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Franck Mermier (ed.). Yémen : écrire la guerre

Paris : Classiques Garnier, 2018, 186 pages
Laurent Bonnefoy
Référence(s) :

Yémen : écrire la guerre / Franck Mermier (ed.).‑ Paris : Classiques Garnier, 2018.‑ 186 p. ISBN : 978‑2‑406‑08363‑4.

Notes de l’auteur

A French version of this review was published online by En attendant Nadeau literary review.

Texte intégral

1Since 2015, many observers have repeatedly denounced global ignorance towards the war in Yemen, often labeling it the “world’s worst hidden conflict”. Yet, the general public and mass media in western countries have increasingly become aware of the situation and of the military deadlock up to the point it would now be wrong to continue asserting this war is happening behind closed doors. Information exists and is widely available. However, what probably remains hidden or silenced are Yemeni voices. These have a tendency to be either ignored or to see their claims confiscated by so‑called western experts. Willingly or not, they have been largely deprived of access to the public space and to debate on “their” war. Hence the frequent claim made that “there are no journalists in Yemen”, actually meaning no Western ones! In the Arab media, the financial control of the Gulf states responsible for the bombing of the country itself has generated further biases and has often deprived Yemenis of their subjectivity.

  • 1 Unsurprisingly analytical texts published in English by Yemeni researchers are more numerous than i (...)

2Thus Franck Mermier’s editorial project to translate Arabic texts published by Yemeni intellectuals into French is a most opportune contribution. It bears an almost philosophical depth that is also embodied in a twin project published simultaneously under his benevolent supervision: a translation of Syrian texts. It was thus a necessity to make readily available to the French‑speaking public the views of those in Yemen who are at the forefront of a conflict that has caused more than 50,000 deaths since March 2015. One could add that a similar translation effort in English would be received with equal praise and answer a similar need1.

3This Yemen focused‑publication helps correct a manifest injustice. “It seems we are not part of the world,” writes journalist Jamal Jubran in a beautiful text made available here to the French speaking public. Beyond Franck Mermier's ambition to “break the halo of aloofness” and “to destroy the wall of indifference that surrounds Yemen”, the book project also needed to account for the complexity of what is unfolding in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It was in particular important to highlight the variety of positions and analyzes. Indeed, in Yemen perhaps more than elsewhere, society and the intellectual field remain fragmented to the extreme. Between supporters of the Houthi militia, Southern activists, socialists, liberals, Islamist and feminist voices, the narratives that can be delivered are frequently antagonistic.
Franck Mermier's in‑depth knowledge of the Yemeni terrain and of the intellectual field in the country have helped him cherry‑pick fourteen texts written by eight writers or journalists, half of whom are women. First‑person accounts, such as those of Jamal Gubran, alternate with analytical texts like that of Bushra al‑Maqtari on the recompositions of Salafism in his city of Taez. The book is easily accessible and paced with different forms of writing. The translations (produced by Franck Mermier himself, Marianne Babut, Nathalie Bontemps and Michel Tabet) are fluid. The texts deliver a heart‑rending portrait of a society destroyed by the regional powers and neglected by Western decision makers. The chapters, notably those of renown novelist Ali al‑Muqri and by activist Arwa Abduh Othman, develop the narrative of a Yemeni society broken by the instrumentalization of religion by Islamists as well as elites eager to monopolize more power and money. The general portrait, despite the poetic dimension of several texts, will undeniably leave the reader pessimistic. The nostalgia for more serene times is in particular manifest when the “Yemeni spring” is mentioned. The 2011 uprising had raised so much hope but ended in the decay of Yemeni society, no doubt for a long time. Franck Mermier’s selection reflects the somewhat depressing nature of the recent fate of this society. In a poignant text, young sociologist Sara Jamal writes: “It is only in Yemen that the most ‘Yemeni’ among us are those who would like to find a treatment to cure their pathological dependence on a country that devours those who like it. It is only in Yemen that my dearest wish is, indeed, to be wrong.”
While the ambition of the publication deserves the highest praises, the selection made by Franck Mermier may well leave specialists of Yemeni contemporary society and politics a little uneasy. It may be seen as a pity that this panorama leaves out a wide range of voices apparently less nuanced, indeed sometimes absurd, which are supposedly expressed at the extremes of the political spectrum but which nevertheless benefit from an important popular base. Since it is through these speeches, certainly frequently hateful or pouring into conspiracy theory, that a large part of the conflictuality is structured, their absence is detrimental to our understanding of the war. Without them, the selection of texts loses part of its analytical power.
The positions defended by the authors of the texts have every chance of receiving the sympathy of the majority of Western readers. Franck Mermier would most likely acknowledge such a bias and defend it – although he does not mention it in his introduction. The translated texts are worth, from his point of view, for their analytical relevance more than for their alleged representativeness. The vast majority of the authors are, for example, close to left movements whose latest electoral results (albeit more than a decade old considering the state of the institutions) have yet proven extremely weak. This bias has the advantage of consistency and allows the translators to deliver texts without excessive critical footnotes or without each needing to propose a special contextual introduction. The reader, as well as the coordinator of the book, therefore do not need to distance themselves from the papers – everyone is meant to agree with the arguments made and the narratives delivered.

4However, this approach unintentionally obscures a significant part of Yemeni society. The contributions certainly break the silence or surpass the “international ostracism” described by Habib Abdulrab Sarori in his chapter, but at the same time generate some misunderstandings about the reality of internal power relations in Yemen or the interpretations of the roots of the war. They prevent, for example, to understand how and why armed movements linked to Islamism (be they of Sunni or Zaydi nature) or nostalgia for the regime of former president Saleh are so popular. Debate on the representativeness of the voices chosen by Franck Mermier refers to fundamental issues related to the subjectivity of the researcher, especially a foreign one. It is also part of the inevitably normative dimension of any writing evoking a society torn by violence. For those who have known Yemeni society in peace, the emotional dimension cannot (and should not!) be denied; the fate of this war‑torn country has something heartbreaking and everyone is inclined to take part (even involuntarily) in the polarization produced by the conflict, identifying enemies and allies, innocent victims and culprits. Nevertheless, the highlighting of Yemeni writings by Franck Mermier is symbolically and analytically a welcome tour de force. The voices presented here, even if they remain unfortunately relatively marginal or neglected at the level of their country, deserve to be heard, respected and valued. Their very existence is a good reason not to despair.

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1 Unsurprisingly analytical texts published in English by Yemeni researchers are more numerous than in other foreign languages. Efforts by the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, by the Project of Middle East Democracy, or by DeepRoot consulting for example are remarkable yet they tend to leave out the subjective dimension of intellectual work, built on experiences and point of views that remain at the core of the texts presented by Franck Mermier. In English, texts by Atiaf al‑Wazir published in her blog or those of journalist Afrah Nasser are more similar to the ones published in the book and help make more visible the voices of Yemenis at the international level.

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Laurent Bonnefoy, « Franck Mermier (ed.). Yémen : écrire la guerre »Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 10 | 2018, mis en ligne le 19 janvier 2019, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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