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Isa Blumi, Chaos in Yemen: Societal Collapse and the New Authoritarianism

New York, Routledge, 2011, 208 pages
John M. Willis
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Chaos in Yemen: Societal Collapse and the New Authoritarianism / Isa Blumi .- New York, Routledge, 2011 .- 208 p.

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1Isa Blumi’s Chaos in Yemen is a timely addition to the growing literature on Yemen’s modern history and the historical process of Yemeni state formation. Framed as both critical intervention and unapologetic polemic, the book offers a spirited, though often frustrating, take on the methodological concerns of both scholars and policy analysts working on Yemen. Through the course of the book, the author attempts to articulate a framework for the study of Yemen that “avoids a totalizing knowledge of the Middle East that is supposedly objective but in fact operates within the confines of a rigid Eurocentric perspective” (p. 6). In doing so, the author castigates a largely unidentified group of scholars and policy-makers for “lazy thinking” (p. 9), the reliance on “cultural essentialism” (p. 20), and the “reification of categories such as tribe, and sectarian and confessional allegiances” (p. 23).

2His goal in part is to illuminate the contingent process of state formation through a broad historical comparison between Yemen under Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries and the regime of ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ from 1990 to the present. His method is to highlight the multiple ways in which communities at the micro-level engage the totalizing practices of the state, as well as asserting the power of communities to affect broader state policy and practical governance.

3The book is divided into five chapters. The first sets out the conceptual framework for the book, arguing that the analysis of local and micro-political exchanges reveal the limits of the taxonomic practices of both the modern state and the modern social sciences. The next three chapters are primarily historical in nature, drawing on a number of examples from late Ottoman Yemen to illustrate the extent to which local communities both contested and reshaped state policy (his diverse set of case studies include the rise of the Idrīsī state in ‘Asīr, the delimitation of political boundaries, and the current state’s war against the Ḥuthī-s in Ṣa‘da). While these chapters suggest parallels with the formation of the modern Yemeni state post-unification, it is primarily in the final chapter that Blumi directs his attention to the particular form ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ’s state has taken since unification in 1990, one that he finds increasingly rooted in the use of state violence and the cultivation of political chaos to effect its will.

4The primary virtue of this work is the urgency of its analysis and the stridency of its critique of state power and the analytical models according to which scholars have studied Yemeni society and politics. This approach also suggests its major weakness. In formulating an overly broad critique of scholarship on Yemen that lumps together scholars and policy makers, most of whom remain unnamed, one is left wondering exactly who has adopted the “cultural essentialist” views which Blumi claims have dominated the study of Yemen. At other places, his representation of the views of particular scholars approaches caricature. It is difficult to understand the basis of his claim that Shelagh Weir’s deeply complex analysis of customary law in Razih is based on “decidedly retrograde translations of colonial-era terms” (p. 24). Just as peculiar is Blumi’s reference to the anthropologist Paul Dresch as representative of “British ethnographers working for empire” (p. 25) or his criticism of the work of linguistic anthropologist Steven Caton as reifying “categories such as tribe, and sectarian, and confessional group allegiances” (p. 23). This type of haphazard criticism is ultimately detrimental to his broader analytical (and political) goals and weakens the book overall. But there are two greater issues that deserve attention.

5The first issue is conceptual. The author contends that his primary purpose is to formulate a historically and contextually sensitive framework for understanding Yemen’s past and present as a mode of critiquing “sociological clichés” (p. 94) and “imperial epistemologies” (p. 14). The principal target of criticism is the concept of “tribe,” arguably at the center of many anthropological and political analyses of modern Yemen. Blumi’s position is a familiar one for those acquainted with the thesis of Ranger and Hobsbawm in their earlier Invented Traditions (1983). For him, the analytical categories of sectarian, communal, and tribal identity are products of a Western epistemology tied to imperial power, which do little but obfuscate the site of “real” politics.

