In Honor of Tawakul Karman: Yemeni Literature

Last summer, newly minted Nobel Peace laureate Tawakul Karman told the Yemen Times that encouraging freedom of expression was “the first and far most important way to achieve change in a society.”

Yemeni poets and novelists, like its journalists, have struggled against internal and external censors. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary Yemeni novelist is Ali al-Muqri, whose IPAF-longlisted Black Taste, Black Smell and The Handsome Jew are yet to be translated, although an excerpt of Black Taste did appear in Banipal 36.

Al-Muqri said, at a recent appearance in New York, that the protests in Yemen “shattered the idea that cultures can exist without free contact with the other or the outside.”

Yemeni Poet Fatima al-Ashby has been celebratory and critical of the possibilities of literature in Yemen, commenting that literature “is no less shaken than the political, economical, social and security status in the country. Standards have been mixed.”

In any case, five Yemeni poets and novelists you’ll be happy to read:

Abdel Aziz Al Maqaleh (1937 – ). Maqaleh won the Owais Cultural Foundation award for poetry in 2010. His poetry was featured in Banipal 36; his “summer sonnets,” trans. Issa J Boullata, are particularly enjoyable. Maqaleh also has a poem online at Marlboro Review

Mohammed Abdul Wali (1940-1973). Wali was the second Yemeni writer to make the Arab Writers Union top 105 list, for his Sana’a: An Open City. It’s not available in English translation. However, his They Die Strangers was translated by Abubaker Bagader and Deborah Akers and published by the University of Texas Press. From Al Jadid:

Mohamamad Abdul-Wali was born in Ethiopia, a child of Yemeni and Ethiopian parents. His work has a strong autobiographical feel to it as it depicts the loneliness of men and women living rather solitary lives in their own communities or abroad as long-time emigrants. The title of this work [They Die Strangers, Austin University of Texas Press, 2001] captures the flavor of the book: all immigrants are strangers in strange lands. In this collection of a novella and thirteen short pieces, the author portrays the dreams, disappointments, concerns, hopes, and lives of people who have been affected by emigration.

Read an excerpt.

Zayd Mutee Dammaj (1943-2000). Dammaj was one of the two Yemeni writers who made the Arab Writers Union’s “top 105” list, for his vivid, enjoyable, and moving novel The Hostage, trans. May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley and published by Interlink.

Ali al-Muqri (1966 – ). Al-Muqri was born in Taiz, north Yemen. His first novel, Black Taste, Black Smell, was published in 2008 and longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was excerpted in Banipal 36; read an interview with al-Muqri about his work.

Nadia Alkowkabani (1968 – ). Alkowkabani was born in Taiz, Yemen and came to prominence after her novel, It’s Just Love, was published by Cairo’s Dar Merit. (Read an excerpt in translation.)

The Yemen Observer asked her, in 2010, about the best Yemeni novel released in the last year: “I like Two People from Sana’a by Aziza Abdullah, The Handsome Jew by Ali al-Moqry, A Country Without Sky by Wajdi al-Ahdal and Water’s Geography by Abdulnasser Mugali.”

Also read: Banipal has posted work by Yemeni poet Shawki Shafiq, trans. Sinan Antoon, online.

And: Yemeni literature in spotlight,” by young poet and journalist Raghda Gamal, as well as “Young Yemeni Literature is Looking for Its Place” on Qantara.