Philosophical and Technical Shortcomings in the Yemeni Novel

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Photo courtesy by Anwar Alsabri

Over the past seven years, Yemen has witnessed social and political revolutions – and also a literary one. According to Abdulhakim Ba Qays,Professor of Literature and Criticism at the University of Aden, 88 novels were published between 2010 and 2016. This exceeds the number of novels published in Yemen over the course of 70 years, between 1927 and 2000. This publishing surge is still on the rise, indicating that the novel has become an important medium of expression for cultural and literary practitioners in Yemen. It has emerged as a platform from where individuals can present their ideas and visions regarding the situation of the country, which is suffering from major existential problems that put its future at risk. 

Despite the flourishing of the novel, literary criticism has had little to offer in comparison. Generally, it tends to celebrate and praise, as an act of social courtesy, and leans towards presenting the works in a neutral and objective tone. Critics shy away from deeper readings and analysis of literary works, which leaves the reader without further insight, and deprives the author of the opportunity to receive constructive criticism.

Perhaps this reluctance is due to the personal sensitivities that are triggered by literary criticism; especially as the history of criticism in the Arab world, since the beginning of 20th century, is marred bypersonalconflicts. However, literary criticism is indispensable for the development of literature, especially if taken seriously by critics and by authors, who are required to put their egos and sense of superiority and importance aside.

Photos by Anwar Alsabri

This article focuses on recurring shortcomings rather than specific novels, as the intention is not to criticize certain authors or serve as a bias in favour of others. Based on extensive readings of novels published throughout the last decade, I believe the shortcomings can be divided into six categories.

  • Spelling, grammatical and stylistic errors: Language is an instrument of understanding between two parties, and it must be clear to facilitate understanding and communication. In a number of Yemeni novels, errors can be observed in the drawing of the “Hamzah” and “Ta’ Marbuta”, in the Arabic case system and declension, alongside the use of a mixture of colloquial and standard Arabic without conscious artistic intent. In addition, one notices a florid style that leads to convoluted sentences and misplaced eThese shortcomings reflect a lack of practice in the forms and techniques of standard Arabic language, and very little exposure to masterpieces of Arabic literature, which would enrich the vocabulary and style of these novels.


  • Ready-made thematic and formal structures:Contemporary novelists in the Arab speaking world, including Yemen, echo theirnarrative techniques throughout their novels. Tunisian literary critic Abdul-Daimm al-Salami calls this the phenomenon of repeatednarrative schemes. This suggests, as he sees it, a depletion of imagination, and I believe that is an accurate description. In the Yemeni novel, it is common to see one writer repeat themselves or heavily engage in intertextuality with texts produced by their peers. For example, if a novel tackles a specific social group, soon others replicate in chorus, and present the samenarrative


  • Artificial construction of characters with superficial world views:Many novelists in Yemen today create characters that do not develop coherently and naturally through the course of the story, as is the law of life. Often a character jumps, rather than flows, into existence, suddenly loves, suddenly hates, and suddenly dies. These characters do not convince us that they are real or possible. The writers do not immerse us in authentic worlds that help us imagine their existence and logical independence, as if they are worlds that lie between truth and imagination. Instead, they create trivial characters with shallow worldviews. This suggests a weak understanding of the art of the novel, and at the same time reflects a poverty of knowledge in philosophy, psychology, history, and in various cases, geography.


  • No differentiation between the raw material of the story and narrative discourse:In many cases, writers transfer the story from reality as it is, without creativity, modification or rearrangement. This leads to fictional worlds that are not authentic and do not carry their own independent and distinctive characteristics as mentioned earlier. Often they are copies of weak images in the mind of the writer, or at best, they are realistic images of what they literally live through or witness. In writing, stories from real life differ from narrative discourse; the story is where the writer’s talent and ability to use thetechniques and literary devices of storytelling propel us intomagical worlds that lie between reality and fiction.


  • Anachronism:Many novelists turn to the past (history) in their work. However, when narratinga certain period, many novels reveal imprecise knowledge of the language and spirit of that era, as well as the lifestyles and ideologies of historical figures of the time. These writers, by doing so, createodd paradoxes that confuse and disappoint any reader who is familiar with the period. The reader, who wants to witness past eras, live those adventures, sense their spirit and centuries-old existence, is confronted with a contemporary narrative that reflects a time other than the period intended in the novel. Rarely does a narrative attempt to link the past to the present in a vivid and meaningful manner, while taking into consideration the different time periods.


  • Unnecessary details: A novel, like a person, may tire you, and may be a captivating speaker who makes you into an avid listener. Unfortunately many contemporary novels in Yemen are tedious and tiresome. As a reader, you are relieved to put a novel aside and promise yourself not to pick it up again. A good writer, like a good speaker, chooses words carefully, and is keen to capture the reader, and engage his sight and senses. A good writer, like a good speaker, takes into account the narrative situations when delving into detail. In some occasions, details may be necessary, and this is the moment that reveals the power of the storyteller who amplifies the narrative when they sense that the reader or listener is engaged.
Photos by Anwar Alsabri

In short, it is important that novelists in Yemen recognize that it is not about quantity, but about the quality andspiritof the work, and that one novel can reach and touch readers from various cultures and times. In a sense, this is where our appreciation for immortal novels from different cultures comes from. Novels that hail from Latin America, Japan, Europe or Africa respond to our concerns, preoccupations and worries. In the end, the spirit of good work is a combination of talent and hard work, and we are often moved by these books and thrilled when their authors gain recognition through international awards. When al-Qazi al-Fazil (d.1200) was asked about the secret of the people’s preoccupation with and love of the poetry produced by Abu at-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (d. 965), he said, “al-Mutanabbi speaks people’s thoughts and emotions”.

Abdulsalam al-Rubaidiholds a master in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University, Yemen. He worked as a teacher of the humanities (religion, history and Arabic language) in a number of private schools and universities in Sana‘a. Since 2006,  Abdulsalam is a lecturer at the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Faculty of Education at al-Baydha’ University, Yemen. Currently, he is writing a doctoral thesis on ‘Identity Constructions in Contemporary Yemeni Novels’ at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, in a project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.
He is an associate researcher at CARPO (Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient) in Bonn. Since mid-2017, he has been working as editor of the Arabic section at al-Madaniya Magazine, a cultural electronic magazine run by YPC. Abdulsalam has published extensively on cultural and social issues in Yemen in both Arabic and English language.

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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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