Being There (When "There" is Yemen)

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 41(1999)

Some people think that the next best thing to being there is reading a travel book by someone who was there. So if you cannot go to Yemen, or you want to remember what it was like,why not surf to amazon.com and search for the recent travel accounts on Yemen? You will find several offerings. In fact, I will save you the trouble of looking them up and tell you up front the four 90stravelogues on Yemen that I wish to review in this article. Here they are, starting with the most recent:

• Kevin Rushby, Eating the Flowers of Paradise: One Man's Journey through Ethiopia and Yemen. N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1999 ISBN 0-312-21794-3

• Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land. London: John Murray, 1997. ISBN 0-7195-5622-8

• Tony Horwitz, Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia. New York: Plume, 1992. ISBN 0-452-26745-5

• Eric Hansen, Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. ISBN 0-395-48347-6

I suspect, after reading all of these books,that sometimes there is no next best thing to being there. Of all the books listed above, I would give one an unqualified and enthusiastic endorsement; this the well informed and enjoyably readable traveltour de force of Tim Mackintosh Smith, who (I might add) has spent more time in Yemen than all the other authors combined. By all means read Tim's book; buy one for your library as it is essential reading for any Yemenophile. Go to amazon.com or wherever and order it before you finish this review. Rushby's book is also well worth reading, but my advice would be to keep Horwitz and Hansen at bay -- preferably at the bottom of a deep bay, but (as well shall see below) not off the Red Sea coast of Yemen

In what follows I will guide you through my impressions on all these books, pointing out the positive points where warranted and leaving no holds barred for the careless,journalistically naive and at times grievously erroneous statements of some of the travelers. I write not as a professional reviewer of travel books, nor as a Yemeni, but as an outsider with wide experience in and on Yemen. Having been there, I offer my comments on others who wish to make a buck by convincing you as a reader it was worthwhile for them to be there too. Ultimately, you are the judge,so here is my brief.

Each book deserves to be weighed first in terms of its context, given the author's level of experience in Yemen and assumed audience. I shall do this first, starting with the book I have nothing but praise for, and then working my way through the rest of the litter. I would be remiss not to draw my comments together at the end in some guidelines for anyone contemplating writing a travel book on Yemen. I do hope that more will be written, especially by people who have the knowledge to do so, so that the passion we often bury in obscure professional journals or unpublished lectures can leak out to a wider audience. Those of us who know Yemen know that it deserves better than it has received thus far.

Wordsmith for a Dictionary Land


Hamud ibn Ahmad al-Qatta‘(Drawing by Martin Yeoman)

Let's be direct. Tim Mackintosh-Smith's account of over fifteen years residence in Yemen may be the best informed and most readable Arabian travelogue of this century. In a book that "treads the thin line between seriousness and frivolity"(p. xi), you can learn more about everyday life in the "real" Yemen and the imagination of generations of Yemeni scholars than any single ethnography or history in print. This is a wonderful book. Buy it. Read it several times. Buy extra copies to give as gifts. I certainly will do so.

One of the best things this book has going for it is the author, whose combination of wit and verve grabs you on the first page and continues unabated until the last paragraph. This is an autobiographical account that will resonate with anyone who has learned Arabic from scratch, resided in the Middle East, or worked methodically, lexicon in hand, with medieval texts. Musing on how he began his Arabic study with Cowan's Modern Literary Arabic,Mackintosh-Smith describes the textbook example he encountered for the dual: "The two beautiful queens are ignorant." Retorts the author, "The odds against ever uttering the sentence were high:grammars, like theatre, call for a suspension of belief" (p. 1). The details, seemingly disparate in isolation, are woven masterfully into a fascinating story of an original life experience: how he found his old prep-school blazer on a boy on the street in Sanaa (p. 12),watching American all-star wrestling on Saudi TV in a Yemenidiwan (p. 117), sharing his bed in Hadramawt with a baby scorpion (p. 188), sleeping near a wadi bed with baboons on the prowl(p. 59). A 20th century postmodern Doughty emerges through this narrative. It is the kind of narrative those of us who have been there secretly wish we could write.

Mackintosh-Smith is a brilliant wordsmith; puns and neologisms punctuate almost every page. Texas oilmen are classified under the specious Homo petrolensis; former PDRY politics is where "shove all too often turned to "putsch" (p. 164).Consider this description of an "oriental dancer" in a seedy port of Aden bar: "She had buck teeth and was wearing an Alcanfoil bikini. Slowly, she cranked herself into action. The performance was not so much a dance as a series of little spasms, like the dying stages of an epileptic fit. I could have made a more erotic job of it" (p.137). The irony here, not readily apparent from the author, is that this type of imported go-go dancing is as far removed from actual Yemeni dancing as anyone can imagine.

The dry sense of humor is sprinkled throughout the text, especially in the enticing bits of dialogue. My favorite is the encounter with an Egyptian school teacher in Kusmah (pp. 123-124):

"As I sipped my tea, the other major annoyance of Kusmah stalked past in his striped pajamas, stately in a pained sort of way. I quickly stared into my beans. After my previous escape from the umdah [village leader] I was passing the school when this man, graduate of a university in the Nile Delta and Kusmah's principal pedagogue, had shot -- if that's the right word for a fat, middle-aged Egyptian -- out of his religious instruction class and dragged me in. I was a choice and appropriate piece of what the theorists of teaching call realia, educational objets trouvés.

Fifty pairs of eyes were on me.

'What is your name, sir?' the Egyptian asked in English.

'Tim.'

'No! "My name is Tim."'

'Oh, yes. Sorry. My name is Tim.'

'And where are you from, Professor Tim?' He rolled his r's like a big car purring.

The interrogation continued in English. The children, of course, understood nothing. Nor were they supposed to: they were a primary class, and English instruction is only given in middle and secondary schools. After establishing my basic credentials of nationality, marital status, religion and so on, he changed into Arabic.

'Come here, Ali.'

A small boy in the front row now jumped up. Teacher's pet, I thought. The Egyptian put one arm around each of us -- with some difficulty because of the vast difference in height -- and stood beaming. The room was in suspense.

'Now. How many eyes has Professor Tim got?'

'Two!' they shouted.

'And how many eyes has Professor Ali got?'

'Two!"

'And how many ears has Professor Tim got?'

'Two!'

'And Professor Ali?'

'TWO!'

'How many ... noses has Professor Tim got?'

'One!' There were a few 'twos' from the back of the class.

The questioning went on until we had covered all mentionable parts of the body. Our respective religions were then re-established. 'So, although Professor Tim is a Christian and Professor Ali is a Muslim, God has created them the same in all respects.'

'But he's taller!'

'Silence! This', said the Egyptian, finally releasing us, 'is proof of the oneness of His creation.'

A bell rang and the pupils charged out. I admired the teacher's exposition of so elemental a truth, and told him so. 'Naturally', he said, 'we must use such simple methods here. The people are so very ... simple.'

I said that, to me, the pupils seemed very bright, that school education to them was something new and that, moreover, it was appreciated far more than in the West. And in Egypt, I nearly added. I could have done - he wasn't listening anyway. But then I didn't pay attention to his tirade against life in Kusmah compared with the pleasures of Tantah. For an Arab returning to the cradle of his race - and getting paid vast sums of money relative to his potential earnings at home - it all seemed ungrateful."

