Archive for the ‘Yemen’ Category

Sorting through my old files, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now.  Below are my notes from my conversation with Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), at his office in Sana’a on January 16, 1989.  Some background information, though, is needed first. 

At the time of this meeting, there were still two Yemens:  South Yemen which was closely allied with the Soviet Union, and North Yemen which then had good relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also with the Soviet Union.  These two governments had been at odds since the late 1960s.  They fought border wars in both 1972 and 1979.  The South had also supported an insurgency against the North by the Marxist-leaning National Democratic Front (NDF), but this largely came to an end with the NDF’s defeat in 1982.  In January 1986, a short, sharp civil war erupted in South Yemen between rival factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).  The war began with supporters of President Ali Nasir Muhammad killing the supporters of the previous president, Abd al-Fatah Isma’il who had recently returned from exile in Moscow (I have already written on Moscow’s role in this episode).  Isma’il himself would die during the fighting, but his supporters went on to win the war with Soviet help while Ali Nasir would flee to North Yemen.  He still had supporters, though, in the South, as the civil war was not just between rival leaders, but between the South’s rival tribes and regions.  

When I met with Dr. al-Iryani in January 1989, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was almost complete, whether Moscow would remain involved in the Yemens was in doubt, and serious talks on unification between North and South Yemen were underway.  Relations between North and South, though, were wary—and they would continue to be so after unification occurred in May 1990.  Here is what Dr. al-Iryani had to say about Soviet policy toward the Yemens at that time: 

Dr. al-Iryani characterized the Soviets as being extremely unhappy with the confused factionalism within the Yemeni Socialist Party.  But the Soviets themselves had ambivalent views of the different factions. 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets favored the Ali Nasirist faction’s policy positions:  a more market-oriented economy and improved relations with the West, including the U.S., as Gorbachev himself was pursuing.  Nevertheless, the Soviets distrusted this group as being less than completely loyal to the USSR. 

On the other hand, the Soviets had faith in the loyalty of the Abd al-Fatahists and the Al Dhala-dominated military [Al Dhala being a governorate in western South Yemen], but were displeased with their policy preferences: a rigid state-controlled economy, and no opening to the U.S.  These latter groups had also expressed their disapproval of Gorbachev’s perestroika and détente with the U.S. policies through the South Yemeni Chief of Staff’s 1988 visit to Havana and expressions of support for Cuba (whose leader, Fidel Castro, also disapproved of perestroika and détente). 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets had urged the YSP leadership to expel all NDF members from the YSP Politburo and Central Committee [the first and second most important bodies in Marxist regimes].  The Soviets had reportedly argued that until the YSP took this step, relations between North and South Yemen would remain tense. 

In addition, al-Iryani noted that Karen Brutents of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [the CPSU CC International Department handled relations with other Marxist parties] visited the South Yemeni capital, Aden, in August 1988.  Al-Iryani claimed that Brutents came away terribly displeased with the Fatahist position. 

Al-Iryani said that the Soviets had been far better off when Ali Nasir Muhammad was in power.  He also claimed that Vitaliy Naumkin, a well-known Soviet academic specialist on the Yemens, had met with some of Ali Nasir’s supporters in Cairo.  [Naumkin, who is now director of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has played a highly important role in Moscow’s relations with the Middle East during the Putin era.] 

Finally, al-Iryani portrayed the Soviets as having limited ability to move the divided South Yemeni leadership in directions favored by Moscow.  The Soviets themselves, he observed, had obviously not found the policy solution to accomplish all their goals with regard to South Yemen:  maintain a leadership there loyal to Moscow, but also to promote stability and prosperity as well as prevent South Yemen from becoming a barrier to improved Soviet relations with neighboring Arab states—especially Saudi Arabia. 

Reading this now, what strikes me about al-Iryani’s account of Soviet efforts to balance not just between North and South Yemen but between opposing sides within South Yemen in the 1980s is that they were similar to Putin’s efforts to balance between their numerous opposing objectives within the Middle East now:  to firmly support the Assad regime one the one hand but get it to agree to reform efforts that might induce the West and the Gulf Arabs to fund Syria’s reconstruction, to promote Iran’s defiance toward the United States but also to build and maintain good relations with Iran’s pro-Western rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to support Turkish antagonism toward America and Europe but oppose Turkish policy in Syria, Libya, and toward the Azeri-Armenian dispute.  Just as, in the words of Dr. al-Iryani, it was “difficult to move” opposing parties “in directions favored by Moscow” then, it remains difficult to do so now. 




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Sorting through my old files now that I am spending so much time at home, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now—starting with this one about my encounter with Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow in 1986.

I was in Moscow the week of April 20-27, 1986, with a group of American academics and policy analysts visiting the various “international institutes” of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  The most memorable of these meetings occurred on the morning of Tuesday, April 22, when we went to the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (commonly referred to by the institute’s Russian initials, IMEMO) and had a meeting with its director, Yevgeny Primakov.  In the 1990s, Primakov would become foreign intelligence chief (1991-96), foreign minister (1996-98), and prime minister (1998-99) before Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired him (partly out of jealousy, it was widely reported, that Primakov had become more popular than he was).  After Vladimir Putin first became president at the turn of the century, Primakov became an adviser to him and served as his special representative on various occasions before his death in 2015.

While not yet as famous as he would become later, Primakov was already well known as one of the foremost Soviet specialists on the Middle East at the time we met him in 1986 (when Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power for just over a year).  The Soviets at this time were clearly having trouble in Afghanistan; Gorbachev himself had described it as a “bleeding wound” at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1986—an extraordinary admission.  So we were eager to hear what Primakov had to say about Soviet aims in Afghanistan.

