Sunday, 25 September 2011

Zanzibar - the curious cultivating of cloves

When you look at Unguja (Zanzibar Island) and Pemba on the map, you can't help comparing them to two cloves studding the surface of the Indian ocean.  Trade in cloves has a long history, going back as far as Roman times. The cultivation of cloves has played an incredibly important part in the history of Zanzibar and was the source of much wealth for Zanzibar's previous owners, the sultans of Oman. 

Along with Mafia Island, which is further south, Unguja and Pemba were often referred to as 'the Spice Islands'.  These African spice islands weren't quite as famous as the Spice islands of Indonesia, Maluku, where the some of the world's most valuable spices (including nutmeg and cloves) originated. 

The flag of independent Zanzibar
Cloves were introduced to Zanzibar from the French colony of Mauritius in the early part of the 19th century.  Cloves were first grown on Unguja, before cultivation was moved to Pemba, which became the biggest clove-producer in the world.  To see how important clove production was to the country, you just have to look at the flag of the short lived independent Zanzibar, which contained two cloves on a red background. 

The Clove economy

Just as Yemen has lost out in terms of coffee production Zanzibar, in more recent years, has lost its prime position as the centre of clove cultivation.  This was mostly due to bad economic policies of Tanzania's socialist government in the 1960's, combined with a massive increase in clove production in Indonesia in the 1980's, which brought down the price of cloves on the worldwide market.  Today Tanzania ranks a distant third in terms of clove production, behind Indonesia and Madagascar.  There was an attempt to privatise the industry in 2007, but it might be a case of 'too little, too late'

An essential ingredient!

A hot whiskey by bmeabroad
I think the first time I saw a clove was in a hot whiskey, when I was about 20 years old!  We had a particularly cold winter and I have fond memories of braving the frost and snow with my sisters, to visit the local pub, hot whiskey with cloves being the best thing to melt the icicles hanging from our noses!  The taste reminded me of the stripey sweets I used to love as a child.  I now know these are called clove satins, but I'm sure we called them something else back then!  As an adult, I absolutely love the taste of cloves and use them quite a bit when I'm cooking, especially in Indian foods like curries and biryanis.

What's in a clove?

It surprised me to learn that cloves are basically flower buds that haven't yet opened.  They belong to the wider family known as angiosperms which are plants that produce seeds and flowers.  Cloves are related to myrtle and other plants such as Australian white apples and bush cherries.  They are red when harvested, but the version that reaches us on the other side of the world, looks shrivelled and black.

Etymology of the name

Cloves by me
The English word 'clove' comes from the Latin clavus meaning 'nail'.  They do look like those little wooden nails you see in traditional buildings and furniture and the nail reference has been borrowed into most languages, so you have hřebíček (little nail) in Czech, szegfűszeg (nail spice) in Hungarian, гвоздика gvozdika (little nail) in Russian etc.  

There is an interesting relationship between the English word for clove and the verb to cleave, which means to part or separate (possibly by hammering in a nail!).  The Latin name for clove is syzygium aromaticum - the syzygium bit referring to the cloves 'petals' being joined together.  

Cloves in Europe

Cloves have been used in lots of different ways around the world.  Apart from boiled sweets and hot whiskies, cloves have also been used in some European cuisines.  The Dutch seem to be particularly fond of the taste, which is not surprising, as they colonised Indonesia and cloves are used in traditional Dutch recipes for cookies and stews.  

Clove cigarettes and fragrances 

Clove cigarettes by Sarah Mae
One of the things that has been driving forward clove production in Indonesia is the fact that clove oil is used in the production of kretek ie. cheap Indonesian cigarettes.  An estimated 90% of Indonesians smoke kreteks and the kretek industry is massive, employing around 10 million people.  In the West, in the Goth sub-culture, clove cigarettes gained popularity due to their dark and pungent aroma!

In some countries like China and Japan, Oil of Cloves has been used in the production of incense and even fragrances.  By all accounts, anyone who wanted to have an audience with the Emperor of China was encouraged to chew cloves before being admitted to his presence, to get rid of the smell of bad breath.

Good for your health?