The author is well-versed in almost all aspects of Yemeni culture, geography, history, politics, religion,literature, and everyday jokes. We learn much about famous and not-so-famous imams, the Portuguese in Socotra, the British era in Aden, the revolutions, recent politics, tribal farmers, hyrax hunters, boat captains, and the fine art of Yemeni qatchewing. The author is well-versed in original Arabic texts(which he is capable of translating well) and scores of earlier travelogues and studies on Yemen. Ibn al-Mujawir, a like-minded traveler from the 13th century, is quoted on Yemeni women as saying they were "pretty of face, fond of chattering, and loose of trouser-band" (p. 203). The 20th century history al-Wasi'i weighs in on the effect of cigarette smoking, which "causes a worm to grow in the brain" (p. 96). Yemeni pundits named a model of Landcruiser after Layla Alawi, the "curvaceous Egyptian actress," whose reaction was not one of decorum. Did you know that "civet," as in the much abused civet cat, is derived from the Arabic zabad, related to the sense of butter?

This is a book to be appreciated by anyone,but Tim is careful to provide a very useful glossary (256-263) and a well-honed bibliography including essential Arabic texts. Consider his discussion of the term baghlah as "A large ocean-going sailing vessel of the Arabian Gulf. Literally 'a she-mule', the word probably derives from the Latin vascellum via Spanish-Portuguese bajel. It entered English as 'buggalow.'"The index is superb and well worth a gambit just to see the range of items mentioned in the text. Tim even finds a way to quote philosopher George Santayana (on the British empire) and Cardinal Newman (on the Arabian Nights). Even the maps are exquisite.

By all accounts, at least those reviewed here, Tim is "the" person to meet and describe for those who write travel books about Yemen. He is, as author Eric Hansen notes on the jacket, a "true original." Hansen, though, gave him the pseudonym"Martin Plimsole" in his account, but Tim thanks Eric for encouraging him to write his own book. Kevin Rushby practically makes Tim the star of the second part of his book; Kevin is also thanked by Tim for commenting on his book. Tony Horwitz could desperately have used the help of someone like Tim to see at least a few millimeters beyond his built-in monologue-driven bias. But let the last word go to the author, who at this very moment continues where he left off: "And when I'm done exploring I close the dictionary, switch off the lights, and look out the window. All around, marked by panels of coloured glass, late chewers sit in other belvederes, high above the noise of the street, hard by heaven like the lords of Ghumdan" (pp.254-5).

For an excerpt by Mackintosh-Smith, click here.

A Rush By Paradise


A salta restaurant in San‘a. Only served at lunchtime, the frothing, green delight is a San‘a specialty requiring an alchemist rather than a chef. Photo by Kevin Rushby

Lured by idyllic memories of ancient cities, spectacular mountains and, most of all, dreamy afternoons spent chewing the psychoactive leaves of the qat tree, Kevin Rushby set out to travel the old "Qat Road" from the highlands of Ethiopia to Yemen. It was to prove a fascinating and dangerous journey, peopled with an extraordinary array of characters -- criminals, Islamic scholars, an exorcist and the mysterious Cedric, the travelling companion from hell.

If this blurb on the flyleaf fails to capture your interest, then check out the accolades on the backcover: "rollicking tale of high adventure" (Independent on Sunday- London), "Rushby is a fearless and sociable traveler" (The Tablet -- United Kingdom), "Pure joy from beginning to end"(Wanderlust - United Kingdom). All this is calculated to convince you to buy the book; at least someone in a magazine somewhere seemed to like it. I often find that the level of mundane hyperbole on the book cover is often inversely related to the quality of the book. At times a publisher may think that by simply asserting what a good book it is, people will take a chance and buy it. While I cannot really fathom the extent of the literal praise spewed out above, I can say that this is a travelogue worth reading -- not as an entirely convincing account but simply because it is fun to read and reasonably accurate on Yemeni culture.

I will start, and later I will end, with the author. Kevin Rushby, who has recently graduated to "becoming a full-time author and photographer" (which sounds to me more like anin-between position than a viable career), is no stranger to Yemen. He spent a couple of years in the 80s teaching English in Yemen. Not surprisingly this brought him into contact with Tim Mackintosh-Smith,who figures prominently in the text as a travelling companion. Tim checked over the manuscript; advice was also received from Nigel Hepper for the botanical samples. This is clearly an informed travelogue, not of the one-night, can't-stand-the-place variety exemplified by Tony Horwitz.

The obvious theme of the book, articulated by the title and followed through faithfully in the narrative, is traveling as a qat chewer. There is much to be learned in Rushby's prose about the history and present use of qat; much of this is taken from Shelagh Weir's Qat in Yemen (1985) and Kennedy'sThe Flower of Paradise (1987). Travel docent that he is,Rushby has a good grasp of many of the earlier travelers along his route. Burton (who is said to have "lived much of his life under a fig leaf of suspicion", p. 57) and Thesiger haunt his trek on the west side of the Red Sea, while the Yemeni fore-travelers mentioned in the text include G. Wyman Bury, Sir Henry Middleton, The Niebuhr expedition, poets Amin Rihani and Rimbaud, and Paul Emil Botta, who"valued qat more highly than opium" (p. 173). Even Alexander the Great, the fabled Dhu al-Qarnayn, is remembered, though no one suggests he ever chewed qat.

One can hardly agree more with Rushby's assessment of the introduction of qat into Yemen: "Quite when this strange leaf started on its long journey from innocuous and unnoticed tree to cultural mainstay is a mystery but it seems likely that religious men first discovered its properties, using it to ward off sleep during long, night-time meditations, and carrying this useful spiritual helpmate with them on missionary journeys" (p. 11).I was pleased to note a reference to the absence of qat in the basic Rasulid agricultural texts (especially the crop register of al-Afdal from A.D. 1271 -- which I translated in JESHO); this argues against widespread cultivation of the plant before the 14thcentury. However, Rushby is too quick to accept the alleged Yemeni origin of the Rasulid sultans (p. 165), a medieval political ploy if ever there was one. He records an interesting local spin on the origin of the town name al-'Udayn (sometimes claimed to be the place where both coffee and qat were first grown): "A shopkeeper told me that ... the origin was two mountains, both called Jabal 'Ud, oneither side of the town" (p. 260).

The anecdotal perusal of qat -- "the leaf that neither dulls nor befuddles" (p. 253) is replete inRushby's narrative. On knowing your variety: "But some qat can be pleasant to open-minded first-timers: the thickened tips of stems yield and snap in your fingers like young carrots or asparagus, then give the same tactile pleasure as crunching through an iceberg lettuce. Others can be pretty astringent, requiring a developed palate or large accompanying doses of sweet drinks, some have the fizz of a rocket salad or a lingering nuttiness, many varieties will make water taste sublime and tobacco, too. But the scent never varies: when I first detect that delicate, almost herb-like fragrance, then I am in San'a as surely as the smell of a newly cut lawn takes me to an English summer evening. And what is certain is that to the qat regular, nothing tastes better" (p. 24). On which cheek to turn: "Most Yemenis store the qat in the left cheek: some say because that is where your right hand naturally places it, others that only women chew on the right" (p. 126).

What do Yemeni chewers do in Saudi Arabia?"In Saudi we take it once a week. It's illegal there, you know. But people still want it -- probably more, they make plenty money with chat there. The police and soldiers are all selling it. For one afternoon you can spend eighty dollars" (p. 23). As Rushby's informants explained, it is better not to get caught with qatin Saudi: "He smuggles qat from Yemen. When he walked across, you see, he found out some special paths that smugglers use and got to know some of them. They carry about sixty kilos in a sack on their backs and that brings a very good price in Najran. The border is very dangerous though: there are spies everywhere because there is a reward for information on qat smugglers. Sometimes they get shot at but usually that's just the guards trying to get them to drop the qatand run away -- then they can take it and sell it, you see.' 'But the penalty if he's caught -- it must be tough?' 'Fifteen years and forty lashes'" (p. 25).

