Yemen’s Literary Resurgence?

Ali Miqri's 2009 novel, A Black Taste, A Black Smell. Source.

Yemeni novelist Ali Al Muqri’s 2009 novel, A Black Taste, A Black Smell about racism. Source.

Fareed Al-Homaid writes in Yemen Times writes about the country’s unexpected literary resurgence amidst the various conflicts that have enveloped Yemen since the 2011 uprising. It’s telling the the first result when you type in “Yemen” and “novel” is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a comedy novel by Paul Torday which was made into a cringe-worthy film. There are not many famous Yemeni novels – in fact, there are not many Yemeni novels at all. As ArabLit wrote back in 2010, Banipal’s Yemen edition indicated that literature – and the novel in particular – was struggling. Yet, according to the number of novels published last year, this seems to be changing:

Despite ongoing political and economic turmoil, national literature saw an unexpected surge in 2014. Twenty novels were published by Yemeni authors last year, and while that figure may seem insignificant in a regional or global context, it is considerably more than the eight books produced the previous year. Indeed, it is about ten percent of all the books ever published by Yemeni writers, and considering the hardships facing the country today it is an extraordinary achievement.

Al Homaid provides a brief overview of the “Yemeni novel” in his article. For more, take a look at Katherine Hennesey’s article on Yemeni Fiction and Theatre in Yemen, edited by Steven C. Caton. Caton is the author of Peaks of Yemen I Summon, a study of Yemeni poetry – which has received much more attention than prose fiction.

The sad state of affairs of current Yemeni literature stands in contrast not only to the country’s rich poetic tradition, but also to its treasure trove of manuscripts, which have been the subject of a digitisation initiative (The Yemeni Manuscript Digitisation Initiative).

Al Homaid’s article comes a few days after Ali bin Tamim, the Secretary-General of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is quoted in The National discussing the challenges of authorship in the Arab world after three of the award’s categories were disqualified due to the poor quality of the works submitted.

“The poor quality of the submitted works for these three categories of the award reflect the huge challenges facing authorship in the Arab region,” Mr bin Tamim said. “This overshadowed authoring and scholarly research with a series of political, social and security crises in several Arab countries. Other reasons include a decline in awareness, lack of legislation on intellectual property rights, weak university education output, a decline in the quality of translation and a lack of support and encouragement.”

Resources on the Arab Book market:

Economic Performance Of the Arabic Book Translation Industry in Arab Countries
The Arab Book Market: Facts and Figures
General presentation on the Arab book market (focus on Qatar)

Barriers to the Broad Dissemination of Creative Works in the Arab World. Rand Corporation, 2009. Print.

The question these facts and figures post is how far can literature flourish in a situation of political crisis? I am reminded of Libyan novelist Hisham Matar’s words in an interview with Riz Khan, where he describes himself as “opposing the kind of view that is often romanticized in the West about…the writer under oppression and how somehow that state can inspire deep and incredibly good urgent works…I see evidence that oppression stifles literature, it stifles thought, it stifles education and intellectual discourse.”

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