According to the notes that I took at the time, Primakov told us that the Soviet Union wanted to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and did not even want the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to remain.  He said that the only obstacle to a settlement was the continuation of American and Pakistani aid to the rebels.  He also said that Iran had agreed in principle to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.  When pressed on exactly what kind of settlement he would accept in Afghanistan, Primakov was very vague.  He said that it was the Afghans’ internal affair, though it was clear that he would not accept a government dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists.  I had the impression that basically what the Soviets then wanted was for the world to accept a less Marxist but still pro-Soviet government in Kabul and to stop aiding the Afghan rebels.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that what Primakov wanted in Afghanistan then is similar to what the Trump Administration wants there now:  to withdraw its troops but for the government in Kabul Washington has been supporting to survive.

Afghanistan, though, was not the only crisis that Moscow was then confronting.  Just in January 1986, there had been a short civil war in South Yemen (the only Marxist regime in the Arab world) between rival factions of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party.  In its brief life span as an independent country since 1967, South Yemen had experienced a coup toppling its first president in 1969, the overthrow and execution of its second president in 1978, the resignation and departure to Moscow “for health reasons” of its third president in 1980 who later returned to South Yemen (but not as president) in 1985, and then the civil war in January 1986 in which he was killed and the fourth president fled to North Yemen.  Later, just after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the fifth president would agree to merge South Yemen with North Yemen in 1990—a decision he would soon come to regret and unsuccessfully try to reverse in an all Yemen civil war in 1994.  All South Yemen’s presidents and other top leaders were either Marxist-oriented or outright Marxist.

Soviet relations with South Yemen was something that I was especially interested in, and so I posed a question to Primakov about this.  According to my notes, the conversation went as follows:  When I asked him to explain to me why the fighting occurred in South Yemen in January 1986, he said he wished someone would explain it to him.  I asked him if the Soviets contributed to the outbreak of violence by allowing ‘Abd al-Fatah Isma’il (the third president who had moved to the USSR in 1980) to return to Aden from Moscow in 1985.  Primakov’s response was to ask what could the Soviets do?  The Yemeni Socialist Party had elected him to the Central Committee Secretariat, and he wanted to go back, so Moscow could hardly prevent him from doing so.  When I mentioned to him that whenever the party and government leadership in South Yemen had been previously divided, this had always led to internal conflict and that this was the case again when Isma’il returned to South Yemen.  He responded that the USSR did not want to see another one-man dictatorship.  I had the impression that he had been willing to see a certain amount of instability in which different pro-Soviet factions vied with each other rather than have one strong man in power who could conceivably expel the Soviets (as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Somalia’s Siad Barre had done in the 1970s).  But this had clearly backfired in South Yemen.

At the end of the formal meeting, Primakov and the other Soviet scholars (who had not said much during it) mingled with us in the large conference meeting room we had been meeting in.  Primakov and I had a brief conversation on the side of the room where there were shelves with all sorts of books, mementos, and other items on display.  I noticed an elaborate wooden box on a shelf above my head.  I couldn’t see the top of the box, but just the woodwork on the side that was visible prompted me to point to it and say, “That’s pretty.”

Primakov chuckled as he reached up and took it down to show me that the top was a lacquered photograph of Syrian President (and Soviet ally) Hafez al-Assad.  “Not so pretty,” Primakov remarked and then put the box back up on its shelf.

I remember wondering at the time whether his comment was more than just aesthetic criticism.  Now I wonder whether there is a Bashar al-Assad box beside the Hafez al-Assad one at IMEMO.


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Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, who served (among other posts) as prime minister and as foreign minister of North Yemen and then of all Yemen after unification in 1990, passed away on November 8, 2015. As he did with many other scholars, Dr. al-Iryani met with me on several occasions both in Sana’a and in Washington, DC.  At a time when Yemen is wracked by war, and unity and democracy there appear to have been completely shattered, those of us who knew Dr. al-Iryani know that he envisioned that there could be both democracy and unity in Yemen and the Arab world as a whole.  In remembrance of him, I am posting here an account that I wrote up back in 1992 but have never before published of what he said then about the relationship between democracy on the one hand and Yemeni as well as Arab unity on the other:

The highlight of the three-day conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” held at the Yemeni Foreign Ministry September 22-24, 1992 was a speech by the then Foreign Minister, Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani. Dr. al-Iryani set out to examine the contradiction between the viewpoint of Bernard Lewis of Princeton University that the 1990-91 Gulf war over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had led to the final demise of pan-Arabism on the one hand, and the fact that the two Yemens had united in May 1990.

“Is Yemeni unity the last act of Arab unity, or is it the model for Arab unity as a whole?” Dr. al-Iryani asked. “It seems naive to answer `yes’ to the latter question, and yet it is hard to answer `no’ to the former.”

He then asked what made Yemeni unity different from previous unity efforts in the Arab world. Earlier attempts, he noted, occurred without democratization having occurred in the countries which tried it.  They all quickly foundered because the governments attempting to unify were unwilling to give up power or make meaningful compromise.  In the case of the two Yemens, however, progress toward unity occurred alongside progress toward democracy.

“Democratization is the key,” said Dr. al-Iryani. “Democratization must and will become the basis for Arab cooperation, integration, and in some cases unity.  Democracy was also the basis of European unity.  The other European countries were right to exclude Portugal, Spain, and Greece from European Community [as it was then known] membership before they had democratized.”

He noted that many observers, including Bernard Lewis, saw the recent Gulf war as having caused such deep divisions within the Arab world that cooperation, much less unity, seemed impossible. “The Gulf war was not nearly as serious as World War II.  But Europe began the process of unification soon after World War II ended.”

Returning to the question of whether Yemeni unity could serve as a model for Arab unity, Dr. al-Iryani stated that the fact that the Yemens united was less important than the process of democratization occurring in two neighboring Arab countries leading to successful unification. With democratization spreading to so many parts of the world, including Yemen in the Arab world, he predicted that the rest of the Arab world would not remain static.  “If democratization occurs in any two neighboring Arab states, then integration–if not outright unity–will occur between them.”

He concluded by predicting that if democracy takes root in the Arab world, political and economic integration is highly likely since the ties binding the Arabs together are stronger than the ties binding the democracies of Europe.