One of the likable parts of Rushby's book is his empathetic understanding of why qat is so important in Yemeni culture. Although admittedly not an anthropologist, he recognizes the importance of the social when he "began to understand that the pleasure of a qat session was not really about the qat at all, but about the companionship of the sessions in cave-like rooms floating high above the ancient city" (p. 13). Or consider this reflection: "There is a point in any session when the world stands back. The outside is forgotten, scarcely seems to exist. At that moment there is a feeling of camaraderie and shared experience that is rarely disrupted by any doubts: they come later, the petty suspicions and paranoias that creep out of the shadows as the qatrecedes from the mind" (p. 216)

Rushby is very much the postmodern traveler-- cruising through exotic worlds which no longer are isolated from the global effluvium of a well mediated world economy. Being in Addis Ababa could be being anywhere -- whether being "consulted by a man in a smart wind cheater as to whether he should go on a weightlifting course to Morocco" (p. 18) or being offered a girlfriend: "'Very clean. All girlfriends are university students but we must hurry or they will go to church,' (p. 18)" In Yafa, at the apartment of a Russian doctor, he notices "a picture of George Bush with his face scratched out, the caption was in Hindi" (p. 203). At times the day-to-day musings seem little different from the dreams inspired byqat: "Eventually I fell into a half-wakeful dream where I was in a beautiful stone house that was a bizarre amalgam of my mother's house in Nottingham and a Yemeni tower house, and a Chinese girl was feeding me grass stalks on which tiny hieroglyphs were inscribed" (p.29).

There are times when Rushby's colorful prose borders on the poetic. A good example is his description of the Taizsuq: "Silky iridescent greens and mustard, swirling patterns of cinnabar and mauve, purple pom-poms with snazzy belts -- the young men wear their futas with at least as much panache as any catwalk queen could ever do. The country girls likewise are gorgeous: shiny,pinch-waisted, puff-sleeved, ball gowns over bright baggy harem pants gripped at the ankle by hand-made hoops of embroidery. Their scarves are piled in vast turbans of yellow and white, with orange blossom or marigolds ticked inside to hang low beside one amber-smooth cheek. Their faces are handsome rather than pretty and the old ladies can bea striking as their grand-daughters; and all this beauty selling onion tops or mooli radishes in the street market" (p. 163).

The dialogue at times rivals the best Monty Python skits. My favorite is the encounter with the receptionist in the Continental Hotel in Dire Dowa:

"There was a dilapidated lobby where a few idle gents were sitting on a sort of chrome tubing and red leatherette. Then there was a cake display without cake and a Gaggia coffee machine without coffee. On the far side was a doorway and beside that a botched attempt at a reception desk where a thin girl sat motionless, like a lizard waiting for flies. I dumped my bag on the floor. The room had gone silent. I wanted someone to whistle the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, then we could all laugh and the normal hum of conversation begin again. But no one did.

The receptionist waited.

'Hello. Do you speak English?'

She nodded.

'Do you have a room?'

She smiled. 'Hello. How-are-you?'

'Yes, I'm fine, thanks. I was wondering if you had a room?'

'I-am-fine-and-you?'

'Yes, I'm fine. Thank you. I want a room -- room.'

'What-is-your-name?'

'Kevin -- what's yours?'

'What-is-your-name-pee-pee.'

'No -- Kevin. My name is Kevin.'

'No-pee-pee? I want your pee-pee.'

Her hand was held out expectantly but not, as I correctly guessed, for a urine sample. I took my passport out and she began laboriously to copy ny name into a vast ledger. I tried again. 'Er ... can I have a room. Room.' Hand signal of a square, then mime sleep.

She took a key from a drawer and I followed her through the doorway into an open courtyard around which all the rooms were arranged. In the centre was the ruin of a thatched hut and some disheveled banana and papaya trees. Thirty years before it must have been a pleasant place to stay'" (pp. 81-82).

Humor is a steady companion in the narrative. Barefoot shoeshine boys offer to polish his canvas sneakers (p. 17). Some of the funniest parts are a reflection of a Yemeni sense of the frivolous, noting that the Landcruisers of the late 1980s were called Layla Alawi after the curvaceous Egyptian actress and CD players called 'The one whose bottom you touch,'meaning the owner is so rich you have to kiss his arse" (p. 227). Orthe proverbial wit: "But don't you know they say, 'If your heart is at peace, even a donkey's arsehole can be a mafraj'" (p. 309).

There is a fair amount of practical information on how to comport yourself in Yemen. Take, for example,how to chew qat while wearing a futa, the traditional skirt worn by men: "This length of cloth is called a futa in Arabic and there is some art to sitting correctly in them. The right knee is drawn up while the left, also flexed, goes flat to the floor, the right elbow then rests naturally on the right knee, leaving the right hand, the clean hand in Arab custom, ready to rub the dust from the qat leaves. The left hand holds the stems and rests on the bolster. The only problem is that the futa can ride up at the front, flashing one's underwear to all present. To avoid embarrassment then, the rear hem is kept tight behind the knees as you sit, ensuring a polite tight veil of decency. The excess cloth at the front is then folded into you lap" (p. 22). It is too bad Rushby's book was not available for a former British ambassador in Yemen. One day the ambassador,along with the Rector of Sanaa University and several other prominent individuals came to visit the valley where I lived and we ended up ina big tribal chew for the occasion. Out of politeness, the recently arrived ambassador from the land upon which the sun used to not set was given a white futa to wear. Had he known the etiquette Rushby describes, the tribesmen sitting around me might never have noticed he was wearing pink polka-dot underwear.

Similarly, there is practical advice in the book on meal etiquette: "Lunch was fatut, a large bowl of bread soaked in sour milk and oil, a dish of boiled potatoes, a dish of sohawig, a type of sour relish, and sour milk flavoured with herbs. The men ate together with great lip smacking pleasure and when the first of them sat back replete, I followed suit. This proved to be a mistake as Saeed became convinced I disliked their food and, despite my protestations, threw some money at a boy with instructions to fetch biscuits: 'Foreigners eat biscuits, don't they?' The biscuits duly arrived and I reluctantly ate the entire packet in front of my audience. Any attempt to stop was forcefully and loudly discouraged"(p. 176-177). I have tasted those biscuits, in desperation I assure you, and can only imagine how awful it would be to have to down a packet of this sugar-dusted sawdust.

And there are plenty of delightful details. For example, the essential items in an isolated shop in Jabal Bura':"The shop's stock was meagre but obviously chosen to fit local needs. There was soap powder, Brylcreem, bullets (British or Egyptian),biscuits, cooking oil, straw hats, matches, cigarettes, small plastic bags of cold water (most could not afford the bottled mineral water),Coca-Cola, Chinese batteries, flouncy frocks for small girls and Czech machine guns" (pp. 277-278).

As a returnee to Yemen, Rushby also laments the inevitable changes. Reflecting on the past glory of Mocha: "At first glance Mocha is not encouraging. The name that lends itself in some form or other to millions of chocolates and cups of coffee is an appelation contrôlé of sweets and beverages, a Champagneor Havana -- a guarantee of excellence. It is perhaps better that few of those contented consumers ever see the unappetising reality of the place behind the name. Scabbed and patched, bristling with rusted reinforcing rods on which every passing plastic qat-wrapper can catch and flap in the never-ending wind, the modern buildings must represent the nadir in the the sorry tale of concrete. Nothing redeems this pitiful mess, even the mangy dogs hide their eyes in their arses, curled up in piles of refuse. This ground is littered with tin cans, bricks, syringes and millions of plastic bags -- that twentieth-century tumbleweed, flying past the hungry goats. And you tell yourself that this was once, in its day, what Dallas is to oil"(p. 158).

