Nothing at first sight betrays the strong will and bravery that lie behind the smiles and the gentle manners of Khadija al Salami, the softly-spoken cultural counsellor at the Yemeni embassy in Paris. But Mrs al Salami’s story is an unusual and inspiring one.
From humble beginnings in Sanaa, Khadija al Salami achieved diplomatic status as representative of her country in one of Europe’s most vibrant capital cities, but it was not an easy struggle and she needs the 400 pages of her book, The Tears of Sheba, Tales of survival and intrigue in Arabia, to unravel the story of the 40 years of her life.
Published in the UK by John Wiley, a French translation of The Tears of Sheba was recently published by Editions Actes Sud; a unique book, which blends Khadija al Salami’s personal history with the political and tribal history of Yemen.
The Yemeni civil war
Khadija al Salami was only two years old in 1968 when her home city of Sanaa was shelled by the Republicans during the Yemeni civil war (1962-1969), but she recalls how horrified she was when a small girl of her neighbourhood was killed. “I still remember, she says, having my milk bottle in my mouth, seeing the dead Saida. I was so shocked”.
But the worst occured when her father, Mohammed Murzah, who was conscripted as a medic to give first aid to the wounded on the battlefield, came back shellshocked from very heavy fighting between the Royalists and the Republicans: “The deafening roar of the battle intertwined with the screams of his comrades overwhelmed him. Squatting on the ground, he found a rusted oil drum with the top cut off and pulled it over him”, writes Khadija al Salami. “When the hell around him subsided, he emerged from the flimsy barrel miraculously unscathed, physically. Yet Father was a changed man… He staggered from the battlefield in a daze”. He was crazy. Somehow, he found his way back to Sanaa, reached his home, started beating his wife, Fatima, and slashed at her face with an iron key in his hand, hacking out a deep gash in her mouth, nearly cutting out her tongue. The child witnessed the whole scene.
Eventually her mother lost hope and filed for a divorce. She remarried a tribesman, and Khadija al Salami was sent to live with her grand mother in a humble home in the old quarter of Sanaa.
Ashamed of being poor
At primary school, the girl was ashamed of being poor, the daughter of a mad man and that her mother had married again. This affected her to a greater extent. She was mentally upset because of this incident in her family. Family is something that supports us every day. If such a family turn out to be a curse; then the whole life turns out to be bitter experience. Read full report to know the family in detail. These “family secrets” were such a heavy burden that during all her years at school she never mentioned her family. When asked her name on the first day of class she answered simply “Khadija”. “Bint min?”, the teacher probed. “The daughter of whom?” I hesitated at what for other students was a simple question, but my life was anything but simple. .. But I had never known Mohamed Murzah as a father. Furthermore my Grand Father Hamud carried the Murzah name too, and I hated no one in the world more than him…. I would be damned if I took Grandfather Hamud’s name. “Al-Salami”, I finally stuttered to the teacher. I had replaced Murzah with my mother’s name. “Khadija al Salami is my name”. She kept it to the day.
More grief and pain were to come. Khadija al Salami was only 11 when her uncle, Ali al Salami, decided to marry her to a Yemeni friend living in Damascus “before something unfortunate happens”. A few years earlier, she had gone with her grand mother, Amina, to attend a collective wedding of 25 couples in a village. The following morning they visited the homes of the 25 grooms, and on entering the houses, Khadija noticed before anything else “a large white sheet spanning the wall beside the bedroom door, suspended from a nail at each corner. A dark red stain attesting to the virginity of the bride adorned the centre of the spread, with the groom’s and the bride’s mothers standing proudly beneath it”. Khadija al Salami asked what the vermillion streaks on the sheets were, and her grandmother Amina said it was “sharaf” — honour — and she understood that the stains came from the blood of the brides. “I curled my nose indignantly, dreading my own wedding day”, writes Khadija al Salami.
Married at 11
In an effort to appease her anxious mother, Khadija’s matchmaker uncle explained he had obliged her future husband not to have intercourse with her for three years, until she reached the age of 14. But after the wedding, he drove Khadija to her new husband’s home and told her: “Your husband will come in a few minutes, and you are to do exactly as he tells you”! I understood immediately what he meant”, writes Khadija. After a brief and unequal struggle, she was raped by her husband. But after three weeks of fighting, he finally had to admit defeat and brought Khadija al Salami back to her mother in Sanaa. Her uncle disowned her. Khadija al Salami says the injustice convinced her that life was a battle to be fought and won, with no allies but her own will. It also caused her to question her religious faith.
So what pushed this secretive young woman to disclose in print the secrets that as a young girl she was horrified to reveal ?
“I reached a point in my life where I became happy with myself”, answers Khadija al Salami in her office at the Yemen embassy in Paris. “I wanted to inform people that I am not the person they believe. I am different. I had a difficult life. My childhood was not happy, but these problems did not prevent me from aspiring to and reaching my aims”.
