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In Focus n° 3: Sana’a and Rapid Urbanization in some Short Stories by Muḥammad al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān 

Focus n° 3 : Sanaa et son urbanisation rapide dans quelques nouvelles de Muḥammad al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān 
Patrizia Zanelli


Cet article présente une sélection de nouvelles de l'écrivain yéménite Muḥammad al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān, et en tire des illustrations informatives sur la société yéménite de Sanaa au seuil du 21e siècle. L’auteur met en relief les aspects nouveaux d’une métropole en expansion ainsi que les conséquences de l’urbanisation rapide, comme la pollution de l'air, la détérioration du paysage, et, surtout, les cassures sociales provoquées par la migration campagne-ville. Associée à la ségrégation de genre et de race, établie de longue date, la disparition récente des réseaux familiaux et communautaires traditionnels conduit à la solitude dans une ville pourtant très peuplée: c'est ce paradoxe que ‘Amrān souligne dans la plupart de ses nouvelles. Dans d’autres, il se concentre sur la pauvreté, et en particulier sur l’extrême pauvreté, en montrant comment les inégalités socio-économiques ont augmenté au Yémen avec la libéralisation de l'économie.

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  • 1 World Bank, 2000, p. 1‑2, 4‑5.

1Rapid urbanization has been a major topic of postmodern Arabic fiction. Many works have focused on this phenomenon that occurred in different ways within the Arab world according to the kind of development each country or group of countries witnessed. The most impressive narrative on this subject is definitely “Mudun al‑Milḥ” (“Cities of Salt”), a quintet of novels by the eminent Saudi writer ‘Abd al‑Raḥmān Munīf (1933–2003) describing the transformation of the Arabian Peninsula after oil discoveries and published in the 1980s. Among the peninsular States, Yemen is clearly a distinct case owing not only to its millenary urban history but also to its long standing weak economy. There has in fact been little economic change since the unification of the two former Yemeni States in 1990. In today’s Republic of Yemen, poverty rates continue to be slightly higher in rural areas where most Yemenis still reside, although they are becoming more urbanized — at least at a much higher pace than any other Arab population. Such a rapid urbanization dates to the 1970’s and was fuelled by a combination of high rates of natural increase, rural‑urban migration and large remittances. It grew further in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War when hundreds of thousands of expatriate migrants returned upon being expelled from Saudi Arabia and other wealthy peninsular States. In 1998, 34 % of Yemenis lived in cities, with Sana’a alone accounting for 28 % of urban residents — i.e. about 1.5 million inhabitants — as it was the main destination of internal migrants seeking better employment opportunities as well as educational and health facilities 1.

  • 2 Amrān, who is also a literary critic, is the President of the Yemeni Short Story Association “al‑M (...)

2Although it hosts almost half of the hotels and around 25 % of the industrial establishments in Yemen, Sana’a also has the highest concentration of poor people in a country where urbanization and population growth rates have remained steady since the 1990s, when many of today’s most famous Yemeni writers started to publish their works. One of these authors is Muḥammad al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān2, born in 1958 in a village in the Governorate of Dhamār but who has often resided in Sana’a throughout his career. In 2001, the writer published his third collection, “Ḥarīm A‘azzakum Allāh” (“Women, Excuse the Term”), that includes the short stories presented in this brief article focusing on the interconnected themes of these tales, namely the combination of old and new problems affecting life in Sana’a on the threshold of the 21st century. Within these literary texts, ‘Amrān — who has a master’s degree in history — illustrates the transformation of the Yemeni capital into a modern metropolis, using symbolism, paradox and surrealism to highlight the social implications of such an extraordinary change. The purpose of this article is to explain the new image of Sana’a emerging from these short stories which clearly mirror the author’s experience as a migrant as well as his political commitment. ‘Amrān is actually also a politician: he has served as a Member of Parliament and as the deputy mayor of Sana’a, he currently is the President of the Centre of Dialogue for the Development of Human Rights Culture (Markaz al‑Ḥiwār li‑Tanmiyyat Thaqāfat Ḥuqūq al‑Insān) based in Dhamār. It is precisely in the light of the author’s political vocation that his tales on existential and social malaise in modern Sana’a can be considered as samples of how Yemeni writers tend to view the city.

A focus on the modern metropolis

  • 3 Assamiee, 2008.

