Destroying Yemen: Brothers and Friends Alike, Where Art Thou?

This guest post is part of our MESA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington, D.C., Nov. 18-21. #MESA2017DC

By Isa Blumi, author of Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World, forthcoming January 2018

I wrote Destroying Yemen with the fumes of anger, frustration, and resignation still potent; friends, family, and enemies alike got whiff and knew to stay away. I cannot help, with now almost 1000 days of incessant violence directed at 18 million Yemenis, to feel my initial, and interim inspiration to write, has any hope of changing a thing. Indeed, it was my conclusion, somewhat reconfirmed in light of the recent events in the region, that ultimately my frustration, fear, and outrage cannot offer much support to the real corrective force of Yemeni resistance. As this book begins its journey as part of a public discussion over what has happened in South Arabia, I hope, therefore, to initiate not only an exchange of reactions, denunciations, and snide competitiveness, but an acceptance to ask broader questions about just what we are doing when writing about Yemen, the larger region, and indeed world.

In much of this effort to account for why Destroying Yemen constitutes the concluding strategic calculation of hitherto obscured global interests, I have tried to identify historic roots, as much as future consequences, to chaos in South Arabia. I believe it is not a regional issue, confined to an arena secured by think-tankers or regional experts. Rather, the destruction of Yemen, as a project, an agenda, a frustrated last-ditch strategic shift, implicates a much broader array of interested parties. This is a war with deep roots, reflective of ideologies that expected, demanded, and justified violence to impose an entirely self-serving process of wealth sequestration. Yemen for decades, in other words, has been at the forefront of globalist projects that objectified Yemen’s millions as collateral to a more potent concern with the natural resources that lay under their feet.

Like most scholars working on the region, I fell in love with Yemen. I had the good fortune to experience Yemen as it just became a unified potential reality in the early 1990s. Traveling the breadth of this stunning land, my wish to keep it entirely romantic could not resist, in the end, the intellectual potential of my growing interests. In Yemen, I recognized counter-narratives that begged for deeper analysis. As evident in Destroying Yemen, I refuse, for example, to surrender the relevance of the Ottoman story in Yemen’s modern story; and in this book, I feel I have made my most emphatic case yet for just how crucial it is to bring historic depth to what are clearly not uniquely (post)modern phenomena. Indeed, Yemen’s destruction is so systematic, so deep a crime, largely because of Yemeni resistance to Empire—be it Ottoman and British, or non-governmental agencies empowered by a mission enshrined in neo-liberal discourse. In this respect, I wrote a book that is contemporary as much as historically revisionist.

And yet, I write while millions are going hungry, dying of cholera, and terrorized (but not defeated) by bombs made in the United States, France, Britain, and Sweden. In this light, I end this blog post as I end my book:

… there has been little to admire from the world’s entanglements with beautiful Yemen. In the end, we must conclude that the imprint of would be global hegemons’ ambitions on Yemen takes its most enduring form in graves, bombed medieval cities, and a whimper from starving children no one wants to hear. And with this stark reality, I have nothing left to do. This in the end is just a book.

Isa Blumi is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Turkish Studies at Stockholm University. In addition to Destroying Yemen What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World he is the author of Ottoman Refugees, 1878–1939, Foundations of Modernity, and Reinstating the Ottomans.

An Author’s Travels through Saudi Arabia

By Loring M. Danforth, author of Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi ArabiaIn 2012, Prof. Danforth and 16 students from Bates College spent nearly a month traveling through Saudi Arabia. Here is a glimpse into their travels–and into the Saudi Arabian culture.  

From your travels, what misconception do you most wish to dispel regarding Saudi Arabia? 

IMG_0297I confronted one of these misconceptions a few months after my return to the United States from Saudi Arabia. A FedEx driver delivered a big package to my door. As he handed it to me, he noticed it was from Saudi Arabia and said, “It must be oil.” “No,” I replied with a smile, “it’s art.” I was expecting a gift from a Saudi artist I had met during my trip.

As an anthropologist, I knew that the usual images Americans have of Saudis – rich oil executives, oppressed women, conservative Muslims, violent terrorists – were grossly oversimplified negative stereotypes that are deeply dehumanizing and destructive. I knew this. But nothing could have prepared me for the unique, concrete, and intense individuality and humanity of the Saudis I met – a young Saudi lesbian who was eager to learn about the lives of gay women in the United States;  a high school student who moved his teacher to tears with a mournful Saudi folk song; a Saudi medical student who described wearing a full length black abaya as restricting, suffocating, fashionable and comforting, as well as showing respect for her community and preserving her culture. If Saudi voices like these can be more widely heard, then the Orientalist stereotypes that dominate the media will lose some of their power.

Was there any aspect that surprised you when researching and writing this book?

For most of my career I have worked in Greece. I had no specialized background in Islam or the Arab world before traveling to Saudi Arabia. I had naively assumed that the more religious Saudis were, the more conservative they would be and that the more secular they were, the more liberal they would be. I learned that the situation was far more complex than I had thought.

In Jeddah, I met Dr. Sami Angawi a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, a
prominent Sufi leader of the Hijaz, a public intellectual, and a highly respected architect, who has dedicated his life to the preservation of traditional Hijazi architecture and material culture. His face was framed by a thinning gray beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a traditional gold-and-white Hijazi turban. Dr. Angawi offered some thoughts on freedom, humanity, Islam, and Allah.

IMG_0305“The Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, and the Quran are our points of reference. They are the tools we use to create balance and order in society. Unity in diversity is an example of balance. Islam is the most flexible religion I’ve ever experienced. Islam is the religion of freedom. Allah is the God of everyone, even people who don’t believe in Him. We are trying to share love with you now—Muslims and Christians, Saudis and Americans. We’re not angels. Angels do good naturally; we humans have to struggle. God made us so that we come back to Him through love.”

