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  Book review


Peter Wald, translated by Sebastian Wormell

Pallas Guides, 1996. Price 16.95

The ideal guide book, it seems to me, should seek to enlighten its readers concerning places of interest, monuments and archaeology and history on one hand, and accommodation available and how to get there and how to get from A to B and at what cost at a practical level. Such a guide should also seek to illustrate the above as lavishly as possible.

With the exception of the last in the list, the illustrations, this newly translated guide to Yemen, originally published in German in 1980, falls well short of the ideal. The author adopts a regional format: Ma’rib, Qarnawu (sic), Zafar (the Zafar of Himyar), San’a, Around San’a, Zabid, Sa’da, Ta’iz, Timna, Shabwa, Aden, Al-Mahra (sic) and Socotra. Other introductory sections concern the Exploration of Yemen, Kingdoms of the Traders, the Script (monumental South Arabian, the script of the pre-Islamic Sayhadic languages). By way of conclusion we find Natural History of Yemen, Yemeni Silver Jewellery, Glossary and Practical Information (which helps to make up for earlier scanty information on matters such as accommodation).

The regional approach is potentially a perfectly reasonable format, but is flawed when, as in this book, history and archaeology are subsumed in isolated pieces under regional heading and are not subject of a separate study On the other hand, history certainly is so badly covered that, standing in a section in isolation, it would appear even more inadequate than it actually is. Information on places of interest and monuments is sketchy and plans not systematically provided. Accommodation gets a mention on p.310 with a list of hotels and their star rating.

If a list of principal sites is really necessary on p.1,1 am wondering why the Arabic names in Arabic letters are provided, particularly as there some bad errors among them. Bajil is thus, not Bajil . Hajarain is correct, rather than Hajjarain. Huraydah (in both Arabic and Roman) should be included rather than Huraydha. Jislah I take to be Yaslib. Rhail Umr should presumably be Ghayl ‘Umar! The first Arabic letter of Zafar is erroneously a dad.

I am at a loss why such pretentious nonsense has to be written under the heading Translator’s and editor’s notes, pp.6-7. In particular, if the experts were not helped by a system of transliteration, they would not employ one at all! The glottal stop in Arabic is termed the hamzah; khamsah means ‘five’! More pretentiousness on pp.34-35. The script table on p.34 lists 28 letters (f should be substituted for p); directly opposite (p.35), we are told that there are 29 ‘characters’! ‘The analysis of inscriptions collected from various places revealed that the same language, although in widely differing dialects, was spoken in all the kingdoms (p.36). This statement is blatantly untrue. Mention on pp.86 if of the mosques of San’a grossly underestimates their historical importance. I am not sure where the spelling Huss for Huth on p.97 and passim comes from. Mandab’ means either ‘wail’, ‘lamentation’ or possibly place of lamentation’ – (p.62) not tears: ‘azab’ is a bachelor (p.99) – sweet waters, is the author thinking of ‘adhb’?

‘The first Rassulid (sic) ruler, Umar Ibn Rassul (sic) came to Yemen in about 1210 as the vizier and army commander of the sultan Saladin (Salah ad-Din), then ruling in Cairo and Damascus.’ (p.123) The Rasulid amirs went to Yemen in either 1173 in the entourage of Turanshah, brother of Saladin, or in 1183 in the entourage of Tughtakin, another brother of Saladin; the primary sources are divided. They were not ‘viziers’ nor indeed army commanders’. Zabid has never been the capital of Yemen, let alone the ‘capital of the first independent Islamic Yemen’ (p.124). ‘Together with Ta’iz province the Tihama is a stronghold of this Sunni school. Since its understanding of the law includes absolute acknowledgement of the established state power, rulers have always found the coastal strip easy to govern. Religious disputes ...  are still decided by the Islamic al-Azhar University in Cairo.’ (p.126). I am not sure that the Tahirid sultans would have agreed with this statement! The passage with the exception of the first sentence is blatant nonsense. I do not know where the information in the first paragraph on p.127 comes from; I have never heard of an Ahmed alTahir! In the same vein, where on earth does the information come from (p.149) that Imam al-Hadi ‘had come to northern Yemen from Basra on the Persian Gulf’? The DhuJiblah mosque must date from the eleventh, – not the ninth – century (p.181). Dhu Jiblah itself, as every English schoolboy should be able to remember, was founded in 1066! I do not know where the author gets his dates from.

I have dealt on a number of occasions with the appalling misconception that the whole of Yemen accepted Islam in the seventh century overnight and the third paragraph on p.244 is totally unacceptable (as is, on roughly the same subject, the statement on p.291 that Yemen was in some sense the crucible of Islam!). The fourth is no sounder. This is not the picture given by the primary sources concerning the Ayyubid conquest of Aden. Which chronicle, one wonders, states, ‘Turanshah plundered Aden and brought more than 80 castles and forts of considerable strength under Saladin’s dominion’?

I find the section on the Arabic language (pp.314-318) superfluous and naive. Statements (p.315) such as ‘On the island of Socotra there are still about 6,000 people who speak one of the few remaining languages of the South Arabian subgroup, which is Semitic, but nearer to Ethiopic than to Arabic’ means nothing to the layman and are, to say the least, dubious. ‘For English speakers the, pronunciation of Arabic is not difficult’ (p.3 16) is a matter for debate! Ghayn is a guttural and has nothing to do with a French ‘r’ (p.316) but in any case, is this section really required in a guide book such as this?

The Bibliography is as disappointing as the text. Who nowadays reads German and French sufficiently well to benefit from titles in those languages? What is the use of recommending large academic works like Serjeant and Lewcock’s ‘Sana'a’ without specifying precisely whither the reader’s attention is to be directed and indeed without further annotation? Books of very doubtful benefit are listed also, as well as books long out of date. In this connection, it is perhaps high time that a critical bibliography of use to the visitor to Yemen should be produced. It could perhaps be done through the British Archeological Mission to Yemen, compiled by a number of scholars of different disciplines. The editor of this Journal then might be prevailed upon to publish it.

The above are just a small minority of the criticisms which need to be made of the text of this guide. It is thus impossible to recommend it to the visitor to Yemen. For the time being the latter must reconcile himself to the fact that a good guide to Yemen has yet to be written.

G. REX SMITH, November 1996