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Gabriele Vom Bruck, Mirrored Loss. A Yemeni Woman’s Life Story

London, Hurst & Co, 2018, 289 pages
Laurent Bonnefoy
Référence(s) :

Mirrored Loss. A Yemeni Woman’s Life Story / Gabriele Vom Bruck.- London: Hurst & Co, 2018, 289 p.

Texte intégral

1Gabriele Vom Bruck has long been a remarkable analyst of social dynamics within Zaydi Hashemite families in Yemen. Her previous volume Islam, Memory and Morality in Yemen. Ruling Families in Transition, published in 2005, remains a reference in social anthropology. It is also a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the roots of the development of the Huthi phenomenon over the last fifteen years which, by and large, builds on the frustrations of the disenfranchised former ruling class made up of those families who had provided imams for a millennium and claim to descend from Prophet Muhammad. In her book, she had in particular focused on the way that Zaydi Hashemites, generally labelled sāda (sing. sayyid), had reinvested their social, political and religious capital to form a new generation of professors, engineers, doctors and bureaucrats following the republican revolution of September 26, 1962 in North Yemen.

2In her new monograph Gabriele Vom Bruck, senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, delves into the intimacy of a specific Hashemite family. Mirrored Loss. A Yemeni Woman’s Life Story is the (auto)biography of Amat al-Latif al-Wazir, only daughter of a central figure of Yemen’s constitutional movement, Abdallah al-Wazir, once a rival to the last imams of Yemen, the Hamid al-Din, and killed by them after an unsuccessful uprising in 1948. Through this character, Vom Bruck focuses in particular on the way women of the Yemeni “aristocracy” have dealt with profound changes in their country and in their lives. She also proposes interesting reflections on the importance of the biographical genre in Yemen, mainly masculine and political but which also, increasingly, deals with women and their family’s daily lives, giving birth to various counter-narratives.

3Vom Bruck sheds a new and fascinating light on a history that had, till now, almost exclusively been narrated through the eyes of male characters, either by western or Yemeni scholars, or in the form of memoirs published by decision makers. Amat al-Latif was born circa 1930, losing her mother when she was a toddler and then her father and first husband quasi-simultaneously as she entered adulthood, after they were both condemned to death for treason. Her house was then demolished as retaliation, becoming “a metaphor for the destruction of her world” (p. 91). She later remarried and moved out of Yemen in 1960, living in exile in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United States, while occasionally returning to Yemen after 1969 and the end of the civil war. Through her life story, Gabriele Vom Bruck tries to answer the following question: “What questions and struggles come to the fore when one shifts one’s gaze from men’s heroic political narratives to the struggles of women who had been entitled and accustomed to their support and protection?” (p. 5)

4Access to Amat al-Latif for repeated interviews and observation was surely a challenging task and it took years to gain the required trust, a dynamic that is made explicit in the lengthy introduction and revisited in an interesting epilogue titled “Reflections on gender, subjectivity and power”. The process of writing the biographical narrative of this “Yemeni woman” builds on ample comparative examples from Armenia, Pakistan, Palestine, Taiwan and France. Throughout the book, the author apparently remains true to the commitments she made to sayyida Amat al-Latif and her relatives not to disclose certain information deemed sensitive by them or that could generate shame for her family. This ethical promise is in itself an interesting aspect of the book: the usual anonymization procedures are insufficient, since the biography deals with historical characters. This is even more true as many of them, although they operated in the background, are alive at the time of publishing. It is thus only to be expected that the publication may well generate criticism from people within the family, or from their past rivals, who likely feel that the historical narrative put forward by Gabriele Vom Bruck does little justice to them. As the author rightly claims: “Memory here imposes a moral judgement onto historical events that remain controversial.” (p. 157)

5While the book obviously reveals Vom Bruck’s sympathy for her subject, this should not be seen as a drawback because it brings warmth and detail. Affect is thus explicitly made a part of analysis, turning the book into a lively read. It would have been interesting to see how, and by whom, the historical narrative of events in 1948 that is delivered by the central character might still be one that is contested: does it ever contradict the work published by historians of the period? How does one deal with the contradictions of a discourse, and yet remain respectful of the commitment made to the family?