The Foreign Minister concluded his talk by saying, “Democracy also means listening to things that you don’t necessarily want to hear,” and then called for questions from the conference participants.

Attending the conference were scholars from many countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Russia, Egypt, and, of course, Yemen. The Western and Russian participants posed questions focusing on just how far democratization had proceeded in Yemen.  We did not challenge Dr. al-Iryani’s premise that democratization was the best way to achieve integration in the Arab world.  Two of the Yemenis who asked questions, though, directly challenged this notion.

A member of Yemen’s transitional parliament asked, “Is democracy the only means to achieve Arab unity, or are there better, faster alternatives?” He made it clear that he thought waiting around for all the Arab countries to go through the long process of democratically deciding on unity was less desirable as well as less efficient than if strong Arab leaders brought it about all at once.

(One of the ironic aspects of democratization in Yemen is that while there is no longer any bar to the formation of political parties, many of the political parties that have been formed are distinctly undemocratic.)

Dr. al-Iryani responded that all previous attempts to create Arab unity without democracy had failed. The idea that “strong Arab leaders” could bring about unity quickly was an illusion.

A Yemeni Foreign Ministry official asked whether it was possible to avoid U.S. domination and pursue democratization simultaneously now that the Cold War was over and there was no Soviet Union to protect Yemen. This was less a question than a statement since the gentleman spent over five minutes arguing how the U.S. was to blame for all the Arab world’s problems, including the divisions resulting from the Gulf war.

Dr. al-Iryani’s response to this soliloquy was simple but powerful: “Unless democracy emerges in the Arab world, we cannot blame others for our tragedies.”

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Washington, DC  I was in the audience for the address given by Yemeni President Abd Rabuh Mansour Hadi today at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.  He emphasized how Yemen is working with the U.S. and others to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other Islamic terrorists, Yemen is implementing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored agreement (which Washington supports) for a democratic transition in Yemen, and his new administration (in office just since February 27, 2012) is working to establish peace and security among Yemen’s many disparate groups.  As he did in his speech to the UN General Assembly, President Hadi criticized the Assad regime in Syria.  President Hadi also accused Iran of interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs, noting that the Yemeni government had rounded up five Iranian spy rings and was in the process of rounding up a sixth.

After the address, he took four questions from the audience before calling an end to the session.  In answer to three of them—one on why he didn’t put former President Saleh on trial, another on why he had appointed so many members of Islah (an Islamist party) to office, and a third on what he was doing to ensure the progress of Yemeni women—he indicated that he was acting (or not acting) in accord with the provisions of the GCC-sponsored democratic transition agreement.  When asked about the efficacy of the U.S. drone missile attacks on terrorist targets in Yemen, however, the President offered a spirited defense of them.

The U.S. Government was undoubtedly well pleased with everything President Hadi had to say.  Indeed, his address appeared especially designed to please the U.S. Government.  Still, though, it seems doubtful that Yemen will become completely democratic under the plan sponsored by the GCC since none of its member governments (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) is democratic or even aspires to be.  Further, blaming Iran for Yemen’s problems risks drawing attention away from—and not addressing—their primary causes:  Yemen’s deep-seated poverty and internal divisions.  Tehran certainly did not create these.

Compared to the problems currently being experienced by Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, the political transition in Yemen appears to have gone rather well so far.  But things have a way of going badly in Yemen.  Concerted efforts on the part of the new Yemeni government, Yemen’s GCC neighbors, and the West will be needed to make sure that they do not.

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Freedom of Religion

Sanaa (1992)

“Freedom of religion does not really exist in America,” said Mansour.

We were sitting in an apartment in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.  Mansour was known for being from a strongly religious family, and for being quite religious himself.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

Mansour thought about this while.  “In America,” he said slowly, “it is illegal for a man to have more than one wife.”

“That is true,” I agreed.

“But Islam allows a man to have as many as four wives,” he pointed out.

“That is true,” I acknowledged.

“Since a Muslim man cannot have more than one wife in America, he does not enjoy freedom of religion there.  America discriminates against Muslims.”

I pointed out that in America, freedoms are curtailed when their exercise hurts others.  No man, Muslim or otherwise, was permitted to have more than one wife.  This was because it was disadvantageous and harmful for a woman to have to share a husband with one or more other women.

Mansour was visibly impatient as he listened to this explanation.  “But men and women are adults.  If a woman agrees to marry a man who already has a wife, why should the government interfere?”

“But what about a woman who already is married to a man?” I asked.  “Does she willingly agree that her husband take another wife?”

“Well, no,” he admitted.  “She usually cries, and screams that she will go back to her parents.  But in the end, she usually…accepts.”

Mansour then went on to relate how, although he only had one wife, his father had had four and some of his brothers had more than one.  Problems among the women could arise when a new wife entered the household, but eventually things settled down.

“And sometimes,” he added, “it is the first wife who will arrange for her husband to marry a second one.  If, for example, she can’t have children and she doesn’t want him to divorce her, she will arrange for one of her sisters or cousins to marry him.  It’s also beneficial for her because she is already on good terms with the new wife.”

A general discussion then ensued about the advantages and disadvantages of having more than one wife.  One man observed that while a single wife was insufficient, four was too many to deal with.  Two, he thought, was ideal.  Some disagreed with this, but there was a general consensus among the Yemeni men present that a man should have the right to choose the number of wives which suited him.

“If a man should have the freedom to choose up to four wives, shouldn’t a woman have the freedom to choose up to four husbands?” I asked.

The question seemed logical enough to me, but it had the effect of completely halting the conversation.  The men in the room all stared at me, apparently in shock.

Mansour finally broke the silence.  In a voice that indicated he was explaining something so basic that it should not have to be explained at all, he said, “But our religion does not allow.

previously unpublished

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Egypt’s Vietnam

Cairo (1982)

One reason why I had wanted to visit Egypt was to do some research there on Yemen.  Although it is well known that Egypt has fought four wars with Israel (in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973), Egypt also fought a less well known war in North Yemen.

