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  Book review

Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen

by Susanne Dahlgren, Syracuse University Press, New York, 2010. Pp. xvi +  371. Gloss. Bibliog. References. Appendices. Index. Illus. Map. Hb. £40.50. ISBN 978-0-8156-3246-7.

‘Throughout its history, Aden has seldom left a visitor indifferent’, contends Dr Susanne Dahlgren, as she introduces the reader to the city that has also stimulated her own academic interest. And what makes Aden the focus of her study, is the fact that over the period of fifty years which her work negotiates (1950–2001) few other places in the Arab and the wider world have experienced such an array of socio-political changes in such quick succession. British colonial rule and the prolonged and painful decolonisation process gave way to the only Marxist state in Arabia, a rather short-lived political experiment, during the last years of which the author started her field research in South Yemen. And this independent state was consequently subsumed under the more populous and traditionalist North Yemen to form what today is known as the Republic of Yemen.

Dahlgren’s work falls under the broad category of ethnography, in that she uses her interviews of no less than 311 Adeni families and her everyday observations in order to reconstruct the social dynamics, customs, behavioural norms pertaining to gender and family relations over the period of her study. She observes Adenis going about their daily affairs at university, the workplace, the courts of law (where gender and family relations are regulated by the state), social clubs, government offices, and ultimately within the household. Her study is by no means one-sided towards women, as she acknowledges the equally significant role played by men in engendering certain social norms. In this sense, Contesting Realities breaks new ground in South Yemeni scholarship; although historical developments and political upheavals of the second half of the 20th century in southern Arabia have been very well recorded, little emphasis has hitherto been placed on the ways in which local society responded to these changes, and the strategies of adaptation it employed.

The aim, therefore, of this book is to explore the evolving nature of social interaction in the public sphere in Aden. Thus, it attempts to conceptualise how different moral frameworks have influenced people’s behaviour, and attitudes over time. Under ‘moral frameworks’ the author groups the different sets of ideologies that dominated the political and social discourse in Aden at different periods of time; these are the local traditional customs, the revolutionary ideology of the socialist period, and Islamic morality of the post-unification era. After the initial section, which positions the book within its epistemological framework, and which might appeal less to the non-academic reader, follows a succession of very interesting and intelligible chapters on different aspects of public life in Aden during the colonial, socialist, and unification periods. The author then shares with the readers some of her characteristic case studies before pulling together her conclusions into her theoretical argument on morality and social praxis in Aden. The connecting thread of the book remains throughout the concept of adab, propriety, as the reserve of ‘properties one person embodies in their social interaction’. Adab is not only relative to one’s social position; it is rather in constant flux depending on the social context within which people find themselves during their everyday encounters, and which prescribe the appropriate moral framework from which Adenis freely borrow corresponding patterns of behaviour. In this sense, adab becomes an integral feature of Adeni identity; it embodies everything that distinguishes an Adeni from people from other parts of the country.

Contesting Realities not only fills in a void in our knowledge of Adeni society and historiography, refocusing our attention on the very people who inhabit the city. It is also an important contribution to ethnography in the Middle East, offering a blueprint for the study of social change in Arab, and Muslim societies on the basis of adab. Furthermore, it provides the reader with stimulating insights into the social complexities and hybrid heritage characterising former colonial city-states such as Aden, Hong Kong, and Singapore