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  Book review

Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen 

by Trevor H. J. Marchand

Curzon Press, 2001. Pp. xiv + 285. Maps. Plates. Figures. Glossary Notes. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £45. ISBN 0-7007-1511-8.

In 1996-97 the author, a young Canadian architect turned anthropologist, spent a year working in Sana’a with a team of traditional builders, the Bayt al-Maswari, specialised in minaret construction and largely responsible for its renaissance since the 1980s. His book is based on his doctoral thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies. What sets it apart from other studies of Yemeni architecture are the insights which he gained into the lives and roles of traditional Yemeni builders by working alongside them and winning their confidence and respect.

Marchand’s aim was to ‘learn about learning in a context in which formal technical training, engineers, and drawn plans are non-existent’, by exploring the processes through which the skills and unwritten knowledge of the master builder, his intuitive mastery of design and space, were transmitted to his assistants.

After a somewhat discursive scene-setter, and a chapter on the minaret in Yemeni mosque architecture, the core of the book is contained in three chapters. These discuss inter alia the social and occupational world of the Sana’ani labourer, the trials of apprenticeship in a hierarchical system which demands unquestioning obedience, and the skills and responsibilities of the master builders in the design and construction process.

Marchand draws intriguing parallels between the labourer’s gradual rise in occupational status, stages in the ‘inside-out’ construction of the traditional Sana’ani minaret, and ascending levels of religious awareness: Islam - submission; iman - faith; ihsan - virtue. Few apprentices, he notes, have the motivation, self-discipline and creative vision to reach the coveted status of ’usta’ (ustadh) or master builder.

In distinguishing between the roles of architect, and traditional builder, Marchand makes the point that while the former produces knowledge about a building through the process of drawing, the latter produces knowledge about building through the process of making. One of Marchand’s concluding reflections is that democratic trends in Yemen may well undermine the distinctive relationship between master builder and apprentice, in which the latter learns the skills of the former through observation and mimicry rather than oral and written instruction. Elsewhere, however, Marchand shows that the system which produces master builders and transmits their esoteric knowledge is already at risk: because fewer young men wish to follow their fathers into such a physically demanding occupation which also offers less material reward than white-collar jobs in the public and private sectors.

Marchand’s unique insider experience of minaret construction, illustrated by many excellent photographs and several fine architectural drawings, is vividly recounted. But the flow of his narrative is frequently interrupted by digressions: many into realms of cognitive theory and anthropological discourse scarcely intelligible to the average mortal. This serves to diminish the impact and readability of an otherwise rich and illuminating study The text deserved greater editorial attention than it evidently received: there are numerous spelling mistakes, and a number of Arabic words, qamariyah for example, which appear in the text have been omitted from the glossary

John Shipman