6He argues for “replacing the term ‘tribe’ but with the more fluid concept of a community — political, economic and social — whose composition by individuals is contingent to constantly shifting conditions in the immediate area where people live” (p. 24). That is, for Blumi it is the micro-political subsumed under the vaguely-defined category of the “local” that is most important. This is not a new argument in and of itself, but recalls the work of the early generation of cultural historians influenced by the work of E. P. Thompson or even the early Subaltern Studies collective in which “community” was taken as the site of authentic practice. In this work, however, local practice is structured by “interest,” by which the author means material interests embodied in commerce, forms of land tenure (although the author provides only fleeting data on either), and alliance building. From this perspective, the author’s work departs from the earlier model of cultural history, and his implicit adoption of the analytical language of the rational actor is reflected in the often cumbersome terminology of “stakeholders,” “power holders,” “regional actors,” and “clusters of interest.” While these categories may have the virtue of avoiding reference to tribe and sect, they also suggest the very same universalist social scientific language the author claims to reject. Indeed, by reducing subaltern agency to the ability to maximize material gain or effect alliances based on mutual interest, the author displays little of the careful attention to the rich social and cultural worlds of his subjects that characterized the work of the earlier generation of cultural historians, subaltern historians, or historians of mentalité.

7The second issue with the book is primarily methodological. A quick perusal of the book’s bibliography shows the great efforts of the author in working through the collections of numerous archives in Europe and the Middle East, yet one finds in the text itself little evidence of this work. The author has a habit of asserting claims rather than demonstrating them on the basis of evidence. While references to archival files abound in the footnotes, one is left to wonder what data is to be found in them and how it might support the author’s argument. The author’s methods are especially curious since his argument hinges on the reclamation of the “agency” of the Yemeni “locals” that sit at the heart of his study. Indeed the voices of the reputed subjects of the book are largely silent, especially in comparison to the micro-historical work of Isaac Hollander or the thick historical-ethnography of Shelagh Weir, Paul Dresch, Brinkley Messick, and Engseng Ho.

8Moreover, the author’s occasional use of short case studies is often characterized by a somewhat casual attention to detail and interpretation. Two examples will suffice. In Chapter 3, Blumi describes what he calls the “Abu Ras incident of 1917” as a means of demonstrating how diverse and contingent political alliances crossed assumed divisions of sectarian identity. In this case, he argues that the execution by the Ottoman state of an unnamed member of the Abū Ra’s family of Dhū Muḥammad and the inability of Imam Yahya to intervene to prevent the execution of a member of his “community” was indicative of the general weakness of his rule. It is mildly disconcerting that the author did not find it necessary to indicate the full name of Ḥasan b. Qā’id Abū Ra’s, but there are other issues of interpretative importance. First, it is unclear which scholars have asserted the autonomous power of the imamate at this time, important information since this is the notion Blumi means to correct. Certainly, no scholar of the imamate, to my knowledge, has ever suggested that it was based on anything but contextually specific alliances, so it is unclear how this episode, as Blumi presents it, significantly changes our understanding of the Mutawakkilite imamate.

  • 1 Muḥammad b. Muḥammad Zabbāra, A’immat al-Yaman bi-l-Qarn al-Rabi‘ ‘Ashar: Sīrat al-Fātiḥ al-Shahīd, (...)

9Second, we are not told why Ḥasan b. Qā’id was executed or what political function the execution played. Nothing is mentioned about the unfortunate shaykh’s political position or even about the standing of “Bayt” Abū Ra’s as major landholders (and immigrants or “nuqala’”) in the Yemeni south since the eighteenth century. Contextual detail of this nature would have been helpful in light of the author’s goal of illuminating the history of “community,” but it simply is not presented. Finally, there are serious issues with Blumi’s presentation of the details of the episode itself. If we are to believe the account of Yemeni historian Muḥammad Zabbāra, Ḥasan b. Qā’id’s family, far from being angered by the imam’s supposed indifference, approached Imam Yaḥyā to decide the case according to the sharia, which the imam did, awarding the family a hefty amount in blood money (diya).1 While Blumi is under no obligation to accept Zabbara’s version of events, no detail is given from his sources that suggest why his reading is plausible.

