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Dresch, an Oxford lecturer, retells the twentieth-century history of Yemen with a rare panache, making the usually dry history of imams, strongmen, and backwardness nearly a pleasure to traverse. Typical of his style is a sly admission in the preface of his temptation to replace the publisher's dry-as-dust title with a more exotic Yemeni-style one ("The Camel Trotting Heavy Laden with News of Hadramawt, Sanaa and Aden"). Dresch, a cultural anthropologist, shows a skilled hand at history, even as he lards it with anecdotes, poetry, and newspaper quotations.

His history goes lightly on themes, but if it has one, it would be how the borders invented by the imperial overlords a century back have acquired ever more reality and emotional resonance with time. "Yemen," like "Scandinavia" or "Syria," was through the ages a geographic expression referring to a distinct cultural unit; like those other names, it did not have a specific political reality. "Much of Yemen's history through the twentieth century connects with efforts to form that state, which was finally established in 1990." When that unified policy did come into existence, Dresch judges it thus: "The state turns out to be much like other states. The country remains singular."

That singularity is what the author relishes, from the drug-taking, toy-playing last imam (king) to the high points of the country's culture (about which he has this to say: "Yemen has, if anything an excess of culture and one could study for a lifetime and still miss the significance of what one has read or heard"). With Dresch for a guide, the reader willy-nilly imbibes an appreciation for Yemen while learning its formal history.