"She fell in love with al-Amiriyya at first sight." "It was a labor of love for her, when she finished the domes she was overjoyed." "Nobody other than Selma could have restored that madrasa." "She was the catalyst for al-Amariyya, she was the dynamo behind it." It is impossible to write about Selma al-Radi without mentioning al-Amiriyya and it is certainly impossible to write of al-Amariyya without mentioning Selma, because without her the madrasa would probably have long ago crumbled to dust. Instead it is a resplendent treasure of early 16th century Islamic architecture.
The object of this passion, the Amiriyya madrasa rises up from the dusty streets of the otherwise inconspicuous central Yemeni town of Rada like an elaborate three-tiered wedding cake liberally encrusted in white royal icing. Its regal aspect is entirely fitting because it was completed in 1504 at the behest of Sultan Amir, the last of the monumental structures of the short-lived Tahirid dynasty which ended with Amir's death in 1517. Nothing was ever built like it again; the Ottomans came to Yemen to vie for control with the austere highland Zaidis who were less than fervent admirers of such exuberant embellishment and for whom the madrasa's very existence served as a potent reminder of the greatness of a dynasty they wanted to forget. Indeed the madrasa had already survived one death sentence before the timely arrival of Dr al-Radi; in the early 18th century a passel of religious scholars had to plead with Imam al-Mahdi Muhammad who had sworn to demolish it. When he told them he could not renege on his word, they suggested the destruction of three merlons of the parapet as a symbol of his intent and so it was that the madrasa survived.
But if Al-Amiriyya endured it moldered away forgotten, and by the time Dr. al-Radi first saw the Amariyya in 1978 it was in a pitiful state. External walls had buckled, the brick had crumbled and timbers had rotted, rain had seeped in through the exterior qudad surface which had been pierced by bullet and shell holes - legacy of Yemen's civil war and over-exuberant tribesmen test-firing volleys. Sewage from neighboring houses had oozed into the foundations which had largely eroded, interior artwork was almost totally disfigured and the entire eastern portal was close to collapse. The parlous state of the madrasa was responsible for what Selma's husband Dr Qais al-Awqati described as a 'conversion' of sorts.
Selma al-Radi was born in 1939 in Baghdad, daughter of a diplomat whose career came to an end with the revolution of 1958 and the abolition of the monarchy. Perhaps because of the upheaval this entailed she once said "the only tranquil phase for me was the past". Living out this sentiment she graduated from Cambridge in Oriental Studies specializing in archaeology and ancient Semitic languages. She continued her studies with a master's degree in Middle Eastern art history and archaeology from Columbia, finally receiving her doctorate from the University of Amsterdam. By 1978 she was working as an archivist at the National Museum in Sana'a but according to Dr. al-Awqati, far from finding fulfillment in her chosen field, she was tired of 'documenting' and decided she wanted to restore. It became her guiding principle; she laid eyes on al-Amariyya and a mission was born - she would restore the madrasa. In 1982 with a grant from the Dutch and Yemeni governments, restoration work on al-Amiriyya began. An earthquake occurred killing thousands of inhabitants and rocking al-Amiriyya which despite its perilous condition barely suffered a crack, squatters refused to leave without compensation and the tribes were some of the most disruptive in the country, but Selma persevered devoting much of the next 22 years of her life until its completion in 2004.
"Yemenis are excellent judges of character and they accepted her completely, they knew she was honest, nothing would stop her when she got her teeth into something and at al-Amiriyya she gained a lot of trust because she could squeeze more out of the funding she got than anyone." Antonin Besse, businessman and philanthropist with long-standing connections to Yemen and long-time friend of Selma told me. Partly because most of the funding was borne by Yemen - not a wealthy country, and partly because Selma believed that a building should be restored using the same materials and techniques wherever possible, she sought out local craftsmen who were familiar with both; in so doing the restoration was more authentic and less expensive than buying modern materials from outside the country and hiring foreign specialists who did not know how to build in the local manner. As work progressed Dr al-Awqati told me that Selma became ever more convinced that the Yemeni craftsmen actually knew what they were doing better than the foreign experts. But it was unfamiliar territory - foreigners were always assumed to know better, and the locals were to be tested.
The project had many supporters which was as well as the problems they encountered were enormous. Qadi Ismail al-Akwa, General Director of GOAMM (General Office for Antiquities, Museums and Manuscripts) was not a trained archaeologist unlike his successor Dr Yusuf Abdullah, but he had spent part of his childhood in Rada and was an important and early promoter of the restoration project. The thorny issue of the unruly tribes was eventually solved by the appointment of Yahya al-Nasiri as Director of GOAMM in Rada. Al-Nasiri who was from Rada, had graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in archaeology in 1982 and had returned to Yemen where he worked for two years in the Old City of Sana'a before his timely re-assignment. "They thought we were looking for treasure and were going to steal it", Yahya explained. "But as I am from Rada I knew all the tribal leaders and was able to talk to them and convince them we really were only restoring the building. Even so they only believed us when they saw the walls and foundations getting restored. After that they became easier." Dr. Abdul Karim al-Iryani, a former Prime Minister of Yemen, was also a great champion of the restoration plan and of Selma personally. When I asked to meet with him for this article, he replied, "I always have time for Selma" and it was he who said, 'nobody other than Selma could have restored that madrasa.' He described Rada as a 'violent area full of dominant and domineering men' before adding, 'but Selma was even tougher than they were'.
