Dresch on Modern Yemen

Reviewed by W. Flagg Miller

Yemen Update 44 (2002)

[Review of Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen (Cambridge University Press, 2000)]

Paul Dresch's recent volume A History of Modern Yemen is a timely contribution to studies of the contemporary Middle East. With the aim of complicating accounts of modern political life that begin with narratives of monolithic Western "contact" and that subsequently progress with the familiar unfolding of national history, Dresch situates the emergence of modern Yemen in a fascinating and complex ethnoscape, one that is valuable for transecting such narrative frameworks. The detail and scope of his account are stunning. One of the most distinctive achievements of the book is that, despite the conglomerate histories which are acknowledged, Dresch is ultimately able to tell "a" history. This history locates much of the momentum of modernizing change in Upper Yemen, and specifically in a pre-revolution(s) epoch of Zaidi state formation in which the Hamîd al-Dîn Imamate and leading sayyid families played critical roles. Dresch's argument is compelling and well directed, especially in a post Cold-War epoch in which much popular and scholarly attention is being given to the resilience of Islam in the formation of modern national polities.

For scholars of Yemen, the book serves as an invaluable guidebook to the social and cultural moorings of late 19th to 21st-century political history. While Dresch delights in pointillistic detail, conveyed with the craftsmanship of a wry raconteur, he is consistently able to frame material in relation to broader transformations. The first chapter begins with 19th-century colonial expansion by the Ottoman Turks and the British, and provides a wonderful panorama of the Yemens circa 1900. Chapters 2 and 3 provide the strongest evidence for Dresch's assertion that state centralization in the north was the principal engine of change throughout the country. Chapter 3 devotes special attention to a change in political rhetoric, promulgated by none other than Imam Ahmad himself, that disadvantaged sayyids with a more populist Islamic authority, much of which was mobilized in Aden under increasingly nationalist political appeals being broadcast from Egypt. Of course, the independences of 1962 and 1967 ensured the triumph of nationalist over older Islamic authority, particularly in the south, and Dresch deftly charts the benchmarks of such transformation in chapter 4 ("the 1960s") and chapter 5 ("the 1970s"). Yemen's integration into a global political economy is the topic of chapter 6 ("the 1980s"), one of the highlights of which is a thorough contextualization of Islamism, as it grew and transformed in league with Yemen's population growth, increasing literacy and education, and state centralization. The final chapter is perhaps the most schematic of the book, detailing major benchmarks in national politics since unity, with well-deserved attention to the economic challenges that Yemen faces in achieving civil society reforms.

Source material is vast and admirably deployed. Dresch navigates among a rich body of Western scholarship on Yemen, as well as an especially impressive selection of lesser known colonial documents. In my mind, however, one of the chief strengths of the book is its extraordinary commitment to Yemeni sources. Included are state decrees and letters, tribal settlement documents, charters of a variety of political organizations, and party communiqués. Historical accounts by Yemenis are voluminously referenced and integrated into larger trends in cultural and political transformation. With much aplomb, too, Dresch demonstrates a keen Yemeni interest in narrating history through poetry, though he also draws from popular novels and television and radio programs. The breadth of Dresch's literary coverage is exemplary among accounts of contemporary national cultures in the Arab world.

To tell a single history obviously requires selection and exclusion, as Dresch acknowledges explicitly in his introduction as well as a quirky "Appendix 2." Diasporic Yemen receives little treatment in the book. More generally, Dresch's account bears traces of a concentric model of Yemeni identity in which central rings drift toward the Upper Yemeni highlands and outer rings demarcate British, Indian, and other foreign occupiers in Aden. A less argumentative thrust could have better accounted for the open-ended contention between historical narratives. Telling history is partly a matter of illuminating continuities of power, but also of showing how the coherence of power is erected against alternative histories and continuously maintained across them. Since some 80% of Northern Yemeni commerce was being funneled through Aden before the 1960s, history must be qualified in relation to trans-regional circuits of goods and ideas that extended beyond and in some ways subsumed state history. Likewise, a world of vernacular and domestic politics remains obscured from the formal state documents and nationalized media conduits to which Dresch attends closely. These aspects of "modern Yemen" could have been more elegantly acknowledged with attention to the problematic of writing history.

One of the costs of narrating history in this fashion is evident in the sidelining of women to modern Yemeni life. Scattered throughout the book are occasional references to women's conditions in both urban and rural areas, as well as excerpts of events in specific women's lives; however, women generally figure as conduits of conservative gender politics (be they Islamist or nationalist) or else are excluded entirely (often as unwitting spectators) from political activism. To cite bids for veiling and seclusion by Islah's own women members (p.200), for example, is to ignore important factional differences within the Islamist women's movement in Yemen. When I was last in Yemen, I learned that Islahi women succeeded in pressuring their male counterparts to withdraw criticism of female singers for selling pop-music cassettes. Such a case illustrates a rather different history of public activism, and suggests that women must be made integral to, rather than alienated from, accounts of liberalizing politics in modern Yemen.

Despite shortcomings, A History of Modern Yemen offers an engrossing and rewarding read to scholars and enthusiasts of Yemen. General audiences will certainly appreciate Dresch's competence in filling in the better-known contours of political identity and transformation in Yemen with the contingencies of history as it is created by local agents. Those who fail to grasp the broader forms of Dresch's exquisite pointillism will miss a rare opportunity to appreciate Yemen's unique modern trajectory.

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