Enlightenment as a Central Theme in Yemeni Travel Literature

Book Review

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

A persistent theme in Yemeni travel literature produced in the 20th and 21st centuries concerns the difference experienced by Yemeni authors in what they saw in the countries they visited and what the situation is like in Yemen. In many cases, they draw attention to the deficiencies and shortcomings of Yemeni society; our failure to keep pace with modern civilization and progress. In this article, we look at the travelogue The Tribesman in China and Other Countries, by the Yemeni author Hammoud Mansour, published in its second edition in 1987.

A tradition

Since 19th century, travel literature in the Arab world  has been employed to reflect the civilizational gap between Arab countries and other Western or Eastern countries. The other, in this sense, is a mirror towards which we look to discover our condition or a bridge we cross in order to  reach the self. One of the most famous Arab travelogues in the 19th century is An Imam in Paris by Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, whose main purpose for writing the book was to understand the reasons behind the advancements and modernizations in France, and to convey this to his readers in the Arab world. It was from here that travel literature became linked, in the Arab context, to the Enlightenment; al-Tahtawi has therefore been described as one of the most important pioneers of the Enlightenment in the Arab world. This tradition has continued until today, and it is safe to say that Enlightenment is the main theme of many travelogues that have been published in Arabic during the last century. Yemen is not an exception.

Hammoud Mansour and his internal and external voyages

The Yemeni traveler Hammoud Mansour has documented many experiences in his travel literature; his journeys were distinguished by their diversity as he has traveled to both Eastern and Western countries. Among his work relating to what is beyond the Arab world is his book The Tribesman in China and Other Countries,[1] which documents his most important and longest trip. Some of his travels in the Arab world are captured in I Cried in Khartoum[2] and Riyadh from the Back Door.[3] He also traveled through Yemen, which he documented in his book Gifted a Chicken: Travels in Yemeni Regions.[4] It was through such books that Mansour became known as the most well-regarded Yemeni author of travel literature in the 20th century.[5]

The Tribesman in China and Other Countries includes locations from the East and West: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Italy, Switzerland, France, Hungary and Austria. The front cover features a drawing of a man in traditional Yemeni garb (a thobe, Janbiya and turban) riding on a Yemeni plane as though he were riding a camel. With his left hand he is grasping the reins that are attached to the front of the plane, as if it were the head of a camel, and in his right hand he holds a book that appears to be the Qur’an. The background seems to be Sana’a International Airport. The author uses the word ‘Tribesman’ in the title and includes a picture of a tribesman on the cover, not merely as a teaser for marketing purposes, but to also point out the irony in the styles of some travelers. It is not intended to insinuate simplicity or naivety on the part of the traveler, for one of the main purposes of travel literature is to introduce and enlighten one’s own country’s people. The traveler, thus, writes from the position of a Yemeni intellectual who uses their observations and studies of different countries to produce knowledge, entertainment, guidance and criticism.

It is imperative today, when reading The Tribesman in China and Other Countries, to tie it to its own timeline, the 1980s, a time before satellite television and the Internet. Because it was published at this time, the book was seen as an important tool to learn about the world. Such travel writing became a window for the Arab reader to look at the ‘other’ in order to learn about developments in the Western world. And because it was a 1980s book , the pictures provided multiple views for the reader, which is why the writer included 29 different images of his trip (about one every eight pages).

The stigma of constant comparison: The traveler and the transfer of aspects of civilization

Conveying the different aspects of modern civilization was a key goal for Mansour. His books show his interest in images of civilizations’ progress through a number of subtitles. Sometimes these are linked to the industrial revolution, such as ‘The Iron Doors Factory’[6] and ‘A Small Factory’.[7] Other times they are linked to agricultural production, ‘Animal Guide’[8] and ‘Cotton Products’,[9] and sometimes to technological aspects, ‘The Computer Compressor’,[10] meaning the automated register, and ‘National Telephone Services in the Streets’.[11] Titles may also be associated with certain services, such as ‘Rural Hospital’,[12] ‘Sorting Garbage’,[13] ‘Laundry’,[14] ‘Taxi System’,[15] ‘Suspended Bridge’[16] and ‘A Tour in an Upscale Market’,[17]  or with entertainment, such as ‘Amusement Parks’,[18] ‘American Theater’,[19] ‘Pacific Park’[20] and ‘The Marathon’.[21] In the last part of the book he includes the following heading, ‘Why Did They Advance Industrially?’,[22] which he answers partially by linking their advancement to their investments in geniuses who, in his words, appear as madmen. He refers to them in common dialect as “finicky”, as in people who show great attention to minor details.