Fortunately one of Yemen's most renowned usta or master stonemasons, 'Izzi Ga'sa, lived in Rada and Selma hired him. In her book, 'The Amiriya in Rada', Selma wrote that the entire project's biggest nightmare was the restoration of the eastern portal, which was in such an advanced stage of decay that it was being propped up by a makeshift stone buttress. Every foreign expert who saw it insisted it would have to be torn down but 'Izzi Ga'sa stood his ground - he maintained he could rebuild it in situ. Selma had once observed a stonemason in Sana'a rebuild the foundations of a house while it was still occupied by removing the bad stones one by one, carefully replacing them with a new stone as he went. When she hired Ga'sa for the project at al-Amiriyya, he used the same technique. Selma admired Ga'sa's skills and eager to learn as much as possible from him, frequently went with him to the quarry to see how he cut each individual stone to size to replace the ones he was removing. Having seen the results of his craft, when it came to the eastern portal she supported his decision. So too did Qadi Ismail even if he was a shade hesitant. Al Nasiri told me that as Ga'sa's decision flew in the face of considered expert opinion, Qadi Ismail asked who would take responsibility if it fell down. According to him Izzi Ga'sa wrote a disclaimer saying he would accept such responsibility and went on to re-build the portal without a single shoring device, using only strategically placed wedges. The foreign experts were astonished and admiring in equal parts - "when Julian Raby saw it", said al-Nasiri, "he declared it 'a work of genius', sketched it then asked us if we could stop work while he went to get his camera. We thought he was going back to the car to get it, but he had to drive back to Dammar and he didn't came back until the following day."
It was the last part of the building to be restored and sadly 'Izzi Ga'sa died not long after, leaving the remainder of the work to be completed by his son who was also a master mason. Because he was working on a religious building Ga'sa had accepted only half of his salary, donating the rest to al-Amiriya. Selma too did not take a salary although the grant had included one for her. Dr. al-Awqati told me she took only what she needed to pay rent, a 2-roomed apartment at the AIYS (American Institute for Yemeni Studies), with travel and food paid from her own pocket. "We knew she was genuine because she wasn't working for the money", Dr Yusuf Abdullah told me, "she didn't care about money and she never talked about it. When she got money from the Dutch, nobody dared even ask her how much she got." Dr Abdullah remembers Selma with great fondness. "I met Selma for the first time in 1977 when I was Director of the Institute of Archaeology History at the University of Sana'a. Selma worked at the National Museum under my auspices and occasionally we did surveys and field trips together. She was always up for anything, she would go anywhere, sleep anywhere to do what she had to do. She had an old car from Aden, a Land Rover which had been used by the British army and later the NLF." (The vehicle clearly came with excellent revolutionary credentials as Dr al-Awqati told me Selma called it 'Flosy' after the acronym for the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen, a contemporaneous - and competing - revolutionary movement of the NLF or National Liberation Front). "She was a good driver and she drove it everywhere. Once we arrived after dark to a site and were about to pitch tents when we found ourselves surrounded by armed tribesmen. When we convinced them we were not there to do them harm they said we could sleep in the mosque. The next day the chief said he wanted to marry Selma, he could afford to pay her dowry and he wanted the matter taken care of immediately. I had to tell him that Selma was my wife before he would stop going on about it - she never knew, I didn't dare tell her at the time."
Her strong will was legendary. "She never acted like the director of the project, she worked alongside everyone and let the specialists do their work but she could shout very loudly when things went wrong," al-Nasiri told me shaking his head. He laughed at the memory, "she was very kind to everyone and the people loved her but she could shout." Antonin reiterated the sentiment, "Selma had an ease, an intimacy that people responded to - very few people have it. But she was tough, she was dauntless, nothing fazed her and she never gave up, if someone stood in her way, she found a way round them." Al Amiriyya needed a woman of Selma's fearlessness and dedication because towards the end of the project there was a deficit of $300,000, "so I went to the president to ask him for the money", said Dr al-Iryani, "it was probably the single biggest contribution he made."
And in the end everyone bent to her will. Dr al-Iryani delighted in telling me of when he first met her. "I was at the CPO, (Central Planning Organization) in Bir al-Azab an old area of Sana'a, when she came storming in asking, "Where is Dr Iryani? She had just came from Sa'ada from the Mosque Imam al-Hadi, where they told her she couldn't go in because she was a woman. "I am more Muslim than you" she shouted at the men, "and I picked up my shoes and went in". When I related this story to her husband, he laughed, "it was a common problem in Yemen, the men did not know how to deal with a woman who talked back to them. They couldn't do anything. She had a similar thing happen to her when she was visiting the Great Mosque in Sana'a - an elderly man came over to her and told her, 'No women allowed'. She was not having it. "Are you aware that people who restore mosques have a direct ticket to heaven? Because I am restoring a mosque and I am going to enter this one."
Selma al-Radi and Yahya al-Nasiri received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007, the same year that Selma received the Presidential Medal of Culture from Yemen. Selma died in New York City, Oct 7, 2010.