“I don’t know how I reached this point”, she muses. “Maybe it’s because I want to help the girls who dream. It is not easy, true enough, but if you have a dream, you can achieve it. Just be strong, I am an example. I come from a poor and modest family, I had more problems than anybody, still… I managed to make it”.
What of her grand mother Amina and mother Fatima, who themselves were forced to marry young and to men they hated ? How could they force the young Khadija to follow the same destiny? “My grand mother and my mother loved me. For them, a woman is born to be put in the grave, or to get married, she has no other role. They learn this from their mothers, from their grand mothers”
With education, I could become anybody
After her arranged wedding — “an arranged rape, not a marriage” — Khadija resumed school. “I felt strongly even at that age that with an education I could become anybody and do anything I wanted. People would one day look up to me because of my diploma, and not because of what family I belonged to. As a result, I became a different person at school, where I felt that people valued me more, and I valued myself more”.
To help her mother who was struggling financially to care for her children, Khadija al Salami looked for a job, at 11. Looking like a 14 year old girl, she started working at the telephone exchange on the afternoon shift. Then a friend introduced her to a Sanaa TV director who wanted to develop a children’s programme and was looking for a child to host the show. She got the job. From then on, her life took a turn for the better. At secondary school she decided to learn English and she went for a month to Cambridge.
Then she won a scholarship to further her studies in English at Georgetown University. So in 1983 the 16-year-old Khadija landed in Washington where she would live for almost four years. She writes, “In America the burden of my past, of trying to keep it all hidden, miraculously lifted from my weary shoulders… For the first time in my life, I lived in the present, and stopped dwelling on a painful past”.
She became friendly with Yahya al Mutawakil, then Yemeni ambassador to the US, who liked her and became like a father figure.
The contemporary history of Yemen
Her friendship with the ambassador opens a series of new chapters in her book — about the statesmen and politicians who shaped the history of the Republic of Yemen after 1962. Khadija al Salami got to know some of these men who would help shape the future of her homeland quite well, especially Yahya al Mutawakil, Mujahid abu Shawared and Mohammed abu Lahum, and she writes long exciting chapters about their careers, based on rare personal confidences and interviews. For example, she reveals that in 1974 “13 of the 14 members of the Command council raised their hands to elect Mujahid abu Shawareb to succeed al Iryani as President”. But he refused the job, and after a new vote, the council elected Ibrahim al Hamdi, who was President of Yemen until murdered by his successor, Ahmed al Ghasmi, on 11 October 1977.
Khadija al Salami also reveals how Ahmed al Ghasmi was himself killed after less than a year in power, on 24 June 1978, by a booby-trapped briefcase sent from Aden.
With these personal testimonies, we glimpse a fascinating history of the politics of modern Yemen. It reveals, for example,the “colossal ambition” of President Ibrahim al Hamdi and how the Yemeni North-South civil war developed in 1994. Asked why she deals in her book only with such famous leaders, mostly of tribal extraction, but not with Yemeni intellectuals, Khadija al Salami answers: “These “famous men” were more attached to me than I was to them. They kept contacting me. In Washington, Yahya al Mutawakil admired my personality — how could such a young Yemeni girl live alone and study in America. The same happened with Mujahid abu Shawareb in Paris. For me, at first, he was a tribal and illiterate man. I was not intimidated and not interested. Then our common friend insisted, and when I got to know him, I was impressed. But they cannot tell me what to do — not as they do with their daughters”.
The Yemeni intellectuals
“The Yemeni “intellectuals” are absent, because they are confused, frequently they say something and do another; they have double standards and are afraid of voicing their true opinions for fear of being killed by the fundamentalists, which is disappointing”.
After graduating from Mount Vernon College in America in 1986, Khadija al Salami returned to Yemen, but could not get along with her brother Hamud, who had taken over the role of family protector. So she left for France in the summer of 1986, becoming press attaché in 1993, after her marriage to an American, Charles Hoot, on 2 August 1990 — the day Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait!
Now cultural counsellor, Khadija shares her time between her work at the embassy, and making films. She has shot 20 films about Yemeni archaeology, women and democracy.
Her last film tells the story of a girl accused of killing her husband at the age of 15 who was sentenced to death, spending nine years in prison before being pardoned by President Ali Abdullah Salih. “This girl reminds me of myself”, says Khadija al Salami
“I am trying in my book and in my films to cover sensitive issues. In our Yemeni culture, women are not allowed to express themselves freely, not even about daily life. They are not allowed to speak in public. But if we want our society to change, we must speak out and ask questions. In my film about the girl in prison, I also shot footage of my friend Asma, who became minister of human rights, to illustrate what women can do when they are helped by their family”..
Khadija al Salami has proved what a determined woman can achieve if she has the will. “Now”, she concludes, “I feel free, I have fulfilled my dreams, and I appreciate every step I take when walking the streets of Paris”.
The Middle East magazine, June 2006