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  • Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen
  • Stephen W. Day (bio)
Contesting Realities: The Public Sphere and Morality in Southern Yemen, by Susanne Dahlgren . Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010. $45.

This book appeals to readers interested in the dynamic transformation of Yemen's southern port city 'Aden. Susanne Dahlgren's anthropological research covers the period 1950-2001. During this time 'Aden went through two major political upheavals (independence in 1967 and unification in 1990); two costly civil wars in 1986 and 1994; urban guerrilla warfare between 1963 and 1967; and two lesser coup d'états in 1969 and 1978. Across the same five decades, [End Page 516] there is perhaps no other people in the Arab world but the Palestinians who experienced change as radical as the people of 'Aden.

'Aden was a major British colony in the mid-20th century, when Arab residents were disenfranchised members of a poor working class toiling in and around the bustling seaport. The volume of commercial traffic at 'Aden's free port was once second only to New York City. After 1969, 'Aden became the capital of the Arab world's only Marxist state tied strongly to the Soviet Union and other communist regimes such as Cuba. Finally, between 1990 and 1994, 'Aden faded into the margins of a more conservative, Islamic-oriented Republic of Yemen. At the time of unification in 1990, the northern population was five times larger than the southern population, and a significant percentage launched a jihad against southern Marxists. Sana'a became the capital of the new Yemen, and tribal elites in the northern mountains eventually gained control of 'Aden.

Dahlgren's book aims to explain how average citizens in 'Aden conduct themselves in an environment shaped by three moral frameworks: their basic customs, Islamic morality, and revolutionary values stemming from struggles in the 1960s. She defines "social conduct" according to the concept of adab, "proper comportment" and good manners. Based on observations, she stresses "positive" morality in 'Aden, not the negativity of "shame" ['ayb], which was the focus of early anthropology in the Muslim world. For example, after 1990 when 'Adeni women felt pressure to adopt veiling practices, Dahlgren explains that most adapted to remain "a good person or a good mother" (p. 11).

The focus of Dahlgren's research is gender issues, but not to the exclusion of men. She seeks to explore the adab of both men and women as they navigate their ways through the "Conflicting Realities" of 'Aden's multiple moral frameworks. The centerpiece of her research is a survey conducted prior to Yemeni unification, 1988-1989, among 311 families across the socio-economic spectrum. She also collected material via participant-observation, since she held a simultaneous position as "coordinator of a small Finnish health project" (p. 2) in a remote rural region that required interaction with government personnel in 'Aden. After unification, Dahlgren returned on four occasions for further research between 1991 and 2001.

The strength of Dahlgren's book is undoubtedly her extensive fieldwork spanning 14 years. She conducted interviews and collected other information in "people's homes ... clubs, and various work places, including government offices, schools, (courts) ... hospitals, (media) offices ..." (p. 27). Throughout the middle chapters, one finds descriptions of different role types: the "strong man" (p. 177), the "perfect woman" (p. 187), the "unworthy husband" (p. 201). During the most progressive era in the 1970s, women advanced beyond many Western industrial societies, achieving equal pay for equal work.

The weakness of Dahlgren's book is its deconstructionist intent to avoid every analytical convention (structure, opposition, dichotomy, boundaries), while accentuating everything positive about "human agency." Chapter 7, "Morality, Causality, and Social Praxis," is only comprehensible to specialists. She suggests that 'Adeni men and women navigate "seamlessly" through moral complexities defined by different historical eras, which she considers "a continuity rather than a disruption" (p. 3). Yet, it defies reason that 'Adenis could navigate transitions between, first, the British colonial era, second, the Marxist era, and third, the Islamic era after 1990, without rupturing their social fabric. Indeed, ruptures are plainly evident in the city's violent history and increased impoverishment, not to mention...


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pp. 516-518
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