Oil of Cloves by Amanda Slater
Cloves have also been used extensively in medicine and dentistry.  Oil of cloves is a remedy for toothache and cloves are also believed to be natural anthelmintics, ie. they can get rid of parasitic worms.  In the Ayurvedic tradition, cloves are believed to increase heat in the system.  Chinese medicine also sees cloves as a 'hot' element, which can relieve stomach ache, but shouldn't be used for the treatment of 'fire' conditions.  Perhaps this passionate 'heat' of cloves is the reason why some cultures also believe they can prevent premature ejaculation!  

The Spice trade

When I was researching the history of Venice, I learned how important the spice trade was to Europe.  Wars were fought over spices and cloves and nutmeg were literally worth their weight in gold.  The search for new trade routes to India, ultimately led to the 'discovery' of America by Europeans.  Honestly, the lengths people will go to get a decent curry!  

Footage from Zanzibar in 1925

I'm going to leave you with a link to some fascinating footage from - it was filmed in 1925 as part of the British Instructional Film's Empire series.  It's amazing really to look at images of Zanzibar from almost a century ago.  At that time Zanzibar produced around 90% of the world's cloves and this short film shows the process that was used to harvest the clove crop.  

PS - don't worry, there's nothing wrong with the sound on your computer, it's a silent movie!

Image credits:

The image of the hot whiskey with a slice of lemon and cloves is by flickr member bmeabroad - you can see more of bmeabroad's images at their photostream

The image of the cloves was taken by me.

The image of the clove cigarettes is by Sarah Mae who is a librarian, originally from Hyattsville in Maryland.  This image was taken from her flickr photostream, but you can find out more about Sarah at her website.  Djarum is one of Indonesia's biggest kretek brands, but as you can see from the photograph, these cigarettes are also sold in the United States. 

The image of the bottle of Oil of Cloves is by amandabhslater aka Amanda Slater, who is a retired Analytical Chemist from New Malden in Surrey.  Amanda has taken up digital photography on her retirement and you can see more of her images at her photostream on Flickr.  

Thanks to Sarah and Amanda for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Zanzibar - Mambo, vipi?

We're not travelling terribly far this time, a mere 1500 miles (2400 kilometres) south from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, to Stone Town on the island of Unguja, aka Zanzibar.  Zanzibar is also, culturally, not that distant from Arabia and it's an interesting place because of its history, the diversity of the people who have called Zanzibar home - Arab, African, Persian, British, Indian and many others.

The Basics

The first thing I've learned about Zanzibar is that it's not one island, but two.  The bigger island is called Unguja and has its capital at Stone Town or Zanzibar city.  The slightly smaller island is called Pemba and has its capital at Chake-Chake. Putting their total land masses together, they are slightly smaller than Luxembourg or Dorset in England and around the same size as Delaware, the second-smallest US state. 

History and Today

Zanzibar has a unique culture and, in more recent history has gravitated towards the African mainland.  The islands joined with their mainland neighbour Tanganyika in 1964 to form the modern-day country, Tanzania. 

Zanzibar by Koffiemetkoek
My first impression of Tanzania is that it's an incredibly fascinating and complex place.  The relationship between Zanzibar and the rest of the country seems to be especially tense right now, due to the rival political factions in Zanzibar, ie. those who believe in the Tanzanian union and those who want independence for Zanzibar.

For a long time Zanzibar's history was dominated by the southern Arabian state of Oman.  Zanzibar was at the centre of the thriving Indian ocean slave trade between Africa, Arabia and India.  I guess it was inevitable that the islands would attract the attention of the British, who had interests in nearby Kenya and Uganda.  Whilst the Germans colonised Tanganyika, Rwanda and Burundi (aka German East Africa), the British established a protectorate over Zanzibar and kept the islands remote from German influence. 

The German colonisation of East Africa was brief and, like German Togoland (see my earlier blog posts about Togo) ended with Germany's defeat in the first World War.  Unlike Togoland, there was no French interest in East Africa, so Britain continued to support the League of Nations mandate and 'protect' Tanganyika until it gained its independence in the 1960's.  I can already see parallels with Togoland in that the Europeanisation of Tanganyika seems to have been less intense than in other parts of Africa and I think this resonates in the modern-day politics of Zanzibar and Tanzania as a whole. 


