The Ochre Land: Images of Yemen 1985-1990

The Ochre Land: Images of Yemen 1985-1990

by Charles Dufour. Privately published, 2010. Pp.216. Illus. Maps. Bibliog. Appendix. Hb. £48. Available from the author ( ISBN/EAN 978-90-815293-1-0.

At first glance, The Ochre Land looks like a coffee-table book, and indeed it would grace any drawing-room table. Yet to dismiss it as such would be a mistake, for, as its subtitle Images of Yemen hints, it is functionally a pictorial archive and thus an important visual record of the last five years of the Yemen Arab Republic (before unity with South Yemen in 1990). The book is divided geographically between the Central Highlands, the West and the East.

The transitional nature of the time is clearly visible: while the qabili (tribesman) on p.92 still has a skin satchel, the qirba which the girls are filling (p.169) are made of car inner tubes.The woman in the picture captioned 'Wadi Adhanah, encounter at a watering place' (p.171) is still wearing traditional silver jewelry (with a Maria Theresa thaler just visible) and a sun block of ground turmeric paste - yet the camel's bridle is made of plastic rope. In Wadi Adhanah, Rahabah, in November 1986 there appears to be a single electrical, or possibly telephone, cable (p.176). For gun enthusiasts, there are Lee Enfield SMLEs, and No.4s; Le Gras and AK-47s, but rather fewer than the headline figures would suggest. Perhaps most significant are the pictures of Sana'a on pp.18 and 19, with no satellite dishes and few water tanks. Declining water resources - a pressing issue now - was one which Charles Dufour and his colleagues went to examine from 1982 to 1990.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, many of the photographs are extremely evocative, not to say striking - in particular the extraordinary 'Bilad ar-Rus' picture on p.116. However, as both Dufour and the writer of the Foreword point out, what is interesting about the book is less the 'chocolate box' pictures - the Bridge at Shiharah is notable by its absence - but rather the fact that Mr Dufour visited (and photographed) out of the way places. The other feature which makes the photographs particularly useful is the detailed captioning: not only is the location stated, but also the year and month, a practice which was unusual at the time but which we now take for granted with digital photograph metadata.

The book's excellent Appendix further differentiates it from coffee-table books, and there are three useful maps, including one of the watersheds around Sana'a - an important aspect given tribal feuds over water. There is an extensive bibliography which includes some references less familiar to Anglophone readers (Dr Weir's seminal work is listed as Quat in Jemen), and some good references on water issues.

There is also a useful 'Additional Information' essay which sets the photographs in context (although strangely there is no index of pictures). As with the Foreword, the Dutch author's essay contains a few awkward turns of phrase, but his English puts this reviewer's Dutch to shame! 

Included with the photographs are nuggets of information on qat, population, and especially on water issues such as problems with the new Marib dam and the interesting statement that 'over the period 1983-1992 the groundwater levels on the plain have dropped by 40 metres, on average'. This possibly predates the widely blamed diesel subsidies, but parallels the growth in population of 'an average 3. 9 percent ... during the period 1980-2000'. 

The English in the Foreword by the Curator of Photography at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is slightly awkward but intelligible. In the general text 'nearby' is used where 'near' would feel more natural (p. 47); and surely it is'Dar al-Hajar not Bayt al-Hajar inWadi Dahr. There are frequent inconsistencies in the hyphenation or otherwise of the definite article in Arabic place names. Some would quibble with Mr Dufour's rendering of qabili as 'landowner' (p. 75). The caption on p. 98 should probably be 'threshing' not 'tresh'; similarly 'untill the unification' (legend, p. 201) should read 'until ...' But these are among the minor niggles to be corrected in what, hopefully, will be a second print-run. 

The Ochre Land is not an academic tome of great weight (the weight was probably reserved for the reports which Mr Dufour prepared after his field work). It is, perhaps, rather more a 'side salad' lightening such meaty works as Dresch's Tribes, Government and History in Yemen (1989) with which it is roughly contemporaneous. It is certainly a worthwhile addition to the bookshelves of any Yemeni enthusiast.

James Spencer

Charles Dufour