The history of this war is bizarre.  In September 1962, the Egyptian leader Nasser sent thousands of his soldiers to North Yemen to help a Nasserist “republican” revolution which had overthrown the country’s king.  Nasser seemed to hope that the ouster of the Yemeni monarchy would quickly be followed by the demise of the Saudis and the other royal families of the Arabian Peninsula.  Instead, the overthrown Yemeni king was able to rally many of the tribes to his cause and put the Yemeni republicans and their Egyptian allies on the defensive.

Even with Soviet military assistance, the Egyptians had to fight hard just to keep the major cities in republican hands.  Nasser himself grew disillusioned with the adventure, and at one point in the mid-1960s described Yemen as “Egypt’s Vietnam.”

In the wake of Israel’s rapid defeat of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in June 1967, Nasser decided he could not afford the Yemeni adventure any longer, and so withdrew his troops.  The Yemeni republican cause appeared to be doomed.  But then an odd thing happened.  As soon as their Egyptian protectors left, the Yemeni republicans grew stronger.  They beat back several royalist offensives.  The royalist coalition fell apart, and in 1970 the war came to an end.  Apparently, a lot of the tribes supporting the royalist cause didn’t so much object to the new Yemeni republican government but to the large Egyptian military presence which had come with it.

There is more open discussion of foreign policy issues in Egypt than in most other Arab countries.  Egyptian scholars and journalists have written extensively about the various Arab-Israeli wars.  And while the Egyptian government has not opened its archives generally, several high level Egyptian officials have had access to them or have revealed information about high-level decision-making to an extent that rarely occurs in the Arab world.  Mohammed Heikal’s several books on Egyptian foreign relations, based on his own personal access to Nasser and other high-level officials, are especially well known.

But while Egyptians have written much about their wars with Israel and their relations with the superpowers, I could find very little Egyptian literature about Nasser’s intervention in Yemen.  Maybe this work just hadn’t been translated into English, I thought.  So while in Cairo, I hoped to interview Egyptian officials and scholars about Cairo’s complicated involvement in the Yemeni civil war.

I found that scholars and officials in Egypt were eager to talk about the various Arab-Israeli wars, about which they seemed to have memorized what had happened in enormous detail, and Egypt’s relations with both Moscow and Washington at great length.  But they seemed strangely reluctant to talk about Yemen.

Whenever I would bring the subject up, my Egyptian interlocutors would ignore me and talk about something else.  When I would press them about it, they would respond that they didn’t really know much about Yemen; it wasn’t their specialty.

I would ask, “Then who is a specialist on Yemen here in Egypt?”

Most people said they did not know.  Once, though, I was told, “Well, there is someone who wrote a dissertation on this subject at Cairo University.”

“How can I contact him?”

“It isn’t easy.  He doesn’t really have a job.  And he doesn’t have a phone at home.  But if I see him, I’ll tell him to contact you.”

I never heard from him.

I did, however, meet with Ismail Fahmy, the former Egyptian foreign minister.  I interviewed him at his elegant apartment in the exclusive Zamalyk section of Cairo.

Just as in every other interview, I could not get Fahmy to say anything about Yemen, though he was quite voluble about the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the superpowers.  I finally grew exasperated and demanded to know why neither he nor anyone else would talk with me about Yemen.  Egyptian forces had fought there for five years.  Nasser had called it Egypt’s Vietnam.  Surely the experience in Yemen equaled the Arab-Israeli conflict as something significant for Egyptian foreign policy specialists to reflect upon.

Fahmy seemed a little taken aback by this outburst.  “Oh yes,” he said, “the Yemeni civil war is definitely worthwhile for us to think about.  The Yemenis defeated us, just like the Israelis did.  But the defeats were very different from each other.

“We feel no shame at being defeated by the Israelis,” he continued.  “Israel, after all, was strongly backed by America and the West.  The USSR did not help us nearly as much as America helped Israel.  We could hardly be expected to prevail against Israel.  Just having fought them at all when the odds were so heavily against us makes us feel heroic.

“But Yemen was different.  This was a nation of primitive tribesmen.  There was no American support for the royalists.  The Soviets gave lots of help to us.  We should have won that war, but we lost it.  And the fact that the republicans who were about to be defeated when we left then went on to win afterward just adds insult to injury.

“We thought it would be so simple when we first went there.  But it is a very complicated country.  We never understood it.

“Now do you see why we don’t like to talk about it?”

 Excerpt from Middle Eastern Sketches (1997).

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Sanaa (1988)

Qat is an illegal drug in the United States. Possession of qat can lead to 30 years imprisonment in Saudi Arabia. But, in Yemen, it is used openly and is quite common.

According to one study, leaves of the qat shrub are chewed tin Yemen by 91 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women on a regular basis. Indeed, qat consumption is so widespread in Yemen that it is impossible to have much understanding of the country without some knowledge of it.

Is qat harmful? It is sometimes described in the Western press as a narcotic. The specialist literature on the subject, though, insists that it is not. It is an alkaloid instead, which has effects similar to, but less pronounced than, amphetamines.

According to Shelagh Weir, author of a book on the subject, “Qat is not normally addictive, although it has often been denounced on that assumption.” She also wrote that the role of qat “may be compared to that of alcohol in the West, but there is no evidence that it is as physically or socially harmful.”

These words of hers were published in an information sheet about qat which was routinely distributed to American visitors throughout the 1980s by the U.S. Embassy in what was then North Yemen.

The American diplomats there didn’t seem to think it was very harmful. And they knew that if you wanted to do business with Yemenis, you had to chew qat with them at their regular afternoon qat sessions. This is when most real business gets done.

The qat session, or qat party, is a well established social institution in Yemen. The session begins after lunch and continues until early evening. Everyone brings his own qat to the party. The party takes place in a special room called a mafraj. Men and women chew separately. The only women I have ever seen at a qat session were Westerners. Yemeni men seem to think of Western women as “honorary men.”

What are qat’s effects? It is reputed to suppress the desire for food, sleep and sex. This last claim is a little dubious, though, given that Yemen has one of the highest birth rates in the world.