Photo by Koffiemetkoek
The only thing I knew about Zanzibar before I started researching for this blog was its location and the fact that Freddie Mercury was born there!  Since I've started my research, I see a few other themes emerging, namely the Slave Trade in the Indian ocean, the trade in Cloves, Islam in an East African context, the birth of Swahili and Zoroastrianism.

I've bought a collection of the distinctly Zanzibari Taarab music.  I've also got a few cooking options to choose from, I have two books lined up and I've ordered a couple of movies that were set in Zanzibar. 

I'm sure other themes will emerge as I eat, read, listen, watch and learn about Zanzibar.  I hope you'll join me on my learning journey over the next 4-6 weeks. 

Image credits:

To start us off this time, I've chosen the highlight the photography of flickr member Koffiemetkoek aka Carola, who is from Overijssel in the Netherlands.  You can see more of Carola's photos at her photostream.  Thanks Carola for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Happy Birthday Blog - Two Years on!!

It's now two years since I started this blog - 19 countries and 133 blog posts later, Learning about the World has been visited by 4,348 unique visitors from all over the world!
To celebrate another year of Learning about the World, I thought I would use this blogpost to remind myself (and you, my loyal readers) of the things that I have read, cooked, listened to and watched with the express purpose of increasing my understanding of this amazing world we live in :-)

This time round, I can't list everything I've read, cooked, watched and listened to (as there is so much!) but here is a sample of the learning adventure I've been on

The Books

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala)
An Insular Possession by Timonthy Mo (Hong Kong)
Independent People by Halldor Laxness (Iceland)
History of Jamaica by Clinton V Black (Jamaica)
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J Maarten Troost (Kiribati)
Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya (Lesotho)
Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh (Mongolia)
A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein (Netherlands)
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (Oklahoma)
(part of) I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos (Paraguay)
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (Queensland)
A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi (Rajasthan)
Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif (Saudi Arabia)
An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (Togo)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (Urals Federal District)
Miss Garnet's Angel by Sally Vickers (Veneto)
The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (Wisconsin)
Wild West China by Christian Tyler (Xinjiang/Uyghuristan)
The Hostage by Zayd Mutee' Dammaj (Yemen)

The Food:

Tapado (Guatemala)
Sweet and Sour Pork Hong Kong style (Hong Kong)
Liffrarbuff and Plokkfiskur (Iceland)
Jerk Chicken (Jamaica)
Palu Sami (Kiribati)
Chakalaka and Pap (Lesotho)
Tsuivan (Mongolia)
Stamppot and Limburg Beef Stew with Apples (Netherlands)
Cornbread, Choctaw Catfish and Fried Okra (Oklahoma)
Sopa paraguayana and Zoo-Tosopy (Paraguay)
Kangaroo Fillets with Mushroom sauce (Queensland)
Daal Baati (Rajasthan)
Chicken Kabsa (Saudi Arabia)
Chicken Groundnut Soup with Fufu (Togo)
Beef Stroganoff (Urals Federal Region)
Risi e Bisi (Veneto)
Bratwurst and Blue Ribbon Chilli (Wisconsin)
Da pan ji (Xinjiang/Uyghuristan)
Saltah (Yemen)

The movies:

Reykjavik 101 (Iceland)
Dancehall Queen (Jamaica)
The Fourth Man (Netherlands)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (Oklahoma)
The Mission (Paraguay)Swimming Upstream (Queensland)
Dor (Rajasthan)
Lawrence of Arabia (Saudi Arabia)
The Merchant of Venice (Veneto)
The Last Kiss (Wisconsin)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Xinjiang/Uyghuristan)
Solomon and Sheba (Yemen)

The music:

Sammi Cheng (Hong Kong)
Sigur Ros (Iceland)
Phyllis Dillon (Jamaica)
Egschiglen (Mongolia)
Bettie Serveert (The Netherlands)
Woody Guthrie (Oklahoma)
Savage Garden (Queensland)
Jagjit Singh (Rajasthan)
Mohammed Abdu (Saudi Arabia)
Yawo (Togo)
Smyslovye gallyutsinatsii (Urals Federal District)
Negramaro (Veneto)
Violent Femmes (Wisconsin)
Mohamad al-Harithi (Yemen)

Some Stats

I use a couple of different tools to keep an eye on who's reading my blog, which countries they come from etc.  It's always exciting to get the first 'hit' on my blog from the place I'm blogging about.  With the exception of Guatemala and Kiribati, I've had hits from all of the places I've blogged about!

