My attempt to compile a Middle East reading list with help from followers of this blog generated a fair amount of interest last month. The list of 10 books was meant as a general introduction to the region but, as I recognised at the time, there are also a lot of worthwhile books dealing with specific Arab countries. So now I'm going to take a look at some of them, starting with Yemen which has recently been the focus of international attention.
Books about Yemen tend to be rather specialised, and aimed at the small number of people who take a particular interest in the country. The British-Yemeni Society's journal is a useful source of information, having reviewed virtually every book published about Yemen during the last few years.
For non-specialists, though, there's one very obvious choice: Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, by Victoria Clark. Published earlier this year, it's a highly readable mixture of politics, history and travelogue, and it really does convey the "flavour" of Yemen. With its useful perspectives on current issues such as al-Qaeda, the Houthis and southern separatism, it ought to be required reading at Fox News and similar organisations (though I suspect it won't be).
A lot of the academic writing focuses on Yemeni society and the complex – and often fraught – relationship between tribes and the state. In this area there is Paul Dresch (Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen and A History of Modern Yemen), Lisa Wedeen (Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen), Shelagh Weir (A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen) and Sheila Carapico (Civil Society in Yemen).
Probably more engaging for the general reader is Steven Caton's portrait of tribal village life in Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation.
In the "travellers' tales" category, we have Freya Stark's 1930s classics, The Southern Gates of Arabia and A Winter in Arabia. More recent writing, of an erudite and literary kind, can be found in the award-winning Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (1997). The same book is published in the US under the title Yemen: The Unknown Arabia.
My own favourite in the this category, though, is Kevin Rushby's qat-fuelled travelogue, Eating the Flowers of Paradise (which starts off in Ethiopia). Another amusing travel book is Motoring with Mohammed, by Eric Hansen.
One book that caught my attention a few years ago (though now apparently out of print) is Timothy Morris's account of life as an aid worker in Yemen, appropriately titled The Despairing Developer.