Lightning Over Yemen: A History of the Ottoman Campaign 1569-71
Translated by Clive Smith from Qutb al-Din al-Nahrawali al-Makki’s 'Al-Barq al-Yamani fi Akhbar al-Qutr al-Yamani'
I. B. Tauris, London & New York, 2002. Pp. xiii + 226. Hb. £45. Introduction. Illus. Glossary. Index. Bibliog. Notes. ISBN: 1-86064-836-3.
I remember coming across Hamad al-Jasir’s edition of Al-Barq al- Yamani in the Library of the University of Minnesota in the summer of 1978. I had been ploughing through Zaydi chronicles for some time, and it was fascinating to read an account of the crucial Ottoman campaign of 1569 - 1571 as seen from the other side.
Now, in Lightning Over Yemen, Clive Smith has brought this account to us in English. It describes the arrival in Yemen of the Ottoman commander Sinan Pasha in 1569, his passage southwards from Mecca along the Red Sea coast, his move northwards through the Yemeni mountains and the climactic seven-month siege of the fortress of Kawkaban, which led to the submission of Yemen’s Zaydi rulers to Ottoman authority.
Qurb al-Din’s flowery and sometimes bombastic language and his repetitive (often tedious) belittling of Zaydi resistance to the Turks tend to belie how closely fought this campaign was. But much of the account was adapted from the epic poetic record by Mustafa Bey al-Rumuzi; and, to my mind, Lightning Over Yemen only comes to life at the end when Qutb al-Din was probably able to draw on the personal recollections of Sinan and, in particular, the exchange of letters which led to the surrender of the Zaydis. At that point the Ottoman force was itself in an acutely difficult position. Sinan had rightly understood that he had to quell the critically strategic Zaydi strongholds of Thula and Kawkaban. But he barely had the military means to contain widespread outbreaks of brigandage and guerrilla action throughout the country. When reinforcements were sent from Egypt, they often had little more than the clothes they stood up in, and pay in arrears. It was only a cat with a taper tied to its tail detonating the gunpowder store in the southern fortress of Habb (which if anything had resisted even more steadfastly than Thula and Kawkaban) that helped to seal Ottoman supremacy at this time.
I enjoy the incidental details in the narrative that open out larger questions than the text deals with. Sometimes Clive Smith’s footnotes don’t quite answer the questions likely to spring to the reader’s mind (though I must commend him for the ease with which it is possible to relate the footnotes, at the end of the text, to the text itself). The forces involved in this campaign were quite large - at various times figures of up to 8,000 (possibly more) are mentioned. These must have been immensely difficult to keep supplied with food in a country where even large settlements - other than the regional capitals such as Sana’a, Taizz and Zabid - probably numbered only a few hundreds.
Does the translation actually work? Qutb al-Din’s florid language is certainly challenging - Clive Smith acknowledges this in one specific case in a footnote towards the end, when, commenting on the rhyming prose of the Arabic original, he observes that ‘the effect in Arabic is a great deal more dramatic than when translated into English’. From time to time the translation seems ‘clunky’, leading the reader to wonder whether it is right; and if it is right, what the original was supposed to mean.
Sadly I haven’t had an opportunity to consult the Arabic original on this occasion. But I am left wondering what exactly was behind the text translated as enemy bodies were impregnated with spear holes as heads bore fruit and became pregnant, (p. 172); and there were odd phrases - or oddly rendered ones -particularly in the first part of the book which tended to distract from the thrust of the text. A flowery idiom doesn’t translate too well if done too literally. The translation might just have worked better if a slightly more consistent 17th or 18th floweriness had been adopted. As it is, phrases like ‘vim and vigour’ or ‘knocked for six’ jangle a little harshly with ‘what a network of swords and arrows developed’ and ‘they were panic-stricken and lost all their double-dealing and treachery’.
It would have been nice, in a volume of this price, to have had rather better pictures and illustrations to support the text. Even though it is not always a straightforward read, I would suggest that the reader gallops briskly over the occasional rough stretch and concentrates on the drama of these critical years.