Interested in Arabs? What I’ve been learning since Yemen

Young Yemenis

When I visited Yemen I had the chance to talk at length with young Yemenis. These meetings both impressed and depressed me.

I was honoured by the Yemenis grasp of English and of British culture and history, despite the fact that they had never set foot in the UK. I was embarrassed by my own ignorance of Arabic or their culture or history. I was determined to set this right and have since made a point of learning more about this part of the world and people who live there.

Amongst what I have read I want to recommend two books in particular.

‘The Arabs – A History’ by Eugene Rogan

Despite traversing 500 years of history in almost as many pages, Rogan’s account of the Arabs is always vivid, eloquent and engrossing. It takes the reader from Morocco to Iraq many times over without losing the reader along the way or scrimping on the crucial details that thread the narrative together.

Although much of Arab history has been spent under domination by non-Arabic peoples, what I particularly appreciated was Rogan’s preference for primary sources written by Arabs themselves. Eye-witness accounts of events are drawn from a tremendous range of sources – from the fairly conventional, such as the accounts of Saudi royal household, to the more esoteric, such as the diary of a Damascene barber. No source is wasted and each is perfectly poised to give the facts a life beyond the printed word.

By the end, I was left questioning the permanence of an Arabic identity. Sure, there is the commonality of language but there was little evidence of a consant or stable geopolitical community. Based on what I read, I’m not convinced that the Arabs recognise themselves by that tag.

Across the centuries up to today, tribal, national and sectarian communities seemed to hold much greater sway and staying power, and I suppose in that regard that the Arabs are much like other well kent peoples – the Europeans, the First Nation Americans or the Africans, for example.

I don’t think it was Rogan’s intent to persuade his readers of the primacy of Arab identity. He acknowledges that the Arabs are one people and many peoples simultaneously, and it is part of the appeal of book that he gives each commonality and singularity the space to breathe.

It was the experience of learning about the many dynamics at play in the history of the Arabs that so enthralled me, and in that regard I think Rogan succeeds in the reasons he set out to produce this work.

If you can’t study Middle Eastern history under Rogan at Oxford, ‘The Arabs’ is the next best thing.

‘Yemen – Travels in Dictionary Land’ by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

For all it’s qualities, ‘The Arabs’ is still a book a history book and an ambitiously over-arching one at that. It could spend too long looking at one country or tribe. Indeed, Yemen only makes an appearance on four pages in Rogan’s tome. As a result, I was left wanting more and that’s where ‘Yemen – Travels in Dictionary Land’ came in.

What a fantastic book this was. It achieved many things for me. It was full of humour from the off. Mackintosh-Smith starts by taking us through his struggle to learn Arabic. It’s not just the pronunciations which prove problematic for him but also the meanings: sada is ‘thirst’, ‘echo’ and ‘an owl’, and siffarah is ‘an anus’ and ‘a whistle’.

This introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book; the author’s aim is not to laugh at the Yemenis but to marvel at the complex character of the people and the lands in which they inhabit.

The rest of the book is a first-rate travelogue (the author’s account of the little known island of Suqutra is fascinating), an informative history (covering even pre-history effortlessly), and a beautifully written appreciation of a rich and mature culture:

the songs are siren songs that tell of the flash of teeth beneath a veil like a silver coin in a well, of the saliva of lovers’ kisses intoxicating like wine, of beauty that is cruelly ephemeral

Despite the quote above, the book is never twee, never condescending. It’s not a book written by a tourist for tourists (Mackintosh was a resident); it’s not voyeuristic or sensationalist. Mackintosh is always an outsider in Yemen, but he is comfortable with that fact and uses it to his advantage. Throughout his years of living there he is driven by a passion to discover but also puts in the work to understand. He never rests in pursuit of experience and learning, and thanks to his writing ability he is able to explain and share his passions.

Even though I was only there for a week, I can vouch for the accuracy and wonder contained in this book. In it I recognised the Yemen I briefly got to experience firsthand and learned so much more about one of the least well-known but deeply fascinating countries in the Arab world.

As Yemen is brought to our attention ever more frequently, I urge you not just to rely on the media. For those who cannot visit in person, then use this book to take you there.

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