6Amat al-Latif al-Wazir’s dramatic life, encountering violence in a patriarchic society, is at times tear-jerking. However, the book never fails to enrich our understanding of a historical context that is little known beyond Yemenis and a few academics. The photographic documents, as well as the lengthy appendixes providing translations of documents on other historic characters linked to Amat al-Latif (including her father), are precious testimonies of a fascinating phase of the history of the Arabian Peninsula. While the main character is a victim of decisions made by men (to rebel, to destroy or to remarry), her agency is brilliantly highlighted by Gabriele Vom Bruck. As such, the book is a most convincing testimony of the importance of (counter-)narratives for oneself as much as for social scientists: “By offering her life story, Amat al-Latif wants to rescue her past from anonymity.” (p. 14)

7The book is full of scholarly references. Much like in other cases, it is a pity that the publisher has used endnotes rather than footnotes; the additional information in these is very rich. It remains fundamental to a balanced understanding of the narrative told, and should consequently have been made readily accessible to the reader. To put it bluntly, the habit of putting these at the end of an academic book like this is close to absurd.

8On a more general note, the writing of scholarly biographies is an interesting contribution to the collective reflection that is currently carried out regarding access to the field in the Arab world. Due to insecurity as much as to authoritarian regimes that constrain fieldwork or even make it impossible, the biographical point of entry through more or less prominent historical actors can indeed be considered a fruitful one, providing a way indirectly to touch upon meaningful political, religious and social dynamics through life stories and intimacy. As such, the methodological issues that are raised throughout the book will be seen as relevant by many academics, favoring comparison.

9The focus of Amat al-Latif’s biographical recollections on the violent episodes of 1948 also encourages reflections on the narratives on the current war in Yemen. Gabriele Vom Bruck highlights how the children of Amat al-Latif told her how their mother’s memory had evolved through time, putting more and more emphasis on drama after having been mostly concerned with daily life. Since 2015, debate over the emphasis put on humanitarian catastrophes and on warfare carried out by power-greedy armed men has risen among Yemeni intellectuals. Some of them, like Atiaf al-Wazir or writers publishing in al-Madaniya online magazine, have pro-actively wanted to show how art, creativity and even cultural heritage need to be valued as forms of much-needed resistance in the face of adversity. In their eyes, projecting an image of Yemen as a victim has its limitations, ones that have a political as well as an intimate and educational resonance.

10Gabriele Vom Bruck is very convincing when she highlights the value of looking at political events through the eyes of Amat al-Latif, a character whose multiple positions are original — as a woman, as a victim of masculine domination, as a member of the elite, and also as someone who lived in exile — and have unfortunately often been disregarded. A question however remains unanswered: what filters and biases are generated by the language of publication and the fact that, as a European academic, Gabriele Vom Bruck is an outsider (albeit a well-informed one!) to Yemeni politics and history? Would an Arabic translation of the book even be possible? Had the book been designed for the Yemeni market, what would it have entailed when it comes to Amat al-Latif’s narrative and subjectivity? Rather than being mere signs of limitations or critiques, these questions testify to just how much Mirrored Loss is a thought-provoking monograph that should rightly generate interest well beyond the community of social scientists focusing on Yemen.

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Référence électronique

Laurent Bonnefoy, « Gabriele Vom Bruck, Mirrored Loss. A Yemeni Woman’s Life Story », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 12 | 2019, mis en ligne le 25 mars 2020, consulté le 13 juin 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/5281 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.5281

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Laurent Bonnefoy

Chargé de recherches au CNRS, SciencesPo-CERI, Paris

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Ce document est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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