The Modern Bahoot: Critical Reflections on the Myth of Al-Hamdi

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Ibrahim al-Hamdi [1] is a name regarded with exceptional veneration in the popular memory. His name rose through a complicated process over decades to be ranked amongst the central legends in the Yemeni social consciousness.

The myth of al-Hamdi – like any other big myth, secular or religious – was either taken for granted as fact or as superstition to be debunked and derided. However, its eccentricity and its relatively prolonged presence demand a prudent approach that transcends pre-made judgments and prejudice, and an unbiased discussion about questions of its formulation, continuity, periodicity and significance.

This article doesn’t attempt a historiography of al-Hamdi nor is it a criticism of his policies; it merely mentions the latter when related to the myth and its meanings. Rather, it is an attempt to introduce a new critical discussion about the legacy of al-Hamdi and his era, and the impact of this legacy on the formulation of the modern identity.

  • Myths of the incarnation of ‘People’s Dream’

In every modern national identity, there is a focus on myths and narratives where diverse identity lines converge, among which are the belief in a teleological view of history imposed on the past, in a narrative that makes it appear that the creation of the nation and state is an inevitable destiny. Such myth takes in a ‘people’s dream’ aspect, and renders the foundation of the nation as the historical embodiment of that dream.

The social will memorializing al-Hamdi, passing his myth on by word of mouth over decades without any official institutional or cultural inducement, bears a significance that goes beyond his personality and his rule; it is in fact evidence of the transformation of the inhabitants of the Republic of Yemen into a ‘People’, and their determination to remain as such in the face of regimes’ desperate (violent) efforts throughout a third of a century to impede this transformation.

In ordinary circumstances, modern states consciously undertake the task of creating their own secular myth, through: the symbolic realm (memorials, national anthem, museums, holidays, rituals, etc.); socially inculcated by a compulsory education system, with history curriculums; location names (streets, gardens, universities, etc. after historical figures and events); and national celebrations. Thus myths do not create the state, but the state makes and encodes national ‘identity’ by creating myths.

For instance, in USA, the myths linked to the ‘People’s Dream’ concern the ‘Founding Fathers’, while in Turkey, they link to Kemal Ataturk. However, the main difference between those myths and the myth of al-Hamdi is that the latter wasn’t undertaken by the state, but rather the social sphere. That is what makes it unique; after al-Hamdi died, the Yemeni regime not only stepped away from the task of formulating a national identity but also fought any attempt of its creation. The name al-Hamdi has been blotted out from the public sphere, and is no longer on public projects, his image and TV and radio interviews eradicated, and even his tomb does not have official symbolic or ceremonial significance. His short tenure (from 13 June 1974 to 11 October 1977) is hardly mentioned in history textbooks, no educational, military or public institute was named in his honor, and of course no artwork (sculpture or painting) immortalizes his memory; his belongings and holdings disappeared from the National Museum of Sana’a and were disposed of from 1987.[2]

  • Factors of formation

1. The person and personality

Despite his popular standing that engaged the minds and hearts of intellectuals and politicians, it is not easy to unequivocally define al-Hamdi’s ideological positions nor his political career. Despite his simplicity as a person, his character remained ambiguous.

Al-Hamdi belonged to a prestigious conservative social class during the monarchy; he was brought up in well-regarded family, and his father was a well-known judge. Al-Hamdi memorized the holy Quran when he was young, and was schooled in traditional studies such as fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), history and grammar by prominent scholars at that time.

Due to their background, al-Hamdi’s family were considered to be Imam regime loyalists, and accordingly were persecuted at the beginning of the September 1962 revolution. However, al-Hamdi readily engaged with republic forces and fought against the royals, and was swiftly promoted in the republic army, reaching key positions in his thirties.

Despite his conservative upbringing, some assert that al-Hamdi was a member of the Arab Adventist movement (an explicit Adventist secular movement), and according to some he remained so even when it turned completely to Marxism.[3]

Despite this, he was a prominent leader in the military campaign launched by the regime against the leftist armed opposition in the middle areas (Taiz, Ibb, Al-Baydha-Dhamar, Reemah).3 Although he proposed thorough plans for administrative reform in the armed forces, he did not get involved in any clear conflict with the leaders of 5 November regime, and continued to be counted as one of its pillars; even when he led the coup against al-Iryani in 1974. Also, al-Hamdi was one of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s prisoners, but many assert that latterly he joined the Nasserist Unionist People’s movement.

