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Deconstructing the Discourse of Violence in the Contemporary Yemeni Novel

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

Violence is a verbal or physical act which can be conducted through material or symbolic means with the intention of harming people or other targets, such as animals and nature. It is the opposite of compassion, tolerance, forbearance and peace. This definition applies to acts of violence as seen both in Yemeni social reality and in contemporary novels published in Yemen during the last two decades. The novel in Yemen has become an important literacy medium for  representing  Yemeni reality.

 In modern Yemen, violence has become a fact of life in society due to conflicts and ever-increasing social pressures. Authors have found fertile ground for their narratives in a process of transforming reality into fiction. Since novels have become a literary form with a strong presence in Yemen during the last two decades, the engagement with violence has taken multiple courses. In this article, I attempt to answer the following question: how does violence manifest itself in the Yemeni novel, especially from the perspective of deconstructing its rhetoric and justifications.

Those who follow Yemeni novels are aware that it has tracked the intricate details of violence. It reproduces the events, turning points and transformations in a way that interweaves facts with fiction as it attempts to address political, social and cultural transformations in Yemen. The novel has delved into symbolic political and social violence. It has addressed terrorism, male dominance, racism and other topics. Novels have taken up the responsibility for the denunciation of violent rhetoric, dismantling it through outright criticism, sarcasm and the lampooning of violence and perpetrators alike.

The multiplicity and concurrence of violence

Besides social and religious violence, ideological violence and discourse in novels is strikingly present. For example, the novel Donkey Amidst the Songs (2004) by Wajdi al-Ahdal records different and overlapping forms of political and social violence carried by often conflicting ideological discourses. There is the violence that has flared up between community factions, as well as the violence against women. Then there is the violence targeting political parties, the violence which manifested itself in the 1994 war in which the city of ِAden was overrun.

The novel depicts the invasion, the ensuing destruction, and the pillaging of public and private property in the city. It talks about violence by the security forces and how a security officer exercises violence on victims, especially girls, and the execution of the innocent in a cover up of the real culprit. At the psychological level, the novel describes people with dual but violent personalities, such as Ali Jebran, Saif, Mohammed, Hillal and Zabtan; alongside the characters of victims of violence, such as Tha’yerah, Munir, Arwa and Zainab. Overall, the novel’s events are fraught with fear and terror as it embodies conflicts between individuals in society and its leaders, in which images of domination by the military, the tribe, religious figures and masculinity blend together. With an ironic tone, the novel rejects such a reality.

In his other novel, The Happy Land of Conspiracies (2018), he dissects society and exposes its contradictions. The narrative presents an image of an opportunist intellectual, and the domination of traditional authority and its victories over progressive discourse in society. It also reveals how childhood is ravished by the prevalence of child marriages. The tribe’s sheikh rapes an eight year old girl, and ultimately the sheikh is released after being acquitted by the court.

The two novels employ fantasy and fiction to expose society, the intellectual and authority, mocking them and their unethical and inhuman practices.

Artwork by Maha Al-Omari

Identity and ideological/ regional violence

A’qroon 94 ( 2017)  by Ammar Ba-Taweel, depicts the 1994 Yemeni civil war and shows the fear of war and the unknown, anxiety, terror, political and moral corruption, and the abduction of girls. In addition, the novel tackles racism based on place of origin, with a protagonist who is refused a passport by Passport Agency staff doubting his Yemeni citizenship due to his dark complexion. The narrative shows other images of ideological conflict within a divided society, between supporters of the new regime and those who oppose it supporting the socialist system. In its account of this sensitive period, the novel showcases the violent transformations and events that took place in the South, such as the arms trade, the return of tribal culture, and the response to acts of revenge.

Al-Tofan (2018) by Mubarak Salimain gives an account of a conflict between two rival factions within the Socialist Party. Following the 1986 war between these factions, they were commonly referred to as the Junta and the Clique. The novel goes beyond that to deal with the 1994 war.

Saleh Ba-Amir’s Al-Mukkala (2003) deals with political conflict within the National Front in 1967, the bloody events of 13 January 1986, detentions, trials and the 1994 war. In doing so, it recounts the ideological violence in Mukalla and Aden and the transformations before and after the reunification of Yemen. It also deals with the political repression of intellectuals, and the domination of the tribe and its hegemony over the state. The novel denounces violence by portraying repression, persecution and torture, and restrictions on the freedom of intellectuals, as well as looking at imprisonment and kidnapping through the portrayal of the terrorist group that abducts Salim – the novel’s protagonist.

Symbolic violence and racial discrimination

Black Taste, Black Scent (2008) by Ali al–Muqari recounts violence against the “marginalized black people”, or the people who are called pejoratively, ‘Akhdam’ which literally mean servants. It examines their suffering, tragedies encountered, and the racism society perpetrates against them. But it delves deeper, and looks at the symbolic and verbal violence targeting them from the rest of society, such as the use of popular proverbs: “the Khadim (singular of Akhdam) is dirtier than a Jew”.

