Chairman's Report 2004

Twelfth Annual General Meeting, 9 June 2004.

The highlight of last year’s Autumn programme was the Society’s Tenth Anniversary Luncheon held at the Royal Garden Hotel on Monday 8 December. This was attended by over a hundred members and their guests. We are most grateful to Dr Abdul Karim Al-Iryani, Adviser to the President and Secretary-General of the ruling General People’s Conference Party, for accepting the Society’s invitation to attend this event as principal guest and speaker.

I am glad to report that the photographs taken by Freya Stark during her visits to southern Arabia in the 1930s – which were exhibited in Oxford in 2002 and in Exeter at the beginning of 2003 – were delivered to the Seiyun Museum last September for permanent display there. Thanks to the co-operation of ‘Friends of Hadhramaut’ we were able to airfreight the pictures out to Yemen at a very reasonable rate. The Society also hopes to find a suitable home in Yemen for Nigel Groom’s photographs which date from the late 1940s, and many of which were reproduced in his book Sheba Revisited (2002).

Looking ahead a little, I am sure that those of you who recall the successful performances given by the Seiyun Popular Arts Group in Britain two summers ago will be glad to know that the Society is once again supporting the International Music Village Festival. This year a group from Mukalla, comprising seven musicians led by Ahmad Al-Ahmady, will be performing in Cardiff and Regent’s Park from 23 June until 3 July. On 2 July beginning at 7.30pm they will be giving a special performance at Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, for the Yemeni Community in London and ‘Friends of Hadhramaut’, and I hope that many of you will find the time to attend that event. Paul Hughes-Smith has been very closely involved in arranging this visit, as he was, of course, in the previous visit by Yemeni musicians; and once again he deserves our warmest thanks for his sterling efforts. I should also like to thank Pat Aithie and Leila Ingrams for the support which they have given in arranging aspects of the Al-Ahmady Group’s programme; and both Paul and Leila may wish to say a few words about the programme a little later.

In my report last year I mentioned that Alan D’Arcy was unable to lead the Society’s seventh annual tour to Yemen due to ill health. With the feeling generated by the war in Iraq and its unfortunate aftermath, Foreign Office Travel Advice would probably have prevented such a visit taking place in any case. Nevertheless, I am pleased to say that Alan, who recently resigned as Hon. Treasurer of the Society, is feeling fit enough to plan two tours with twelve persons participating in each. The first in November this year, and the second in January next year. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Alan for all he has done and continues to do for the Society. We are delighted that he has agreed to remain on our Committee.

In his place as Hon. Treasurer I warmly welcome John Mason who will present the 2002 and 2003 accounts to this Meeting. Your Committee once again apologises for being unable to present a full set of accounts for 2002 at last year’s AGM.

We remain convinced that, with sensible planning, travel to Yemen poses no greater threat than travel to other destinations not subject to similar restrictions but where foreign tourists have been manifestly at risk. As individuals we have always received a most warm and hospitable welcome on our visits to Yemen, despite recurrent political tensions. We are therefore optimistic that the Society’s seventh tour to Yemen planned for this autumn will prove as successful as our previous tours. We welcome the recent change of emphasis in Foreign Office Travel Advice, but look forward to a substantive relaxation of current restrictions, in the light of the strenuous efforts which the Yemeni authorities have made to contain and counter the threat of political violence. So far as I know, there have been no serious security incidents during the past eighteen months. Recent revelations of the deplorable behaviour of the coalition forces in Iraq have done nothing to improve relations between the Arab World and this country. It is therefore all the more important that the Society continues to pursue its objectives as a charitable organisation devoted to propagating a positive message to a wider audience about the history and culture of Yemen; it is a message which we hope may help to counter negative publicity and alarmist reporting in the media. In this context we were delighted to see such a large number of people at the Yemen Day reception hosted in the House of Commons on 26 May by Keith Vaz. The principal guest and speaker was Yemen’s Foreign Minister, Dr Abubakr Al-Qirbi. The crowd of between two and three hundred present included Baroness Symons, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, MPs and Arab Ambassadors.

Turning to our lecture programme, the first of our autumn lectures was given in October by Aidan Hartley on ‘The life and death of Peter Davey’, the subject of an article by Aidan Hartley in last year’s issue of the Journal. A review of Aidan’s acclaimed book The Zanzibar Chest will appear in the next issue. In November Mrs Khadija al-Salami, Press Counsellor at the Yemen Embassy in Paris showed a documentary film entitled ‘Yemen’s Thousand Faces’ which she herself had scripted and directed. The film looked at the lives of the few remaining Jews in Yemen, and at another little known community in the remote mountainous north: the ‘flower men’ of al-Munaibah. The film is a fascinating record of a way of life which is fast disappearing. A review of Mrs al-Salami’s autobiography, The Tears of Sheba, will also appear in the Journal.

In February this year we were indebted to the Middle East Association for inviting Society members to attend a presentation on the Port of Aden by Captain Roy Facey, and in March we joined the Society for Arabian Studies for a fascinating lecture by Clara Semple on the Maria Theresa Dollar, the subject of her forthcoming book. The programme for the rest of the year will be distributed with the next issue of the Journal in August.

On an historical note, I would like to mention that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of Her Majesty The Queen’s visit to Aden in 1954 when she opened ‘The Queen Elizabeth Hospital’, whose name was changed to the ‘Jumhouriya’ or Republic Hospital after independence. And 1954 also saw the completion of the Aden Refinery which, like the Jumhouriya Hospital, is still in service.

The British Ambassador in Yemen, Frances Guy, will be leaving Sana’a in July. Her successor is Michael Gifford who is expected to take up his appointment later that month. We extend our best wishes to them both, and we hope that there will be an opportunity later in the year for Frances Guy to give members of the Society her valedictory impressions.
Many of you will have heard the sad news of the death in April of Christine Heber Percy who played an active part in organising the exhibition of paintings by Yemeni artists, which the Society sponsored in 2000; we extend our heartfelt condolences to Bill and his family on their tragic loss.
The famous explorer and travel writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who died last August at the age of 93, visited Yemen several times during his journeys in southern Arabia. His Excellency Dr Mutahar Alsaeede represented Yemen at the Memorial Service for Sir Wilfred held at Eton College Chapel last October. This was in the middle of Ramadhan, so the Ambassador’s presence at the Service was particularly appreciated.

I am very glad to welcome to our AGM today Professor Roderic Dutton from the University of Durham. He is present in two capacities: as a member of the Society and as Chairman of ‘Friends of Soqotra’. Before I invite him to say a few words about the major exhibition on Soqotra which is planned to be held in Edinburgh next year, I would like to thank His Excellency the Ambassador and his staff for welcoming the Society once again to the Embassy this evening and for their generous hospitality.

Douglas Gordon

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