The words “she cries” show up sixty times in total in Bushra al-Maqtari’s What Have You Left Behind? The men in the book seem to weep less: “He cries” appears twenty times. These phrases, which al-Maqtari, a Yemeni journalist, puts in italics and between square brackets, read like terse, tragic stage directions, embedded within reams of oral testimony from victims of the civil war in Yemen. There are so many that she is never in danger of running out. The conflict is now in its tenth year; some 377,000 people have died. In 2018, the United Nations called the war the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 24 million Yemenis “in need of humanitarian aid and protection.” Still, world leaders haven’t exactly rolled up their sleeves to attempt to stop it.
Studying even the potted history of this war reveals what a transnational affair it is. On one side are the Houthis, an insurgent Shiite Islamist movement that grew out of a northwestern Yemeni tribe; on the other side is a regime backed by a coalition of Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis in particular have long had their fingers in the country. Through the 1980s, when the territory of Yemen was still bifurcated into two nations, Riyadh bankrolled the spread of Wahhabism in the north, weakening the Houthis. In 1990 Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former army officer who had risen ruthlessly to the presidency of North Yemen a dozen years earlier, unified the country. The wedding was peaceful, even inevitable, given the decay of the Soviet bloc and the mutual interest the two halves of Yemen had in exploiting their oil.
The marriage, though, has been turbulent. Saleh set himself up as a dictator, relying on militants to buttress his rule. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, he sent the military after the increasingly radicalized Houthis. The Arab Spring forced Saleh out of office in 2012, even as the Houthis expanded their hold over the north. A former field marshal named Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, a jowly Sunni from the south, succeeded Saleh in a one-horse election—and became a ready antagonist for the Houthis.
Hadi planned to federate Yemen into six regions, in a manner that landlocked the Houthis’ strongholds in the north. As if that didn’t make him unpopular enough, Hadi extended his presidential mandate and curbed fuel subsidies. In 2014, the Houthis captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, launching the war and toppling the government. Hadi and the forces loyal to him fought back; they also summoned the support of their Arab neighbors, who have armed them and backed their campaign with devastating aerial assaults.
In the years since, so many more groups have become involved that the civil war is now best described as polygonal. Al-Maqtari’s book ends in 2018, but despite the political developments since, the suffering of the civil war has persisted. Hadi himself resigned in 2022, under Saudi pressure, but a new, eight-member Presidential Leadership Council, formed in Riyadh, has been unable to negotiate a cease-fire with the Houthis.
For the West, unschooled in the stakes and in the sectarian intricacies, the war has registered mostly as abstract—a dirty and unpleasant, although not unprofitable, business. Countries like the US and the UK seem to regard the complicity of their Saudi and Emirati allies in the Hadi regime’s excesses as a niggling but not altogether desperate moral problem; at worst, as in the case of the US, governments sell arms to the Saudis and thus say little about the human disaster. These countries, al-Maqtari writes in her introduction, want to “pull the curtain down” over the fighting, “to hide the victims and to reward the executioners.” It is only the Yemenis, she notes, “who have to face the absurdity of this war, only ordinary people who are paying the price.”
Her book, What Have You Left Behind?, is a radical exercise of focus on these ordinary Yemenis. Al-Maqtari was living in her hometown of Taiz, in the highlands of southwestern Yemen, when Sanaa fell to the Houthis. In 2015 she went to the southern port of Aden, where the Houthi militia rained missiles upon the presidential palace of Hadi, whose government had fled to the city from Sanaa; two weeks later, the first of the Arab Coalition’s bombers arrived over Sanaa. Over the next two years, as coalitions split apart and international interference escalated, the war expanded into conflicts between militias, resistance groups, and secessionists. Through this period al-Maqtari traveled across the country conducting more than four hundred interviews with her compatriots: poor and middle-class alike, men and women, housewives and fishmongers and refugees and prisoners, all of whom have seen loved ones turn into the war’s collateral damage.
She brings these people to us virtually unmediated. In nearly every case, we don’t know what the speakers look like, or how they move, or the tone in which they recount their horrors. “I’d barely been married two months when everything came to an end,” a man named Rahib Abdelkarim Abdelhamid begins, as if he’s murmuring to himself. Even amid the tension and disorder of a war, there is a time before the fall. “My sister Sara and I, we did everything together,” a young woman called Sally Hasan Hizaa Salah tells al-Maqtari. “We’d dust off the windows, singing at the top of our lungs like two naughty children who’d never grown up.”
