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

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