Discovery Guide to Yemen
by Chris Bradley
Immel Publishing. £12.95 + 10% p&p
The need for accessible guide books to the Yemen is obvious enough given the number of tourists who visit the country, and the relative inaccessibility of specialist literature. Chris Bradley attempts to meet the needs of the visitor with a convenient guide divided between a country file on the cultural, economic and environmental background and a quite detailed gazetteer on the areas tourists tend to visit. Although I have not tried to use it on the ground, it is organised well enough.
The history of the Yemen is an extremely complex issue to summarise and make meaningful in a guidebook. The temptation must be to emphasise the preIslamic period because it is more available for summary, whereas the Islamic period combines unfamiliarity of names with complexity of geography The author makes a sensible decision to attempt to deal with the Islamic period in the individual town entries, although this intention might have been better signalled in the introduction.
The text is somewhat marred by an irritating editorial device that involves flagging items in the text with sub-editor’s headlines. This may be useful to some but the basic text really does not need such a sub-guide. One’s reaction is exacerbated by the worst of these headings including "Billions of bugs"; "the entrance to hell" and, obscurely, "Jabberwockyland".
On another negative level, the author should stress far more firmly the need to take the most stringent precautions against malaria on the Tihama and the south coast. Malaria is a real threat and it does no favour to Yemeni tourism to play it down. Tourists well protected from malaria will at least be able to return.
The bibliography is reasonable but it is poor on recent and accessible works on architecture: it is curious to find Samar Damluji’s work on Hadrami architecture is missing. Indeed, the book as a whole is not at its best on architecture, a pity in a guide to the "Land of Builders". However the list of articles on the Yemen in the National Geographic, Geographical Journal and Geographical Magazine is useful, even if authors are not cited.
In his introduction, Mr Bradley notes that earlier generations of travellers to south Arabia had months or years to prepare for their journeys, while the preparations of the traveller of the 1990s are marked by breakneck speed. Unfortunately, his remark is something of a hostage to fortune as his guide bears its own witness to the truth of his comment.
On the one hand, the speed at which Mr Bradley wrote gives us a travel book on the Yemen that is up-to-date to the extent that it describes the country as the tourist will find it since the 1994 civil war and the abrupt halt that this brought to a flourishing tourist industry. The Yemen has undergone such rapid changes over the past two years that the practical advice of a pre-1994 tourist guide may be redundant today. To this degree, the immediacy of Mr Bradley’s book is useful, as he describes the country as it is now, although it is curious that his account of Aden museum fails to note the losses it suffered in the aftermath of the 1994 war.
On the other hand, Mr Bradley’s guide could do with some editing and ironing out of a few unnecessary glitches deriving from haste reinforced by error (ahmar, p. 213 does not mean green but red). The rectangular structure in the Great Mosque of Sana’a is a treasury and certainly not comparable in significance in any way whatever to the Ka’ba at Mecca, a fact that surely should be known to a writer on an Islamic country. On a more esoteric point, it is confusing to term the sixth century Abraha as the Axumite leader (p. 117). Abraha revolted against Ethiopian Axum and ruled the Yemen virtually independently for some years.
A specific point deserves comment. It is unfair to say that the present government is emphasising research on Islamic sites rather than the pre-Islamic period: the history of archaeology in the Yemen in the past has generally neglected the country’s Islamic sites and it is a positive development that it is now addressing Islamic antiquities as well as encouraging major excavations of the pre-Islamic period which continue apace.
My greatest criticism is of Bradley’s failure to advise adequately on non-Muslim tourists trying to enter mosques. He really should have warned far more firmly against non-Muslim tourists doing this. In my view, it is better to err on the side of extreme caution. A tourist guide has some responsibility to those who follow its advice, and on this issue, it is unreliable. The tourist should not be advised casually to enter the mosques of Sana’a, Taiz or Zabid as non-Muslims require specific permits that take time to organise: that was the reality in 1994 and 1995. It is also downright misleading to indicate that the mosque of Arwa at Jibla is open to the tourist. It is not.
My final point is more a matter of taste. The beached assault craft which totally ruined the beach at Conquest Bay near Aden for Mr Bradley seemed to have become an accepted part of the beach scene by 1992. Far from ruining it, for this reviewer’s seven year old son and a good few more people on the beach, it had become a centre piece of the bay, and powerful visual evidence of recent history for the tourist.
Despite my more substantive criticisms, Bradley’s guidebook does the Yemen some service, demonstrating that the tourist industry is getting back into its stride and that the country is open for the visitor. This is good for foreign perceptions of the Yemen and its economy For the visitor, the guide’s up-to-date character is of practical utility, and not least because it always implies that this is a country for the more rugged tourist.