A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
“Are we in the 20th century? I cannot believe it! Everything around me suggests that we are part of an old history book,”
Some figures in contemporary Yemeni history require several pages of description – between thought and reality, current events and history. They cannot be reduced to a story or an anecdote, or just the main points of their biography.
Mohammad Abdul-Wali is at the forefront of Yemeni figures who have dedicated their life and thoughts to Yemen. Indeed, all his topics are based on the realities of Yemen, and all the characters of his novels and stories are Yemeni, as are all the events and facts surrounding them.
To him writing is a means of confrontation and struggle, not a luxury nor about transcending reality nor escaping from it. Abdul-Wali is situated in Yemeni culture, placing him at the heart of events that take place in his homeland. His biography and artistic career intersect with that of the country, and can be summarized through the stages of the development of collective awareness.
The Self and the Subject
Although Abdul-Wali was a political activist who was imprisoned twice, he avoided creating a triumphant ideological hero, making ideological statements in his stories and novels. Yemen is his first and last cause, without any bias to the right or the left. His goal was to change reality by criticizing and highlighting its negative aspects, and the heroes of his stories and novels are used as human models through whom he sheds light on Yemeni issues. Abdo Said, the hero of the novel They Are Strangers When They Dierepresents the Yemeni who endures physical and psychological exile in the diaspora and is nostalgic for the homeland of his parents. As for Naaman, the hero of the novel Sana’a is an Open City, he represents the Yemeni who endures psychological and intellectual exile at home. These heroes are realists who lead ordinary lives. Abdul-Wali does not make them transcend their human condition or say sophisticated words, nor does he deprive them of the right to express their personal ambitions.
Sana’a and Aden are an extension of a narrative space that deals with exile in the shattered homeland to the North and South; people are torn between two forms of governance, and Ethiopia is a space that deals with exile in the diaspora. Between them, Abdul-Wali emphasizes nostalgia and seeks answers to the meaning of homeland, citizenship, national unity, identity, freedom, creed, rights and duties, the self and the other. He depicts scenes of Yemenis struggling with their heritage, aspirations and ambitions, and their hesitation between the fear of the unknown, the fear of others, the fear of the future and fear of self-decay.
Abdul-Wali’s attachment to his homeland prompts him to say that changing reality should take place inside the nation. This is explicitly expressed in the words of Naaman, the hero of Sana’a is an Open City: “Do not forget that this land will not separate from you no matter how much you escape. It is a part of you, it chases you, you cannot escape it. You are Yemenis in every land, under every sky.”
Abdul-Wali positioned his art and political activity between the subject of the nation, with its intellectual, psychological, human, historical, and philosophical aspects, and the cultured self. It is a blend of leftist thought, liberalism and individualism, and the special talent that touched Abdul-Wali’s self and his vision of life and the living.
This is consistent with Abdul-Wali’s depth in dealing with the feeling of alienation and the search for identity, while observing its dispersion between places and cultures. For example, Abdo Said, the hero ofThey Are Strangers When They Die, is stuck in Ethiopia (Sidist Kilo), while feeling nostalgic for his hometown in Yemen for which he yearns. He allows memory to fill that place with wishes and dreams, in a desire to restore it and a longing to recover the self that sought exile in Ethiopia with the aim of raising money and the hope of returning to build a house in his Yemeni village. However, he falls into the trap of exile and is stuck there until he dies.
The peak of the tragedy comes from that space between dream and reality. Abdo Said, who married at the age of 15, emigrated to Ethiopia. He left behind a young child and a wife who had to help his father in farming the land. He emigrated to follow his dream to become wealthy and return to his village to build a house that would make children talk about his wealth and say that he had the best house in the village.
However, although Abdo Said earns the money to send back to build a lavish house in the village, he is not able to return. He merely hangs a picture of the house his son has built in the village with the money sent. His dream remains incomplete, and he is unable to talk about it to anyone. He does not dare reveal to any his customers at the store that the house in the picture is the house he built in his native country. He is forced to remain silent to avoid being exposed for tax evasion. Thus, Abdo Said experienced exile filled with nostalgia and disappointment, trying to forget his misery by taking mistresses. But his wife and son experience deprivation and longing. Abdo Said never meets his grandchildren and dies, buried in a foreign land where his tomb becomes the most beautiful tomb – as he had wished, as pointed out sarcastically by the man he had employed as a secretary.
