Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes
Yale University Press 2010
Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes is the kind of book that keeps you awake at night. Its British author, Aden-born Victoria Clark, essentially presents to her readers a mathematics problem unsolvable by a western mind. Far from prompting one to give up, however, this unsolvable problem taunts anyone with an inquisitive mind to take a nosedive into the fascinating social and political landscape, with its rich but troubled history, that is Yemen.
At once extraordinarily complex yet tragically primitive, Yemen is a country that has had to fight for its survival at every step in its history. In 2012, no one can say where it is in fact headed.
The sorry state of Yemen today reflects its often violent and divisive tribal past, the fierce ideological battles perpetually acted out on its soil, bloody attempts at unification and secession, the rise of jihadism, and Yemen’s desperate lack of resources.
Written chronologically as part travelogue, part history book, Clark weaves together the story of the Yemeni people—a patchwork of tribes and regions—through her personal encounters with government officials, wanted criminals, retired jihadists, friends, and academics, all resting on historical facts that bring her readers up to the present day. In scrapbook-like form, anecdotes, popular jokes and poetry provide the reader with a little respite from the gravity of the moment. Clark’s command of her subject allows her to write in a serious but fluid style that acts to invite readers from all backgrounds to delve into her world of Yemen.
Beginning with the Ottoman conquest in 1538, Clark tracks the many failed attempts by foreign powers, i.e. Britain and Egypt, to rule over Yemen. Notoriously impossible to subjugate for any length of time, thanks to “its ferociously hostile northern tribes and equally repellent terrain,” Clark surmises at the beginning of her book that “the region had nothing whatsoever to recommend it except its strategic position at the lower opening to the Red Sea and its proximity to Islam’s Holy Places.”
Clark argues that Yemen’s Zaydi (Muslim) highland tribes have had an evident role in the country’s failure to thrive as a modern nation state, largely due to the nature of the now defunct imamate, in which each imam, or ruler—who was selected from a pool of direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed—relied on the support of armed tribes to stay in power. Consequently, “an imam had to be expert at dividing and ruling, at watching for rivals and plotting in an atmosphere of permanent and chronic insecurity and suspicion.”
Foreign governments primarily interested in Yemen for its strategic significance in the decade prior to 9/11 nourished this environment with their offerings of weapons in exchange for tribal cooperation, a practice that continues to this day, both among Yemenis themselves and now largely from world powers seeking to contain the spread of jihadism.
It is in this dysfunctional system, in which the notions of power, justice and the rule of law specific to a working state apparatus have had no place, that Yemen continues to operate.
The 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh perpetuated this system and robbed the country of any chance to thrive. Saleh overlooked the fact that “large sections of Yemen’s population…would not describe themselves as tribespeople,” and this, coupled with Yemen’s litany of problems—less than one percent of Yemen’s land is arable, over half of Yemen’s 23 million citizens chew Qat daily, nearly half of the population is illiterate, the country’s scarce water and oil resources are fast running out, and it ranks as the poorest Arab country—has unquestionably held the country back.
Though Clark provides little in way of solutions, she strongly recommends that global stakeholders start to take responsibility for their actions in Yemen, particularly those that reinforce corruption and state-sponsored violence. In other words, distribute aid wisely and supply weapons cautiously.
A person’s journey to grasp Yemen’s past with view to projecting its future will certainly be characterized by a labyrinth of pathways that appear to lead to nowhere. Yet, we all know that they must lead somewhere. As we approach a period in which Yemen’s longest serving leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is no longer at its helm, the question we are all asking is where?
This book may or may not provide a clear answer, but it will without a doubt act as a vital conduit for the richer and deeper understanding needed to get there.