- Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation
Steven Caton’s Yemen Chronicle is indeed about Yemen and is “an anthropology of war and mediation,” but it is far more than that. The book ranges from the aesthetics of poetry and its role in tribal politics to the anguish of anthropological fieldwork and the instability, even inscrutability, of social reality. Along the way we learn about gender relations, smoking a water pipe, clothing styles, tribal versus Qur’anic law, cooking, race, friendship, sexuality, and, of course, chewing qat. The ethnography unfolds through [End Page 379] the vivid evocation of particular men (and a few understandably less vivid women), making this a compelling drama of sharply drawn characters tumbling through uncertain times. It is a drama that imprints the author deeply, and subsequently the reader too.
Caton begins with a brief flashback, a 2001 visit to an old friend’s simple grave, and then draws us back further to the author’s initial fieldwork in Yemen in 1979. The adventure begins in the shadow of foreboding world events: the Cold War, the ongoing tensions between North and South Yemen, the Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis. Still, Caton gamely — or maybe insanely — ventures out of the capital Sana‘a to study tribal poetry in a hijra, or sanctuary, called Khawlan al-Tiyal.
The first long chapter is a delicately rendered story of arrival, one of the great tropes of ethnographic writing. Here the anthropologist — confused, awkward, overwhelmed — slowly comes to find his feet in an alien land. Many of the details will be poignant for others who have undertaken similar work, from pangs of loneliness and culinary reliance on canned tuna fish to the residual influence of the Peace Corps in rendering scholarly projects inexplicable to the locals.
In Chapter 2 a horrific crime is perpetrated and the sanctuary is plunged into crisis. Tensions rise and we find our young anthropologist struggling not only to chart the world he’s living in, but to grasp its upheaval. There are multiple versions of the facts of the case, and many explanations for these contested facts. The charges and counter charges change almost daily along with the complex and potentially lethal negotiations for atonement. Shots are fired, criminals caught, and confessions extracted via means even the US government might consider torture.
And poems are written. The vital role of poetry in politics, and the complexly political nature of a crime committed by a member of the sanctuary against a member of the powerful adjacent tribe, means that Caton’s research on tribal poetry is suddenly entangled with life or death events. Poetry plays an active role in events — accusing, exonerating, and provoking various partisans — but also serves as a metaphor for the deep inscrutability of “reality” and the inescapable anguish of rendering something true in what can only be partial terms.
The rest of the book traces Caton’s dogged determination to study poetry in what becomes a war zone. This does not mean that he leaves the quotidian behind; instead, like a good novel, we explore the details of everyday life in one rhythm while the drums of war beat at another. Caton makes friends, attends weddings, tape records poetry, and works to allay suspicions that he is a spy. There are interludes in the city when he catches up with family, and offers existential musings on the point of fieldwork — what it does and what it does to us — as well as forays into questions about how our scribbling comes to be legitimate anthropology.
Meanwhile, the larger world political nightmare grinds on in the background, and “the problem” percolates in the sanctuary, spinning ever new strands of intrigue and new explanations of them. By Chapter 5 the original offense — whatever it was — has catalyzed an extended set of “crimes” against status and station, rights, and obligations. The poetry is ramped up. Chapter 6 brings actual war.
Normally a review of such an ethnography, or a “chronicle,” for that matter, need not be concerned with...