Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil, Yemeni political thinker, activist and university professor, was assassinated by gunmen on a motorbike on November 2, 2014 in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Iris Glosemeyer and Anna Würth, researchers of contemporary Yemen based in Berlin, were his friends from the early 1990s onward.
I always hoped this would never happen again — the late-night phone calls from friends, the rumors, the silence, followed by the hollowness and grief, then another round of e-mails and phone calls with family and friends. Yet another person who we have known much of our adult lives was shot on the street, by “unknown armed men,” as the phrase goes in Yemen. For years we have heard about these “unknown armed men” conducting targeted killings of intellectuals, movers and shakers, men of integrity, vision and capacity to forge alliances among former foes. I hoped that when Jarallah Omar was shot 12 years ago it would be the last such sacrifice Yemenis made for their country. I was wrong. It continued. And now Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil is gone, killed on the street by gunmen, like so many others before him.
When we met him back in 1993, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik, born in 1942, was teaching political science at Sanaa University. That time, three years into unification, was probably unrivaled in Yemen, north and south, for its degree of freedom. People met, talked, debated, sometimes agreed to disagree — northerners and southerners, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, even young and old. As a university professor and writer, and as a father, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik influenced the thinking of the younger educated generation. When Yemenis took to the streets in 2011, youth acknowledged that he may have been older, but his thought was not aging.
I remember a late-night qat chew in 1994, with a dozen friends — researchers, diplomats, foreigners, Yemenis — in the Old City. War was on the verge of breaking out between the elites of the northern and southern parts of Yemen. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik, then a member of the National Dialogue Committee, which took part in drafting a key document to mediate between the warring factions, dismissed our worries about his safety. He said that there was no option but to try to find an agreement. He said he would pay the price, whatever it was. He was, as usual, courageous, though he was rather alone. Among scorpions. We were worried then, relieved later. Did we misjudge the risks to his wellbeing in the coming years?
I have never witnessed so many changes to Yemeni Facebook profiles as when the news came through. His students, his friends, his colleagues in politics, his countrymen — they were all Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik. They are so sick of losing their best to gunmen on motorbikes, and so am I. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik was one of their best.
When a friend called to tell me about the assassination, I was hoping it would be just another of those many tidbits of news about Yemen that turn out to be rumor or nonsense. I waited for a correction, but it never came.
Gunmen on motorcycles running over or shooting unarmed intellectuals, drugged nutcases firing at helpless people in hospitals — these people are not who I am thinking about. They get too much attention already. They and their families are victims of propaganda that attempts to draw boundaries in our minds and to spread violence among human beings, using slogans that are merely a disguise of power games, and a poor disguise at that. Wisdom is the worst enemy of this propaganda.
You may not remember — or maybe we had not even met then? — but Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil made me contribute to one of his lectures in the early 1990s. Although I spent weeks on preparation, I was terribly nervous and my presentation was poor. I do not think my remarks contributed to the students’ knowledge of Yemen, if they were able to understand me at all. But that did not seem to matter much. Students were happy that a foreigner in their age bracket came to their class trying to share research findings — even if the findings were not news to them and were presented in funny-sounding Arabic. For Muhammad, who had a classical education and impeccable Arabic, as well as university degrees from Egypt and the United States, it must have been an ordeal.
Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik taught me and his students, at that time and all the subsequent times we shared, to try to reach out to others, no matter how difficult it is. Do not accept the idea of language, cultural, political or whatever other barriers there may be between human beings, because these barriers do not exist except in our brains. Teach each other; learn from each other. If we try, we will find a way to overcome the obstacles, whatever our nationality, religion, culture or language. This stance was reflected in his career, with his specialization in media, education and human rights, as well as in his engagement in politics and civil society. Muhammad was key to the establishment of one of the first major human rights organizations in Yemen.
At the time, Muhammad’s view of life was by no means exceptional in Yemen. All over the country, Yemenis who had no formal schooling or university degree but were educated at heart gave me the same message. The way they said it is very much to the point. Kulluna bani Adam — we are all the offspring of Adam. We are all human beings.
Anna, we heard it so many times, this deep-rooted wisdom about our common humanity that was shared so generously with us. And now the country so precious is getting lost. Political bickering, propaganda leading to ignorance, desperation. It is these factors and the thinking evolving from them that drove the people who ordered Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik’s assassination. They cannot be fought with guns and drones, but only with wisdom, and that is why they hate it so much. Was Muhammad involved in negotiations between parties to the current conflict, as he had been for decades?
Already in early November 2011, someone may have tried to kill Muhammad. He was doing what he enjoyed the most — walking alone, unarmed, near his family home off Agriculture Road in Sanaa — when he was run over by a kid on a motorcycle. My friends and I visited him in the hospital in Amman when we were there for a meeting, a few days after he was taken there for treatment. I was so relieved when I saw in his eyes that he recognized me in spite of his severe head injury. Comforting his daughters, who had accompanied him to Jordan despite their own commitments at university and in civil society organizations, was almost impossible. I do not know what to do now — based in Berlin.
You mentioned Jarallah Omar, who was acting general secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party when he was assassinated in 2002. He had a similar vision to Muhammad’s: He overcame political and regional boundaries; he left the past behind; he thought of the necessity of building a new Yemen and the opportunities to do it; and he wanted to give a chance to the next generation. Muhammad and Jarallah worked together on the National Dialogue and the pledge of reconciliation in 1993-1994. Jarallah was shot while addressing an Islah assembly, trying to build a bridge between Yemeni Socialists and Islamists. His murderer had the same mindset as the killers of Muhammad al-Mutawakkil: Erect barriers in our minds and spread violence among human beings. Even Jarallah’s murder, however, could not prevent what in 2005 became the Joint Meeting Parties — a coalition of Islamists of different political shades, Socialists, Nasserists, Baathists and others, including the Union of Popular Forces, of which Muhammad became secretary-general in 2001.
On November 4 Muhammad was carried to his grave in Sanaa by a large crowd that, unusually, included many women. That so many women were there would have pleased Muhammad. Likewise, Jarallah Omar’s funeral in 2002 turned into a mass demonstration. Thousands of people of different political affiliations attended the ceremony. I hoped then and I hope now, just like you, that Yemenis will continue to fight. Not against each other, but for their common humanity and each person’s rights. To me, that is Muhammad’s legacy.
Image: Sketch by Shihab al-Magrami.