Born in Yemen, Victoria Clark was an Observer journalist in post-Communist Romania and in ex-Yugoslavia during Croat and Bosnian wars. From 1990-1996, Clark was stationed in Moscow. Her latest book is Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes by Yale University Press in 2010 . Her previous books include Why Angels Fall: A Portrait of Eastern Orthodox Europe, The Far-Farers: A Journey form Viking Iceland to Crusader Jerusalem, Holy Fire: The Battle for Christ’s Tomb, and Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism. Her personal website is http://www.victoriaclark.co.uk/.
She spoke with Jonathan Mok about her writing, the situation in Yemen, and why the rest of the world ought to pay it more attention.
Jonathan Mok: First of all, before talking your book about Yemen, I noticed that until the last book about Christian Zionism, you wrote about Christ’s tomb, the Crusade and Eastern Orthodox Church. Why did ancient history interest you? Also, including the last book, why was Christianity the main theme of your book?
Victoria Clark: What interests me is not so much ancient history as the profound connections between two of those taboo dinner-party subjects: religion and politics. Exploring those links in the Balkans and the Middle East, where they have been particularly important in the last 20 years, sent me searching as far back as the first millennium for clues about and explanations for the present.
JM: This time, your book focuses on Yemen. Why did you write the book entirely on the history and politics of Yemen?
VC: For two main reasons. First, it was not until 2004 that I noticed bin Laden’s ‘ancestral homeland’ was Yemen, not Saudi Arabia, and a part of the country that was ruled by the British for around a century until 1967. That set me thinking; clearly, there was a time when scores of officials in the British colonial and foreign services knew a great deal about that land and its people. I was amazed to discover how little interest there seemed to be in the country only half a century later and how little had been written about it since the unification of the northern Yemeni Arab Republic with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south in 1990, despite the role it seemed to play in the early life of al-Qaeda.
The fact that I happen to have been born in the British Crown Colony of Aden in 1961 – my father was the BBC’s correspondent for South Arabia – also had a good deal to do with my undertaking the project.
JM: You spent a considerable part of the first section on the history of South and North Yemen. They became unified in 1990. Ironically, the unification has not brought peace and prosperity. What do you think about factors contributing to the instability of the country and the failure of the economic and social development of the country?
VC: The unification of the two Yemens was a rushed and badly handled affair. There was undeniably a great deal of popular support for the project founded on an optimistic belief that since they were all Yemenis they must be able to live together in happiness and for ever after with their recently discovered oil wealth. However, little consideration was given to the fact that their histories had made them feel culturally very different. The relative good order of British rule for 128 years followed by a quarter of a century of a home-grown Communist regime has left the southern Yemenis swamped by and unable to compete in the cut-throat market-driven and unregulated world governed by patronage networks that the northern Yemenis inhabit and have lost no time in imposing on the south.
Even more worrying is the fact Yemen may have become a new breeding ground for next generation terrorists and suicide bombers. Why has the country provided a valuable opportunity to Al-Qaeda to nurture young people to be future terrorists?
The simple answer to that question is that al-Qaeda’s recruitment drive and activities have been overlooked because they are only third on the list of the president’s pressing priorities. While Ali Abdullah Salih’s security services and army have been largely engaged with the opaque but costly al-Huthi rebellion in the north-west corner of the country since 2004, southern Yemenis’ struggle to regain their independence has been growing in size and importance since 2006. The latter is the more worrying both to the president and the outside world.
JM: In your book, you described Ali Abdullah Salih, the president of Yemen as a dictator, a corrupt leader. You also depicted him as a leader trying to be a “good boy” in front of the United States in the War on terror. What suggestions would you propose if the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries would like to stop Yemen becoming a terror heaven? What has gone wrong with the current strategy pursued by Washington D.C and Downing Street?
VC: Yemen – poor, corruptly ruled, over-populated, under-resourced, over-armed, traumatised by its recent history – clearly illustrates the role economic and instability factors have to play in explaining youths’ attraction to jihadist ideology. My experience of the country and its people, however, has convinced me that because the West is either losing or has already lost the ideological war, it is time to acknowledge the loss of moral high ground and set about the very, very hard job of regaining it. This will not be achieved by supplying the increasingly unpopular Yemeni regime with more weapons or aid money that can go astray. Real evidence of progress on Israel/Palestine would be a good start.
JM: Ali Abdullah Salih has ruled Yemen for more than 3 decades. What has kept him in power for such a long time?
VC: First, being a tribesman himself, he has (at least until recently) sensibly avoided confrontation and heavy-handedness, and opted instead for compromise, flattery, bribery, divide and rule, cooperation in his dealings with the powerful and armed tribes of the country and other interest groups. Second, he was luckily boosted by the discovery of oil in Yemen in the mid-1980s. Oil revenues are what have given him the wherewithal to rule in the manner of a kind and generous sheikh rather than as a military dictator. The fact that the oil is running out and therefore the regime’s leverage diminishing, accounts in large part for the increased instability in the country.
Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes
JM: I would like to turn to Jewish minorities. What would be possible reasons for the increasing intolerances toward Jewish minorities as many of them have fled to Israel?
VC: Very sadly, the tiny remnant of Yemen’s Jewish community, which was mostly located in the northwest of the country, has suffered by most of the Arab’s world’s deep sense of outrage at the manner in which Israel has treated the Palestinians and the US has continued to bankroll and support Israel. Yemen’s Jews are as tangibly absent as they are in parts of eastern Europe; older Yemenis I have spoken with in both south and north Yemen speak very kindly of them.
JM: Equally disturbing me is the women issue. I was shocked to read stories of divorces by a seven or eight- year old girls. I am wondering why child marriage has only become an issue drawing international attention in recent years.
VC: The child bride issue is a shocking one as is the situation of most women of all ages in Yemen. It is complicated however. I met a schoolteacher who had been miserably married off to a hated cousin at the age of 9 and had three children by him by the age of 14, before managing to separate from him. To my amazement she told me she had married off her eldest daughter at the age of 11. When I asked her why, she explained that it was for the best; since the girl had lived with her father since the divorce she had been exploited as an unpaid nanny, tending the half-siblings her father’s re-marriage had brought instead of going to school. Married, she was proud of her own establishment and happy with her husband and she could go to school.
I also ended up feeling sorry for men. The same woman told me that she had found a bride for her son; although he had rejected her on sight, she had forced him to accept her.
JM: Finally, what new experiences did you have when writing a book differing from what you previously published?
VC: The challenge of trying to immerse myself in Yemen and its culture was gigantic and it almost defeated me, I have to say. My main experience of Yemen was an exciting but worrying sense that there was so much more to the place than met my ear or ear. My only hope that in trying to construct a narrative of the country that makes sense to a western audience I have not been too unfaithful to Yemen’s truths and realities.