It was the last day of August 1967. The two old classmates from Aden College, the highest institute of learning in South Yemen, were preparing to leave for the United Kingdom.
Since I thought I would try to read a book from every country that has existed during my lifetime, including some that no longer do, I thought I’d try to find one from South Yemen, alias the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a strange Communist Arab country which existed from 1963 until it reunited with North Yemen in 1989 (the same year East and West Germany reunited). It proved very difficult to find anything in English. This is the title I came up with, with the help of Yemeni exile Alia (for which much thanks!) The author was born in Aden and it’s set in the right place and time, although it’s a newish (2012) book.
I wasn’t expecting much from the boring title, which is, indeed, about two boys from Aden College (Hasan the law student and Ahmad the medical student) who move to England. Despite being self-published, it is mostly well-edited, although it slips slightly towards the end. The author, who is a doctor himself, does not explain some medical terms.
Ghanem obviously wrote the book to explain Yemeni culture (like the one that Ahmad – obviously his alter ego – wants to write), and does succeed at that.
The plot is fairly predictable in a Cain and Abel way – both good and bad. Ahmad is the good guy, Hasan goes bad. The ending, especially, falls a bit flat. Hasan’s motivations are not sufficiently described, although they could be more interesting than Ahmad’s.
Often the dialogue doesn’t read as quite natural, for example:
“Wow! I suspected that such things were going on, simply because I know what human nature is like, but this was a really graphic description of debauchery. Where do they find all the alcohol you talked about? Here I am dying for just one glass of wine to go with my spicy Chinese chow, and I cannot get it.”
Not great literature, but if you don’t expect too much it is a good introduction for Westerners into Arabic culture and vice versa, and I can’t fault Ghanem for trying so hard to build understanding between our cultures.
Qais Ghanem MD: Two boys from Aden College, Bloomington IN, iUniverse, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4697-9626-0
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)