Humanism in the Yemeni Novel and its use in the School Curricula

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

In contemporary Yemeni literature there is an inclination towards humanist didacticism and education. Humanism as a concept has long been used in the West, and has had different meanings depending on those who have adopted it and the era it was used in. To this end, we must specify its meaning within the context of the literary works discussed in this article.

By humanism I mean placing importance on the individual, removed from any identities added to her or him through socialization and circumstances that have shaped her or his life. In other words: to be humanist is to respect basic human identity regardless of any ethnic or religious affiliations or geographic belongings. It implies also respecting an individual’s attitudes and convictions. Thesehumanist characteristics are manifest in novels through the dialogic and reciprocal behaviors of characters who share emotional values which are related to basic, human, intrinsic and social feelings – values such as love, gratitude, recognition and respect.

By referring to literary didacticism trends, I mean that Yemeni literature in recent decades, especially the novel, has used allegory to instruct the reader. In doing so, Yemeni writers have shown their commitment to the daily concerns of Yemeni citizens; they place their writings in the country’s history and geography. They gave up using abstract metaphors that were dominant in many Arabic literary works during the last two decades of the twentieth century. This indicates that the writers of these texts consider themselves an enlightened elite responsible for resolving Yemen’s existential crisis in their own dialogic way, which is different from religious or political discourses. In other words, the narrative way is dialogic and democratic, it is not dichotomist. The existential crisis refers here to the suffering that has accompanied successive Yemeni regimes since the founding of the two Yemeni Republics, South and North, at the end 1960s. Through this approach to literature and its role in Yemeni life, authors can address problems of an existential nature; and by extension, issues of identity, history and nationhood.

These issues are structurally bound to the core narrative of the texts. That is, they are an essential component of the Yemeni novel. They take on an urgency in the mind of the writer, corresponding to events the country is undergoing, and present a juncture where wide swaths of the country are attempting to break from the past to create new social and political models, differing from past regimes. Regimes which have not only failed to govern, but have brought the country to war and the threat of death to their citizens through armed conflict, unemployment, malnutrition and widespread disease.

 photo courtesy of Rahman Taha photo courtesy of Rahman Taha

The Yemeni Humanist Philosophical novel?

During the past three centuries, humanist philosophical thought expanded and developed in the West. Arab scholars have attempted to draw out this moral and philosophical trend in the Arab intellectual tradition of the Middle Ages – when Arab thought witnessed a golden and flourishing age of peaceful coexistence, rationality and recognition of the individual for her essential qualities, far from race, nation or religion.

Among these scholars is Abdulrahman Badawi (1917–2002). In Humanism and Existentialism in Arab Thought (1947), Badawi examines humanist trends in modern Western philosophical thought, trying to find similar trends in the Sufi works of Muslim scholars such as Muhyī d-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240), Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058–1111) and others. While Badawi did not establish a school of thought, with pupils to continue his tradition, he lay the groundwork for those who came after him. The most recognizable of these successors is the prominent Algerian writer Mohammed Arkoun (1928–2010), whose works were translated to Arabic from French by Hashem Saleh. Among his works, Arkoun published Humanist Trends in Arab Thought: The Generation of Miskawayh and al-Tawhidi (Dar al-Saqi, 1982), Fighting for Humanism in Islamic Contexts (Dar al-Saqi, 2001), and other books, articles and interviews in which he discusses this trend. Edward Said (1935–2003) ended his intellectual career convinced in the values of the age of enlightenment, especially as argued in his work Humanism and Democratic Criticism (Dar al-Adab, 2005), translated into Arabic by Fawaz Tarablos. Humanism with its educational implications for him is a solution to the human dilemma in the contemporary age.

It is safe to say that the discussion of humanism was, and continues to be, one of the preoccupations of contemporary Arab thought. This makes it an intellectual source for the modern Arab and Yemeni novel. It portrays Arab citizens’ reactions to collective psychological traumas suffered since the foundation of post-colonial Arab regimes. It portrays the response of an Arab nation that has formed a problematic relationship with history, and the other, until the rise of the Arab Spring revolutions, and the backlash and developments that came after.

