United Forever

Le Yémen, passé et présent de l'unité.
M. Tuchscherer (editor) Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée vol. 67, 1993, 186 pp. [To order this issue, contact REMMM, Maison de la Méditerranée, 5 Avenue Pasteur, 13617 Aix-en-Provence Cédex, France.]

Reviewed by David A. Warburton

Yemen Update 36(1995):30-32

Michel Tuchscherer gathered together Yemeni,French, Iraqi, American, and British scholars to produce a series of variations on an ode to Yemeni unity and the principle of unity for the last thousand years, dealing directly with power politics, butalso justice, architecture, and culture. As the recent summer war demonstrated that despite enormous differences the belief in unity is far more powerful than the Machiavellian antics which repeatedly seemed to doom the country to division, this book is a valuable guide to the depth of unity as a fundamental concept of life in Yemen. But this book seems to give the impression that unity diffuses from North to South.

Dan Varisco (pp. 13-23) chose to devote his contribution to one of the few rulers who was self-consciously non-Yemeni by birth, but an instinctive nationalist and leader. The Rasulid mercenary commander al-Malik al-Muzaffar (1222-1295 C.E.)chose to conquer and rule by diplomacy accompanied with the requisite amount of force, rather than to fail in conquest and run, as the last Ayyubids had done, or to negotiate with the imam, who admitted that he had met his equal.

The Zaydi imam Mutahhar ibn Yahya could afford to offer left-handed compliments to Muzaffar, as Nahida Coussonnet (pp. 25-37) points out that Zaydism was enjoying its moral apogee during the 13th century. The imams who opposed al-Muzaffar were supposedly truly qualified to be imams, being heroes as well as spiritual and temporal rulers, wise judges, and legislators. Although occasionally able to persuade willing opponents with their intellectual rhetoric, they were notably unsuccessful warriors in their sallies against the Rasulids, and thus unity remained with the latter, and one wonders whether the imams were really up to scratch.

The Rasulid dynasty tended to govern from Ta'izz and Zabid, and Zabid gave rise to a great dynasty, the Tahirids. Although Jean Lambert indicates that the inspiration for…an'¡n£ music will have come from his Zabid, the AmirIbn 'Abd al-Wahhab of Dhofar is not mentioned in this volume, but his reign was glorious until Portuguese and Mameluke interventions put an end to this native Yemeni dynasty. Through their co-operation with the Mamelukes, the Zaydis opened the way to the century of the first Ottoman occupation. Unable to face the Rasulids or the Tahirids, the Zaydis were likewise unable to inspire the tribes, and thus the imams found themselves facing stalwart Ottoman foes while their own supporters wavered. François Blukacz (pp. 39-51) relates how finally the moral strength of the Imam al-Mu'ayyad Muhammad was such that the Ottomans were driven into the defensive, so that their troops deserted, and the Sublime Port cut its losses, and left Yemen. His successor al-Mutawakkil Isma'il (1644-1676) brought the domains of the Qasimi state to their maximum extent, subduing the southern and eastern parts of the country militarily, but the futility of military conquests was revealed at his death when the centrifugal tendencies tore the Zaydi community apart. The community and the tribes remained largely fragmented until after the first world war.

Bernard Haykel (pp. 53-65) shows how the great Judge Shawkani was used by the Qasimi imams of the 18th and19th centuries to co-opt their largely Shafi'i constituency. Shawkani used a strict system of legal analysis to underpin his logic, based mainly on Sunni - rather than Shia - thought. As the imams became less charismatic, and the borders of the area they ruled contracted,Shawkani's importance increased. Haykel points out that Shawkani was likewise the succor of the early Yemen Arab Republic: it would thus seem that at times when the frontier of the government's authority begins to encroach on the borders of Sanaa, appeal is made to legal authority. At others, military power and tribal support seem to suffice.

Haykel made the leap from Shawkani's death(1834) to the Republic, and this little volume does not discuss the intervening century, dominated by the British conquest of Aden, the second Ottoman occupation of northern Yemen, and the resurgence of the Hamid al-Din family. This omission is curious, as it was Imam Yahya who ground down Turkish influence, and governed a large part of the country, and who provided a target for the opposition, while the liberation movements working out of Aden crystallized the assumption that Yemen would be united as a single independent Republic. The multitudes of Yemeni workers in Aden and the presence of leading exiled politicians gave impetus to the belief in unity, coupled with the failure of the British to rule.

This period is however dealt with obliquely in Jean Lambert's contribution (pp. 171-186) detailing the divergent styles which compose Yemeni vernacular music, touching upon an issue emphasized by Paul Dresch, that cultural diversity and national identity go hand in hand in Yemen. The national consensus on aesthetic values meant that the expulsion of Yemeni musicians by Imam Yahya made it possible for Adenis and Hadramis to become proficient at vernacular San'ani, and that these then laid the foundations forth Aden Musical Club, with the object of creating a vernacular Adeni!

