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Yemen Chronicle
An Anthropology of War and Mediation
By Steven C. Caton
Hill and Wang
HC, 341 pg. US$26
ISBN: 0-8090-2727-9

Life in verse

By Steven Martinovich
web posted March 27, 2006

Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and MediationIn 1979, Steven Caton began his career as many academics do, enthusiastically and idealistically. After less than two years of research in Yemen, Caton returned the United States mournful and despondent. What began with promise ended with Caton witnessing bloodshed and wondering about the nature of truth. It was for everyone involved an expensive education with seemingly few lessons learned.

Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation is the story of a young Caton who traveled as a graduate student to study the oral poetry of Yemeni tribesmen. As with much of the Middle East at the time, Yemen was unstable and ready to erupt into open warfare between its north and southern halves. Ignoring the danger as young men are wont to do, Caton settles down in a remote religious community to begin his work. Although it progresses slowly -- the best poets lived either outside of the town or in larger communities -- Caton's work begins to bear some fruit.

Within months, however, Caton finds his community in a violent dispute with neighboring tribesmen. A former resident of the village has been accused of kidnapping two girls from the tribe and its sheik -- the father of one of the girls -- demands justice. Threatening to turn into all-out war, the two sides begin negotiation, often expressed through poetry, to resolve the issue. Although both sides wish a speedy resolution, the negotiations began to drag on for months without any sign of conclusion.

Aiding, and sometimes obstructing, Caton's work were the residents of the religious sanctuary. Although the recipient of typically generous Arab hospitality, Caton is under few illusions as to his real status among them. Though some offer real friendship, others suspect him of being an American spy or are helping him to further their own goals. He attempts to bridge the distance between he and his subjects, out of both personal desire and to aid his research, but ultimately the complex culture he admires is always just out of his reach.

The impending war, which has international implications, does provide Caton with an opportunity to study poetry he might not have otherwise been exposed to. With the aid of his friend Muhammad, Caton collects the poems used by both sides to argue their cases. Complex and filled with subtle imagery and cultural, political and historical references, Caton uses these poems to tease out the underlying politics of the conflict and Yemeni society in general.

His work ends abruptly, however, with his 1981 arrest by the Yemeni secret police on suspicion of espionage. Thanks to the intercession of friends he is soon released but faced with the reality that it will be impossible to complete his fieldwork, Caton returns to the United States. In the intervening years he writes a number of successful books on tribal poetry and teaches at Harvard University.

Most stories would end there but in an attempt to find closure, Caton returns to Yemen 25 years later. Many of those he was friends with have passed away, including Muhammad, and Yemeni society -- though traditional and conservative -- has changed considerably. He also investigates the aftermath of the kidnapping of the two girls and finds out to his shock that all wasn't as it originally appeared.

Although Yemen Chronicle is marred slightly by Caton's insistence on criticizing the American-led war in Iraq in his epilogue, it is nonetheless a compelling story and engaging study of not just Yemeni culture, but also what it feels like to be a stranger in a crowd. He ruminates on the enormous difficulty of studying a foreign culture while also being a part of it and the challenges that anthropologists have in separating their own feelings from their hopefully objective observations. Yemen Chronicle is at once a touching personal story, an exploration of a fascinating culture and an intellectual exploration of one man's vocation.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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