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Miscellanea Yemenica
by G Rex Smith
‘Unity’ and ‘democracy’, not to mention ‘inflation’, are the words on everyone’s lips in the Yemen at the present time - I am not sure in what order of frequency. The flag of the Republic is everywhere, even in Aden, Mukalla and Wadi Hadramawt, as is the portrait of the President. The first anniversary of the recapture of Aden by the Republic’s armed forces, 7th July, was recently celebrated with a holiday and other events throughout the country.

Leaving aside democracy and inflation for the moment, the constant cry of unity set me thinking about the more distant past of the Yemen. It is perfectly in order to speak of some kind of notion of a territory called the Yemen, certainly from the beginning of Islam in the seventh century onwards. That is not of course to say that there has been a unified country called the Yemen since that time; far from it. The history of the early Yemen is firstly and simply made up of a list of governors appointed by the central Islamic authority and who were posted to Sanaa, al-Janad (near Ta’izz) and Hadramawt. Later what can only be called city-states appeared on the scene, in the north surviving generally until the late ninth century when the Zaydi imamate was established, in the south and Tihamah until the Ayyubid conquest from Egypt by a brother of Saladin in 1173. Thereafter the Zaydis continued to control much of the north, and the Sunni Ayyubids in the south and Tihamah were followed by the Rasulids and the Tahirids, taking us down to the sixteenth century, when foreign Mamluks and Ottoman Turks entered the country.

During all that time there can be no doubt that the commonest, if not the only, meaning of the term ‘al-Yaman’ was the territory roughly the equivalent of the present Republic of Yemen. Early governors with little authority perhaps outside their assigned area and the local rulers (Zaydis in the north and the Sunni dynasties of the south and Tihamah) all certainly recognised a land called the Yemen, even if they never aspired to control it in its entirety. One must of course also remember that at times during the Rasulid period (c1226-c1440) the Yemen comprised far more territory in the north-west and in the east than the present day political map of the Republic displays. My feeling is, moreover, that the involvement of other outsiders in the affairs of the Yemen from the sixteenth century onwards, Mamluks and Ottoman Turks, must have had the effect of increasing the feeling of the existence of an area called the Yemen among its people. It seems to me entirely appropriate that there should be a unified Yemen in the late twentieth century. Perhaps, if they had not been so obsessed by the tyrannical Hamid al-Din imams in Sana’a and if they had pushed their historical knowledge somewhat further back in time, the British would have done things a little differently and the more recent history of the Yemen would have been less fraught. It is always easy to be wise after the event of course, but I cannot see a more fitting state of affairs than a united Yemen and one must wish the country well in their unity (and their democracy and their fight against inflation), even as others in the complicated world in which we live seek to break away and establish smaller, independent states.

* * *

Are the mill and pestle and mortar about to pass into oblivion among the inhabitants of Wadi al-Ayn in Hadramawt? I recently observed a new sleeping policeman in one village, slotted between the genuine article: bags of grain placed in a line across the road. With the constant pounding by the vehicles which pass over them and as they are moved and adjusted from time to time, the grain they contain is in due course well and truly milled and the family flour is ready for use.

* * *

It seems to me that the recent troubled times in the Yemen appear to have discouraged scholars rather than tourists from returning to the country. The package tours are once again advertised in the quality Sunday newspapers and there can be no doubt but that the cooler winter weather in the Yemen and the lure of exotic places will fill the tourist hotels and coaches in the major historical regions of the country. All is relatively quiet in July, but it is surprising how the peace can be disturbed by a group of the citizens of one European nation (which shall remain nameless) whose paucity in numbers turns out to be in inverse proportion to the noise emitted into the hot and otherwise completely peaceful Hadrami night air.

Apropos tourism in the Yemen, I am forced to wonder what value is obtained from local guides, when I see the low standard of the guidebooks so far at the disposal of the tourist. It is worth recording that the seemingly knowledgeable informants often turn out to be nothing of the kind and the inhabitant of Dhu Jiblah who appeared at first so promising was soon released from his unofficial position as informant-in-chief when he told me that Queen Arwa was the best ruler the Rasulid house produced! In guide books I am tired of being told that the Arabic ‘Sana’ means ‘skilled’ of a craftsman, an allusion to all the crafts to be found within the city! The word is Sabaic and means ‘well fortified’. Again, if the spelling of proper names could approximate a little more to the original Arabic, or at least to how it is pronounced, one would be relatively content. I wonder too at some of the ‘guest lecturers’. The like of the events told in the following true story could never happen in the Yemen. A guest lecturer who undoubtedly knew Spain well was politely confronted by a member of his party on the eve of the end of the tour of Andalucia and discreetly asked if he was aware that the Iberian peninsula had, between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, been largely in the hands of Muslims who had originally crossed from North Africa and who were responsible for many of the monuments seen on the tour. The guest lecturer was immensely grateful, particularly as he was correctly advised to start his new reading with the Encyclopaedia of Islam article ‘al-Andalus’ which, like all such articles, contains a lengthy bibliography,

The British Archaeological Mission in Yemen (BAMY) has yet to see the return of the British scholar to the Yemen after last year’s war. I am told that the American academics are back, but the BAMY Committee which screens all applications to carry out research in the Yemen in all the disciplines which fall under the aegis of the General Organisation of Antiquities, Manuscripts and Museums of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Yemen has met, more recently, little enthusiasm for academic research from British scholars. Perhaps publicity is lacking and it is the wrong time of year. However, it might be appropriate to mention here that all applicants in the fields of archaeology, history, epigraphy, pre-Islamic and Islamic architecture and all manuscript and museum-based studies to carry out research in the Yemen should apply in the first instance to Mr C.K. Smith OBE., Honorary Secretary, BAMY, c/o The British Academy, 20-2 1 Cornwall Terrace, London NW1 4NW requesting application forms and further particulars. The Committee recognises two deadlines in the year: 30th April and 30th September.

November 1995