Abdul-Wali expresses exile not only in its spatial dimension but also in its psychological and intellectual dimension. This is clearest in his novel Sana’a is an Open Citythat takes place between the North and South, between Sana’a and Aden. This is expressed by Naaman’s dialogues with the dark-skinned mountain girl, with Zainab, and with Mohammad Muqbel, and also with al-Sanhani, the sailor Ali al-Zughair, and Hajj Ali the owner of the cafe.
The subject comes first in all Abdul-Wali’s stories, then the self begins to comment on it through the voice of one of the characters or the dialogue between the characters. However, this self that reflects the concerns and grievances of its people cannot, in any case, express any personal concerns.
Art and Stance
There are those who believe that art is not always required to express an intellectual stance. If this happens, the art is at the expense of the subject; but Abdul-Wali was a committed writer in everything he wrote. He believes that his pen is his weapon in the defense of humanity, and therefore he employed his art at the service of society and in support of people. He was realistic in his critique of reality and romantic in his search for perfection.
All his interests are connected to Yemenis, whether in regard to time, place or events, and he clearly expressed this in his story Something Called Nostalgia: “This is how we are. There is a secret in this country. I agree with you that it is barren and that we hope that we won’t be killed by those whose only worth is in the gun they carry, but we cannot get rid of them so easily. We are linked to them by fate and cannot separate from them.”
He expands on this when he says:
“This is something that you cannot decide, my dear, as there is something called nostalgia within each one of us. We run away and curse all that is around us, but nostalgia prevails, and in the end you will return someday, but I do not know when… But there you won’t find yourself, yes you may find what you have lost here, the lit streets, the women, the noise the violence, the foolish speed and the more foolish calm. You will find all that you have lost over these years, but you will be separated from your reality.”
By seeking to liberate the consciousness from the constraints of the past, he seeks to liberate the present and the future. Therefore, he observes and analyzes phenomena and works to denounce them. For example, he observes and depicts financial and administrative corruption, bribery, embezzlement and exploitation of rank, as in Friends of Ashes.
In Sana’a is an Open Cityhe depicts the exploitation of religion in the words of Naaman: “The Sheikh of the village is a pilgrim who visited the House of God more than once and denied all the money sent with him by immigrants from our village.”
In Something Called Nostalgia, migration is at the center of the relationship of the self with existence:
“I find no difference, you migrate in search of yourself, for something that you lost here and did not find, so you think that it is out there somewhere. Your migration is exactly like theirs, in search of something that you lack, and without which you cannot live. As I said, if this situation goes on, it will drive you mad. This is why you need to migrate to find yourself.”
In many of his stories, he looks at those who left home in search of an alternative homeland. For instance, in the story of Abu Rabia, Abu Rabia said to Said, the young Yemeni boy who was born in Ethiopia: “You know that your country is there, beautiful with its mountains, trees, sun and valleys…” “Listen, you need to go to Yemen, there is nothing for you here.” He continues: “Listen, Said, the Yemenis emigrate because they are fearful. They can’t stay in their country so they escape and leave it to the cursed. They actually started emigrating a thousand years ago.”
He also condemns those he describes as fleeing, as well as the weakness and dependence of Yemenis. In the words of Naaman from Sana’a is an Open City:
“My friend, the people of my land are without any thoughts, without hope in the future, without anything. They chew qat and have nothing to talk about except gossip about the man who became wealthy and returned to the village, and the woman who wears clean clothes and makeup despite the fact that her husband has been absent for four years. This talk makes me sick whenever I listen to it.”
Such condemnation is not intended for self-flagellation: “The more we practice Yemeni life, the deeper we understand the profundity of the tragedy and its roots, and give it another life. In order to end the tragedy, we must know ourselves”, said Mohammad Muqbel, the intellectual hero of Sana’a is an Open City.
Change in the country begins with liberating citizens from their biases and conservative, traditional customs, and from the culture of the place that takes away the sense of citizenship, and working on reformulating collective awareness on human participation rather than isolation under the pretext of defending identity.
“We cannot do anything for ourselves, nor our land, not even for those soldiers… If we are not reborn, we create everything – the people, the land, the valley, even ourselves. We cannot live with donkeys in a single barn or be treated like donkeys. We have to understand ourselves and know what we really are… In America or Europe, we cannot be backward whatever our culture, but here we are reality because we are the future.”
Mohammad Faid al-Bakri is a Yemeni writer, poet and researcher. He holds a Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University. Mohammad is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the rhetoric of discrimination in Arab proverbs. In addition to published poems and literary, intellectual and political articles in Arab and Yemeni magazines and newspapers, he has produced a number of studies and poetry collections. He is a member of the Union of Yemeni Authors and Writers.