Ottomania at I. B. Taurus

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 44 (2002)

Clive Smith, translator, Lightning over Yemen: A History of the Ottoman Campaign 1569-71. London: I. B. Taurus, 2002, xiii, 226 pp., glossary, 20 illustrations, 3 maps, index ISBN 1860648363.

Ceasar Farah, The Sultan's Yemen: Nineteenth-Century Challenges to Ottoman Rule. London: I. B. Taurus, 2002, xxii, 392 pp, 2 maps, appendices, index ISBN 1860647677

Until this year (2002), any English reader interested in reading about the Ottoman occupations of Yemen would have been forced to repair to a specialized journal or plow through original texts in Arabic or Turkish. With two very different kinds of books, the publisher I. B. Taurus appears to have put Yemeni Ottomania on the English speaking map. The first book, Lightning over Yemen, is a competent translation of Qutb al-Dîn al-Nahrawâlî's al-Barq al-Yamânî fî al-fath al-‘Uthmânî. The second, The Sultan's Yemen, is a chronological narrative of events from 1817 to about 1911. Both books are certainly contributions, although both have faults that need to be noted. The fault with the translation of al-Nahrawâlî is not with the translator, but with the servile and polemical treatise that this 16th century author contrived. We have here not a "history" in the objective sense, but rather a fairly subjective piece of anti-Zaydi propaganda. The fault with Farah's book is not with the main narrative, which is a descriptive summation of who did what, but with the short introduction, which has to be one of the sloppiest and most careless I have ever seen in a scholarly work.

Let us start with the lightning; Clive Smith has provided a translation of the 1967 Arabic edition of al-Nahrawâlî's text by Hamad al-Jâsir. Although it is not a critical edition, stemming back to the surviving manuscripts, it serves the need for serviceable translations of Arabic texts on Yemen's history. Clive Smith had the assistance of historian G. Rex Smith and the Omani scholar Mohamed Nâsir al-Mahrûqî, thus assuring that this is a careful and accurate translation. There are more than two dozen pages of endnotes with descriptive and analytical information of value to readers, whether novices or experts. Clive Smith writes a short introduction, but there is little new information here. He notes the author's prejudice in favor of the Ottomans but agrees with Hamad al-Jâsir that there is still value in this account. Obviously there is value in any contemporary or near-contemporary historical account, but the sheer polemical weight of the treatise makes the historical value quite contingent on placing it in context. Early on the reader is informed that the Zaydi military commanders (sons of Mutahhar in this case) were "pillars of sedition and evil and the source of revolt, wrongdoing and resistance" (p. 24). Later we read that "... the Zaydî tribesmen were now among the most treacherous of men on earth and were the most disloyal where all Arab tribesmen were concerned" (p. 157). On the other hand, the Ottoman Sinân Pasha is treated as "stout of heart and full of faith, sincere in his conviction, loyal in his belief and faith, clear in his advice, complete in his success, radiant in his grace for the spring of Islam and ardent in his damage to the heart of heresy" (p. 51). There are a number of relevant Yemeni historical texts which provide a very different picture of the Ottomans and portray the imam Mutahhar not as a scheming cripple but rather as a patriotic liberator. Some sense of this counterweight, polemical as it must inevitably be, would have greatly aided the reader. Failing this, I fear that some readers will fall into the trap of taking seemingly straightforward comments as accurate, simply because there is so much obvious hyperbole about the characters.

"There is much to distract the modern reader in this account... Imagery shines on every page," argues Smith in his introduction to the text. I am not convinced. There are plenty of clever phrases;(e.g., "... a lot of sheep do not frighten the butcher, and fine necklaces, however valuable, are worth more to people who appreciate them" (pp. 31-32). Al-Nahrawâlî is good at describing political scheming and movements of troops, but there is little about Yemen itself. He gives more information about food in Mecca (p. 187) than he does for Yemen. Clearly missing are the first-person observations of cultural life that teem in the earlier account of Ibn al-Mujâwir, for example. As Smith notes, the author has a poetic style with a wide variety of metaphors that at times do not carry well over into English. Consider the following: "Star-like arrow-heads broke as human frames were cleft. Wells of blood met their end as virginal armour was deflowered by men's swords" (p. 146). I get the picture -- the author delights in bloody battles and heads being chopped -- but I doubt the Freudian sentiment here is as nonsensical as the English rendering would have it. There is one passage that I thoroughly enjoyed, although it sounds decidedly apocryphal: a certain Ibn Shuway‘ ran away from a defeat, in the process throwing off his armor and clothes (apparently to lighten his load in running away) until he finally cast off his trousers "showing his rear to the man behind him and disclosing his ugly buttocks as he ran on" (p. 60). A remarkable [ob]scene, even without a parting fart (cf. the donkey fart on p. 79). A close rival would be the tale (literally about a tail) of the cat used as a fuse for setting off a store of gunpowder. In this case the bark (not the best analogy for a cat, I know, but it makes a good pun on barq) was worse than the bite.

There are a couple of places where I am not sure if there is an error or simply obtuse wording (or perhaps an English idiom I miss). For example, on ‘Uthmân Pasha's departure from Yemen, we read: "He continued to dance attendance, seeking a happy return" (p. 39). One of the references mentioned in the notes (p. 193, note 1) is to a work by Mustafa Salim, but this is missing in the bibliography. Overall, there appear to be few errors. This narrative is an interesting read, even for non-Ottomanists, but please take it with several grains of salt.