10We find a similarly problematic reading in Chapter 4, in which the author uses the work of the Anglo-Turkish Boundary Commission (1902–1905) to suggest the contested nature of boundary-making as part of the formation of the modern state. First, the map used during the Commission’s work was not produced in the 1880s as the author suggests, but was produced as part of the first survey of the Aden Protectorate conducted in 1891–1892 by the very same R. A. Wahab who later led the work of the Boundary Commission. Moreover, Blumi argues that the maps themselves “were outdated and ambiguous, considering all that had happened among local communities since the 1880s” (p. 102). This is untrue since the map produced by Wahab showed no political boundaries, but merely the placement of the surrounding communities, which in fact had not changed at all in this time. The primary concern was to establish the limits of the Amir of Ḑāli‘’s sovereignty (however defined) and to draw a boundary which adequately reflected this. It was the definition of sovereignty that bedeviled the Boundary Commission, not the map itself.

  • 2 This debate is covered in IOR R/20/E234, which also includes copies of Wahab’s map (with the propos (...)

11The author similarly misrepresents Wahab’s later accusation that the Indian Office had “misinterpreted” his map. This was not an admission that, in the author’s words, the “British needed to investigate ‘actual circumstances’ on the ground,” (p. 103) but recognition of a much more mundane cartographic reality: the India Office insisted on using the shaded elevations on the map as a practical boundary rather than tribal affiliation, which was Wahab’s position.2 Moreover, the author missed an opportunity to speak in greater depth about the borderland communities by not discussing the contested notions of sovereignty (based on variegated rights to revenue extraction) that arose as both the British and Ottoman commissions established their respective cases. The records of the Boundary Commission, which the author consulted, are replete with details on the historical formation of the Emirate of Ḑāli‘, reproductions of local documents of investiture, and numerous accounts of competing political claims (by the Amir of Ḑāli‘, the Sha‘irī tribe, the Zanādina shaykhs of Jabal Jaḥḥāf, etc.). This material would seemingly support the author’s stated goal of recovering the dynamic of local politics, but is not discussed.

12Finally, the work is marked by an inattention to detail in nomenclature, geography, and transliteration. A few examples (from many) will suffice: “Huth” is described as a tribe rather than a town (p. 23). The Ḥujariyya is incorrectly described as the “Aden highlands” (p. 94). The honorific title, Ṣayf al-Islām, taken by all of Imam Yahya’s sons, is cited as a proper name (p. 87). ‘Abd al-Majīd al-Zindānī’s Imān University is referred to as “Imam University” (p. 81). The Shabāb al-Mu’minīn (“Believing Youth”) are referred to as the “Shabab al-Mua’min” (p. 106). The Saudi government is also said to have renounced a treaty with Yemen in 1960 “in reaction to Imam Yaḥyā’s desperate attempt to accommodate shifting dynamics within his country,” (p. 108) despite the fact that Imam Yaḥyā was assassinated in 1948. The ruling party, al-Mu’tamar al-Sha‘bī al-‘Āmm (“General People’s Congress”), is incorrectly transliterated as “al-Mu‘tammar al-Sha‘abi al-‘Am” (p. 121).

13In short, while Chaos in Yemen is admirable in its stated goals and in the urgency of its critique, the work falls short in execution. A conceptual framework more attentive to the field of cultural and subaltern history (and the critical responses to these) and a methodology focused on demonstrating arguments through deft use of evidence would have made this a much more successful book.

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1 Muḥammad b. Muḥammad Zabbāra, A’immat al-Yaman bi-l-Qarn al-Rabi‘ ‘Ashar: Sīrat al-Fātiḥ al-Shahīd, Cairo, al-Maṭba‘a al-Salafiyya, 1956, vol. I, p. 353.

2 This debate is covered in IOR R/20/E234, which also includes copies of Wahab’s map (with the proposed boundaries of the India Office, R. A. Wahab, and the Ottoman commissioners).

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John M. Willis, « Isa Blumi, Chaos in Yemen: Societal Collapse and the New Authoritarianism », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 3 | 2014, mis en ligne le 09 octobre 2014, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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John M. Willis

University of Colorado

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