Indeed, with effects like these, you might wonder why anyone would chew qat at all. But it does have some more positive effects. It helps create an atmosphere of bonhomie. It also creates the impression of enhanced mental acuity. While this may be something of an illusion, I have often been struck (although I was not chewing) by the intellectual tenor of the conversation during qat parties. Indeed, these conversations tend to be far more serious and focused than would occur among a group of people in the West after a glass of wine or a beer. Although conversations at qat parties often become quite spirited, I have never seen them give rise to aggressiveness Q as alcohol consumption can lead to.

So is qat chewing a curse that we should try to rescue the Yemenis from, or is it a benevolent social ritual that should be understood and accommodated? I do not know the answer.

What I do know is that as a result of visiting Yemen, I will always think of catnip as kitty qat.

Originally published as “Yemen:  The Role of Qat,” Middle East Times (metimes.com), January 30, 2008.

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The Ties That Bind

Sanaa (1992)

America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, and many other nations welcomed the decline of Soviet power at the end of the Cold War.  The radical Arab states, by contrast, did not.  The Soviet Union had been their primary source of support.  Soviet arms transfers to these regimes were what made them powerful, and hence, important.  In short, these Arab states did not want Soviet power to decline.  As their enthusiastic embrace of the August 1991 coup plot showed, they seemed to think that Moscow’s changed role in the Middle East was not a function of fundamental Soviet economic decline, but simply of the policy preferences of the top leadership.  Moscow could still be a superpower if only it chose to act as one.

Similarly, despite all the internal problems Moscow faces, there are many Russian leaders who seem mainly concerned that Russia be acknowledged as a “great power” by others.  This is not simply true of the right-wingers, but also of the so-called moderates.  They cling to the outward trappings of superpower-dom such as the fact that they, along with the Americans, are formally the co-sponsors of the Arab-Israeli peace process.  And they have made an effort to maintain good relations with their old allies–especially those who can afford to pay hard currency for Russian weapons.

Thus, both on the Arab side and on the Russian side there has been a desire for the old relationship to continue.  But it just hasn’t worked out.  The case of Russo-Yemeni relations provides an instructive example. 

* * * 

A little background information is required.  Until mid-1990, there were two Yemens–a North and a South.  The Soviet Union used to give military and economic assistance to both of them.  In return, the South provided the USSR with military facilities and the right to fish off its coast.  For its part, the North provided Moscow with…well, nothing tangible.  If it provided anything in return, the North gave the impression that Moscow’s aid was preventing the country from falling completely under the influence of Saudi Arabia and the West.  The North also accepted aid from Saudi Arabia and the West so that they would feel reassured about it not falling completely under Moscow’s sway.  Very clever, really.

The two Yemens merged in May 1990.  Due to its own problems, Moscow stopped giving aid.  And shortly after Yemeni unification, Saudi Arabia and the West virtually halted all aid too.  For during the 1990-91 Gulf conflict, the Yemeni government sided with Iraq.     With the Gulf war over, the Yemeni government wanted to restore its relations with Saudi Arabia and the West so that aid from them would resume.  The Saudis, though, were furious with the Yemenis.  They had provided billions of dollars to Yemen over the years.  In return, the Yemenis had “bit the hand that fed them,” as far as the Saudis were concerned.  And so the Saudis refused to resume their aid.  The West too, especially the United States, was angry at the Yemeni government for the same reason.  In addition, the West saw little point in providing Yemen with large-scale economic assistance.  After all, it didn’t have to worry about a hostile Soviet Union gaining influence there any more.

But Yemen, obviously, still wants aid.  Some Yemeni officials hoped that while their relations with the Saudis and the West had turned sour, maybe Russia was still interested.  Things wouldn’t be the same as before, but perhaps Moscow could provide something.  The Russians and the Yemenis, after all, had been friends for decades.  The Russians had never tired of saying so in the past.  And if Moscow gave something, maybe–just maybe–the West and even the Saudis would still feel competitive enough with Russia to kick in a little too.

* * * 

This may have been the thinking of some Yemeni officials at the start of a three-day conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” which was held by the Yemeni Foreign Ministry in September 1992.  But if they thought this way at the start of the conference, they did not think so by the end of it.

The Yemenis initially wanted the conference to focus on Russo-Yemeni relations alone.  They eventually decided that other countries might also be important to Yemen’s future.  Almost all the second day, however, was devoted to the future of Russo-Yemeni relations–a sign of how important the Yemenis anticipated their ties with Moscow would be.

The first speaker on that second day was an ex-Soviet diplomat who had served in both Yemens previously.  His speech began with a lot of verbiage about continued Russian interest in the Middle East, including the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the Arab-Israeli arena, the Gulf, and elsewhere.  Eventually, he got around to discussing the issue of Russo-Yemeni bilateral relations.

He began by describing how the Soviet Union had provided a large amount of economic assistance to both the North and the South.  He mentioned several of the larger projects:  major roads, hospitals, and a cement factory in the North as well as a water desalinization plant, hospitals, and oil exploration projects in the South.

At present, he noted, Russia was undergoing enormous transformation.  Its economy could only be described as being in a state of severe crisis.  Russia was no longer in a position to give economic help to others, but was now seeking economic assistance itself.

Since Russia had helped the Yemenis for so long, he continued, Moscow now hoped that the Yemenis would in turn help Russia in its hour of need.  The best way they could help Russia would be for United Yemen to begin repaying the debt which the former North and South owed to Moscow.  In a tone of voice that indicated he was being very generous indeed, the Russian added that Yemen could repay Moscow either in hard currency or in any mutually-agreed upon commodity that Yemen produced–such as oil.  The choice was Yemen’s, he concluded.

The furrowed brows, shaking heads, and blank stares on the faces of the Yemeni participants at the conference were all signs that this statement was not what they were expecting.  In the Q&A session which followed, a senior Yemeni diplomat indicated–in very diplomatic language–that United Yemen was also experiencing severe financial difficulties and was not in a position to repay anything to Russia, especially not in hard currency or oil.