What Have You Left Behind? is easy to mistake for an unsorted collection of testimonies—like a sheaf of affidavits found at a courthouse. But behind these transcripts, each running to a half-dozen or so pages and presented as a short stream of recollection, al-Maqtari’s work is keenly apparent—in the people she has sought out, the questions we sense she has asked, and the purposeful intelligence in how she has organized her material.
Al-Maqtari’s model, she says, is Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist whose oral histories the Swedish Academy, in awarding her the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, called “polyphonic.” But the effects of reading their work are very different. The accounts in Alexievich’s books are long and discursive, holding not just thoughts about the subject at hand—in Zinky Boys (1989), the Soviet–Afghan War; in Secondhand Time (2013), the collapse of the Soviet Union—but the stories of entire lives lived and remembered. On the page, they read like reveries. Their moods are distinct, and the details specific and sublime: “My first pair of jeans said ‘Montana’ on the label—it was so cool!” one man recalls in Secondhand Time, of his Soviet boyhood. “But at night, I would still dream of hurling myself at the enemy with a hand grenade.”
Al-Maqtari’s testimonies, in contrast, narrate only a single incident: the violent death of a family member or friend. Every time, the death turns a day of strained routine into one of vivid anguish. A man leaves home for his workshop with his older son. “I closed the door behind them as I did every day, without any alarm bells going off inside me,” Fatima, his wife, says. In a matter of hours, a Houthi missile destroys the workshop. Fatima’s husband died after his gangrenous leg was amputated, and she thinks of how his limb was interred separately from the rest of him. “The thought of his leg buried in the east of the city with his body in the west always saddens me,” she says.
Hafsa Hasan Mohammed Munawis recognizes her sister in a hospital morgue after their factory is bombed by the Arab Coalition in the middle of a workday:
The hair was burnt. I touched it, and stopped. It was like Faiza’s long, blonde hair; some strands were still blonde starting to look a bit copper. I looked at the fingers, burnt and shattered. And then I recognized the silver ring on her finger.
This painful precision isn’t there for us, the reader; it’s there because the speaker has found it impossible to forget.
Every account in al-Maqtari’s book ends with a paragraph in italics, in which she records the full names of the dead, and the date, time, and manner of their passing. The perpetrator is always identified. For instance:
On Tuesday, 1 December 2015, the Houthi-Saleh militia bombed a water tanker in the al-Kuwait neighbourhood of Taiz. Three children were killed: Naima’s son Anas Abdeljaleel Mahyuh (7 years old), Asma Abdo Ghanem (15 years old), and Shayma Adel Mohammed Sayf (13 years old).
The scrupulousness is a tribute to the slain, but it also confers a stamp of individuality on the narrators of these stories. Otherwise, al-Maqtari quite deliberately allows their voices to blur into one another, just as the citizens of Yemen have themselves been obscured over the past decade. Even the particularities of how people die—the woman killed by machine-gun fire that pierced the wall of her apartment, the crew of a fishing boat strafed at sea, the family struck by a missile on the second day of Eid—slip and slide in the memory of the reader. The result is contra Alexievich, in a way—antipolyphonic. There is no deviation, no respite, from the unanimous grief and pain of the war.
In Taiz, al-Maqtari listens to Sumaiyya Ahmad Saeed, who lost three children in a missile attack in 2015. Saeed knows that she isn’t alone—that “it’s the same for the many thousands of women” who have had to bury their children. “What makes my story special?” she wonders. “In every house in this city, there’s a story that must be put to bed, one that no one should reawaken.”
The weight of a single person’s story contributes to the central tension of the oral history. In pulling together multiple lives to portray a collective experience, the form threatens to blur differences among the individual lives. The oral historian’s method may seem natural and unforced—a question of merely capturing a spoken memory and setting it down—but she is always negotiating that tension, picking subjects and asking questions so as to find her preferred balance between the unique and the universal. Alexievich likes to refer to her books as novels, and her characters (as she calls them) reveal their lives so vividly that they feel representative only in retrospect. On the other hand, when the journalist Wallace Terry interviewed African American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War for Bloods (1984), an oral history of that conflict, he deliberately looked for a certain cross section of participants—people who could give voice to multiple aspects of the Black experience:
Those with urban backgrounds, and those from rural areas. Those for whom the war had a devastating impact, and those for whom the war basically was an opportunity to advance in a career dedicated to protecting American interests.
In The New York Times, a reviewer complained of a kind of sameness in Bloods: “Similar anecdotes are related again and again by different voices.” But that was the intent, Wallace might have responded: to find and trace the common thread.
