Yemen: The Unknown Arabia
by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Etchings by Martin Yeoman. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 2000. 280 pp. $35.
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
Rave reviews in the British press refer to Yemen as a travel book but it is more accurately described as a residence book; Mackintosh-Smith at the age of 15 or so developed a fascination with things Yemeni. At Oxford university he studied the Arabic language (an excerpt of his description appears on p. 96 of this issue) and promptly after graduating he departed for Yemen, where he has lived since 1982.
Though often overlooked, Yemen is one of the Middle East's most distinct and captivating countries; in Mackintosh-Smith it has found its English-language spokesman and poet. His book is a delightful literary exercise that at the same time spoon-feeds a great deal of information about his adopted country. Yemeni cities "seemed to have been baked, not built, of iced gingerbread. " With reference to the Muslim woman's veil as a source of east-west misunderstanding: "The Iron Curtain has been and gone; the muslin curtain still hangs, and probably always will." Yemenis have no word for snow and have to explain themselves: "Ice that falls from the sky … No, not hail. The stuff that falls slowly and looks like cotton." At times, though, the author's sympathy for his adopted country verges on the apologetic (as when he overlooks Yemen's dismal performance during the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91 and calls it a "victim" and a "martyr to conscience").
Also unfortunate is Mackintosh-Smith's devoting too much of his book to the sights and experiences on the road in Yemen. Rather than discuss themes (food, the sexes, social stratification, Westernization, etc.), he raises subjects through the nearly random prism of his wanderings. While skilled and insightful, these do wear the reader's patience when unleavened by a more sober and systematic presentation. With luck, that latter will come in this talented writer's next book.
Related Topics: Daniel Pipes | Fall 2000 MEQ
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