The blog has had visitors from 91 countries worldwide.  The top ten countries that read this blog are:

1. UK
2. USA
3. India
4. Australia
5. Canada
6. Russia
7. Ireland
8. France
9. Netherlands
10. Germany

It gets an average of 12 unique visitors per day, which is around 144 unique visitors per month.

One of the reasons I started this blog was so I would read, watch, listen to and taste things that I wouldn't otherwise have read, watched, listened to or tasted.  Two years down the line, I feel incredibly enriched by the cultural experiences I've had through my 'armchair' travelling - I look forward to another year and all the learning it will bring.

In the languages of some of the countries I've blogged about:

Happy Birthday!  Feliz cumpleaños! Sun yat fai lok! Til hamingju með afmælið! Letsatsi le monate la tswalo! Tєрсєн єдрийн баяр хvргэе! Vy-Apave Nde Arambotyre! जन्मदिन पर हार्दिक शुभकामनाएं! Janam ghaanth ri badhai, khoob jeeyo! كل عام وأنتم بخير! Medzi dzigbe njkeke nyuie no wo! С днем рождения! Bon compleano! Tughulghan kuningzga mobarak bolsun!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Yemen - Goodbye to Arabia Felix

The time has come for me to say goodbye to Yemen, known to the Romans as Arabia Felix or 'happy/fortunate Arabia'.  My learning journey to Yemen has been really fascinating and, despite the current political difficulties faced by the Yemeni people, I've been left with a very positive impression of their culture and their potential to create a society that is peaceful and prosperous.  As usual, my 'armchair' travelling has also left me with a great desire to go and see Yemen for myself!

A summary of the topics

Esoteric by Martin Sojka
During the past six weeks I have had the opportunity to learn more about the History of Yemen - how it's a bridge between Arabia and East Africa.  I've learned about the two Yemens, north and south, following separate paths until reunification in the 90's.  I learned a little bit more about Islam and the Madhabs, or schools of Islamic thought.  I learned about the Queen of Sheba and the current situation for women in Yemeni society.  I learned about Coffee and Qat, two plants that were first cultivated in Yemen, they have had very different destinies in the modern world.  I also listened to the music of Mohamad al-Harithi.  I learned how to make Saltah, Yemen's national dish and I also visited a Yemeni restaurant just off the Edgware Road here in London.

Books about Yemen by me
I read several books about Yemen.  Tim Mackintosh-Smith's travelogue Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land was very readable and informative, Mackintosh-Smith is a great authority on Yemen and his book gave me a lot of ideas about the themes I should research for this blog.  I also read the popular novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, which was really funny and enjoyable and I read The Hostage by Yemeni writer Zayd Mutee' Dammaj, which was darkly sensual and frightening.  I watched several movies relating to or shot in Yemen, including King Vidor's Solomon and Sheba (1959) and Pasolini's Arabian Nights (1974).  I also learned a lot about the island of Socotra, the part of Yemen that isn't really all that Yemeni.