It can be said that the traveler would roam distant countries, but the conditions of his country remain forever present in his mind. And perhaps the most delightful evidence of this is Mansour’s witty style, for he describes scenes in different countries by pointing out the absence of negative traits in them, traits that are present in his homeland. So he describes what is absent visually but present in his mind. And this overlapping negation permits the invocation of Yemen between the writer and the reader in, for example, one delightfully overlapping incident: “Nobody picks a flower”, he says in a Hong Kong garden, “there are no traces of a sniff, no traces of chewing tobacco, no traces of khat, no traces of cigarette butts”.[23] He describes one of the factories in Taiwan as: “Everyone works quietly. There’s no noise, no conversations, no joking, no qat, no cigarettes, not even tea.”[24] There is no doubt that his noting of the absence of ‘khat’ in the Hong Kong garden and in a factory in Taiwan is validated by invoking the counterpart of these places in Yemen.

Artwork by Amani Bahashwan

Another example of his evocation of the conditions of his country is evident through his resorting to comparison. The present is perceived by what is present in the mind, and this comparison often comes with a word or term indicating ‘remembrance’. In Hong Kong Mansour admires the police’s role in protecting the citizens. He says: “I recalled the treasurer of one of the ministries, who would go to the central bank alone carrying a sack full of hundreds of thousands on his back. He walks out to the street, stands at the sidewalk and hails a taxi to take him to the ministry.”[25] In Taiwan, he is fascinated by the accurate system of sorting garbage: “Huge trucks ply the streets of Sana’a carrying an enormous pile of exposed garbage. They even drive fast to help the wind to distribute the largest amount of rotting garbage.”[26] He also admires Taiwan’s perfectly paved roads: “And I remembered the road of Jabal Sabir, which is considered part of the city of Taizz, and how it could destroy any car that would dare drive on it.”[27] In Switzerland, he is pleased by the slaughterhouses and their cleanliness: “I respect our butchers. They are comfortable financially, but their appearances are harmful and nauseating. Their shops are the most filthy, the flies are their loyal companions and the stray cats are a necessary requirement in every slaughterhouse.”[28] When describing the medical services and the intensive care in Austria, he says: “They reminded me of the past, of its bitterness, its deprivation, poverty, hunger, disease and ignorance that are distributed unevenly among the people! I remembered the Ascaris roundworm that would crawl out of my stomach, and I would complain to my mother about it who would tell my father, God rest his soul, who would then buy me a laxative. This would help release everything from my stomach, except the roundworm.”[29]

The comparison between neighborhoods and urbanization, however, is done without an advanced indication of remembrance. When he sees motorbikes in China, for instance, he says: “ I have not seen, during my entire stay in China, any accident of a motorbike or car. But hardly a day goes by without me seeing a motor accident in Sana’a.”[30] When he describes the streets in Italy, he says: “They are considered filthy compared to the streets of Western Europe, but very clean compared to our finest streets.”[31] And if he comes across any beggars in a street in Europe he comments: “But in any case they are more stylish than our beggars, more graceful and less persistent.”[32] And when he sees the clean streets of Switzerland, he quickly wonders: “When will I hear and see that the drivers in our capital have ceased tossing trash from their speeding cars onto the main road and avenues?”[33]

Consolation and moral criticism

It is also imperative to mention the religious position of the traveler, which impacts their view of everything they see. Mansour employs his religion as a means to balance his perspective, for he does not see everything in the other world as favorable. Mansour made sure to include the Marja’ on the book’s cover, as well as the Qur’an in the tribesman’s right hand, as he rides the Yemeni airplane. And so we find this traveler constantly warning the reader that, while there are things to imitate in Western and Eastern countries, there are also things we must be cautious of. He repeats mentions of moral corruption and prostitution in the West,[34] and criticizes overt displays of intimacy between the opposite sex, likening them to flies falling on each other.[35] He also criticizes the emptiness that leads to suicide[36] and cautions the reader of the habit of men, in some Western countries, of urinating while standing, which soils their underwear.[37] He even advises the people of Switzerland to convert to Oriental toilets![38]

Sometimes this side of travel writing can become straightforward preaching. For example, Mansour lists the areas the West should advance in: “You should progress in the fields of medicine by establishing… You should also advance in the fields of construction by establishing… and progress in the computer fields by producing… You must advance in the science of space exploration and aeronautics. Create … advance in marine sciences. Benefit from…”[39] Then he mentions that despite all this, we will remain helpless in the face of divine challenge: the creation of flies. He says: “These flies that we underestimate so much and see unworthy of anything is one of God’s very, very simple and uncomplicated creatures!! They are required to create more flies that would not collide with other flies or with what is in front of them, and they are to do so without remote assistance but simply by leading themselves.”[40]

