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John M. Willis, Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past

London, Hurst & Company, 2013, 273 pages
Laurent Bonnefoy
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John M. Willis, Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past, London, Hurst & Company, 2013, 273 pages

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1John M. Willis’ book is a complex, nuanced and yet fascinating analysis of the construction of Yemeni state institutions in relation to their environment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than offering a linear narrative of locally generated or “self‑originating” (p. 12) processes and dynamics that would highlight the “manifest destiny” of a unitary and centralized state and nation, the author insists on the one hand on the random or indeterminate character of most historical dynamics and decision making processes engaged, and on the other hand, he shows how much Yemen in the early 20th century, that is the Northern imamate and the British Protectorate in the South, were highly integrated into a series of spaces, debates and power structures that had developed well beyond the south‑western tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

2At the crossroads of different sub‑disciplines (colonial studies, nationalism theory, law, and Islamic studies), Unmaking North and South looks deep into the way history interacts and constructs geography and space, and influences identities. It analyses the construction of Yemen’s internal borders beyond the easy opposition of North and South Yemen that only became meaningful entities in the framework of the Cold War. For instance he shows how the local, mainly in the shape of tribes, has been in interaction with more global processes linked to transnational trade for instance.

3The volume’s capacity to bring together and use a wide variety of sources (diplomatic archives, biographies, newspaper articles but also interestingly poetry, Islamic and tribal law and iconography) and especially to compare the histories of North and South Yemen and confront Ottoman archives with reports published by British colonial institutions are obvious and impressive assets. In doing this, the book manages to bridge not only sub‑disciplinary gaps but also spaces between two sub‑area studies, between academic culture that somehow have over time developed as separate entities with one, influenced either by British colonial heritage or the socialist state, focusing on Aden and its hinterland; and a second, often fascinated by tribal structures, interested in the highlands of the North. As a result of this knowledge gap, there have not been many opportunities to compare both historical trajectories of North and South Yemen, particularly in such a balanced way as in this book. John Willis equally and successively deals with the imamate and the Protectorate (chapters 1, 2, 3 on the South and 4 and 5 on the North, with chapter 6 looking at the relations between both entities). In carrying out this history of “greater Yemen”, the author is likely to foster new insights on the contemporary situation in Yemen, in particular on the Southern movement (al‑ḥirāk al‑janūbī) that contests the legitimacy of a unified Yemen. One would probably have appreciated if the author, even only briefly and in the conclusion, had told us more explicitly how his own analysis is meaningful to understanding the roots and background of such popular contestation of the national project.

4The book’s thesis, not necessarily original in its formulation but nevertheless convincing in the arguments used by the author, is that historical outcomes are far from being written in advance and are contingent on the way spaces are constructed, ordered and disciplined through power relations. As such (and it is an important contribution to the knowledge of Yemen, including to the most contemporary debates), it shows just how much Yemen's borders, the shape of its institutions and its self‑identification as an Arab society —that legitimately engages firstly with other Arab countries and the Gulf monarchies rather than with Asia and Africa— were far from automatic considering the complex interplays that existed around a century ago. If the introduction and the conclusion nicely set the theoretical implications of the book's thesis, the rest of the volume appears at times as a kind of “patchwork” and lacks some clarity as to what a specific example or even a chapter brings to the overall argument. The information that appears is evidently precise and rests upon original material but the text is at times a little too dense, trying to provide several viewpoints and research themes for the book's rationale to really stand out, consequently giving it an almost “encyclopedic touch”. Although a pleasant read, it is by all standards not always easy to follow and requires from the reader significant background knowledge of Yemeni history, its geography, its tribes and its customs.

5Through analysis of the institutional connections and minute administrative decisions by the British colonial empire that had Aden undergo a process of “Indianization” (p. 34), the book shows, on the one hand, to what extent South Yemen was actually part of a much larger entity. On the other hand, the book analyses how tribal fragmentation, as well as the complex interactions between the colonial power and local actors favored the development of (ever changing) internal borders that jeopardized prospects for future centralization. This is particularly clear in the case of the “nine tribes” of the South, which to a certain extent saw their role institutionalized by the British, becoming a “social, political and historical construct” (p. 24) and through “landscape aesthetic” (p. 79) that re‑mapped whole areas and disconnected them from any context (p. 97).

6The main argument of the book further contradicts the way the Northern Zaydi imamate is generally portrayed. Amongst others, Republican rulers since the 1962 revolution but also a number of foreign travelers have constructed the imamate as a political system suffering from self‑inflicted isolation. Such a picture has only seldom been seriously contested by academics. Building on a set of archives as well as original and unpublished biographies of the Imām Yaḥyā Ḥamīd al‑Dīn, Unmaking North and South brings to life the vivid discussions on nationalism or Islamic reform that were happening in Sana'a much like in Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus or Bagdad. Centralization of the state and reform of the army (p. 122) were for example direct effects of Ottoman influences. John Willis interestingly shows how “Imām Yaḥyā placed himself and Yemen at the heart of a resurgent Islamic world (p. 139)”. He highlights the connections between the imamate and what he calls the “Salafi movement” ; yet this label can be misleading for many readers – for example when he refers to the Druze reformist leader Shakīb Arslān as a “Salafi activist (p. 161)” – in particular since John Willis falls short of mentioning precisely how he defines Salafism. He then analyzes how Imām Yaḥyā was involved during the 1920s in an effort to downplay sectarian differences, in particular between Zaydism and the various Sunni madhhab‑s (p. 143) as part of a national project and most interestingly also as part of a “greater trans‑regional project of Islamic unity and anti‑imperial activism (p. 148)”. In parallel, Imām Yaḥyā was engaging with Western powers, in particular Italy (at the time a regional power in Eastern Africa and therefore an important actor for Yemen). Such relationships explained to a certain extent the institutional shift of the imamate and why it changed its name, referring to itself as a kingdom: “government in the 1920s and 1930s restructured to conform to the representation of the modern, rationally organized state (p. 161).”

7By looking at the long‑lasting conflict between the imamate and the British protectorate between 1918 and 1936, the final chapter highlights how fighting and tensions actually created “an interstitial political space between the North and South that was not fully part of the Imām’s “domain of obedience” or of the British Aden Protectorate (p. 171)”. Through creating interactions, although at times violent ones such as during the Imām’s decade‑long occupation of Ḍali‘ starting in 1919 (p. 179), the conflict forced the British to reform the way they managed the Protectorate and later to engage in repression of the Southern tribes siding with the Imām. Violence (in the shape of air bombardments), as well as their failure to bring proper support to their allies then delegitimized the British claim to being trustworthy protectors and paved the way to further contestation.

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Laurent Bonnefoy, « John M. Willis, Unmaking North and South: Cartographies of the Yemeni Past  », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2013, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Bonnefoy


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