Other themes for further research

Of course I touched on a whole range of themes that I didn't have time to research fully, but would be interesting to explore further, if you want to learn even more about Yemen.  Some of the other themes were:

The beach in Socotra by Martin Sojka
- the History of Frankincense and Yemen's role in exporting it to medieval Europe
- the poetry of Imru' al-Qays and the theme of nostalgia
- Mad Mitch and the last battle ever fought by the British Empire
- The Yemeni poltergeist  idar al-dar and the Arabian approach to the supernatural
- Yemeni dress and that ultimate male accessory, the djambia
- The skyscrapers of Shibam and the development of architecture in Yemeni towns
- Joseph Wolff, the Jewish Anglican missionary
- Cush and the sons of Noah

I really regret not having time to do some research on the Temani, the Jews of Yemen.  To make up for it, I'm posting a YouTube video below from Ofra Haza, one of the most famous Yemeni Jews.  This is a traditional Temani song called Im Nin' Alu and comes from her 1984 album Shirey Teyman aka Yemenite SongsMadonna fans might recognise this, as she also sampled a version of this song on Isaac from her album Confessions on a Dance Floor

Did you know?

As well as the 'big' themes I didn't have time to blog about, I also picked up lots of trivia related to Yemen, which will come in handy in dinner party conversations, I'm sure.  I learned that:

- the prophet Mohammad said the Yemenis have 'the kindest and gentlest hearts of all'
- the official Arabic word for 'motorbike' translates as 'fiery bicycle'
- the Yemeni general Abdul Rahman al Ghafiqi conquered Bordeaux in the 8th century
- there are baboons in Yemen
Young man chewing Qat by Martin Sojka
- the mountain tribesmen of Yemen didn't use to eat fish, as they thought it was some kind of inedible worm
- the Arabs call rain 'barakah' which is also the word for blessing
- Yemeni fans of Michael Jackson are called mutamaykalin
- by the time the British pulled out of Aden in 1967, it was costing them £60 million a year
- Aden's busiest market is called 'the Suq of rumours'
- Aden was known as the 'white man's grave'
- Al-Maqah was the god of the moon
- There are people on the island of Socotra who have blue eyes
- the 1994 Yemeni census included 'cave' under types of accommodation
- a Kurdish dynasty ruled Yemen in the 12th century
- many cities in the Middle East have a Tahrir square, tahrir تحرير means 'liberation'
- the Queen of Sheba had hairy legs
- Marriage between cousins is permitted in Islamic traditions
- Yemeni weddings usually begin on a Wednesday and end on a Friday
- at 2300 metres above sea level, Sana'a is the 7th highest capital city in the world (just below Addis Ababa and Asmara)
- Yemen is one of only 7 countries in the world that apply the death penalty for same-sex relations

I hope you've enjoyed my virtual trip to Yemen as much as I have.  I'm going to leave you with the words of a very poignant poem from Imru al-Qays (Diwan, Poem 2):
Djambia by Martin Sojka

Weep for me, my eyes! Spill your tears
And mourn for me the vanished kings
Hujr ibn 'Amru's princely sons
Led away to slaughter at eventide;
If only they had died in combat
Not in the lands of Banu Marina!
No water was there to wash their fallen heads,
And their skulls lie spattered with blood
Pecked over by birds
Who tear out first the eyebrows, then the eyes.
Image credits:
For this final blogpost on Yemen, I wanted to highlight the work of a very talented Slovak photographer called Martin Sojka - Martin has taken some stunning photos in Yemen and Socotra, but also in places like Iceland and New Zealand.  You can see more of his images on his Flickr photostream  
Thanks Martin for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Yemen - Socotra, the island of blissful Sorcerers

It's interesting that each and every country/place I've researched about for this blog has a region or an area that is very much 'at the edge' of that country/place's culture.  Whether it's Bayan-Olgii, the Kazakh-speaking western province of Mongolia, or Limburg in the southern Netherlands, Oklahoma has its panhandle and Xinjiang/Uyghuristan has the Ili Valley.  Even Hong Kong has its New Territories.  For Yemen, the island of Socotra is the part that doesn't quite fit in - not really Yemeni, it's closer to Somalia and Africa than to Yemen.

Kent in the Indian ocean

Socotra Landscape by Stefan Geens
With a population of 42,000, Socotra is the same size as Kent in England (or Long Island, for my North American readers).  It's an incredibly isolated place, being cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year by ferocious sea storms that make it too perilous to sail there.  No doubt, in our age of air travel, it's more accessible than ever, but Socotra retains an aura of mystery - it's an island of Makolis (or sorcerers), a windswept outpost in the Indian ocean, where witch-trials continued well into the 20th century. Socotra is far from the mountains of Sana'a and the baking desert sands of the Hadramawt. 

