Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

by Victoria Clark. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010. Pp. x + 311. Notes. Illus. Bibliog. Index. Pb. £14. 99. ISBN 978-0-300-11701-1. 

Victoria Clark is a freelance journalist and former Observer correspondent in Moscow. She is linked to Yemen by her birth inAden where her father, the late Noel Clark, served as the BBC's South Arabia correspondent. She has re-acquainted herself with the country during several visits over the past five years or so - presumably because of the recent growth of internal conflicts and jihadism, the principal focus of her book. The book does not pretend to be an academic monograph; it is more popular history, political commentary and travelogue combined. Nevertheless, more rigorous referencing of key published sources would have been welcome - to acknowledge the substantial body of scholarly work on which she draws (not always accurately), and to enable the reader to judge her conclusions. She provides a good bibliography of books, but few are cited in the text or notes. And articles are only listed in endnotes, where citations to an impressive array of newspaper and online reports, rather than scholarly articles, predominate. This is inevitable with regard to the most recent events, of which she gives a racy account, but not for earlier periods. 

Clark's style is fluent and readable, and she deftly summarises the complex history and politics of Yemen with a generally light touch. She also has the knack of enlivening her text with colourful anecdotes culled from a variety of written sources and personal experiences. However, the narrative sometimes feels too condensed and hurried - perhaps under pressure from a publisher wanting to ride the wave of sudden global interest in Yemen after the 'pants-bomber' incident over Detroit? One also wonders whether the author had time to check her facts. A minor but telling error is her description of the noted American political scientist, Sheila Carapico, as a British Anthropologist (p. 105). I also doubt whether the Salafi leader al-Zindani's proposed religious police force was named the 'Commission for the Propagation of Vice and Virtue'! (p. 226). 

The first part of the book covers Yemeni history from the first Ottoman occupation in the sixteenth century up to the unification of Yemen in 1990. Clark is particularly good on the tensions and conflicts between North and South Yemen before unification, and on Ali Abdullah Salih's ways of governing and maintaining power: his key political relationships with relatives, leading shaykhs, the security services and the military; the background jockeying for succession, and the possibly fatal weakness and corruption of the present government. The subtitle of her book is the President's own metaphor for the difficulty of ruling Yemen. The snakes, many think, will soon take over the reptile house. 

The second part of the book describes the development of the three main spheres of conflict in contemporary Yemen: the al-Huthi rebellion which has raged intermittently in the north since 2004, and which she rightly connects with the growth of Wahhabi-Salafism in the Zaydi heartlands rather than Iranian influence; the growing and increasingly violent secessionist movement in the disadvantaged south; and the activities of alQa'ida in Yemen including and since the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. In addressing these extremely complicated, opaque and constantly fluctuating situations, Clark is wise enough to air alternative views and narratives, and refrain from authorial pronouncements. Having waded into the deep waters of Yemen's current political scene, she has emerged with some good catches. Most notably she secures interviews with Bin Laden's former driver, and with the chameleon-like Tariq al-Fadhli, who has pranced onto the political stage in a variety of jihadi guises, and now aspires to lead the southern secessionists. 

Of special interest to this reviewer, and vital for understanding the politics of contemporary Yemen, is the subject of the tribes. On this Clark is factually and analytically inadequate. The 'rapacious' tribes of the northern highlands, as she calls them, have not ' ... always lacked the wherewithal - either in the form of arable land or other natural resources - to survive in their lofty fastnesses without exploiting the coast and the verdant southern highlands.' (p. 13) Most highland regions were historically self-sufficient in grain and animals, and traded with one another, the Tihamah and the major towns and ports for other products. She is confusing, and generalizing from, the imams' deployment of tribal mercenaries from the poorer plateau regions near Sana'a to police, exploit and tax the verdant southern highlands. This was essentially state not tribal rapaciousness. It is also mistaken to characterize the Tihamah as pacifically non-tribal (p. 38), and to assume that its inhabitants' adherence to the Shafi'i-Sunni madhhab caused them to welcome Ottoman occupation (p. 14). The Sunni tribes of the 'Asir Tihamah, and the Sunni Zaraniq of the southern Yemeni Tihamah, violently resisted the Ottomans during their second occupation of Yemen as she elsewhere and contradictorily acknowledges (p. 51). The important point is that tribes, like other polities including states, can be peaceful or violent according to contingent circumstances such as threats to the welfare of their members by other tribes, foreign invaders or unjust rulers. A minority of their more headstrong and idealistic youths can, and have been, also provoked into direct action by outrage at ruthless state violence abroad such as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the US attacks on Iraq and the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. This is how we are to understand any connection between tribesmen (or non-tribesmen) and jihadism. 

As author of A Tribal Order, I turned to the chapter entitled 'A Tribal Disorder?' with anticipation, hoping for a stimulating critique of my approach. But neither my book nor the others on the tribes of north Yemen by Steven Caton, Paul Dresch and Flagg Miller, are even cited, though they are there in the bibliography. 

This is a pity as she might otherwise have avoided reproducing the essentialist and stereotypical view of the tribes as fierce warriors with an 'inborn bent for warfare' inherently 'restive', violent and war-hungry (pp. 72, 96, 158-9), and might have refrained from attributing ' Yemen's failure to thrive as a modern nation state, complete with functioning and respected institutions' to the Zaidi highland tribes (p. 24). Contrary to this vision, and as my book describes, in the absence of effective government or state institutions, the northern tribes have always fulfilled state-like functions themselves - notably in law-enforcement and the protection of human and natural resources within their territorial boundaries - and often in cooperation with state officials. Furthermore, during the 1970s sand 80s, many roadbuilding and other 'modern' infrastructural schemes in the Republic of Yemen were organized and implemented on a tribal basis within grassroots Local Development Associations, with tribes cooperating - and of course competing and occasionally clashing just as states do - to achieve their ends. (Tribesmen do not, incidentally, find hard labour demeaning, and particularly admire, not despise, builders) (p. 105). All this admirable and resourceful civic behaviour was later crushed by a government which then failed to implement the desperately-needed development for which everybody in the north and south, tribal or non-tribal, still yearns. Clark's assertion that tribesmen most care about 'money and land, not peace or religion or any ideology' is plain wrong (p. 165). Those I know care deeply about all these things - like most human beings. Only once that is appreciated can events in Yemen be properly understood.

Shelagh Weir

Author: 
Victoria Clark