Rushby had fond memories of the extraordinary beauty of Sanaa's old city, where several projects help preserve the historical integrity of Yemen's architectural heritage. On his return to the haphazardly developed "modern" parts of Sanaa,Rushby laments: "We coasted down and along Zubayri Street, past new high-rise buildings that I did not recognize or remember: ugly blocks of concrete, housing airline offices and new banks, vast twelve-story monsters with every window topped off with the semicircular tracery of coloured glass, hundreds of them lined up floor by floor,identical red, blue and yellow panes rising like a plague of jellyfish in a polluted sea. There was plenty of time to survey the architectural decline of San'a, the traffic was worse than London:streets choked with fumes and giant gleaming Landcruisers among the usual battered taxis, all their drivers leaning out of their windows bellowing insults and sitting on their horns because the lights were red and they were stationary" (p. 298).

And let us not forget Aden, where "The brewery kept on brewing, women worked unveiled, the night clubs rocked. It was cosmopolitan, it was increasingly decrepit and, when unification came in 1990, it was an anachronism. For four years it survived. You could drive from a firmly Islamic capital where few women go unveiled, and that same night be drinking local Sira beer over a plate of chips while watching belly dancers have money crammed in their sparkly brassieres by men in sharp suits. Next morning you could go to the supermarket, along with everyone else, stock up on booze and drive north, only to be stopped at a checkpoint if you were unlucky and have the whole lot smashed on the road by zealous troops"(pp. 189-190).

The author is also a photographer and sixteen black-and-white photos are included with the text. Interestingly enough, at least for this reviewer, is the absence of the author in any of these shots; nor does the flyleaf have a mugshot. This brings me to the only real quandary I have about what is clearly a well-written and enjoyable narrative: did the traveler have any reason to take the journey other than as pretext to write a book about it? As I follow the author dodging revolutionary harm in Eritrea, befriending an apparent wheeler-dealer smuggler,dhow-hopping the Red Sea and trekking off the beaten path to baboon-bedazzled Jabal Bura' and later to outer Yafa I fail to find out from him why exactly he was making this trip. To chew -- yes, of course, that is the overt intent that is faithfully displayed from start to finish. But I think the author is less addicted to qat than he is to the nostalgic idea of a journey for the sake of a journal. Why did Kevin Rushby cross the frontier and take the less traveled road? To get to the other side and have a story to tell (and no doubt to sell)? If so, does this belittle the worth of the book? No, it is well worth buying and having on a shelf for a re-read. But it leaves me as an interested reader without a climax, without a sense of why people travel and love the process when all that is sane would seem to argue otherwise. Sad to say, I cannot tell from the end in a Sanaa chew if Rushby would ever want to return to Yemen or if he sees himself as still there in some sense. A single phrase in the last sentence of Rushby's text -- torn tortuously here out of context --keeps ringing in my ears: "the journey had to be done..." (p. 310). I wish the author would tell me why.

For an excerpt from Rushy, click here.

Yemen Without a Clue

Tony Horwitz is an ersazt journalist who wishes his readers to know as soon as possible that he is funny,Jewish and a feckless, what-the-hell-bent adventurer in the still wild and excitedly exotic Middle East. Baghdad Without a Map and other Misadventures in Arabia, a jacket-acclaimed "national bestseller" is a book born of luck. The luck that it was written right after the Gulf War, when Saddam and other desert-skinned locals were easy targets, and then the good fortune alluded to by a fellow correspondent over a pint of Stella -- that "Your average [read American] reader, even your average editor, can't tell if you know what you're writing about or not" (p. 3). Imagine Woody Allen pretending he can swash buckle like Richard Burton and swoon the veiled cuties like Valentino. Then picture a guy without a clue, let alone a map, unleashing his predictable monologue on the perpetually uninformed American reader. Stop imagining; it's not another Austin Powers movie, you're reading Horwitz.

Before getting to the book itself, the publisher has chosen to soften up the browser with accolades covering three full pages as well as dangling quotes on the front and backcover. I estimate from the sources indicated that a pre-publication copy must have been sent to most of the newspapers in the country. Comments, mercifully brief, are attributed to: Boston Globe,Boston Herald, Buffalo News, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune,Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Kansas City Star, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, Los Angeles Times Book Review, theNew York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, Time, USA Today, Village Voice -- not to mention a couple of authors and Playboy. It is somewhat cowardly, in my mind, that the names of the hapless reviewers are generally omitted. Somehow, I feel that reviewers should be held accountable for inordinately loquacious hyperbole heaped on what is one of the most vapid and uninformative travel briefs I have ever come across.

There are a number of these terse comments that I whole-heartedly agree with, though probably not in the spirit intended. "HORWITZ CHAPTERS ON IRAQ ARE NOTHING SHORT OFFRIGHTENING." No argument from me on that one. "HORWITZ HAS ADISCERNING EYE AND A LIGHT TOUCH..." Discerning only to the extent that blind-as-a-bat can still "discern" shadows moving. Light is an understatement. "Mr. Horwitz is to be congratulated for surviving his adventures..." Fitting; I can think of little else to congratulate him for. 'Tony Horwitz proves to be ... perceptive and witty in the midst of absurdities." But the absurdities I see here are self-inflicted. "A VERY FUNNY AND FREQUENTLY INSIGHTFUL LOOK AT THEWORLD'S MOST COMBUSTIBLE REGION." I am surprised that this NewYork Times Book Review misspelled "inciteful." "Horwitz presents the turbulent Middle East from the vantage point of the 'man in the street.'" The street in question is alongside either a Sheraton or Hilton, never far from the comforts of home.

The back cover sets the stage. In my mind it is an apt review of the text -- the kind of truth in advertising that makes me wonder why any sensible person would want to waste time on this stock schlock and sick schtick. See what you think:

"With razor-sharp wit and insight, intrepid journalist Tony Horwitz gets beyond solemn newspaper headlines and romantic myths of Arabia to offer startling close-ups of a volatile region few Westerners understand. His quest for hot stories takes him from the tribal wilds of Yemen to the shell-pocked shores of Lebanon; from the malarial sands of the Sudan to the eerie souks of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a land so secretive that even street maps and weather reports are banned. At an oasis in the Empty quarter, a veiled woman offers tea and a mysterious declaration of love. In Cairo, "politeness police" patrol seedy nightclubs to ensure that belly dancers don't show any belly. And at the Ayatollah's funeral in Tehran a mourner chants, "Death to America," then confesses to the author his secret dream -- to visit Disneyland. Careening through thirteen Muslim countries and Israel, Horwitz travels light, packing a keen eye, a wicked sense of humor and chutzpah in almost suicidal measure. This wild and comic tale of Middle East misadventure reveals a fascinating world in which the ancient and the modern collide."

Indeed, this book is on a collision course,but not with any semblance of reality.

At the start of his narrative Horwitzconfesses what drove him to ply his journalistic trade to the Middle East. He followed his wife, Geraldine Brooks, a reporter who had been posted to Cairo. Before that it was "frostbitten Cleveland" and Australia, so why not string along on his first exposure to the mysterious "Third World." The first chapter -- as uninformative as a grade schooler's postcard -- ends with the revelation "that Cairo wasa city I could never come to love" (p. 12). This must be an example of the refreshing honesty the rave reviewers see in the book. In addition to Cairo, the intrepid still-a-nobody manages to visit Yemen, Baghdad, the Emirates, Jordan, Libya, Sudan, Beirut and Tehran. Staying in Sheratons and haggling with the locals no doubt honed his incredible "insight." He even memorized improbable dialogues with lots of colorful foils. This is the context for his one-liners and cheap jokes; a travel tale minus even an inkling of the reality he so blithely avoided. Nor does it appear he succumbed to malaria or even the bubonic plague.

