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The Yemeni: A Prisoner of Self-Abasement, From Glorious Past to Vanishing Present

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

The historical background

Historians often differ on which of the oldest civilizations in the world was the first to appear – or to whom to attribute all of the virtues, innovations, and efficacies of each culture. Each would give evidence presenting their own theories and opinions. Some argue that the Sumerian Civilization is the oldest in existence, while others argue that other civilizations existed much earlier, such as the Pharaonic, the Greek, the Yemeni, the Babylonic, the Chinese, the Indian, and so on. The argument continues without a definite truth.

In fact, most of the evidence is incomplete, as these opinions depend mainly on inscriptions and engravings that cannot conclusively determine which civilization is older than the other due to the scarcity of discoveries through excavations and as they belong to different time periods.

Moreover, limitations in archaeological sciences that specialize in studying and exploring historical monuments in the field pose another challenge as, to date, new monuments are being discovered on a daily basis. There is a difficulty in inspecting every existing historical area and uncovering its evidence, as well as difficulty in unearthing and reaching every historical monument. Gathering such evidence and interpreting meaning from across the globe is a gargantuan task. Therefore, many historians turn to narratives and accounts from past historians, despite their contradictions and biases, including secondary sources, such as oral accounts.

At present, after extensive research on civilizations, there is an almost congruent view when it comes to the main features and characteristics of all these civilizations, without necessarily asserting which one preceded the other. As for Yemen, and despite having shrunk in its current geographical borders, it has always been cited by historians for its unique and ancient history.

Evidence indicates that ancient Yemen did have a leading role amongst other civilizations. Its roots go back to 3,000 BC, whereas its historical influence became apparent in 1,000 BC at the beginning of the Christian era, through its numerous kingdoms – Sheba, Maeen, Hadhramaut, Qataban, Awsan, and Himyar.

Nevertheless, not enough has been done to explore this rich civilization and to point out its sources of greatness. This might be due to the fact that not many exploratory missions were sent to Yemen. Amongst those that did occur were those by the German explorer Nibor, who went on a mission to Yemen from Copenhagen in 1761, as well as the German explorer Citzen who visited Yemen after his journey to Greater Syria and Egypt in 1810, followed by the English researcher James Woolstud in 1834. Another noteworthy mission was by the American Shemshonine Institute in 1961, followed by several European missions.[1] Despite these revealing important aspects of Yemeni civilization, most preferred to transfer the engravings and monuments that were found to their own countries of origin for further inspection and study. With time, such intentions were forgotten.

Artwork by Rawiya Mohammed

There were modest local Yemeni efforts in archaeological excavation and research, and in the interpretation of historical monuments and symbols, and so Yemenis depended solely on outsiders for such work, which has led to these historical monuments being hidden from the outside world. It has also the Yemeni’s civilization’s treasures and monuments to moral and material plundering.

A lot of evidence pointing towards the rich history of the Yemeni civilization remains a mystery due to ignorance and neglect. Discovering more about it would require serious local efforts, in addition to objective research, based on facts and evidence.

In spite of their disparities, many references were made to the Yemeni civilization in holy and historical scriptures, shedding some light on the role and monuments of the Yemeni civilization in the ancient world. An example of that is the assertion that all Arabs are of Yemeni origin, and different Arab tribes were then dispersed across the Middle East, as some immigrated to Iraq, forming their own civilization there, whereas others travelled north towards Greater Syria, where the Phoenician civilization was formed. Others migrated towards the Horn of Africa and the banks of the River Nile. Some historians believe that Africa was named after one of the Yemeni Tuba[2] Kings during the Himyarite era, who was called Afriqis Ibn Dhi al-Manar.[3]

One view is that the name ‘Yemen’ came from the word Yemena, which was mentioned in old Sabian scripts;[4] others state it was named Yemen after one of its kings, Yemen Bin Qahtan.[5] However, the Yemeni historian and archeologist Mohamed Bafaqih bases his argument on the etymology of the word Yemen that is mentioned in the old Yemenite language, as he interprets the word Yemenet, meaning south.[6]

Since ancient times Yemenis have always been known for being a strong and daring society, constructing palaces on top of steep mountain tops and planting agricultural terraces in numerous areas. The Himyarite Kings were also the first to wear crowns,[7] most famously the Queen of Sheba ‘Belquis’. Also, most historians confirm that Dhu al-Qarnayn[8] was the Yemeni king Tuba.[9]

Yemen was also mentioned in the holy Quran in verses such as Surat Saba[10] and al-Ahqaf,[11] or the story of the ‘Owners of the Garden’[12] in Surat Al Qalam, as well as the story of the ‘People of the Ditch’.[13] It was described as being heaven on earth. It was also called Arabia felix, which means ‘happy and flourishing Arabia’ in Latin due to the fertility of its land.

