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  • Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation
  • David M. Witty
Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation. By Steven C. Canton. New York: Hill & Wang, 2005. ISBN 0-8090-2725-9. Map. Pp. 341. $26.00.

In 1979, the author came to North Yemen to study tribal poetry for his doctoral dissertation in anthropology. After settling in a rural religious sanctuary he planned to use as a base for his research, he became embroiled in a dispute between the sanctuary and a local tribe over the fate of two girls supposedly abducted by a sanctuary member. The conflict, which was also played out in the polemics of tribal poetry, escalated as various tribes aligned themselves with or against the sanctuary. Yemen's weak central government ultimately became involved and arrested the author as a suspected American spy sent to Yemen to provoke trouble between the tribes and the government, although he was soon released. Twenty years later, the author returned to Yemen to reconstruct what had happened and to visit the son of a tribesman who had protected him and assisted in his poetry study. The author's field notes, diary, memory, and what he learned upon his return in 2001 are the basis of this book, which he calls an ethno-memoir.

The book focuses on the themes of violence, honor, and hospitality in Arabic tribal society, and cultural misunderstandings and the efforts of a nonnative [End Page 561] to be accepted in another culture. Through the threat of violence, the tribesmen view themselves as honorable and expect honorable actions from their opponents, which forms the basis for negotiation, although violence may still occur. Reciprocating violence is hospitality offered even to an enemy, who will be treated as an honored guest. Refusal of hospitality is the worst insult.

The author captures the complexity of an outsider living in a traditional Arab society, where what is said is not always what is meant. Even though fluent in colloquial Yemeni Arabic, he makes the same linguistic mistakes as any nonnative speaker—for sometime he introduces himself as "Hello, my ass is a work of art" (p. 7). At times feeling accepted by the community, and at others an alien, the author laments, "One moment . . . I was plunged into the midst of the community, and the next I felt washed up on the beach like a piece of driftwood" (p. 114). It was a member of the sanctuary community who facilitated his arrest by the government's National Security force.

The author concludes with a short critique of the U.S. policy of regime change in the Middle East, conducted without consensus building or negotiation, a type of arrogance he equates with nineteenth-century imperialism. If change in the Middle East only comes through force, it will always be resisted to the utmost. The author hopes this book will show a different type of encounter between an American and Arabs.

This book does not deal with military history, but rather with Arab and Islamic culture, society, anthropology, and an encounter between the East and the West. I highly recommend it to students of anthropology, Yemen, the Middle East, and anyone who has tried to live in a foreign culture.

David M. Witty
Fayetteville, North Carolina


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pp. 561-562
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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