My main concern is with the two chapters Horwitz contributes on Yemen. I find it interesting that the book front is piece quotes Carsten Niebuhr, a decidedly more discerning visitor to Yemen over two centuries ago. Niebuhr advised: "Young men who like their comforts, and a dainty table, or who wish to pass their time pleasantly in the company of women, must not go to Arabia." Horwitz seems to take this as a dare, especially given the flippant prologue, where a veiled Arab woman offers him tea and saysin hesitant English, "I love you." "Perhaps the women dreamed of strangers in the night [I believe this is Sinatra's line] --though probably not blond men in khakis and sneakers, sputtering bad Arabic" (p. 2), muses the travel writer. Then just one page over is the taxi driver in Tehran that grabs his knee and shouts: "America!Donkey! Torch!" James Bond is on his way to the deserts of Araby; he should have heeded Niebuhr's advice. Although, I see little evidence that he read or understood much of the Danish expedition's account.

Of Horwitz's 285 pages of travel fantasy,only about 35 deal directly [to the extent any of Horwitz's prose is directed towards anything but his own fancy] with Yemen. The first chapter is subtitled "Confessions of a Qat-Eater," but from the description given I think that whatever drug the author partook of,it was certainly not Catha edulis. For what is apparently the first or second chew, Horwitz recounts: "Then the qat shuddered through me again: whistling up my spine, ruffling the hair on the back of my neck and whooshing out both ears" (p. 14). Later, he complains that it felt like someone "had emptied an ashtray down my throat" (p. 29). Perhaps he did actually eat the qat -- an entire shrub he avers. He is right to note that "Qat explained a lot about Yemen" (p. 14), but his farcical and totally uninformative cutisms explain a lot about how little he knew about Yemen.

The author that the Chicago Tribuneclaims has an "incisive insider's description" complains up front that "Nothing about the place made sense" (p. 14). Such a conclusion is clear from his feeble story telling, but somehow it is the place that gets blamed for the blind fool incapable of seeing it. Horwitz,by his own vain admission, snuck into Yemen under the hem of his wife's legitimate journalist's invitation to cover the opening of the oil pipeline. I happened to be in Sanaa at the time and received a call from the Cultural Attache of the US Embassy to see if Jeff Meissner, Resident Director of AIYS, and I could meet with the recently arrived Geraldine and Tony. We did -- over dinner at the Sheraton. My memory of the meeting is wondering how such an idiot could have been let into the country. There were two things that Horwitz wanted to see in the worst way -- a tribal suq where you could buy bazookas or tanks and a Yemenite Jewish village. Could we take him? Not too likely...

The praise heaped on Baghdad without a Map would seem to imply that the text contains a rich tapestry of color and detail on the region. Let us consider, for example, how Horwitz characterizes the Yemenis he meets. They flash a"green-toothed grin" (p. 13), one looked "like an old squirrel" (p.13), another was "an elfish man in an overcoat and pajamas" (p. 16)and these "dagger-toting tribesmen" from the waist up "resembled Bowery bums, clad in cast-off shirts and cheap Western style sports jackets" (p. 16). What an ethnographer's eye for authentic culture!Or consider how he describes the typical jambiyya: "A gaudy curved scabbard stretched from the belly button to the middle thigh of each man, with a dagger handle poking out the top" (p.16). I am not sure what a gaudy scabbard would look like.

Have I mentioned the author's wit yet?Several of the newspaper raves refer to his work as "witty"[apparently leaving the "nit" off for the sake of space]. How about identifying the northern town of Sa'da as Dodge City "a lawless place where tribal spats sent lead singing through the streets" (p.38)? Or his qat-eater's half a hemistich: "The fog crept in on little qat feet..." (p. 14)? Horwitz is a virtual pun machine,especially for the chapter titles: Cairo Nights is dubbed Dancing Sheik to Sheik [not a belly laugh, but still not bad]; The Persian Gulf flows into the Strait of Hoummos [Okay, so he ate some of the local food.]; Southern Sudan is Six Dinka Deep. At times the wit is fresh, but most of the time the witticisms are the sole purpose for the narrative. Clever words are supposed to make up for really having nothing of substance to say. Perhaps Tony sawRoad to Morocco a few too many times.

What can you learn about Yemen from this narrative? That slavery endured until the 1960s (p. 19); illiteracy is at 90 percent (p. 19); the locals are "either too proud or too stoned to even look a visiting Westerner in the eye" (p. 21); thieves get their hands lopped off in Sanaa's central square (p. 24); Yemenis think Shakespeare (the old Shaykh Zubayr joke) came from Yemen (p.26); one shaykh commands a private army of 30,000 while the entire armed forces of Yemen only total 37,000 (p. 30); the author found the only rental car in Yemen (p. 31); he could buy a grenade for only $20(p. 37); Yemen "is home to thirty-four types of stomach parasite" (p.40); and more. You may be surprised to learn that Yemen held behind several thousand Jews in the 1950s "as a bargaining chip with the fledging Jewish state" (p. 35). What, pray God, would the Imam have been bargaining for? Ben Gurien's autograph?

Tony Horwitz found his Yemenite Jews,although it was clearly disappointing that "these dark-skinned,Arabic-speaking, qat-chewing cobblers in grubby shifts and sandals were indistinguishable from their Muslim neighbors" (p. 34). He was expecting a folk dance troupe, perhaps? Considerable effort was made to convince the locals that he was Jewish as well -- the proof lying in his ability to read Hebrew. Of course, one of his main journalistic inquiries was if they wanted to go to Israel. But, of course, he knew intuitively that "The government forbade it" (p. 35).The idea that any Yemenite would willingly choose to stay and be Yemeni never crossed his mind. What did, however, was bargaining down a Jewish silversmith to buy a jambiyya and a few silverthalers. And, concludes the author as he marched out of the market,"I thought it likely that I was the first armed Jew to parade through the streets of Saada" (p. 48). Is Mel Brooks still around to direct this journalist-in-the-Third-World "High Noon"?

In his hot pursuit of any kind of story that would advance his stringer status, Horwitz admits: "But so little had been written about Yemen that I figured it was worth gambling five hundred dollars or so to see what I could come up with. As I looked again at the qat-eater in the café, eyes glazed, dagger slung in his lap, the outline of a feature article suggested itself. Weed and weapons, mellowness and menace, the yin and yang of Yemeni society A Traveller's Guide to Arms and Qat. Why not?" (p. 19). No,Tony, the question is "why?" Had I known when I met you that you had only invested $500 in your venture, I would have taken up a collection then and there to send you back to Cairo or the overseas Sheraton of your choice. And for God's sake, next time invest in a map or at least read National Geographic before you go.

Motoring Over Mohammed

Eric Hansen is a writer who seems to have had better luck on foot than in a sailboat. A trek across Borneo resulted in an acclaimed first travel book on Borneo. Along the way,or perhaps to find his way, in the decade of the 70s Hansen pursued a form of vagaband journalism -- working for Mother Theresa in Calcutta, smuggling Chinese erasers from Tibet to North India,watching an Italian sailor stabbed to death with a broken beer bottle in Tahiti, and living with the sultan's drummer in the Maldives where a "pretty village girl" taught him the local language by day and returned after dark. These being the highlights, you can imagine the tonnage of notes that bulged out of his notebooks.