We should bring to mind two things: the first, al-Hamdi opened the religious educational institutes in northern Yemen for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which was deeply rooted in state apparatus. The second is that he tempered the state security agencies’ violence against socialists and Marxists at home, and was able to reach agreement with leftists militia in the middle areas to cease their activities. He managed to reach real convergence based on mutual acquaintance with the Marxist regime in Southern Yemen, and even with its most radical Maoist wing, he was able to achieve considerable progress in achieving Yemeni unification. However, there is plausible evidence that this is what precipitated his murder.

This opens the door to understand two things. First, al-Hamdi had access to authorities and influential forces: Ba’athists, internal conservatives (influential tribal elders, Muslim Brotherhood, senior military personnel, returnee royals after 1970 reconciliation); external conservatives (Saudi Arabia). Then he manipulated them and minimized their influence within a year. This brings us to the incompatibility between image and reality: his dominant image in the people’s imagination as a straightforward decisive person, but a political history that is quite contrary, with his impressive manipulation of influential forces in northern Yemen revealing a subtle astuteness hidden behind a calm face.

Second, his readiness to be a national legend meant no political force nor ideological position could absorb him or claim that he was a mere cog in a bigger partisan wheel. Yemeni society is one of the most partisan and politically dynamic amongst Arab societies, but its political strife  makes it easy to transform partisan affiliation into phantasms that negate others, excluding them from national consensus. Consequently, the political community falls into trouble; it is forced to choose between either national consensus without parties, which is impossible because  consensus is inherently is an agreement among diverse trends, or placing partisan affiliation above the national consensus which means a hell of unending conflicts..

Al-Hamdi then represents the beyond partisan, transcendent Yemeni, which means he is pure ‘national’ in a popular consciousness that had suffered the consequences of political intolerance, manifested in many conflicts and massacres that preceded and followed al-Hamdi.

2. An interesting era

There are four key factors which contributed to the making of the Golden age narrative.

  • Young blood

First of all, al-Hamdi’s era had dawned with a young man who in his thirties came to power together with other young men; this is an important factor in general, and specifically in the Yemeni context. The ruling class were elderly, while a wide range of radical nationalists and leftists were youth oscillating between detention and exile. During the events of August 1968 and their aftermath, most assassinations were committed by and detentions went to political and military young leaders. The August events seemed as if they were the elimination of a reckless young generation by the prudent elderly generation. That is why the rise to power of al-Hamdi – and those who were with him – seemed like a return of sons of the revolution who have been persecuted, and whose political rights wildly confiscated. Despite the discrepancy between generational impression and political conclusions, some have seen the putschist movement of 13 June as a genuine extension of the ruling coalition since 5 November 1967, despite the coup against them.

  • The Savior

No good change to the status quo has meaning unless it is detrimental to the interest of some and magnifies the interests of some others: for political change is not a mere sweeping of chairs, but rather a table turning.

Artwork by Ali al-Mabari

The al-Hamdi coup (13 June 1974 corrective movement) was a real change. That is why the numbers affected by it was wide, but most importantly they didn’t enjoy people’s admiration; brutal military leaders, influential tribal elders, draining public coffers, most of them were above the law, and transformed the nascent state at the time of President Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani into a collection of bureaucratic fiefdoms, with every class (group\segment) of them controlling certain fiefdoms  (district administration, governmental institution, military sector) and stood up for it. That was the reason for the continuing governmental instability, and al-Iryani’s discontent and his retreat to Syria more than once, under such a feudal system, any government execution of the simplest projects or the adaption by al-Iryani of any economic or foreign reforming policies required prior discussion with the powerful (and armed) leader classes, taking into account their partisan or personal interests. In this context, any political move could spark off a civil war.

A historical irony is that al-Hamdi’s rise to power was an immediate result of such conditions. It is well-known that the 13 June coup was a bloodless oup, but that wasn’t because al-Hamdi and his companions weren’t blood thirsty, but rather because the magnates of the systems, the commanders of the bureaucratic fiefdoms, were unable to reach consensus, and also because al-Iryani couldn’t find a way out of the acute crisis that dwelt (abides)at the core of the political system.

As a consequence, al-Hamdi was supported by almost every magnate; in doing so every one of them was hoping to expand his sphere of his influence while overcoming the political crisis and getting rid of al-Iryani, whose prudent policies aimed at entrenching his influence. Al-Iryani played his last move in his rich political life[4] by getting the rest of the coup perpetrators to resign from their posts, and quietly hand over power to al-Hamdi, abandon the conniving ruling class to their fate, in the clutches of al-Hamdi.

Within a year, the 13 June regime had peacefully and bloodlessly brought to fall all the 5 November magnates in the government as well as the army, and begun to take up sovereign space from Saudi Arabia.

