Sunday, June 12, 2011

Qat and chat in Yemen

A week after President Saleh was toppled, violent protests continue in Yemen. Author Paul Torday, whose novel satirised the use of military intervention there, says this ancient civilisation has survived far worse times

* Paul Torday

* guardian.co.uk, Sunday 12 June 2011

* Article history

My wife and I visited Yemen in 2007, as guests of the British Council. This odd, but generous, invitation came about as the result of my having published a novel with the title Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It is a comic novel, intended to have serious undertones, about the pointlessness of western political and military interventions in the Middle East. I think the British Council realised novels about Yemen do not come along every day, and made the most of it. I am so glad it did.

The recent history of Yemen is not encouraging. It has existed as a single country for only about 20 years. Since the second world war it has been the object of political intrigue by the Iranians, the Saudis, the Russians and the Chinese – not to mention the British, the Americans, the French and the Egyptians. Its strategically sensitive location is between the mouth of the Red Sea and the oilfields of Saudi Arabia. The government is an elected parliamentary democracy: but outside the main cities, tribal law and custom often prevail over the wishes and edicts of central government. On paper, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a growing jobless population of young people: four years ago 46% of the population was under the age of 15. More than 50% of people under 25 were unemployed.

Reading or watching news reports on Yemen, it is easy to conclude that it is well on its way to becoming a failed state: another Somalia.

The fate of Yemen has been the nightmare of western powers for some time. When I visited in 2007, the aid agencies – British from the Department for International Development, Germans from the Goethe Institute – were already predicting much of what now appears to be coming true: a Balkanised country fracturing into its constituent tribal regions, with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula exploiting the power vacuum at the centre. Since 1990, when North and South Yemen became a single political entity, the country has been held together by the strong will and political agility of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. If he does not return from his medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, will parliamentary government survive? Will the country stay together?

The fortress-like villages perched on rocky mountaintops we saw when we visited the north of the country are reminders that Yemen has constantly been invaded, or otherwise meddled with, by outsiders, from the Turks onwards. Perhaps that is why the tribes of the Yemen were among the toughest opponents the British army ever had to face, during the guerrilla wars in the 1970s in and around the Aden Protectorate [an area of what is now Yemen that was formerly under British protection].

Oil and water resources are running out. The country is desperately poor and has a reputation for violence.

Violence may indeed be an instinct in Yemen, but so are courtesy and humour. We heard evidence of the former during our visit. Our personal experience of the people we met provided strong evidence of the latter.

The day we arrived in Sana'a we heard about a gun battle that had just occurred in the suburbs. About 200 people started shooting at each other. Some represented the local property developers who had a government licence to build on some land. Others, local tribesmen, believed it belonged to them. Gun shots and rocket-propelled-grenade fire were exchanged and there was a vigorous and enjoyable shoot-out until two in the afternoon, when everybody downed weapons to go off and chew qat, and discuss the morning's events.

Qat is a stimulant that looks (and, to me, tastes) like the leaves from a privet hedge. Most adult Yemenis consume it every day. As a cash crop, it has to a large extent replaced the terraces of mocha coffee plants for which Yemen was once famous. Apparently it produces a feeling of sociability and mild euphoria. The World Health Organisation does not consider it an addictive drug, despite the fact that most of the adult population chews it every day and spends between a quarter and a half of the national income on it.

At qat chews, the world's problems are discussed and resolved under the plant's benign influence. One afternoon I sat and chewed qat with the historian and Arab scholar Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who is a long-term resident of Sana'a, and some Yemeni guests of his. The chew took place in a mafraj, a cool room with a view of a fountain outside. It was a civilised, sociable occasion, and one of many when I found something to admire about the way Yemenis live.

Another day we had lunch in a fish restaurant as a guest of the minister of culture. There were several tables laid out, each for 12 people. We ate a course at the first table and then moved to the next table for the next course, until we ran out of tables. Guests included General Haidar Saleh Habili and the Sultan of Shabwan. Shabwan is claimed to be the biblical Sheba.