Ah, the notebooks. Herein lies a tale, and in an indirect way, the incentive for a popular travel book on Yemen. On the night of February 2, 1978 (just about a month before I first arrived in Yemen to do my ethnographic fieldwork) the sailboat Hansen and his bag of notebooks was sailing on from the Maldives to Athens sank in the Red Sea and five people were washed ashore on a deserted island about twenty miles off the coast of Yemen. Before being rescued, after two weeks no less, Hansen had the foresight to bury his "travel journals from years of wandering" (p. xi). It was not until a decade later and, as the author never fails to stress, much frustration and personal distress that Gilligan returns to the deserted island to lay claim to the trove of travel notes. For those who are interested, as the author seems to think we all should be,the notebooks survive. In 1990, at the time of writing the book, they were wrapped in a faded purple Dacron bag on a bookshelf in a Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. "The pages are brittle and the writing faded," sighs Hansen. But thanks to his intrepid return to retrieve them, we are apparently all the richer -- though the notebooks contain nothing Yemeni save for a few grains of sand

Hansen's introductory words in the first chapter summarize his appreciation for Yemen quite explicitly, so I will let you judge for yourself: "I had never considered visiting North Yemen. I arrived quite by accident while sailing with four others from the Maldives to Athens by way of the Red Sea. The little I had heard about Yemen convinced me that it was a place I didn't want to visit, although the rumors were tempting enough. There were stories that the entire male population was hopelessly addicted to a narcotic leaf called qat, that the men wore skirts, and that during public circumcisions the foreskin was thrown in the crowd, where people rolled on it as a sign of joy. If this was how friends and family members fared, I wondered, what would happen to people the Yemenis didn't like? Intertribal warfare had been going on for 1500years, and child brides were sold for twenty times the average yearly income Alcohol was prohibited, and before having intercourse husbands were known to mutter 'Bismillah' (In the name of God). It didn't sound like my kind of place" (p. 1). You know what, Eric,you're right. It's not your kind of place and it's not likely that anything you write about it will convince anyone otherwise. Go back to the Maldives and wait for the sun to set and brush up on the local language

After a night of bad storms aboard a slowly sinking ship, Hansen caught his first glimpse of Yemen: "No human figures were visible, no vegetation, only flat, featureless land" (p.12). Three chapters are required to set up what he refers to as "legrand piquenique" and the rescue from two weeks of maroon blues (the author notes he was the only single person among two couples) by an Eritrean dhow. Having arrived at a military outpost on Kamaran Island, another ten days were spent in "captivity" during which he"chewed leaves [of qat], ate goat, and drank whiskey. All things considered, it was a very civilized arrangement" (p. 48).After leaving the island for the mainland, Hansen finds much to complain about. Hodeidah was too hot; an American Peace Corps volunteer who befriended him lived "in a state of squalor that an Eritrean goat smuggler would have found intolerable" (p. 50); Yemeni men in restaurants squatted on tables -- with their shoes on (p. 53);and to top it all off, there was no welcome committee at the U.S. embassy. It was, as the author notes, quite nice that the manager of Yemenia basically gave him a free ticket to Cairo, expecting nothing in return except a similar act of random kindness in the future. Indeed, the allure of Sanaa had seduced him without a struggle (p.56): great idea for a mass-market book.

Hansen returned to Yemen ten years later --a man with a very personal mission. The buried treasure of his old notebooks had to be found. The fact that these notebooks -- useless to anyone except Hansen -- were in a military zone seemed a rather trivial detail to the returnee. Hansen would have us believe that most of the Yemenis involved in his escapade were a bunch of crooks,happy to loot the goods from the shipwreck but unsympathetic to the importance of his quest. Hansen's own attempts to return to the island of his dreams failed. Much of his text is a venting of frustration that he could not do what he wanted to do. When he returned to the states, apparently in failure, he went to an exhibition on Yemeni architecture. There he met, by accident, the Yemeni ambassador, Mohsen Alaini, who set up the contacts for Hansen to successfully return and dig up his long-sought notebooks. Yet this denouement gets short schrift at the end of the narrative, so that the reader comes away thinking "Oh, he eventually did get those damn notebooks" but by the grace of God.

A good travel story -- judged by why people like to read it rather than how accurate it attempts to be -- needs certain amount of mystery. Itineraries are intrinsically boring without unexpected events and obstacles to overcome. The traveler needs to come off as either hero or anti-hero, even if the trip was unhappily uneventful. Hansen wastes no chance in stressing the exoticism and mystery of Yemen. When trying to figure out how the man who had helped him leave Yemen also knew he was returning (and provided a companion to take him around), he muses: "There is no such thing as knowing 'the real story' in Yemen. There are far too many versions from which to choose. Motivations vary; mystery remains a constant" (p. 63). Which basically means since the author could not figure out what was happening, the problem had to be with Yemen. What was clearly enjoyable was "relishing the bizarre sights" (p. 64),eating roasted locusts, or commenting on soldiers with rocket-propelled grenade launchers (p. 72).

An underlying theme in Hansen's narrative is his exasperation at why he couldn't just go back to the island and dig up his dacron bag of notebooks. He certainly did not think he needed a tasrih to travel around Yemen, although Yemeni soldiers in the Tihama felt otherwise (p. 72). Why would the Yemenis think he might be a spy just because he had been shipwrecked in a highly sensitive military zone? And his lament at not being able to sample the historical wonders of Zabid due to the need to help his driver get a sheep in the car is disengenuous to a fault (p. 75). Why all this conspiracy just to keep him from such a reasonable reunion with the fragmented memories of two barely accounted for decades?

Hansen's account is peopled or at least somewhat spirited with a number of expats, which are at times provided with pseudonyms but are not hard to decipher for old Yemen hands Mr. Martin Plimsole is none other than Tim Mackintosh-Smith,yet another incestuous literary link in the travelogues being reviewed here. As is the case with Rushby, Tim becomes a main character, clearly the kind of character one would have to invent if he did not already so conveniently exist. It appears that even Kevin Rushby makes an appearance in Hansen's narrative -- on the ubiquitous(at least for a travel writer on Yemen) hike down a rugged mountain trail

Like other superficial travel writers with less than a glancing knowledge of accounts by individuals who actually knew something about Yemen, Hansen often shows his ignorance Perhaps an apartment in Manhatten is not the ideal place to pen an authoritative chronicle on a country he had not originally intended to visit. The pandanus palm is pronounced kadhi in Arabic; no one would say khadi (p. 74). To assert that "In Yemen it is the custom for a man to buy his wife" (p. 79) may peak the average dull reader's interest, but it is a cheap shot. And the story (p. 83)of a man who worked fifteen years in Saudi to afford the love of his life is more fitting for the biblical story of Jacob and Laban than the reality of immigrant agendas in Yemen. Of all the stories one could relate about Yemeni families, this alleged case of a madman who riddled his in-laws with bullets and then shot his own wife dead before fleeing back to Saudi is absurd. Equally silly is Hansen's conclusion that in the typical Yemeni village setting such a tragedy seemed inevitable (p. 86). Visit a few villages before you write such puff, Eric.

While Hansen does work in relevant information on Yemen he has gleaned from other sources, there is little evidence of his own keen eye apart from the standard things any tourist could see from a car seat. One would think that the subject of qat would deserve at least a whole notebook. Yet Hansen's (p. 83) prose goes little beyond: "Before long the qat began to take effect, and we settled in for the long drive back to San'a"(p. 83) and he "felt a sense of well-being radiating from[his] chest" (p. 94). His touristic venture in buying what turned out to be "truck driver's qat" (p. 93) sets up his derivative description of a qat chew in Sanaa. But this is more an excuse for telling a bawdy story than a portrayal of the pre-eminent Yemeni social event for the uninformed reader.

Ultimately the persona Hansen creates for himself as the intrepid traveler is that of a guy you meet drinking beers in a pub and telling his standard stock of funny stories. The first time around they can be funny. Sexual innuendo, which is not hard to come by just about anywhere you might be allowed to travel,is rife in the text. We learn that "sinanyenee" is not just "little tooth" but is used as "a child's term for penis" (p. 94) and that Saudis think of Yemeni honey as an aphrodisiac (p. 134). Then there is the expat consultant (watching the traffic flow in and out of public toilets for UNESCO and USAID) named Nick. When asked who he was, the honest retort of "Nick" brought guffaws or counter curses,since "neek" means "fuck" in Arabic (p. 108). I knew someone in Yemen with a similar problem, only his name was Paul; since there is no "p"in Arabic, this became "baul", which is "piss." What's in a name? You need not ask.