3In the tales set in Sana’a, ‘Amrān conveys a rejection of the most oppressive elements of tradition and implicitly a strong demand for modernization, while also denouncing the negative aspects of modernity, such as air pollution, disturbing landscape alteration, social fragmentation and individual isolation in urban contexts. The author actually does not ever describe the Yemeni capital’s ancient centre, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984. He only depicts recent features of a city that has grown in all directions beyond its original core, now encircled by a huge ring road. Construction and infrastructure development was accelerated in the 1990s, giving historical Sana’a a facelift and transforming the Yemeni capital into a modern metropolis. New buildings, towers, roads, tunnels and bridges started eating up the surrounding rural and mountain landscapes. Moreover, along with continuous population growth, heavy car traffic and considerable industrial activities, the extensive construction work is one of the factors that have led to alarming levels of environmental pollution, logically entailing an increase in respiratory diseases among the people3.

4Within a text, ‘Amrān may offer data regarding space specifically to tell when the story takes place and therefore to show the interaction between a character and a place in a particular historical phase. That is why he usually only refers to recent elements of Sana’a, and to its ring road as the most powerful symbol of the city’s transformation. However, in a few texts, the author tries to achieve the same goal by simply mentioning a date, as he does in “Laʻba Rīfiyya” (“Country Game”) which highlights the contrast between the traditional cohesiveness of rural communities and the fragmentation of modern urban societies. In the beginning of the tale, in fact, the narrator describes a poor boy who lives in a village and loves animals, believing that they are full members of the villagers’ families and therefore an integrated part of the community as well. When he migrates to Sana’a with some of his kin in 2000, he feels literally shocked upon noticing that there are two kinds of groups in the city. One is formed by stray dogs, sheep, children and the insane that always live in the streets within huge families. The other one is fragmented, being made up of small families that appear incomplete to him as they don’t have animals. Tightening circumstances eventually force him to go back to his village along with his kin; but once he arrives there, he cannot find his dog, his cow or his bull anymore. He therefore starts to stray in the almost empty streets and alleys to search for other animals to be part of his family. This allegorical tale is clearly meant to show the recent collapse of traditional social bonds in Yemen where, especially in rural areas, the most common family type is patrilocal and extended. Marriages are usually arranged by the families and, according to the customary standard, they are often endogamous, celebrated preferably between parallel cousins. In the latest decades increasing labour migration towards Yemeni cities or abroad has caused the rupture of traditional familial and communal safety nets. In “Laʻba Rīfiyya”, ‘Amrān shows how this new situation is especially threatening for weaker sections of society in urban areas. Moreover, through the story’s main character, the author seems to express nostalgia for a presumably vanishing world, i.e. the one of his own village, as it used to be when he was a child. He describes it in another tale also focused on man’s affection and admiration for animals, symbolising traditional social unity and life in the midst of nature. Nostalgia is of course a typical theme of works on migration, such as “al‑Manzil al‑Qadīm” (“The Old House”) by Zahra Raḥmat Allāh (b. 1954) which is interesting since it basically has the same meaning as some of ‘Amrān’s tales, although the characters are different. In this short story, in fact, the Yemeni authoress depicts an elderly widow who lives all alone in Sana’a. She remembers how she always used to be surrounded by relatives and friends while she was in her village, before her husband decided to take her to the city. Her sons and daughters now live there too with their own families but don’t have time to take care of her because they are totally absorbed by the activities of daily life in the metropolis. Similarly, in “Shurfātuhum” (“Balconies”), Nādya al‑Kawkabānī (b. 1972), portrays a lonely widow watching a crowded street in Aden. Most people are poor and worried, a few are comparatively rich and concentrate on shopping. The people are too busy to notice each other and each person seems trapped in a sort of frenetic whirlpool‑like atmosphere. Several other works representing life in a big city also convey a sense of disorientation and solitude. However, Yemeni authors and authoresses definitely call for a new form of social solidarity. They criticise the custom of combining marriages within familial or clan structures, just as much as they condemn the tribal system on the whole, along with all traditional practices and biases that afflict individuals in general and can hinder an immigrant’s chance to integrate in an urban context. In “Laʻba Rīfiyya”, for example, ‘Amrān describes a literary café in Sana’a, one of the aspects of the city’s cultural life, but he does not fail to stress on the fact that women are not allowed to go to that meeting place.

Lonely bachelors as city dwellers

  • 4 Zanelli, 2010, p. 115.