The Russian diplomat seemed to take this in stride.  He said that Moscow fully understood the problem and would never press its old friend Yemen for repayment.  But at the same time Yemen must realize the desperate situation Russia was in.  Moscow hoped that Yemen would understand if Russia’s situation forced it to sell the debt Yemen owed Moscow to some third party for cash at a discount.  Yemen and the new holder of the debt would then be free to make whatever arrangement they chose about repayment.

The Yemenis were stunned.  One of the younger Yemeni participants asked, “But would Russia sell the debt to a third party which Yemen disapproved of?”  In other words, someone who actually expected the Yemenis to pay up.

The Russian smiled blandly and made no response.  He didn’t have to.

On this cheerful note, the first session ended and the second one began.  The speaker was a representative of the Russian Chamber of Commerce.  He said that despite all the negative publicity about privatization’s slow progress in Russia, it actually was occurring.  He then gave a glowing account of the many investment opportunities that Russia now offered.  He concluded by urging Yemenis to seize this golden opportunity by investing in Russia now while the best deals were still available.

A Yemeni scholar sitting on my right whispered to me, “Ah yes!  With our enormous wealth, first we’ll pay off our debt to the Russians and then invest the rest in their new businesses.”

During the Q&A session, several other Russians participants expanded on some of the points which their colleague had made.  Although some of the Western participants asked questions, none of the Yemenis did.

After lunch, the third session of the day began.  This time, the speaker was a Yemeni specialist on international law.  His presentation began with a painstakingly detailed discussion about how under international law, new governments that come to power inherit all the obligations undertaken by the governments they succeed.  He then stated that the Yeltsin government itself acknowledged that Russia was the legal successor to the USSR.  He also stated that the government of United Yemen was the legal successor of the previous governments of the North and the South.  He then pointed out that the USSR had signed agreements with both North and South Yemen promising additional aid to them which it had not yet provided.  Because Russia was the legal successor of the USSR and United Yemen was the legal successor of both the North and the South, Russia was now obliged under international law to provide United Yemen with the economic assistance which Moscow had promised the two Yemens earlier but had not yet delivered.  He concluded his presentation by acknowledging that because of Russia’s current economic problems, Yemen could not expect Moscow to deliver this aid immediately.  But Yemen was prepared to wait.

“The wait may be a long one,” whispered the Russian scholar sitting on my left.

The Russians did not have much to say during the Q&A period.  One Yemeni scholar mentioned that previous Soviet aid to the Yemens was often something less than an unalloyed blessing.  He mentioned the case of the Soviet-constructed cement plant in North Yemen.  Apparently, the Soviets had built it upwind of a sizeable town.  The town has been literally covered in cement dust from the plant ever since.  He concluded by suggesting that in addition to providing the remaining assistance Moscow had promised but not yet delivered, Russia ought to pay for the damage caused by the cement factory as well as other poorly constructed Soviet aid projects in the Yemens.

The Russians made no response.  Indeed, for the remainder of the conference it was evident that the Russians were annoyed with the Yemenis, and the Yemenis were annoyed with them.

* * * 

Neither side, though, should have been surprised.  For as Aristotle wrote so long ago, “Where the bond [between two friends] was one of utility or pleasure there is presumably nothing odd about breaking it when they no longer have these attributes; for it was these that underlay the friendship, and when they fail it is reasonable to feel no affection” (Ethics IX.3).  And if this conference demonstrated nothing else, it showed both the Russians and the Yemenis that neither could expect any further “utility or pleasure” from their relationship.

Revised version published as “Russia and the Arabs, Still Miscommunicating,” Middle East Quarterly, March 1995.

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Sic Transit Gloria

Washington and Sanaa (1986-90)

Glory is fleeting. It’s great while it lasts. And you sure miss it when it goes. This is true even when it’s a fairly modest sort of glory. I know. 

At the very beginning of January 1986, a book that I had spent three years writing was published. The title of the book was Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula. If you didn’t happen to read the book back then, I wouldn’t bother with it now. Among its many other effects, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the instant obsolescence of virtually all previously published books about Soviet foreign policy–including, most unfortunately, my own. 

Actually, the book became partly out of date less than two weeks after it was published. For on January 13, 1986, there began a short, sharp civil war between rival factions of the Marxist-Leninist party ruling South Yemen in which 10,000 people were reportedly killed while at least another 10,000 fled the country (including South Yemen’s president, ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad). 

Russia and Arabia didn’t exactly make it onto The New York Times bestseller list. But the coincidence of its publication right when this conflict took place led to a degree of publicity for the book which it probably would not have received otherwise. While conflict is a tragedy for the people involved in it, the outbreak of war often results in immediate and insistent demand for commentary from writers and scholars knowledgeable about the region where it is taking place. 

I appeared on “The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour.” I was quoted in several newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. The Washington Post ran a piece I wrote rebutting a column by Jeane Kirkpatrick claiming the Soviets had orchestrated the whole conflict. 

When the South Yemeni civil war ended in early February 1986, so did the media attention I had been receiving. I thought that life would then return to normal until the next time there was a crisis in Yemen. But it turned out that my wife was not the only person who remembered my brief media fame. Somehow or other, I had also been noticed by Vice President George Bush. 

Bush was planning a trip during the first part of April to four Arabian Peninsula countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and North Yemen. I was one of six scholars invited to meet with him in a roundtable discussion of issues in the region before he departed. 

The meeting was held in the Old Executive Office Building. The participants gathered before the arrival of the Vice President. We six scholars sat at a long table in the middle of the room where Bush would also sit. The other scholars present were a former ambassador to several Muslim countries, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a well known analyst of military affairs in the Gulf, a high powered attorney who had previously played a key role in various Middle East negotiations, and a former White House aide. All of them were currently either at think tanks or law firms. I was by far the youngest and least experienced member of the group. 