The Island of Bliss

The name 'Socotra' is believed to have come from the Sanskrit for 'Island of Bliss', dvipa sukhadhara, which the Ancient Greeks called dioskouridou.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the people of Socotra speak their own language, Soqotri, which is one of the oldest surviving South Arabian languages, related to Arabic, but linguistically closer to the languages of Ethiopia.  I guess it's the equivalent of Icelandic for us, ie. a language that has existed in relative isolation for a long time, which means it has preserved some archaic words and structures that the mainland languages have since lost. 

Blood from the Dragon's Tree

Dragon's Blood Trees by Stefan Geens
One thing you might already know about Socotra and, again hardly suprising, considering its isolation from the continent land masses, is that it has incredibly high levels of biodiversity.  More than a third of Socotra's plant species are endemic, ie. they're not found anywhere else on Earth.  This is similar to the situation in other isolated island groups, eg. Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands and Madagascar.  Like those other island groups, Socotra has been recognised as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site.  I've come across UNESCO's work again and again, as I've been researching this blog and I really love what they're doing to help preserve many beautiful sites around the world. 

It's also quite interesting that, despite the diversity of plant life in Socotra, the only mammal that is native to the island is the bat!  Perhaps one of the most interesting trees on Socotra (and an unofficial symbol of the island) is the Dragon's Blood tree.  Not only does it have an interesting umbrella-like shape, but it also has red sap, believed in ancient times to be the blood of a dragon.  Dragon's blood was seen as a cure for many ailments and in the 18th-century, dragon's blood resin was exported to Italy, where it was used as a varnish for violins. 

A very 16th-century Crusade

Crabs on Qansaliyah beach by Stefan Geens
Perhaps it was Marco Polo who started the rumours about a 'lost' Christian tribe living on Socotra and when the Portuguese arrived in the Indian ocean in the early 16th century, they showed a brief interest in Socotra as a stopping point on the way to India. They also had a religious objective in mind, ie. to liberate their supposed 'fellow Christians' from the tyranny of their Islamic overlords.  The British also took an interest in Socotra and I can see why, as an island nation, other islands have always been an attractive subject for the British crown (eg, the Caribbean islands, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Even Aden is an island!). 

Eco-tourism on Socotra

Fish for dinner in Hadiboh by Stefan Geens
Modern Socotra seems as oddly out of the place as it has ever been.  For a poor country like Yemen, the possible implications of an eco-tourist industry on Socotra must seem very promising, far away from the civil strife of the Arab spring.  I guess isolation has its up-side!  Even more isolated than the main island of Socotra are the three smaller islands, Darsa, Samha and Abd al Kuri.  There is something very revealing by looking at a country like Yemen from the point of view of one its most obscure corners.  I would certainly love to visit Socotra, as well as mainland Yemen, when the political situation calms down. It sounds like an incredibly exciting destination, with a lot to offer the curious traveller!

Image credits:

All images accompanying this blog post were taken from Stefan Geen's photostream on Flickr.  Stefan visited Socotra in 2006, when he was living in Beijing, China.  By an interesting quirk of fate, Stefan has also taken lots of photos from Kashgar in Xinjiang/Uyghuristan, which is a place I've also blogged about.  I didn't come across his photos, when I was blogging about Xinjiang/Uyghuristan, but it's well worth having a look at his Chinese photos as well. He's got a very interesting website where you can find out more. 

Thanks Stefan for sharing these wonderful images with us using the Creative Commons License.


Friday, 2 September 2011

Yemen - a Country held Hostage

Published in Beirut in 1984, Zayd Mutee' Dammaj's novel  الرهينة or The Hostage is probably the most famous novel ever written by a Yemeni writer.  Dammaj was born in a small village just north of Ta'izz and was lucky enough to be allowed to leave Yemen to study law in Egypt.  His father was a staunch anti-royalist and The Hostage, which is set in North Yemen during the late 40's, is incredibly critical of Yemeni society, as it existed before the revolutions that brought an end to the Imams' rule.  Although the subject matter of his novel is incredibly controversial, Dammaj was a well-respected figure in North Yemen, unlike his contemporary Abdelrahman Munif, whose novel Cities of Salt was banned in neighbouring Saudi Arabia (see my earlier blog post about this). 

