Yemen Geographicalized

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 42 (2000):63-67

"A century of so little change regarding the representation of the Arab world in National Geographic is disturbing if for no other reason than that one would have liked to think that certain stereotypes and assumptions eventually die of old age." (Linda Steet, Veils and Daggers: A Century of National Geographic's Representation of the Arab World, Temple University Press, 2000, p. 154.)

To the extent the average American has any knowledge of world geography, an issue of National Geographic no doubt lurks somewhere in the causal nexus. For the entire last century, a little before and now a little after, this one magazine has reached more homes and doctors' offices that any other of it silk. It has in fact defined the genre, like Kleenex and Xerox. Long known for its superb, usually quite exotically so, photography, the prose has unfortunately become more and more canned, Time-Lifestyle, by a select group of in-house writers. To be sure, these writers still go to the places they describe, but their goal is plainly entertainment over reporting. Past authors were often great adventurers or at least modestly successful safari hunters and former Presidents. By chronicling their quests, which in the targeted prose and pictures become ours as well, anyone could trek along to jungle or bayou, mountain peak or island harbor. The pictures still transport us all, but the prose is now as predictable as the unique size and yellow cover of the magazine.


Steve McCurry, photographer, self portrait (National Geographic, April, 2000)

Unlike the tabloids or even the ephemeral articles in a daily newspaper, National Geographic exudes a kind of quasi-scientific aura; one intuitively feels that here is a magazine with standards. Those standards, not unlike the great American dream world of Disney, have long been channeled in a very direct way. It has been the self-defined role of this magazine to define the exotic other, whether geographically removed or close by, to an American audience. The impact of packaging the exotic other has been studied in some detail by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins (Reading National Geographic, University of Chicago Press, 1993), and more recently specifically for coverage of the Middle East and North Africa by Linda Steet (Veils and Daggers: A Century of National Geographic's Representation of the Arab World, Temple University Press, 2000). In a snapshot, the ideological lens of this journal is a filter that makes the exotic accessible without ever really having to confront the reality faced by the other. It is the great gift of National Geographic, a virtual magic carpet for the thrill-starved American psyche, to take you and me to the ends of the earth and get us back in time for dinner.

Among the pristine locations still available for the Geographic's magical wanding is, as you might suspect, the fabled land of Sheba -- Arabia Exotica -- Land of the Qat Eaters -- Yemen. The most recent treatment of Yemen was in the April, 2000 issue with photographs by Steve McCurry and text (I almost prefer to say "script" here) by Andrew Cockburn. "Yemen United" is the title, etched against a two-page spread of black sharshafs of Yemeni women standing in line to vote. The eyes are immediately drawn to a young boy, standing beside his mother, looking up expectantly, wearing a pink sweatshirt and blue jeans as if to say "Yes, the young generation will buy our modernity!"

The first photo's caption, also the first actual words in the article, sets the tone of the entire article: "Exercizing a right not always granted in the Arab world, women queue up at a polling place in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, to cast their ballots in a parliamentary election. Marrying modern ideas to traditions hard as stone, Yemen survived civil war and economic turmoil and has emerged with a new sense of purpose." Ah, how much meaning can be packed into a modest pair of sentences. The sentiments here, expressed directly and veiled between the lines, say much about how Arabs and Yemen are still stereotyped. The quote manages to capture many elements of the stereotyping: Arab women have few rights, they are barely visible in full-length veils, traditional culture here is hard (and thus immovable and lifeless) as stone, civil war and economic turmoil are the fruits of this third-world enclave; yet by adopting "modern ideas" Yemen not only survives but is invigorated with "a new sense of purpose." The implication is that if we, the moderns, were not there, Yemen would be a dismal, backward, woman-hating society, hard and cold as stone. Our modernity is their salvation. The editorial handlers of National Geographic want you to feel good about your own prosperity.

