How beautiful this city was!
I’d seen it first when I was taken from my village and imprisoned in the fortress of al-Qahira as one of the hostages of the Imam. His soldiers had come, in their blue uniforms, and torn me from my mother’s lap and the arms of the rest of my family; then, not content with that, they’d seized my father’s horse too, in accordance with the Imam’s wishes.
In recent years, Yemen had a reputation among adventurous travellers (or would-be travellers) as a magical land which had preserved an Arabian Nights civilisation. The fly in the ointment was that you stood a good chance of being kidnapped. Even this, however, was made to sound like a bit of a lark – the kidnappees were apparently very well looked after, in the highest tradition of Arab hospitality – only, in this case, compulsory hospitality. Today the country is in a much sadder state, as I write being torn apart by civil war, starvation and Saudi bombing and blockade. It seems like Yemen (the other, forgotten, country which re-united in 1990, apart from Germany), is in danger of falling apart again, which is one reason why I have also chosen to read another novel to represent the past (and, who knows, future?) South Yemen.
Anyway, The Hostage is my novel for Yemen (or former North Yemen). This is another, but entirely different, instance of Yemeni compulsory hospitality. In this case the hostage is not a foreigner but a boy imprisoned by the Imam as a guarantee of the acquiescence of his father and his clan. Although he lives in a gilded cage and far better, materially, than most of his countrymen, he is still effectively a slave, and feels it keenly. He constantly longs to visit his family and home country. Despite his embarrassing situation, he fights hard to maintain his self-respect. He is stubborn and proud (perhaps most startlingly when he refuses to have his shackles taken off), and does not always try to understand what is happening to him. Like a pet bird, the door to whose cage has been left open, he does not try to escape – what good would it do? This work makes you understand what slavery truly is. And yet, everyone has someone that he can look down on – in this case, the menial servants.
He becomes the reluctant toy boy of the governor’s sister toys with him like a cat with a mouse.
This edition has two what I felt were excellent introductions to the historical and literary backgrounds of the strange and vanished world in which it is set, sometimes reminiscent of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Something of a classic, it’s well worth reading!
Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj (زيد مطيع دماج) (1943 – 2000), The Hostage, translated from Arabic by May Jayyusi & Christopher Tingley, New York, Interlink books, 1974, 1 56656 140 X
(originally published as Ar-Rahina by Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 1984)