Sayyid Ahmad Bin Muhammad Al-Shami (1924–2005)
Sayyid Ahmad al-Shami was one of the most gifted Yemenis of his generation: politician, diplomat, scholar, historian, poet and man of letters. He was active on the Yemeni scene from the early 1940s until well into the period after the final reconciliation of Royalists and Republicans in 1970.
Ahmad belonged to a notable family of sayyids whose genealogy can be traced back to al-Nasir Ahmad, son of Imam al-Hadi Yahya bin al-Husayn, founder of the Zaydi imamate in Yemen. Originally from Sa’da in Liwa’ al-Sham (hence al-Shami), one branch of the family moved in the 16th century to Wadi Maswar (east of Sana’a), and another to Yarim and Khuban.
Sayyid Ahmad was born on 1 January 1924 in Dhala’ which was then occupied by Zaydi forces and formed part of the border province governed by his father Qadhi Muhammad al-Shami. After the British reasserted their control of the area, the al-Shami family moved to Sana’a, where from the early 1930s Ahmad was a pupil at the al-Fulayhi mosque/madrasa under al-Ustadh Muhammad Ali al-Nu’mani. Al-Fulayhi attracted scholars from all over Yemen, and Ahmad was to continue his education there under Sayyid Abd al-Khaliq al-Amir.
As a youth al-Shami became critical of what he perceived as the obscurantist policies of Imam Yahya, and, in common with many other Yemenis of his generation and reformist outlook, pinned his hopes on Crown Prince Ahmad, then Governor of Ta’izz, as the man who could bring about change for the better. In the early 1940s al-Shami was in Ta’izz where his circle of like-minded friends included Ahmad Muhammad Nu’man, Muhammad al-Zubayri and Zayd al-Mawshiki. Crown Prince Ahmad, who shared their interest in poetry and literature, encouraged them to hold literary gatherings in his presence. But in 1944, when the Prince’s enthusiasm for their company appeared to cool, they fled to Aden where they founded a new political party, Hizb al-Ahrar (Free Yemenis), of which, for a time, al-Shami served as secretary. Anonymous articles by al-Shami, critical of the Imam, were published in the Aden Arabic weekly Fatat al-Jazirah under the name of Fatat al-Fulayhi (the Youth of al-Fulayhi). Al-Shami and al-Mawshiki were to return to Ta’izz before the revolution of 1948 led by Sayyid Abdullah al-Wazir. It was al-Shami who personally announced news of this event over Radio Sana’a and read out details of the new constitution, al-Mithaq al-Watani al-Muqaddas (The Sacred National Charter), the main articles of which had been drafted by the Algerian scholar and leading Muslim Brother, Fudhail al-Wartalani, while visiting Yemen in 1947. Al-Shami was appointed Secretary to the Council of Ministers in the short-lived regime of al-Wazir. After Imam Ahmad had quelled the revolt and beheaded its leaders, al-Shami and many of his associates were imprisoned in the notorious hilltop prisons of Hajja, north-west of Sana’a. His release in 1952 was due largely to the intercession of Imam Aumad’s son, Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr, who appointed al-Shami his personal adviser. Later al-Shami was sent to Cairo, first as member of an economic delegation, then as Chargé d’Affaires, and finally as a member of the joint Council of Ministers which was established in 1958 when Yemen and President Nasser’s United Arab Republic briefly merged to form the United Arab States (UAS). In December 1961, following the dissolution of the UAS, al-Shami was appointed head of the Yemeni Legation in London. He remained there until the September 1962 revolution, when, having declared his allegiance to Imam al-Badr, he was made Foreign Minister in the latter’s government. Based mainly in Saudi Arabia, al-Shami established a close rapport with King Faysal, winning his trust and friendship. In November/December 1965 al-Shami led the Yemeni Royalist delegation to the Peace Conference at Haradh in the far north of Yemen, which attempted, unsuccessfully, to reconcile the two sides in Yemen’s civil war. After Saudi Arabia’s recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic in July 1970, al-Shami returned to Yemen as a member of the 4-man Republican Council headed by his old friend, Qadhi Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani. He later resigned, and was appointed ambassador first in Paris, and then in London. His final appointment before his retirement in 1974 was as ambassador-at-large (safir mutajawwil).
Al-Shami married twice, both his wives being granddaughters of Imam Yahya; from his second wife, a full-sister of Amir Abdullah bin Hasan (killed in 1969), he had 2 sons and a daughter.
Al-Shami was a prolific writer. He began his biography of Imam Ahmad (Imam al-Yaman: Ahmad Hamid al-Din) while a prisoner in Hajja, and his important survey of Yemeni literature, Qissat al-adab fi’l Yaman, was published in Cairo in 1961. In 1987 he published a four volume intellectual history of Yemen in the Abbasid era (tarikh al-yaman al-fikri fi’l-‘asr al-Abbasi). An accomplished poet from his youth, his published material in this field includes ten diwans of his own poetry – much of it relating to the events of 1948, and commentaries both on contemporary Yemeni poetry and on the work of a renowned 17th century Yemeni poet, al-Hasan bin Ali al-Habal. He also published a 2-volume autobiography.
Al-Shami died on 11 March 2005 in Bromley, Kent, where he had resided during the last thirty years of his life. He named his last diwan of poetry ‘With the birds in Bromley’ (ma’ al-’asafir fi Brumli) as a token of gratitude for the pleasure they had given him when he would awake to their song at dawn.