Of special interest to me as reviewer is Hansen's devastating denigration of the hostel run by AIYS and its resident director at the time. Having visited here about the same time as Hansen, and knowing the resident director as a friend and colleague for a very long time, it is obvious how Hansen exaggerate sand at times makes up out of whole cloth his scenario. Having left the beer-drinking oil workers playing tug-of-war with the ladies at the American Embassy July 4 celebration, he arrives at AIYS and is immediately struck (in a figurative sense, of course) by "plastic bags of human shit splattered against the metal front gate of the institute" (p. 122). How Hansen discovered the species responsible for depositing the shit in the first place is not recorded, but assuming it was not the work of a terrorist group was a sound guess on his part.

The director, who does not even warrant a pseudonym in Hansen's text, is disliked by Hansen from the start. Somehow it is the director's fault that Hansen's letter had not arrived earlier. Further, Hansen is amused that he is asked if he is an AIYS member or not (members receive discounts). Realizing within minutes that he had "made a mistake," but not wanting to waste the afternoon looking for a more suitable place, Hansen precedes to say just about everything negative he can muster. He is offended by the posted notices, even while sitting on the toilet. Some of these, as I remember well, were left over (on purpose as a joke) from a previous resident director's wife who was fastidious to a fault. But most were rather practical -- toilets do overflow if too much paper is flushed down and most guests were not cognizant of this simple but unpleasant fact Hansen felt he had a divine right to rent the institute's vehicles (which had been virtually ruined on several occasions and were not -- as Hansen asserts -- purchased for anyone to rent). Why anyone might object to his using them to try and go illegally to a military zone is beside the point, it seems. The kitchen "smelled of cockroaches, dust, and stale popcorn" (p. 125), a facet of life obviously not encountered in his Central Park overlook apartment. I am not sure what cockroaches smell like, whether in Yemen or elsewhere In my experience, the cleanliness of the AIYS kitchen --shared space by the occupants at the time -- varied according to the good manners of those staying. No, Eric, AIYS did not have room service and a maid.

The director in question is Jeff Meissner,whose main crime it would seem is that he was not eager to help Hansen get to a restricted island in a sensitive military zone. Hansen's quip that Jeff "lived in mortal fear of being misquoted by visiting journalists or writers" is a bit stretched. How many journalists and writers does Hansen think cruised through? Indeed,Jeff had been misquoted on more than one occasion and Hansen's ultimate book suggests that such an alleged fear would not have been unfounded Like many in-and-out-and-not-to-return journalists looking for sensational stories, Hansen does not appreciate the fact that those of us who live in Yemen or come back often have little desire to sacrifice our work climate and reputation to the ethical murkiness of journalists bashing Yemen.

What is particularly disturbing to me is Hansen's fictionalized character assassination of Jeff as a "mother hen, checking to make sure no one was using his laundry soap or stealing Lipton tea bags from his cupboard" (p. 125) and unwilling to help anyone. Any of the myriad researchers and tourists who came through Sanaa during Jeff's term would be rather surprised to hear such trumped up and silly claims. We are even told that "On two occasions I [Hansen] witnessed European researchers leaving the grounds -- one in tears, the other in a rage -- because they had been turned away from the library, which was supposed to be open to the public." (p. 125). Hansen seems to have confused AIYS with his local public library. The AIYS library was indeed open for researchers at regular, but limited, hours. At the time there was no librarian and no way to leave the library open without the constant disappearance of books and articles (even from those staying there!).At any rate, it is not clear Hansen read that much about Yemen, even though his Manhatten apartment was close to the magnificent collection in the NYC Research library at 42nd street.

Hansen is a good writer -- a professional writer His prose is not laborious and he often has a good feel for the story in an encounter. The people he meets come across as interesting and entertaining, but always somewhat caricatured. The faults and oddities frame them, not the mundane reality most people live on a daily basis. But I feel at times that Hansen is more comfortable detailing the lives of fellow expats than trying to interact on equal terms with the people in the country he is visiting Whether American oilmen, French priests, or English schoolteachers, it is the superficiality of the foreigner surviving an exotic and illogical Yemen that surfaces -- no doubt a perfect foil for a book predicated on a search to retrieve lost notebooks from a deserted island. In the end I just wish he had traveled on a better boat and never had the obvious misfortune of being in Yemen.

More than Being There

As an anthropologist, I often cringe at the ill-informed and ego-inflated journalistic travel books that perennially digest the Middle East. These are usually books that do not get reviewed in professional journals, yet routinely outsell the ones that do. They periodically get picked up in mass-market bookstores or purchased, innocently, for public libraries. But I am not sure whether the fault lies more with the fools who get these travesties published or with those of us who tend to write such academic texts that the average person -- even the average intelligent reader -- will never find them; some might despair trying to plow through the footnotes and stilted jargon our narrow disciplines baggage us with.

A key issue here is what does it mean to be there Most of us would pay little attention to a derivative travel adventure by someone piecing together other people's experiences into an absentee personal experience. So we are prone to trust those who can claim to have been there, perhaps far more than we should. And we are often easy dupes for the idea that if a book gets published it must have something of value. While simply being there is never going to be a guarantee of properly understanding where you have been, certain level of exposure is needed to allow credibility. Horwitz'blitzkrieg journalism does little to inspire confidence in what he says The fact that he is up front about being a misadventurist does not excuse the misinformative text. Okay, so it is written as a joke;does this mean that most readers will really receive it only as a joke? Stereotypes are as easily perpetuated through humor as by the rhetoric of self-righteous dogma.

My discipline of anthropology has been racked for over two decades with a reflexivist critique of ethnographic writing. Just "being there," some of my colleagues have said, does not give one ethnographic authority; indeed "being there"is at times politicized into "not having a right to be there." But it is important to remember that the idea of ethnographic fieldwork in anthropology is meant as a corrective to armchair generalization. It happens that there are bad ethnographers as there are bad journalists; there are some people who just are not there even when they are there. I find that reading travel accounts by those who are passing through "there" offers a healthy context in which to view what we do as anthropologists trying to massage a plethora of experience into some kind of documentation. In a sense my having been there in Yemen for a good length of time makes me appreciate how difficult it is to accurately reflect what is going on. I can no more imagine a traveler cutting to the core on a brief jaunt through a"there" than I can someone mastering a foreign language in a week or two of unguided effort.

I am not of the opinion that there are too many travel books on Yemen, because after all we are dealing with individual perceptions. Travel experience has an enduring appeal if the account is halfway decent. The batch reviewed here compels me to offer a few suggestions for those who might give it a try; I am referring to those of us who have been there long enough to actually give it a serious try. This is not a how-to but rather a how-not-to. Let's learn from the bad travel books so as to encourage better writing of all kinds on Yemen.

First, have a reason to write other than getting a book published. The best travel accounts spill out of people who really have something worth sharing. This is very clear in Tim Mackintosh-Smith's account, hopefully only the first of several from this witty and knowledgeable "original." Contrast this to Horwitz hapless and mapless comedy monologue.

Second, be there long enough to be reasonably accurate. When you don't know the language, or operate at a pre-K level with the kind of locals who love to be around foreigners, or get the bulk of your information from the hotel clerks, there's a problem. Deal with it; don't deal it at your reader. Some extended exposure is needed; a serious assessment of the inevitable culture shock is very useful. Otherwise the same old banalities and hackneyed caricatures clutter the text. It may fool someone who doesn't know anything about Yemen, but it is unsatisfying to those who do. I must really question the motive of any author who fails to convince the people who are best able to judge what is being written. These are Yemenis themselves, not just the best-intentioned outsiders like me.