Bringing them down, without vengeance or even retribution, has entrenched the legend of al-Hamdi as a powerful and stern savior, yet merciful, lionhearted, and tolerant, not seeking blood.

Disbanding the ruling class that fast wasn’t at first merely due to his own capacity or his outstanding eminent astuteness in the game; since the bureaucratic feudal system in general is a sensitive system with intricate balance and doesn’t entertain any communication capabilities nor high-impact initiatives, any small organized force can unbalance it. But with al-Hamdi and his companions there was more, for the commanders of the fiefdoms were the ones who planned with him for the coup against their broken system,[5] while he went ahead and brought them down afterwards.

  • Self-assertion

The era of corrective movement is remembered mostly for its economic and political record achievements and the rapid construction of the state (there are many studies and articles in that regard[6]). The importance is in the purpose and form of such achievement and its humanistic and stratified significance.

The al-Hamdi regime had completed the processes of state construction of its institutions (administrations, agencies, army, public banks, etc.). The most important process – which has greatly affected modern Yemen history – was military reform that began on 27 April 1975.

Economic successes, on the other hand, were expeditiously translated into real development and not only high growth rates (annual average growth rate reached 7%, which is the highest in history of modern Yemen). Social sectors, rural and urban, joined the middle class, and the national bourgeois accumulated wealth, expanding its scope of impact – due to government policies (five-year plan) and fighting the financial and administrative corruption through what was known as ‘correction commissions’.

The corrective movement developed relationships between the government and agricultural cooperatives at the highest level known in Yemen contemporary history; the regime adapted a democratic understanding of development based on grassroots partnerships in reform processes and entrepreneurship. It is irrelevant in that context whether that policy was an act of personal faith of al-Hamdi for the necessity of democratic participation at the developmental domain; what is important is that it was politically pertinent as evidenced by its success; moreover, it gives us a lesson that we still need nowadays about challenges for central development in Yemen.

The bodies of the modern Yemeni state after the 1962 revolution were founded upon the Egyptian central bureaucratic model. This was one of the secondary reasons for the northern Yemen state’s failure to achieve its developmental vision or collect its planned revenues; for northern Yemen then (and the whole Yemen now) geographically and demographically hampers central development. And it seems that the historically tested solution of that problem lies in linking leadership and governmental planning with community involvement.

These different successes on several fronts were not miraculous as some might think; for many subjective and historical factors had intertwined along with rare streak of luck.

I noted earlier how the ruling class conspiracy against al-Iryani, and his reaction to them, played a significant role in al-Hamdi bringing them down. While, at the level of development, the corrective movement was fortunate with a major change in the global market: the oil boom caused by Saudi Arabia oil embargo during 1973 October war. Despite high oil prices, the country received great fortune, as total remittances from Yemeni workers in the gulf region to northern Yemen was $135 million, while by 1977 it reached over a billion dollars.[7]

The rentier economy of northern Yemen differed from rentier economics of oil states; funds went directly to the community rather than to the state treasury to disburse as it pleased. One of the negative consequences of this pattern was reinforcing society as opposed to the state, which is already weak owing to rugged terrain and demographic dispersion; but on the other hand, it provides foreign exchange, and relieves some of state burdens with regard to development by allowing for social partnership. The most important rural project during al-Hamdi’s time was accomplished by voluntary material and human contribution received from citizens; in other words, a good portion of remittances from abroad was disbursed in rural development projects either by direct material contribution or voluntary manpower.

Furthermore, the corrective movement had received fragile state apparatus, but with ‘infrastructure-ready’, since the Abdullah al-Sallal era (1917-1994), therefore the conditions existed to build upon if political decision-making was rational. The end of civil war with royals in 1970, pacification of the frontline of the conflict with southern Yemen in 1972, establishment of good foreign and diplomatic relations, establishment of the central bank in 1971, along with the central planning agency, the University of Sana’a and many other institutes and diplomatic arrangements – all of these were accomplished in al-Iryani’s era. And even the most important economic achievements in al-Hamdi’s era, which achieved high growth rates and social partnership in development, were conceived with in al-Iryani’s time, as the tripartite development program – which was the threshold of the five year plan in 1976 – was developed in 1973, as was ‘the general union of national cooperation agencies’ headed by al-Hamdi, which was founded in 1973. Furthermore, the conflict stage in the 5 November regime (1967-1974) produced new balances, but also laid aside some powerful figures; and such is the nature of such ruthless conflict over power – it strengthens the sphere of influence for some powerful forces, but awakens the aggregate balance of national forces. In al-Iryani’s era, some Septemberian officers had been marginalized, sectors of politicized youth had been thrown into prison, al-Iryani also got rid of the military general Hassan Al-Amry (1916-1989) by exile, and a group of radical young military officers had been neutralized, such as Abdul-Rakeb Abdul-Wahhab (1943-1969) and Muhammad Mayhoub al-Wahsh (1942-1968) after the eruption of conflicts between them in the events of August 1968.

