Yemen, Jewel of Arabia (Book Review) [Archives:2001/42/Culture]

October 15 2001

By Charles & Patricia Aithie
Reviewed by Karen Dabrowska
Between a travelogue and a socio-cultural history of Yemen, the book by Charles & Patricia Aithie is beautifully produced with over 350 colour photographs and an insightful text.
In the introduction, Mark Marshall, a former British ambassador to Yemen provides a brief historical resume for the general reader. He concludes that the authorities in the Yemen Arab Republic held that in Yemen unity was impossible without democracy but that any attempt to break up the union would also amount to an attempt to impose at least partial dictatorship. When the ex-leaders of the Peoples Democratic Yemen Republic, having lost the election, tried to recreate their ex state, their failure to do so was at least in part due to popular revulsion at the idea of losing the two values, unity and democracy. That the Republic of Yemen survived this rude test in its infancy, is why today as in the mythical days of Qahtah and so rarely since, the land of Yemen is once again united under Yemeni rule.
The introduction is followed by a chronology stretching from 5000 BC to the present day – the final entry reading: 2000 northern border agreed with Saudi Arabia.
The book is divided into three sections: The Highlands, the Tihama and the Hadramaut, the south coast and Aden. Sadly, the authors neglect Socotra, a pictorial gem and do not do justice to the old city of Sana’a with its numerous markets and colorful characters. The photographs of the scenery, especially the mountains in the north and the harbor of Aden are as breathtaking as the subject matter but there is little empathy for the people: the book is a book which delights in scenery and buildings rather than the country’s inhabitants.
The authors must be congratulated for their penetrating flashes of insight into Yemeni life: they talk about agriculture, architecture, crafts, religion, qat, coffee and even ghost crabs which are able to run forwards, backwards or sideways across the sand at speeds of up to 16 kilometres an hour.
The introduction to the highlands reminds the reader that the rough terrain which has contributed much to the isolation of Yemen’s interior, has given rise to unique forms of agriculture, architecture and lifestyle. Until the twentieth century few foreigners saw the area: until the revolution in the 1960s travellers needed permission from the Imam himself to enter it. Those visitors who did travel in the highlands experienced many difficulties and returned with tales of a remote world. But, even though much of the highlands of Yemen is still wild, mysterious and difficult to access, men from its remote villages have themselves often travelled extensively – some, for example, as sailors from the port of Aden during British rule. This has meant that, despite their apparent isolation, many of the people of these areas have a broad knowledge of the world.
The authors have combined their photographic skills with assiduous research. In their description of The Tihama they mention the Danish expedition led by the explorer Carsten Niebuhr in 1763. At that time al-Luhayya and Mukha were described as the main ports of the Tihama, the lowland strip that lies along the Red Sea coast. Since then the coffee trade has declined and the shift from dhows and fishing boats to modern shipping and oil tankers has seen Hodeidah take over as the main port: the city has seen much expansion in recent years. Yet much of the Tihama beyond Hodeidah is still rooted in the past and communities have continued to sustain a way of life that existed for centuries – and one unlike that of other parts of Yemen.
In addition to the main narrative, the story of the country is told through photo captions: in the section on the Hadramaut and the south coast, next to a photo of dangerous looking horns, we learn that today there are still dances in the interior of the Hadramaut at which the dancers hold ibex horns above their heads in a ceremonial re-enactment of a time when the ibex hunt was a commonplace event. The ibex hunt ceremony was part of an ancient ritual to invoke rain to water the crops.
Some topics, such as Hadramaut honey, the Tawila Tanks in Aden and the geological story are separated from the narrative by boxes.
The book takes the reader on a journey through the country which the Romans called Arabia Felix – Fertile Arabia – capturing a way of life which changed little over the centuries until the 1970s but is now being eroded.
Many of the cities are described in great detail where the present is always cross referenced with the past. Taiz, for example, is a tremendously energetic city. “It has been inhabited since pre-Islamic times and has been a capital for various periods during its history. Today it is a centre of modern industry and commerce and buzzes with life. It sits on a plateau about 80km northeast of Mukha at an altitude of 1,400m. The citadel perched on its own volcanic cone, is tucked under the cliffs of the 3,200-m high Jebel Sabr, a granite mountain. During the reign of Imam Ahmad bin Yahya Hamid ad Din who died in 1962 it housed the hostage relatives by whom he sought to secure the allegiance of the tribal leaders. The city sprawls beneath it”.
Like the country they are describing, the authors have a multi-faceted background: Charles Aithie was born in Edinburgh and studied geology at Aberdeen and Oxford Universities before working for BP for ten years, in Scotland, the UAE and Indonesia. Patricia Aithie is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical society and a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. She was born in Cardiff and studied Fine Art and History of Art at the Canterbury College of Art before studying at the Glamorgan School Journalism.
They both lived and worked together in the Middle and Far East for more than five years travelling extensively with their cameras. They now work from their home in Wales, where in addition to their researching and writing work they maintain an extensive photographic library serving publishers and the visual media.
For further information and copies of Yemen Jewel of Arabia contact Emma Ainger, Marketing Manager, Stacey International: [email protected]