Young Yemeni Literature Is Looking for Its Place

Three gatherings of German-Arabic authors in Yemen have created a fragile cultural connection between the two countries. But the country's literature is still largely unknown in Germany. By Yemeni literature expert Günther Orth

Three gatherings of German-Arabic authors in Yemen have created a fragile cultural connection between the two countries. But Yemeni literature is still largely unknown in Germany. Günther Orth has studied this literature and recently compiled and translated an anthology of Yemeni stories.

photo: AP
Sanaa city, Yemen

​​In February of last year I met with the author Abdalkarim ar-Razihi in a public library in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. I was still missing one of his books for my translation project.

A central library system does not exist in Yemen any more than it does in other Arabic countries, and finding a given book in the book stores requires a lot of luck. So I had turned to the author himself to find the missing book, knowing from experience that this is often the most successful method.

But ar-Razihi tells me he is sorry to say that he has given away all the available printed copies of all of his books; he doesn’t even have the author’s copies given to him by the publisher. But there’s one possibility left, he says— and asks me to wait for a moment while he calls to a young poet who is just coming through the library door. "I once gave you a copy of my ‘White Cow.’ Did you read it? Then please pass it on to Günther."

Al-Muqari promises he will and sets a time to meet with me. Before we leave, ar-Razihi grins as he pulls a newspaper article out of his pocket. It is about a religious zealot in a mosque in Aden who called for the burning of ar-Razihi’s books because of his "impious" newspaper columns. His grin turns to a laugh when he exclaims that it’s no problem because, thanks to me, he now knows that his books are no longer available anyway.

So after several days I finally had the book I was looking for. This was not the most complicated route to a desired book in my experience thus far; during the 1990s when I was researching Yemeni literature over the course of five years, I had spent the better part of my time searching through dusty book stores, publisher’s archives and university libraries in Sanaa, Taiz and Aden, whether in the hot summer or the hot winter.

The product of this endeavor was, among other things, the first complete bibliography of Yemeni literature from 1940 to 1990. But in this country on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula that introduced party democracy after the reunification of its two previously separated halves and whose government is trying with all available means to re-inscribe its image as a haven for Islamist terrorists and anarchic tribal warriors—the question is ultimately what gets written or read in Yemen, anyway?

A Late Beginning

Yemeni literature is developing fast, and the genre of storytelling is becoming more and more important. As in other Arabic countries, it was only in the twentieth century that short stories and novels joined the ranks of commonly read literature alongside Yemeni poetry, which had previously been dominant.

In Yemen this development set in even later than elsewhere. It was first in the 1960s that a lively form of modern storytelling sprung up. After the revolution of 1962, which marked the end of a theocracy that had lasted for a century in Northern Yemen, and during the resistance to the British occupation in Aden in the mid-1960s, modern storytelling began to take hold in Yemen.

Because modern Arabic storytelling at the time was an echo particularly of European literature, it is easy to understand why this genre began in the place where the West was most present as a colonial power, namely in the port city of Aden.

The majority of early Yemeni storytelling transported a particular social or political message and was distinguished by more or less open agitation against the British foreign power.

One of the first Yemeni authors who made the transition from primarily engaging in a national cause to an artistic form of writing is Muhammad Abdalwali (1941-1973). In his short and dynamic life, he wrote more than a dozen short stories and two novels.

His father was a republican revolutionary who opposed the Imamate, but he himself was born in Ethiopia as a "half-Arab", i.e. his mother was Ethiopian. Muhammad Abdalwali studied at the Gorki Institute in Moscow and became a communist. He devoted a large part of his literary work to describing the situation of Yemeni immigrants and the fate of children from Yemeni-African marriages.

His novel "You Die a Stranger" is his most forceful work. In it, a Yemeni opens a small shop in Addis Ababa and dreams of one day returning to his wife and children in his village back home. But he is unconcerned about the fate of his many illegitimate children in Ethiopia, as well as about the political activities of his fellow Yemeni exiles who are plotting the overthrow of the monarchy in Northern Yemen.

