The Real Jewel is Yemen

Charles and Patricia Aithie,
Yemen: Jewel of Arabia. London: Stacey International, 2001, 215 pp., bibliography, index

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 43 (2001)

Smoking the mada‘a (waterpipe) in the Jawl (p. 180).

There is, quite fortunately, no dearth ofpicture books about Yemen. In part this is due to the picturesqueaura of Yemeni landscapes, which explains why it is a commonNational Geographic venue. Charles and Patricia Aithie, ageologist and artist/journalist respectively from Wales, haveproduced a splendid array of color photographs with a supporting textdesigned for the general reader. The text begins with an introductionby Mark Marshall, British ambassador to Sanaa from 1987-1993. This isfollowed by a tourist-targeted chronology of South Arabia from thefirst traces of the Neolithic to the northern border agreement withSaudi Arabia in 2000. The Aithie's narrative description is dividedgeographically with separate chapters on (1) the Highlands, (2)Tihama, and (3) Hadramawt, South Coast and Aden. The selectbibliography emphasizes geography and travel writing. The indexappears to be quite comprehensive, although, annoyingly, Arabic namesbeginning with the definite article (al) all appear under theletter "a." If you are looking for a specific Arabic placename, youwill have to consider the possible variants since the text makeslittle attempt to be systematic.

Let's begin with the photographs, since theyare the main reason worth having a copy of the book. First, the printquality is very good for most of the pictures. There is a nicebalance between shots of people, terraces, architecture and materialculture (pottery, hats, stained glass designs). As an artisticcollection this volume does not match the brilliance and consistencyof work by Pascal and Marie Maréchaux, but several of theshots are indeed exquisite (doorway, p. 41; boy and donkey, p. 61;night scene in Taiz, p. 99; Tihama child, p. 104; Tihama man, p. 107;Beit al-Faqih market, p. 129; Shabwa salt miner, p. 155). Thephotographs are almost uniformly symmetrical (e.g., p. 135).Sometimes the layout reduces scenes that beg for a larger frame intosmall vignettes that may require a magnifying glass to appreciate(e.g., the boys on bicycles on p. 113). In terms of photographicquality, there are several illustrations that well capture theintricacies of lighting (e.g., small boats at Mukha, p. 141 and thevillage of Habban, p. 189). Unfortunately, there are also severalcases where the contrast is flat (unidentified object on top of p.86; Jiblah on pp. 96-97), washed out (storks on p. 90) and facesunintentionally obscured in the shadows (female trader on p.132).

Female trader at al Khamis (p.132)

The wildlife shots look, for the most part,like they were taken by tourists. This is especially the case for thethree photographs of birds (p. 120), which are too small to have aneffect, unimaginatively cropped and of poor contrast. The vividcolors of Red Sea fish are also lost (p. 114). The best wildlifephotograph is a striking image of a blue agame lizard (p. 65),although even here the tail is out of focus. I did notice a fewpictures that are problematically cropped. For example, the twoTihama women on a donkey cart (p. 11) would have made a nice picture,but the bottom of the frame has an obstruction in the left handcorner; attempting to crop this out resulted in the hooves of thedonkeys being cut off.

Colorful, but not very detailed, maps (pp.17-19) are given of the topography, main roads, and administrativesectors, but &endash; given that the target is the tourist more thanthe scholar &endash; it would have been nice if the shadings (forelevation) on the topographic map had been explained. Small maps arealso provided in the text for roads leading to Sanaa (p. 35),worldwide coffee production (p. 48), geologic structure (p. 54), avery rough and very small map of land use (p. 91), Tihama markets (p.114), Jabal Bura' (p. 121), Wadi Hadramawt (p. 148), ancient SouthArabian kingdoms (p. 153), sketch maps of Aden for 1877 and 1960 (p.198), geology of the Aden volcano (p. 204), Socotra island (p. 205),and the Tawila Tanks at Aden (p. 206).

Beit al-Faqih market (p.128).

Now, to the text. Mark Marshall'sintroduction is a confused historical and cultural summary betterleft unread. It is full of superlative anecdotalisms, such as: "Thehighlands of Yemen are said to be the only place where the Arabs areat home in a temperate climate." (p. 8), certainly surprising news toOmanis, Lebanese and Syrians; the first non-Yemeni reached thevillage of Qubaita in 1989 (p. 8), the first to sign a guestregister?'; "The tribal territories have not changed for at least athousand years..." (p. 8), perhaps the author should enroll at Oxfordfor a course with Paul Dresch; the spin on Hud as an "allegedlymonotheistic" prophet (p. 10), as though this is somehow a relevantissue to doubt. It is perhaps not surprising that a former Britishambassador glosses Britain's role in the former protectorate of Aden,which simply "became fully independent" and then "soon turned veryleftist" (p. 10). You will not find any nuanced political history inthe main text either; we are informed that the Aden region "wasdevastated by tyrannical Marxist methods of government" (p. 203).Admittedly, this makes it a text extremely unlikely to offend anyone.Successful picture books do not generally carry powerfulpolemics.