Third, don't let your own ego be the whole point of your narrative. To a certain extent all travel accounts are exaggerated and not to be trusted. It's hard to avoid hyped up hubris that presents the writer in the most favorable light. At least be honest and say this is really a book about me and I just happened to be there for local color. Eric Hansen is very much in the driver's seat as he motors over Mohammed. The whole purpose of his travel account is to highlight his heroic quest and he spends an inordinate amount of wordage, usually quite well crafted, trying to convince us why something so mundane and idiosyncratic is worth a book.

Fourth, plan to go back to Yemen and face the music of jeers or cheers from the people you write about. This goes to the core of the reflexivist debate in anthropology. Is what "you" say about "them" part of a dialogue or one-sided not expecting or wanting a response? Writing about people who have little chance of correcting what you say creates an ethical problem. Can you be patronizing and argue that this is how they would see it, were they able to write the way you do or had your education and training? Can you throw all responsible caution to the wind and assume it does not matter what you say as long as it sells? Is freedom of speech only for you?

For some time I have been toying with the idea of writing some kind of travel-like book on Yemen, perhaps even a novel to remove all pretense that I as author am an objective know-it-all At first I was motivated by the paucity of recent,decent travel books. After reading Tim's book and Kevin's book, I am now more motivated by the potential of how unique experiences can be shared in a way that someone else may enjoy reading. And I even look forward, should I take that non-academic plunge, to comments and criticism, especially from the very people I would be writing about. But these books are beginnings, not ends. Read the two I recommend,by all means, and avoid the other two. But don't stop there. Why not go and be there. Experiencing Yemen is better than any narrative, no matter how well written, can provide. Be there, by all means, but be there yourself.


EXCERPT

Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land.
pp. 91-92

Wadi Dahr is one of the world's surprises. I first saw it at 9:47 a.m. on a Thursday late in 1982. We slewed off the road by a petrol station and laboured up a slope of disintegrating red rock. The bonnet of the car flapped open and shut,as if gulping for air. I had no idea where we were heading. Then my host hit the brakes and we slid to a stop in a cloud of red dust. The dust, settling, revealed a view: picture several square miles of intensive cultivation, shockingly green, transposed to a setting of tawny rock, then dropped far below the surface of the earth

Over a thousand years ago, a visitor looked down on Wadi Dahr and exclaimed, 'I have travelled the length of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, but never have I seen the like of this.'Earlier this century, the son of Imam Yahya had a small cave here fitted with glazed doors so they could chew qat surveying the scene.Today, people do the same, but in parked cars on the cliff edge. Yemenis are connoisseurs of landscape and colour (a San'ani friend once dismissed the Royal County of Berkshire -- 'There's too much green'); here, the distance to the valley floor enables the eye to take in everything at once, as in a diorama. The prospect is neither of this world nor the next, but of another Eden.

Down in the valley we were magicked into a secret world. Labyrinthine paths twisted between walled vineyards,qat plantations and orchards of pomegranate, peach and apricot glimpsed through gates made of twigs. Some of the entrances were so small that I expected to see a bottle of pills labelled, like Alice's, 'Eat Me'. Parts of this enormous hortus conclusus remain invisible behind high walls and handleless doors, like that in Holman Hunt's Light of the World.

In this weird sunken landscape, it came as no surprise to catch a complete palace in the act of a vertical take-off Dar al-Hajar, the Palace of the Rock, stands on top of a huge pillar of stone that has popped up out of the valley floor like a jack-in-the-box. The building itself is not a folly but a standard,if rather grand, San'ani mansion constructed in the 1920s by Imam Yahya, the abode of a comfort-loving stylite. The folly is all nature's for putting the rock pillar there in the first place

Strange happening might be expected in such a place as Wadi Dahr, and one in particular is still remembered by its older inhabitants. About fifty years ago, a man bought a house near the little suq to the west of Dar al-Hajar. He moved in but found the place haunted by a poltergeist which would bang about the house and upset the pots. Having tried all the usual means, the man appealed to his neighbour Imam Yahya, who wrote to the spirit commanding it to be gone. Even this attempt failed. In desperation,the man proposed to the poltergeist that he would no longer try to exorcise it provided they could live together in peace. The cohabitation was successful, and for some years the spirit would run errands, finding lost possessions and going to market. In recent years it has been less active. A neighbour commented that 'Even the jinn grow old.'

The Yemeni poltergeist, idar al-dar, appears in one account as 'a beast of Yemen which copulates with humans. Itssemen consists of maggots.' An old house I once lived in was inhabited by an idar, but it did nothing more disturbing than smoking a water pipe outside my bedroom door every night, at around one in the morning. Others are known to take snuff.


Excerpt

Kevin Rushby

Eating the Flowers of Paradise: One Man's Journey through Ethiopia and Yemen

pp. 1-2

Introduction

'Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined

On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.'

Tennyson, 'The LotosEaters'

My first ever contact with the drug had been in 1982, a brief and unsatisfying experience significant only in the light of later events. I was in Juba, the main settlement of southern Sudan and a place where I hoped to hitch a ride to Uganda. Going out to the market, I came across a United Nations lorry with a Somali driver who smiled dreamily at me from the cab and revealed in the corner of his mouth, flashing like a broken traffic light, a quid of brilliant green leaves.

'We call it chat,' he said, using the Somali name 'And with it I can drive right across Uganda without stopping'

That seemed like a very good idea, as Uganda was at war with itself. 'But we cannot take passengers -- UN rules.'A few shiny green leaves were passed down to me with that same dreamy smile And so it was that my introduction to the drug came as a gift from the United Nations, but on this occasion they were no more than unwanted salad which I found bitter and spat out as soon as politeness allowed. Like most first-timers I felt nothing and assumed that it did nothing, that qat was a quack medicine for the gullible. And if my head was full of romantic notions about travel and adventure, it did not include taking leaves from lorry drivers

Five years later, seated on cushions, qat leaves in my lap, watching the shadows of Arabian night fill the dusty alleyways below the window of a stone tower house, I had learnt differently and become as much a qat-lover as the Somali driver. Yemen held me as Lotos-land held Ulysses' crew. I passed the hours listening to the gentle lubalub of the hookah and whispered conversations about dead poets and fine deeds. In San'a, qat governs. Each day at three, climbing the steps to a smoky room with a bundle under the arm; then closing the door to the outside world, choosing the leaves, gently crushing them with the teeth and waiting for the drug to take effect. No rush, just a silky transition, scarcely noticed, and then the room casts loose its moorings. 'Capturing moments of eternity', someone once called the subtle tinkering with time that qat effects.

After two years I no longer knew if life was good because of Yemen or because of qat. I left for Malaysia and went into mourning for the life I had lost, but the question remained unanswered. I remember taking a holiday on Tioman Island off Malaysia's east coast, as idyllic a paradise as any travel agent ever came up with, and I spent my days trying to telephone someone in Yemen who thought he had a job for me.

There had been an expatriate in Yemen who always brought up his time in Pakistan, 'When we were in Islamabad...', 'It's funny you should say that because when we were in ...','Did I ever tell you about the North-West Frontier ...' Those wonderful pearl strings of memory that no one else cared to see, lost behind a stony wall of other people's indifference, for two decades in his case. Some unkind soul even said to him: 'If it was so good,why did you leave?', and he added, quietly, 'Or why not go back?'

I watched him suffer without sympathy until,in a Kuala Lampur staffroom, I found myself saying, again and again,like a reformed drinker whose conversation is bottles and booze:'When I was in Yemen ...' But almost as often it was, 'There's this leaf they have in Yemen it's called qat ...' And I knew all along,despite the passing years and even one false dawn when my return was abruptly cut short by Yemen's civil war, I knew that I would have to return and see if those pearl strings were anything more than piles of dusty discarded leaves and memories polished by time – the Lotos-land would have to be revisited, the paradise regained.

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