YEMEN by Tim Mackintosh-Smith


The Unknown Arabia
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A literate journey into exotic territory by a traveler with an unusual depth of knowledge. Yemen, whose Arabic name means —the south,— is a mystery even to its neighbors in the Arab world. Tribal, remote, and seemingly inhospitable, it seldom figures in the itineraries of even the most adventurous travelers. When Mackintosh-Smith, a student of Arabic at Oxford, announced to his tutor that he intended to live in Yemen because, he understood, its dialect was the closest living relative of classical Arabic, he was advised to go instead to the safer, and better known, confines of Cairo, Amman, or Tunis. He left in 1982 with the promise to return to his studies soon. Yemen, however, cast its spell—or perhaps it was the qat, the mildly narcotic herbal stimulant whose consumption occupies him over much of his wandering. Mackintosh-Smith guides his readers through what he calls —dictionary land,— by which he means a land whose every expression can mean many things—where, for example, the word qarurah can mean either —the apple of one’s eye— or —urinal,— depending on context and mood. He neither tries to make the exotic overly familiar nor the familiar overly exotic, in the way of so many British literary travelers to the legend-shrouded lands of Arabia Felix. His characters are not the mustachioed bandidos of old, but men who have worked oil rigs, fought civil wars, harvested frankincense and myrrh, and, in one instance, —made a killing in Riyadh, running a juice bar.— And the places he visits do not serve as mere backdrops for the author’s ruminations on the ills of modern life; rather, they are celebrated and assessed for their specific qualities: hot, dusty, endlessly fascinating places with histories that cry out for attention. A vigorous, humorous debut that paints a delightful portrait of a distant land.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 1-58567-001-4
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1999