Shortly before his return home, he dies in his shop from carbon monoxide poisoning from a defect oven. For the author, this death represents the end of a senseless life of individualism and irresponsibility. What distinguishes Abdalwali’s work beyond its literary dimensions is his concern for Africa—which contrasts with the preoccupation in much Arabic literature with the problematic relationship between the Orient and the West.

Zaid Muti' Dammadj (1943-2000) is another classic author of Yemeni stories. His main work, the novel "The Hostage", illustrates the fate of a boy who is kidnapped and taken to the Imam’s court in order to guarantee the good behavior of his father and the tribe he leads. The decadent life of the monarch’s court and its intrigues are described with vitality and irony.

This novel garnered Dammadj the reputation as a "typical Yemeni writer" for its synthesis of local color, local history and fiction. Due to its ambiance, this novel was also well received in other Arabic countries and was translated into English and French. Many of Dammadj’s short stories document scenes of an "authentic" archaic Yemen, but many of them are often missing a convincing structure or an engaging plot.

That his work became well known despite its flaws testifies to the lack of excellent literature in this country. There are many reasons for this gap, first and foremost limited access to a good education. But also at fault is a system of literary criticism that cannot appropriately fulfill its task because it functions along the lines of "Everybody knows everybody else and no one should be insulted."

In a great mass of literature in which more and more young authors demand of readers that they follow their abstract fantasies or weakly structured stories with unimaginative plots, the real task at hand is to seek out and discover the truly good literary creations.

If you are devoted to this principle, then the reward is indeed the discovery of some true gems. There is for example the magical realism of the above-mentioned writer ar-Razihi, in which objects and animals suddenly fly away in a series of animated and humorous stories.

These stories are full of biting sarcasm about crotchety country folks who think their village constitutes the whole wide world. Reality, superstition and bigotry flow together in what can be described as a mirror-image of life in the Yemeni countryside. Ar-Razihi does not see himself as the defender of a mission in the same way that Abdalwali does.

As ar-Razihi himself claims, scenes from his childhood in the village live on inside him still, giving him material for his stories in the lively town of Sanaa, where he lives as a popular journalist and columnist.

Unbearable Reality

Ahmad Mahfuz Umar’s tales of big city life in Aden should also be mentioned. These stories, which almost recall the literature of the Beat generation, remind us that Aden was once a capital city (during the late 1970s when these stories were written), namely the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen. Umar’s stories lend expression to the fact that life under Yemeni socialism was not without its troubles.

Escape with the drug qat, which is omnipresent in Yemen, and the detailed description of the high this drug yields suggest an unbearable reality. In dreamlike scenes or through the radio, events in world politics penetrate the stories.

Umar’s characters roam partly in fantasy worlds—in which, for example, they foresee their own death and use it to gain insight—but also partly in a depressing everyday reality. Even the most familiar rituals are alienating, as the protagonist in "Burned Out Days" describes in this story based on a diary:

"During the evening prayer I suddenly ran from my prayer rug to the table next to the bed where my cigarette box lay. I put a filtered cigarette between my lips and wanted to light it. Suddenly I realized that I had been in the middle of the third obeisance, humble before God, when my thoughts had left me and made me forget the prayer. I spit out the cigarette, went back to the rug, and repeated the prayer as I fervently asked God for forgiveness."

A dream described by the same protagonist in this story seems prophetic from today’s perspective. In the dream scene, an American soldier tries to teach him about civilization while holding a machine gun to his temple.
In the German daily "tageszeitung", a journalist once stated that in Germany people don’t know if Yemen is a democracy or a dictatorship.

Recently Huda Ablan, a Yemeni poet who was in Berlin for a conference, answered a question regarding literary freedom in her country by saying that in Yemen it is quite possible to publish highly political works and even ones critical of the government. But this is not necessarily an indication of the government’s tolerance, but rather the result of an unregulated system ("chaos", according to Ablan).

Because there is no institutionalized censorship, it may be that a provocative play will premiere while another less political play will be cancelled because a government representative has intervened.

The answers given by writers concerning questions about censorship and limitations in Yemen are all similar: There is no state censorship, but unwritten laws limit freedoms. Recently Günter Grass, who has discovered his love for Yemen and pays a visit there every year, took up the case of the young author Wajdi al-Ahdal.