Northern Yemen also had special historical conditions that distinguished it from other Arabic republics, and these conditions paved the road to the 13 July regime. Firstly, the Arab Republic of Yemen along with Mauritania were the only Arabic republics that hadn’t been subjected in the 1960s to ideologically imposed capitalism. In the beginning of state formulation after the September revolution, the economy was dominated by the public sector along with public companies; however, that wasn’t out of ideological motivation but rather an automatic outcome of socio-economic situations. With the civil war exhausting a bourgeois not ready yet to establish a vibrant private sector, and an overwhelming majority of lower classes along with the small emerging petty bourgeois and traditional social arrangements – this was hardly classifiable into modern class model. The phenomenon of de facto state capitalism in non-socialist countries has been known to other countries, and the weakness of the local bourgeois resulted in the same polices in rich countries that joined the capitalist camp in the Cold War, such as Saudi Arabia from at least 1950-1970s. But with the end of the civil war in the north (1962-1970) leading to more stability along with the rise in oil prices, a bourgeois begun forming, supported with direct and indirect (such as tripartite development program and the first five year plan) governmental programs. The national bourgeois naturally strengthened society on the one hand, but contributed to expanding the marginal social mobility for a wide sector of citizens, and subsequently contributed to social integration and the expansion of the rising middle class, since the revolution in general, and in al-Hamdi’s era specifically. And thus empowering the state on the other hand. Furthermore, northern Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia, as well as being the only Marxist country in the Arab region, made it easy for the Yemeni leadership to expand, taking advantage of Cold War and regional competition; thus northern Yemen received special treatment from both eastern and western camps in development aids, study grants, arms deals, and gulf investments, etc.

As for the cooperatives, al-Hamdi organized them at country-level in 1973 before he took over the presidency, then involved them in the governmental development plans after 13 June 1977. The concept of cooperatives, waqf, is culturally derived from deeply rooted Yemeni Islamic society. It has vivid historical roots with Imam Ahmed from the 1950s, when citizens had organized district to form cooperatives – with no support from the authority and solely funded by citizen private money – to achieve development projects, such as the provision of clean water, as the Mutawakklilte kingdom was a sultanate state based upon sectarian, religious legitimization, ethnic discrimination, and the strength to overcome, not legally nor publicly obliged to do anything to the ‘subjects’ except protection in case of foreign invasion.

Lastly, when al-Hamdi wanted to achieve his ambitious policies, he found wide Arab personnel scattered all over the state, doctors, teachers, even public officials, who had flocked to the state in al-Sallal’s era. He found also lofty Yemeni technocrats ready and qualified to carry out his plans. This cadre was partially comprised of foreign scholarship recipients who were sent abroad by the revolutionary state and from the forty missions was sent by Imam Yahya Hamid ed-Din, and some of those sent by non-governmental anti-imamate associations; most of them had practiced governmental work in the republic period before al-Hamdi’s took power. We shouldn’t underestimate such historical privilege which brought about an exceptional opportunity, which had been missed by another president, an African counterpart of Al-Hamdi, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso.[8] He had difficulties due to the absence of adequate technocrats, educated personnel and regional support, which could have enabled him to achieve his ambitious plans.

That exceptional economic and political success in modern Yemen is the key component in the myth of Al-Hamdi; this was proof to people that poverty, corruption, ignorance, and humiliation weren’t their destiny, because it wasn’t a defect in the people themselves, rather it was a problem of authority, because those who came after him enjoyed enabling conditions, perhaps more than were available to the 13 June era; yet everyone knows the way his internal and economic policies worked out on the social level.

Artwork by Ali al-Mabari

Al-Hamdi then, from this perspective, gave overwhelming evidence to the public that the peoples capacity could secure their hopes for the future.

  • A fantasy from the past

There is a lot to be said on al-Hamid’s personality and the regime relating to his myth, however, well-documented evidence confirms his integrity and his rise above money and the glamour of authority; but it doesn’t say he was disinterested in authority itself.

His integrity and his surprise visits to government departments to monitor their activities, his off-guard roaming around neighborhoods, his access to effective communications with broad sectors of citizens, and the aforementioned laying aside of the unpopular 5 November magnates, all appealed to the fantasy of Yemeni society along with all Arab Islamic societies, and such fantasy occupied with stories of rigorously fair ascetic caliphs.