The next page opens up on a grand panarama of jagged mountain terraces in a severely darkened photograph that obscures all of the agriculture to be found there. We are informed that "Tough country dominates Yemen and keeps villages like Safan in a state of perpetual self-reliance." What is it that makes this country rough? Is it because it is hard for modern vehicles to go through it? Is it the dark and foreboding cliffs, clearly a danger to even walk through in tevas? Is it the sense that people here idylly prefer living far away from modernity? And is it really so bad to be in a state of "perpetual self-reliance"? Yemen is rough for us, from our view, as the picture so well expresses. But nowhere in this frame do we see a Yemeni. Nor is there any sense of where "Safan" might be, until we skip forward to the ubiquitous "map" of Yemen. Here is a splendid view from the wide-angle lens of a renowned photographer, but why do the editors choose to stress the scenery at the expense of the people who live there?

Now comes the educational tidbit: "With few natural resources, Yemen is nonetheless rich in culture, history, and scenery." How wonderful! Yemenis may be starving, the country may be facing economic umbrage, it's present and future appear bleak, but just look at that photogenic scenery. But where is the rich "culture" to go along with all those rocks; we get a pictorialized culture conveniently minus real people. And the "history," is such a lush and full history (read Solomon and Sheba, incense trade, Marib dam), although you will learn none of it in the rest of the article. The author or editor appears to be dreaming of a pre-oil Yemen. If Yemen has "few" natural resources, is the oil which keeps the struggling economy afloat wholly artificial? Perhaps; after all, "we" discovered it.

The next fold of the page gets down to pure exotica -- bare backs and cupping! "Treating aches the traditional way, a healer in Bayt al Faqih makes a series of incisions, then places a heated horn over each to create suction. Finally through a tiny hole, he draws out blood." The "documentation" photo here begs for this caption. We see three men without shirts, but with blurred black "horns" (what exactly these are made of is not explained, of course) attached to their bronzed backs and the shaven backs of their heads. Each man is looking away; none has a face. Is it because for National Geographic it does not matter who they are as individuals? Anonymity serves up the exotic; God or the Editor forbid that we look in their faces and see educated and sensitive people not terribly different from us. They are symbolically small lithic fragments of the boulder that is Yemen's stone-hard culture. The healer, whose face is barely discernable in the shadow-enhanced photograph, appears to be sucking on one of the horns (Would not Freud roll over in his grave at this?) His right hand rests on the back of one man, as though he is about to push him and the others in a domino effect. Healing here is blind mind-control, primitive coercion minus rationality. The caption attempts purely neutral description -- making incisions, placing a heated horn over these, creating suction, drawing out blood. But the healer portrayed comes off (to me, at least) as a pseudo-medical vampire, a blood sucker, a witchdoctor with gullible patients. Is this what Yemen has to offer us as geographical voyeurs -- an irrational humanity that we lust after but have surpassed in our inevitably envious modernity? But this is a cruelly partial "ethnography" -- National Geographic at its editorial best. We are nowhere told why cupping is done. The theory behind the method? What motivates rational men to seek such cures (as we might expect also motivates Americans to spend millions of dollars on herbs and traditional modes of healing)? Here is the quintessential exotic act -- a series of things done for no logical purpose that we can rationally see. It would seem, if the picture is to be believed -- and it is placed at the front -- that this is how Yemenis greet the modern age. Is the reader informed about the clinics and hospitals, about health care in Yemen today? Not in National Geographic! That would, perhaps, spoil the image so carefully and systematically being crafted.

Now the formal text erupts... We are lured by a mystery plot. The setting: the courtyard of a fortified mansion near Sa'dah (strangely not photographed); the protagonist: a young (28 years) tribal sheikh with a "burgeoning reputation" for mediating disputes; main prop: automatic rifles. The case, put up front to appeal to our tastes, is about one Bashir (I have met no Bashirs in Yemen; I do appreciate that the author is seeking anonymity, but at least pick a good Yemeni name and not the Syrian heir-apparent at the time) who had killed a man while collecting a debt (Would you expect anything else in such a land as Yemen?). Bashir sought asylum from the sheikh by "slaughtering a number of sheep and oxen on the doorstep and placing his Kalashnikov assault rifle in the blood, a traditional invocation of sanctuary." I envision this crazed and bearded qabili storming the courtyard, rattling off several rounds at the poor dumb beasts milling about and bagging 3 or 4 oxen and a fair number of sheep (and perhaps an old goat and a stray cat or two). Oh, if only a photographer had been there to record this Mel Gibsonesque mêlée! But, my vivid imagination aside, if memory serves me, one sacrificial animal would do the job here. I have difficulty seeing a Yemeni, even crazed with a cheekful of qat, mowing down courtyard animals with an assault rifle; do you? But, think back to the opening caption: how right the author is in telling us that Yemenis want to marry the modern with the traditional! 'Urf is now maintained by globalized Soviet weaponry.

