The British-Yemeni Society

News and events


Journal articles

Book reviews

About the Society

Society officers

Annual reports


Annual appeal



  Book review

A Tribal Order: Politics and Law 
in the Mountains of Yemen 

by Shelagh Weir

British Museum Press, London, and University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007. Pp. xviii 390. Notes. Glossary. Bibliog. Appendices. Tables. Maps. Illus. Hb. £26. 99. ISBN 978-0-7141-2579-4. 

This is an excellent book. Much of the fieldwork which it rests on was done almost thirty years ago, and the author has evidently spent a long time considering her documentary evidence. The result is a rich historical ethnography. The work is clearly presented and admirably written so that anyone with an interest in Arabia will enjoy reading it, and indeed enjoy coming back to it. The photographs (many in colour) are appealing, the maps and tables are clear and relevant. This is definitely a book to buy, not borrow. 

The subject of A Tribal Order is Razih, a heavily-terraced region to the west of Sa’dah, marginal thus far to academic literature but hardly to Yemen’s history. The importance of Sa’dah is obvious; so is that of the Mikhlaf Sulaymani a little north and west, or, later, that of the ‘Asir Sharifs. This is the terrain of, for instance, Wahhabi politics early in the nineteenth century. Weir places a particular stress on the eighteenth century Qasimi imamate, when Razih became a principality, and on the presence later of what, in effect, are two hereditary statelets. At several points we have mention of the Huthi family, who have been prominent in Razih since the late nineteenth century (pp. 60, 168, 191, 259). A very full account of markets and trade-routes allows us to understand Razih’s place in a broader history. 

The ‘tribal order’ of the title refers to ten named units, each with its subdivisions – and, of course, to a way of doing things. The opening pages of the book worry somewhat over ‘what is a tribe?’ where surely it need be only a conventional gloss for qabilah, and the point is to trace how the Arabic word is used. That, however, is not easy. Not only does usage vary, but anthropologists have their problems describing it: ‘Dresch even explicitly denies the relevance of ecology for understanding Yemeni tribes’ (p. 2). This is not quite what Dresch said. He gave some attention, in fact, to how the relation of section territories to tribal territories (sometimes the former exhaust the latter, sometimes not) varies with the terrain and average rainfall. What he did say, with the plateau north of San’a in mind, was that one cannot reduce tribes to ecological units: borders do not match hydrology. Weir is concerned to avoid reducing the tribes of mountainous Razih to economic facts (p. 3). Perhaps oddly, given the diversity of Yemen, both authors seem to be on the right track. Razih is at first easier to conceive than some cases: ‘each tribe occupies a discrete mountain or mountainside with cultivable slopes and water sources, and is bounded on most sides by divisive natural features such as precipitous slopes. . . ’ (p. 86). But there is still the puzzle of why, for instance, Bani Munabbih, the largest of the Razih tribes, which contains quite a spread of varying terrain, should persist as a spatial unit over centuries. Weir sees tribes as ‘politics created, maintained or changed by people acting, individually or collectively, in their own interests’ (p. 3); they are‘constituted by a contractual relation between hereditary shaykhs and their constituents’ (p. 9S) – but presumably a contract as peculiar as that invoked by Locke. Dominant families do not change every time a shaykh dies. People can change tribes, even without moving (p. 113): ‘clans’ or sections of tribes can change allegiance, yet ‘are, overall, remarkably stable structures’ (p. 75); and tribes themselves ‘are not. . . units of territorial expansion’ (p. 86), not even where that would mean taking the other side of a mountain, one of whose slopes they occupy already. These are not simply ‘groups’ that wax and wane. 

Like countries and cantons elsewhere on earth, tribes may somehow be historical products but they also embody assumptions that produce a certain type of history. 

We are all agreed roughly what the evidence in Yemen shows. We are none of us clear how best to conceive this, and personally I doubt whether contractual language will provide our answer. Anthropologists still have much thinking to do. 

Others will be drawn to the rich account of Razih’s political history, others to the detail provided on the workings of property and land. Part II of the book, which deals with customary law, deserves everyone’s attention. This is the best account by far that we have of arbitration and settlement in rural Yemen. Again the shaykhly families prove central in Razih’s case. Tribal leaders are ‘accorded by their constituents, and by the leaders of other tribes, exclusive jurisdiction within their respective territorial domains. . . (p. 79). It was unclear to this reviewer whether that either implies a hierarchy of legal competence or excludes seeking arbitration elsewhere. (Does some secondary rule, in Hart’s sense, mean that private settlement is unlawful?). The legal process itself, however, is richly documented from the author’s collection of photocopied pacts and judgements, mostly from the early nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries. Several terms and phrases occur that we know from elsewhere in Yemen; others appear, I think, for the first time. Weir helps here to re-open an enormous subject which has been lingering at the margins of Yemeni studies since Rossi’s classic article of the late 1940s on ‘Diritto consuetudinario’. One hopes that she can soon get her documentary material into print. For the moment, rest assured that her presentation of treaties and disputes will engage non-academic readers as fully as it will the specialists. One gets a compelling and thoroughly immediate idea of what non-domestic life in the mountains near Sa’dah may actually be about. 

Sadly, Jabal Razih is implicated at present in a conflict known to most as the Huthi affair. The government of Yemen has claimed at various points that its al- Huthi opponents are friends of al-Qa’idah, whatever that is nowadays, or of reactionary Zaydis with an eye on the Imamate, perhaps in league, never mind the conflicting ideology, with Iran. This is rather like saying on one day that people are dangerous Trotskyists and on another that they intend restoring the Hapsburg monarchy. Weir takes the politics down to the early 1990s. The tensions between factions are well described, as too are the importance of economic changes and trade-routes made vulnerable by recent agreement on the Yemeni-Saudi border. Those involved with the political world would do well to read ATribal Order. The sheer implausibility of claims about grand geo-politics, pan-Shi’ism, and global (Salafi?) terrorism should be apparent. 

A handy chronology at the end of the book takes us from the sixteenth century to the present. A catalogue of documents suggests riches to come. The presentation of Arabic terms, in the glossary as elsewhere, is clear and scrupulous. Razih dialect is notoriously odd, and Weir has wisely avoided extravagant transcriptions which could easily confuse the reader. But is it really hukum not hukm for judgement (pp. 177, 204, 205) and shamil not shaml for gathering, as in shaykh al-shaml (p. 131)? By the author’s own account (pp. 177, 356) it must surely be muhakkam, not muhakkim, for someone asked to judge others’ claims, and the fact that they are asked – hence the passive participle – suggests something about the nature of ‘jurisdiction’. 

Anyone who has grappled with transliteration knows how difficult it is to standardise and proof-read. The author has done this awfully well. In passing, the University of Texas and the British Museum Press deserve praise also for an elegant and accurate production-job, carried through to a standard few publishers maintain at present, and delivered at a low shelf-price. Everything works, from the layout of the pages to the headings of a useful index. Weir’s ATribal Order is a first-rate piece of work, and the author deserves congratulation not only for completing a complex analysis drawn out over many years but for giving us an extremely well written monograph. This should be a model and inspiration for people concerned particularly with the western mountains and with far-off Dali’and Yafi’. For all of us it provides a fine example of how to do historical anthropology. 

Paul Dresch