Oral histories tend to be collected out of events that are already reasonably well known, populating the stage in front of a backdrop that we’ve had time to examine. No one coming to Bloods will be entirely ignorant of the Vietnam War; no one picking up Secondhand Time will need a primer on the cold war. The particulars of the conflict in Yemen, though, will be unfamiliar to many readers, and aside from the occasional footnote al-Maqtari declines to explain them. “I’m not concerned with listing the political details of the war here,” she writes in her introduction, in a stance that sounds apolitical only on its surface.
In fact, paying attention to the immiserated quality of “life in the shadow of a war that has destroyed everything”—to the lack of shelter and food, to daily habits disrupted by fear—is also a political choice, one that attributes equal responsibility for the war’s atrocities to the Houthis and the Arab Coalition. And it serves an aesthetic function as well, mirroring the despair and bewilderment that al-Maqtari’s subjects often voice about why this war is being waged at all. “Why all this death and destruction?” a woman named Munira wonders. “What are they fighting over? What is worth all this death?”
For the Houthis and their enemies, “power” is the unsurprising answer. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the territory now known as Yemen was divided between a republican North Yemen and a communist South Yemen—one of the many proxy divisions of the cold war. The Houthis descend from a northern elite that lost some of its power first during a rash of reforms in 1962 and then more of it through the Saleh and Hadi years, as Saudi influence in Yemen grew. When in September 2014 Houthi fighters occupied government buildings in Sanaa, they had opportunistically secured the help of military factions loyal to none other than Saleh, their old foe. In 2017, in one final, Shakespearean betrayal, the Houthis rained grenades on Saleh’s convoy and killed him as he tried to flee Sanaa.
From the very outset, this was also a proxy war. Iran armed the Houthis, and the Saudis overtly supported Hadi’s administration, Saudi cash filling the Yemeni state’s coffers, Saudi fighter jets dropping bombs from Yemeni skies. “The glamorous world of war has expanded, spreading to other capitals without us even knowing,” al-Maqtari writes. “Elites…enrich themselves at the expense of the millions starving in Yemen. This is precisely why they, along with those they are fighting, are so keen for this war to last as long as possible.”
In al-Maqtari’s book, we see the mechanics of the war on the ground, and the complications that emerge at the level of the neighborhood, village, and town, but we grasp the bigger picture only through a pointillist reading of her interviews. Coalition planes take aim at strategic targets—a cell phone tower, the home of a purported Houthi leader, a potato chip factory—but drop their missiles instead into houses, shops, and town squares, persuading Yemenis that it is a Saudi objective to kill civilians. “What business would a plane have in such an out-of-the-way place?” a man named Rahib Abdelrakim Abdelhamid wonders, after bombs kill his wife and other members of his family in the countryside of western Yemen.
In Taiz, the Houthis occupy hilltop buildings like a Sofitel hotel and send missiles into the town. They murder their critics, and their snipers shoot residents at will. One sniper set himself up in a building directly across from the kitchen of the apartment in which Sakhr Abdeljabbar Mohammed lived with his family:
We never saw him, but we heard the stories of his victims, and we’d see them sometimes lying in the alleyways or the main street…. We locked up the kitchen and sat in our home, watching more people fall victim to him. We moved around like ghosts in our own home, fenced in by possible death from the window.
Death arrives, inevitably, to claim Sakhr’s younger brother, who wandered into the kitchen one day. He was ten years old.
The war wraps around daily existence and constricts it, like a starving boa. To get to a market, Khadija Mohammed Hassan has to pick up her cane and cross the Houthi al-Dehi checkpoint, where soldiers beat up young men, curse at women and block their path, and shoot in the air to threaten them. People move often—from a town to a village, or a village to a town, trying to find a safe place to live. Sometimes relatives or friends take them in; sometimes they don’t. Families stay in schools or hospitals, or in deserted houses opened to those on the run. After shells land near one such shelter, the Houthis order Lul Sayf and her children out. “Where were we supposed to go in the middle of the night? There was no one to help us, and we had no money.” In al-Rahida, where they occupy a clinic for four months, they burn wood for heat and subsist on bread and tea, and Lul Sayf remembers not just the misery but the humiliation—the reduction of her life, and the surrender of all dignity.
The war strikes down people from other countries, too. In March 2017 a Saudi helicopter shot up a boat of refugees trying to reach Yemen from Somalia, killing forty-one passengers. A woman named Muna Awad Mahmoud hid under dead bodies as the gunfire poured down for three hours. Eventually the boat made it to shore. “I do remember how happy we were: taking the first steps towards the place we’d been dreaming of,” Mahmoud says. “I remember how the cool sand felt beneath my feet, seeing the clear blue sky up above…. In that moment, I felt life was finally smiling at us.” These lines come as a cold shock—a reminder of places so cruel to their people that even war-ridden Yemen is an aspiration, a haven on the horizon.
