The Newest New Arabian Studies

New Arabian Studies (ISBN 0 85989 645 5, ISSN 1351-4709), Vol. 5

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 42 (2000):55-57


Aden (Lopo Sôares' Fleet) 1521 (Macro, plate 30)

Of all the current periodicals that give more than an occasional nod to Yemeni Studies, none is as relevant as New Arabian Studies, currently edited by G. Rex Smith, J. R. Smart and B. R. Pridham. The fifth volume, for 2000, has now appeared with six of the eight articles on Yemen.

The first of these is by Hussein al-Amri, Yemen's distinguished ambassador to Great Britain, entitled 'Some Notes on Two Yemeni Contemporary Documents." The enigmatic title refers to two major political charters: the Sacred National Charter (1947-1948) or al-Mithâq al-Watanî al-Muqaddas and the National Charter of 1982. The first was born of opposition to Imâm Yahyâ Hamîd al-Dîn "and his autocratic and backward system of government" (p. 1). Al-Amri provides the background for the creation and dissemination of this manifesto. This charter, notes the author, "touches on the issues of civil liberties, stressing 'the sanctity of human life, equality, private property, dignity of the individual, freedom of speech and assembly'" (p. 2). Although the revolution it inspired lasted a mere three weeks, Ambassador al-Amri views it as a landmark for guiding Yemeni patriotism since that time. The National Charter of 1982 is the backbone of the current President's General Peoples Congress Party. It was the result of a committee of more than 50 politicians and intellectuals "representing various trends and opinions" (p. 4). The charter lays out the principles for a democratic republican system in Yemen.

William J. Donaldson, who has recently published an informative study of agricultural sharecropping in Yemen, provides a Latinesque selection on "Erythraen Ichthyophagi: Arabian Fish-eaters Observed." Title obscurity aside, here is an attempt to give a brief survey of fisheries in Arabia as recorded by visitors since the early Greeks. The sources, though meager, are nonetheless not entirely silent on the issue. Among the interesting observations from the classical writers are the observations that domesticated livestock were fed by fish and that fishing boats were sewn together from palm fibre. Speaking of the Mahrah coast, Ibn Hawqal (in the 10th century) wrote: "There are no date-palms or sown crops here, and their possessions are only camels and goats and beasts of burden [probably meaning donkeys], which are fed with the small fish known as waraq. Neither the people nor their animals are acquainted with bread and they do not eat it, their food being fish, dairy products and dates." One assumes these are then imported dates. Yemen's famous and infamous travelers, including Ibn al-MujIawir, Marco Polo and Ibn Battûta are also gleaned judiciously by the author for stray comments on Arabian fisheries. Having surveyed a number of travel accounts, including more recent ones, Donaldson lays out seven general, and necessarily tentative, conclusions. Here then is a start for filling a very large gap in our knowledge of Yemen's economic history with a sea breeze.

After an article on "The Ibex Hunt in the Rock Art of Oman," Professor Caesar Farah turns to "Smuggling and International Politics in the Red Sea in the Late Ottoman Period." With examples from historical and archival sources, the article looks at the identity of the pirates in the Red Sea. Lo and behold, some of them were from quite prominent shaykhly families. Of course this was international intrigue with the Ottoman Navy jostling with French, German and Italian incursions, not to mention the British. Farah documents here the Ottoman response to security threats at their back door, right up to their demise.

For most interesting title in the issue, I nominate "Wise Men Control Wasteful Women: Documents on 'Customs and Traditions in the Kathîrî State Archive, Say'ûn" by Ulrike Freitag and Hanne Schönig. The article is based on study of archival documents (after A.D. 1622) resurrected by Yemeni historian 'Abd al-Qâdir al-Sabbân. "Taking as its point of departure one document, which is here reproduced in facsimile as well as in translation, the article investigates the relation of private and public in a society based on strict gender segregtation and social stratification, the function of cultural conservatism in the 1920s and '30s, when Hadramawt underwent dramatic changes" (p. 68), write the authors. Following the translation, the authors provide a detailed and valuable "ethno-linguistic" commentary. If you have an interest in Yemeni social customs, celebrations and fashion, you will want to read this article and its extensive footnotes. The 1939 document on customary habits deemed inappropriate is fascinating and at the same times demands the kind of careful contextualization the authors provide. Explain, if you can, why it is forbidden for the wife's family to send meat to the husband during the feast days... By the way, here is the kind of article that perpetuates the detailed scholarship of R. B. Serjeant, whose work is quoted as appropriate in this article.


Aden ca. 1800 by Captain Hanchett (showing Sira) (Macro, plate 2)

Following an article on "The Small Long-handled Axes of Oman," we return to Eric Macro's "Four English Artists at Aden 1839-1847." This long article, which features some 40 relevant plates, traces the footsteps and paint strokes of James Sparkhale Rundle, William Prinsep, Lieutenant Walford Thomas Bellairs, and an unamed "Army officer." But let Macro explain his artistic interests: "As I have indicated later, my interests lay particularly in the topographical aspects of the paintings and the fact of finding any paintings of Aden undertaken in the 1830s. I am particularly interested in the artist as a draughtsman. That is why I have not concerned myself greatly with colour, other than in exceptional circumstances. I am interested more in the accurate portrayal of size, shape, proportion and location. It may be that, by looking at pictures in a certain way, I have distressed the art critics. So be it. If a charlatan is one who, inter alia, uses artists' work to challenge or verify topography, architecture or other such situations, then I am he. " One of the two appendices to the article includes a reprint of an anonymous account of Aden from 1848.


Prinsep: "Aden Harbour" (Macro, plate 18)

The final Yemen article brings us back to pre-Islamic sculpture. Hamid Al-Mazrou of King Saud University gives a brief account of the "main stylistic principles of South Arabian human statuary and their origin" (p. 183). I say brief, because the article minus illustrations is less in length than this review. The author's conclusion: "As regards the origins of style, I am firmly convinced that it evolved from the memorial funerary stelae as the photographs (Plates 1 & 2) show. Thus we are dealing with a prototype style which in all likelihood derives its main stylistic structure from a religious background. Consequently, this form of art continued to retain its rigid character in order to accord with its cultic function" (p. 186).

While a number of the articles dwell on the esoteric, they are still valuable resources. Certainly there are many more toipics to be explored. Is it not incumbant on those of us who study Yemen to keep a steady stream of quality articles on the desks of this journal's editors?

To order this book, contact University of Exeter Press at http://www.ex.ac.uk/uep; email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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