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Michael Jansen: A key figure
November 20, 2015
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Former Yemeni Prime Minister and statesman Abdel Karim al-Iryani died on Nov.8 at the age of 81 in hospital in Frankfurt, exiled by war in his beloved country. A tiny man but a towering figure, a great and good person, soft-spoken and shy of the limelight, patriot and politician, scientist, cultured intellectual, one of a disappearing breed on this alternately drowned and parched, savage, war-ravaged planet.

Little did I imagine I would meet this miniature giant when, in the mid-1960s, I read of his initiatives and efforts to improve life in his country while editing a chronology of Arab politics published by the American University of Beirut.

I was introduced to Iryani in Sanaa in happier times. In 2005 I travelled to Yemen to attend the inauguration of the Amiriya, a beautifully restored 16th century palace in the dusty and dour town of Rada’a, which lies 160 kilometres southeast of Sanaa. Iryani was the godfather of the project. A quarter of a century earlier, he had charged my friend Selma al-Radi, an Iraqi archaeologist, to undertake the restoration and to use the original materials and techniques employed by its builders at the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th centuries AD. He wanted the job done “the

Yemeni way.” Which, when it comes to dealing with old and ancient buildings, was the right way.

From start to finish Iryani, whose enthusiasm never flagged, supported Selma. He also interested then President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the project. He used to drop by un-announced outside the palace in Rada’a and shout, “Selma, Selma, where are you. Let’s see how the work is going.” 

Many of Selma’s friends, including me, journeyed to Yemen to congratulate her and take part in the opening of the palace, a perfect gem covered in a glowing white coat of qadah, an ancient mix of live lime that had to be reinvented by Yemeni artisans for use on the palace. During the celebrations, Iryani invited Selma, her team, and her visitors to lunch at Sanaa’s best Yemeni restaurant. He was a charming, attentive host while dealing with a collection of unknowns. I contributed an article on the Amiriya to The Gulf Today shortly after returning home from Yemen.

I met him a second time in September 2007 in Kuala Lumpur where Selma and her Yemeni colleague Yehya Nasiri received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for their restoration of the Amiriya. This time a new lot of friends attended, from New York, Pakistan, Rome, and Beirut. I asked Iryani for an interview with the object of finding out about the Yemeni situation, but learnt little on that subject. As we sat over cups of tea at one of the hotel’s cafes, he began by speaking about Yemen’s long history and soon switched to a discussion about Yemen as the transit point for the migration 90,000-125,000 years ago of the first humans from Africa who paused in Yemen and then spread throughout this region, Europe, Asia and Austral-Asia.

A scholar who had earned his PhD in biochemical genetics from Yale University after completing earlier degrees in Cairo and the US state of Georgia, Iryani then said that all humans are descended from one African woman whose mitochondrial DNA we all carry. I knew nothing about the migration and was surprised that humanity had the same mother, a biological “Eve.” Back home I did some research in articles he recommended and wrote an article for The Gulf Today, not on the state of Yemen’s political affairs but on his historical and biological revelations.

We met again briefly in Beirut in 2009 after the country’s last, lamented parliamentary election. He had been invited by former US President Jimmy Carter to join his team of observers monitoring the election, probably the most corrupt in Lebanon’s history of corrupt polls. The topic of exchange with Iryani was Selma who had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s and died in 2010. He was her very good friend as well as her patron.

Iryani was born in 1934 into a distinguished family of judges native to the village of Iryan in the highlands of Ibb.  His uncle, Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani, served as president of the Yemen Arab Republic from 1967-1974 before union with the south.

An Arab and Yemini nationalist, Iryani returned to his country in 1968. He was one of the few Yemenis with an advanced degree — particularly one from as prestigious an institution as Yale — and assumed ministerial posts in development, education and foreign affairs before serving as prime minister from 1980-83 and in united Yemen from 1998-2001.

He was a key figure in securing the unity of Yemen in 1990, negotiated an agreement delineating the country’s border with Saudi Arabia in 2000, and promoted liberal ideas in a number of fields. Following Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011, he worked out the deal that led Saleh to step down in favour of his deputy Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Iryani had served as Saleh’s adviser for decades and proffered his advice to Hadi when he took over. Iryani’s goal was, as always, to eliminate corruption and mismanagement and promote the development of Yemen. He made it his policy not to favour one side or another in disputes and to shun tribalism.

Unfortunately the succession deal did not survive. A bitter and angry Saleh, gravely wounded in an assassination attempt, partnered Houthi rebels in a fresh, failed bid to seize power, precipitating the present war that is devastating the poorest country in this region.

Ailing and tired, his sight failing, Iryani retired to a Cairo in the grip of post-Arab Spring upheavals. His funeral in Sanaa was attended by Saleh who braved bombing to be there; Hadi sent his condolences from Riyadh. Few other Arab politicians could generate such respect and admiration. The Arab world has lost one of its greatest statesmen and most humane political personalities.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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