Political crisis and Yemen’s literary resurgence
by Fareed Al-Homaid, Yemen Times, March 23, 2015
“I have sold hundreds of novels since last June—not world literature masterpieces, but ones written by Yemeni authors. Do you believe that?!” said Abduljabar Al-Attoani, owner of Abu Thaar Bookstore in the capital Sana’a.
Despite ongoing political and economic turmoil, national literature saw an unexpected surge in 2014. Twenty novels were published by Yemeni authors last year, and while that figure may seem insignificant in a regional or global context, it is considerably more than the eight books produced the previous year. Indeed, it is about ten percent of all the books ever published by Yemeni writers, and considering the hardships facing the country today it is an extraordinary achievement.
The Yemeni novel in history
Ahmed Al-Sakkaf’s Qarot’s Girl, published in 1927, is considered modern Yemen’s first work of fiction. Since then, a mere two-hundred books by Yemeni writers are thought to have been published. Until the publication of Mohammed Abdulwali’s celebrated work They Die Strangers in 1971, marking the beginning of popular literature in Yemen, just eight books were produced.
Abdulwali’s masterpiece, a collection of 30 short stories translated into several languages, introduced Yemeni literature to the world for the first time. His reputation was sealed a year later with the publication of Sana’a: An Open City, which looked at the history of North Yemen before the 1962 revolution and is considered one of the greatest Arabic novels of the 20th century.
Abdulwali’s popularity signaled a flourishing of literature in the 1970s and 1980s, and brought renewed attention to lesser-known works as well, including Qat Kills Us (1969) and The Victim of Avarice (1970) by Yemen’s first female novelist, Ramzia Al-Iryani. Only Zaid Mutee Dammaj’s The Hostage (1984) would match the success of Abdulwali’s novels, but works produced in those years established Yemen’s literary tradition and continue to define it today.
Development and greater access to printing houses saw an increase in literary output in the 1990s, but low levels of literacy and a lack of government support has made it difficult for writers to find success within Yemen, all the more so given the country’s political climate in more recent years.
Abdulmalik Al-Qattaa, the general manager of the Copyright and Related Rights Department at the Ministry of Culture, says government support for writers and other artists ground to a halt soon after the 2011 uprising.
“Two or three years ago we used to print books by Yemeni writers for free but it’s no longer possible to provide that kind of support. The ministry can’t even print its own publications, like our Al-Eklil and Culture magazines,” he said.
Before political turmoil and dwindling resources forced an end to government aid, support for writers also came from the ministry’s Heritage and Cultural Development Fund, which would purchase up to a hundred books by Yemeni authors and distribute them at public libraries, schools and book fairs.
Novelists themselves, who are forced to look abroad if they wish to have their work released by a reputable publishing house, will also point to a lack of development in the private sector. Gamal Hasan, whose book Memory’s Insects was released by Lebanese publishing house Difaf last year, says the greatest difficulty facing new Yemeni writers is finding someone to publish their work.
“Working with local publishers, who have little knowledge of marketing and sales, gets a writer nowhere. Novelists want to see the reactions of their readers and critics, but that’s not going to happen if one works with Yemeni publishers,” he said.
History in the Yemeni novel
As sales at the Abu Thaar bookstore indicate, Al-Attoani is convinced locally produced literature offers an untapped market. Demand has increased, he thinks, because there are more choices available and novelists are receiving greater attention in local media.
“Yemeni readers want books about their country and issues they can relate to,” he said. “Many of my customers come to the store looking for Yemeni novels regardless of the author, they just want to read something about their own society.”
Hatim Al-Azazi, a 28-year-old English literature graduate, thinks Yemeni fiction has gained in popularity because the quality of writing has improved in recent years and moved away from the social realism that has long defined literature throughout the Arab world. “What is good about the new generation of authors in Yemen is that they are rebelling against the superficial and dull style of traditional writers and have embraced more interesting and complex themes,” he said.
Some of those themes include topics many conservative Yemenis find controversial, such as religion and gender equality, but Al-Azazi is hopeful that younger generations will embrace the change and support young writers in the country.
Whatever their differences, this new generation of writers have their predecessors, both within Yemen and across the region, to draw upon and respond to in their works. Reem Wajih, a 28 year-old English teacher in Taiz, says young writers today would not be able to forge a new path without the work of traditional novelists like Habib Sorori, Ahmed Zain and Ali Al-Maqri.
“The large number of books being published today, which is actually small compared to other countries, is thanks to the achievements of traditional Yemeni and Arabic novelists. Young authors see that as an encouragement for writing,” she said.
However, in understanding why Yemeni literature is seeing such unprecedented demand and output, themes evident in contemporary works may offer the clearest insights. Political crisis, history and questions of identity feature prominently in much of the work being produced today.
Marwan Ghafory’s Sa’ada’s Braids, Mohammed Algharbi Amran’s The Revolutionist, and Habib Sorori’s Soslof’s Daughter are but some of the novels dealing with conflict and revolution in Yemen today, while books like Ali Al-Muqri’s Adeni Incense look further back to Aden’s cosmopolitan past.
Others, like Samir Abdulfattah’s Adjacency: Another Life, or Safa’a Al-Habal’s My Destiny is a Butterfly, address one’s relationship with society and the position of more marginalized groups like women. All of these themes may be viewed through the prism of revolution and conflict, creating a social milieu that stimulates reflection and artistic creativity whatever part of the world it is happening in.
Hasan, author of Memory’s Insects, thinks political and economic instability in Yemen and the wider region are the main drivers behind Yemen’s literary revival. “What the country is going through gives writers a will to write. They try to reflect on what is happening around them within their works.”
Hasan believes social conflict and struggle provide the ideal environment for literature. “Novels portray peoples’ everyday lives, not normal or happy ones but lives that are full of sorrows and difficulties. Take Russia as an example: Unlike the advanced West, Russia became a dominant country in literature during the second half of the 20th century despite the miserable economic situation it was in.”
Al-Azazi points to the wider Arab Spring as a starting point for today’s surge in creativity, and indeed it has been recognized as such throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Notions of freedom and revolution that took root in 2011 have since been overshadowed by a sense of impasse and arrested development, however, and this setback ties contemporary works into long-standing themes evident in much of 20th century Arabic literature.
The new generation of Yemeni writers, and their growing readership, represent an attempt to come to terms with political and social crisis. In looking to recent history, and in combing new and old themes, novelists are searching both for a way forward and for a sense of identity. Ongoing political turmoil may not bode well for Yemen, but if 2014 is any indication, the outlook for its national literary scene is a promising one.