Friday, April 21, 2006


I've been very under the weather and also very busy finishing the final version of my thesis, which is going off to the committee tomorrow, and so I've neglected al-Nawadir for far too long. Here is hoping I get back to it over the weekend.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Post edges the Times

The Washington Post edged the New York Times today in Pulitzers 4 to 3. Included in the Post's haul was a Pulitzer for David Finkle in the "explanatory journalism" category. I read Finkle's three-part series when it came out back in December and was not impressed. It was a bit too cliched, and focused on a rather small project that had little to do with what was going on Yemen. There were so many other things that he could have reported on: what about an in-depth piece on the remnants of the Afghan Arabs in the country, a series on the movement of men to Iraq to fight the US and asking if we are seeing a new generation of fighters like we did in the 1980s, or what about a piece about the faultlines within the Islamist movement - the discussions that are going on here are the most important and under-reported debates in the world.

I understand the needed an American angle, but I thought he could have done better.

Academic Writing

Academic writing has a well deserved reputation for being bad, and having read a great deal of it, I can say that this is usually an understatement. This intense hatred of academic writing was not only brought about by the fact that I've been having to produce a great deal of it lately as I struggle to lash the thesis together, but also by a couple of articles linked to by A&L Daily: one from the Guardian, and one from the Wall Street Journal.

And as so often happens as these articles and my own gloomy struggles with torrid prose were haunting me all weekend I came across a few choice quotes by Robert Penn Warren in an interview he gave to the Paris Review back in 1957. Here is a selection that kept me sane as the thesis came to a limping stop:

Warren: "... But getting back to that shelf of books, the Motley and Prescott and Parkman, et cetera, isn't it funny how unreadable most history written now is when you compare it with those writers?"

... a little later on the same page

Warren: "... If he wants to write a book on history that happens to be good history and good writing at the same time, there isn't any graduate school to try to stop him."

... and a few pages later in the interview, Warren finds the right pace, describing his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and getting down to writing fiction:

Warren: "... I remember playing hooky from academic work to write the thing, and the discovery that you could really enjoy trying to write fiction."

Incidentally, Warren's All the King's Men sits in a pile on my floor waiting for the day that I can play hooky from academic work to read it.

Warren's comment about history that happens to be good writing made me question whether anyone in the academy is writing in entertaining prose these days? Writing the way Gibbon used to, I always forget how good his prose was until I open him back up. For instance, in large histories, given a choice between Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples, Ira Lapidus' A History of Islamic Societies, or Marshall Hodgson's 3-Volume The Venture of Islam I would have to pick Lapidus although his prose doesn't exactly make me want to stay up nights. (And, yes I think Hodgson is a bit out-of-date even though a number of people I know still love it.)

Is it even possible to write a readable history for today's academics? For the past few months The Atlantic Monthly has been running little boxes in its literary section asking: What Makes Good Writing and What Makes Bad Writing? For the record, I usually don't agree with its authors, but still I would like to see a such a box run in something like the Chronicle of Higher Education for academic writing.

Any early season recommendations for either very good or very bad academic writing? This question shouldn't be confused with others about the quality of a book or research but rather this question is only interested in the quality of the prose.

Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih

(Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih)

I've never really understood how he does it. How does one man write so much?

I'm speaking of Yemen's poet laureate, Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih. He writes a column for al-Thawra, 26th of September, al-Quds al-Arabi and a number of others. Nearly every book I have on Yemeni literature has been edited by him in his role as president of the Yemeni Centre for Studies and Research, and he often contributes the introduction or an article or two as well. He was also instrumental in getting the diwans of prominent Yemeni poets like Muhammad Mahmud al-Zubayri published. And he is extremely prolific in his own poetry. And now he is in English, or at least a translation of him is in English at the Yemen Times.

It is not the article I would prefer to see him introduced to an English-speaking audience, as it is more political than literary, but maybe it is the start of something more. For those interested in his poetry, I recommend a very good translation of his Kitab Sana'a by Bob Holman and Sam Liebhaber, available for sale through the Middle East Studies Association website. The book is quite good, and though it won't compare to his diwan, although the one from Dar al-'Auda in Beirut is horribly out-of-date. (I believe there is an up-dated one in the offing.)

Despite the article above, I would recommend reading al-Maqalih (he was last featured in English in a short interview in Foreign Policy with Elisabeth Eaves - not available on-line). He is an extremely talented poet and very kind man, and although the few times I've chewed qat with him have not been under the best of circumstance - once was in the week after Abu Ghraib when myself and a couple of other were left to be the unwilling voice of US foreign policy - he has always been a gentleman in every sense of the word, and the only contemporary Yemeni poet known throughout the Arab world.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Weekend in Yemen and Somalia

I am dripping with apologies for a weekend of no posts, but as all I have are the usual excuses of tax deadlines, thesis deadlines and laziness I won't bore you with them here.

A great deal to report on Yemen (despite the fact that I have yet to get to the article on Nu'man).

First, from al-Jazeera a report that the US Navy is denying a report of a pirate attack. Also, from al-Jazeera a report on the death of three in a clash between al-Huthi supporters and security forces.

There is more, in English, from the Yemen Observer, here.

The only good thing, if one can find good in a fresh outbreak, is that it took place in Amran and not in Sa'dah. This could mean that the rather fragile truce in Sa'dah is holding. This truce came about when President Salih appointed a new governor, General Yahya al-Shami, back in February along with a cabinet re-shuffle. This was followed shortly thereafter by the release of more than 600 prisoners as a good-will gesture. Hopefully, the truce will hold, making this a one-off incident.

Also, in news that was first reported in English here on al-Nawadir, UPI also picked up the story from al-Wasat about staged protests in Hudaydah. Here is the report.

There seems to be a great deal of interest in a recent Jerusalem Post about a Hamas leader meeting with Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani. To begin with, unlike a number of bloggers would have it, the Post did not discover this meeting: it was featured on the front page of al-Quds al-Arabi's website earlier this month. Also, few seem to have looked into al-Zindani's background, and unquestionably identify him as an al-Qaeda leader. I would argue that he is an al-Qaeda supporter not a leader, and that the difference is important. For more, I would again direct you to a recent profile by Gregory D. Johnsen at Jamestown. Again, I have my issues with the piece, but it is not bad, and one of the few comprehensive looks at the guy in English.

Finally, tonight two links to stories on Somalia. The first from al-Sharq al-Awsat is on the ever-continuing cycle of violence and war there. The second is from the Washington Post is on the Qat trade (although for some reason they insist on spelling it khat). I remember the problems I had with editors at the Christian Science Monitor a few years ago, over how to transliterate qat into English - I lost and the piece had it as "khat" to my ever-enduring shame.

For the record, in Arabic it is:

So now you can see my frustration. Ahh, journalists. I once had a conversation with an editor at
a news agency that shall remain nameless about transliterating Arabic into English, and he said it was "kind of hit or miss," and indeed it is.