Book Review: Yemen: Dancing on the Heads Of Snakes February 15, 2015 10:00

By Victoria Clark, Yale University Press, 2010, paperback, 328 pp. 

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Reviewed by Adam Chamy

Most of the world views Yemen as a small country in a remote and irrelevant corner of the Middle East. in her new work, Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, journalist Victoria Clark overturns this misperception, illuminating a Yemen both historically significant and increasingly present in international headlines.

Part history, part travelogue, Clark's book weaves an intricate narrative from the 16th century to the present, based on the author's extensive research and encounters with the entire spectrum of Yemeni society: from Shi'i to Sufi, Islamist jihadis to Marxists, tribesmen to former al-Qaeda operatives. Each footnote and character in her narrative helps to further reveal a Yemen that is rich in cultural history, fiercely isolationist, and historically divided.

From its sapping of Ottoman military strength in the late 19th century to the disproportionate role of Yemeni nationals in the Arab mujahideen during the fighting to evict Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Clark uncovers the hidden centrality of Yemen in the history of the Middle East. Particularly fascinating is the discussion of Gamal Abdel Nasser's mid-1960s misadventure in combatting insurgents in North Yemen, resulting in the loss of 20,000 troops and ultimately crippling his military force. Clark describes it as Egypt's "Vietnam" and alludes to Yemen being a major factor in Egypt's ultimate defeat in the Six-day War.

A bit too prone to overly detailed historical analysis, Clark is at her best in describing the modern concerns of Yemenis through the characters she meets on her journey. From a former al-Qaeda bodyguard turned taxi-driver to a pompous merchant-cum-tribal elder, Clark portrays a nation of ingenious opportunists who change identities according to the shifting sands of power.

Through these absorbing personal encounters, Clark shows how modern Yemen is less a unified nation than a disparate collection of tribes and competing interests arbitrated by the surprisingly clever president-for-life Ali Abdullah Salih, who remains in power by "dancing on the heads of snakes"—appeasing and manipulating the varied tribes and interests to keep his enemies at bay and his country (somewhat) stable.

However, Clark warns that Salih's quick-stepping may be coming to an end. As the Arab world's poorest state, Yemen's stability depends on financially pacifying its citizens through oil profits, handouts, and international aid. Economists warn of the country's impending collapse—with water set to run out by 2015, oil by 2011, and government salaries somewhere in the coming decade. Worse, given recent U.S. military drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen's strategic position near the oil rich Gulf, Clark cautions that Yemen could become the next Afghanistan—or worse, a completely failed state like Somalia.

Add two secessionist movements to the mix and the growing ire of foreign governments at Salih's rule, and Clark makes a convincing case. Describing Yemen as a ticking time-bomb, delicate to tackle but critical to diffuse—lest it erupt in violence its neighbors and Western benefactors are ill-equipped to handle.

Adam Chamy is director of the AET Book Club.