The actual legal case is a bit bland, as the details unfold. It was not premeditated murder at all. Both sides fired; one person got killed. Perhaps, the author thinks this is just one of those macho shouting matches Arabs, wherever they are, are so fond of. Pity that someone had to get in the way of a bullet. Now, Mr. Cockburn (or the editor rewriting the original script) wonders what would happen if the sheikh's ruling differs from that of the government. What if the government wanted things its way? "If they tried to do that, it would be an insult," responded the sheikh's uncle/father-in-law/chief bodyguard. "The entire tribe would take action against the government." Here is Yemen encapsulated, even as its "rich" culture is decapitated, in a stereotypical nutshell: tribal anarchy rules. Unruly tribesmen take the law (governments are the legitimate sources of law for the National Geographic Society, which is, after all, based in our nation's capital) into their own traditionally blood-soaked hands. We are informed that elsewhere in the Middle East "powerful police states rigorously enforce the stern authority of central governments and ruling families" but not in Yemen. No, Yemen is a place with no one in control; that is its strong appeal to us. We all know that Arab countries are Stern-gangish, totalitarian and power-mad (never mind how these current regimes actually came to power), but poor Yemen does not fit the mold... yet. Here we see the violent "Arab" in a primordial, but equally disdainful and shadowy, light.

Yemen, of course, is frozen in time; this is the basis of its perennial appeal to the Geographic. The author allows the Dutch ambassador, I think unwittingly so, to make the essential point: "Yemen is 16th century Europe... You have dukes and counts and wars, blood feuds and ghosts." What a poignant observation, so ruefully reasoned and carefully articulated. Who needs political scientists to do research in Yemen; the truth is so obvious to any member of the diplomatic corps. But why go back to 16th century Europe? Perhaps the ambassador is an Ottomanist at heart? The quote sounds to me like an apt description of Germany and its neighbors through two world wars, replete with holocaust ghosts that still haunt the international conscience. The caption on the next page makes the obligatory reference to Yemen's "medieval streets". Here is prime National Geographic landscape -- a chance to walk back into the fabled past and see the ghosts that haunt our own glorified and de-goryfied history.

As the stereotypes unfold, Geographic desiderata are dropped, like sorghum seeds, into the narrative. We learn Yemen has 17 million people and 50 million guns (I can imagine what a ripe target for the NRA this country could be after Bush is elected president and Charlton Heston Secretary of Defense...). To reinforce the true nature of Yemeni culture -- the inherent violence -- a full-page photo (p. 40) shows a young boy in Hajja with a jambiya and a Kalashnikov rifle on his lap. Ironically, the opposing picture is of a family scene where "women rule the home." Ah, so it must be the veiled women (less so at home it would seem) who give shooting lessons to their boys not yet old enough to shave. Yemenis, we are told, are "overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab," and several of the country's geographic regions are mentioned by name. Ironically, the map on p. 38, state of the art as it is, does not identify regions, just a few of the places where the photographs were taken. The map shows us Yemen as edited via its pictorial construction. Are you surprised?