In a similar way, he includes ‘Switzerland, a Heaven on Earth’,[41] where he compares human-made heaven to God’s Heaven. In Switzerland people get sick, but in Heaven there is no illness. In Switzerland people get old, but there is no old age in Heaven. And in Switzerland there are road and aviation accidents, while there are none in Heaven. In Switzerland people get worried, but there is no anxiety in Heaven; and in Switzerland there is police, public as well as secret, and armed forces, while there is nothing in Heaven that violates security, so on and so forth. We see this as a consolation method or compensation strategy. For the Arab man who was defeated in the civilizational race against the West and some countries in the East, such as China, resorts to this as a way to understate others’ progress. Another compensation method that Mansour uses is noting that the West, despite their epistemic precedence, have been very wasteful: “Had it not been for the West’s indulgence in drugs, alcohol and entertainment, their development would have been amazing. Their merchants would have been able to send satellites into space on their own dime!”[42]


Hammoud Mansour’s travels are characterized by an attempt to examine different aspects of civilized life in various Eastern and Western countries with a constant desire to enlighten the local reader, and remind them of what they should do and what they should learn from others. But despite this, the delightfully funny narrative lacks sufficient awareness to separate moral and ethical judgements from cultural differences and aspects of material civilizational development. It may be seen as Mansour’s tendency to depreciate the achievements of others through judgment and comparison outside the context of the text. This may relate to ideological biases that detract from the narrative of travel literature, especially as it is meant to provide a neutral perspective and an acceptance of the cultural differences of others, which is an existential human feature.


[1] Mansour, H. The Tribesman in China and Other Countries, Dar el-Fikr, Damascus, 2nd ed. 1987 AD. And it is located in 255 pages of small sections.

[2] Mansour, H. And I Cried in Khartoum, Dar el-Fikr, Damascus, 1st ed. 1988 AD. And it is located in 152 pages of small sections.

[3] Mansour, H. Riyadh from the Back Door, Dar el-Fikr, Damascus, 1st ed. 1988 AD. And it is located in 160 pages of small sections.

[4] Mansour, H. Gifted A Chicken: Travels in Yemeni Regions, Dar el-Fikr, Damascus, 1st ed. 1988 AD. And it is located in 152 pages of small sections.

[5] This is confirmed in: Yemeni travel Literature, A Descriptive Bibliography by Dr. Sadiq Al-Salami. Comparative journal, Fes, Morocco. Issue 29, Volume 14, 2017. The entirety are 89 travelogues written in prose and poetry.

[6] Mansour, H. The Tribesman in China and Other Countries, Dar el-Fikr, Damascus, 2nd ed. 1987, pp. 40.

[7] Ibid, pp. 94.

[8] Ibid, pp. 143.

[9] Ibid, pp. 202.

[10] Ibid, pp. 10.

[11] Ibid, pp. 193.

[12] Ibid, pp. 196.

[13] Ibid, pp. 43.

[14] Ibid, pp. 39.

[15] Ibid, pp. 185.

[16] Ibid, pp. 59.

[17] Ibid, pp. 181.

[18] Ibid, pp. 204.

[19] Ibid, pp. 24.

[20] Ibid, pp. 22.

[21] Ibid, pp. 217.

[22] Ibid, pp. 219. Question mark not included in original text.

[23] Ibid, pp. 24.

[24] Ibid, pp. 41.

[25] Ibid, pp. 22.

[26] Ibid, pp. 44.

[27] Ibid, pp. 56.

[28] Ibid, pp. 121.

[29] Ibid, pp. 198.

[30] Ibid, pp. 36.

[31] Ibid, pp. 97.

[32] Ibid, pp. 104.

[33] Ibid, pp. 125. Question mark not included in original text.

[34] Ibid, pp. 232, 177, 196.

[35] Ibid, pp. 160.

[36] Ibid, pp. 162.

[37] Ibid, pp. 40.

[38] Ibid, pp. 120.

[39] Ibid, pp. 86-87.

[40] Ibid, pp. 88. Exclamation points not included in original text.

[41] Ibid, pp. 137.

[42] Ibid, pp. 220. Exclamation point not included in original text.

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Khaled al-Absi

A Yemeni writer, poet and academic. He got his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Literature from Sana’a University, then got his Ph.D. in the field of linguistics from the College of Languages in Sana’a University. His Ph.D. thesis was on Monosystemic Principle and Its Effect on Arabic Grammar. Al-Absi has published a number of books: Stress in Arabic (2010), and two travel books, A Trip to Cuba (2010) and A Yemeni in Southeast Asia (2006), a story collection, Wa Alam Adha’at Hasrataha, and ‘Pains that Lost their Magicians’, which won the Dubai Cultural Award in 2013. Khalid is a member of the Yemeni Writers’ Union.

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