President Ali Abdullah Salih of Yemen deserves some respect. Critics may decry his rule as a scantily gloved kleptocracy, or fret that it has turned his spectacularly rugged and impoverished country into an incubator of jihadist terror. Some cite other ills swelling in Yemen, such as the malnutrition that now afflicts 58 percent of its children, or the festering war against northern rebels that has forced 350,000 people from their homes, or the growing secessionist movement in the south that threatens to split the nation in two. Yet Salih’s talent for survival is clearly formidable.
The sixty-eight-year-old former tank commander has ruled northern Yemen, a long-isolated land of terraced hillsides and misty peaks rising to 12,000 feet, since Jimmy Carter was in the Oval Office. For twenty of those years he has also presided over its union with the South, a bigger but more thinly peopled region that was a British protectorate until 1967, gained independence as a halfhearted Marxist state, and then, in the same year that East Germany reunited with West Germany but with less fanfare, opted to merge with the North. Together, the two Yemens had barely eight million people when Salih came to power in 1978. He now rules three times as many, spread over 150,000 tiny settlements in an area the size of Colorado and Wyoming combined.
As Victoria Clark shows in Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, her timely, incisive, deftly turned, and sympathetically bemused survey of Yemeni history and politics, Salih’s endurance is an achievement in itself. Rarely has a greater Yemen cohered within anything like its current borders. The land the ancients called Arabia Felix, contrasting its green and therefore “happy” part of the peninsula with the surrounding Arabia Deserta, was more often an amalgam of warring tribal territories. It tended to shake off would-be masters or reduce them to despair.
The Ottoman Turks, for instance, mounted successive efforts to subdue the country, beginning in the sixteenth century. They conquered its blistering Red Sea coast with ease. Pushing up steeply craggy gorges to the populous highlands, they captured its teetering stone-built cities too, and even held them for years at a stretch. But as the Turks vainly sought some taxable commodity to make their stay worthwhile, implacable tribesmen from the remoter hills would harass their supply lines and besiege their garrisons, inflicting such losses that the invaders inevitably retreated.
One can almost hear the sigh of the last Ottoman governor of Sanaa, the northern capital whose older quarters of gingerbread-like fortress-houses look much as they did in 1918 when the Turks departed for good, as he passed this verdict: “In my opinion, this is what happened, from the day we conquered it to the time we left we neither knew Yemen nor did we understand it…
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