There were also chairs placed along the walls of the room where staff members from the Vice President’s office and the National Security Council sat. A lady from the NSC staff came up to me before the meeting started. She told me that if I believed that American foreign policy should pay more attention to the Yemens, I should be sure to say so. (There were two Yemens back then; there’s only one now.)  “This is no time to be shy!” she said encouragingly. 

Bush arrived somewhat late; his previous meeting had run longer than anticipated. Except for me, he knew every person in the room. What struck me about him most during the course of the meeting was that he possessed an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of international relations. 

The meeting began with each scholar giving a three-minute presentation on what he thought should be important considerations for Bush on the upcoming trip. I was amazed that each speaker bluntly told the Vice President to “do this” or “say that” when he got to the region. I decided that I would follow their example when it was my turn. 

During my three minutes, I quickly recounted the convoluted tale of the international relations of the two Yemens. A border war erupted between Marxist South Yemen and non-Marxist North Yemen in early 1979. As the South was getting the best of the battle, the Carter Administration announced an emergency shipment of half a billion dollars worth of weapons to the North. Because impoverished North Yemen could not pay for them, its rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia, agreed to do so. The U.S. transported the arms to the Saudis who would then transfer them to North Yemen. 

When the border war between the two Yemens ended three weeks after it had begun, the Saudis stopped shipping the American arms they had bought to the North. However, a Marxist insurgency against the North soon got under way which the South supported. The non-Marxist government of the North begged both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for more arms to fight the insurgents. The Saudis, however, would not help them; they apparently did not think the insurgency was very serious and feared that if the North acquired more weapons, it might conceivably threaten Saudi Arabia. For its part, the U.S. would not send arms directly to the North for fear of offending the Saudis–our primary allies in the region. 

Becoming desperate for weapons to fight its internal opponents, the North Yemeni government turned to the Soviets for military assistance–and received it. Why the Soviets helped the non-Marxist North Yemeni government fight its Marxist opponents (which Moscow was also backing via South Yemen) is, like so many things Moscow did, still not clear. Perhaps the Kremlin was uncertain of the outcome and decided to hedge its bets by backing both parties. That way, it would be on the winning side no matter who won. But whatever Moscow’s reasoning (or lack of it) may have been, the North Yemeni government successfully employed its Soviet weaponry to defeat the Soviet/South Yemeni-backed insurgency by mid-1982.

I concluded my statement to Bush by telling him that while almost nobody in the U.S. paid attention to these events, the memory of them would be quite sharp among the North Yemeni government officials he would meet with. I also suggested that if a Marxist insurgency against the North Yemeni government ever broke out again, we could hardly count on Moscow to help defeat it for us next time. The U.S., I advised, should provide direct economic and military assistance to North Yemen. While the Saudis might not like this, I suggested that such a policy would serve both Saudi and American interests. A strong non-Marxist North Yemen was certainly a better alternative to a Yemen united under Marxist auspices. 

After our presentations, there was a general debate among the scholars which Bush also participated in. There were strong differences on several issues among the scholars, but they were stated in quiet, civil tones. Everyone was on his best behavior. 

Almost all the other scholars disagreed with me about my policy recommendations concerning Yemen. They cited the urgent need “not to offend Saudi Arabia” and pointed out, gratuitously I thought, that Saudi Arabia was a far more important country to the U.S. than the two Yemens combined. I argued that it was precisely Saudi Arabia’s importance that made neighboring Yemen important too. 

The debate about North Yemen ended when Bush himself intervened. I remember that he looked at me and said, “I think you’re right. I think we have to do something for North Yemen to make sure that the Marxists don’t take it over.” (Although it seems hard to believe now, we used to worry about Marxists taking over countries back then.) 

The NSC lady beamed at me from the sidelines. After the session was over, she told me I had done a good job. Someone else from the NSC staff predicted that I might become a “regular” at Bush’s foreign policy briefing sessions. But I never was invited back (although Bush did send me a nice thank you note). The fact that I had met with him at all, however, led many people to conclude that I “played a role” in formulating American foreign policy toward the region. 

Shortly afterward, I suddenly found myself in great demand with all sorts of people who wanted a summary of what took place at the meeting: various offices at State, Defense, and other U.S. government agencies, the media, and several embassies in Washington. The Yemenis in particular thought I was highly important. 

During the next couple of years, I received a stream of Yemeni visitors asking me to pass on messages for them to Vice President Bush, or to arrange meetings for them with him or lesser luminaries such as the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. Some came with warnings that the North Yemeni government was moving too close to Moscow and presented me with elaborate coup plans they had worked out for the U.S. to put them and their friends in power. They never seemed to doubt that I could arrange for the U.S. government to back them; it was only a question of whether I would do so. 

Admittedly, some of these people were a little odd. But even high level Yemeni officials and politicians saw me as a conduit to Bush. When I visited North Yemen in February 1988, everyone I met with seemed to know about my meeting with Bush almost two years previously. They all earnestly sought my opinion about Bush’s prospects in the upcoming presidential election in November. Because his visit to Yemen as Vice President had gone well in 1986, they assumed that North Yemen and the U.S. would practically become allies if he was elected President. 

Among those whom I met on this trip was ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad–the ex-president of Marxist South Yemen who had to flee his country during the 1986 civil war there. He had been told in advance about my meeting with Bush and had concluded that I was Bush’s emissary. He let me know that he would be happy to accept American military assistance as part of the Reagan Doctrine (the policy of supporting the opponents of pro-Soviet Marxist Third World regimes) so that he could toss out his former colleagues who had ousted him from South Yemen in 1986. The more I insisted that I had no connection with the U.S. government or Bush, the more convinced he became that I had. 

But the high point of Yemeni expectations about my influence came the day after Bush’s election to the presidency when I received a phone call from one of North Yemen’s top diplomats. 

“I just called,” he said breathlessly, “to congratulate you on Bush’s election!” 

“Thank you,” I replied graciously. 

“And the next time you talk with him, give him my regards!”

I promised that I would. He seemed to think that Bush and I were on the phone daily discussing the latest developments in Yemen.