Such integrity and dynamism made it easy for contemporaries of al-Hamdi to create stories about accidentally running across him in the street, so he delivers them in his car to school in Sana’a or solves a small problem of old women in Ta’iz. Also, the stories of him reprimanding negligent officials on his sudden visits, or honoring competent little employees, were abundant. These stories need to be analyzed not as facts or lies but rather as a reflection of the social fantasy, its dominant values and hopes.

This social fantasy tendency is not only relevant to the modern Arabic civilization, but rather it is deeply rooted in the history of folk culture too; the mythological counterpart of al-Hamdi is the Sufi Mystic Ahmed Ibn Alwan, also known as al-Bahoot (the striker), for his presence leaves the Jinn and demons awestruck.

Al-Bardoni interprets the methodology of Ibn Alwan with a social interpretation; for Ibn Alwan was only one of a multitude of mystical saints in Yemeni history, but was distinguished by fighting against injustice and protecting vulnerable people;[9] therefore, he was chosen by people to be their savior from Jinn and demons. For any abducted by demons need only mention the name of Ibn Alwan, and he immediately arrives and strikes them down instantly.

The narratives and image of al-Hamdi share a significant connection to the image of ibn Alwan, the Bahoot, but a major difference is that the first is a secular myth emerging from modernity, while the latter is a magical superstition created by middle ages.

  • The continuity of the myth
    1. Short tenure

Al-Hamdi ruled for three years and few months – less than one presidential term in democratic states. This short tenure raises the question of potentiality; what if his time lasted longer?  The favorite answer is that the whole Yemen – north and south – would have joined the ranks of promising states in regard to development, public service, social peace, and human rights; but this answer completely excludes another probability, which is the state reneging on its commitments and abruptly reversing its attitude, which was common between in independent non-democratic states in the developing world throughout the 20th century. The corrupt dictators who destroyed their societies didn’t start out this way; on the contrary, they may have been earnest activists with development policies and his attitude towards the preservation of sovernighty

However, for personal issues, internal conflicts, and external circumstances, they derogated from their promises, even deliberately destroyed their previous achievements, with the most prominent example being Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, from being nationalist republic development oriented, helping his neighbors, to the worst form of family dictatorship, with developments a resounding failure, vainglorious corruption, intimidating neighbors and plotting against them by funding internal schemes, and finally he completely destroyed his own country as a punishment for those who wanted to change his regime.

Aborted dreams open doors of impossibilities and this is why they inspire people to look forward to the future in times of social and political renaissance. By contrast, in times of regression and collapse, they become susceptible to be a shelter and a haven for nostalgia to the paradise lost.

2. The second tenure

The main factor entrenching the myth of al-Hamdi was the regime that came after him. While the al-Hamdi era represented a myth that embodies people’s historical potentials in social consciousness, Saleh’s regime was a reminder of society’s chronic illnesses and immanent vulnerabilities.

For 40 years there was an official as well as a partisan war against the memory of al-Hamdi, except for the Nasserist organization – for they counted him as one of them – all political parties held a negative attitude of the 13 June regime. Ba’athists unequivocally declared their abhorrence of the regime and its head,[10]and the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the new regime’s key tools – at the time of their alliance – to denigrate al-Hamdi using their grassroots support in rural areas and education institutions, fueled by their – as well as Saleh’s regime’s – enmity to the Marxists, which al-Hamdi converged with.

Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders (especially tribal ones) declared their abhorrence in interviews and memoirs, and a wide sector of socialists still recalls and applies its internal partisan battles to by attacking he 13 June regime and the persona of al-Hamdi..

Counterbalancing this official and partisan mission, however, was spontaneous social formation of the myth of al-Hamdi that spread from generation to generation. This phenomenon could be understood at two levels; one explicit level is that it was a collective un-organized resistance to the regime and political elites, and another deep implicit level is where the tension between society and political elites (regime and parties) represents a battle in a cultural civil war in the symbolic space over national identity.

3. Tragic end

Death is biggest calamity. After al-Hamdi and those who with him passed away, the myth came to its inevitable tragic end, before the ‘second tenure’ gave adequate rebirth. Myth formation, like writing novels, doesn’t bide to chronic order.

What happened in 11 October 1977 was more than mere assassination of a president, as it happened with President al-Ghashmi; rather it was a bloody coup led by a wing in al-Hamdi’s regime induced by regional support, against another wing in the regime that was headed by al-Hamdi himself. It was the bloodiest coup the North Yemen Republic (1962-1990) had known.

The coup perpetrators continued to eliminate personnel from al-Hamdi’s wing along with all those were sympathetic, like nationalists and leftists inside the state apparatus and the army, for a year after the coup (there were enforced disappearances of Ali Qanaf Zahra, al-Hujaria events, the escape of the commander of paratroopers Abdullah Ibn Alalem, the enforced disappearance of Sultan Qurashi, Ali Mathni Jubran nd others, the execution of the leaders of Nasserist organization, and the hiding their bodies after the failed bloodless coup attempt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh in October 1978).

If murder itself was a cause of grief, the details of the method of operation and attempts to cover it up had pulled together tragic theatrical threads can be woven into great epics.

All evidence and testimonies – apart from the regime’s account – suggest that those who had arranged the murder of al-Hamdi were his close friend Major Ahmad al-Ghashmi (1941-1978), and that he killed him inside his house, with the help of other officers and with Saudi support, after he was invited a banquet.[11] They then claimed that an anonymous culprit hadmurdered him and his brother Abdullah, with two French girls.

The regime’s version of story gained limited popularity in narrow communities that need to believe it. Ironically, the murder story stigmatized the history of the regime, leaving it in  disgrace even among the opponents of al-Hamdi themselves who had no problem in principle with the idea of disposing of him.[12]

Thus, we see a young man who didn’t make it to his 35th birthday, been betrayed by his friends, who were ready to depose him to get to the seat of power, cooperating with others abroad, who didn’t dare to declare the terrible act, knowing how degraded it was, resorting to kill him again by denigrating him and hiding his name, image and voice.

This tragic tide overwhelms folk tales, articles and contemporaries’ testimonies that revolve around al-Hamdi’s end; the angry crowd in his funeral throwing shoes at al-Ghashmi, people crying in the streets, closing off markets and shops, raising black banners in the countryside and on travelling cars as an act of mourning. The story of al-Hamdi and his end is a minefield for art, literature and theatre, though oddly enough, it didn’t heavily get into elitist art production despite its rich dramatic and tragic content. This may be one of the signs of the violent cultural conflict between society and the elite in Yemen.

From the treads of this tragic ending, the most prominent myth in modern Yemen, little by little, as being formed.

  • Conclusion: ‘King with two bodies’, or how we read the myth

Many Yemeni intellectuals and politicians see the social respect of al-Hamdi from different angles: some maintain the legacy of partisan rivalries, others have a principled stand – democratic or non-democratic – against military rule, or against al-Hamdi’s polices toward tribes, the military and the south’s regime, and his method in administering the country and what he bequeathed after he passed away. Some go further and interpret al-Hamdi’s place in social consciousness as an indicator of a genuine social tendency for the personality cult and the belief in a savior, or as an irrational phenomena that must be confronted, amongst other views.

This kind of discussion is important, and has crucial function – when placed in its proper context – which is the 13 June regime context, but it is senseless when it doesn’t raise a subtle distinction that extends beyond the 13 July regime and its men, history and policies; which is that al-Hamdi was not only a historical figure but also – with an altered metaphor from another context – a two bodies king[13]: a body of the historical figure, to whom we can apply critique of his ideas, policies, era, context, successes, catastrophes, and that can be an object of sentiments, love and hatred, and the other body of the national secular myth that has to be approached with other tools.

National modern identity can be fostered, entrenched, and reproduced by the expansion of the middle class and development, citizenship, democracy, social justice, nationwide transport connectivity with highways and railways networks; but all of this falls apart, and some turn into disruptive factors of identity, if not established in the realm of symbols, myths, narratives and fantasies.

In Yemen, we have historical symbols from medieval and ancient civilizations, and we also have two narratives for the modern state; the republic’s narrative in the north and the south (dismantling the sectarian and racial system in the north and banishing colonization and sultanates in the south), and the reunification narrative. Both narratives are encompassed in a national language that is the Arabic language.

Furthermore, the modern Yemen identity needs two other myths: the cultural myth, which is a cultural figure ascending to the rank of being an expression of the ‘collective conscience’, and the historical myth, which embodies people’s dreams. The latter was realized in al-Hamdi.

It is striking that – and I think worth contemplating – narratives in Yemen are a joint product of society and state; however, these two myths were a pure social product with no governmental or elitist effort, for the cultural myth for Yemeni people is undoubtedly the poet and thinker Abdullah al-Bardoni, who had been persecuted by the regime. Both myths are rational, with no superstitious content, unlike those of other nations – some of them prominent modern European nations – where their founding myths are mixed with miracles and superstitions.

