Yemen: the past is another country

July 17, 2012

There isn’t much Yemeni prose for curious English-language readers to get their hands on. At first I assumed this was because of a lack of translation – and that is part of it – but after some time researching Yemeni writers and emailing addresses for bookshops and writers associations that, without exception, bounced my messages straight back at me, I realised that there might be a bit more to it.

In fact, the country’s political history, which saw the rigid regime of the Imams give way to decades of war and unrest in the latter half of the 20th century, means that fiction writing and publishing in the country has been pretty thin on the ground. Nevertheless, there have been some pioneers and of these Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, whose 1984 novel The Hostage was chosen as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century by the Arab Writers Union, has to be one of the most celebrated.

Set during the run up to a brief revolution in the 1940s, the book portrays the struggles of a young boy who is taken hostage because of his father’s political activities and is sent to work as a duwaydar [attendant] in the Governor’s palace. Required to service every whim and desire of the men and women of the household, the boy learns the meaning of powerlessness and subjection. Yet, as his political awareness grows and society outside the palace gates begins to stir, his experiences give him the insight he needs to begin to imagine another future.

Interlink Books, the company behind the Emerging Voices series in which this translation was published, were clearly worried that the historical and social context of the novel might be challenging for Western readers. Not only did they include a preface explaining the reasons for translating the book in this edition, but they also added two introductions and footnotes to the Arabic terms in the text.

They needn’t have been so diligent because Dammaj’s skill as a storyteller is more than equal to the task of carrying his readers over his narrative’s sometimes challenging terrain. Indeed, the sense that we are getting a glimpse into the closed, privileged and long-lost world of palace life under the Imams’ rule is one of the novel’s great strengths. This is helped by the protagonist’s position as an outsider, which means that we discover the world with him and watch as he compares the formal processes of power with the way things are done in his own largely illiterate home community.

However, perhaps the most startling arena of discovery is that of the palace’s sexual politics. Women in this closed world are extremely predatory towards the young pubescent boys serving them, as are the soldiers manning the gates, leaving the hero feeling ‘like a rare bird [...] put in a golden cage for life’. During a drive back from a state visit, the women’s possessiveness even spills over into a physical fight, with the boy tossed between them like a doll:

‘Then suddenly, she got hold of me and threw me towards them, so that I lost my balance and fell in some of their laps.

‘”You’re simply jealous of me,” she said, “because he’s sitting next to me. Am I jealous of you because he’s in your beds every night?”‘

Humiliation doesn’t get much deeper than this. However for Dammaj’s hero, the extreme pressure of being possessed and passed around in this way is just the force he needs to sublimate his powerlessness into dignity and develop his own desire for self-determination.

This growth of the protagonist from a naive child into a humane and thoughtful young man is what transforms the narrative from an intriguing account of life in a particular period into a timeless, classic tale. Dummaj shows us the human heart beating beneath the strange clothes and outmoded customs. Powerful writing indeed.

The Hostage (Ar-Rahina) by Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj, translated from the Arabic by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley (Interlink Books, 1994)

2 Responses to “Yemen: the past is another country”

  1. Grahame said

    Very cool; I’ll have to check it out. It’s also interesting to note that the dominate form of literature in the Arabic world for much of history has been poetry, not prose, which was seen as inferior. Poetry in the region has an extremely well established history, while pieces like 1001 Arabian Nights were generally thought of as children’s tales–not high art. Much of what I’ve read from the region still emphasizes the poetry of a story–the sounds the words make when they are read. From your review The Hostage seems to be very aware of its history, and I’d be interested to hear whether you think that that poetical history is present in the work.

    • Thanks Grahame. Yes, you’re right to point out that poetry has traditionally been a more common form in Arabic literature. In this book, the rhythms of language certainly play a part in the text – particularly in long passages of dialogue where the words are batted back and forth between speakers, often without any attribution. That said of course, I don’t know how closely the translation reflects the patterns of the original…

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