Yemen Revealed: Best Books to Understand a Complicated Nation

Yemen, 2006/Photo: CC/Flickr/Dietmar

The Republic of Yemen, which resulted from the unification of Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) in 1990, has long sat in a tumultuous position in the Arab world. With a culture still heavily influenced by tribal loyalties and divides and a political landscape beset by the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict, as well as Al Qaeda occupation, Yemen has existed in state of near constant turmoil more or less since its inception. Yemen also was named as one of the seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens Trump banned from entering the U.S. and was the site of the first military raid of the Trump Administration – an action that resulted in the deaths of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens, and at least twenty-three Yemeni civilians. Given its increasingly prominent position in foreign policy – particularly in terms of terrorism and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East – it is important to understand Yemen, its people and culture, and its position in the region. The books below, some of which represent the scant available translated works by Yemeni authors, will hopefully provide a better understanding of Yemen’s complex and turbulent culture.

  • The cover of the book They Die Strangers

    They Die Strangers

    This novella from Mohammad Abdul-Wali, born in Ethiopia to Yemeni parents, was originally published in 1971 and is often considered the start of popular literature in modern Yemen. Collecting one novella and thirteen short stories, They Die Strangers explores life in Yemen and a culture caught in a state of near-constant conflict.

  • The cover of the book Yemen: The Unknown Arabia

    Yemen: The Unknown Arabia

    In this far-reaching book, Tim Mackintosh-Smith provides a detailed look into the largely overlooked nation of Yemen. Beyond the rise of Al Qaeda, U.S.-led drone strikes, and regional tensions, Yemen: The Unknown Arabia provides insight into not only the fascinating history of Yemen, but also into a culture that is at war with itself and the enduring tribal influences that continue to shape the country.

  • The cover of the book The Hostage

    The Hostage

    Set in the 1940s, this 1984 novel written by the late Yemeni author Zayd Mutee Dammaj follows a young boy taken hostage and forced to serve in the palace of a city governor to ensure his clan’s loyalty to the ruling imam. The novel presents the often brutal and closed society of the imamate (similar to a caliphate) and the conflict simmering between the rule of imams and the encroaching modern world. It is a struggle echoed throughout Yemen today.

  • The cover of the book Brown: What Being in the World Today Means (to Everyone)

    Brown: What Being in the World Today Means (to Everyone)

    Written by Yemen-born journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee, Brown is a searing look at race in the context of what is often a binary view of race relations – white and black. Al-Solaylee provides a frank discussion of the social, political, economic, and personal implications of being a brown-skinned person in the world today. Additionally, Al-Solaylee candidly explores his own identity as a brown-skinned Yemeni man who grew up in a culture where whiteness is the dominant depiction of beauty.

  • The cover of the book The Last Refuge

    The Last Refuge

    It is impossible to discuss the last three decades of Yemen’s history without discussing the rise of Al Qaeda and its resurgence within the country. The Last Refuge by Gregory D. Johnsen deftly charts the rise of Al Qaeda within Yemen and the way the group has impacted Yemeni society, the country’s role in the region, and increasing concern in regards to U.S. counter-terrorist activities.

  • The cover of the book Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

    Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes

    Pulling from research conducted during a series of visits to Yemen between 2004 and 2009, Yemen-born journalist Victoria Clark examines the country’s role in regard to Al Qaeda today – and its context within the larger jihadist movement. Through interviews with politicians, tribal leaders, jihadists, and others, Clark seeks to shed light on a Yemen that is plagued by poverty and a tribal makeup that has proven to be a fertile breeding ground for insurgent and terrorist movements.

  • The cover of the book Hurma


    Exploring themes of sexuality, empowerment, and oppression against the backdrop of the modern Yemeni capital Sana’a, Hurma follows a nameless woman in search of spiritual and sexual fulfillment. At turns heartbreaking and darkly farcical, Hurma turns a satirical eye on the religious dogma that permeates much of Yemeni culture.

  • The cover of the book Motoring with Mohammed

    Motoring with Mohammed

    Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea

    For a look back at Yemen in earlier years, Eric Hansen’s Motoring with Mohammed offers an entirely different perspective on this country. The author, after being shipwrecked in the Red Sea, finds safe passage to Yemen. Unfortunately, he left nearly a decades’ worth of travel journals behind. In recounting his adventure, Hansen shares a portrait of a country long since changed.