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Posted December 5, 2012
Steven Caton’s “Yemen Chronicles” is a personal and artistically crafted ethnography set in the remote area of Yemen. This diary-like book covers both the pleasures and difficulties of being a young American ethnographer in the Middle East. With the goal of studying the region’s famous oral poetry, Caton went to Yemen to do fieldwork; however, he discovered that the tribes were much more intricate. “Yemen Chronicles” explores the cultural, political, and sexual aspects of modern Arab culture, while still maintaining a unique and individual approach to this type of anthropology. Steven Caton first travelled to the Yemen Arab Republic in November of 1979, spending nearly three years of his youth conducting his fieldwork. Caton later returned to the region twelve years later and then again soon after the September Eleventh Attacks on the United States in order to “find closure” and to finish “Yemen Chronicles”. Presently, Caton is the director of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where he is an anthropology professor. The rural village of Khawlan, otherwise known as the “sanctuary” was the place where Caton began his fieldwork. “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.” (5) However, despite his seemingly tranquil location Caton still encountered conflict. Shortly after arriving, two girls from his sanctuary were abducted by a neighboring tribesman. Luckily, for Caton, in Yemen, such conflict is mediated through poetry. The author turned this unfortunate situation into an involved case study on the way poetry is used in battle. “The poem is filled with allusions to “hypocrites” and “infiltrators,” meaning that certain negotiators who claimed to be working solely for a good resolution to the dispute were actually pursuing their own political and financial gain with the help of outside powers. There is a premonition of bloodshed.” (173)Battle poems serve as forewarnings of attacks to come, they are meant to scare their readers. The conflict between the tribes grew with the exchange of poems. As the war between neighbors intensified, Caton found himself becoming even more involved within his community; attending local weddings, meetings, and even qat chews. Qat is a slightly narcotic plant that is chewed; partakers masticate the plant while discussing politics and reciting poetry. Caton finds himself caught in the middle of the conflict which causes him to occasionally lose sight of his objectives. Although he attempts to configure a balanced combination of both diary entries and field notes in “Yemen Chronicles,” the goal is lost due to lack of any true organization of thoughts. Thus, making parts of this book difficult to review because the arrangement at times makes it seems more like a novel than an ethnography. A later portion of the book is dedicated to the story of Caton’s arrest and short-term imprisonment, when he was taught to be a spy. “[The U.S. consul] told me that the embassy had been notified of my arrest by the Yemeni government just a few hours after it had happened. It had been a “routine investigation”… in response to complaints about me in Khawlan…” (249) This account is the most fluid of the ethnography because it is not as frequently interrupted by narrative. The lack of “interruptions” makesWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 9, 2009
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