Some historians have proved that Adnan[14] went to Mecca from Yemen originally, and that Prophet Abraham and Ismail were his descendants. It is also stated in many books and historical narratives that Jurhum,[15] one of the oldest Yemeni tribes, immigrated and settled in different parts of Mecca.

However, the Yemeni civilization became weakened as a result of internal conflicts between its kingdoms and different regions, and external conflict such as the Abyssinian invasion in 525, which was supported by the Roman Empire, followed by the opposing Persian invasion in 575. This remained the case until the arrival of Islam, when Yemen became part of the Islamic civilization, abandoning its previous legacy, which was diminished due to all of the preceding factors and periods.

The Yemeni defeat

It is certain that the history of the warring kingdoms in Yemen and the effects of the different conquests followed by joining the Muslim community has formed a type of attachment to the culture and heritage of ‘the other’ in the Yemeni personality. This interference, resulting from military defeat and the replacement of their culture, not only altered Yemenis’ cultural and psychological characteristics, but also accustomed them to follow new societies and cultures more readily.

This explains how the Yemeni civilization simply joined the Islamic culture, as though it was devoid of its own culture and heritage. This also fed the tribal and cultural conflict between Qahtanites[16] and Adnanites/Qaisees.[17] The conflict started before Islam and continued even after the eras of the four Righteous Caliphs,[18] becoming in later stages a cultural clash and competition for power and status. History books are filled with the controversy between these two large tribes, which in turn caused the Qahtanites to be presented as though they were the weaker party after the Adnanites came to power with the arrival of the prophethood and the Islamic state.

The Islamic attitude appeared to surmount all others, as implied by Omar Ibn Al Khattab saying: “Arabs’ affairs will not witness prosperity as long as ‘Ghumdan’ still exists amongst them” – the saying that encouraged Othman Ibn Afan to demolish it.[19] ‘Ghumdan’ in the saying refers to Ghumdan Palace in Sana’a that was built by Yaareb Ibn Qahtan, and was demolished by Othman Ibn Affan, who said: “Monuments of Jahiliyyah[20] are to be erased”.[21] Instead of the saying carrying a religious connotation, this indicates a desire for the power and supremacy of the Adnanites.

This also indicates the level of weakness the Yemeni civilization had reached by that time, where nothing was left except for the few individuals who got deeply involved with the new Islamic state, and contributed to spreading its power.

Consequently, Yemenis lost their source of pride and their cultural heritage with all of the religious roots and legends, the unique customs and arts and rules, along with living traditions which had been developed. In addition, they lost their captivating sense of identity that used to enhance their sense of belonging, so they appeared to be followers in the wake of these eras. This in turn has affected the nature of the Yemeni’s contribution to the wheel of civilization, with roles being limited to certain individuals within a certain time period, place and cultural context, since Yemenis lost the collective representation of their society and culture when their southern Arabic language was replaced by the rise of northern classical Arabic or Fusha, as well as changes to their geographical composition and autonomy.

Artwork by Rawiya Mohammed

Fading and vanishing

Perhaps Yemen’s geographical location did not do it justice since it is located in the far  end of the Arabian peninsula surrounded by nomadic tribal cultures . Consequently, the influence of its civilization remained quite limited, and did not reach other civilizations except through trade, cultural exchange, immigration, and relocation. In addition, Yemenis dealt with one conflict after the other, draining them of energy and affecting the ability to create, produce, and contribute to civil prosperity and innovation, as they always had to find an alternative homeland. Furthermore, humans who lack a tangible state that represents them lose their ability to express themselves and showcase their qualities. Thus, despite the creative nature of Yemenis, their creativity remained bound to their geographical borders until recent times. One should also not overlook the psychological nature of Yemenis and their behavior, as they tend to shy away from the limelight and find comfort in keeping a low profile, unlike other nations who were able to express themselves and exhibit their contributions no matter how small they were.

