For some reason, my most popular posts seem to be my reading lists, which are usually more a way for me to capture things I intend to read than anything else. [Edit: I now call them “Links Dumps” to clear up the confusion.] What I’ve wondered, though, is if people mistakenly arrive on one of those posts expecting a beginning reading list for understanding Yemen.
To that end, I’ve decided to establish what I call the Beginner’s Guide to Yemen, though it would perhaps be more appropriately called Things I’ve Read That I Found Helpful.
The first books recommended to me when I decided to write my dissertation on jihadist de-radicalization in Yemen were Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land and Travels with a Tangerine. The former is considered one of the best starting points for understanding Yemen; given that I am not a huge fan of the anthropological/ethnographic style of writing, I can’t say I was enraptured by the book, but it did have some interesting tidbits.
I purchased Travels with a Tangerine, skimmed the contents, and placed it on my shelf, where it has stayed. (As I said, the writing style doesn’t do a whole lot for me; I don’t want to sound too dismissive, though, as understanding Yemen’s culture [as with any country] is incredibly important for understanding the decisions its leaders and citizens make.)
Around the same time, I was also told to check out Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in Yemen, and Fred Halliday’s Arabia Without Sultans. I never got around to reading the former, and the latter took a long time to arrive - so long, in fact, that I barely got a chance to read any of it for the dissertation. My 1974 version (with its far less politically correct cover than the one I linked) was helpful for getting a view of Yemen during its post-revolution/pre-unification state.
Next, I came across Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen. It took me a while to work through this book - in fact, it wasn’t until I was spending hours on trains traveling across Europe that I had the uninterrupted time to read it cover to cover - but for the hard facts of Yemen’s past up through about 2000, this book is hard to beat. From the little of it I got to read, Dresch’s Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen is similarly exhaustively detailed.
That being said, the first book that really opened the doors to Yemen for me was Victoria Clark’s Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes. While perhaps not written as well as the previous books, Clark’s is much more accessible to the average reader. I think reading this one first would have helped me understand the others better, and it is much more up-to-date than the others. Considering the topic of my dissertation - Hamoud al-Hitar’s de-radicalization program, run from 2002-2005 - it was helpful to get Clark’s views on the three generations of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Expanding on my understanding of modern Yemen was Christopher Boucek’s Carnegie Paper “Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral.” Boucek has eloquently relayed Yemen’s myriad problems in several articles, and edited a book on the subject as well called Yemen on the Brink. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but given Boucek’s other work I assume it is well written and carefully documented. Boucek also contributed two great chapters on jihadist de-radicalization (in Yemen and Saudi Arabia) to Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan’s Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and collective disengagement, a book I previously wrote about.
Other than Boucek, the scholar on modern Yemen who is a must-read is Gregory Johnsen. I don’t have a particular article to point to for Johnsen, but wholeheartedly recommend his blog Waq al-Waq, which is an excellent source of news and analysis on Yemen. I started reading it when it was still on Blogspot, and would look for certain topics via the search mechanism. Now I just read the blog for insight. Johnsen is perhaps the most widely cited expert on Yemen in the news today.
Finally, I recommend Robert Worth’s NYT Magazine piece “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?“ Worth has written some great articles for the NYT, including contributing to “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” and writing a follow-up to the first linked article, called “Yemen on the Brink of Hell.” Worth’s writing grabs the reader, and he has a way of ferreting out nuggets of information that other journalists would probably miss.
Now, this list necessarily leaves off books and articles on nuanced issues in Yemen. It leaves off academics, journalists, and bloggers who have all written great things, in the name finding a good beginner’s guide; quite simply, these are the books and articles I keep coming back to, or (in the case of Mackintosh-Smith) that I have seen others recommend time and again.
So there you have it. What did I miss? If you have something that you think should be added to the beginner’s guide, drop me a line at thoughtsonyemen [at] gmail.com. I know that I am missing much from the last six months or so, and would dearly love to add a good overview of the protests in Yemen, if you know of one.
On the legacy of counter-terrorism in Yemen, I think it would be hard to beat Jeremy Scahill’s article in the Nation, Washington’s War in Yemen Backfires.
Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge (my review at the link) is a must-read on the history of al Qaeda in Yemen.
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