5Rural migrants are mostly young men who leave their families and their villages, and the characters of various stories included in Ḥarīm A‘azzakum Allāh are lonely bachelors. ‘Amrān emphasizes that in Sana’a bachelorhood is usually not the result of an individual’s free choice, but rather of social fragmentation combined with traditional gender segregation. “Zawāj” (“Marriage”) for example is the story of a young liberal‑minded intellectual who has to leave his flat when asked to do so by the landlord, as he is the only bachelor living in his building and the men of the neighbouring families don’t want him to see their women, even though they are completely veiled. The protagonist therefore moves to an isolated house on the outskirts of Sana’a. His new home seems to be haunted: it is as if an invisible woman were taking care of him like a wife. He sees her only in his night dreams; but in the end he prefers to isolate himself in this imaginary life rather than to put up with the real world that segregated him4. In other words, he ignores the people that ignored him, falling into a vicious circle inevitably resulting in social isolation. Doubtlessly, however, “Zawāj” is chiefly aimed at denouncing gender segregation. Logically, this becomes an obstacle to a bachelor’s possibility to get married or to socialise in a city where he is not part of an established familial or communal structure. Discrimination against women is actually the major topic tackled by ‘Amrān and almost all Yemeni authors. They realise that the 1990 unification has not produced the kind of change they had hoped for, namely that modern ideas prevailing in the South would spread to the conservative North. In fact, the exact opposite has occurred in Yemen, especially after the 1994 civil war linked to the rapid decline of Aden as the country’s economic capital. The clearest evidence of this is that Southern Yemeni women have gradually started to wear veils, which both authoresses and authors present in their works as symbols of seclusion and oppression.

6As already said, ‘Amrān depicts young bachelors in several other stories, such asRajul al‑Dhubāb” (“The Man of the Flies”), which is probably his most impressive narrative on life in modern Sana’a. The main character of the tale is ‘Abduh, a graduate and middle class entrant who lives in a flat facing the city’s ring road, who has no contacts at all with the village he comes from and is not integrated into urban society. His neighbours think he is weird, since no relatives or friends ever pay visits to him; and his office colleagues are cautious of him because he is a very severe and meticulous employee. His loneliness ends once he starts to collect and study flies, after seeing one of them resist the effects of a pesticide. He thus discovers that those generally despised insects are actually useful in our world — like he had always tried to be. He decides to dedicate most of his life to them, so as to protect them and give a meaning to his existence. Abduh’s love and admiration for flies resembles the attitude towards animals on behalf of the boy represented in “La‘ba Rīfiyya”. But “Rajul al‑Dhubāb” also deals with the relationship between modern man and nature in a broader sense. During his weekly holiday, for example, Abduh regularly goes to the mountains, carrying his old and ill flies in a box in order to escape from Sana’a’s polluted air. In the following passage of the tale, the narrator portrays the character’s experience while he is on the top of a height:

  • 5 al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān, 2001, p. 8.

Shortly before sunset he stopped and sat down in order to admire Sana’a. Seen from up there, the city looked like a beautiful fly. A huge fly, in fact, the biggest one in the world! He would have loved to see it take to the air, but it was trapped within the mountains5.”

7What is striking in this segment of the text is that, although the adjective “beautiful” automatically brings to mind old Sana’a, ‘Amrān doesn’t mention any features of that site, even if he is describing a general view of the Yemeni capital. He is so concerned to show how the city has changed that — in the subsequent lines of the same passage — he only indicates some of its new elements, such as a “shining metal building”. This particularly stands in contrast to the natural surroundings, and with the unmentioned ancient centre that actually seems to have disappeared in the midst of the modern metropolis, congested and polluted. Throughout the story however, the narrator often describes ‘Abduh while living with hundreds of flies in his flat, playing with them and caring about them as if they were his kin or fellow villagers. But he ends up devoured by a group of gigantic flies. Likewise, in “Rajul al‑Dhubāb”, besides illustrating some of Sana’a’s environmental problems, ‘Amrān tries to show how alienation can destroy a man rejected by society simply because he is different. This, according to the author’s vision, is linked to the traditional system of values. The country has not witnessed what he perceives as profound cultural transformations indispensable for the emergence of a new scheme of social relationships complying with individual necessities, and demands generated by urbanization and other recent phenomena. The lack of this sort of renovation has greatly depended on the above mentioned hegemony of Northern Yemen, which on the other hand is also one of the reasons why Yemenis from all over the country have kept on moving to Sana’a. The contrast between modernity and tradition is particularly visible in the metropolis, which is seen as a place where individuals would like to fulfil their dreams and need for change, yet are forced to face the challenges of modern life while still having to cope with old forms of injustice and repression.