Al-Jardas Flower (2014) by Imad Zaid tackles the issue of racism and the violence of Yemeni traditional social stratification: Sayyids who claim that they are descendants of Prophet Mohammad; the people of tribal backgrounds, that is, those who think of their ancient Yemeni Qahtani origin; and finally, the low stratum Muzaynin, that is, those who conduct menial jobs such as barbers, butchers and hairdressers. These are among the groups in society examined here, especially as they relate to marriage relationships and the perceptions of the inferiority of trades people, such as barbers and butchers. The novel also recounts tales of the victims of racial discrimination, and presents their daily sufferings.

Sectarian violence

Waqash (2019) by Walid Damaj chronicles sectarian violence and the extermination of the Matrafi group in Yemen in the 6th century Hijri, during the reign of the Zaidi Imam Abdullah bin Hamza, who died in 614 Hijri. The novel uses this incident to refer to violence in Yemen. It also exposes class and sectarian hierarchy, and violations of the rights and dignity of children and women.

Dictatorship violence

As for Country of the Leader (2019) by Ali al-Muqri, it portrays the violence of a dictatorship, the authority’s abuses of the intellectual, treason against society, the violent revolution which toppled al-Qaid, that is, the leader who is the protagonist of the novel as he sought to quell it by using verbal violence – cursing, hurling insults, and betrayals – and physical violence – using weapons, killings, sabotage and plunging the country into multiple conflicts.

The violence of reality and terrorism

Behind the Sun (2012) by Bushra al-Maqtari presents the violence of reality, and confronts such reality head on. It observes closely the 2011 revolutionary demonstrations in Yemen, which coincided with a resurgence of al-Qaeda terrorism in the Governorate of Abyan. It also recounts the killing of army soldiers in Shabwa by unknown assailants. The novel also exposes the pitfalls of the socialist struggle, and the loss of hope for Yemeni unity to realize the aspirations of Yemeni society in the face of the struggle of religious and tribal forces and their hegemony over the regime. The story presents betrayal and torture in prisons, and madness and delirium.

Walid Damaj in his novel Abu Suhaib al-Izzi (2019) presents his own historical readings of the political conflicts and terrorism, the coups, and the dismantling of the ideological and Islamist discourses in Yemen.

Violence of globalization

Ahmed Zain in American Coffee (2007) relates the violence of globalization, the dismantling of society, and the disappointments of revolutionaries under a social reality where some values have been lost. It is full of killings, war and corruption in an era of globalization. There is fear, panic and terror, kidnappings, murder, the sound of bullets, male domination, and the spread of billboards displaying Western products. This rather gloomy narrative  represents in a way the tragic transformations that big Yemeni cities are experiencing in reality.

Vendettas, social conflicts and undermining the future

Hind Haitham’s War of Timber (2003) dismantles tribal vendettas between two families, the victims of which were a group of young people who were smuggled out to the city by their families. They remained in the city and received a university education, but the vendetta followed them to the city. This is a novel that exposes backwardness, ignorance and a revenge culture that has undermined the future of society.

From Marib to Tashkent (2003) by Jalal al-Ruweishan recounts details of a murder in which two people from Marib were killed by their friend. The murderer stole their car and fled to Tashkent, but was later repatriated and executed.

Aden: A city of ideological and tribal conflicts

Ahmed Zain’s Fruit of the Crows (2020) depicts the contradictions of society and the disappointments of struggle in a society infested with betrayal, conspiracies, intrigues, liquidations and factionalism. It looks at how Aden lost its civility, a tragic situation in the era of colonialism and socialism. The novel recounts the 1986 conflict, which was driven by regionalism, but shrouded as ideological differences, and the ensuing executions, massacres and elimination of people because of their identity.

Habib Serori’s The Betrayed Queen (1999) depicts the human tragedy in Aden before Yemeni unification in 1990, and the brutality, corruption and contradictions of the socialist system. What happened was not due to ideology, but in part due to men in power and those who represent the regime hailing from a tribal mountain background. The violence he depicts includes: beheadings, bloody conflicts, oppressing intellectuals and banning books that criticize or differ from the Marxist ideology of the socialist party in south Yemen during the 1970s and 1980s.

Sana’a between popular violence and political conflicts

Sana’ai (2013) by Nadia al-Kawkabani showcases transformations in the contemporary city of Sana’a through a duality of love and war. In it, you find the extended and often repeated conflicts throughout history. It depicts practices by the reactionary Imamate’s rulers, the beheadings of revolutionaries, the brutality of the tribes who pillaged and destroyed the city of Sana’a. It also portrays the successive conflicts which had attempted to stage a revolution against the Imams, the advent of the September Revolution, and the events and conflicts that followed, such as the assassination of al-Hamdi and subsequent events, such as the 1994 war. The novel is a denouncement of turmoil and violence, and a call for peace, love and life in a city that deserves life and civility.