National Geographic map of Yemen (April, 2000, p. 38)

I must return to the guns, the icon of choice in this article. Mr. Cockburn or his editor seems to have more than a passing interest in the arms issue. At the Sanaa Military Museum he observes an "enormous bullet-ridden 1950s Cadillac," and part of a Scud missile. At the northern market of Suq al-Talh the author examines kalashnikovs and 19th-century single-shot Mausers. He was offered, but apparently had no room in his business-class luggage, for a shoulder-fired antiaircraft missle and launcher ($700) and hand grenades at $3.20 each. We are educated in this article that guns are as much a part of the dress code for men as their checkered headcloth, jambiya and wraparound futa skirt. "Guns are often used in anger [unlike civilized countries like the U.S., perhaps?] but with less lethal effect than might be imagined," concludes the author. Add insult to injury, dear author. Are Yemenis such bad shots? Have they been sold inferior goods? Do they not yet know how to shoot to kill, as our Hollywooden Marines and civil police are taught? And with what are we to compare Yemeni gun toters, a schlock thriller you saw on the flight over from Paris or Frankfurt?

And, of course, what would a National Geographic article about Yemen be without references to qat? We are first introduced to qat by a photograph of men in the Sanaa suq -- one walking on those qat-littered, medieval streets Sanaa is so famous for. The average reader might miss the wad in the cheek of the young man on the far right, but not the seasoned specialist in National Geographic exotica. The caption says that a blacksmith is working while his neighbors "pass the time" by chewing qat. Further "government employees are now forbidden to chew during working hours" in order to boost productivity. Hence, following the Geographic's pre-packaged deductive logic, qat is a major cause for the lack of productivity in Yemen (exacerbated by the underlying impression that people here are lazy and spend their time shooting guns and just sitting around). A few pages later a full-page spread shows a crowded qat chew with the denizens of the mafraj "drifting for hours on a cheekful of bliss." Qat, we are told, is a mild stimulant (finally someone who has tasted it and realized it ain't a bloody narcotic) and a mainstay of Yemen's domestic economy. Cockburn actually does a good job discussing qat, even noting that a study by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse "found few signs that qat produces any serious physical or psychological side effects." Up to 80 percent of adults are said to use qat, with more expensive varieties costing as much as $40 or $50 per day (this is not where the Peace Corps volunteers get their qat...). Even the goat trope for the discovery of qat gets trotted out here. All well and good; my praise to the author's fairness here, but why must every article dwell on qat? Because it is the kind of exotic custom people expect to read about in National Geographic. Because it is the kind of exotic custom people do read about, over and over again, in National Geographic.

And, of course, let us not forget the downtrodden women. National Geographic has long been the legitimate source for viewing the naked or nearly so bodies of beautiful women and men around the world. Admit it, fellow men: flesh minus guilt, National Geographic still soothes the lustful conscience of Protestant American morals. But naked women are hard to come by in Arabia. In this article the camera shows amorphous black shapes, some stooped over and topped with cone hats, and even a warm domestic scene -- but with no raw flesh in view. The one limited exception is a superb close-up of a Tihamah girl; but here is that freer "African" influence. There is nothing revealing in the Tihama photo, to be sure, but the expressionless expression indicates the photographer still was unable to penetrate beneath the surface. The caption here says that the Tihama is a region where Africa has colored everything, from the face of this girl to the mud huts -- hardly a romantic analogy, but one that shows the true colors of National Geographic's neutralized neutering of "people of color" the world around. Is the color of dark and mud something that Africa has a monopoly over? Were these drab earthy tones not in Yemen until a boatload of Somalis drifted across the Red Sea? How hard it is for pc authors in the mass market media to forego the racism of their own society, especially the National Geographic Society.

Of all the statements in the article, the one I find the most paradigmatic of this genre is a seemingly offhand remark near the end (okay, these articles have no real beginning or end, but just flow along like stopovers on a trip). "Yet, this being Yemen, things are not quite what they seem." How profound -- how telling about the author! The immediate reference leading up to this remark is about women. How can such a conservative and medieval country have women who actually do things like vote? (Remember the opening photo.) But the prosaic context developed here suggests that Yemeni and Arab women are mere chattel in an otherwise modern age. Consider how effectively this stereotype is perpetuated. The woman chosen as an example of the assertive and veil-less "modern" woman in Yemen is Selma al-Radi, a well-known Iraqi archaeologist and preservationist with extensive experience in Yemen over the past two decades. The fact that she, a foreigner in Yemen, could shame a local religious dignitary (who I guess the author assumes would be against women having any sort of rights) may show a sort of victory for women's rights as such, but it says nothing at all about women in Yemen. Well, in fact it says a lot by completely omitting Yemeni women from the picture. Indeed, in typical National Geographic style, it is the author/editor who talks for Yemen without letting Yemenis, male or female into the picture except as foils for his curious questions and travel anecdotes.