Al-Ahdal’s heretical novel had prompted such harsh verdicts in religious circles that he feared for his life and left the country. The government felt forced to act, promptly prohibiting his book and bringing charges against the author. Grass intervened by contacting the Yemeni president, who then declared an amnesty for the author.

Like the story told above about the ineffective threat of a book-burning, this story is characteristic for Yemeni democracy. It is also not all too different from what took place before reunification and the introduction of pluralism in both sides of the country. Ahmad Mahfuz Umar told me that Abdalfattah Ismail, the president of former Southern Yemen, once personally addressed the negative representation of reality in Umar’s stories.

During the course of their discussion, however, the president came to respect Umar’s perspective that reality is in fact not any better than the way he describes it. The situation of author and human rights activist Izzaddin Said Ahmad from Taiz was similarly paradoxical.

The political persecution described in his stories, partly experienced by the author himself, including torture, is typical of a totalitarian system—but yet there had never been an attempt to prohibit his short stories addressing this issue.

Until a few years ago, short stories had been the main type of epic genre in Yemen. But in the past decade or so, more and more novels have been published. It could be said that Yemen is following a global trend in this respect. A plausible explanation for this has been offered by a Palestinian professor of literature at the University of Sanaa, Shukri al-Madi.

He says that in modern urban life, people experience a high degree of isolation and division of labor, they are used to specialization, and they buy prepared foods. They thus look to literature not for a quick, short and fragmented fix—as was the case at the height of modernity—but rather for something that can restore wholeness and fullness. And this can better be found in novels than in short stories.

But Yemeni novels are not often over-abundant in volume. When Said Aulaqi’s "novel" entitled "The Three Night Owls" was published in 1989, it was only 100 pages long and printed in a small format. Despite the book’s heavy subject, it is a light reading overall and it embodies a conciseness that defies the reputation of Arabic literature as flowery.

Aulaqi (born in 1946 in Aden) undertook a mammoth task with this story. On one level, he describes the lives and fates of three artists in Aden who are caught in a trap at the hands of the state and are forced to serve as witnesses in a trial. But he also takes on the political events in both sides of Yemen over the course of three decades.

This highly political work was also able to avoid state censorship in the late phase of Yemeni socialism by steering a twisted course.

Where Are the Women?

Questions are often posed as to the role of Yemeni women and their literary voice. The short answer to these questions is that in recent years women writers have finally been able to break into the industry and produce more and more literature about themes of interest to them.

But there is yet to be a great artistic discovery of women writers, and this is not surprising given the marginal role that women play in Yemeni society. It is still rarely the case, for example, that women writers are allowed to take part in the cozy qat rounds of their male colleagues in the lounges of the literary associations—which is where I have made the majority of my literary contacts in the country.

The worlds of men and women remain separate in Yemen, although it must be said that men in the literary scene are open to the literary works of their female colleagues and support them whenever possible.

Given the large economic, political and social problems in the Arabic world, as well as a by and large weak practice of literary criticism in most of its countries, there are seldom wonders to celebrate, including in the discovery of talented writers.

And even apparently talented young authors quickly give up in Yemen. After publishing one or two collections of stories—always at their own cost—the struggle to make a living and the lack of funds for literary endeavors usually leads to their exit from the scene. The artistic maturity of the younger generation is thus stunted, their names are quickly forgotten.

They remain, as an Egyptian critic once put it, "unknown soldiers". But literature in Yemen may develop in an exciting and authentic direction in the near or perhaps distant future. It remains to be seen which names will represent this development when it comes.

Günther Orth

This article was published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 12 June 2004

Günther Orth studied Islamic Studies and translation. Between 1991 and 1996 he lived (primarily) in Yemen, where he researched modern Yemeni literature as part of his dissertation. Recently he translated and wrote the introduction for a German language anthology entitled Gesichter und Orte. Moderne Erzählungen aus dem Jemen ("Faces and Places: Modern Storytelling from Yemen"). ISBN 3-00-012962-6. 137 S., Euro 12.-