Daniel van der Meulen in Arabia Felix: Travels and Photographs of a Dutch Diplomat in Yemen, 1931–1944

Daniel van der Meulen in Arabia Felix: Travels and Photographs of a Dutch Diplomat in Yemen, 1931–1944 

by Steven Vink, Kit Publishers, Amsterdam, in co-operation with the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in the Netherlands and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Sana’a, 2003. Pp. 128. 100 b/w photographs. Text in English and Arabic. Select bibliog. Hb. £22. ISBN 90-6832-193-5.

After the great Snouck Hurgronje, Daniel van der Meulen (1894–1989) was perhaps the most effective and experienced interpreter of Arabia to the outside world that Holland produced. Much of what he wrote was published in English, and at least three of his books are fixtures in the general literature on the Peninsula. These are Aden to the Hadhramaut: A Journey in South Arabia (1947); The Wells of Ibn Saud (1952); and Faces in Shem (1961). As a devout Christian deeply interested in Islam, Van der Meulen moved among Muslim leaders with ease and sympathy for their desire for statehood and independence. He made life-long friendships in Arabia and continued to travel there long after his retirement.

These sympathies were first aroused in the Far East. The son of a country school teacher, Van der Meulen began his career as a colonial administrator in the Netherlands East Indies in 1915. He was expecting to build a career there, but in 1923 decided instead to apply for the post of consul in Jiddah. Young though he was and without Arabic, he had been earmarked as the right man for the job by Hurgronje, who advised the Dutch Colonial Department to appoint ‘this man and no other; if he knows nothing of Islam or the Muslims, it will be my task to instruct him’. Hurgronje, having himself lived in Mecca during 1885, knew that the rigours of life in Arabia demanded youth and fitness. After three years of intensive study of Islam and Arabic under his supervision, Van der Meulen arrived in Jiddah in 1926, at the very time that Ibn Saud was taking control of the Hijaz.

From then on, Van der Meulen’s career alternated between Arabia (1926–31, 1939, 1941–44) and the East Indies. He retired from officialdom when Indonesia became independent in 1949; but he remained actively interested in the Arab and Islamic worlds, as writer, broadcaster and traveller, for the rest of his exceptionally long life.

Steven Vink opens his account with a handy potted biography of his subject, and follows it up with a chapter on Van der Meulen’s five journeys in Yemen and Hadhramaut. These journeys were made in 1931 (two), 1939, 1942 and 1944. The Dutch government was keen to develop relations with Yemen, and also to know more about the mysterious South Arabian enclave from which so many of its colonial subjects in the Far East hailed; many Hadhramis held Netherlands East Indies passports, kept the Hadhrami economy going with remittances from overseas, and aspired to retire to Hadhramaut. Van der Meulen and Herrmann von Wissmann also had scientific reasons to investigate this little-known region. The first of their two journeys to the strife-torn valley in 1931 was pioneering exploration, and resulted in the publication of Hadhramaut: Some of its Mysteries Unveiled (1932). It earned Van der Meulen the affectionate taunt as ‘the Dutchman who added a province to the British Empire’ He and Von Wissmann returned to complete unfinished business there in 1939, the journey recorded in Aden to the Hadhramaut.

The bulk of the book under review consists of one hundred photographs presented in geographical order. All are by Van der Meulen himself, save three by the Royal Air Force in 1929, and those from the 1931 journey to Hadhramaut ascribed jointly to Van der Meulen and Von Wissmann. We start on the Red Sea coast at Luhayyah and Hudaydah, and ascend to Sana’a and Wadi Dhahr. Then we go to Mukalla and the settlements of Hadhramaut. Where possible, each place is shown in a range of images in chronological order.

Yemen is visually so arresting that it would be hard to take dull photographs of it; and these pictures of its life, topography and architecture do not disappoint. However, one cannot help feeling that the very light sepia used in the two-colour reproduction process has weakened the original images and diminished their impact. Moreover, many of them are too small for details to be clearly discernible. It is an irony of progress that photographic reproduction has not always kept pace with improving print technology. For sheer visual impact one would do better to go back to books produced in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Freya Stark’s Seen in the Hadhramaut (1938) and The Southern Gates of Arabia (1936); Harold Ingrams’ Arabia and the Isles (1942); or, indeed, the works of Van der Meulen himself.

The English text of the chapters would have benefited from a competent English editor, and the captions, though laid out with care, are somewhat terse; it would have been good to plunder Van der Meulen’s own writings for telling quotations. But these are cavils. This volume is a valuable addition to the literature on Yemen, and a timely memorial of a remarkable builder of bridges between Islam and the West.

William Facey

Steven Vink