With The Sultan's Yemen, we are set forward into the Ottoman rule during the nineteenth century. "The main focus of this study is on Ottoman efforts to maintain sovereignty over Yemen, which were constantly being challenged from within and without" (p. ix). Thus begin's Caesar Farah's preface, announcing from the very first sentence an outright resistance to sound grammar. After dangling his modifier, the author mentions that his data stem from Ottoman officer accounts, other archival Ottoman documents in Istanbul, some available first-hand accounts, other government archives, newspapers, journals, and secondary sources (see pp. 365-372 for the sources). Perusal of the endnotes (pp. 299-356) indicates that Farah draws mainly on the archival information, thus providing new information of value to historians. Unfortunately, he does not seem to be aware of more recent secondary sources. For a discussion of early trade in Mocha, he sends the reader to a minor article by Boxhall (1974) in Arabian Studies, but ignores the invaluable publications of C.G. Brouwer, especially the latter's Al-Mukhâ: Profile of a Yemeni Seaport as Sketched by Servants of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) (Amsterdam, 1997). At times Farah ignores sources that would seem to be important for his discussion. In chapter 8, for example, there is a discussion of Eduard Glaser's travels in Yemen, yet only one brief 1884 newspaper interview by Glaser is cited. Not only are several of Glaser's writings about his travels available, but there is an informative book on Glaser's travels by Walter Dostal (Eduard Glaser -- Forschungen im Yemen, Vienna, 1990).

Anyone interested in the Ottoman presence in Yemen during the nineteenth century should consult this book, as there is much of value in it. However, this is not a book likely to be read very far by anyone who is not intensely interested in obscure details. Consider the following passage: "The grand vizier issued instructions to the governor general to withdraw 200 Ottoman troops from the house of ‘Ali ibn Muqbil. Nuri Süleiman, the mutasarraf of Ta‘izz, had issued a buyrultu on 15 February 1873 to ‘Ali ibn Muqbil after he offered to submit to Ottoman authority, appointing him müsür of Lahj under the immediate supervision of Hayrallah Aga, the kaymakam" (p. 138). Farah has a tendency to string together details, sandwiched in between an opening paragraph saying what each chapter is about and a short concluding paragraph, but his historical analysis is wedged amongst the details rather than driving the narrative. He also has a tendency to paraphrase rather than translate directly, which can be annoying to fellow historians. His annexes exemplify this habit; such summaries are useful in general but not for serious comparative purposes where the original is not accessible.

I strongly suggest that the reader skip over the book's introduction, which is fraught with errors. It appears that this was written in a hurry without benefit of access to proper references and that the responsible Taurus copy editor was under a particularly inauspicious sign when this manuscript went to the printer. One of the more egregious errors is mislabeling the prophet's nephew ‘Ali as Ja‘far (p. xii); nor was Isma‘îl one of the Prophet's "grandsons" (p. xiii). It is rather curious and inaccurate to assert that "The Mamluks of Egypt controlled the land from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century when the Ottomans displaced them" (p. xiii). If Farah is referring to the Ayyubids, they came from Egypt in the twelfth century; the Rasulids who succeeded them were hardly under the dominion of the Egyptian Mamluks; nor were the Tahirids who the Ottomans did engage! Historical and alphabetical order are ill-served by placing the Tahirids before the Rasulids in a casual listing of local dynasties (p. xii). In this same paragraph, chronological flip-flopping continues when Farah returns to a discussion of the Abyssinians and Persians after discussing the entry of Islam into Yemen. The author also seems to have left his calculator off when noting that the British occupied Aden in 1839 but "were forced to leave fewer than 100 years later" (p. xiv); the British left in 1967.

Grammatical errors abound: the second sentence is missing a comma (after "neighbours"). Farah seems to have a particular penchant for dangling modifiers. A literal reading would result in the knowledge that "Continual foreign intrigues and manoueuvres to gain access to the region's commerce, especially coffee in the Yemeni highlands, which the Dutch had first controlled in the seventeenth century, led to competition..." It is hard to explain some of the odd translations given by Farah for quite commonplace Yemeni terms. Surely he has spent enough time in Yemeni qat chews to find a better way to define "Kat" than "a nut chewed by Yemenis" (p. 359). Similarly, a janbîyah is more than a "weapon" (p. 359). It is rather misleading to define "Rumi" in a Yemeni context as "pertaining to a Greco-Roman term" (p. 362), since it is a common appellation in Yemen for things "Turkish" in the sense of Rum" for Istanbul. It is fine to describe ashrâf as "Descendants" (p. 357) of Muhammad, but the singular sharîf is mismatched as "descendants of the Prophet" (p. 363).

So there you have it: two books on either end of the Ottoman intrusion into Yemen. Ottomanists will want copies of both, but the average reader will probably need to be more cautious. For enjoyment, an appreciation of an author's polemical hubris, I suggest Lightning over Yemen over The Sultan's Yemen. For micro-analysis from previously ungleaned archival material, check out Farah's narrative, but please pass over the first few pages of his introduction.

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