Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen

Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen 

by Theo Padnos, The Bodley Head, London, 2011. Pp. 293. £12.99. ISBN 978-1-847-92084-3.

This is a book of ignorance: the author's ignorance and that of his fellow tulab (students); ignorance about Islam, about reality, about the human condition. Those hoping that the book's subtitle might reward with an account of Yemen will be disappointed: Yemen is but the backdrop to the book, and imperfectly drawn at that, with Yemenis having a few, cameo roles, and the tale mostly unfolds in two small bubbles: Sana'a and Dammaj.

'Undercover Muslim', however, offers an unusual insight into the shallowness of a network of soi-disant colleges, affecting an aura of Salafi sanctity without the substance of disciplined study. The schools he attends seem to resemble the second floor colleges which dot London's streets: a framework curriculum, poor instructors, but impressive fees. Most of the information acquired seems to be through conversations or debates with other, equally ignorant, students, rather than with an 'alim. A telling witness to the standard of tuition is the bald statement that 'Prayer is the second pillar of Islam, after monotheism' (p.29), by which latter Padnos presumably means the Shahada, or public profession of belief in monotheism and of Muhammad's Prophethood.

Most of the characters in the tale are foreign: zealous 'born again Muslims' and converts, as well as the flotsam and jetsam of the West. But all are seeking some fabled place where 'real' Islam is practised, usually over the brow of the next hill. Their quest has led to Yemen, but in Sana'a, too, Islam is sullied so they make a further pilgrimage to Dammaj. Yet even when they reach the storied Dar al-Hadith, reality, and venality, intrude. Students selfcertify, which is probably for the best, as there is little formal curriculum, and many of the teachers are ill-educated and unqualified. Above all, there is none of the intellectual rigour that would be found in other theological colleges, such as Tarim's well known Dar al-Mustafa (which the author does not mention). Instead, many live (and some die) the dream of the Wild East (p.260), replete with AK-47s.

Often, the author claims, these (mostly) men are also seeking wives, the Orientalist's dream of a religious, submissive bride (p.114.) The only description of such a hoped-for union reveals not only the tawdry actuality of life, but a two-fold clash "between Eastern and Western cultures, and between fantasy and reality.

The few Yemenis who make an entrance are accurately sketched, but – to the disappointment of many tulab – are as sinful as the rest of humanity.
More revealing are the chapters describing the author's time on the staff of the Yemen Observer, with which Padnos eventually becomes disenchanted.

Yemen itself comes off particularly badly: while Tarim is described as a 'rarely visited but storied village' (p.15), Ta'iz (pop. 500,000) is 'a small city to the south of Sana'a' (p.149.) The tribes, apparently, are 'anxious for respect' to which end they 'kidnap tourists, blow up oil pipelines and periodically ambush units of the Yemeni army' (p.42.). The emptiness of the land on the journey north (during a Ramadhan morning) is ascribed to desertification caused by emigration in the 1970s (p.214), rather than the shift in working hours. Similarly, most of the Jews 'fled in the 1949 airlift called Operation Magic Carpet' (p.40), which is probably news to the many who made the journey ('aliyeh') willingly, although Padnos's driver does point out the presence of the few remaining, intensely patriotic (and very Yemeni) Jews in Amran (p.278.) 

The most extraordinary issue of the entire book is his (and presumably his fellows') dismissal of much of the Yemeni population as 'the Shia', whom he numbers at 5% of the population (p.217) rather than 40%. Padnos seems to believe (from his references to 'Rafsanjani, Muqtada al-Sadr, Hassan Nasrallah and so forth', p.270) that these 'Shia' are Ja'afari (rather than Zaydi and Isma'ili), and confined to 'an enclave' in the Governorate of Sa'ada (p.25). (Padnos seems equally unaware of the different madhahib within Sunni Islam as well, although he briefly mentions (p.128.) the 'Sufi, a mystical occasionally heretical branch of Islam'.) Despite noting that Dammaj is 'a world of Saudi standardisation and orthodoxy' (p.211), Padnos writes of Dar al-Hadith being 'in a war zone among hostile Shia' (p.238), failing to wonder why Zaydi tribes might feel animosity towards an outpost of their invasive northern neighbours. Rather (subliminally echoing GW Bush's equally ignorant 'They hate us because' speech) Padnos ascribes this to the Shia being 'hostile to our kind of Islam' (p.22). Yet he makes no comment when 'near a Shia village we ran out of petrol and had to ask the locals to supply us which they did, generously' (p.277/8.) 

For a former teacher, and one who was supposed to be learning Qur'anic Arabic, Padnos's transliteration is as idiosyncratic as the book, which has the feel of a typed up journal rather than a structured work (it makes no pretence to being an academic work, lacking even an index.) The introduction, mentioning Awlaki and Mutallab [sic] is written in a different register (it is remarkably similar to an article 'Anwar Awlaki's Blog' in the January 2010 London Review of Books) "and seems to have been tacked on, almost as if to justify the reference to 'al-Qaeda' on the back cover.

The book is part Don Quixote, and part L'Etranger: venturing on an imagined quest, while emotionally detached from the events of the narrative; this rings hollow in a book about religion. While the title is 'Undercover Muslim', both the tenor of the book and the author's name on the front cover suggest that 'Undecided Muslim' would be more accurate. Indeed, there is some doubt as to the genuineness of his conversion: not only does Padnos's first name translate from the Greek as 'God', but after his 'conversion' he takes an Arab, rather than overtly Muslim, name.
More revealing still is the use of the third person to describe his fellows during his time at Dar al-Hadith; he does not seem to have felt sufficiently part of the movement to use the term 'us'.

One is left with the feeling that for Padnos "and probably for many of his fellows "this is a physical journey to be re-told to an admiring audience back home, rather than a spiritual hijrato develop and nourish the soul.
While the book accurately portrays the aimless (and often unrequited) search for meaning by some on the fringes of society, those wishing a more substantive account of religious study in Yemen would do better to read Ethar El-Katatney's 'Forty Days and Forty Nights in Yemen: A Journey to Tarim, the City of Light', or even the New York Times' Crossroads of Islam, Past and Present (14 October 2009).' So would Mr Padnos.

James Spencer

Theo Padnos