- Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen
A weak state but a strong, communally-oriented people with multiple public spheres: such is the Republic of Yemen, the result of unification in 1990 between revolutionaries north and south and the seat of the longest serving (since 1978) ruler in the Middle East, President ‘Ali Abdullah Salih. Political scientist Lisa Wedeen traces the “experiment in nation-state formation” (p. 2) that coincides with the longevity of President Salih’s tenure. “What makes a Yemeni a Yemeni in the context of the state’s fragilities, and why does Yemen hold together to the extent that it does?” (p. 2), she asks at the outset. Wedeen explores the making of identity beyond the institutional apparatus of the state and electoral politics for a country with distinct and multiple loyalties to tribe, region, and religious groupings. The result is an important contribution to the study of the recent political evolution of Yemen as a nation state in search of itself.
In the introduction, the author identifies her approach as interpretivist (p. 17), combining fieldwork in Yemen for more than 18 months (between 1998 and 2004) with interviews, limited analysis of texts, and many hours spent in afternoon qat chews. The role of the qat chew as a public sphere is examined in Chapter Three. Much of the chapter is given to a critique of Eurocentrism in Jurgen Habermas’s framing of the concept (p. 118). From her own experience in largely political qat chew forums, Wedeen concludes that these “are sites of active political argument where issues of accountability, citizenship, and contemporary affairs can be negotiated” (p. 139), almost a kind of informal diplomacy of the commons. Her focus is on the chew as performative practice (p. 145), one that can serve either to criticize or consolidate support for the state, over and above the values discussed by the participants. It should be noted that the qat leaves’ stimulant impact is technically like pseudo-ephedrine rather than the weaker caffeine effect of coffee (p. 104).
Of particular relevance is Wedeen’s analysis of the al-Huthi rebellion, initiated in 2004 and still reverberating in Yemen’s north. The traditional confessional division between Zaydi Islam in the north and Shafi’i in the south and coastal region is no longer an appropriate way to define the changing Islamic identities circulating in Yemen, especially under the influence of nearby Saudi Arabia. Thus, the presence of the political party al-Islah and the local notion of “Salafi” complicate the common distinction of Sunni versus Shi‘a “without attention to historically distinctive and locally mediated circumstance” (p. 160). Wedeen is right to label “tribe” a “vexed category” (p. 170), but a large part of the definitional problem [End Page 151] is treating tribe primarily as an institution rather than the values invoked in Yemen as tribal, especially in the indigenous concept of qabyala (tribal ethic). In her narrative, the author is determined to detribalize Yemen, referring to North Yemen as “primarily a land of peasant sharecroppers and independent farmers and herders” (p. 31) when the vast majority of these would consider themselves tribal (qabili) if asked.
The final chapter reaches beyond the Yemeni case to explore “the global emergence of contemporary Islamic movements” (p. 186). Here Wedeen wades through theories of neoliberalism to argue the need to recognize “divergences in neoliberal reforms” (p. 207) as well as the diversity of Islamic political practices. Her text engages with a wide range of scholars who have theorized on nationalism and political change, including Benedict Anderson, Hannah Arendt, Joseph Schumpeter, Gilles Kepel, Judith Butler, Talal Asad, and others.
In sum, Peripheral Visions emphasizes the performative dimensions of political life, how persons are established as national through iterative performances of particular national acts, just as pious or democratic persons are produced through everyday enactments of piety and agonistic deliberation respectively. Such a framework accounts for the fragility and contingency of solidarities in...