Book review, “I was a doctor in Yemen”

6 Dec

By: Malak ShaherPublished:06-12-2010

Unlike most countries in the 1950s, which were to some extent developing, Yemen was still stuck in a darkness of ignorance and disease. Into this almost unheard of country came a French anthropologist and doctor, who fell in love with the country and its people.

“I was a doctor in Yemen,” was written by Claudie Fayien and published in France in 1955. It was translated into Arabic by Muhsen Al-Eni in 1958, and released in Lebanon in 1960.

Claudie Fayien worked in Yemen during the period from 1951 to 1952, and found a country living in the darkest of dark eras. The French doctor said that the world should know about Yemen. At that time only a few people in France had even heard of Yemen.

Fayien came to Yemen during the rule of Imam Ahmad Hamid Al-Deen, a ruler who kept the north of Yemen away from any means of development.

“I used to be a doctor in Yemen” is full of vivid descriptions about the humanitarian experience of the people in Yemen. This very detailed book has immortalized itself as one of the most important travel books of the region.

Before the French anthropologist came to Yemen she knew nothing about the country. She writes: “I confess, I knew nothing about Yemen. I had no idea even where it was. I thought I would go to a magical land.” Nevertheless, she left her husband and three children to explore the country herself.

In the book Fayien speaks of the many events that happened to her during her travels. She said, “Later I realized that Yemen is more than just a country where many imamates ruled.” Yemen did not have any diplomatic representatives before 1950.

In his foreword to the book, translator Muhsen Al-Eni said that Fayan showed her love for the Yemen’s people and her writing was clear of the malicious talk about Yemenis that most foreigners indulged in.

According to Al-Eni, the book was so popular in France that it was translated into other six languages, including English, Italian, German, Swedish and Hungarian. She did however, suffer criticism from the French public for leaving her family to travel to a country virtually no one had heard of.

For the French anthropologist, Yemen, as a country and people, was extremely rich in events and she found it a beautiful country to explore. And despite the desperate situation under which most Yemenis lived, she found their nature very beautiful. She commented that the terraces in the mountains showed the magnificent mind of the Yemeni people who made them thousands of years ago.

A letter for the Imam

Many small things astonished Fayien and are detailed at length in the book. For example, she was surprised that a letter of permission from the imam should be written from the middle of the page. Apparently the imam did not like to have his signature below that of the applicant, it had to be above.

She wanted to reveal how this example represented the life of Yemenis, who were ruled completely by an imam who gave them no window of freedom whatsoever. “The imam was concerned with the most important things in the country down to the most ridicules things, like whether or not a teacher in one of the remote areas needed ink.”

The situation of women

Women received a considerable amount of attention in Fayien’s book, and she was deeply concerned how miserable their lives were in terms of education, health and their treatment from their husbands.

For a proper Yemeni woman in that time, it was considered inappropriate for strangers to hear her voice. So when Fayien went to diagnose the medical condition of a woman, she had to talk to a translator, who in turn had to talk to the husband, who would then talk to his wife. Any replies from the wife in turn had to be relayed back through the husband, and the translator to Fayien.

She stated that the situation for women was really miserable. They had no right to an education and indeed could face death from their husband if he decided to take up another woman to replace her. Yet reading between the lines you can feel her sincere feelings towards the Yemenis, who she said were very nice and eager to learn.

“Hereby I am leaving my Yemeni friends, thinking of their sufferings and their honest feelings to change their miserable situation, because they are a free and dignified people,” says Fayien. “I am thinking of the small children who were signing to me when I was leaving, Sharifa, the girl who wanted to learn how to read and write, of the old man who stood under my window to hear a symphony and of the nurses who wanted to relieve people’s suffering.”

At the very end of the book, Fayien reveals her deep sadness for a woman who died in agony after giving birth. Fayien, who could not help the woman, said the only thing she could do for her now was to immortalize her in this book.

The French doctor was granted Yemeni nationality in 1990 by President Ali Abdulla Saleh. She passed away in April 2001


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