General Haidar was a testament to the toughness and resilience of Yemenis. He and his soldiers were part of the Aden Levies [a militia force armed and presided over by the British military]. When British forces withdrew, the general and his troops retreated into the Empty Quarter, one of the most hostile environments on the planet. There they survived for 25 years until President Saleh granted an amnesty in the 1990s.

The sultan was evidence of another national trait: the capacity for survival. His mother fled to Saudi Arabia during the civil wars, when she was pregnant with him. Most of the rest of the family remained in their capital city, despite warnings of what might happen. Forty eight hours after she left, the heads of her relations were decorating pikes stuck on the city walls. But she and her son survived. Later President Saleh invited him to return, when he needed the support of tribal leaders.

We dined one night with a member of the Zaydi family, an American-educated man whose family had produced rulers of the Imamate of Yemen for more than 1,000 years, and is still prominent in the country, being able to claim direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

These encounters made me realise that Yemen is an ancient civilisation that has survived much worse times than the present. Family and tribal relationships have continued unbroken for many centuries.

How much of a threat is al-Qaida to the continued existence of the state of Yemen? The Americans believe it is a major problem, and they should know. But others believe that Yemen is re-entering one of its recurrent periods of tribal conflict, and that al-Qaida's presence, though very real, was inflated by President Saleh to squeeze more military aid from the USA. This view maintains that al-Qaida is at most a few hundred ex-arms dealers and veterans of the Afghanistan wars.

Towards the end of our visit, I encountered Al Maqa: the Yemen Story Society. We met at the Hawaii Club, a cheerful-looking place in modern Sana'a, decorated with an imaginative mural of a camel playing snooker on the wall. The Story Society is a group of novelists and poets who come together and support one another in their endeavours to promote the cause of Yemeni literature.

There is a tradition of poetry going back to Imru al-Qais in the sixth century. The art of writing in Yemen goes back to pre-Islamic times, long before the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were written in our own country.

The head of the Story Society was a charismatic man called Mohammed Algharbi Amran. Through an interpreter we talked about the prospects for the writing of fiction in Yemen. There are a few problems confronting the aspiring novelist. The male literacy rate is only about 70% and the female literacy rate is half that. There are few bookshops, even in the cities. Most of those only sell one book: the Qur'an. There is no book-distribution system, no publishing houses dealing in fiction, no literary agents. Al Maqa members pay for their own books to be printed and sell them themselves. The whole idea of writing novels is alien to this conservative, deeply religious country. Yet novellas and stories have been written and are being read. I possess one or two of the few English-language examples.

The Yemen Story Society aims to use literature as a mirror to Yemeni society, to teach it about itself and to help it understand how it can progress. A few decades ago the only writing in Yemen was closer to the medieval Arthurian poetry of Chr├ętien de Troyes: tales of kidnappings, and sieges, courtly love and cruel revenge. Now the first works of fiction dealing with the challenges of modern life are beginning to appear. It is an enormous leap – from a medieval world to the modern in a few decades.

After the meeting we said goodbye and went to sit on the walls of the Bab al Yaman: the gate into the walled town of old Sana'a. Old Sana'a is, deservedly, a world heritage site. It was dusk: we watched the old tower houses turn from tan and white to rose pink. I noticed a charming side-effect of the afternoon qat chew among the crowds: a number of young men took their curved daggers out of their sheaths and were waving them in a friendly fashion or dancing a form of sword dance. Later, we wandered back to our hotel through the darkening streets. Tower houses of mud and stone, sometimes 10 storeys high, often many hundreds of years old, leaned against each other or above narrow streets. Lights started to come on behind the gammariya, the roundel windows of stained glass, casting jewelled shadows on the ground below.

If Yemen can produce people like the members of the Story Society, with such optimism about its future – believing in the teeth of all the evidence that art and literature can become a means of bringing society firmly into the modern world – then it deserves to survive.

Before we left, another friend, Abdulwahab Almagaleh, gave me a present of a book of Yemeni poetry he had translated into English. The inscription reads: "Dear Paul – come back to our country soon."

It is an occasionally dangerous, always beautiful place, rich in history and tradition, often presented in the news media as bandit country. It deserves better than that. I hope I shall return there one day.

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