  • 6 Camera d’Afflitto, 2010, p. 11‑12.

8Moreover, considering ‘Amrān’s narratives, it is necessary to remember that, within contemporary Yemeni and Arabic literature in general, many works on rural‑urban migration are similar to the ones describing expatriate labour migrants or exiles. They are all aimed at rendering the multifaceted concept expressed by the word ghurba: “absence” or “separation from a homeland”, “displacement”, “estrangement” or “alienation”, and so on6. In other terms, from rural immigrants’ point of view, a city in their own country can almost seem to be a foreign state. ‘Amrān himself emigrated to Saudi Arabia as a young man; and this past experience abroad makes his representation of al‑ghurba in tales concerning immigration in Sana’a particularly indicative of the need to establish a new culture based on the acceptance and respect of otherness.

Marginality and racism

9The central topic of “Rajul al‑Dhubāb” is diversity which ‘Amrān also tackles in “Kāʼināt Ṣan‘ā’” (“Creatures of Sana’a”). Here however, the young protagonist is physically different from anyone else: he was born without an arm and has thick hair growing all over his face and body. Repudiated by his family, he leaves his town and goes to Sana’a, where everyone also rejects him. Like other poor immigrants, he finds shelter behind the walls of the old cemetery of Khazīma, where he sleeps in the narrow space between two graves. During the day, he begs for alms in the streets of the metropolis. The only person that he manages to engage in a conversation is a young woman, a beggar who dwells in the cemetery during the night like he does. She was rejected by her community after having endured various forms of violence and gender discrimination. She is completely veiled and hides her hands, inducing the boy to suppose that she has dark skin and does not want to be discriminated against. In fact, Black Yemenis are a marginalized group in their own country where they are indicated with the Arabic word khādim meaning “servant”; and, significantly, they usually live in slums on the outskirts of cities and villages. Amrān specifically deals with racism in “Shahwān” (“Sensual”), where he describes a black rural migrant who lives on the outskirts of Sana’a. Even in this tale the author represents solitude, a paradox in such a populous city.

  • 7 al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān, 2001, p. 92.

“Here you are, all alone, with no family or kin, only a khādim. While you walk around nobody seems to notice you — and that’s what you want — but children stop playing to stare at you and then run away from you because of your colour7.”

  • 8 Yemen Times, 15/03/2009.
  • 9 Cities Alliance, 2010, p. 6.
  • 10 Yemen Streetkid News, 08/07/2008.

10Amrān also deals with some of the issues already mentioned in this article in “Laylat al‑Qadr” (“The Night of Decree”), although it specifically focuses on beggary. The tale’s title is the name of the most important Muslim feast, celebrated between the 26th and the 27th of the holy month of Ramadan. The story takes place on a Night of Decree when a fourteen year‑old dark‑skinned girl moves among the cars stuck in a traffic jam, while she begs for alms at an intersection of Sana’a’s ring road. As she stops next to a luxurious German‑made automobile, the driver ignores her; but the fat old owner of the vehicle invites her to get closer to him. Once she obeys, he manages to pull her into the car through the window. He fondles her, gives her a handful of coins, lets her go out and then grabs his rosary uttering some religious formulae. The girl immediately runs towards two other beggars, a crippled woman and a black boy, who are on the traffic island. The story shows the dangers that street people, and especially children, are exposed to, while suggesting that charity is not a solution to poverty, often merely a hypocritical act performed by many ostentatiously pious people. Besides, in “Laylat al‑Qadr”, ‘Amrān emphasizes that free market economy — symbolized by the imported car — is causing growing socio‑economic inequalities. This has actually been confirmed by the results of a research conducted at Sana’a University, included in a 2009 article on beggary escalating during Ramadan. This study states that Yemen has rising numbers of “seasonal beggars who are members of the disappearing middle class, whose fortunes have deteriorated in recent years due to low income and the devaluation of the local currency”8. Of course, such a problem is impressive in the most populous Yemeni cities. As already said, urbanization rates have remained high in the country: by now, Sana’a has over 2.5 million residents and its inhabitants are expected to be around 3.8 million by 20249. Meanwhile, the number of street children has also been escalating in Yemen during the last decade. Migration, family disintegration, lack of social services and abandonment of support for the poor by the state are only some of the reasons for this growing phenomenon, according to a Yemeni government study. Moreover, around 60 % of the street children in Yemen are separated from their families, since they have moved from their home governorates to get to a big city10.


