18th Century Yemen: French Translation of al-Bahkali's History

Imams, notables et bédouins du Yémen au xviiie siècle ou Quintessence de l'or du règne de Cherif Muhammad B. Ahmad: Chronique de 'Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan al-Bahkali,Translated by Michel Tuchscherer (TAEI, xxx. Cairo: Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale du Caire, 1992, xii, 225 pp. ISBN 2-7247-0117-8).

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 37(1995):32-33

Michel Tuchscherer, a French scholar with a long and fruitful experience in Yemen, has recently published a major contribution to our understanding of 18th century Yemen. This is his translation into French of Khulasat al-'asjad fi dawlat al-sharif Muhammad ibn Ahmad by 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Hasan al-Bahkali, who stems from a famous family of qadis in the province of Sulaymaniya. Tuchscherer provides a useful introduction and annotated translation to the text with a detailed index and several well reproduced photographs and illustrations. Parts of the text, such as long poetic citations, are sometimes excluded from the translation. This work is the result of a thesis written at the University of Aix-en-Provence under the direction of André Raymond.

The author, al-Bahkali, was born in Hijrat Damad in 1148/1735-36 and died at Abu 'Arish in 1224/1809. The text translated here is based on two Arabic copies, one in Paris (112folios) and the other in the Western Library of the Great Mosque in Sanaa (242 pages). As Tuchscherer notes, this work is part of the long and rich tradition of history writing in Yemen. He (p. 40)writes: "Les historiens yéménites étaientsoucieux de la qualité littéraire de leurs oeuvres. Plusiers ouvrages sont entièrement versifiés. Souventl'auteur adoptait la prose rimée et illustrait les faits devers empruntés à divers poètes. La chronique de'Abd al-Rahman al-Bahkali porte presque exclusivement sur lerègne d'un homme, Chérif Muhammad b. Ahmad. Elleévoque essentiellement les événements survenusdans la province sulaym¡n£te durant cette période,mais l'auteur a cru nécessaire d'évoquer certains faitsayant eu lieu à La Mecque ou à Sanaa." The present work covers the years 1142/1729 through 1184/1770.

In his introduction the translator discusses Yemen and the Sulaymani province, especially from the 16th to the18th centuries. It also contains a brief introduction to the history of Yemen as it affected the area in Yemen's long history. This area was on the periphery of political events between Yemen and the Hejaz. The area is about 200 km along the coast of the Red Sea and some50-70 km inland at the extreme southern end of Saudi Arabia and northern tip of the Yemeni Tih¡ma. As Tuchscherer notes (p. 4),"Les conditions physiques certes, mais aussi les donnéessociales, économiques et culturelles donnent à cetterégion une profonde unité. Celle-ci favorisal'emergence de dynasties locales d'émirs n'entretenant que desliens de vassalité assez ténus avec le pouvoir au Yémen." The province is named for a local shar£f from the early 11th century named Dawud ibn Sulayman, who is the ancestor of a number of important families in the region. The Ottomans arrived in 1538, and much of the subsequent history was tied up with events between the Zaydi imams and the sharifs of Mecca.

In addition to an excellent overview of the local history of the area, Tuchscherer also provides interesting cultural information, especially on the tribes and sayyids (pp.30-34). As he notes (p. 31) "C'est pourquoi il porte constamment sonarme sur lui, le poignard appelé janbiya auquel s'est jointeaujourd'hui la kalachnikov." The local population has always been predominantly rural and agricultural. The main towns of Jazan, Sabiya and Abu 'Arish never had more than 2000-3000 people. This was also an area where the Shafi'i school dominated throughout most of its history.

It is difficult to evaluate the importance of any given historical text. All documentation of history is potentially of value, but local histories tend to be more of interest to specialized individuals. But the grand histories, of which there are many on Yemen, tend to be duplicative, while local histories have a richness of detail and color that make for more interesting reading. In this history there are remarks on the newly introduced tobacco, political intrigue, biographical obituaries, commercial disputes, wars and rumors of wars, and much more. It is well worth reading through the text even if you are not particularly enthralled by the 18th century. This is an informative volume well worth having for anyone interested in the recent history of Yemen. In order to obtain a copy, contact IFAO, POB 11562, Kasr El-Ayni, Cairo, Egypt(phone 20-2-354-8245).


Book Excerpt (pp.109-110)

ANECDOTE "A PROPOSD'AL-RUQAYHI

Revenons à l'évocation dulettré al-Ruqayhi &emdash; que le miséricorde de Dieusoit sur lui &emdash;. Combine de poèmes de valeur lui sontdus, comportant généralement de [nombreuses]figures de rhétorique (nukat al-badi'). On racontequ'à Sanaa, à proximité de la GrandeMosquée, se trouvait une maison ou une boutique et que l'imamal-Mutawakkil al-Qasim b. al-Husayn possédait près delà une maison. Ce lettré exerçait lemétier de teinturier. / Il teignait de noir lesvêtements. Les gardes avaient l'habitude, après laprière de l'après-midi, [de jouer du tambour]devant la porte de l'imam dans le [quartier] de Zumur. Lestambours, les flûtes, l'attroupement de gens du commun, lafoule, [tout cela] provoquait un grand vacarme, ce quiennuyait le lettré et ses assistants. C'est pourquoi &emdash;que Dieu lui accorde Sa miséricorde &emdash; il adressaà l'imam ces vers si harmonieux:

Ô maître, tu restes dans une position devant laquelle s'inclinent les étoiles

Puisse Dieu t'accorder une autorité sans cesse plus grande

Accorde-moi un droit de voisinage dont on tire profit

Je me plains auprès de toi des calamités [que m'inflige] le temps, selon moi, il n'y a

qu'une calamité [dont je me plains].

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