Le Cheikh de la nuit: Sana’a: organisation des souks et societe citadine

Le Cheikh de la nuit: Sana’a: organisation des souks et societe citadine

by Franck Mermier

Sindbad, Actes Sud, 1997. Pp. 256. Notes. Appendices. Bibliog. Pb. FF128.

Franck Mermier is the former Director of the French Institute for Yemeni Studies in Sana’a, and this book is mainly based on his doctoral field research between 1983-86, and on published and manuscript sources, including Arabic, which he has assiduously combed for historical and anthropological data. Mermier analyses the Sana’a market as an ancient and multi-faceted phenomenon, as a material reality and as an idealised concept of varied social and historical significance at different periods. He is interested in the factors which divide and unite the market traders, and which link (or linked) them socially, administratively and symbolically with the rest of the city and its tribal hinterland. He also examines the way different state administrations — Zaydi, Ottoman and republican — have interacted with, exploited and affected the social and commercial groupings and leadership hierarchies of the suq. A strength of this book is that these issues are considered in an historical context; for example, he shows how the organisation of the market relates to the periodic efforts of the Imamic state to centralise, control and tax, and the contrary efforts of citizens and tribes to maintain and extend their influence over their major resource by litigation, ritual, and sometimes physical violence.

Mermier confirms for Sana’a what is now becoming clear for all of north Yemen, that despite the major and often violent political and military upheavals which the city and its suqs have suffered, there are remarkable continuities. As elsewhere in Yemen, the descent principle is significant: trades are still passed down within the same families and associated with particular status categories, and men who regulate and police the different suqs have always tended to inherit their roles — though their titles changed from shaikh to ’aqil and their powers and duties have fluctuated. Mermier’s descriptions of the traditional tasks of these functionaries —collecting revenues, supervising weights and measures, maintaining order, extracting fines and contributions to administrative costs, and policing their quarters — are fascinating. Finally, Mermier considers the decline of the Sana’a suq and its relationships in the second half of the twentieth century when its traditional trades and artisanal industries were undermined by foreign imports, and the market ceased to be the main site of commercial activity for the people of a vastly expanded city.

In the Appendices Mermier provides a French translation of the famous Qanun Sana’a (translated into English by R. B. Serjeant) and of the 1960 ‘Regulations of the Silver Suq’. The book is extensively and usefully annotated, but (inexplicably and inexcusably in a serious academic study such as this) the publisher has provided no index. And what a pity the book lacks any photographs except the beautiful colour print on the cover. Everyone seriously interested in Sana’a will want to read this important contribution.

Shelagh Weir

Franck Mermier