One of the most religious Saudis I had met was also one of the most liberal. It was as if I had met a Muslim Quaker or a Muslim Unitarian Universalist. I clearly had a lot to learn.

If you were to go back to Saudi Arabia, are there particular areas that you’d like to visit, experience, or re-experience? Why?

After Danforth-CrossingTheKingdomvisiting several art galleries in Saudi Arabia, I became very interested in the work of some of the leading Saudi artists who are pushing the envelope of what constitutes acceptable forms of expression in Saudi society. These artists are offering provocative critiques of conservative Islam, the role of women in Saudi society, and the impact of modernization on traditional Saudi culture. I would very much like to return to Saudi Arabia to learn more about the world of contemporary Saudi art. This would involve visiting several new art galleries, attending exhibits and workshops, and interviewing Saudi artists. Their work is characterized by a delightful combination of humor and playfulness, on the one hand, and incisive and bitter social commentary, on the other.

Ahmed Mater, for example, photographs iron filings standing erect in concentric rings around a black cube-shaped magnet to evoke the spiritual power that attracts pilgrims to the Kaba in the Holy Mosque in Mecca. In another work Mater presents an eerie blue x-ray of a man holding a pistol to his head that morphs in stages into a gasoline pump whose nozzle is lodged at its side. To an interpretive anthropologist interested in analyzing symbols, works like these offer wonderful opportunities to explore the richness of Saudi culture.

Loring M. Danforth is Professor of Anthropology at Bates College. He is the author of The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Firewalking and Religious Healing, The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World, and Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory.

Spring 2016 New Releases Preview

FullSizeRender (3)

(pictured above: a view of our office’s Editorial Dept. area)

Spring 2016’s new release review galleys and advance copies are beginning to hit our desks here at UC Press HQ in beautiful Oakland, California. We’re planning and finalizing outreach strategies so that the word gets out regarding these deeply researched and important works within their respective disciplines.

America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by Gabriel Thompson 

America Social Arsonist

Until now there has been no biography of Fred Ross, a man who believed a good organizer was supposed to fade into the crowd as others stepped forward. Raised by conservative parents who hoped he would “stay with his own kind,” Fred Ross instead became one of the most influential community organizers in American history. His activism began alongside Dust Bowl migrants, where he managed the same labor camp that inspired John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. During World War II, Ross worked for the release of interned Japanese Americans, and after the war, he dedicated his life to building the political power of Latinos across California. Labor organizing in this country was forever changed when Ross knocked on the door of a young Cesar Chavez and encouraged him to become an organizer.

Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi Arabia by Loring M. Danforth (available March 2016)

Crossing the Kingdom

With vivid descriptions and moving personal narratives, Danforth takes us across the Kingdom, from the headquarters of Saudi Aramco, the country’s national oil company on the Persian Gulf, to the centuries-old city of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast with its population of undocumented immigrants from all over the Muslim world. He presents detailed portraits of a young woman jailed for protesting the ban on women driving, a Sufi scholar encouraging Muslims and Christians to struggle together with love to know God, and an artist citing the Quran and using metal gears and chains to celebrate the diversity of the pilgrims who come to Mecca.

Better Git It in Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus by Krin Gabbard (available now)

Better Git

Krin Gabbard takes a careful look at Mingus as a writer as well as a composer and musician. He digs into how and why Mingus chose to do so much self-analysis, how he worked to craft his racial identity in a world that saw him simply as “black,” and how his mental and physical health problems shaped his career. Gabbard sets aside the myth-making and convincingly argues that Charles Mingus created a unique language of emotions—and not just in music. Capturing many essential moments in jazz history anew, Better Git It in Your Soul will fascinate anyone who cares about jazz, African American history, and the artist’s life.

Rembrandt: The Painter Thinking by Ernst van de Wetering (available now)

RembrandtRembrandt interior

Rembrandt never stopped searching for solutions to the pictorial problems that confronted him; this led over time to radical changes in course that can’t simply be attributed to stylistic evolution or natural development. In a quest as rigorous and novel as the artist’s, van de Wetering reveals how Rembrandt became the best painter the world had ever seen. Gorgeously illustrated throughout, this groundbreaking exploration reconstructs Rembrandt’s closely guarded theories and methods, shedding new light both on the artist’s exceptional accomplishments and on the practice of painting in the Dutch Golden Age.

The Principia The Authoritative Translation and Guide by Isaac Newton (available now)

FullSizeRender (1)

In his monumental 1687 work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, known familiarly as the Principia, Isaac Newton laid out in mathematical terms the principles of time, force, and motion that have guided the development of modern physical science. Even after more than three centuries and the revolutions of Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, Newtonian physics continues to account for many of the phenomena of the observed world, and Newtonian celestial dynamics is used to determine the orbits of our space vehicles. This beautifully packaged new edition is available in both hardcover and paperback.

Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry by John Winthrop Haeger (available now)


Riesling Rediscovered looks at the present state of dry Riesling across the Northern Hemisphere: where it is grown and made, what models and objectives vintners have in mind, and what parameters of grape growing and winemaking are essential when the goal is a delicious dry wine. John Winthrop Haeger explores the history of Riesling to illuminate how this variety emerged from a crowded field of grape varieties grown widely across northern Europe, offering a comprehensive, current, and accessible overview of what many consider to be the world’s finest and most versatile white wine.

Be on the lookout for more upcoming release preview roundups to be featured here over the next few months.