The textual narrative and captions aregenerally accurate but suffer from a tourist-level knowledge ofYemeni culture, a feature common to derivative accounts supplementingtable-top picture books. Geography drives the text as a kind ofexpanded commentary on the range of Yemeni locales. This text has themerit of giving equal attention to north and south, although it ismainly the well known places which are treated. The geographicaldescription is fairly good, although without the thoroughness ofGerman writings. An informative sidebar is provided on termites inYemen (p. 193); see below. The text is especially useful for ageneral description of crafts and local architecture. Readers notfamiliar with Yemen may become a bit disoriented by the constantlisting of place names, since this is not a travel guide to hold inthe hand while cruising the highways. The authors are sympathetic toYemeni culture, not bashing qat use or dwelling on "wild"tribesmen as many tourist accounts tend to do. Discussion of culturalcustoms is at times superficial, such as the limited explanation ofbara' dance as "local people join in the dance with gracefulmovements" (p. 52). Even Quakers would have trouble finding many"oats" in Yemen (p. 24); perhaps the authors are thinking of barley,which was left off the list of major grains. The jambiya(curved dagger) was never the main weapon of war (p. 77). Thehamlet on a rock (p. 59) is not the village of al-Ahjur, although itis in the valley of al-Ahjur; it is located near the top, not thebottom, of the wadi.

Taiz street at night (p. 99).

The editing has some minor problems. Acaption on p. 86 refers to a picture on the right; it is on the left.I note that the indexed reference to Ar-Rawda on p. 180 is in error.There are also the occasional and distracting idiosyncratic spellingsof place names: Jabla for Jibla (p. 9); Dhaffar for the establishedDhofar or at least Dhafar (p. 9); Wadi Dhar for Wadi Dhahr (p. 50).There is some confusion as to whether the Rasulid dynasty begins in1228 (p. 134) or 1229 (pp. 14, 100). The first sentence on p. 139 ismissing a comma. Those kinds of things that a good proof readershould catch.

Overall, this is a book worth owning. Forsomeone who knows nothing about Yemen, the text is informative andthe pictures compelling. For an English text useful for tourists,this one works. Keep it at least near your coffee table, but not ontop of books by the photographers Maréchaux.

Support for this volume came from a varietyof sources, including the Arts Council of Wales, the Ministry ofTourism and Culture in Yemen, the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen inLondon and the British Yemeni Society. The authors are to becommended for their collaborative effort. Potential readers arerecommended to include this volume in their collections.

Ka‘ba diagram from a Yemenimanuscript in Tarim (p. 172).

[All photos by Charles and PatriciaAithie.]

For ordering information, please contact:

Stacey Arts Limited
128 Kensington Church Street
London, W8 4BH
Telephone: 020 7221 7166
Fax: 020 7792 9288

or email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

For distribution in Yemen, contact:

Universal Touring Company
PO Box 3418,
Sana'a, Republic of Yemen

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Excerpt (p. 193)


On the upper part of the South Arabiancoastal plain tower-like termite mounds form a conspicuous feature ofthe landscape. They are irregular to conical in shape, rising to headheight, and stand 50-100m apart along the wadi courses in Abyanprovince. Their builders are large colonies of the fungus-growinghigher termite Macrotermes, most probably Macrotermessubhyalinus, a common sight in tropical Africa, where the genusoriginates, but fairly rare in the Arabian Peninsula where they occursporadically here and in nearby Dhofar (Oman) and SaudiArabia.

Not surprisingly, it takes a vast number ofthe tiny termites to produce such prodigious earthworks, and thetermite colonies contain millions of individuals, some of them quitelong-lived, each performing a different role in a highly organisedcolonial structure. The mounds, built up of a mixture of earth,saliva and clay that sets extremely hard, have a complex internalstructure and ventilation system. A central chamber is inhabited bythe king and queen termite, and a series of chambers of varying sizeand shape contain fungus combs which help the insects to break downthe life-giving cellulose they harvest on the surface at night. M. subhyalinus feeds mainly on grass litter; this is stored inspacial chambers in the nest where it is allowed to ferment before itis eaten and deposited in the combs. After a few weeks the combs arebroken down and the nutrients harvested.

The termites enter and leave the moundthrough a series of underground passageways, or foraging galleries,in its base, which radiate out under the surrounding area and come tothe surface some distance away. Foraging takes place on the surfaceat night, and only during the day if food is in shortsupply.

The termites have become adapted to life inthis semi-arid environment, and by mean of some specially arrangedhairs can extract water from the pores in the soil through capillaryaction. In general, they are largely inconspicuous except for annualmigration flights - the means by which the colonies are able tospread. A proportion of winged migrating forms leave from temporaryexit holes near the top of the mound. They are incapable of powerfulflight and usually travel less than 100m. On landing the males andfemales snap off their wings, find a partner and dig a tunnel tostart a new colony as the new king and egg-producing queen. The firsteight months in a new colony's life are a particularly vulnerabletime for the queen, who loses about thirty percent of her initialweight. Mortality rates at this stage are typically about fifty percent.

Termites are in a sense the tropicalequivalent of the temperate earthworm, helping to fertilise andenrich the soil, and are therefore especially important in dryclimates, where ordinary decay is rather slow. One species however -Microtermes najdensis, which lives in the soil - is aparticular pest in the cultivated wadi areas of the Tihama, causingsubstantial root damage to a wide range of crops, including cottonand maize."

Search Site

Search Library Collection