Chairman's Report 2003

Eleventh Annual General Meeting, 12 June 2003.

The Society was formed in February 1993, so this year marks its tenth anniversary Cultural highlights of the past decade have included the Yemen Festival of 1997, and the British Museum’s Queen of Sheba exhibition last year. Running concurrently with the exhibition were various events to which our Society contributed in no small way; among the most enjoyable were the concerts given by the Seiyun Popular Arts Group in June and July, eight of whose musicians and singers visited Britain from Yemen to take part in the international Music Village Festival. They gave a lively concert in Kew Gardens with exuberant audience participation, winning several encores! Equally successful but on a smaller scale were the concerts which the group gave elsewhere during their busy programme. A performance in Goodenough College raised money for the ‘Friends of Hadhramaut’ charity, and two evenings were devoted to the entertainment of the Yemeni community in Cardiff. The Society also supported the visit to Britain of two other Yemeni vocalist musicians, Dr Nizar Chanem (a member of the Society) and Hassan al-Amri, who were invited to play during the Arabian Seminar held at the British Museum in July. They also performed at the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall for members of the Yemeni Community. Paul Hughes-Smith deserves our warmest thanks and congratulations for the active part he played in arranging the visits of both teams of musicians.

Meanwhile, an exhibition of photographs by Freya Stark, chosen from the collection in the archive of St Antony’s College, Oxford, opened in Magdalen College. This exhibition, which, as I mentioned in my report last year, was sponsored jointly by the Society and Dr Abdul Aziz Al-Qu’aiti, ran from June until October, and we are greatly indebted to Caroline Singer for organising it. We are also most grateful to Dr Eugene Rogan, Director of St Antony’s Middle East Centre, for making the photographs available to the Society. These were again exhibited earlier this year at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter; both the Vice-Chancellor and the Yemeni Ambassador, Dr Mutahar al-Saeede, attended the January opening. We are hoping to arrange for the collection to be sent to Yemen for permanent display in the Seiyun Museum.

The Society also sponsored a display of photographs taken by Shelagh Weir entitled ‘Portraits of Yemen’ at the Clore Education Centre of the British Museum during September and October. These exceptionally fine colour photographs now form an educational resource which will be used in Arab World Education projects organised by the Museum.

In October, Alan D’Arcy led the Society’s sixth annual tour of Yemen which lasted three weeks and was thoroughly enjoyed by the sixteen members who participated. The Foreign Office Travel Advice, which had prevented a tour taking place in 2001, had been eased slightly. Needless to say no problems were encountered by our members who were extremely well received by the many Yemenis who met and entertained them.

After the success of the summer events in promoting the richness of Yemen’s history and culture and the warmth of its people, it was unfortunate that the attack in October on a French tanker and subsequent security alert generated a spate of negative publicity and alarmist reporting in the media. But worse was to follow at the end of December with the killing of American missionaries in Jibla by a gunman. Casualties of the travel ban reimposed by the Foreign Office included a trade mission to Yemen organised by the Middle East Association, and several package tours. It goes without saying that the absence of visitors is a bitter blow to Yemeni tour companies and to people who make a living from tourism. Since then the situation has been further complicated by the US/British invasion of Iraq, which caused predictable hostility throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, not to mention strong opposition within Europe. Nevertheless, we remain convinced that, with sensible planning, travel to Yemen poses no greater threat than to destinations not subject to similar travel restrictions but where foreign tourists have been manifestly at risk. As regards the Society’s seventh tour to Yemen planned for this autumn, it is, I regret to say, the recent illness of Alan D Arcy, rather than security considerations, which seems likely to rule this out. We wish Alan a speedy return to good health.

[The Chairman read out a message from Alan D’Arcy thanking all those who had sent him messages of sympathy and support. His message included a brief financial statement, pending the circulation to members of a full statement of account later in the year]. Meanwhile, I very much regret to announce the recent death of David Birtles who generously supported the Society as a corporate member. As some of you will recall, he was co-author of an illustrated history of the Armed Forces of Aden 1839-1967, published three years ago.

The critical times in which we live make it all the more important for us to encourage and support projects promoting cultural interaction with Yemen. Thanks to the efforts of the British Council in Sana’a and in Cardiff, where there are, of course, strong community links with Yemen, I am happy to report that a scheme for an exchange of study visits by Yemeni and Welsh artists was initiated earlier this year. The idea grew out of the art exhibition organised by the Society in October/November 2000 to display the works of Yemeni artists and those of several British artists who had visited Yemen. The first artist to benefit from this new scheme was Miss Najween al-Atef, a young lecturer at the Fine Arts Institute, Aden, whose two month programme in March and April included attachments to art colleges in Cardiff and Swansea. We hope that it will be possible to build on the success of her visit and that further such exchanges will follow.

Turning to our lecture programme, the first of our current series of lectures took place in November, when Peter Hinchcliffe and Maria Holt gave a presentation on their proposed history of the British in Aden 1961-67, which will draw on Yemeni oral sources as well as British. No lecture was held in October because of the Red Sea Trade and Travel study days organised that month by the Society for Arabian Studies; and I should mention here that our Society has contributed to the cost of publishing the proceedings of those study days. In December, Paul Hughes-Smith introduced and showed a documentary film about Yemeni music. In February this year, Dinny Hawes, Deputy Director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, discussed the many years of humanitarian work carried out in Yemen by the Institute’s overseas arm, International Cooperation for Development; a full account of lCD’s work, written by Marta Colburn and entitled ‘The Republic of Yemen’, was recently published by Stacey International. In March, we joined with the Society for Arabian Studies to hear Peter de Geest give a fascinating talk on the caves of Soqotra. As some of you will be aware, a recently formed charity called ‘Friends of Soqotra’ has published its first, handsomely illustrated, newsletter. Membership, at an annual subscription of £20, is open to all who have an interest in the Soqotra archipelago, the welfare of its people and the conservation of its uniquely important biodiversity. We will be publishing further information about ‘Friends of Soqotra’ in the Journal. We will also be publishing an abridged version of the excellent talk which James Taylor gave the Society last month on ‘Traditional Arab Sailing Ships’.

In the autumn we hope to have another joint lecture with the Society for Arabian Studies, a film evening and, in December, a social function to celebrate the Society’s tenth anniversary, which I very much hope that Dr Abdul Karim Al-Iryani will be able to attend.

In conclusion I should like to thank His Excellency the Ambassador and his staff most warmly for welcoming us once again to the Embassy and for their generous hospitality.

Douglas Gordon

Report year: 
2003