Abdullah Abbas al-Iriani’s The Kentucky Roundabout (2014) tells the story of violence, specifically the violence of the youth revolution and the counter-revolution in Sana’a in 2011. It depicts the Massacre of Juma’at al-Karama (Friday of Dignity), the Kentucky Roundabout, the dead, and the blood. It describes the dreams of young people, who aspire to change the tragic reality controlled by the military, tribes and the Islamists, by highlighting the killing of the novel’s protagonists by the regime’s snipers, such as Sawsan.

Political devastation and violence against children and women

Although Habib Serori’s novel The Bird of Devastation (2005) has symbolic representations of the homeland and the control of its destiny by the tribal mentality, it exposes multiple aspects of violence. Through that, it addresses the suffering of children, the violence directed against them, and how they are forced by their parents to work or beg in the streets. The novel also depicts a tale of forbidden love and oppression in Yemeni society, where forms of oppression and social and political repression prevail, especially during the stages that predate the reunification of Yemen – and even those that came after reunification. In the novel, such oppressions and repressions are matters that have led to corruption, unethical practices and the prevalence of sorcery and superstition in Yemeni society.  Overall, the novel highlights the loss of human values and the prevalence of the patriarchal culture of male dominance overpowering women and children.

Artwork by Maha Al-Omari

Social authoritarianisms and resistance to the masculine discourse

Yemeni feminist writing often seeks to resist masculine discourse and dominance over women by social authorities This is evident in Nabila al-Zubair’s novel It Is My Body (2000) in which the female voice and the vanquished body are clearly visible as a result of male violence. It is in this environment that the novel’s characters are pursued by nightmares and delirium.

Akelat by Nadia al-Kawkabani (2009) depicts forms of symbolic, societal and cultural violence. The novel is satirical, condemning society and exposing the contradictions of how men perceive women. The novel also addresses the issue of depriving girls of their education and their taking up employment. It highlights the pressure exerted by parents on their daughters to accept marriage at an early age. Forms of violence depicted in the narrative include restrictions on women, physical beatings, confinement in the home, divorce and denial of child custody.

As for Land without Heaven (2008) by Wajdi al-Ahdal, the novel exposes societal contradictions and addresses male dominance on a university campus. It shows a male university professor who appears to be ignoring taboos in society and violating moral values. The novel contains examples of sexual harassment of women in a Yemeni city which seems to be Sana’a. The protagonist, Sama’ al-Naim, disappears at the university. This event alludes to the disappearance of 16 girls at Sana’a University in 2001, who were eventually found to have been raped and murdered.

Revolutionary violence

Munir Talal’s Flood of Wrath (2007) is a historical novel that embarks on fictionalizing the revolutionary popular uprising against British colonialism in Mukalla in 1950. It depicts the violence of the people of Mukalla city, east Yemen, against the violence of the colonizers.

Violence by women against women, and violence of civil wars in modern Yemen

Violence takes on numerous faces, including violence against women, in A Red Qur’an (2009) by Imran al-Gharbi. The protagonist, Sambriah, is subjected to physical, verbal and symbolic violence by the women of her village. In addition, the novel depicts successive civil wars in the North and South of Yemen, including those waged by the National Front in the 1980s, and the summer war of 1994, in which Sana’a’s authority and the tribal, military and religious forces triumphed and established their dominance through the use of violence. The novel reveals the contradictory alliances in modern Yemen and the successive conflicts this has produced. In the end, the novel calls for dialogue, tolerance and acceptance of the other, and the rejection of extremism and murder – and finally, for atonement.

Laying bare realities

Based on this panoramic review, we find that Yemeni novels published during the last two decades have contrasting representations of violence in terms of types and themes. However, all of them have presented testimonies about the tragedy-filled political, moral and cultural reality caused by multifaceted acts of violence. Hence, we find different types of violence coming together to mobilize in the same novel. The aim of the Yemeni novelist in such narratives is to lay bare political and social realities and to dismantle the dominant discourses that perpetuate violence through the use of striking and, at times, subtle physical and symbolic images.

About the author

Ibrahim Ahmed Thabit is a Yemeni Academic who obtained an MA on narratives based on a thesis on the same topic: “Discourse of Violence in Yemeni Novels: A Socio-textual Approach”. Ibrahim is currently working on his PhD in ٍsemiotics and analysis of narrative discourse at King Saud University. He has been working as a lecturer in the Arabic Language and Literature Department of King Saud University since 2017.

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