Thus, Yemenis were characterized as soft-hearted, tender, and wise people; in the Hadeeth, Prophet Mohamed describes Yemenis as having the “softest hearts” and attributing to them wisdom and faith.[22] In another Hadith the Prophet points his hand towards Yemen and says: “Verily faith is towards this side and harshness and callousness of the hearts is found amongst the rude owners of the camels who drive them behind their tails (to the direction) where emerge the two horns of Satan, they are the tribes of Rabi’a and Mudar.”[23]

This indicates that Yemenis are of a modest and soft nature, dislike boasting and gloating, and tend to prioritize others over themselves. These are general traits that distinguish this society, with the Yemenis’ reputation and behavior being the best indicators. It also could be that Yemenis acquired such characteristics as a result of their rugged environment, which they tamed and transformed into beautiful, exquisite gardens. Or they could have derived them from their religious teachings, rituals, and ancestral myths, as well as the rules that governed them in their ancient kingdoms. Yemenis were people of knowledge and writing, of patience and resilience. This in turn fostered a sense of humility, conservativeness, and modesty.

Yemenis were also the most helpful and generous of peoples, and trade was their means of persuading others and presenting themselves as people who want and need to win others over. These factors and others may have played a role in creating a nation that is more inclined towards modesty, and reluctant to show arrogance or stand out, hence affecting their civilization’s standing amongst other civilizations and the preservation of its status before them.

These factors combined have a role in the decline of Yemen, and the evidence for that is ample. For instance, most Yemeni celebrities and public figures are not known beyond Yemen, and their heritage was mostly spread due to the expressed interest of people from other cultures. The creative and innovative Yemeni remains bound to the geographical area due to the isolated nature of the country, in addition to many traditions and norms that rarely paid attention to such talents, viewing any form of publicity as boasting or showing off. The only matters Yemenis take pride in are their own tribal customs and victories in conflicts.

Perhaps this phenomenon continues with the modern Yemeni, and psychological and behavioral researchers can probably explore the roots of the matter and understand its dimensions based on what is known of Yemeni history and the reality that is filled with defeat and exodus.

Artwork by Rawiya Mohammed

Narcissism in the present

With the knowledge boom in recent times and the diverse means of attaining it, and in light of the cultural competition in the open space of the Internet, the modern Yemeni naturally feels the need to participate in the race between civilizations, and began searching for something to support this bid.  However, after decades of war, conflict, and destruction that still plague Yemen, and the weakness of the state, although the state, in its actual and systematic sense may not have been established  yet in Yemen’s modern history, Yemenis found refuge in quoting their bright past, and defending it relentlessly. With Yemen’s present at its worst, they can see nothing but their fading heritage and past glories, urging them to point towards them and seek refuge and validation from them in the face of the rising new world and with the advancement of countries that have left no trace in history. This has resulted in Yemenis fervently defending their past at the expense of their present, in an unbalanced way that nonetheless was their only way of establishing their sense of identity and reinforcing their national and cultural presence. On the contrary, many view this sentiment of confronting the modern world with a fading past as senseless in light of the present situation, in the absence of a real state and the destruction of the social fabric.

On the other hand, others view it as a way of resurrecting the Yemeni identity and arming Yemenis with it against identity-related controversy and discrimination.

There is some truth to both views, as recalling one’s history and heritage is still every nation’s means of expressing pride. Yet, this should be done in parallel with working on bettering the present, no matter how dark it may seem. History should inspire nations to improve their reality, rather than evoke the past as a way of looking down on others and boasting without taking serious and effective action.

Yemenis until now suffer from a lack of an actual presence on the ground and the dispersion of their efforts all over the globe. It always seems as though Yemenis are able to empathize with every cause on this planet except their own due to the collapse of the national state that would otherwise stir their passion and draw their attention.

Yemenis live through this state of emotional polarization that has resulted in them escaping towards the past, celebrating its glories, since it is the only common denominator that brings them together.

Until such times as Yemenis regain their state or re-form it through proactive efforts, their past should only be of positive influence on the present. They should aspire to influence all Yemeni institutions to reconstruct the national entity, wherein they have the ability to create and innovate in a world that only believes in what is visible and tangible rather than what ‘has been’.

Glory in the present can only be achieved through a conscious engagement with the past, stemming from the civilizational value and the science, authorship, innovation, creativity, uniqueness, industry, and construction that were dazzlingly present in ancient Yemen. This engagement draws glorious heritage from the past as a solid foundation that paves the way towards the science innovation and ingenuity that distinguished Yemenis in the past and helped them enrich the world with all of their knowledgeable pursuits. The goal is not merely to take pride in names, prominent sayings and inscriptions from the past without reviving its objectives and purposes, as civilizations that have enough awareness realize that the bright past should lead to a brighter future. Yemenis possess a solid and magnificent history that can enable them to construct a brighter present, only if they decide to recall it without hollow prejudices, view it objectively without undermining others, and follow its path to glory, in accordance with the needs of the times.

