The British-Yemeni Society

News and events


Journal articles

Book reviews

About the Society

Society officers

Annual reports


Annual appeal



  Book review

Le Yemen vers la République: Iconographie historique du Yemen (1900–1970) 

Sous la direction de François Burgat

Centre Français d’Archéologie et de Sciences Sociales de Sana’a (CFAS), 2004. Pp.315. French/Arabic text. Illus. Chronology. Hb. £25. ISBN 2-909194-07-8.

One of the most enjoyable discoveries in this book are the photographs of Sana’a under snow: barefooted Yemenis, who do not seem in the least disconcerted, grabbing at the strange white powder on the ground, and holding their umbrellas as if snow was the most normal thing for them to experience.

Those who have lived in Sana’a will recognise many familiar sights in the photographs, nostalgically burnished with the charm of yesterday, and will leaf effortlessly through major events of Yemen’s 20th-century history. But one should not be tempted to use this book as a reference tool. There are quite a number of mistakes, slips and sloppy statements, and it is practically impossible even for a reader closely familiar with the period to separate these from the more reliable aspects of this pictorial history. Clearly, the idea is very appealing: to bring together the visual material, the first-hand impressions of the actors, the spirit of the times and events. An example likely to linger in one’s mind are the drawings of Imam Yahya’s assassination in 1948: in their naivety and their lack of all fictional colouring these provide a glimpse into the more disturbing aspects of Yemeni culture.

In many ways, however, the reader might have expected more. For example, the plundering of Sana’a in 1948 by Hashid and Bakil tribesmen was a major factor in the growing anti-Imamic movement among city people. This could have been brought into focus with the Samsara Ibn Hasan (p.133) by showing the building before and after it was damaged in 1948. Also, the many photographs with executions of enemies of the Imam are not linked to the political developments which they sparked e.g. the decapitation of Husayn al-Ahmar in 1960 brought the powerful Hashid tribes onto the side of the Republic in the civil war of 1962 to 1967 (not 1970, as stated on p.310).

In any future attempt at pictorial history it is imperative that photographs should be linked with short texts explaining the historical moment and its context. There are two good examples of this being done (pp.216 and 219) in regard to Nu’man and Zubayri, the Republican leaders. More of the same would have greatly enhanced the value of the publication.

Apart from this lack of contextualization, there are a number of mistakes which could easily have been avoided. There are still many Yemenis around who are familiar with their history. If some of them had been invited to critically read the text they would have spotted the kind of error which appears on p.277 where we are told that Sinan Abu Luhum was the Sheikh of the Hashid!!

I am reliably informed that the flags illustrated on pp.41–42, purporting to be those used by the states of the former British Protectorate of South Arabia, include several which were not in use or never existed (e.g. for the Wahidi, Soqotra/Mahra and Upper Yafa’ sultanates) and omit at least one (Mahra) which was in use before independence. The flag attributed (wrongly) to the Qu’aiti state is the same as that assigned to Aden on the previous page, while the flag (wrongly) captioned ‘Sultanat Bas-’Awlaqi’ approximates to the Qu’aiti flag.

I am also informed that the Yemeni delegation to Rome (pp.77–80, p.85) was led not by Prince Husayn but by Prince Muhammad, and did not include Prince Husayn. The date of Prince Husayn’s visit to the UK (p.83) was not 1934 but 1937; he went to attend King George VI’s coronation. Signor Gasparini (p.86) first visited Sana’a in 1926. He was then serving as Italian Governor of Eritrea and was sent to Yemen negotiate a treaty of economic cooperation and friendship. His second visit (from Rome not Eritrea) as Mussolini’s envoy was in 1937, not 1936.

P.22 shows a drawing of the Emir al-Idrisi, and without any additional guidance the uninitiated reader may well think that the Idrisi state was in Yemen (the information on p.304 is incomplete). The treaty of Da’an (1911) did not give the Imam ‘temporal leadership for all the Zaydi territories’. The Chronology does not mention the independence of South Yemen (1967).

On the funnier side are the problems which the authors of this book seem to have with aircraft: on p.39 we discover a picture of three Yemenis flying over the hilly vineyards of Cairo – this is of course the Rhine, not the Nile! A closer look by the authors at the aircraft on p.193 would have revealed its maker (Junkers).

The ‘gold coin’ of Imam Ahmad (p.57) is a well-known forgery, struck with the dies of the Silver Rial (a beautiful coin, the last true example of ‘Islamic’ coinage).

The photographic material in this publication has been drawn from the sources listed on p.6. It is astonishing, however, that the most extensive series of old photographs from Yemen (Hermann Burchardt, 1902), including his images of Jewish life in Sana’a, have not been made use of. The book reproduces, of course, much from the archives of the well known French doctor, Claudie Fayein, but why are the photographs of Eva Hoeck, who worked at the same time as a doctor in Ta’iz and Hadramut (in the 1940s and early 1950s) not used? Where is Eva Gerlach (1950s), and Hedwig Weiss-Sonnenburg (1926)? Where are the Italians?

The Arabic texts have obviously been written and translated by non-Yemenis, which has added to this book’s limitations. Why, for example, are the male headresses on p.48 given the name qawuq, which surely no Yemeni would understand? Finally, a better (yet still short) introduction to the social strata of yesterday’s Yemen than that on pp. 16–17 would have been desirable and not difficult to achieve. François Burgat, where were you?

Werner Daum