Meeting the Unknown Soldier: The Short Story in Yemen

Reviewed by Kathrin Gundel

Yemen Update 41 (1999)

Guenther Orth, 'Die Farbe des Regens'-Entstehung und Entwicklung der modernen jemenitischen Kurzgeschichte- Muhammad Abdalwali, Zaid Muti' Dammag und Ahmad Mahfuz Umar. Islamkundliche Untersuchungen, Band 209. Berlin: Klaus Schwarze Verlag, 1997. 248pp. ISBN 3-87997-261-3

With the romantic title 'The Colour of the Rain', Guenther Orth's dissertation introduces us to Yemen's 'Unknown Soldiers', as an Egyptian critic calls them: They write, print,publish, and in the end they find few people who care about them.Well, now they have found someone who with his book might attract many more.

Guenther Orth follows the struggle of Yemeni short story writers right from the beginning, which was rather late compared to other Arab countries. This is quite understandable considering the necessity for certain preconditions such as the existence of magazines and people who are able to read them. In order to understand these details, Orth gives an elaborate account of Yemeni history and general circumstances -- including, of course, Qat consumption-- in the first part of his work, always alluding to their impact on intellectual life and stories or novels written during certain periods. With this account of literary development, he is creating the framework for his further analysis of three great Yemeni authors.

He chose Muhammad Abdalwali, who has grownup abroad and lived in both parts of Yemen, Zaid Muti' Dammag from North Yemen and Ahmad Mahfoudh 'Umar from the South. All three names are well-known and established in literary circles in Yemen and in the Arab world, and are now for the first time examined in a Western language. Maybe significantly, they have one thing in common: all three are important personalities, having held high political posts or been members of the diplomatic corps and not dedicated artists living in a world apart. By thus covering authors from all Yemen,with very different approaches, topics and techniques, the idea of finding a 'typical' Yemeni short story is eliminated from the start.The aim is, on the contrary, to show the variety Yemeni narrative literature has developed. That is why Guenther Orth concentrates on careful analysis of each author separately rather than on a placement of Yemeni short stories in a general literary framework (apart from as mall excursion in the conclusion). He presents us with well-written summaries and translated extracts of a number of short stories by each author, corresponding to a main topic or aspect he has singled out.

It is maybe Muhammad 'Abdulwali who has distanced himself the least from the very roots of Yemeni writing, characterised by a finger pointed at moral shortcomings. Most of his stories revolve, not surprisingly in the light of his own experience,around emigration, the alienation in a strange country, the hardship of the wives left at home in some mountain village (the wives who area mountain village?) and the difficulties of return. His work is distinguished from other 'literature of exile', as e.g. the Palestinian, by the fact that Yemeni emigration is not forced but voluntary, and that he does not deal with a conflict between East and West, as the country of emigration is mostly Ethiopia. This makes hima 'pioneer' of literary exploration of the African-Arab relationship.Nevertheless, emigration itself is harshly criticized and the atmosphere in his writings is utterly depressive.

Not so Zaid Muti' Dammag, some of whose stories remind one of tragic comedies on the hard times under thereign of the Imam. He portrays the ruler as a (ridiculously) poor and backward traitor who takes advantage of the even poorer and more backward condition of his subjects, and relates some amusing anecdotes: a victory celebration with the Imam majestically sitting on his throne made of cardboard, his bare-footed elite troops being unable to suppress the 'revolution' of a mule going wild, the Imam stealing an ox from a poor butcher by confirming that it is an enchanted human being and so on. His stories, set in a typical Yemeni setting, among the Imam's hostages or in the contemporary old city of Sanaa, and dealing with typically Yemeni social and tribal problems, are full of social criticism, but also, though simple in style and language, very entertaining.

The most interesting case is Ahmad Mahfoudh 'Umar. He uses a completely innovative technique of narration withs sometimes extreme epic distance and metaphors of 'classical' surrealism (the title of one of his stories is: 'the eyes that are thrown at with mud'), often in order to elaborate on the process of chewing qat and its effects. This makes him, as well, a pioneer, but one of the 'literature of intoxication'. Guenther Orth even alludes to the 'beat generation' in the fifties and sixties that boasted this feature in Western tradition. His protagonists are schizophrenic and isolated from society, because they live in a sort of dream, and are the only ones who recognize the deplorable state of affairs. When they utter social criticism, they are forced to notice that they have only imagined themselves to have said something, but have not in fact opened their mouths. Also the classical conflict between East and West surfaces ironically, ever again there are short comments -- apparently without context -- during Qat chews: 'Why is America being hostile towards us?', or a school teacher starts humming a Western tune during break and dances rock'n'roll to the amazement of the assistant and himself.

'Umar in his development has taken the step from 'accusing, politically functionalised national literature to more indirect, deep and complex contents'. 'He reaches an abstract,complicated, pensive and often ironic style which instead of offering ready-made solutions encourages further reflections'.

Further reflections and research represent what Guenther Orth wants to encourage with his book. His comprehensive study on the Yemeni short story includes a bibliography of Yemeni literature from 1940 to 1994, but remains "vague and hypothetical", as he himself puts it, in his short comments about a'New Sensibility' and the theories of the Egyptian literary critical-Kharrat in the conclusion. There can not be a conclusion, as much can be expected from future works of Yemeni authors, provided that the hard economic conditions are not too high an obstacle for publishing.

Orth, with his brilliant summaries,translations and general overview really puts his reader in the moodfor further exploration. He has made a big contribution towards making known the unknown also in the West- unfortunately only to the German speaking public so far. He has, however, translated extracts of his work into Arabic and published them in magazines likeMa'rifa. It remains to hope that at least some of the primary texts will be translated into English one day. The few existing translations are noted in G. Orth's bibliography.

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