 

 

Dr. Fares al-Beel: is a Yemeni academic and literary critic who holds a PhD in cultural and literary criticism from Ain Shams University. He headed the Rwaq Forum of Culture and Creativity in Cairo. He writes in a number of magazines, newspapers and Arabic websites. He has also published several books on criticism and storytelling.

 

 


[1] For additional information, see: History of Ancient Yemen, Mohamed Abdulqader Bafaqih.p13

[2] Many historians agree that Himyarite Kings in Yemen were labelled with the name Tuba.

[3] History of Ibn Khaldoun, (6th volume).p. 51.

[4] Referring to the era of the Kingdom of Sheba.

[5] Al-Iklil: Crowns from the Accounts of Al-Yemen and the Genealogies of Ḥimyar by Abu Muhammad Al-Hasan Al-Hamdani.1/139, 2004 edition.

[6] History of Ancient Yemen, Mohamed Abdulqader Bafaqih. P137

[7] Roudh Almanathir fi Aa’lam Ala’waa’il aa Al-Awakhir by Muhibb Al-Din Ibn Al-Shihnah 1st edition,1997, p44.

[8] Dhu al-Qarnayn, which means ‘He of Two Horns’ is a legendary king and a powerful ruler who was mentioned in the Quran. His story is narrated in Surat AlKahf (The Cave in English) as an example of a true leader.

[9]  Kitab Altayjan fi Muluk Hamir (Book of crowns in the kings of Himyar) Ibn Hisham narration of his grandfather Waheb bin Munabeh, 1347AH, Sanaa, p91 and after.  

[10] It is said that Yemen was mentioned in Surat Saba’ in verse 15: “There was for [the tribe of] Saba’ in their dwelling place a sign: two [fields of] gardens on the right and on the left. [They were told], ‘Eat from the provisions of your Lord and be grateful to Him. A good land [have you], and a forgiving Lord.’”

[11] It is said that Al-Ahqaf was located in Yemen, and in Surat Al-Ahqaf verse 21, the following was mentioned: “And mention, [O Muhammad], the brother of ‘Aad, when he warned his people in the [region of] al-Ahqaf – and warners had already passed on before him and after him – [saying], ‘Do not worship except Allah. Indeed, I fear for you the punishment of a terrible day.’”

[12] ‘Owners of the Garden’ is a story about a wealthy pious man who owned a garden that was filled with trees laden with fruits. He used to distribute the harvest to the poor every season, and requested his sons to do the same after his death. In Surat Al-Qalam, verses 17-33, the story is narrated, stating how the sons did not follow their father’s wish after his death and decided to gather all the fruits before the poor can see them, an act that angered Allah. It is said that this garden was located in Yemen.

[13] ‘People of the Ditch’ is a story in Surat Al-Burooj of the Qur’an. It is about people who were thrown into a ditch and set alight, due to their belief in Allah. It is said that this happened during the era of the last Himyarite King Dhu Nuwas, who burnt these people of Najran since they converted to Christianity.

[14] Adnan is the traditional ancestor of the Adnanite Arabs, who are also called ‘Arabized Arabs’, as it is believed that they became Arabized when they immigrated to the Arabian Peninsula.

[15] Jurhum is an old Arab tribe who is believed to have given protection to Hajar and her son Prophet Ismail when they were stranded in Mecca.

[16] Qahtanites is the name given to ‘pure Arabs’ who originated from Yemen according to Arab tradition.

[17] Qaisees or Qays Aylan were an Arab tribal confederation that branched from the Mudhar section of the Adnanites.

[18] ‘The Righteous Caliphs’ is a term used in Islam to refer to the first four caliphs following the death of Prophet Muhammad, namely: Abu Bakr AlSideeq, Omar Ibn AlKhattab, Othman Ibn Affan, and Ali Ibn Abi Talib.

[19] Nihayat Al-Arab fi Funun Al-Adab (The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition) by Shihab Al-Din Ahmad Al-Nuwayri, 1/285.

[20] Jahiliyyah means ‘age of ignorance’ and it refers to the age of pre-Islamic Arabia.

[21] Al-Rasa’il – The Letters by Abu Othman Al-Jahith, 1/141.

[22] Narrated in Sahih al-Bukhari/4388.

[23] Narrated in Sahih al-Bukhari/3302.

Fares al-Beel

a Yemeni academic and literary critic who holds a PhD in cultural and literary criticism from Ain Shams University. He headed the Rwaq Forum of Culture and Creativity in Cairo. He writes in a number of magazines, newspapers and Arabic websites. He has also published several books on criticism and storytelling.
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