A Yemeni woman's fight for freedom; nothing at first sight betrays the strong will and bravery that lie behind the smile and gentle manners of Khadija Al Salami, the softly-spoken cultural counsellor at the Yemeni Embassy in Paris. But Ms Al Salami's story is an unusual and inspiring one.

Author:Kutschera, Chris

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS in Sanaa, Khadija Al Salami achieved diplomatic status as a 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 Al Salami's personal history with the political and tribal history of Yemen.

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 from 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 occurred 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 and 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 Al Salami. "When the hell around him subsided, he emerged from the flimsy barrel 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 face. The child witnessed the whole scene.

Eventually her mother lost hope and filed for a divorce. She remarried a tribesman, and Al Salami was sent to live with her grandmother in a humble home in the old quarter of Sanaa.

At primary school, the girl was ashamed of being poor, the daughter of a madman and that her mother had married again. 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 deliberately cut out any reference to her father and her hated grandfather. 'Khadija Al Salami is my name,' she told the teacher, the name she has kept to this day.

More grief and pain were to come. Al Salami was only 11 when her uncle, Ali Al Salami, decided to...

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