Characteristically, one of the few real Yemenis to make the article is the author's driver, Naji (a real name, one wonders?), and no doubt major confidante, who gets the last word after the author cracks the inside story about an alleged haunted house in Sanaa. "All Yemenis are jinn:" this is the parting word, the thought the author wants you to take with you as you go on in the issue to read about America's longest cave. How charming and quaint. How amazingly simple. How revealing and, ultimately, how disgusting. We are told earlier that Yemenis believe in the jinn, a realm of spirits, alongside men and angels -- or so Cockburn was led to believe and readily passed on to us readers without editorial comment. But now a new rhetorical truth comes out that Yemenis "are" jinn, straight from a Yemeni philosopher himself, leaving angels in their own separate category far removed from the violent and stone-hard culture of Yemen. And, since the author knows along with us that such things as jinn do not really exist, the whole thrust of the article reaches a perfect National Geographicalized climax. Yemenis, real flesh-and-blood, no more exist in this article than do the jinn. "Yemen United" is but tale 1002 of the Arabian Nights for readers of the exotic to savor. Yemen is obviously not quite what it seems. But with such fantastic scenery and easily dredged up exotic traditions and violence, you can expect another National Geographic excursion to this fabled Land of Sheba quicker than a magic carpet ride (or is that only a time-dishonored trademark of Disney?) I do not want to confuse the two -- National Geographic and Disney World -- in your mind, dear reader. Just remember that Yemen is not what it seems to be -- in this ludicrous and insulting article.

A final note... I have a complete collection of National Geographic stemming back to 1907. These cherished volumes occupy virtually a whole wall in my guest room -- an imposing array of photographic knowledge sprinkled with occasional worth-reading narrative. I have over the years lugged the liquor-store boxes full of them from attic to attic so that now they can sit proudly on sturdy and open shelves. I love this magazine for its inspiration, but I also recognize the great damage done in National Geographic's narrow and unendingly ideologically conservative portrayal of all others. By all means read this magazine and enjoy the pictures. I do. The critique above is not a sleight on the professional integrity of the photographer, who has distinguished himself around the world. But avoid, for sanity's sake, as much of the pablum narrative as you can.


Reader Responses

(10/13/00) I have just finished reading your article, "Yemen Geographicalized." I was eager to see what you had to say about the photographs, because the photographer is my brother, Steve McCurry. I'm just curious to know if you ever contacted him to ask him any questions about the assertions that you make in your article about the photography. I would encourage you to e-mail him and ask him any questions that you might have. You mention the "intrepid photographer, no doubt exhausted from a rough car trip and eager to get back to the Sheraton in Sanaa". I want you to know that that statement hurts me, because Steve has put his life on the line dozens of times trying to tell the story of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. He covered Beirut when journalists were in danger of being kidnapped as Terry Anderson was, the Gulf War, the Philippines, Kashmir, etc. etc. etc. He has never ever been accused of taking the easy way out. As a matter of fact, he won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Exceptional Courage and Enterprise because he lived for many months in the Hindu Kush "off the smell of a greasy rag" as one of his colleagues said. I guess I wish you would have asked him about whether he intentionally darkened a photograph (as you assert). At any rate, I thank you for reading this far, and feel better that I have expressed these things. I did smile at your statement, "By all means read this magazine and enjoy the pictures." Many of his best are in his two most recent books, Portraits, and South Southeast.

Best regards,

Bonnie McCurry V'Soske

Editor's Note: As a result of this email I made changes to an earlier version of this article. My critique here is directed at the final production of the article, for which both the author and editors are jointly responsible. I admire the skill of professional photographers like Steve McCurry, who may have little to do with the final editorializing. For more information on the photographer, see http://www.lifemag.com/Life/eisies/1998/photographers/mccurry.html .

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