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  Book review

Yemen: Territoires et Identités

Published by Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Mediterranée (No. 121-122), Éditions Édisud, Aix-en-Provence, 2008. Illus. Maps. Annual subscription: Eur 53.50. FR ISSN 0997-1327.  


This compilation contains thirteen articles by scholars from various disciplines who address the connections between social identities and places or territories at different historical periods, and the dynamics of identity maintenance or creation at local and national levels. In a short review I can only summarise, not critique, the contributions; but in general one can say that there is plenty here to interest both specialists and those with a general interest inYemen. This volume also demonstrates the rich and varied scholarship onYemen taking place in the Francophone world, and/or under the auspices of the extremely productive Centre Français d’archéologie et de sciences sociales in Sana’a, whose former Director, Franck Mermier, provides the introduction. 

The first two articles are by archaeologists. Lamya Khalidi speculates on the social and symbolic significance as territorial markers and sacred sites of the seven groups of prehistoric standing stones, lugged from the mountains, which she discovered at strategic locations in Tihama wadis. Drawing on epigraphic evidence, Jérémie Schiettecatte suggests that from around the turn of the Christian era, urban peoples of South Arabia increasingly identified themselves more with places of origin than with ancestry as previously, and suggests links with political and economic transformations of that time. 

Also bearing in mind the political and economic context, historian Eric Vallet examines why, in a poetic controversy at the Rasulid court at the end of the 14th century, representatives of theTihama and the highlands around Ta’izz respectively symbolized their regions by invoking their main agricultural products (vines and palms). Tomislav Klaric, also a historian, discusses what territories the learned elite of the early Qasimi period in the 17th century defined as ‘Yemen’ (from which they excluded Hadramaut despite briefly occupying it), and the relative importance of geography and religious madhhab to their conceptions. 

Four contributions consider the effects of mass immigration, demographic growth and urban expansion on the identities of the old and new inhabitants of Yemeni cities. Political scientist Patrice Chevalier asks whether the Ottomans succeeded in their aim of creating a collective sense of imperial’ identity among the heterogeneous population of a rapidly burgeoning Hodeida during the period from the mid-nineteenth century when it was the centre of one of their four sanjaqs of Yemen. He concludes that they failed, and that local, religious and tribal identifications remained of paramount importance. This piece is illustrated with mid-nineteenth century archival photos and a fascinating town plan from c. 1913. 

Two geographers focus on the recent great changes in Sana’a. That by Vincent Martignon describes the physical and social effects on the pre-existing population of the huge influx of outsiders since the 1970s. That by Roman Stadnicki compares the urban identities of the old town of Sana’a and its sprawling new suburbs where a familiar pattern of neighbourhoods linked to markets and mosques has developed. Both these articles have useful maps, and the latter engaging photographs. But surprisingly neither cites Serjeant and Lewcock’s 1983 tome. Julien Dufour brings a linguist’s perspective to the increased heterogeneity of the population of Sana’a, and discusses the extent to which immigrants preserve their distinctive, sometimes mutually incomprehensible dialects; the recent development of a standard or neutral speech; and how people adapt their utterances according to whom they are addressing in order to mask their origins or avoid ridicule or disapproval, as well as to be understood. 

Anthropologist Vincent Planel examines another topic of pressing current concern: the poverty and marginalization of rural day labourers in Ta’izz in the context of national economic crisis. Another anthropologist, Nathalie Peutz, discusses how poetic exchanges between Socotrans at home and in the Gulf invoke two major historical events in order to stake claims to their cultural heritage in the context of national and international attempts to appropriate and change local culture (especially language) for purposes such as national identity-building and environmental conservation. 

The two final Yemeni articles are by political scientists. Francois Burgat, examines the ideas of Ahmad Nu’man, one of the founders of the Free Yemeni Movement, in order to understand how Egyptian support for the republicans during the1960s CivilWar, and eviction of Nu’man, interfered with the subsequent process of building a national identity by failing to eradicate religious sectarianism. Laurent Bonnefoy examines the effects of Islamic reform movements in Yemen on the Zaydi/Shafi’i divide, arguing that a new, partly ‘sunnified’ religious identity is emerging, which is opposed by certain Zaydi factions, and both encouraged and resisted by the state.

Shelagh Weir