Yemen Classics

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 25(1989):12; 26:7

#1: In the Indices

[Note: printing errors from the printed version have been corrected. Transliteration does not includes dots under letters.]

al-'Arashî , Qadi Husayn ibn Ahmad, Bulûgh al-maram fî sharh mask al-khitâm fî man tawalla mulk al-Yaman min mulk wa-imâm, 1939. [Reprint available in Sanaa]

For those interested in the history of Yemen, there is a rich variety of published sources in Arabic on virtually every aspect of Yemeni civilization and belles-lettres. Important new volumes, particularly editions of texts previously available only in manuscript, appear regularly due in large part to the efforts of the Yemen Center for Research and Studies (YCRS). As welcome as the new volumes are, it is important to return from time to time to the classics. With this column I initiate a series on "Yemen Classics"&emdash;major Arabic sources which continue to inform and entertain.

Choosing a particular book to begin with is a difficult task, so let me begin in reverse. I love to judge a book by its indices. The most thoroughly indexed Arabic source on Yemen that I know of is that for the somewhat encyclopedic volume by Qadi Husayn ibn Ahmad al-‘Arashî. This is the Bulûgh al-maram fî sharh mask al-khitâm fî man tawalla mulk al-Yaman min mulk wa-imâm, first published in 1939. The French editor, Pere Anastase-Marie de St. Elie, rendered this rather nicely as "Le but atteint en etudiant le commentaire de la poesie historique des rois et imams de l'Yemen." Although the original has long been out of print, reprints are readily available in the Sanaa bookstores.

Al-‘Arashî, assisted at times by the liberal hand of the editor, weaves together a little history, biography, geography and language for a very useful compendium on Yemen at the turn of the 20th century A.D. The first 82 pages provide a commentary on a historical poem about Yemen, a task completed by al-‘Arashî in 1318/1901. Following this is a valuable account of historical events in Yemen up until 1939. This includes population estimates for Yemeni tribes, information on foreign involvement in the country and even copies of political treaties. The final part of the book is a summary discussion of 16 previous books on Yemen, including al-Hamdani's Eighth Book of al-Iklîl, the biographical al-Badr al-Tâli', Bâ Mâkhrama's History of Aden and al-Wâsi‘î's History of Yemen.

At p. 287 of this 442-page book the first 19 indices begins. Indeed, Pere Anastase has provided so many indices that #19 is a fihris al-fahâris (index of indices!). If you are unable to find what you are looking for in these 155 pages of indices, it probably can not be found. At any rate, consider the titles of each index noted below…

  • Detailed Table of Contents
  • Treaties, Agreements and Official Reports
  • References (Published and Unpublished)
  • Plants and Crops
  • Gems and Precious Stones
  • Characteristics and Customs of Peoples and the Effect of Western Events
  • Hills and Mountains
  • Water Sources
  • Lexicon of Religious Schools, Sects, Religions, etc.
  • Peoples and their languages
  • Villages, Towns, and Various Place Names
  • Names of Turkish, Egyptian, and Iraqi Pashas
  • Governments, Kingdoms, Revolutions, Parties, Councils, etc.
  • Some Arabic Linguistic Points
  • Proper Names of Individuals, Tribes, and Families
  • Imams
  • Yemeni Terms
  • Yemeni Terms not mentioned in the book
  • Index of indices

The editor was not only energetic in the indices; each line of the text is numbered for easier access and numerous footnotes have been added for clarification. At times this edition seems to have overkill, more effort in preparation than the text per se warrants. Yet this is a basic reference which will be useful and time and time again, especially for those looking for obscure terminology or place names. And if you happen to be passing through Sanaa you can pick up a copy for just a few dollars. For those who are not yet convinced of the value of this volume, I will go beyond the indices in the next issue.

#2. On Language and Hubble-Bubbles

The Bulûgh al-maram of Qadi Husayn ibn Ahmad al-‘Arashî is primarily a work on the contemporary history of Yemen, but it is also an interesting source on Yemeni dialect. Speaking of language, the author's name has caused some confusion. The editor of the volume, Pere Anastase-Marie de St. Elie, assumed that the nisba was al-‘Arshî. In fact it is properly al-‘Arashî and is derived from the tribe of al-A'rûsh in Khawlân; this should not be confused with Bilâd al-‘Arsh.

At the time of the first edition, in 1939, the editor was unable to find a biographical notice of al-'Arashî. The most accessible biographical note today is in Nuzhat al-nazar fî rijâl al-qarn al-rabi'‘ashr of Ahmad ibn Muhammad Zabâra (Sanaa: YCRS, 1979), pp. 249-254. As Zabâra notes, al-‘Arashî was born in al-Kibs in 1276/1859-60 and studied in Dhamâr. He was a close associate of Imam Yahya and a recognized scholar in his day. He died in al-Layth in the Tihama after returning from the hajj in 1329/1911. The text, however, of the Bulûgh reads as though the author was describing events up until 1939. What in unclear is who added the events occurring after the author's death. The editor seems to have been unaware that the author had died so early.

Regardless of who included the notes on Yemeni dialect, the information is useful. One of the most interesting discussions is on the water pipe or hubble-bubble in Yemen. The common Arabic term is nârjîla, which is derived from the word for coconut because the coconut served as part of the pipe in some cases. In Yemen, however, the word used is madâ‘a or mada‘a.

This term is also inspired by the same fruit, since it refers literally to the coconut after it is emptied of its core. There are numerous terms noted for the various parts of the water pipe. The container made from clay is known asmazza, said to be derived from massa in reference to the sound made in sucking. That made from iron is called farshî, a Persian term related to the Arabic bathth; this refers to the spreading of smoke from the smoking process. The water pipe is also known in Yemen as the kurkud, an example of onomatopoeia not unlike the coining of hubble-bubble in English. The French editor may be forgiven for reading the English as huble-buble (which certainly looks more French). Another term used is narbîsh, another Persian loanword referring to a spiral of fire; this term is associated with a very large water pipe. The interested reader can turn to pp. 151-3 of theBulûgh for more on the topic.

Someone other than al-‘Arashî is responsible for the linguistic notes on Yemeni terms with possible foreign origin. While some of the etymological musings are intriguing, the evidence marshaled is not compelling. Take, for example, the term ghayl, which in Yemen refers to a flowing stream of water and often one associated with springs. This is actually a well-established Arabism, with classical ghayl referring to the flower of mother's milk. The author, editor or whoever put it down in writing, equated the Arabic term with the Greek helos after a fancy removing of the offending letters and transformation into Arabic; this strains reason to the point of overflowing… We are also informed that Yemeni burr, for wheat, must come from Latin far, perhaps not as far out as it appears. The Yemeni balas, for fig, figures from Greek phelex, while Yemeni firsik (peach) is Greek for "Persian" orientalized into Arabic. The latter point has some merit. Similarly, Yemeni barqûq (apricot) is said to come from Latin praecox and then reintroduced into Spanish (and the related tongues of the region) from Arabic as albarcoque. While not always in the best taste, there is plenty of food for linguistic thought.

While we smoke the hubble-bubble and discuss Yemeni dialect, there is a greater mystery to be solved. How did a book by a man who apparently died in 1911 come to include information on events up to 1939? Did someone write a dhayl to an al-‘Arashî's work or did the editor simply bring the edition up to date with comments of his own? Anyone who has a lead, please write the AIYS newsletter editor ... The fate of Yemeni studies hardly rests on this note of confusion, but a little suspense is always a plus. (I am tempted to say the butler did it, but I can not think of the Yemeni term for butler…)

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