An English language version of the novel was published in 1994 with a translation by Christopher Tingley and Dr May al-Jayyusi.  In 1980, Dr al-Jayyusi, a Palestinian poet and translator, founded PROTA, the Project of Translation from Arabic, which set out to make contemporary Arabic literature more accessible to a non-Arabic speaking audience. 

The Hostage by Zayd Mutee' Dammaj
The Hostage refers to the main character, a young male adolescent from one of the many tribes that the Imam wished to control by kidnapping the sons of the tribal leaders.  Hostage-taking has a long history in Yemen and was often used by ruling Imams to ensure tribal loyalty.  Tradition dictated that the hostages should be well-fed and educated - one English traveller to Yemen during the time of Imam Yahya, described the hostage situation, as a kind of 'compulsory Eton' (from Tim Mackintosh-Smith's book, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land.) 

Unfortunately, in recent years, hostage-taking, or kidnapping, has become a blight on Yemen's international reputation.  Whilst most hostage situations have ended peacefully, there have also been bloody confrontations, such as the one that left four hostages dead in 1998 or the incident involving nine foreign tourists who were abducted in Saada in June 2009.  To Dammaj, the Hostage is a potent symbol of Yemen, a country that was isolated from the world by Imam Yahya, who preferred to keep the people of Yemen inside the country and all foreign influences out. 

Yemeni protester by
The Hostage is not only a hostage, but becomes a duwaydar, which is a kind of servant - a role he volunteers to do, as he believes that it will liberate him from the imprisonment suffered by all of the other boy-hostages.  As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that a duwaydar's role involves a lot more than that of a servant, as the older women of the house visit his room at night and use the duwaydar for their own sexual gratification.  The duwaydar is supposed to be pre-pubescent and it is only when he claims to have 'become a man' that he is relieved of his nocturnal duties!  I must admit, a novel about the sexual exploitation of young boys is a pretty shocking thing for a reader in the West and I can't begin to imagine how the novel is perceived by readers of Arabic. 

Of course, the role of women in the novel is also of crucial importance.  The older women are sexually frustrated and abusing a young boy in this way is seen to be somehow 'more acceptable' than having relations with a grown man.  The women are also hostages, in a sense, they have no real freedom and are mostly kept inside the palace.  A notable exception is the Sharifa Hafsa, who is kind to the young hostage and forms an attachment to him that is emotional, rather than sexual.  A sharifa is a kind of princess, supposedly a direct descendant of Ali.  Sharifas weren't permitted to marry below their social status, which meant that an awful lot of them remained unmarried (hence sexually frustrated!). 

Women protesters by
Interestingly, like Cities of Salt, The Hostage records the impact of inventions, such as the radio and motorcar, on Yemeni society.  Like the descriptions in Cities of Salt, these inventions are regarded with a mixture of fear and excitement in The Hostage.  Despite the Imam's distrust of all things foreign, the appearance of these inventions in the novel heralds the dawn of a new age and a curiosity about the outside world, even amongst the Imam's most loyal followers.

When I was blogging about Rajasthan, I became aware of the existence of the book of births, deaths and marriages, which is ritually important to Rajasthani tribes.  This also appears in Dammaj's novel, as the most important book, after the Qu'ran, to the Yemeni tribesmen. 

Yemeni protest in Washington by
The Hostage is, perhaps, just as relevant now, as when it was first published.  With the ongoing struggle in Yemen to oust the country's leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen has yet to finalise its contribution to the Arab spring.  Despite fierce opposition and an attempt on his life, Saleh continues to hold the entire country hostage, in a way that is only too reminiscent of the Imams Yahya and Ahmad. 

Image credits:

The images of Yemeni protesters are by Messay Shoakena, who is a photographer based in Washington DC.  You can see more of Messay's images on his website.  Thanks for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons License