A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Yemen: A Hotbed of Conflict by Fritz Sitte (Brennpunkt Jemen, Wien: Kremayr & Scheriau, 1973)
Reviewed by Omar al-Duais
Fritz Sitte (1924–2007) was an Austrian journalist and author. He worked as reporter for several Western newspapers in various parts of the world, particularly in areas of constant conflict, such as Afghanistan, Angola, Burma, Cambodia, Chad, Sudan, and Yemen. Over the years, several satellite channels, including the BBC, NBC and ZDF, broadcast his reports. He authored over 20 books, where he documented events he had lived through in areas of conflict. One such title is Yemen: A Hotbed of Conflict, reviewed here. Although published almost 50 years ago, there are striking parallels with today’s situation, making it worthy of re-examination.
The book’s importance
The book describes the historical incidents that Sitte (the only foreign journalist in northern Yemen at the time 1960s) lived through during his visit to Yemen, and he provides a clear, detailed perspective. The book is particularly significant as it primarily covers incidents during the September 1962 revolution and the subsequent 10 years in an objective and realistic manner. Significantly, Sitte does not adopt the view of the political and military elite at the time, but rather, more objectively, presents a multidimensional and detailed picture of Yemen during the period, including a Sana’a packed with beggars and stray dogs. The book is especially important because it reflects similarities to today’s situation; there are significant parallels with that crucial period in Yemen’s history. From Sitte’s account, the reader can see that, like today, Yemen was a country divided between local warring parties allied with regional powers, with weapons manufacturers exploiting the chaotic status quo in the country.
Structure and style
Yemen, A hotbed of conflict is composed of 30 essays which are not ordered chronologically, but rather plotted in a manner that renders their flow more intriguing and attractive. A few essays are concerned with critical social and economic issues in Yemeni society, such as qat (plant leaves that are grown all over Yemen and chewed by the majority of the people), oil, and transport, such as airplanes. However, the rest of the book consists of essays which focus on the continued conflict following the 1962 revolution, between the monarchy (Imamate) and republican (revolutionary) forces. Sitte also describes the conflict between North Yemen and South Yemen, as well as regional and major powers’ engagement (i.e. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and USA and USSR, respectively).
It should be noted that the book is illustrated with 62 photos the author took using his own camera. These photos uniquely capture far more than what can be described in words. They serve as an amazing visual document supporting the reported events.
Sitte gives a brief historical account of ‘Arabia Felix’, that is, southern Arabia up to the September 1962 revolution. As Sitte impartially presents such a historical revolutionary event, it may appear striking and thought-provoking to Yemeni readers who have always been exposed to charged representations. I would assume that he crafted his account through observations and statements he had compiled, especially those related to the revolution and the conflict that erupted between North and South Yemen. Sitte continues to recount events until the point when Imam Badr Hameed Aldeen fled the country, and the civil war erupted between the Republicans and Monarchists (i.e. Imamate). In the middle of his recounting, he comments on the Egyptian intervention in Yemen, which the revolutionaries had been eagerly awaiting; but in the event, it was disappointing as it delivered the Yemeni issue to the USSR.
Early on in the book, Sitte reports on a tragic incident in which dozens of sheikhs were killed in an ambush by the Southern army; the incident was detrimental to, in his words, “the great reconciliation” and opportunities for unifying Yemen. We will return to this incident later in this review. But following confrontations between North Yemen and South Yemen, Sitte’s account of this period ends with “the great reconciliation” between the two parties in 1972, due to the peace agreement signed by the republicans in North Yemen and the Saudi-backed Imamate forces.
A personal and a substantive approach
After criticizing some revolutionary figures, Sitte continues to share his personal experiences from when he first visited Yemen, beginning with his arrival and experience onboard Yemeni airlines. Sitte risked his life when he decided to board the dilapidated plane, which no one imagined had the capacity to fly. He boarded the plane – which could fly! – but later changed its destination, landing in Taiz, before resuming its flight to Aden to fetch dynamite boxes to carry to the besieged city of Sana’a. Sitte had to wait for the plane in Taiz to travel to Sana’a as it was the only means to break through the military blockade imposed on Sana’a at the time. As the plane approached Sana’a, Sitte reports that it was shot at but, fortunately, did not explode despite the fact it was carrying dynamite.
After arriving in Sana’a, Sitte met General Hasan al-Amri, who allowed Sitte to accompany troops to cover the fighting around Ayban mountain. Having collected information by meeting with figures in Sana’a, he decided to travel to Taiz on a similarly adventurous journey. On his visit to Taiz, Sitte met with the personal physician of Imam Ahmed (the second ruler of Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, 1948–1962). On his journey back to Europe (in Asmara), he met with an American who served in one of the American oil exploration companies in the region. From the conversation he had with the American oil worker, Sitte reveals to us information about the bulk of Yemen’s oil wealth, which has always remained obscure due to the fact that oil companies tend to conceal information relating to such vast wealth.
Having reached this point, Sitte resumes his recount of the conflict in Yemen, albeit this time avoiding touching upon his personal experience. Now he sheds light on the power and conflict roots between North and South Yemen. In his view, the conflict originated in Aden, which had still been under British colonization. It was in the city of Aden that two left-wing liberation movements were established, namely, the South Yemen Liberation Front and the National Liberation Front. The conflict that erupted between the two fronts led to the displacement of supporters of the South Yemen Liberation Front to North Yemen. It should be noted that there were also some left-wing extremists in North Yemen who supported the hardline liberation front, that is, the National Liberation Front. Nevertheless, as political exclusion rose, on the one hand, and internal conflict continued to escalate in South Yemen, on the other, the situation improved in the North, where political parties were inclined to reach for a peaceful solution to the conflict. In a secret meeting between General Hasan al-Amri and Sheikh Qassim Munassar (formerly of the Imamate forces), Munassar agreed to join the republican (revolutionary) forces. The revolutionaries celebrated Munassar’s accession to the republicans, regarding it as a victory. However, this led to increased tensions between North and South Yemen.
No sooner had the local civil war in North Yemen de-escalated than the republican authorities were shocked by several incidents, including the assassination of Munassar. Sitte recounts these incidents, mixing factual events with dramatic scenes. He then narrates the sudden disappearance of General Hasan al-Amri from the political scene, in such a way that it is hardly available in any Yemeni historical source devoted to this period. Sitte continues with an account of the incident that shocked the whole country; that is, the ambush staged by the Southern army, killing 65 tribesmen including sheikhs from North Yemen. The delegation of sheiks was supposed to head to the South to create an alliance with authorities in South Yemen against authorities of the North. Nevertheless, this incident triggered confrontations between the North and the South across the border, which ended with the control of Kamarn (an island located on the western coast alongside the port of Saleef; Sitte was the first journalist to visit this island) by Northern authorities. Sitte then moved to Qa’tabah (a district located on the border between the two parts of Yemen) to document historical events, where the two parties, North and South Yemen, were likely to reach “the great reconciliation”, paving the way towards a unified Yemen. However, such a reconciliation, like many other agreements in Yemen, did not come into effect due to another ambush set up against another delegation of 79 tribesmen and sheikhs from North Yemen. Thus, Sitte seems to bring us back to where we started, concluding his book with an image of the endless cycle of conflict.
In the essays, Sitte introduces us to people with different professions, such as the journalist, the plane captain, the hotel receptionist, the soldier, the sheikh, the tribal fighter, the military commander, the medical doctor, the beggar, and others. All these people are men, whereas women are scarcely mentioned, only in cases where he refers to female workers in a textile factory (established by the government of China), as well as the photo of a Yemeni bride. The figures in the book are given great roles, similar to those performed by protagonists in literary works; except that the heroic roles in this book consist of real historic events and the heroes belong to the Yemeni community, and thus they are not without flaw. Predictably, they have bitter endings, given their status in the making of history and in determining the trajectory of upcoming events.
The book has been translated from German into Arabic by Mahmoud Qassim al-Shu’bi, Professor of History and International Relations, Sana’a University, and Omar Abdullah Mohammed al-Duais, a lecturer at the German University in Jordan. The Arabic translation of the book will be published soon.
Omar al-Duais is a Yemeni national, writer and translator. He completed his Master’s studies in teaching the German language to speakers of other languages. He is currently a lecturer of German at German University in Jordan. He has translated two books from German into Arabic: Yemen: A Hotbed of Conflict by Fritz Sitte and Studies in the Political History of the al-Qassim Dynasty by Tomislav Klarić.