A season of anthropological fieldwork gone wrong. In this thoughtful memoir, Caton (Anthropology/Harvard Univ.) returns many years later to try to learn why.
In 1979, Caton journeyed to North Yemen to study the poetry of the Bedouin people, an important aspect of their oral tradition—which, he imagined, could be understood only out in the sticks. It turns out, he writes, that many poets had migrated from the impoverished countryside to the city, and “the ‘hottest’ tribal poet in Yemen in 1979, Muhammad al-Gharsi, whose cassette tapes sold out before everyone else’s in the stereo stores, had his main residence in Sana’a, where he was in the army.” Still, there Caton was, in a countryside scarcely served by roads and in a time of war between Marxists and royalists, political divisions that didn’t make much difference to the people of Khawlan al-Tiyal but turned his attention away from poetry to violence and the ways in which Arab villagers handle both conflict and peacemaking. When two young girls from a nearby sheikdom were allegedly abducted by one of Caton’s villager neighbors, Caton found himself no longer a mere observer; indeed, he was arrested as a spy by state security agents, for reasons that never quite become clear but that were evidently meant to teach him, the nosy outsider, a lesson. Writes Caton, “One should never underestimate the Yemeni sense of the absurd”; still, puzzling out why all that should have happened has to await his return 20 years later. Though Caton’s tale hangs on these presumably uncommon turns, he packs in a good deal of information about ordinary Yemeni life, which, he suggests, it would do Americans well to understand, especially inasmuch as Yemen seems to be one of the few countries in the region that has not turned resolutely anti-American.
A worthy companion to Eric Hansen’s Motoring with Mohammed (1991), the best recent look at the country.