At a dizzying pace, Jacques Couland (pp.79-93) traces the political history of the development of the modern concept of unity from the beginning of the revolutions until after the elections, relating the aspiration to the conflicts, and economic and political pressures. Paul Dresch (pp. 67-77) takes a step back to reflect on the incredible implications of unity as such. Where others associate the idea of Yemeni unity with that of Arab unity at large,Dresch points out that Yemenis do not need to feel identical to have a common identity: a common ground suffices, and that common ground can shift, as values shift, and the resilience of Yemeni unity rests on that, as well as on mutual respect.

Abu Bakr al-Saqqaf (pp. 95-108) touches upon a number of problems relating to unity, speaking forthrightly in favour of the democratic state. Although he bluntly states that"democracy is at the heart of all the problems appearing sincere-unification" (p. 97), he emphasizes that the implementation of democracy was the Southern precondition for unity. He notes that tribal defiance of the state goes hand in hand with the widespread use of qat, the bearing of arms, as well as support for retrograde laws (abolishing some of the hard won rights available in the South),and points out that the tribes do not make up the majority of the country either demographically or territorially. The tribal element is especially discouraging to this progressive Yemeni scholar when the leadership nevertheless contends that "we all belong to tribes",while another argues that tribes are themselves a democratic base. Saqqaf saw the failure to merge the two armies as a reason for hope,or fear.

Blandine Destremau (pp. 109-119) points out that during the 1970's when North Yemen emerged from the civil war,and South Yemen from colonial rule, policies designed to support the growth of a local economy were not considered. Thus, the oil boom of the late 1970's meant that pressure to develop such policies evaporated, such that by the time remittances began to drop, trust was placed in oil revenues. In the meantime external debt had become awesome, and the agricultural sector declined while consumption of imported goods soared. When the Gulf Crisis sent Yemenis scurrying back home, inflation and unemployment likewise took off, while demographic growth reached world-class rates, and thus the contraction of the economy in real terms signified a body blow in per capita terms. While optimistic about the potential for oil production, she advises that the state seriously face the economic problems of the country.

In discussing the labour market, Muhammadal-Maytami (pp. 121-129) produces just the kind of report required by the government to aid in formulating policy. Drawing on statistics he shows - among many things - that the gap between the number of people entering the labour market and the number of places on offer is enormous, but also that the education provided by the state merely accentuates the gap, by failing to meet the expected demands of the employers.

Frank Mermier (pp. 131-139) takes us back to the legendary creation of Sanaa by Shem, Noah's son, and introduces us to the tales relating the establishment of Aden, among which Cainis named only to be expunged. The glorious actors indicate the importance of the cities which were united as the dual capitals of unified Yemen. Mermier notes that unity has drawn people from across the country to Sanaa, and P. Bonnenfant (pp. 141-159) takes the reader on a tour of the different architectural styles prevailing in modern Yemen by finding examples in Sanaa and its suburbs.

The volume closes with remarks by Najwa Adra (pp. 161-168) on dance, coupling identity with the emerging Northern state with support for the concept of unity. Just as Bonnenfant chose not to discuss the distinctive architectural styles of the Hadramaut, Adra neglects the Southern folklore movement that supported patriotic dances in the South: in much of this volume, "unity" is seen from a Northern viewpoint, lethargically subduing people much as San'animusic silences the vigour of Southern music. Well before independence, one Southern perspective was summed up by D. Ledger(Shifting Sands, p. 38): "[...] Adenis of all shades of political opinion were terrified lest closer contact with their brothers [...] meant the loss not only of their freedom but their household goods as well." As socialist rule seemingly relieved them of both their possessions and their liberties, they fancied having nothing more to lose. Unity was, however, based on Southern acquiescence in renouncing independence and sovereignty, and that was their last card. This aspect of unity is touched upon only in Saqqaf's article, but it is the quintessence of unity that the Southern sacrifice was made in exchange for democracy in the hope of preserving identity. It is curious that foreign scholars disdain from recognizing the Southern identity as a significant feature of unity:chapters on Zaydism are not balanced with accounts of saints' cults in the South, and many of those chapters whose titles imply unity deal mainly with the North. It is fair to devote a large proportion of any work dealing with united Yemen to the culture of the Northern part of the country, but a book on unity should provide more balanced coverage, as Southern concessions - not Northern desires - made unity possible.

If the title is slightly misleading and the coverage incomplete, the contents of the articles are not, and this is a most rewarding read. And it will be a challenge to produce a work of similar quality to fill the various lacunae.

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