Scenes of Sana’a: Yihye Haybi’s Photographs from Yemen, 1930–44

  • community
  • photography
  • etnography

Yihye Haybi (1911–1977) was a unique local photographer in Sana’a in the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when photography was against the law and the few existing photographs of Yemen were taken by foreign visitors. He focused his lens on his hometown, documenting the daily life and festive occasions of his family and friends in Sana’a’s Jewish community and offering us precious insights into the dress codes of men, women, and children, their customs, typical objects, homes, and synagogues. His familiarity with his subjects enabled him to capture special, intimate moments, and it finds expression in his many personal photographs.
In addition to his own community, Haybi photographed European foreigners living in Sana’a – mainly the Italian delegation of doctors, at whose clinic he worked as an assistant. Haybi also photographed the Muslim population – notables, villagers, and soldiers – and he took rare pictures of the Imam’s court, his staff, and members of the royal family dressed in regal attire. Although Haybi eventually received an official permit to practice photography, the Imam did not allow photos to be taken of him or of public events. Despite this prohibition, Haybi – carefully concealed behind windows – photographed street processions and even succeeded in catching such rare historical moments as a public beheading and the hanging of criminals in accordance with Islamic law.
Yihye Haybi’s body of works presents a rich cultural kaleidoscope of Yemen’s capital with its three communities – Jewish, Muslim, and European – during this crucial time in its history, before it started opening up tothe West. A touching testimony to a distant, little- known world, his photographs are of invaluable cultural, historical, and ethnographic importance.