We should therefore, if we are to build a consolidated identity in Yemen, induce the state to entrench the realm of symbols and to inculcate personality as a legend; introduce it into curricula of schools, erect memorials, grant its shrine ceremonial and symbolic value, etc., and we should also distinguish between placing the legend in the center of the identity sphere. The central myth also needs other myths to arrange in its orbits, which assure the cohesion of the identity on one hand, and reflect the diversification of its streams on the other hand, which help make it more resilient and more able to resist relapse into chauvinism.

No shortage of methods that can be used by modern nations to find such legends. Sometimes they tailor them. The history of modern Yemen is one rich in conflicts, it is an inherently epic history that led to political and military events, and cultural and artistic figures can be easily transformed by the state into symbols in the identity code.

It is reassuring that the myths of al-Hamdi and al-Bardoni weren’t created by superior coercion but rather social spontaneity; nevertheless, there is a limit to how far a state can go in the mission of identity formation. Without such a limit, society moves away from identity formation to the inception of a fascist culture (which doesn’t necessarily need a fascist regime in order to permeate). State dedication to establishing the symbolic sphere is one component of further complexity, which had parallel: there must be an unlimited democratic liberal space opened up for students and opinion leaders to voice and question that whole symbolic sphere along with its myths. And here the previous discussions concerning al-Hamdi comes in; state intervention in that area, with no critical space of the personality and its era – or its cultural products and personal history in the case of cultural embodiment – would cause the populist culture to dominate the cultural landscape and easily turn the myth into an element in a fascist complex that sanctifies the army and worships the person, state and its apparatus with its violent symbolism, and could impose such a personality cult. However, society with no superior pressure, cannot do that; that is a thing that I would like to point out regarding the claim that the social status of al-Hamdi was a personality cult. For those who hold such views are talking about a different phenomenon that has nothing to do with Yemeni reality, in regard to its function, format or content.[14]

There is one last inevitably pressing problem in al-Hamdi becoming a national legend, which is that he only ruled north Yemen. There are no analyses or phenomenon to be relied upon to assess the extent to which his legend permeates south Yemeni social consciousness. This is a real dilemma that needs to be solved, for the legend to function not as a divisive force but rather a unifying bond.

During the February 2011 revolution, the result of what I called ‘a civil war in the symbolic space’ between the elites and the society has been evident; images of al-Hamdi were in every corner and in the demonstrators’ tents, where the revolution’s squares were demanding democracy and social justice, backboned by young men and women born years after al-Hamdi.

Public awareness has overwhelmingly won this battle; little by little and in spontaneous ways, it solved the dilemma of demarcation of al-Hamdi’s geographic and historical sphere. The images of al-Hamdi along with images of south Yemeni President Salim Rubai Ali ‘Salmeen’ were displayed in the squares all over the country, scarce forgotten books about south Yemen emerged, stories, tales and testimonies were presented about the two presidents and their joint plans for the Yemeni future, and social achievement and the unitarian hopes of Salmeen and his friendship with al-Hamdi.

This is something worth contemplating, at least by elites: how could an intellectual miss the opportunity to eyewitness the process by which society creates, in such a crucial moment, a symbolic world for its identity, and works out solutions to its dilemmas?

Finally, the discussion concerning al-Hamdi is not nostalgic but rather is a discussion concerning the present. Reflecting on the present moment of Yemen, we see its symbolic world collapses, its narratives fall apart under the hammer of elites, and militia in the north and south.

Today, the armed struggle against colonization became a historical mistake for some. The consolidation of state authority also became a crime, and what has been taken in the name of such crime must be returned  to the rightful owners, so they say. Such rightful owners are the grandchildren of imams and sultans. They view the establishment of the Republic in the north, which brought an end to the imamate rule as an encroachment upon the rights of the royal family, and a recalcitrance in the face of the natural course of life which shall naturally allow castes and social strata.  Reunification also turned, in the eyes of the public, into a historical crime and the root of all evil. Even the Arabic language has been denounced by some intellectuals who were not ashamed of declaring it dead, outdated and even unduly ridicule and reprimand those who use it on social media.. Bureaucracy became a mere paper phenomenon, and foreign embassies, and whatever symbolism remained of the state has dissolved away in the person of the president and his governments, by their own hands and the hands of their supporters.

Yemen today is facing the biggest and most violent symbolic eradication campaign in its contemporary history. In such a context, the discussion of the legend of al-Hamdi is a duty, as a challenge to the present, which is obsessed with memory and identity eradication, and as step towards paving the way to a future that transcends such a present and leads to a decent humanitarian horizon.


