulrahman Alghabri


Events on May 22, 1990, were the penultimate steps, with the issue being neither a Southern nor a Northern one. 

In this critical national and international moment, amid these difficulties and challenges in general, May 22 does not mean unity where secession is its opposite, but the ground on which our home, the Republic of Yemen, was built.

It is the basic document that abolished two constitutions, two parliaments, two flags, two anthems and two regions, and declared a state called the Republic of Yemen. However, it is not a final achievement but an ongoing movement of correction. It is a human act that aspires to establish justice and equality among all the people and a promise to realize the aspirations of the people suffering from the failure of their leaders, who placed the country in a historical and national coma.

Political figures during the talks before signing the “Document of Pledge and Accord, February, 1994” that preceded the 1994 war. Photo courtesy of Abdulrahman Alghabri


The next step should be the last one, and it will be so if the state of citizenship and good governance is established.

The next step is the Federal Republic of Yemen.


Nabilah Alzubair, Yemeni writer, researcher and journalist.

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