The Houthis and the Arab Coalition are not the only groups who strew violence into the daily lives of al-Maqtari’s interviewees. The al-Islah party—formally the Yemeni Congregation for Reform—runs its own armed factions, which are said to kidnap political activists, who are then never seen again. Its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood has earned al-Islah a cold shoulder from the UAE, but Saudi Arabia tolerates the party enough to put it to use. One man tells al-Maqtari about his meeting with an al-Islah leader in Taiz, a city pulverized by Saudi planes. “He was bragging about how they had been giving the Coalition the coordinates,” he says. “Bragging about murder is horrific—have they no conscience at all?”
Southern Yemen hosts a range of separatist movements that fight the Houthi militia and accept the sponsorship of the UAE, but they have also rejected the Hadi government and then the Presidential Leadership Council propped up by Saudi Arabia. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda were both active in Yemen during the years al-Maqtari collected her interviews, and the Houthis fought them as well; their influence has waned since, although the US reportedly carried out drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen as recently as January and February of this year.
The Shia–Sunni cleft in the war runs right down to individual localities, such as al-Jahmiliya, one of the oldest parts of Taiz. “The families with whom we had shared our lives and memories, joys and sorrows, now looked at us fearfully and informed on us to the authorities,” one woman, who stays unnamed, tells al-Maqtari. Her relative, a man in his thirties named Abdelhabib, was kidnapped from his home by an al-Qaeda faction, and no one saw him again. Neighbors reported that he’d been sold out by his half-brother, an al-Qaeda recruit, for not being a sufficiently observant Muslim. “Others told us Abdelhabib was killed for his new Nissan,” the anonymous relative recalls:
Some neighbours called us to say they’d seen al-Qaeda members driving Abdelhabib’s Nissan in the city in broad daylight. It was as if they were telling us, “Yes, we did it. We killed him, and stole his car. All right before your eyes, and you can’t do anything about it.”
It is tempting to latch onto the theft of the Nissan as a motive for the murder. Greed is appalling, but we understand it; in some measure, we even know its allure. But the woman recalling Abdelhabib doesn’t truly believe the story. Abdelhabib seems to have just vanished into a welter of confusion. Yemen is only twice the size of Wyoming, but What Have You Left Behind? reveals the tangled thickets of its local schisms, sectarian ties, and fluid loyalties, all complicated by messy international meddling. “Ruling Yemen is hard,” Saleh told a journalist in 2008. “I always say it’s like dancing on the heads of snakes.”
I found it difficult to absorb more than a dozen pages of al-Maqtari’s book at a time. The unvarnished, unremitting recital of loss can numb the soul. She doesn’t flinch from showing us the nature of wartime death, the precise indignities that befall a human body. A boy blown apart can be recognized only by his leg, clothed in trousers that his mother had picked out that morning. Another mother tells her two young daughters to buy potato chips from a shop in an alley; after a Houthi attack, she finds her four-year-old dead, scattered chips mixed with her blood. A man driving out to sell fish with his brother Riyadh is caught in an attack from a Saudi helicopter. A cluster bomb works by turning your flesh into a sieve, he tells al-Maqtari. Riyadh, propped up against a tree, bleeds out.
But, equally, the stories mingle in our minds once the book is set aside. Who lost her sister when a souk was bombed? How was the woman in the red dressing gown embroidered with gray roses killed, and by whom? At first these perplexities seem unforgivable, as if we’ve dishonored the dead by failing to fully remember the one thing their relatives want to convey to us: the way they were slaughtered. This, though, like the absence of political explanation, is deliberate, and this time the bewilderment it mirrors is ours. This war is complicated, it is true, al-Maqtari seems to be telling us.
Both the Houthis and the Arab Coalition, as well as their international patrons, are responsible for staggering cruelty, so much so that Yemen has become hard to recognize. She feels like a stranger in her own country. But her oral history briefly exempts her, as well as us—particularly us, the foreign readers—from the struggle for rational thinking or clarity about the war. Even trying to make it lucid—to weigh the stakes, to diagram the geopolitics—feels removed from the senselessness we are reading. Al-Maqtari’s ambition is to remind us of the only thing we really need to know: facing the war’s unpredictable savagery, bearing its extreme suffering, are real people. Their fate is all that should matter.