[1] Lieutenant-Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamdi was the leader of a military coup d’etat in the Yemen Arab Republic that overthrew the regime of President Abdul Rahman al-Iryani on 13 June 1974. After the revolt, he was President of the Military Command Council that governed the country. (Wikipedia)


Al-Hamdi’s affiliation with the Arab nationalist movement is highly disputed by historians and politicians. Al-Bardoni in his book Republic of Yemen confirms his affiliation, however some others like Hassan al-Odini argue to the contrary. It seems that his affiliation is likely, for al-Odin’s view is based on a series of testimonies, some of them leading to Jar-Allah Omar, reported to al-Odini that he denied al-Hamdi’s affiliation with the Arab nationalist movement, although Jar-Allah Omar clearly states in his autobiography al-Hamdi’s affiliation with the movement. See al-Odini article and Jar-Allah Omar’s autobiography

[3] In addition to his role in the campaign against leftist militia, al-Hamdi was accused by al-Bardoni of betraying his fellow nationalists, and played a role in the regime’s campaign against Arab nationalists in Sana’a in the events of August 1968 and their aftermath, using his knowledge of their names and their hideouts See: Abdullah Al-Bardoni, Republic Yemen, 5th ed. (Al-Andalus Publications, 1997) page 527. While Jar-Allah Omar gives a completely different account that was presented by al-Bardoni,

op.cit. Jar-Allah Omar autobiography.

[4] Accounts of what happened vary. Did al-Iryani get the conspirators to resign, by conditioning his resignation to theirs,  or had they misjudged the situation, and stood down voluntarily. I think the first story is more likely.

[5] Sheikh Sinan Abou Lahoum has reported that he described with regret his participation in the coup against al-Iryani after al-Hamdi took over, and diminished the sheikh’s influences amongst others of the 5 November regime by saying “we have led a coup against ourselves”. See Mustafa No’aman article:

[6] To get a brief condensed idea about economy and development in 13 June regime, see ‘Al-Hamdi’s File’ in Economy Now magazine, 1st Issue, March 2015.

[7] Khaldoun al-Naqib, The society and state in the Gulf and Arabic peninsula (a different perspective) 2nd ed (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, January 1989) page 187.

[8] There are many similarities between the two men; the occupation, the dreams of development, preservation of the sovereignty, launching greening projects, short tenure, integrity, murder by the closest friend with support of a foreign country. Moreover, Sankara ascended to the status of national legend in the social consciousness of the Burkina Faso people, his images were lifted at demonstrations of the public revolution that brought down the regime of Compaoré – the killer of Sankara – in 2014. For more about Sankara and his policies, see: Hamdi Abdul-Rahman, African Guevara: a study about the political thought of Thomas Sankara, 1st ed, (Arab African Research Center, 2015)

[9] Abdullah al-Bardoni, Folk Literature Arts in Yemen, 5th ed, (Beirut: AlBarody Publications, 1998) page 81.

[10] For example, Mohsen Al-Einy, one of the most prominent Yemeni Ba’athist figures and the head of the first government after the coup of 13 June, had spoken about El-Hamdi in his autobiography with a tone of anger and bitterness, while he spoke of other political figures, even his opponents, with a calm prudent tone. See: Mohsen Al-Einy, Fifty years of quicksand: my story with the construction of the modern state in Yemen, 1st ed (Cairo: Dar El Shorouk, January 2001)

[11] There are tens of testimonies and press interviews and reports that documents the story of the assassination, many of them collected here:

[12] Some say that Sheikh Abdullah ibn Hussein Al-Ahmar, as one of the sworn enemies of al-Hamdi, was bothered by the immorality of the murder story announced by the regime, of course he didn’t state that he was bothered by the incident of assassination itself, but only with the story of its cover up.

[13] The notion of “The King’s Two Bodies” had emerged in the late European Medieval, it plays an important role in political theology and modern state foundation, according to this notion, the king has two bodes; natural mortal one, and immortal political one that lasts forever as an expression of the state itself.

[14] Incidentally, the lack of understanding by Yemeni elites of such distinctions calls into question the notion that Arabic elites didn’t practice state theorizing, because they were occupied with Nation (Pan-Arabism) theorizing; apparently the elites didn’t recognize all the factors of national identity foundation, didn’t differentiate between populist and Identity creation.  I will go further, and say that this may be one of the roots of the absence of state theorization, because any theoretical understanding of the way states and identities are built will automatically lead to thinking firstly of the state, such states are what constitute the nation.

The absence of good estimation of the role of legends and fantasies in the formation of identity, keeping the discussion of identity formation at its detailed political level, may be also one of the reasons for the conflict between the elites and society in Yemen, the reason has not necessarily to be an “elitist arrogance”  towards the “crowd”.

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أيمن نبيل

كاتب يمني مقيم في ألمانيا. يكتب في العديد من الصحف والمجلات اليمنية والعربية.

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