Wajdi al-Ahdal’s novel The Quarantine Philosopher (2007) displays this humanist trend. The protagonist-philosopher Misha’al Hijazi authors a book, entitled ‘Together on the Path of Humanism’, in an attempt to enlighten the residents of Zaymah cemetery. While the novel portrays the Arab world[1] – especially Yemen and the Gulf – in a darkly humorous way, it also shows that the Arab world lacks a figure to guide it towards achieving its humanity. Perhaps Misha’al’s[2] name refers to the character carrying the guiding light of knowledge and enlightenment against the human and intellectual qaht[3] of the Qahtanite[4] ruler.

Al-Ahdal’s novel has clearly presented his adoption ofhumanism. Others have relied on a dialogical approach, based on humanist principals and foundations, to achieve this goal without mentioning it explicitly. It is a quality often found in Yemeni novels which have opposed antiquated social values, stereotypes and discriminatory ideologies based on race, sect or entity.

 photo courtesy of Rahman Taha photo courtesy of Rahman Taha

Humanist qualities in the Yemeni novel

When studying a sample of contemporary Yemeni novels, notably those authored during the social and political upheaval of the past decade, we find that the novel has succeeded in becoming the most important form of prose to portray the transformations accompanying this upheaval. Dialogue, in the novel, enables it to represent all segments of Yemeni society. Admittedly, some of these novels contain technical failings, abhorrent linguistic mistakes, ignorance of historical context and an inability to create intellectually and emotionally expressive characters. However, they also contain a humanist aspect, used to escape a homeland suffering from conflict and lack of opportunity. The contemporary Yemeni novel harkens to the past, but it also looks at the present and towards the future. That is, it is a past understood and used to prove that what is being told is something like a fact. Humanism is developed in the texts through this dialogic intertextuality with real events from the past. However, the past is not meant per se, but the future. More specifically, a future that can bring about social harmony and well-being.

I will demonstrate some of these characteristics as they have appeared in novels authored in the past decade, making recommendations based on their pedagogical benefits and arguing for the importance of their application in the Yemeni education system.


It can be said that the contemporary Yemeni novel is all about love. Love is the human characteristic most able to overcome established social barriers towards direct and intimate human contact. In Ammar Bataweel’s Salmeen (2014), the title character, a slave, yearns for a tribal woman. In Ali al-Muqri’s Beautiful Jew (2009), a Muslim girl falls in love with a Jewish boy, and in his novel Black Taste…Black Smell a farmer of the tribal class falls in love with a girl of the muzayin[5] class. In Steamer Point (2015), by Ahmad Zain, the character Sameer, who is of Tihami [6] origin, falls in love with the Southern revolutionary Suad. In Yasser Abdulbaqi’s novel, Zahfar (2008), a Southern boy is in love with a Jewish girl of Northern origins. In Nadia al-Kawkabani’s My Sana’a (2013), the singer Subhyyah, from the central region of North Yemen, falls in love with Hameed, a soldier from the upper regions of North Yemen. Finally, in Sami al-Shatabi’s work centered on Muwaladeen,[7] such as One Nose from Two Nations (2017), a Muwalad man falls in love with woman who is not a Muwalad.

Recognition and representation

These novels show recognition of the other by bestowing upon them the right to exist as full citizens in Yemen, with a complete cultural, historical and political sense of citizenship. They are more inclined to represent minorities, such as the Muhamasheen,[8] and to recognize what the political system and other systems of social exclusion, in all their tribal and religious aspects, refuse to recognize. For example, in Ya’eel’s Darkness (2012), Mohammed al-Gharbi Amran presents Isma’ilism in the Sulayhid era. His protagonist is an introspective and humanist artist, who prays using both his mother’s Jewish supplications and his Isma’ili mentor’s rituals.