  • 11 Sibillo, 2010, p. 152‑154.
  • 12 al‑Šābiī, 2006.
  • 13 Shamsān, 2006.

11The tales considered in this article paint a very gloomy picture of life in Sana’a contrasting with the green and refined town portrayed in 18th and 19th century Yemeni poetry. In addition, the new image of the city presented by ‘Amrān is definitely different from the one celebrated by ‘Abd al‑‘Azīz al‑Maqāliḥ (1937) in poems such as those included in Kitāb Ṣan‘ā’(The Book of Sana’a), published in the year 2000, although, within his oeuvre, this pioneering poet at times conveys a tearing inner tension between the reminiscence of a flourishing past and the awareness of a painful present11. Disillusion and frustration are, in fact, feelings that have gradually spread among Yemeni intellectuals since the second half of the 1990s. As already pointed out, unification has not at all entailed the kind of change they had originally hoped for and have relentlessly been fostering both through literature and other activities carried out within numerous old and new cultural associations. In particular, ‘Amrān has been described as a provocative writer, calling for progress by stressing on defects and contradictions, on cruelty and falseness12, and tending to highlight “the ugliest aspects of reality in order to cure ugliness”13. In fact, in his fiction as well as in his political activism, the author mostly promotes a new culture aimed at building a society based on the respect of human rights and of the environment.

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Assamiee M., “The New Face of Sana’a”, Yemen Times, 01/12/2008,

Cities Alliance, Sana’a: a City Development Strategy, 2010,‑5‑09.pdf

Camera d’Afflitto I., “La narrativa yemenita tra rivendicazioni politico‑sociali e avanguardia letteraria”, Camera d’Afflitto (ed.), Lo Yemen raccontato dagli scrittori e dalle scrittrici, Roma, Orientalia, 2010, p. 11‑22.

Shamsān Hishām Saʻīd, “al‑Ğins wa‑l‑dīn fī tağribat al‑Gharbī ʻAmrān”, al‑Mu’tamar, 10/04/2006,

al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān Muḥammad, Ḥarīm A‘azzakum Allāh, Cairo, Markaz al‑Ḥaḍāra al‑ʻArabiyya, 2001.

al‑Shābiī Sāmī, “al‑Gharbī ʻAmrān: ʻišrūn ʻām min al‑kitāba wa‑l‑ibdāʻ”, 22 Mā, 24/11/2006,

Sibillo S., “Gli sviluppi della poesia contemporanea in Yemen: dagli anni ’40 ai nostri giorni”, Camera d’Afflitto (ed.), Lo Yemen raccontato dagli scrittori e dalle scrittrici, Roma, Orientalia, 2010, p. 135‑57.

World Bank, Comprehensive Development Review, Yemen: Building Block on Urbanization, 2000,‑Urban.pdf .

Yemen Streetkid News, “Yemen: New study highlights plight of street children”, 08/07/2008,‑streetkid‑news/yemen‑streetkid‑news/

Yemen Times Report, “Ramadan: seasonal beggars, seasonal charity”, Sana’a, 15/03/2009,‑a0195593861

Zanelli P., “Donne e sogni nelle narrazioni di Muḥammad al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān”, Camera d’Afflitto (ed.), Lo Yemen raccontato dagli scrittori e dalle scrittrici, Roma, Orientalia, 2010, p. 109‑118.

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1 World Bank, 2000, p. 1‑2, 4‑5.

2 Amrān, who is also a literary critic, is the President of the Yemeni Short Story Association “al‑Maqah” and a leading member of the Federation of Yemeni Writers. In February 2012, he was awarded Khartoum’s “al‑Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ Prize for Creative Writing” for his 2011 novel, “Ḍulma” (“Darkness”).

3 Assamiee, 2008.

4 Zanelli, 2010, p. 115.

5 al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān, 2001, p. 8.

6 Camera d’Afflitto, 2010, p. 11‑12.

7 al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān, 2001, p. 92.

8 Yemen Times, 15/03/2009.

9 Cities Alliance, 2010, p. 6.

10 Yemen Streetkid News, 08/07/2008.

11 Sibillo, 2010, p. 152‑154.

12 al‑Šābiī, 2006.

13 Shamsān, 2006.

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Patrizia Zanelli, « In Focus n° 3: Sana’a and Rapid Urbanization in some Short Stories by Muḥammad al‑Gharbī ‘Amrān  », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2013, consulté le 21 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.2611

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Patrizia Zanelli

Ca' Foscari University in Venice

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