Yemen Chronicle An Anthropology of War and Mediation

Steven C. Caton

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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In 1979, Steven C. Caton went to a remote area of Yemen to do fieldwork on the famous oral poetry of its tribes. The recent hostage crisis in Iran made life perilous for a young American in the Middle East; worse, he was soon embroiled in a dangerous local conflict. Yemen Chronicle is Caton's candid account of the extraordinary events that ensued.

One day a neighboring sheikh came angrily to the sanctuary village where Caton lived, claiming that a man there had abducted his daughter and another girl. This was cause for war, and even though the culprit was captured and mediation efforts launched, tribal hostilities simmered for months. A man who was helping to resolve the dispute befriended Caton, showing him how the poems recited by the belligerents were connected to larger Arab conflicts and giving him refuge when the sanctuary was attacked. Then, unexpectedly, Caton himself was arrested and jailed for being an American spy.

It was 2001 before Caton could return to Yemen to untangle the story of why he had been imprisoned and what had happened to the missing girls. Placing his contradictory experiences in their full context, Yemen Chronicle is not only an assessment of classical ethnographic procedures but also a meditation on the political, cultural, and sexual components of modern Arab culture.


Praise for Yemen Chronicle

"[Yemen Chronicle] focuses on the themes of violence, honor, and hospitality in Arabic tribal society, and cultural misunderstandings and the efforts of a nonnative to be accepted in another culture . . . The author captures the complexity of an outsider living in a traditional Arab society, where what is said is not always what is meant . . . [and] concludes with a short critique of the U.S. policy of regime change in the Middle East, conducted without consensus building or negotiation, a type of arrogance he equates with nineteenth-century imperialism . . . I highly recommend [Yemen Chronicle] to students of anthropology, Yemen, the Middle East, and anyone who has tried to live in a foreign culture."—David M. Witty, The Journal of Military History
"Yemen Chronicle is a wonderfully paradoxical book: an elegy shot through with comedy, a tale of a recent Arabian past that rings with echoes of the Iliad. Caton modestly describes it as an 'ethno-memoir,' but it is more than that: it is a meditation on the very workings of memory, on the genesis of poetry and the nature of truth itself; it has resonances with a history of conflict that runs from the plain of Troy to present-day Baghdad. And therein is the greatest paradox: that a story as intensely personal as Caton's can be so universal."—Tim Mackintosh-Smith, author of Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land
"An extraordinary work—beautifully crafted, deeply subtle, and filled with an astonishing cultural sensibility. Caton's poignant portrait of lost friendships and the social suffering caused by cycles of tribal revenge killings is a triumph both of ethnography and of deeply personal narrative. Far from being a Lawrence of Arabia (about whom he himself has written a book), Caton is a paradigm of postmodern, postcolonial, post-almost-everything irony, contradiction, misunderstandings, and anti-heroism. Longing and regret are as strong in Yemen Chronicle as the wonder and skepticism; the ending of the book balances precariously between grief, frustration, and gathering understanding—as lived experience is and should be. Few ethnographers have shown their research subjects in such subtle, passionate, and vulnerable depth. A brilliant, unforgettable achievement!"—Arthur Kleinman, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University

"Yemen Chronicle is a book of exquisite beauty and depth. Steven Caton weaves an ethnography of life in Yemen—in an accounting of particular events of abduction, imprisonment, and betrayal—that is as delicate as a spider's web. His keen sensibility and his gift for tuning into the poetic dimension of spoken Arabic make the reader part of the sanctuary where he lived, a witness on the roads he traveled. Yet the book is also a theoretical intervention of profound importance on key questions about ethnography and its relation to memory; the relation between what is an event and what is ordinary; who or what the anthropologist is; and, ultimately, the question that haunts the book—what is home?" —Veena Das, Chair, Department of Anthropology, The Johns Hopkins University

"Yemen Chronicle is a talented anthropologist's account of trying to unravel meanings in a society where the rules are not only different from our own, but also fluid. Along the way the reader will learn much about Yemeni culture, poetry, politics, and the difficulty of interpreting what one sees and hears. And, to top it off, there is a mystery that goes unsolved for twenty years—and even now remains elusive."—William B. Quandt, University of Virginia

"[A] thoughtful memoir . . . [Caton] 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."—Kirkus Reviews

"The oral poetry of Yemeni tribesmen would seem an easy subject for a long, placid bout of scholarly research, but a crisis erupted during Caton's fieldwork in North Yemen, where he lived from 1979 to 1981, when a youth in his village abducted two young girls from a neighboring tribe. The kidnapping sparked a brief intertribal war with nationwide repercussions. The Yemenis hashed out the dispute in oral poetry recitations, and the author found in his arcane dissertation topic the perfect window onto the harsh cultural codes and Byzantine politics of this fascinating society. A Harvard anthropologist, Caton provides many poetry samples along with detailed exegeses of the policy implications of their florid metaphors. (Imagine Social Security reform debate conducted in sonnet and haiku.) But his larger theme is the difficulty and danger of understanding an alien culture—Caton himself was briefly imprisoned on suspicion of espionage. He ruminates on the feasibility of the anthropological project, but without the pose of scholarly detachment; he writes of his feelings for and relationships with the people around him. The result is a superb study of an Arab nation and an engrossing portrait of a stranger in a strange land."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



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Yemen Chronicle
1SANCTUARYKhawlan al-Tiyal, Yemen Arab Republic. November 25, 1979I had finally arrived at the place where I was to begin my fieldwork, a village whose inhabitants claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Called in Yemeni Arabic a hijra, or sanctuary, it was a settlement where the surrounding tribes of this eastern region of Yemen, known as Khawlan al-Tiyal, could pray in the mosque and trade in the souk without fear of being attacked by enemies. As a stranger in this strange land, I needed to live under protection, and if it was not to be that of a powerful sheikh, then I
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  • Steven C. Caton

  • Steven C. Caton, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University and director of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies, is the author of Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City.