Women’s right to dignified and equal life

Al-Ahdal’s novel A Land without Jasmine (2013) is a shout in the face of an oppressive patriarchal society, and a rejection of the assault and harassment women face on a daily basis. A Pair of Shoes for Aisha (2012), by Nabila al-Zubair, also condemns a male patriarchal society which oppresses women under the guise of religion, hiding its corruption and moral decay. In Marwan al-Ghafoori’s Sa’dah’s Locks (2014), women take a central role in the narrative, telling the story of crushed womanhood in Yemen. This specific portrayal of women in the novel is structurally related to state politics and tribal traditions.

 photo courtesy of Rahman Taha photo courtesy of Rahman Taha

Awareness of environmental protection

Saleh Baomar’s It Is the Sea (2013) – along with his other works – is a celebration of the sea, marine life and the city of Mukalla. In al-Muqri’s Beautiful Jew, the protagonist Fatima is careful not to hurt ants, and she and her Jewish lover Salem are fond of cats and dogs. In My Sana’a and Steamer Point there are calls to preserve the historic sites and landmarks in Sana’a and Aden.

World citizenship

In Zain’s Correcting a Residence Status (2009), there is a condemnation of a country whose emigrants only return in chains. In Steamer Point there is a clear call for a humanism that transcends ethnic boundaries to save the city of Aden, describing it as a cosmopolitan manifestation of that dream. In Black Taste…Black Smell, a character belonging to the Muhamasheen community denounces the concept of nationhood and considers it treason. Nationality is seen as a restriction, chaining the individual to a piece of land. Some hold on to this identity with fanatical zealotry, violating the rights of others in its name.

Appreciation of the arts and sciences

In Ya’eel’s Darkness, the protagonist and his lover are brilliant students to a wise teacher. The protagonist is also a talented artist whose employer requests that he paint beautiful works for his castle. The protagonist in Marwan al-Ghafoori’s The Khazraji (2013) is a scholarly Sufi, and his mentor, a Khazrajite sheikh, is a poet and artist. In Beautiful Jew, Fatima teaches the Jewish boy Arabic and Ibn Arabi’s Sufism, and he in turn teaches her Hebrew. Su’ad, in Steamer Point, is a cultured free spirit, and Sameer, the protagonist, is a teacher alongside his work at a French merchant’s house. Subhyyah in My Sana’a is a talented painter.

Autonomy and individuality

In these novels, and others like them, characters are portrayed as individuals and autonomous human agents. It is through these traits that the protagonists rebel against the ethnic, religious and social groups they belong to.

Rationality and transparency

In these and similar novels, there is a rational discussion of sensitive topics such as religion and national identity; topics that can be considered taboo. Sentimentality and irrationality can govern the discussion of these topics in daily life. But in the novels, they are raised and discussed in a transparent and open way.

Orientation toward peace

Many of these novels call for social harmony and a coexistence based on justice and mutual recognition. The call is implicit in the peaceful orientations of the focalized voices in the novels.

Benefitting from the Yemeni novel in school curricula

Modern education scholars advocate for a life-related approach to education. They have also advocated for a humanist education. These theoretical proposals connect education with social realities, and consider family to be an educational medium no less important than school. On this basis, scholars encourage instilling certain values in education for a ‘successful’ life.

Based on the humanist values examined here, educators in Yemen should utilize contemporary Yemeni literature to instill certain values in the Yemeni education curriculum. Society today is in desperate need of values embracing coexistence and world citizenship, love for the environment, human dignity and recognition of the abilities and contributions of each individual.

This does not mean inserting long or poorly written prose in the curriculum; rather, taking inspiration from the values in these works and presenting them in different contexts, especially in the social studies subjects. It is a proposition built on the premise that Yemeni novels are a response to acute social, political, cultural and aesthetic needs originating from within society – not imposed on it from without.


[1] The Arab world and its citizens are symbolized by the cemetery and its worm-residents.

[2] Meaning lamp or torch.

[3] Meaning drought or lack of something; also the root word for the name of the tribe of Qahtan.

[4] Refers to the tribe of Qahtan, which originated from the south of the Arabian Peninsula, believed among Arabs to be the ancestors of all ‘true’ Arabs.

[5] A segment of Yemeni society seen as inferior, usually employed as barbers or butchers, also includes singers and artisans.

[6] Refers to the people of Tihama, the coastal region to the west of Yemen.

[7] Those of mixed Yemeni and African parentage.

[8] Yemeni citizens of African origin.

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Abdulsalam al-Rubaidi

كاتب وباحث يمني. حاصل على الدكتوراه من جامعة بون الألمانية في مجال الدراسات الإسلامية. وهو محرر النسخة العربية من مجلة المدنية.

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