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  Book review

Yemen: Land and People

by Sarah Searight; photography by Jane Taylor; Miranda Morris on Soqotra; foreword by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Pallas Athene, 2002. Pp. 160. Over 300 colour photographs. Map. Chronology. Glossary. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Pb. £19. 99. ISBN 1-873429-82-7.

The publication of Yemen: Land and People coincides with the opening of the British Museum’s ‘Queen of Sheba’ exhibition, and those whom the exhibition inspires to visit Yemen will find this book an instructive, entertaining and visually appealing companion.

Sarah Searight writes modestly that her aim ‘is to introduce newcomers succinctly to the history and scenery of this remarkable country. . . ’ But aficionados of Yemen will find much that is new to enjoy in the fascinating mix of history and anecdote, seasoned by her own observations and those of earlier travellers, which she recounts as she takes the reader on a brisk and invigorating tour of the country. She writes with evident affection for the ‘land and people’, and one of the strengths of the book is her ability to communicate a mass of information — historical, academic and practical — in a style which is relaxed and readable; her two chapters on the ancient kingdoms, for example, are notable for the fluency with which they unravel the complex archaeology and history of the early inhabitants of South Arabia.

In his Foreword, Tim Mackintosh-Smith describes Yemen as ‘inexhaustibly photogenic’. In any new illustrated publication on Yemen it is difficult to be original. Yet Jane Taylor has managed to achieve this by photographing familiar scenes from a different angle and with a different emphasis. The full page picture of the famous Shaharah bridge is a case in point: instead of showing the bridge itself in close-up, she has emphasised the audacity of its construction over the chasm which it spans, by bringing the rugged mountain scenery on each side into prominence.

It is always difficult to achieve a balance between pictures and text in a work of this kind. Some may feel that many of the pictures are too small, others that the colour reproduction does not always do justice to the photographer’s skills; but the general layout and design of the book are pleasing, and a number of old photographs, prints and sketches have also been included from sources such as P & 0 and, not surprisingly, the Searight Collection at the V & A.

In recent years the island of Soqotra has aroused international interest because of its unique flora and fauna. In 1996 the Government of Yemen ratified the International Convention on Biodiversity, and declared the Soqotra archipelago a special area in need of protection. In the chapter which she has contributed to the book, Dr Miranda Morris offers a compelling account of the people and their struggle for survival in a harsh environment. She provides an illustrated survey of important species of plants, and describes the island’s wildlife down to insect level: a fly lurking under trees, which spits at its victims, is harmless, the islanders say, if you cover your mouth and face. This and other denizens of the insect and reptile world which she mentions may discourage all but the most intrepid travellers from visiting Soqotra!

The text and photographs are fully supported by notes, a glossary and suggestions for further reading. There are two minor misprints in the useful map provided at the front of the book: the town of Qa’taba is spelt ‘Qataban’ (as in the ancient kingdom of that name centred on Timna), and Nuqub (Bayhan) is spelt ‘Nuqul’. Meanwhile, those of us familiar with a kalashnikov will note that the small boy pictured on p. 79 is (despite the caption) actually carrying a rifle; while those who have climbed Jebel Shamsan for a marvellous view over Aden, will recognise the error in ‘Shamshan’ (p. 122).

Both Sarah Searight and Jane Taylor acknowledge that their book owes a great deal to the interest and encouragement of many Yemeni officials and friends, but especially to the generous sponsorship of two leading Yemeni family businesses All concerned can justly celebrate the result, which is a significant addition to Pallas Athene’s portfolio of specialist guides and travel books.