Banipal 36: The (Not-so-Great) State of Literature in Yemen Today

Yemen is still thick in the U.S. headlines. Coincidentally, (unless you can think up some fabulous conspiracy theory involving writers, planes, bombs, and Christmas) the most recent issue of Banipal is full of Yemeni lit. Unfortunately, I can’t say I was excited by most of the Yemeni prose in 36.

Some of the poetry, however, did work its fingers underneath my consciousness, and bring me back for another read.


Habib Abdulrab Sarori’s “The Bird of Destruction” began compellingly, but after a few pages I was too rattled by all the exclamation points to move freely through the narrative, as well as what seemed like the author’s face rubbing up through the narrative and scolding both me and Yemeni society. This seemed to be a common trait among the featured writers: many exclamation points, much direct criticism of society.

I’m all for criticism of society (mine, yours, anyone’s), but many of the stories and novel excerpts seemed more suited to essay or memoir, forms where the author can open up his heart and speak directly to the reader.

There were some sharply written moments of Taste Black…Smell Black, by Ali al-Muqri, and the novel excerpt had some very interesting and well-written fragments, but the whole piece didn’t seem to hold together. In some moments, it was as sharp as the poetry, but it didn’t push me to continue from one moment to the next.

In Nadia AlKowkabani’s Screams of Bleeding Whiteness, I did want to read on—to discover what would happen to the narrator, to find the roots of Sami’s pain—but I never found characters, just two people who could be most anyone, and a story that probably could’ve been a strong essay about women’s roles and rights.

The Yemen Observer has a Q & A with Al-Kokabany here, discussing both novels and women’s issues in Yemen.

Wajdi Al-Ahdal’s A Land Without Jasmine does the job establishing character, although sometimes in a clunky way: “I’m a first-year student at the Science College, and my hobbies are reading, and writing in my diary.” In the first excerpted chapter, “The Queen,” Jasmine perhaps boils down too easily to her anger at men’s oppressive gaze. Later, though, she develops interesting complications.

Al-Ahdal’s next excerpted chapter, “The Minion of Pleasure and Power” has the most compelling opening, beginning as it does with a missing-person’s report on a “girl of twenty.” (Jasmine, of course.) Some of the writing is clunky, but it doesn’t matter so much, as the question of Jasmine’s fate keeps us hurrying forward. The switch in perspectives also offers the excitement of seeing how others view Jasmine, and, near the chapter’s end, there is a wonderful sense of unsteadiness in the narrator and surrounding world.

Al-Ahdal’s is the most successful prose in the collection, all told. I would pick up the book (translated by William Hutchins) and read the rest. Indeed, I still need to know what happens to Jasmine.

Perhaps, though, it’s as author Lutf al-Sarary says, and Yemeni fiction (in general) has not yet found its feet. In a Q & A in the Yemen Observer, al-Sarary laments the state of his country’s prose. He says, “The current cultural state for novels is unfortunate and regrettable, because the lack of Yemeni writers’ sufficient accumulation of past generations’ experiences.”


Poetry, al-Sarary says, is in much a better state. Poetry, of course, has its deep desert roots. Indeed, I found that the Yemeni poetry in Banipal 36 tended to be more interesting and well-crafted than the fiction. I would like to read more Shawqi Shafiq, especially as translated by Sinaan Antoon. I thoroughly enjoyed this moment from “The Alleged Poetess”:

“The poetess who was fixing her braids / and combing her body with perfume / and heavy makeup / in an attempt to sweeten her poem”

And don’t worry, it’s followed by “the alleged poet.”

And whatever role Abdel Aziz al-Maqalih has in the crumbling Yemeni government, I delighted in some moments in his Summer Sonnets:

“I don’t like writing in the summer –/ the insidious fine dust of the daytime overwhelms me / at noon drowsiness overtakes me / and at night I am seized by the blueness of the clouds / that are infatuated by its marble. / But, I like a book to sleep with me / and myself to sleep on its breast, / at one time it shares silence with me / and at another I share a game with it / ”

My previous experience with Yemeni literature (before Banipal 36) boils down to one novel by Zayd Mutee Dammaj (1943-2000).  I read The Hostage years ago—in the late 1990s?–but it has stayed with me.

The Hostage, published in English by Interlink, presents a rich and claustrophobic portrait of pre-revolution Yemen through the eyes of a young boy. I can’t say much more about a book I read 10 or 15 years ago, but it was thoroughly enjoyed by a younger me.

Banipal promises more Yemeni authors in 37: Ali Mohammad Zaid, Ahmed Saleh al-Faqih, Ibtisam al-Mutawakkil, Ahmad al-Slamy, Maha Naji Salah, Taha al-Jund, Maifaa Abdelrahman, and Abdul Wahab al-Audi. All new to me.


  1. Hi hun, great site! I genuinely appreciate this post.. I was curious about this for a while now. This cleared a lot up for me! Do you have a rss feed that I can add?

Comments are closed.