But all good things must come to an end. Yemeni-American ties did in fact improve after Bush became president, if only briefly. As the reader undoubtedly recalls, the high point in the relationship came in January 1990 when the North Yemeni president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, paid a state visit to the United States at the invitation of President Bush. (You don’t remember? Don’t worry–I won’t tell anyone.) But no one on either the American or the Yemeni side called me for advice or assistance in furthering the relationship. Nor was I invited to any of the dinners or receptions given in honor of President Salih’s visit to Washington. The two governments had apparently concluded that they could manage their relationship quite well without me, thank you. Sic transit gloria.

Originally published as one of “Two Essays” in Exquisite Corpse, #10 (Fall 2001/Winter 2002).

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The President

Sanaa (1992)

It was confusing.  When I visited Yemen in September 1992, there were many signs that democratization was really occurring.  But there were also signs that it wasn’t.

Over forty political parties had sprung up.  But most of these espoused authoritarian ideologies, such as Nasserism, Bathism (both Syrian and Iraqi varieties), and others.  The two biggest parties were the ones which ruled in North and South Yemen before unity–the People’s General Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party.  Both had been authoritarian organizations in the past which had only recently declared their adherence to democracy.  The third main party was the Islamist Islah which also declared itself to be democratic, but which had strong links to less democratic Islamic movements elsewhere in the Middle East.

Over one hundred newspapers had sprung up.  Some of these, however, were controlled by the People’s General Congress or the Yemeni Socialist Party.  They did not tend to be self-critical.  There were many others papers, though, which were critical of the government.  But since illiteracy in Yemen is very high, these independent newspapers had only a limited impact on the public.  Television and radio, which are accessible to the illiterate, remained under the control of the two ruling parties in their respective power bases.  And like the newspapers they controlled, their TV and radio stations were not especially self-critical either.

The TV stations, however, did broadcast parliamentary debates.  By all accounts, these were often quite contentious.  But the parliament had only limited influence.  It was the five-man presidential council–especially its chairman, `Ali `Abdallah Salih (the former northern president)–who made the decisions.  This group was not directly elected, but appointed by the parliament without much debate.  For it was this group–and not the parliament–that controlled the armed forces.

Some of my Yemeni friends were ecstatic about how far democratization had advanced.  Others were pessimistic and said it was a sham.  But the very fact that they could say so openly seemed to indicate that democratization had taken root to some extent.

There were so many inconsistencies.  There certainly was a much greater degree of press freedom and openness in government in united Yemen when I visited there in 1992 than had existed in either the North or the South prior to unification in 1990.  The Yemeni Socialist Party had run a repressive Marxist regime in the South up until the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe when it too began to change.  Up until 1988, Salih’s rule in the North was simply a military dictatorship in which even his political party was created as an afterthought.

Why the YSP had begun to embrace democracy was clear:  with the downfall of communism in so many countries, it was going to have to change somehow to remain in power.  Indeed, its agreement to be the junior partner in a united Yemen was probably based on the calculation that it would probably be overthrown by the people like so many other Marxist parties if it tried to continue ruling the South on its own.

Why Salih embarked on democratization, though, was less clear.  He didn’t have to do it.  There was no serious challenge to his rule.  There was no hue and cry for democracy.  Yet in 1988, he began the process of democratization by holding elections for 80% of the Northern parliament.  Democratization seemed to be enhanced by unification since the two ruling parties essentially agreed to share power during the transitional period before the all-Yemeni elections which were eventually held in April 1993.

Why had Salih agreed to all this?  Had he genuinely converted to democracy?  Or did he merely intend to ease the expansion of his authoritarian rule from the North to the South through creating a democratic facade which he manipulated?  If he had become democratic, his conversion was clearly incomplete.  But if he meant to continue ruling as a dictator, allowing democratization to begin was dangerous since this would only raise popular expectations for it which might be difficult to control later.  What, then, did Salih really have in mind for Yemen?

* * * 

These were the questions that came to mind while I was in Sanaa for the Yemeni Foreign Ministry’s conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” during September 1992.  On the third and last day of the conference, it was suddenly announced that President Salih wanted to meet with the foreign participants in the conference.

We were taken by bus from the Foreign Ministry to the Presidential Palace on the outskirts of town.  After going through three security checks, we were shown into the President’s receiving room.  The room was a rectangle.  We foreigners were seated in chairs along the two long sides of the rectangle.  When Salih entered the room, he along with Salim Salih Muhammad (one of the strongmen from the South who was now a member of the Presidential Council), and a translator sat in chairs against one of the short sides of the rectangle.  Opposite them along the other short side were officers who were probably part of the presidential body guard.

The first sentence Salih addressed to us praised the multi-party aspect of Yemeni democracy.  This was very encouraging; he did not identify his own party as the only one that was truly democratic, but clearly saw a role for other parties too.

But after saying this, his second sentence was, “We must continue to guard against the continuing conspiracies of our enemies against Yemen.”  This was not encouraging.  Who were the “enemies?”  Did they include internal as well as external ones?  What constituted an internal enemy–anyone who disagreed with Salih?  This sentence did not strike me as being very democratic.  But then again, it was not unknown for the leaders of even the most well-established democracies to see “conspiracies” and “enemies” all around them.

Salih then bitterly complained about how the great powers had treated Yemen both during and after the 1990-91 Gulf War.  Salih protested that Yemen had condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but opposed the UN intervention because Yemen favored an Arab solution to the crisis.  Yemen had been neutral, he claimed (in fact, it had taken several actions which favored Iraq), and was now being unjustly punished by the West and the conservative Arab states.  He called upon all of us in the room, “Yemen’s friends,” to speak out about democratization in Yemen which the West should support.

At one point while he was speaking, Salih snapped his fingers abruptly and pointed at one of the officers at the far end of the room.  The officer leaped out of his chair and was at Salih’s side instantly.  It turned out the President simply wanted a light for his cigarette.

This, I remember observing to myself, was not the act of a democrat!

previously unpublished

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