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Yemen through its literature: A nation besieged

May 5, 2015 at 1:26 pm

The recent Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen has been reduced to a simplistic narrative of a Sunni-Shia divide driving national conflict – reminiscent of an essentialist “clash of civilizations” trope. This sectarian paradigm attributes all conflict to the notion of cultural boundaries developed over centuries-old divides. Although limited in publication and certainly by translation, Yemeni literature (and lack thereof) functions, on the other hand, as a prism of a nation riven by years of occupation, civil war, corruption, and poverty – issues that far transcend the simplistic sectarian narrative willingly peddled by the media. While the isolated, impoverished nation struggles to negotiate a fraught economic and political terrain, poetry and verse have never ceased to dominate the country’s cultural landscape.

Despite the sparse landscape of Yemeni publishing, a hopeful assessment emerged earlier this year in the Yemen Times – that is, before the Saudi intervention: “Despite ongoing political and economic turmoil, national literature [in Yemen] saw an unexpected surge in 2014. Twenty novels were published by Yemeni authors last year, and while that figure may seem insignificant in a regional or global context, it is considerably more than the eight books produced the previous year. Indeed, it is about ten percent of all the books ever published by Yemeni writers, and considering the hardships facing the country today it is an extraordinary achievement.”

As in other Arab countries, the 20th century signalled the popularity of short stories and novels alongside poetry. Yemeni literature in translation has been less available, and literary works translated to English are a mere handful. However, they serve as a prism reflecting a complex history of authoritarianism, resistance, transnational ties, and a critique of gender conventions.

ZMD’s The Hostage (1994) provides a critique of Yemeni society as it existed before the revolution that ended the Imamate. Told from the perspective of the young narrator imprisoned in the governor’s palace to guarantee his family’s obedience to the Imam, the novel paints a snapshot of authoritarianism and tyranny. While the protagonist’s abduction at age nine is part of the Imam’s traditional system of governance to keep tribal leaders in check (and the notion that tradition dictated hostages be well-fed and educated has been very much vaunted), it is no less a harrowing experience of imprisonment. The young boy is torn from his family, stripped of his name, made ignorant of his family’s revolutionary struggle, put in shackles, and even sexually exploited by the older women of the palace. Set in the 1940s, in the midst of a struggle between the Free Yemeni Movement and Imam Yahya, the novel uses the domestic microcosm of the governor’s palace, where the boy is held to fulfil the whim of every member of the household, to reveal the learned powerlessness and subjection of autocratic rule to which members of the larger nation are held. In fact, this mirroring is ultimately made explicit when the revolts outside the governor’s walls make it possible for the young prisoner to imagine a different future while he is still held captive within.

Selected by the Arab Writers Union as one of the top 100 Arab novels of the 20th century, The Hostage has been considered an allegory of the Yemeni nation under the Imamate – shut off from outside influences by Imam Yahya’s isolationist policies. But the novel is just as relevant today; as Yemen’s leaders have continued to hold the entire country hostage in a way reminiscent of the Imam.

The end of the Imamate’s brutal regime precipitated decades of war and unrest, leaving fiction writing and publishing to languish. The novel has always been overshadowed by poetry in Yemen’s cultural landscape, but with the end of the civil war and the subsequent growth of the middle class came what has been referred to as the “golden age of the Yemeni novel“.

However, this “golden age” must be taken in the context of Yemeni publishing, wherein a few books were published until Mohammed Abdul Wali’s They Die Strangers (1971) – the novel considered to mark the beginning of popular literature in Yemen. The Imamate regime features in this novella as well, since the repression and poverty it caused lies at the foundation of the setting across the Red Sea to form the Yemeni diaspora in Ethiopia. In fact, so devoted to the ancestral homeland are the immigrants that they try to fund the oppositional Free Yemeni Party. Born of a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother, Abdul Wali explores not only the deep-rooted economic and social ties between Yemen and East Africa, but also poignantly depicts the anti-black racism of the Yemeni community in East Africa, with the target often including children born of these unions.

Critiquing patriarchal society and gender roles in Yemen, Wajdi Al-Ahdal’s A Land Without Jasmine (2008) is a polyphonic detective novel, told from the perspective of various narrators tracing the disappearance of a university student, Jasmine. Her disappearance is linked to the public realm’s predatory patriarchal system, involving the sexual harassment and repression of women. Jasmine herself sardonically comments on the all-encompassing male gaze prior to her disappearance: “In Yemen, all young women are considered celebrities…When a girl leaves her home and ventures onto the street she’ll notice that everyone is staring at her.” Depicting Yemeni society as dominated by masculine surveillance, which Jasmine astutely describes as “a noxious type of male violence”, Al-Adhal suggests that escape, rather than abduction, is at the root of her disappearance.

Similarly critical of gender norms is a forthcoming novel, already published in Arabic but released this year in English. Hurma by Ali Al-Muqri (2008) sends the unnamed protagonist on a military adventure across the Middle East while also placing her at the crossroads of religious fanaticism and patriarchal conventions.

Gender conventions and the awakening of sexuality have also been taken up in Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Biographical work, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (2012), told through the excavation of his family narrative across five decades. It starts in Yemen, with his parents’ arranged marriage in 1945, and leads to Lebanon, Egypt and the UK, until his permanent settlement in Canada, where he was the theatre critic for the Globe and Mail. His opening sentence is indicative of direct, clear-eyed self-reflection that eschews the nostalgic: “I am the son of an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at fourteen and had eleven children by the time she was thirty-three.” Weaving the personal and political, Al-Solaylee’s narrative recounts not only the British protectorate of Aden, but his family’s involvement – when Al-Solaylee was three year old in 1967, the socialist government kicked out the British and, with them, Anglophiles like his father. While his family returned to Yemen, Al-Solaylee’s realisation he was gay made permanent return difficult. The memoir is reflective of a double consciousness in which he remains at the crossroads between alienation from his native culture and affection for his family.

Yemeni literature is developing faster than it has in the past. But given Saudi’s assault against the impoverished nation in a bid for geopolitical domination, it is hard to tell as of yet how this could affect the development of a nation already in turmoil, including its tenuous cultural landscape.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.